America is an occupied territory. The invaders aren’t foreign but rather an enemy from within: Americans fighting to push extreme ideologies into the mainstream. This resulting chaos is reflected in divisive rhetoric and burning cities, in militarized citizenry and dictatorial echo chambers. These are the American Fringes. The roots go back decades, but the past few months are instructive.
Amid a pandemic that has ravaged lives and decimated the economy while also fueling conspiracy theories, Black Lives Matter protests broke out following a series of police killings — and garnered large bipartisan support for a racial reckoning in America. But the fringes have come to dominate both the street theater and discussions around the issues, with meaningful consequences. Over the next two days, we will explore how the fringes are threatening to become the America of tomorrow … if we don’t confront them today.
While the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, strange seeds also germinated in America’s streets. Far-right, Hawaiian shirt-wearing Boogaloo boys, aiming to incite a new Civil War, have been accused of multiple murders at protests and reportedly sought roles as ‘mercenaries’ for the anti-Israel militant group Hamas. Mass looting and violence, seemingly led by far-left Black Bloc agitators, filled the cable news networks.
Shouting matches became street brawls, leading to at least 34 dead in the protests. That includes the recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a conservative teenager killed two leftists and shot another, and Portland, Oregon, where a self-proclaimed anti-fascist killed a Donald Trump supporter and then was killed as police apprehended him Thursday. Tensions are rising this weekend from Los Angeles to Louisville to Rochester, N.Y., with occasional outbreaks of violence, in response to police killings of Black people in those cities.
Among the right-wing groups mixing it up in the streets this summer are the Proud Boys, who are planning a rally this month in Portland. The “Western chauvinist” group was created by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, whose pugilistic style and penchant for causing offense has gotten him deplatformed by tech giants after the Proud Boys were designated a hate group.
Anti-fascism as a loose coalition went mainstream after Trump’s election, with ordinary liberals wanting to define their opposition to the president. However, more organized Antifa groups can be traced to anti-Nazis in Germany or England, where the British punk scene was infiltrated by white power skinheads in the 1970s. This racist heritage birthed the slogan A.C.A.B. — “All Cops Are Bastards” — which has now has become a mainstay at the anti-racist BLM protests. The modern antifa movement has joined forces with BLM, given their shared frustration with police, and antifa members believe in violent action as necessary to counter what they view as a complicit government and media establishment. They often use “Black Bloc” tactics — the wearing of all Black clothing, including masks — to hide their identities while committing violence against property or people.
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Changing demographics driven by immigration, struggling global economies, the election of the first African-American U.S. president, anti-globalization sentiment and the increasing urban/rural divide within the European Union have all fueled a troubling trend: White nationalist groups worldwide are increasingly attracting younger members by “trying to make fascism cool again,” as OZY first wrote in 2017. Nationalist authoritarians from Trump to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have inspired their backers by rejecting multiculturalism and demonizing establishment institutions … although they have also inspired opposition from their critics and their electoral wins have been few in most European legislatures.
To be woke is, in theory, to be awake to issues of social and racial justice. Its greatest value is in clearly identifying systems in society that contribute to racial inequality — systems many Americans agree need reforming. However, as the protests have worn on, certain social justice theories have been stretched in potentially troubling ways. They have been used to defend looting as “joyous and liberating,” to argue for violence as the only way to achieve Black liberation and to decry white people as irreparably racist by virtue of their birth … and demand that they vocally agree and atone. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, has suggested creating a “Department of Anti-Racism” — a body with unprecedented power to veto any federal, state or local policies and punish those deemed racist by the standards of a body of unelected “experts.”
3. The Consequences of Wokism
A constructive Awokening could lead to meaningful action in addressing the disproportionate outcomes that Black Americans face — from poverty and health to policing and education, among other things. Critics, however, worry that these theories paradoxically revive illiberal, racist ideas, such as racial essentialism, a disdain for interracial dating and suggestions that people of color are intellectually less suited for tests in subjects like math and science. Such Wokism could unintentionally help re-elect Trump: When racial differences are accentuated, research shows it can actually reinforce racial stereotyping — possibly pushing white voters back to Trump despite their shift away from him in the 2018 midterms.
A movement of intellectuals who reject Wokism and the social justice discourses behind it, the members of the loosely aligned Intellectual Dark Web would likely be surprised to be named as part of “the fringes” — because in their view, they are arguing for basic liberal principles that, until recently, weren’t controversial at all, from encouraging a marketplace of ideas to valuing the scientific method and reason over subjective knowledge. But in professing a desire for open discourse and against “cancel culture,” they’ve given platforms to extremists such as race scientists Charles Murray and Stefan Molyneux. While of various ideological roots, the IDW are united by one commonality: a deep-seated feeling of persecution.
These anti-PC debates bubble up and fuel more mainstream commentary on the right. Take Tomi Lahren, the pot-stirring TV personality who worked her way up from One America News Network to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze to her regular spot on Fox News. During a recent sit-down with OZY’s co-founder and CEO on The Carlos Watson Show, Lahren expounded on the “closed-minded” left and the notion of “police officer — bad; white people — bad; anything that goes against BLM — racist; the cancel culture.”
The far-right conspiracy theory that an elite global cabal is hiding child sex rings from the public has taken a life of its own in recent months, with intense mainstream media coverage and President Trump refusing to disavow QAnon fans of his, saying he “heard these are people that love our country.” The FBI has named QAnon a domestic terrorism threat, and it has gained more attention as its followers have run for Congress and attempted to co-opt legitimate anti-sex trafficking efforts for their own political purposes. More recently, other conspiracy movements, including anti-vaxxers, have latched onto it.
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When a shot is fired, where does it come from? For Kyle Rittenhouse, the accused Kenosha killer, it may actually be rooted in the formation of state militias in the ‘90s, particularly the Michigan Militia, a gun rights group that influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh before he killed 168 people in 1995. And these groups are emboldened by the long-running case of the Bundy family and their clashes with the government over federal land — even as Trump pardoned two Oregon ranchers whose arrest sparked an armed occupation of a national wildlife refuge.
From McVeigh, you can wind back even further to Henry Ford. The iconic industrialist was also a virulent anti-Semite who spread propaganda against Jews in the early 20th century via his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Those ideas influenced everyone from Adolf Hitler to the white supremacist William Luther Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired McVeigh.
Long before “deep state” conspiracies became a fixture of the right, a number of skeptics insisted that there was a plot within George W. Bush’s bureaucracy to hide the fact that 9/11 was an inside job — potentially orchestrated by the U.S. for nefarious reasons, including seizing oil from the Middle East.
In 1984, a prize horse owned by the president of Destron Fearing, a Minnesota-based animal identification company, was stolen. The horse theft set into motion a series of events that would lead to Bill Gates being ridiculously accused of wanting to implant millions of unwitting Americans with a microchip containing the mark of the beast in 2020.
In 1989, a racist fabulist named David Wynn Miller invented his own take on English grammar and syntax that he said would end all human misunderstanding … only it was gibberish. Still, that didn’t stop it being adopted by the Sovereign Citizens, a cultish group that believed his unintelligible language was the key to freeing themselves from the “contracts” that require them to pay taxes and follow the law.
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1. Facebook: Where Hate Organizes
In mid-August, Facebook removed 790 QAnon groups and more than 10,000 accounts from Instagram in an effort to diminish the virality of the conspiracy, which simply showed how pervasive social media indoctrination is. That followed Twitter’s clampdown on QAnon in July, and Facebook’s own decision to remove hundreds of boogaloo accounts in late June. Other platforms, such as 8chan, are typically where these extremist views originate, but Facebook is how they get distributed to the masses.
2. Hidden Until Too Late
Despite Facebook’s efforts, experts say many conspiracy pages still remain — a fact proven after the Rittenhouse shooting drew attention to a “Kenosha Militia” page that had previously posted a “call to arms.” Founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for leaving the page up, revealing that it remained online even after two people reported it and several moderators saw it, angering many employees who feel that Facebook is too often being reactive instead of proactive in tackling hate. Now, extremist activity is increasingly moving out of the public eye, to closed groups on platforms such as WhatsApp or Telegram.
3. Algorithmic Radicalization
The algorithms behind social media giants are designed to funnel viewers through a vortex of complementary interests — basically, to keep feeding them content they like in order to maintain interest and engagement. So the same scheme that immerses users in cats and baby goats can also blast them with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism over and over again. Preying on people’s bias toward self-affirming content, consumers can easily enter a media bubble that only accelerates problematic views and rarely challenges them. And it can lead to tragedy, from inspiring murderers like Dylann Roof and James Fields, to a pregnant woman being urged by online strangers to have a dangerous “freebirth” without doctors present … leading to the death of her child.
Foreign actors, from Russia to China, can take advantage of social unrest, the digital age and human psychology to stir discontent — and potentially affect elections. The U.S. Department of Justice found that, in at least one case in 2016, Russians created two Facebook groups and then advertised opposing protests to viewers … who then showed up in real life to the (originally fake) events. On another occasion, Russians paid people to attend pro-Trump rallies staged with a caged Hillary Clinton impersonator on a flatbed truck, echoing the “Lock her up!” chant popular among Trump supporters. Those tactics are still being used in 2020: Researchers found in May that nearly half of all Twitter accounts tweeting about coronavirus were likely bots.
In tomorrow’s second part of OZY’s American Fringes magazine, we explore how the news industry is incentivized to stoke the flames of the fringes, profile those people who are fighting off extremism and forecast what will happen next.