HOW REPUBLICANS MAINSTREAM FAR-RIGHT RADICALISM

By David K. Shipler

In the mid-1990s, a conservative named Joseph Overton devised a brochure with a cardboard slider showing how the parameters of acceptable political possibilities could be shifted. Called the Overton Window, it has helped explain the changes over time in society’s views on women’s suffrage, prohibition, racial segregation, gay rights, and the like. And now the window has been slid open to the flow of monstrous ideas from the white supremacist right into the public square of political discourse.

The conduit is the Republican Party, which is serving to normalize radical visions by reshaping them just enough to make them seem slightly less shocking. “Ideological beliefs once thought of as extreme have — with relative speed — become more widely accepted by the general public,” writes Cynthia Miller-Idriss in her book Hate in the Homeland. “Mainstreaming is critical to the growth of far-right movements globally, because it helps them recruit, radicalize, and mobilize individuals toward violence, while reducing the likelihood that the public will raise the alarm about their efforts.” She was prescient: Her book was published even before the January 6 invasion of the Capitol.

A professor of education and sociology at American University, Miller-Idriss has made a specialty of studying right-wing extremism in Europe and the United States. Her catalogue of far-right themes, theories, fantasies, fears, and apocalyptic remedies offers an instructive lens through which to see the mainstream arguments of many Republicans and their supporters. Conservatives’ statements that initially look merely controversial jump into focus as menacing once your eyes adjust. You can see in many Republican declarations the features of dangerous extremism.

Those features include: anti-government and anti-democratic ideas; exclusionary beliefs that dehumanize “others” such as Jews, blacks, Muslims, Asians, Latinos, and immigrants; geographical identity that attaches historical purity to a land; existential fears of “white genocide” in a “great replacement” of Christian whites by non-Christian nonwhites; hypermasculinity; and conspiratorial fantasies culminating in violence to accelerate the rise of a new order.

When these convictions are taken from the margins and reshaped by Republicans into policy positions and political assertions, they slide into the public square in a pattern of ominous normalization. By placing Miller-Idriss’s depiction of far-right movements next to Republican and conservative themes, the symbiotic relationship becomes clear:

Anti-government, anti-democratic: The far right’s distrust of government was echoed by former President Trump’s repeated sloganeering against Washington corruption (“Drain the swamp!”) and his denunciation of governmental actions and agencies, including trade deals, the Iran nuclear agreement, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, and the FBI. Then, exploiting the far right’s anti-democratic suspicions, he assailed a Congress controlled by his own party and undermined faith in the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. That appealed to far-right beliefs that the system must be destroyed. The alternative — gaming the system — is being advanced nationwide by state Republicans, bent on power above all, who are flooding legislatures with bills to reduce access to the ballot box. That approach coincides with far-right goals of exclusion.

Of course railing against Washington is a perennial campaign theme with such a long tradition that decades ago, James Reston quipped that politicians who excoriate Washington often end up living there after retirement. Yet Trump took the polemics to unprecedented levels, channeling a populist antipathy for government. In this he led less than he followed; he heard and amplified the resentful chants of his supporters.

“Drain the swamp, look at that sign. Drain the swamp in Washington, DC.” Trump said at a 2016 campaign rally. “I didn’t like the expression, drain the swamp in Washington. So I said it three days ago. The place went crazy. I said, you know what? I’m starting to like that expression.” It did not seem to matter to the far right that Trump wallowed in the swamp. The slogan inspired.

Exclusionary beliefs and white ethno-states: “Places and spaces are fundamental to a sense of belonging and identity,” Miller-Idriss writes, “and are imbued with emotional attachment and meaning.” That has been true historically of Nazism and other far-right movements into the present. “Space and place are constant backdrops to contemporary far-right fears of a ‘great replacement’ and conspiracies about Europe turning into Eurabia.”

At the extreme right, she notes, “issues of territory, belonging, exclusion, race, and national geographies are foundational for imagining collective pasts as well as anticipated futures.” The remedies of “border walls, along with language about national defense, incursions, and invasions” reinforce the sense of existential threat. The 2017 white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville, Virginia, included chants of “Jews will not replace us.”

Those themes play harmoniously into the Trump Republican anti-immigration rants. They have gone way beyond rational policy arguments. Instead, they ignite far-right fervor by demonizing immigrants as mortal dangers to the very nature of America. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump tweeted as convoys of Central American families approached the border in October 2018. On another occasion, he declared, “If we can save American lives, American jobs, and American futures, together we can save America itself.” At a rally in Panama City Beach, in the Florida Panhandle, he wondered aloud what to do, cleverly suggesting violence while rejecting it. “We can’t let [border officers] use weapons,” he said. “We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?”

“Shoot them!” a woman yelled. The crowd cheered. Trump gave a slight smile, then said, “Only in the Panhandle you can get away with that.” Cheers, applause. “Only in the Panhandle.”

In accord with some of his staff’s affinities for the far right, Trump also fed the yearning for a white ethno-state by explicitly naming the racial and religious components of his anti-immigration stand. He banned entry from seven Muslim countries. He derided immigrants from Haiti and Africa. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked. Nigerians won’t ever leave, won’t ever “go back to their huts.” He expressed preference for immigrants from countries like Norway. He went as far as to tweet that four congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in the US, should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Republicans did not object to the tweet.

Apocalyptic Imagery and the Great Replacement: The far right’s fears that minorities will replace whites through demographic change or genocide were cited by Robert Bowers, who killed 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh Synagogue, and Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 at an El Paso Walmart frequented by Latinos. The anxieties have found resonance in some Republicans’ remarks and retweets.

Speaking at the 2020 Republican convention, Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old head of Turning Point USA, declared: “Trump is the bodyguard of Western civilization. Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life.” (Kirk founded a think tank with Jerry Falwell, Jr., then president of Liberty University.)

The country’s demographics are a grave concern. One of the far right’s goals, Miller-Idriss says, is to get whites to have more children, a theme picked up by Representative Steve King of Iowa in a 2017 tweet about immigration: “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” In a follow-up CNN interview, he declared, “You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and teach your children your values and in doing so, you can grow your population and you can strengthen your way of life.”

King’s record is significant. He flirted with the far right for years before the Republican establishment and its funders finally had enough. In 2018 he gave a long interview to the magazine of the rightist Austrian Freedom Party. He retweeted comments by Lana Lokteff, a white nationalist CONTINUE READING AT http://shiplerreport.blogspot.com/

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.