The American Far-Right Is Dangerous but Disorganized
Despite murderous ambitions and abundant guns, the Capitol assault was a failure.
How can we best understand a failed putsch? When thousands of rightists marched on and breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 as legislators debated the certification of the November election results, it was the most dramatic threat posed to the orderly transition of power since the United States became a multiracial democracy in the 1960s.
Judged by the lofty objectives of its most militant supporters, however, Jan. 6 was a disappointment. Although demonstrators rapidly overwhelmed the unprepared U.S. Capitol Police and the initial reinforcements from Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police, and ransacked much of the building, they were unable to kill or capture the vice president or legislators, hold the Capitol against the additional forces sent to clear it, or prevent Congress from certifying the election results in the early morning of Jan. 7.
As shocking as the Capitol insurrection was, it demonstrated the limits facing the far-right as it attempts to compensate for its electoral setbacks by taking to the streets and taking up arms. If the U.S. far-right becomes more organized and disciplined, and if the political conditions that allowed the attack to get as far as it did aren’t addressed, violent actors might emerge within the movement who are better positioned to pursue last week’s unmet aspirations.
The stated goals of the far right on Jan. 6 were radical: reversing the outcome of the election itself. But the tactics most employed were primarily those of low-intensity violence. The insurrection was ultimately unable to bring high levels of violence to bear. While there were some armed rightists present, and police recovered a handful of firearms and Molotov cocktails and defused pipe bombs planted at the Republican and Democratic National Committee buildings, most militants fought with fists, flagpoles, chemical spray, and thrown projectiles.
Most demonstrators at the barricades were unwilling to directly fight the police and followed the lead of more militant comrades who used the familiar tools of the riot to overpower police: fists, melee weapons, and irritants. These tactics appear frequently in street contention, even among movements praised for their nonviolent power. Whether in 1980s Poland, Serbia in 2000, Egypt in 2011, or the ongoing situation in Belarus, even overwhelmingly nonviolent movements employ barricades, throw stones, brawl with cops, or ransack state buildings.
In Ukraine’s 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, the Yanukovych government’s downfall was precipitated in part by the challenge posed by militant demonstrators, among them far-rightists, and their willingness to meet lethal police repression with Molotovs and even firearms. Although police recovered firearms and Molotovs in the United States last week, none had been used against police. While 11 Molotovs might shock U.S. audiences, anti-austerity protests near the Hellenic Parliament in Greece may feature dozens of firebombs thrown.
The level of violence was also low relative to the firepower available to U.S. militants. For many militant groups in Europe, firearms acquisition is a challenge. Groups need the discipline to steal weapons or appeal to a state sponsor, or have the resources to access the black market, all while avoiding hostile detection, just to wage armed struggle. U.S. far-rightists can easily access a legal market and acquire firepower and ammunition stockpiles many of their counterparts could only dream of. Yet the majority assaulting the Capitol did not bring firearms, and those that did declined to engage in gun battles, even after police shot and killed an unarmed demonstrator. As one Proud Boy put it, most demonstrators were unwilling to “take it to the next level.”
Access to paramilitary gear and equipment does not itself create strong paramilitaries. Many far-rightists, lacking prior experience with repression, fail to develop the skills necessary to successfully challenge the state. This difficult learning curve was on display in abundance at the Capitol. While some demonstrators dressed the part with tactical gear, they made themselves easily identifiable by failing to cover their faces, change their distinctive outfits, or even offering up their names and declaring their possession of illegal weapons to the authorities.
Some groups, such as the Proud Boys, have gradually improved their tactics. They coordinated their movements over radio at previous Washington marches and, after facing a handful of arrests and stab wounds when they assaulted random bystanders and counterprotesters in their last marches, this time appeared to forgo their obvious black-yellow uniforms. The Oathkeepers, another prominent militia group, brought not just protective gear but radio communications and moved as a group.
The rally and attack on Jan. 6 benefited from being planned in the open, allowing disciplined groups of more violent demonstrators to complement the overwhelming mass of less organized participants. However, sustaining higher levels of violence requires more clandestine and well-organized groups that can evade and endure state responses like the federal crackdown unfolding now.
Although the Proud Boys have continued to grow and provide violent heft to rightist demonstrations, building a comparable organization capable of directly challenging the state is more difficult. Militias, though well-armed, often struggle to branch out past the legal grey area of “armed protest,” leading to operational security disasters like the plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor. Neo-Nazi militant groups such as Atomwaffen Division and the Base, despite their gleefully advertised desires for an apocalyptic race war, were rife with government or anti-racist infiltrators and failed to execute organized attack plots.
While overshadowed by the Capitol debacle, government authorities have been largely successful in preventing the emergence of highly organized, highly lethal far-right groups. It is therefore unsurprising that the most deadly form of far-right violence in the United States remains mass shootings conducted by individuals embedded within far-right online communities and subcultures, who minimize the risk of detection by resorting to solitary, uncoordinated acts.
How, then, did a variety of openly discussed plans to assault the Capitol during a mobilization urged by some of the most powerful politicians in the country catch so many by surprise? D.C. officials mismanaged two far-right street mobilizations by allowing Proud Boys and other street militants to assault local counterprotesters and bystanders in November and December, disproportionately focusing police resources on separating “mutual combatants,” while discouraging residents from counterprotesting.
Fears that street clashes might provoke Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act or federalize the MPD further encouraged an attitude of waiting out far-right street politics. Neither D.C. officials nor USCP expected or prepared for the Capitol to be stormed, and encouragement and assistance within the Hill may have exacerbated this problem. The solution for the inauguration, an influx of tens of thousands of National Guard and federal law enforcement personnel and stifling security measures, are unsustainable, and the creation of a new domestic War on Terror is dangerous.
This approach might temporarily shift the calculus of various far-right actors, but it is highly unlikely to defuse the movement. Most participants will return to hometowns that cannot be turned into armed federal camps for weeks on end. Some, seeing their more reckless colleagues hauled off to federal court, will demobilize, others will learn from their mistakes. Sympathetic and cynical politicians will court their support. Some may rejoin police departments tasked with managing their local demonstrations. Police repression of future demonstrations might mitigate their damage but could also increase the appeal of more militant or underground organizations. Some actively welcome and may provoke repression to be as indiscriminate as possible to exploit this dynamic.
Although the far-right remains relatively disorganized, each successful street action provides opportunities for groupuscules to cohere and for more casual participants to deepen their commitments. Leaving the disruption of this process in the hands of the state places high hopes in the same institutions that unleashed police riots and mass arrests against Black Lives Matter and leftist movements.
As uncomfortable as it is to reconcile with the purportedly non-partisan prerogatives of a neutral state, the far-right cannot be reduced to a criminal or national security problem. Like all movements, it is inherently a political challenge. That it could inflict such a shock to the political system on Jan. 6 despite the relative disorganization and low levels of force underscores the gravity of that challenge. Meeting that challenge, in whatever arena it appears, will require the opponents of the far-right to out-organize it.
Daniel Trombly is a Ph.D. student at George Washington University focused on far-right movements and political violence