“Insurgent Supremacists” and the evolution of Trumpism – Matthew N. Lyons
Originally published on the Three Way Fight blog on January 21, 2021.
Introduction—An analysis for this moment
I finished the manuscript of Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire in September 2017, a few weeks following the murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now, as Donald Trump leaves the White House two weeks after his followers’ assault on the U.S. Capitol and failed bid to overturn the 2020 election by force, the approach and analysis I presented over two years ago are more relevant than ever. In this essay I want to use Insurgent Supremacists as a framework to help make sense of how we got to this moment in U.S. politics and the threats and possibilities that lie ahead. I’ll summarize some of the main elements of the book’s analysis, then offer skeletal comments on the shifting character of Donald Trump’s political project and its relationship with far right politics.
Both the beginning and end of Donald Trump’s presidency marked unprecedented moments in U.S. history. In the run-up to his upset 2016 victory, Trump received significant help from alt-rightists who advocated a white ethnostate, and he boosted and validated parts of their message in return, making his campaign more closely intertwined with far right politics than that of any previous major party candidate for president. Since his 2020 re-election defeat, Trump has led millions of his followers and a major section of the Republican Party in militantly rejecting the results of the vote—something that no other defeated U.S. president has ever done or even hinted at doing. The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the houses of Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”
The recent scenes of Patriot activists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists assaulting the Congress and staging armed protests at state houses across the country give new meaning to the term “insurgent supremacists.”
I – Key themes for understanding the far right
The book Insurgent Supremacists tells the story of how the major far right currents have taken shape in the United States over the past half century, and their relationships with the Trump campaign and early presidential administration. But more than that, the book offers an approach and a set of tools for analyzing far right politics and its role in U.S. society. Many of these themes can be summarized as follows:
The far right includes multiple supremacist ideologies. White supremacist ideology has always been a core element and driving engine of the U.S. far right. But social oppression and inequality are structured in many different ways, and not all far rightists put race at the center of their politics. There’s a branch of the Christian right that wants to create a full-blown theocracy, and that vision centers not only on religion but also on patriarchy, heterosexism, and enforced gender roles. Many Patriot movement activists, meanwhile, champion an absolutist doctrine of individual property rights, a kind of hyper-capitalism. In addition, explicit calls for all people of color (and usually all Jews) to be subordinated, excluded, or killed are less common among U.S. far rightists than various forms of cultural racism, in which limited numbers of people of color are accepted as long as they conform to Eurocentric rules and don’t challenge underlying disparities of power. Leading Patriot groups such as the Oath Keepers, for example, promote the ideology of color-blindness (which bolsters racial oppression by denying that it exists) coupled with demonization of Muslims and immigrants.
Disloyalty to the United States is a key element of far right politics. Instead of focusing on just one specific doctrine, I define the U.S. far right to mean political forces that (1) promote human inequality as natural, desirable, or inevitable, and (2) reject the legitimacy of the established U.S. political system. Rightists have traditionally defended the established order. But the U.S. far right of today emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, when a significant minority of rightists withdrew their loyalty from the U.S. government, because they believed they could no longer achieve their supremacist goals within the existing political framework. Far rightists (or oppositional rightists) are distinct from but interconnected with system-loyal rightists. They may clash with each other or work together, and people can move from system-loyalty to oppositional politics or vice versa, the same way that leftists can move between reformism and a revolutionary stance.
The far right grows out of an oppressive social system. Many liberals and conservatives describe the far right as an extremist threat to democracy, but the U.S. is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a shifting mix of pluralism and repression. Popular struggles have won real political space that you wouldn’t find under a dictatorship, but still a tiny capitalist elite holds most political and economic power, and multiple lines of oppression shape most social relations. This system encourages both far right and mainstream political forces to demonize and scapegoat oppressed and marginalized people. But when people in privileged social groups believe that their privilege is under threat and that the existing political system does not protect their privilege effectively, some of them will find far right politics appealing.
The far right hates the ruling class. If it’s a mistake to gloss over the deep connections between far right politics and mainstream institutions, some leftists make the opposite mistake, which is to treat far rightists simply as tools of the ruling class. It’s certainly true that white supremacists and right-wing vigilantes have traditionally helped economic and political elites by attacking the left and organized labor and communities of color. But the U.S. far right as it is constituted today believes that economic and political elites have betrayed them. It believes these elites are using multiculturalism, mass immigration, and globalization to weaken and destroy white Christian America. This belief feeds on fear of losing privilege, but it also feeds on people’s sense of disempowerment, people’s sense of being beaten down. The far right draws on rebellious anger and transmutes it into poison. That’s why the far right sometimes sounds like a twisted version of the left, denouncing global elites or U.S. military interventions—not in the name of justice or human liberation, but in the name of racial purity or patriarchal religion. Hatred of elites has sometimes led some far rightists to take up arms against the federal government, in hopes of inspiring a right-wing revolution.
The far right’s growth reflects structural and cultural changes in society. Broadly speaking, the modern U.S. far right emerged after the 1960s as part of a backlash among many middle- and working-class whites to defend traditional social hierarchies against challenges from below, coupled with a rightward shift within the business community. In a more complicated way, far right politics have also developed in reaction against neoliberalism—the version of capitalist politics that has dominated both major political parties since the 1980s. Neoliberalism pushes deregulation of business, free trade, relatively unrestricted immigration, reduction or privatization of social services, and expansion of police, prisons, and mass surveillance.
Far right politics don’t stand still. Contrary to stereotypes about being stuck in the past, far rightists have repeatedly worked to develop new doctrines, arguments, strategies, and forms of organization. As an example, many opponents assume that far rightists are still oriented to classical fascism’s vision of a strong state and a disciplined, top-down political organization. In reality, huge swaths of the far right have embraced various forms of political decentralism, such as the neonazi-based “leaderless resistance” strategy, Patriot movement distrust of law enforcement above the county level, and some Christian rightists’ vision of a locally based theocracy enforced through small-scale institutions of church and family. The past forty years have seen a series of far right upsurges, in which different currents have converged and redefined themselves in response to changing circumstances.
Militant rightists have had a complicated and shifting relationship with the repressive state apparatus. The U.S. has a long history of right-wing vigilantes serving as major enforcers of social hierarchy and political obedience. Even oppositional rightists have usually been spared the kind of state violence meted out to people of color and leftists, but they have often been subjected to covert operations and sometimes to physical repression. In the 1980s, for example, security forces systematically imprisoned or killed members of the neonazi underground that had declared war on the U.S. government. And while people sometimes treat any kind of political repression as a step towards fascism, antifascism itself has repeatedly served as a rationale for repression. During World War II, antifascism was used to justify the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, along with strike-breaking and expanded FBI surveillance. In more recent decades, “defending democracy” against the far right has repeatedly been used to justify expansion of the state security apparatus, which ends up primarily hurting oppressed people and activists on the left.
II – The trajectory of Trump’s presidency
The last chapter of Insurgent Supremacists examines “Trump’s Presidency and the Far Right.” Written less than one year after Trump took office, its assessment of the new administration is tentative, yet much of its analysis has been born out by later events.
“Trump ran for president in 2015–2016 as a right-wing populist with authoritarian tendencies. He advocated the harshest anti-immigrant measures of any major party presidential candidate in generations, such as barring all Muslim newcomers and rounding up and deporting all eleven million undocumented immigrants. He endorsed the use of torture, encouraged his supporters to use violence against political opponents, bragged about sexually assaulting women, and promoted a cult of personality around himself” (196).
At the same time, Trump ridiculed and vilified the conservative establishment in the Republican Party, and took “liberal” positions on issues such as protecting Social Security and calling for universal access to health care. Echoing Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns in the 1990s, Trump rejected Washington’s two-party consensus behind free trade policies and interventionist military alliances, in the name of an “America First” nationalism.
“Yet because he lacked an organizational base of his own, Trump was immediately forced not only to work with establishment figures in the Republican Party but also to bring them into his own administration. As a result, from the beginning Trump’s presidency rested on an unstable coalition of right-wing factions both opposed to and aligned with conventional conservatism. The neoliberal consensus was starting to break down, but populist nationalism was not strong enough or developed enough to supplant it clearly” (p. 200).* * *“From early on, America Firsters clashed with neoliberals and establishment figures in the administration and in Congress on issues such as trade policy, which [together with Trump’s own personality] contributed to an unusual degree of chaos and lack of clear direction. The issues on which the different factions agreed, and on which the Trump administration moved forward most effectively, basically represented a hard-line version of neoliberalism’s domestic agenda: dis- mantle environmental regulations and consumer protection rules, open up public lands to corporate exploitation, “reform” the tax system to further redistribute wealth from low- and middle-income people to the rich, make the judicial system more punitive, and speed up militarization of the police. To a large extent, the result seemed to be policies that benefited narrow capitalist interests, such as military contractors, private prison operators, and energy companies, as well as the Trump family’s own businesses, more than a coherent unified program” (204).
Over time, however, the administration also took significant steps representing America First nationalism, including aggressive protectionist measures not only against China but also targeting traditional allies Europe and Canada. Above all, President Trump implemented an extraordinarily repressive, cruel, and largely illegal set of policies toward undocumented immigrants and refugees.
After Insurgent Supremacists was completed, new documentation emerged showing that Trump’s support within the big business community was—for any president and especially a Republican one—unusually limited, fragmented, and unstable. Trump certainly had staunch capitalist supporters such as Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson, and Robert and Rebekah Mercer. Yet his capitalist opponents included not just liberals and centrists such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg but also the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who were notorious backers of right-wing causes but also vocal critics of Trump’s positions on immigration and trade. These conflicts belied claims by some liberals and leftists that the administration represented a ruling class consensus-based drive to implement “neoliberal fascism.”
Organized far rightists, too, were conflicted about Trump. In Insurgent Supremacists I detail debates about Trump’s campaign and early presidency among alt-rightists and other white nationalists, Patriot activists, and the theocratic wing of the Christian right. I summarized these debates as reflecting
“a political dilemma that will be familiar to many people on the radical left: To what extent and under what circumstances should you support a system-loyal politician who shares many of your politics? How do you balance the importance of holding fast to political principles against the value of expanded visibility, legitimacy, and influence?” (215)
In broad terms, among President Trump’s initial far right supporters, most Patriot groups and Christian theocrats (notably the massive New Apostolic Reformation movement) continued to back him, while alt-rightists became increasingly disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s capitulation to the conservative establishment. This growing rift hinged largely on disagreements over foreign policy, with most alt-rightists bitterly opposing Trump’s 2017 missile attacks against Syria, for example. Trump’s 2019 assassination of Iranian General Soleimani exposed broader conflicts among his supporters between aggressive militarists and right-wing anti-interventionists.
Two big crises in 2020 affected Trump’s political relationships in complex ways. The COVID-19 pandemic widened the divide between Trump and establishment forces by highlighting his administration’s corruption, mendacity, and managerial incompetence. By contrast, the Black-led multiracial protests and uprisings that followed George Floyd’s murder accentuated Trump’s unity with conventional conservatives around defense of racial oppression and police violence. But both crises sharpened the militant character of Trump’s mass support and fed into conspiracist narratives of an embattled leader championing the people against sinister elites, dangerous subversives, and malevolent foreigners.
In this context, Trump’s symbiotic relationship with far right forces continued, but the focus and character of the relationship changed significantly, as I detailed in a September 2020 post on Three Way Fight. In 2016, Trump’s relationship with the far right centered on the alt-right, which skillfully used social media to attack Trump’s opponents both in the primaries and the general election. After the election, even as they became increasingly frustrated with Trump, alt-rightists tried to forge a broader coalition of right-wing street-fighters, but that effort fell apart after Charlottesville. In late 2017 the alt-right suffered a political collapse, brought on by antifascist countermobilizations, media deplatforming, and internal conflicts. So far it has not recovered.
Over the following years, initiative within the far right shifted to other forces, notably the Patriot movement, which was much more solidly pro-Trump than the alt-right. In 2020, Patriot activists played a major role in the wave of right-wing attacks on and killings of Black Lives Matter protesters—a campaign of vigilante repression that gave physical expression to Trump’s call for extraordinary measures to combat lawlessness.
“If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump’s symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016 [I wrote in September 2020], physical violence and harassment play that role today…. Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power.”
Although the Patriot movement has been largely based on delegitimizing state authority, and some Patriot activists had killed police in the past, I argued that Trump had co-opted them “into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” Yet this system-loyalty was unstable and conditional, and it “could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump or he leaves office.”
The November 2020 election defeated Trump in the polls, but it also demonstrated his continued ability to attract mass support. Despite his administration’s disastrous responses to the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, despite opposition from many Republicans and a majority of capitalists, despite his blatant use of public office for personal gain and self-promotion, Trump came within about a hundred thousand votes of winning. Not only did he receive more votes than in 2016; his support increased among every major demographic except white men—including white women, Black and Latino voters, LGBTQ voters, and Muslims. Although racism and misogyny remained central to his appeal, his appeal could not be reduced to them.
In the weeks leading up to November 3rd, I and many others warned of the danger that Trump might try to sabotage the election to stay in office. Our worst fears were not realized, as Trump did not successfully disrupt mail-in voting, deploy federal agents to seize control of polling places or vote-counting centers, or discredit the electoral process for any but his own committed supporters. However, he refused to accept that he had lost, doubling down on his false claims of widespread voter fraud and galvanizing a movement to “Stop the Steal.” This culminated in the January 6th Capitol takeover.
In persuading millions of his followers to reject the validity of the voting process, Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics.
Insurgent Supremacists helps us measure the significance of these developments. Up until the 2020 election, despite a blatantly authoritarian approach and repeated abuses of power, Trump worked within the established political system and did not significantly challenge its legitimacy. That began to change during the campaign and broke dramatically after his defeat became clear. In persuading millions of his followers and a large section of the Republican Party to reject the validity of the voting process—a foundation stone of the entire U.S. system of government—Trump sparked a political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen since the overthrow of Reconstruction one-and-a-half centuries ago. A huge chunk of the U.S. population has suddenly shifted, at least temporarily, from system-loyal politics to oppositional politics. The size of the U.S. far right—as defined in Insurgent Supremacists—has increased by an order of magnitude.
This sudden shift, which will likely fuel an upsurge of far right violence, raises lots of questions about how the newly expanded oppositional right will develop in the months and years ahead. Some of the issues I’m interested in are:
- Leadership – Will Trump (who can galvanize a rally and use social media skillfully but is a wretched organizer) remain the movement’s central figure? Will someone else with a different skill set emerge to take his place?
- Ideology – Given the Stop the Steal movement’s eclectic mix of ideologies (America First, white nationalism, QAnon conspiracism, theocratic Christianity, etc.), will Trump’s style of “deniable” supremacism remain central within the movement? Will something more explicitly racial, or more explicitly religious, gain ground? Will we see more “leftist” themes, such as more substantive welfare state proposals or more emphasis on anti-war politics?
- Organization – Will the movement remain organizationally fragmented? Will it achieve greater unity, and if so, what forms will that take?
- Relationship with forces within the state – Trump became popular with sections of the federal security apparatus (notably Homeland Security) and local police from many cities joined or supported the Capitol takeover and related actions. How will connections between state forces and oppositional politics play out in future?
- Relationship with sections of the ruling class – This includes questions of political funding, but much more. Given pro-Trump capitalists’ lack of clearly defined and shared interests, I want to see whether a significant anti-neoliberal faction of capital emerges, and whether it can join up with a mass base (for example around hatred of China, perhaps).
Trump’s shift also calls for revisiting the question of his relationship with fascism. I have argued since 2015 that, although Trump has promoted fascistic politics and policies in various ways, key elements of fascism as an overall project were missing. These included (a) a rejection of the existing political system, (b) an organized mass mobilization outside and against the established order, and (c) a totalizing effort to transform society according to an ideological vision. Now, however, Trump has embraced the first two of these elements. And although it’s doubtful he is able to put any goal before his own self-advancement, there are many people ready and eager to give overall ideological direction to the movement he has helped unleash. Trumpism might not represent full-blown fascism yet, but it is rushing in that direction.
These comments on Trumpism’s evolving political character point to something else I tried to do in writing Insurgent Supremacists. I wanted to avoid lumping all right-wing or anti-liberatory forces together, but I also wanted to avoid a sterile taxonomy of ideological differences and organizational divisions. In analyzing the U.S. far right, or any political movement, we need an approach that is dynamic, that explores both divisions and interactions, that applies political categories thoughtfully while recognizing that the scope and content of those categories will change over time. Not just so we can understand our enemies, but so we can fight them more effectively.
Even as we monitor and respond to the growing and increasingly militant forces of the far right, it’s critically important that we combat efforts by conservatives, liberals, and the security apparatus to expand repression. Fear of political “extremism” coupled with faith in the capitalist state is a poisonous mix. As in the past, we are seeing reactions to far right violence being channeled into measures that would put new restrictions on political expression and activism, such as Joe Biden’s call for a new law against domestic terrorism. As in the past, we should expect that state repression against the right will rebound more heavily against the left and those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Embracing centrist repression over far right insurgency is a false choice—and ultimately a self-defeating one, because it’s the violence and dehumanization of the established order that fuels supremacist rebellion in the first place. What’s needed instead is to build a liberatory, antifascist challenge to both. We need broad coalitions to defeat the far right, but we also need radical initiatives and movements that target established systems of power and the two major political parties that protect them.
Portions of this essay are adapted from my 2018 address to the Peace and Justice Studies Association.
Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons, can be ordered directly from the publishers: PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.
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