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Sophie Bjork-James: The biggest threats to American democracy? White nationalists and politicians who embrace them

Sophie Bjork-James: The biggest threats to American democracy? White nationalists and politicians who embrace them

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In this Sept. 7, 2020 photo, a protester carries a Proud Boys banner, symbol of a right-wing group, while other members start to unfurl a large U.S. flag in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore.

The plot by militia members to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is only the latest example of the threat posed by far-right extremists. Social media posts of the accused showed that they drew from multiple far-right movements, including the Boogaloo Boys.

Their intention of starting a civil war “leading to societal collapse” has long been a goal of white supremacists and terrorists. Just as in the Whitmer plot, white nationalists and far-right actors have one primary aim: undermining multiracial democracy.

These groups seek to maintain white power by any means, and American democracy is now seen as a barrier to this goal. This has translated into two broad strategies. The first is to advocate for an all-white ethno-state that would serve as a nonviolent solution to the problem of racial integration. For proponents of such a state, whiteness as an inherently moral essence in an individual, and, collectively, the basis for a political utopia.

The other strategy in the white nationalist playbook is more direct: the overthrow of the democratic state or its deazstabilization through increasing acts of violence.

“The Turner Diaries,” a novel broadly known as the bible of the racist right, articulates this hatred of the American government. Published serially in the 1970s in the racist magazine “Attack!” the novel frames the U.S. government as controlled by Jews waging a race war against white people. Overthrowing the government is the central goal of the protagonists, and the novel often shows up on domestic terrorist reading lists. One such terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, had photocopies of the novel in his truck when he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

These ideas, along with the growth of a conspiracy theory claiming that elites are systematically enacting an anti-white strategy called the “Great Replacement,” have been the ideological trigger behind domestic terrorism.

Mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; Pittsburgh; El Paso, Texas; and Christchurch, New Zealand, were carried out by men radicalized online. Although they are often called “lone wolf” attacks, individual acts of terrorism are part of a white nationalist strategy called leaderless resistance that encourages individuals to commit acts of violence against Jews, people of color or the state.

These trends make white nationalists the most significant terror threat in the United States. Beyond that, the influence of their antidemocratic ideology has spread to other far-right conspiracy movements as well.

In studying online white nationalism for the last decade, I have tracked how antidemocratic beliefs have expanded from what has been a marginal racist movement into new arenas. Recently emerging groups such as Boogaloo, Proud Boys and QAnon movements all focus on challenging the legitimacy of democratic institutions. The Boogaloo movement claims to be nonracist, with some members wearing Hawaiian shirts to march with Black Lives Matter protesters. Yet, their goal of overthrowing the U.S. government tracks exactly with white nationalists.

QAnon, by rebranding anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, seeks to achieve its goals by jailing political opponents, not by engaging the electoral process. The Proud Boys have instigated political violence, not voting.

Political operatives within the Republican Party are now also seizing on this antidemocratic sentiment and turning it into strategy, following President Donald Trump’s lead. Tactics such as questioning the integrity of the election and attacking the legitimacy of absentee ballots undermine the electoral process and encourage vigilante activity, despite all evidence showing that voter fraud in the U.S. is incredibly rare. Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power could easily act as an accelerant for these threats.

Republicans have only won one popular presidential vote in the last 20 years: George W. Bush in 2004. They face a choice: diversify their base or to work to secure power through other means.

Until the civil rights movement successfully expanded voting rights, multiple forms of disenfranchisement enshrined white power across America. Now the rapid spread of antidemocratic ideology across the far right threatens both the democratic process and democratically elected leaders, as Michigan Gov. Whitmer now knows all too well.

Despite these recent broad threats to American democracy, the Supreme Court is taking up a new case that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act. We need the opposite: robust protections to defend against the systematic disenfranchisement of marginalized communities. From deploying poll watchers and disinformation to imposing new poll taxes and felony disenfranchisement, history is repeating itself.

The most basic defense of democracy we have is voting. We need to elect people who are committed to strengthening democratic principles, not ending them.


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Sophie Bjork-James is an assistant professor of the practice in anthropology at Vanderbilt University. She is the co-editor of “Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism” and the author of the forthcoming book, “The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family.”

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