If you were to look at the far-right on Twitter, or coverage of their poorly-attended “Unite the Right 2” rally this August in Washington, D.C. (a follow-up to the first “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 – where a neo-Nazi killed a woman), you might be convinced that they are doing quite poorly. Since the original “Unite the Right,” they have faced enormous counter-protests, infighting, and social media controversies, leading many commentators to pronounce that they are “in shambles,” “in disarray,” even “dying.”
What these headlines miss, though, is that despite some very public humiliations, the far-right has successfully planted their extremist ideas into mainstream right-wing politics in the United States. One only needs to watch national television news, peek at politicians’ social media, or read statements by the President of the United States to witness far-right Dangerous Speech, amplified much louder than any far-right rally.
Nowhere is this trend clearer than in discourse concerning global migration. The far-right has claimed major immigration and refugee policy victories in the era of Donald Trump’s presidency, but what appears to please them most is Trump’s rhetoric. Not only does the president routinely dehumanize other human beings – like when he has called immigrants “animals” who “infest” the United States – but he has also repeated far-right talking points portraying multiculturalism and immigration as an existential threat to Western societies. For example, while in the United Kingdom in July, Trump lamented the increase of immigrants to the European Union: “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was. … I think you are losing your culture.” His remarks in London mirrored a speech in Warsaw a year prior, when he proclaimed that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” likening immigrants and asylum seekers with a terrorist threat and encouraging his audience to defend “[Western] civilization… with your life.” For the President of the United States to make this suggestion – that immigration (presumably from the Global South) could bring down entire continents – is Dangerous Speech, not only because of the powerful fear and threat he evokes, but because he is one of the most authoritative speakers in the word telling this to audiences in places where anti-immigration politics often become inflamed with hateful rhetoric.
These statements also reflect the core ethos of far-right ideology: that “Western civilization” (sometimes a substitute for “white-majority societies”) is threatened with complete destruction, brought upon by immigration from the Global South and cultural changes that undermine tradition. Trump blames this threat on liberal politicians who permit too many immigrants from “shithole countries,” and indeed, many in the far-right also blame liberals and the left for similar reasons. Others blame Jews – sometimes by euphemistically referring to bankers, “elites,” or “cultural Marxism” (the latter of which is an adaptation of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories concerning Jewish plots to manipulate majority-Christian societies).
Trump is not the only national politician making such claims. Iowa Representative Steve King has raised similar concerns, warning that America must “wake up” before immigrants overwhelm the country and that “we can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.” King, an eight-term Congressman, often repeats far-right speakers’ points on Twitter, where he has repeatedly shared content authored by avowed neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Some fringe extremists, emboldened by mainstream politicians who appear to reflect their ideas, have run their own campaigns for public office. As we have written before, across the United States an alarming number of far-right candidates have been competing for seats in local, state, and national government – from anti-Semitic troll Paul Nehlen in Wisconsin to Holocaust denier John Fitzgerald in California. It is extremely unlikely that these political newcomers will win their races, especially for Congress – and many have already lost primaries. But their candidacies signify a sense among the far-right that their time has come.
None of these things would be as likely without an enormous amount of support and apology from mainstream figures in political media, especially network television. Most notably, anchors on Fox News – the most-watched cable news channel in the United States – have devoted a significant amount of air time to promoting ideas strikingly similar to those of far-right figures. One of the most popular anchors, Laura Ingraham, recently spent a show lamenting that, because of demographic changes, “the America we know and love” no longer exists (alongside footage of people hopping fences). And in 2017, Ingraham even claimed that terrorism is “the price [to pay] for multiculturalism.”
Ingraham’s colleague Tucker Carlson, who often has more viewers than any other cable news show, has also spent many segments discussing immigration and immigrants as if they threaten to unravel America. He has suggested that diversity weakens American society, that Latin American countries are “changing election outcomes by forcing demographic change” on the United States, and that the Democratic Party is “plotting, in effect, a [coup d’état] via immigration. In March, he likened an increase in Latinx immigration to bodily harm, claiming “this is more change than human beings are designed to digest.”
Both Carlson and Ingraham deny that their comments have anything to do with racism – but prominent far-right figures disagree. Rather, they see the two anchors as advocates on their side. Ingraham, for example, received praise via Twitter from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for her recent segment on demographic change. White supremacist Richard Spencer and neo-Nazi publisher Andrew Anglin also favor Carlson – the former applauded his “open-mindedness” to far-right ideas, whereas Anglin (who often pens articles about Carlson on his notorious Daily Stormer website) called him “literally our greatest ally,” claiming “I don’t believe that he doesn’t hate the Jews.”
It is one thing for figures like Richard Spencer, David Duke, or Andrew Anglin to gain a few thousand followers on social media, but it is another thing entirely to hear far-right Dangerous Speech from politicians and media professionals with authoritative platforms and audiences in the millions. The infusion of fringe rhetoric into mainstream political discourse exposes new audiences to far-right ideas in contexts usually seen as trustworthy, at least in comparison to extremist venues. It also provides an enormous opportunity to far-right leaders, who can portray themselves as not only politically close to the mainstream, but even wiser than mainstream speakers. While it took until 2015 or so for mainstream speakers to start loudly repeating their ideas, far-right speakers like Spencer, Duke, or Anglin can claim they were right all along.
Whether the far-right will remain a long-term fixture within American politics is uncertain – future elections may change the country’s trajectory and erode extremists’ footholds. But for now, the penetration of far-right ideas into national political discourse has the potential to cause dramatic damage, both to social norms and cohesion and to the material and to communities marginalized by far-right extremists. And if prominent speakers continue to saturate the political environment with far-right Dangerous Speech, they may inadvertently pave the way for future leaders who take extreme ideas much more seriously.
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