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  • Xilin Wang

Understanding the Radical Right and Extremism


2021 was supposed to be the year where we finally got out of quarantine and returned to our pre-Covid lives. Instead, Covid-19 exposed the social inequities still plaguing the US and brought many issues such as continuing racial discrimination and rising nativistic nationalism once again to the spotlight. The latter festered into the violent and deadly Capitol Riot on January 6th, 2021. For many people, myself included, America is perceived as the land of higher education. As the country with the greatest number of Nobel Prizes, it is safe to say that America is truly the cradle of scientific innovation. Thus, how could it be that some in America could be influenced by extremist ideas to the point of committing insurrection? Could it be that America, despite its strong foundation in science and reason, is not as immune to the allure of demagogues or extremism as initially imagined?


In order to answer this question, I spoke with Tufts Professor David Art who teaches comparative politics with a regional focus on Europe. Professor Art’s research seeks to understand the rise and fall of extremist political parties and movements and analyzes why and how some extremist political parties succeed while others fail. His work mostly concerns with European politics, but he is eager to broaden the scope of his research by focusing more on political extremism within the US.


According to Professor Art, radical right parties in Europe usually start off as small fringe political groups and most of these parties usually fail due to self – implosion over policy disagreements or an inability to navigate the political environment. What was particularly interesting to learn was that existing political theories fail to explain the success or failure of radical right parties in Europe. Oftentimes, more focus is given to leaders of radical right parties and such an oversimplistic analytical framework is susceptible to stereotypes of the fanatic demagogue leading a group of docile followers. Though this is not to say that such hierarchical structures don’t exist in radical right parties, equally significant factors that determine whether a radical right party will succeed are the political system, economic wellbeing, and immigration rate of the country itself. One prominent example was the rise of the National Socialist Party in the 1930s which rose to power because Hitler successfully exploited the frustration and resentment of the German population generated by WW1, the Great Depression, and the ineptitude of the Weimar government. It should be noted that in the 21st century, radical right groups in Europe were created mostly in response to immigration and in states where radical right groups took power of state, the government at worst enacted policies that restricted immigration but didn’t pursue any policies of genocide. Though the US is mostly bipartisan and doesn’t have any fledgling radical right parties as is the case in Europe, the analytical framework proposed by Professor Art can nonetheless be used to analyze radical right groups within the US. As the economy came to a halt from shutdowns or quarantine, it is no longer surprising that radical right groups or radical right extremist groups have not only increased in number but also felt more emboldened to commit violent crimes, especially under a president that espoused racially divisive messages and failed to condemn right wing extremists on more than one occasion.


Within the US, people often associate the world “Radical Right Extremism” with the “Radical Right”. However, Professor Art explains that there exists a distinction between the two: “radical right parties often pursue economic policies that are neoliberal but work on a cultural platform of nativism. However, radical right politicians accept the democratic system. In contrast, radical right extremists don’t consider the democratic system as legitimate and take up arms against it (democratic system)”. In addition, from a cultural perspective, “radical right parties consider foreigners as a threat and are less willing to flirt with the idea of racial superiority. Whereas radical right extremists, deem foreigners as racially inferior and are more prone to flirt with violence”. Thus, in other words, in Europe radical right extremists constitute a small minority within radical right parties that propagate racist beliefs and consider violence as a means to achieve political ends in, what they perceive as, an illegitimate democratic system. Similar to Europe, the US is no stranger when it comes to radical right extremism. Before 2016, radical right groups have mostly dwelled in the shadow of the Republican party and emerged as rambling debate on TV channels such as Fox News. It was only during Trump’s presidency that the Republican Party began to feel more comfortable endorsing rhetoric from the radical right. This in turn provided the ideal environment in which radical right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys or Boogaloo began to metastasize. According to Professor Art, Trump’s election as president was a historic moment where an American politician campaigning on a platform of radical right message took power. Before Trump, it was difficult to imagine any American politician winning on a platform of radical right ideas since the “narrative of victimization is unamerican”. In other words, previous presidential candidates won mostly with a message of optimism, as exemplified by former president Obama’s campaign slogan of “Hope”. Thus, it was bewildering to witness a candidate proclaiming the death of the American dream or that America is being “invaded” by immigrants to hold power in the central government.


Disregarding one’s political leanings, it is safe to say that the 2016 election was a hallmark in American history. The 45th president’s legacy should serve as a stark warning for the American public to finally acknowledge the fact that, despite being a country built on a foundation of liberty and individual rights, the US is just likely as any other country to fall victim to the allures of demagogues and extremism. Though the pandemic highlighted the inequities still persistent in America, the analysis offered here doesn’t do justice to the profound effects that these inequities with long historical causes have on American society as a whole. Therefore, we must reexamine our nation’s values and understand that values can still be corroded especially under the pressure of growing evil, lest we suffer the consequences of our ignorance as the Europeans of the 20th century did.


 
References

Art, David. Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.


Robert O'Harrow, Andrew Ba Tran. “The Rise of Domestic Extremism in America.” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 12, 2021.


Timberg, Craig. “As Trump Warns of Leftist Violence, a Dangerous Threat Emerges from the Right-Wing Boogaloo Movement.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 18, 2020.


Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin. “Trump's Debate Comments Give an Online Boost to a Group Social Media Companies Have Long Struggled Against.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 30, 2020.


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