Many breathed a sigh of relief on 20 January 2021, when Joe Biden officially became President of the United States, after a tumultuous few weeks between his election and inauguration. While the campaign was more subdued than had been anticipated, the #StopTheSteal movement, culminating in the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, demonstrated clearly that the threat of far-right insurrection was serious. On the whole, the alt-right’s trollish activities of 2016 seemed to be replaced by right-wing conspiratorial protests.
Of course, it would be a mistake to think that Biden’s victory marks a return to ‘normal’ or even to what politics used to be before the 2016 earthquake. The election of a candidate like Donald Trump was not an unforeseen event – as we explore further – and his loss does not mean that those trends have fully receded; his support base remains considerable and his policy and political impact will take a real effort to dismantle. Addressing Trump’s legacy would only begin to address the issues of systemic racism the US has started grappling with in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
In this context, Trump’s chaotic exit and the Capitol insurrection may act as a diversion away from the real roots of the problem. The illiberal, even fascist turn of events in January 2021 allowed many Republicans and public actors who had supported Trump’s appeal to the far right to distance themselves. Instead of addressing the deep roots of reaction within and around the Trump project, some Republicans were able to pretend the insurrectionists were extremists and outcasts: a happenstance and an extraordinary parenthesis outside of normality and with no links to the constant emboldening from mainstream Republican figures.
Furthermore, Biden’s victory, whilst decisive both in terms of popular and electoral college vote, should not obscure the very clear and simple fact that after four years of Trump presidency, countless scandals and the centring of white supremacist discourse, the outgoing President increased his share of the popular vote by over eleven million. Of course, this pales in comparison to Biden’s tally, which topped Hillary Clinton’s 3-million popular vote lead by an extra 15 million. Yet despite borrowing significantly and consistently from far and extreme-right discourse and ideas, Trump’s support did not waver. Quite the contrary.
To illuminate this, we will focus first on the difference between the 2016 and 2020 campaigns with regard to far and extreme-right politics. We will then analyse the current state of the far and extreme right, building carefully on its origins and its role in the most recent campaign. Finally, we will discuss how Trump’s 2020 defeat has not marked the end of far-right politics in the US, but instead confirmed the radicalisation of the Republican vote and the further mainstreaming of far-right politics. What we argue is that Trump’s campaigns, presidency and ultimate defeat have acted as a vector to mainstream far-right politics in the US, through the constant shifting between illiberal and liberal articulations of racism and the blurring of boundaries between both.
2016: the rise of Trump, the alt-right and the resurgence of old demons?
As in many other countries, the extreme right in the US found itself pushed to the margins in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, this process was neither straightforward nor definitive. Not only did racism remain systemic, but the history of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, shows that the organisation remained close to the mainstream until the 1960s, when a combination of Civil Rights struggle and wider political development forced it into decline. At the time, ‘the destruction of the Klan in this way allowed it to become symbolic of the end of racism, akin to an exorcism of an evil within the nation, as identified in post-racial narratives’ (Mondon & Winter 2020, 26-27). From then on, the Klan took an even more extremist turn as did a number of other organisations and militias. However, the marginalisation of the extreme right did not mean the end of racism, and more coded discourse remained within mainstream politics, particularly under the Nixon, Reagan and Bush administrations. Racial discrimination was coded into laws, institutionalised and maintained through implicit and explicit government policies and discourses.
The 5th era of far-right activity saw groups go ‘underground and offline’ (Winter, 2019), regarding the internet as free from government oversight or control. The far right’s online presence was mixed, with innovation  dependent on the national context: a number of sites took advantage of the affordance of the internet to spread propaganda, expand networks, and connect previously scattered individuals. The online presence of the far right evolved with the internet, moving from bulletin boards, to websites and forums, to the social media platforms that have since come to dominate. Winter has noted how key events, such as the election of Obama in 2008, gave an initial boost to the far right as it provided a clear rallying call. Social media and the internet more generally helped the diffusion of propaganda and manifestos, such as in the case of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people in a series of attacks in 2011, including 69 young left-wing activists on the island of Utøya. This was also witnessed after the terrorist attack in 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, when Australian Brenton Tarrant murdered 51 Muslims at a mosque. His manifesto, as well as images of the numerous symbols drawn on his weapons, quickly spread across the Internet and resonated across far-right communities.
In this context, Trump’s candidacy and campaign in 2016 allowed for the different strands of far and extreme right to converge under one banner, as he was not only the candidate of the Grand Old Party, but also closely allied with the new kid on the far-right block: the alt-right. Trump also received support from traditional extreme-right movements and actors such as David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Proud Boys.
The alt-right, a term first used in 2008 by white nationalist Richard Spencer, was initially seen as a new branding for a neo-conservative, explicitly racial reaction to traditional conservatism. For the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), this ‘new’ movement represented ‘a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization’. Denying the racism of the movement, ‘members’ claimed to ‘simply’ be engaging with identity politics, victimised by ‘reverse racism’, demands for equality and political correctness. The alt-right did not represent a true movement with cohesive goals, membership or purpose. Instead, it is understood to be an amalgamation of beliefs, revolving around support for explicit white supremacist, nationalist, and fascist politics. As such, it operates more like a spectrum than a movement or party, as suggested by the term alt-lite used to define ‘less’ extreme actors.
In 2016, the alt-right gained prominence through media interest and active engagement with the Presidential Election. One of the key alt-right spaces, r/the_donald on Reddit, even hosted a Question-and-Answer session with a number of campaign staff, including Donald Trump. It became a space that reflected the President himself: a rejection of any semblance of reasonable political discussion. Anonymous swarms of alt-right trolls would swamp hashtags and dominate platforms with their messaging, attempting to drown out dissenting opinions. It is worth noting here that r/the_donald, and other similar threads, have since been shut down in an effort to counter extremism on social media platforms and head off controversy in advance of the 2020 election – what was acceptable in the lead up to Trump’s election has since become beyond the pale. This has led to more overtly far-right platforms, such as Parler, gaining the attention Reddit received in 2016.
In 2016, the alt-right was a jubilant cheerleader for Trump, a candidate considered for a number of months to be somewhat of a joke, attracting many who claimed to have joined the movement ironically or subversively. As the campaign progressed, the alt-right fuelled and was fuelled by a venomous discourse of toxic masculinity and racism, epitomised by their branding of opposition conservatives as ‘cuckservatives’. Legitimising the connection, Trump ultimately hired alt-right individuals such as Steve Bannon, then editor of Breitbart. As such, its actors gained prominence in the campaign and access to government during the Trump presidency; alt-right discourse became mainstreamed, if not altogether mainstream. For example, it became increasingly common to hear adversaries, no matter how moderate, denounced as traitors to the nation trying to institutionalise Socialism and open borders.
As the events that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017 demonstrated, the far and extreme-right threat was not just an online phenomenon. As neo-Nazis and other extreme-right activists took to the streets, the murder of anti-fascist Heather Heyer made clear that threats of violence were not ironic banter. Trump’s reaction to these events blurred the boundaries between the extreme and far right and the mainstream further, as he refused to outright condemn the fascist event, instead declaring that ‘you had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides’. The false equivalence between fascists and the mythologised and misunderstood ‘Antifa’ would become a cornerstone of Trump’s discourse.
2020: the fall of Trump and the alt-right?
The 2020 campaign was markedly different from 2016, with the alt-right holding a much-reduced profile. This can be laid at the feet of a number of factors. The pandemic significantly impacted public rallies, which Trump used to such effect in his first campaign and throughout his presidency. Moreover, his two most potent arguments – that he would Drain The Swamp and Build The Wall – failed to materialise. In advance of the election, a number of online spaces were closed to the alt-right, with Reddit deplatforming the largest community, and a number of far-right figures receiving bans on Twitter and Facebook (often for Covid-19-related violations). Instead, the alt-right moved to alt-tech platforms, such as thedonald.win, Parler, and Gab. Whilst this generated numerous headlines, it did not recreate the virality of 2016. Instead, the QAnon conspiracy took centre stage, valorising Trump as a hero fighting against a shadowy cabal, but with far less coherent ideological content and clarity than the movements that had assisted his rise.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a central feature of the election. On 30 April 2020, protesters spilled onto the streets during the invasion of the Michigan State Capitol building as part of an ‘American Patriot Rally’. Mirroring the Capitol insurrection, heavily-armed protestors demanded access to the chambers. Their white supremacist ties were rendered visible during the coup attempt, #StopTheSteal, initiated by a rally the President held minutes before and supported in a later tweet of ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN’. A plot aiming to kidnap the Michigan governor was later foiled and again linked to the galaxy of extreme right movements emboldened by Trump’s discourse. In September, when asked to condemn white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, Trump merely asked them to ‘stand back and stand by’.
It should not have come as a surprise that the insidious normalisation of far-right discourse and the intersection of white supremacy, the far and extreme right, and Trump, was again highlighted during the January insurrection, when Trump incited his supporters to march on the Capitol to save the election from being ‘stolen’. While this fascist coup attempt was shocking in and of itself, it was just as striking to witness the unwavering support many Republican politicians continued to lend Trump despite the gravity of the situation. His legacy was therefore not limited to a resurgent and emboldened extreme right, but to the hold he appears to retain on the Republican party and its electorate.
It would thus be a mistake to think of Trump’s 2016 election as a rupture and his 2020 defeat as a simple fix, since his 2016 victory was the result of a longer process of ‘radicalisation of the Republican electorate, with racism being increasingly normalised in American politics’ (Mondon & Winter 2019). While Trump’s electorate may have differed from John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s, it was very similar to George W. Bush’s in 2004. Both appealed more to the working class than McCain and Romney, but the bulk of their vote remained with the wealthy, trends which appear to have accentuated in 2020:
‘Trump managed to appeal to a similar electorate than that which has underpinned the resurgence of the far right in Europe. This particular electorate feels insecure about its future, even though it remains in a relatively privileged position and is more interested about issues such as immigration and terrorism, than about the economy. Therefore, rather than a radical shift of the working class towards Trump, what we have witnessed is the development of a typical far right electorate by European standards. (Mondon & Winter 2020)’
In the context of the radicalisation of both the discourse of the Republicans and their electorate, it is telling to see that almost two thirds of House Republicans supported the lawsuit that sought to overturn the election – support increased by 20 even after the case had been rejected by the Supreme Court on 11 December. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley acted as standard bearers of the conspiracy, defending Trump despite the latter’s attacks on Cruz in 2016. It was also striking to witness the rehabilitation of some Republicans who had previously been considered extreme themselves: in the face of Trump’s shameless extremism, even Mitt Romney and George W. Bush began to appear as the voice of moderation and reason, despite their legacy paving the way for the current context.
This right-wing radicalisation of political discourse in the US was also witnessed in the way Joe Biden was successfully portrayed as a Socialist during the campaign. While the Biden-Harris ticket has been praised for its moderation in comparison to other more radical alternatives on the Democratic side, such as Bernie Sanders, it was telling that this did not change the narrative; that no matter how hard the Democrats tried, their distance from Trump meant they were simply too far to the left.
To conclude, it would be simplistic and dangerous to imagine that Biden’s arrival in the White House means a return to ‘normality’, as if the Trump presidency were only a parenthesis or some freak event in an otherwise reasonable polity. The democratic institutions remained strong, but the election highlighted attempts made to undermine them, not just by extreme-right outsiders, but by or through the support of members of the polity themselves. On the more extreme side of politics, the President’s flirting with the alt, far and extreme right and the legitimisation of many of their talking points has had a real impact on normalising much of their discourse. While threats and the reality of extreme-right violence have been growing for a long time now, these have become far more common and brazen. For example, few were surprised at the blockades of Trump supporters during the campaign. The growth and emboldening of a more organised proto-fascist constituency best represented today by the Proud Boys is also all too real, as exemplified by the demonstration that took place in Washington DC on 12 December.
In his inauguration speech, Biden repeatedly called for unity and to ‘treat each other with dignity and respect’. However, there is a real risk such appeasement downplays the risks present in a political environment where far and extreme-right movements can receive support from the President. By proceeding through the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, this article has underlined how the evolving role of the alt, far and extreme right reflects the broader normalisation of far-right discourse. No longer the outrageous cheerleaders of 2016, 2020 saw the far-right discourse lose its shock factor, in the process migrating the Republicans further to the right. This migration is perhaps best highlighted by Trump’s own words to the insurrectionists: ‘We love you’, in defiance of the outrage.
 In this article, we borrow our terminology from Mondon and Winter (2020) and use far right to describe movements and parties that espouse a racist ideology, but do so in an indirect, coded and often covert manner, by focusing notably on culture and/or occupying the space between illiberal and liberal racisms, between the extreme and the mainstream. We use extreme right for movements and activists who express ‘illiberal’ articulations of racism and engage in violence, whether verbal or physical. Alt-right is used to describe the highly digital movement originating in the US, itself part of the extreme right.
 See https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/27/donald-trump-reddit-ama
Aurelien Mondon And Antonia Vaughan, ‘White Supremacist Extremism and the Far Right in the U.S.’, Political Extremism and Radicalism: Far-Right Groups in America, Cengage Learning (EMEA) Ltd, 2021.
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Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006).
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George Hawley, The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
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Southern Poverty Law Center. ‘Alt-Right’ https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist- files/ideology/alt-right
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Aaron Winter, ‘Online Hate: From the Far-Right to the ‘Alt-Right’, and from the Margins to the Mainstream’ in Online Othering: Exploring violence and discrimination on the Web, eds. Karen Lumsden and Emily Harmer. (London: Palgrave, 2019).