Notes on the Resurgence of the Right in the US
The following was written nearly a year ago with two other pieces that have not been published here. All three pieces dealt with violence, both voluntary and systemic. This piece is a reflection on the resurgence of far-right violence in the United States. Although written a while ago and worked on in bits and pieces since then, it is not yet complete. A fuller understanding of the Right’s social base and the material conditions of its resurgence would create a better picture of this movement. Additionally, a fuller discussion on the distinction between far-right conservatives and fascists would add clarity to this piece. Lastly, this was written before Ferguson and the presence of militias protecting white businesses is not dealt with here. It is possible that I will return to this piece later, adding everything that is currently missing, but for now, I present this incomplete work.
Since the economic collapse in 2007, right-wing movements have seen a surge in popularity. In Europe, the far right has gained seats in parliaments around the continent. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has gained territory and adherents to its ultra right-wing vision of Islam. In the United States, the far right’s resurgence has expressed itself in the return of militias and hate-groups. All of these movements are a disturbing trend and in the United States represent a shift towards violence as the state’s main tool in repression.
Looking at repression in the United States, we can see that it has come from two groups most visibly: the police and right-wing militias. As the state moves further and further into austerity, the communities most likely to rebel against these measures need corralling. Police repression is not new and is not any more brutal than it has been in years past, but it is more visible. From Mike Brown to Eric Garner, cops killing unarmed black people have been in the news constantly.
Right-wing militias have similarly been front and center in the news. Right-wing groups, specifically in the South have been patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, ostensibly protecting the country from Latin American immigrants. In reality, their existence is a threat to Latino communities, whether documented or not. Like police violence, the militia patrols have existed long before the present day, but have become headlines recently.
While cops have been analyzed quite extensively, there is a dearth of analysis around how the far right and the militia aspects factor into it specifically. While neo-nazism and fascist elements abound, the current far right is conservative in nature. However, they still represent a serious threat to those who live in their domain. One of the most important aspects of these movements is their attachment to guns.
In the United States, the issue of guns lies on an ideological cleavage. Many left of center liberals believe that the “right to bear arms” has passed its expiration date and should be culled or severely limited. The Democratic Party’s attempt to introduce an anti-assault weapons ban is an example of this mindset. However, the Right is fairly unified on the subject of the right to bear arms. The Right has fought tirelessly to reject any legislation that curtails the right to any weapons. This includes legislation enforcing background checks. This is in the face of high-profile shootings, growing right-wing terror and the resurgence of right-wing militias. Why is it that the majority of United States legislature have embraced these movements?
Many of these movements cling to a sense of legality. Right-wing militias and groups believe that the United States Constitution is the supreme document regarding their rights (of course, this is with some interpretation because they do not believe in the same interpretation of the Constitution as many left of center liberals). More importantly, they believe that the Constitution provides for the unabridged ownership of firearms. This colors a lot of the rhetoric of the Gun Lobby. It is a constitutional right to bear arms and any infringement on that right is cause for rebellion and insurrection. If you’ve ever viewed videos about guns on YouTube, you’ve seen that many of the video bloggers believe that gun confiscation constitutes a “line in the sand” during which they will rebel violently and in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” missive. A respect bordering on worship of the 2nd Amendment is scripture for the American Right.
This devotion to legality is limiting to the Right’s understanding of itself though. The United States has routinely violated its constitution in order to preserve its own power. At times, it even incorporates these violations into the interpretation of the Constitution through the Supreme Court. The Constitution provided that slavery was a legal right and the Supreme Court originally supported this. When the Civil War began, the United States outlawed slavery regardless (at least, in the territories not under its immediate control) and waged war to bring the rebels into line. During the First World War, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 severely violating the 1st Amendment. However, the Supreme Court decided that the law was constitutional and incorporated this infringement into its law. A state cannot will its own destruction. When a state is faced with an existential threat, it will violate its own rule of law to ensure its survival.
For the Right, this means that the 2nd Amendment means nothing to the state. The United States will only allow right-wing militias to operate if it believes that the United States can control these movements. If these militias/movements couldn’t be harnessed to the United States’ nationalist agenda, they would face a severe crackdown. And that’s what we can see today. The Democratic Party does not believe that the right-wing can be controlled, can be harnessed. Members of these militias and movements are bombing federal buildings and shooting other citizens. The Democratic Party certainly didn’t think these groups could be controlled in the 90s when right-wing terror seemed to be at its high point. Terror (most notably the Oklahoma City Bombing) was rampant from these elements. Members of the Democratic Party have introduced legislation to ban assault weapons or to limit their capacity but the vast majority of these attempts have failed. The Right is unified in its rejection of what it believes to be “anti-gun” legislation. Why is this?
The state, or at least the rightmost faction of it, believes that these movements can be controlled and can serve its interests. This is why the Supreme Court recently changed its interpretation of the 2nd Amendment from recognizing the rights of militias to recognizing the right of individuals to bear arms. These movements aren’t entirely militia-driven, so establishing an individual right contributes to the ideology of individualism and pulls more people into the fold.
We can look at armed left-wing organizations to see how the rule of law changes when the state faces an existential threat. The Espionage Act of 1917 jailed many socialist and radicals who advocated against the war and against capitalism in general. When the Black Panthers militantly carried the weapons openly, the state of California took that legislated that “right” away (it is important to note that Ronald Reagan and the NRA worked together to pass this law). Left-wing groups in the 60s and 70s faced massive repression, often times violent repression. The Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the American Indian Movement and others were followed, intimidated by and even shot at by the police and federal agents. The Constitution was tossed aside when the left was strong.
So how does this armed Right benefit the state? They stand strongly opposed to the left. They own guns and they train with those guns. The threat of a leftist specter haunts their collective imaginations and they are willing to fight against that threat for the state. They are also willing to corral people of color, women and queers through violence.
It’s important to wonder though, how the Right views itself in relation to the state. The Right can continue its symbiotic relationship with the state only as long as it believes that the state’s interests are its interests too. The Right believes that they are patriots who are protecting the rule of law through voting and through violence. But it doesn’t think that a “liberal” state is in its own interests. This is opposition to “liberals” is concurrent with the conservative restructuring of the state from welfare to austerity. Even if the Democratic Party is also a party of war and austerity, the Right believes that it isn’t. This poses a big threat to the Democratic Party, but not the state in general. If the Right can be counted on to restore the ‘rule of law,’ as they understand it, the state will continue to exist and a complete restructuring and consolidation can be achieved.
The contradictions in the Right’s relationship to the state were on full display when militiamen descended on a small Nevada farm owned by Cliven Bundy. When the government started confiscating Bundy’s cow due to his two decade refusal to pay taxes related to the cows’ grazing, right-wing groups and individuals came from across the country in order to oppose the government’s agents. They saw themselves as defending a man from a tyrannical government. Cliven Bundy himself seemed not to recognize the United States as a legitimate entity. The militiamen seemed to believe in a United States that represented and protected its citizens, but did not require taxes or payments for the government’s services. This understanding of the government has been growing as the neoliberal restructuring of society has pushed along. The government should protect private property and business owners while asking for little in return to sustain it. These militiamen on the Bundy ranch seemed willing to resist government agents violently to defend this understanding of the state.
The continued armament of the Right poses a real problem for the radical Left. I would hazard to guess that the Left is far less armed than the Right and far less trained. Many of these militia members have been in the military or were police, two careers that afford great weapon/tactic training but are complete anathemas to the radical Left. Without this training, the Left is liable to fall victim to right-wing violence without putting up much of a fight. And more worrisome is the Right’s eagerness for violence. As we have seen from the Bundy Ranch standoff, the Right is starting to understand itself in opposition to the state and ready to fight back against the government and other perceived enemies today.