Trump’s remarks were part of a pattern: The day after Danielson was killed, the president tweeted “Rest in Peace, Jay,” and angrily demanded that police arrest the “cold blooded killer” responsible for Danielson’s death.
By comparison, Trump refused to condemn 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse’s shooting of two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wis., suggesting that he acted in self-defense, which echoed other Republican leaders and conservative pundits who portrayed either Rittenhouse as a victim and a hero.
Trump’s divergent responses to the Portland and Kenosha shootings are just the latest example of the Republican Party embracing what was once considered a dangerously violent and conspiracy-driven fringe of American politics. The relationship between the Republican Party and the far right had long been a complicated push and pull, in which white-supremacist and anti-communist groups help build right-wing movements only to be marginalized once the GOP was in power. But now Trump’s presidency has brought the fringe into the mainstream.
When he ran for president in 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater reluctantly denounced John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, who believed that Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.” Goldwater did so at the behest of William F. Buckley Jr., the editor of the most influential conservative magazine at the time, the National Review, who held that Welch’s “mischievous unreality” had “placed a great weight on the back of responsible conservatives.”
In 1968, Alabama segregationist George Wallace’s third-party presidential campaign channeled Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Minutemen and other far-right elements. Republican Richard Nixon picked up Wallace’s racial populist message along with many of his potential supporters in 1972. But right-wing opponents of the mainstream became disillusioned with what they saw as Nixon’s domestic liberalism and overtures to China and began to look for new allies further out on the right. People such as National Review publisher William Rusher and direct-mail activist Richard Viguerie worked with former Wallace organizers such as former California White Citizens’ Council leader William K. Shearer to draft Ronald Reagan for a “populist” third-party candidacy in 1976 using Wallace’s American Independent Party as a vehicle. Reagan chose instead to run as a Republican against incumbent President Gerald Ford. Reagan lost, but Rusher, Viguerie and other disenchanted Republicans launched a “New Right,” which won Reagan the GOP nomination and then the presidency in 1980.
But after eight years of Reagan and four years of George H.W. Bush, far-right populists grew restive with what they saw as a capitulation to racial liberalism, the welfare state and immigration from Latin America. Running as a Republican, Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke won a Louisiana state house race in 1989, nearly won the governor’s race there in 1991 and ran in the GOP presidential primaries in 1992. Duke’s main message throughout was the dispossession of White Christian America through welfare spending, “skyrocketing” Black birthrates and uncontrolled non-White immigration.
GOP elites fretted about Duke’s insurgent campaigns, but arch-conservative columnist and former Nixon strategist Pat Buchanan saw it differently. “The way to deal with Duke,” Buchanan said, was “the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues, and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles.” Buchanan soon took his own advice and ran for president on pungent racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic themes, which alarmed many in the mainstream right. As conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said of him, “The real problem with Buchanan is not that his instincts are antisemitic but that they are, in various and distinct ways, fascistic.”
Although he lost the nomination to Bush, Buchanan built enough party clout to deliver a prime-time address at the 1992 Republican National Convention. There, he gave his famous “Culture War” speech, which used racist metaphors to demand that the Republican Party take America back from “radical feminists,” abortion rights advocates, gay and lesbian activists, and environmentalists “block by block” just as federal troops did in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots that summer. In 1996, Buchanan did well enough among Republican voters to beat longtime party stalwart Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary before his star faded. Bob Dole accused Buchanan of having “extremist views,” but others — including Christian Coalition Director Ralph Reed and American Conservative Union head David Keene, who wanted to keep Buchanan voters in the fold — defended him.
Following another era of Republican consolidation under George W. Bush, a new insurgency on the right emerged with the tea party movement. The movement included both angry conservative voters and more seasoned elements of far-right nativist and militia groups who depicted the country’s first Black president as a dangerous socialist, showed up armed at town halls around the nation to oppose health-care reform, blamed undocumented immigrants for the nation’s economic woes, and generated an elaborate conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birth (which launched Trump’s national political career).
The long-standing push and pull between the vigilante far right and the Republican Party has been resolved by the incorporation of the former into the latter. Running in 2016, Trump refashioned the party’s base as one that cheers both his authoritarianism and demonization of opponents. Once in office, Trump placed a number of people associated with the far right and white nationalists high up in his administration, among them Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller. In 2020, Trump has repeatedly referred to Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters as terrorists. He praises the group Bikers for Trump, which Trump has threatened would attack his political enemies. He has encouraged supporters of QAnon, a conspiracy theory about a pedophile ring run by liberal elites which the FBI has identified as a terrorism threat. Fifteen avowed QAnon believers are running as Republicans for congressional seats this fall.
Perhaps the most striking and ominous feature of the current far right is the emerging Patriot Movement, a network of armed paramilitary groups and individuals that has grown dramatically in numbers and publicity in recent months. The catalyst for its expansion was the civil unrest that followed the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in May. “Back the Blue” and “All Lives Matter” counterprotests brought thousands of armed militia enthusiasts into the streets in towns and cities across the country to confront what they see as an organized communist threat to the republic in the form of antifa and Black Lives Matter. “All across America we’re witnessing an insurrection occurring that has deep roots in Communism and anarchy,” a post on the website of the Three Percenters, one of the most prominent vigilante organizations, reads. “Make no mistake about it, this is war on America and western civilization brought about by domestic terrorists.” At the state level, particularly in the West, Republicans have publicly associated and even worked closely with militias and other violence-prone far-right groups.
The successful mainstreaming of the Patriot Movement is due in part to what it’s not. These countersubversives are distinct from the openly white-nationalist “alt-right,” which diminished after neo-Nazi James Fields killed Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Patriot organizations emphatically disavow racism for the most part. In the post-civil rights era, nobody can credibly claim to embody national values while openly espousing white supremacy. Yet is no accident that the Patriot movement rapidly expanded in response to the largest Black freedom struggle in U.S. history.
Saying that they are protecting life, property and the republic itself from subversive elements allows Patriots to project their own violence onto their foes, a classic technique of earlier fascist movements. “Counterprotest? Nah. I fully plan to kill looters and rioters tonight. I have my suppressor on my AR, these fools won’t even know what hit them,” one commenter posted on a “Call to Arms” page hosted by the Facebook group Kenosha Guard on the day Rittenhouse came from Illinois and allegedly took those two lives. Yet for many Republicans, now steeped in the language of Pizzagate conspiracy, domestic terrorism, suburban invasion and “anarchist cities,” Rittenhouse the alleged shooter is no different from the Rittenhouse portrayed by his defenders as a wholesome fire cadet and medic who scrubs graffiti off walls.
Whether measured by ideological positions of the party, increasing cooperation between Patriot groups and the Trump administration, or the growing embrace of QAnon conspiracy theories by Republican voters, the widespread demonization of political opponents, the celebration of paramilitary violence, and the justification of retributive killing by Federal agents place the Republican Party, and the country itself, on new and perilous ground.