The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Patriot Front is on the march. It’s selling a story about whiteness.

Here’s the story the group was peddling when it marched on Boston’s Freedom Trail — and in hundreds of other appearances so far this year

Patriot Front demonstrators march through Boston Common on July 2. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Over the Fourth of July weekend, more than 100 members of the white-supremacist group Patriot Front marched along Boston’s Freedom Trail, wearing uniforms and carrying flags, riot shields and signs reading “Reclaim America.” Just a few weeks earlier, the group tried to disrupt a Pride event in Idaho. In Boston, the group allegedly assaulted a Black passerby trying to record them with his phone. In Idaho, 31 white men were charged with conspiracy to riot.

These are not isolated incidents. Patriot Front’s website and social media pages, including Telegram and Gab, report that across the country it has undertaken 973 “instances of activism” in May and June — with 78 in Massachusetts, which calls itself the birthplace of American liberty.

What is Patriot Front, and why does it matter? My research into groups like Patriot Front finds that their vague and nostalgic patriotic language works to recruit support for white nationalism.

After Charlottesville, Patriot Front worked to rebrand white supremacy

Patriot Front is a right-wing group that broke off from a white-supremacist organization that became notorious after the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. In Charlottesville, a member of the neo-Nazi and white-supremacist group Vanguard America drove a vehicle into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. Afterward, many in the alt-right movement worked to rebrand themselves. Former Vanguard member Thomas Rousseau helped found and lead Patriot Front, which became an American white-nationalist movement that has distributed a sizable portion of its propaganda since 2019.

To promote its white-nationalist political goals, Patriot Front wields suggestive phrases like “Reclaim America,” “America First,” “Strong Families Make Strong Nations,” and “Not Stolen. Conquered.” Scholars use the term “white nationalism” to denote something distinct from “white supremacy.” White supremacy claims that white people are greater than other races and cultures. White nationalism builds on that, arguing for the political goal of a separate nation-state by and for that putatively superior white culture.

How I’ve researched and analyzed right-wing groups

My research examines right-wing groups like Patriot Front, the Proud Boys and QAnon. Since 2019, I have analyzed thousands of social media posts, forums, videos, speeches, manifestos and websites, and have archived hundreds of posts, including commentary and message threads. I sort and compile stories about who group members claim to be and want, drawing from platforms ranging from Twitter and YouTube to more obscure sites like Telegram, Gab, 8kun and Bitchute.

Much of my work, and that of others investigating radical right-wing groups on the internet, relies on the work of anti-extremism organizations, anti-racist organizations and anti-fascist organizations, some of which have published leaked private chats among group members from messaging applications like Discord.

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Recruitment through nationalist nostalgia

The evidence reveals a group peddling an imaginary past to argue for a separatist white future.

Patriot Front’s manifesto states as its main mission a “return to the traditions” of the American founders. It aims to “reset the nation” by restoring an imagined past that never existed in the way the Front describes it. Patriot Front warns that this American way of life faces “annihilation” and is under attack. If the nation is threatened by erasure, then imposing and protecting its idea of American national culture is necessary. All this is part of a larger radical-right trend toward reactionary nostalgia.

Nostalgia at its simplest is a longing for a lost home. As deployed by purveyors of nationalism, nostalgia represents a longing for an allegedly lost way of life, culture, traditions and homeland. This longing can be felt even when the loss is not real. The political project of nationalist nostalgia is to create this imagined past national home by “restoring” (or imposing) the longed-for culture, traditions, heritage and spirit. Patriot Front promotes the idea that this involves a return to a former male-run family structure that would strengthen the nation.

Patriot Front’s goal is to re-center white identity in American politics, or what it calls “reclaiming our role in the story of the nation.” It argues that true — white — Americans once had political representation that they have lost, and characterizes Americanness as having emerged from “conquerors, pioneers, visionaries, and explorers. … [and] the European race.”

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Making white nationalism palatable

By idealizing a blood connection to heroic European conquerors — a signal of the “blood and soil” belief that the homeland belongs to a racially defined national body — Patriot Front tries to make white-nationalist beliefs more appealing and acceptable. But however innocent admiring a white European heritage might appear, it can be a dog whistle for racism and white supremacy.

Patriot Front reinforces that by using the language of the “great replacement theory,” arguing, for instance, that it is fighting “collective threats of displacement and enslavement.” To ensure that its imagined strong and heroic “white culture” survives, Patriot Front argues for a separate white nation state where whites can be free and sovereign. More and more Americans openly believe aspects of the replacement theory, promoted by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, among others. This idea has consequences. Most recently, in Buffalo, a mass shooter cited these ideas.

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It’s no surprise that Patriot Front would march in Boston, and specifically on the Freedom Trail. Patriot Front chooses its march locations tactically, claiming to march against the debasement of American culture and history. It particularly targets liberal cities and locations that stand for what Patriot Front considers lost pieces of America, looking to reclaim them — or reinterpret their meaning — as belonging specifically to white American citizens.

So what?

Patriot Front posts videos showing training exercises and sparring, making clear that its members have been tactically trained. They march with riot shields, wearing matching tactical uniforms. The message is that they are prepared to fight for their version of an American nation, one born of “our founding [European] stock,” “inherited by blood,” “ethnically linked,” and “bound by shared history, culture, traditions and the desire for representation.”

The group grew from violence, uses language similar to that of other groups linked to violence like the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers, and show its members fighting and training like a militaristic group. Its actions so far have largely been peaceful: stickering, banner drops and marches, although those do sometimes get confrontational and violent, as in Boston. Expect more violence on behalf of its idea of a white nation.

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Candice K. Travis is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies white nationalism in U.S. politics.