Tracing the roots of an American brand of extremism
In September 2020, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher A Wray, warned that the most pressing threat facing the United States (US) was from anti-government and far-Right groups. The security breach on Capitol Hill in Washington DC last week revealed the dangers of these movements to America’s democratic traditions. There are many far-Right ecosystems in the US, but recently the likes of QAnon, Boogaloo Boys and Proud Boys, among others, have become the driving examples of quasi-cult like movements developed on conspiracy theories and ideologies, often beginning their lives online.
QAnon is an internet conspiracy theory that has its cult-like followers believe that Donald Trump is leading a war against a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and media. Q, the anonymous leader of the movement, claims to be a top-level military official who is intimately familiar with the deviousness of this “deep state”. No matter how bizarre QAnon beliefs may sound, reportedly at least 24 US congressional candidates had pledged allegiance to Q and Trump even deemed these followers to be people “who love our country”. Such words of encouragement from the president allowed these fringe ideologies to gain mainstream appeal.
Unlike QAnon, the Boogaloo Boys have an alternative take on an alternative reality. The origin of this movement is murky, further complicated by the fact that it has both white supremacist and libertarian factions. Named after a breakdancing movie from the 1980s, it’s a loosely organised Right-leaning movement with members that favour gun rights, oppose police brutality and fantasise about a second Civil War in America. This movement left online chat rooms and caused real world damage after police officers in California and guards at the Oakland courthouse were killed, compelling people to consider the group recognised by their Hawaiian floral shirts to be a legitimate terror threat.
Despite ideological differences, both movements have commonalities. They prey on white male grievances and the dissatisfaction with the so-called elite. Moreover, both groups gained a following on 4Chan, an online image board which equips users with anonymity and freedom to operate without checks and balances. So, for QAnon, it meant an avenue to spread fake news on the lines that 9/11 was a hoax or that Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981 on the deep state’s orders. Similarly, the Boogaloo Boys were able to freely discuss their desire for more guns, civil unrest and undermining the US government’s authority. While online platforms such as 4Chan do not cause these movements, they have enabled and sustained them.
These movements also rely on mobilising support against a common enemy, using fake news and unsubstantiated rumours to widen divides between “Us” and “Them”. QAnon manages spreading such misinformation through “Q drops” — the name given to the cryptic messages posted by Q. For example, last year, Q posted a picture of an unnamed island chain and soon after, QAnon followers took this post as proof that the picture was taken on Air Force One and went on to claim that Q must be travelling with Trump.
To the outside world, “Q drops” may seem bizarre and illogical but, to QAnon adherents, these cryptic and misleading messages are like sermons. Q’s followers have acted on this by inciting offline violence. Instances such as an armed standoff at Hoover Dam, breaking into the Canadian prime minister’s residence and an infamous shoot-out at a pizza parlour are all products of followers believing or misinterpreting the fictional narrative put out in QAnon chat rooms.
With the attack on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters, some of whom wore QAnon shirts and brandished confederate flags, the far-Right’s threat to American liberal democracy is more visible than ever. Trump’s ambivalence towards such groups have emboldened them and with these groups now being increasingly cornered as social media platforms banned Trump and his ecosystem, the threat of Right-wing extremism may assume a different form but will persist.
Kabir Taneja is fellow and Prithvi Iyer is research assistant, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed are personal