In the months and weeks before Aug. 11, 2017, activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, sounded the alarm to anyone who would listen. A violent far-right coalition was about to march on their city, and it wasn’t some political sideshow.
“We knew that Charlottesville was going to be violent that day,” Emily Gorscenski, an anti-fascist activist who lived in the Virginia city at the time, told The Daily Beast.
But the calls from Gorscenski and other Charlottesville activists were not enough for officials to cancel Unite The Right, a white supremacist rally in the city. On Aug. 12, the rally’s second day, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing one, wounding dozens, and shocking the nation.
The Trump administration has been bookended by destructive far-right rallies. After attempts to stop Unite The Right fell on deaf ears, watchers of the far right have spent the rest of the Trump presidency trying to call attention to the ongoing threat of fascist violence. Their warnings, largely unheeded once again, they argue, came to fruition on Wednesday when a far-right mob broke into the U.S. Capitol in support of Donald Trump.
“Fundamentally, the white supremacy and neo-Nazi movement is founded on the ideas of control through violence,” Gorscenski said. “That hasn’t changed and today showed that none of that is likely to change. In fact, it is likely to get worse.”
The far right has mutated over the course of Trump’s presidency. Small aesthetic trends have risen and gone out of vogue. Open neo-Nazism, like the kind on display at Unite The Right, is out, but open anti-Semitism under the guise of the QAnon conspiracy theory remains very much in. The locus of pro-Trump derangement has shifted from Fox News (not for its lack of effort) to further-right channels like Newsmax and OANN. Trump fans have pivoted, naturally, from blaming his 2016 popular vote loss on fraud to blaming his 2020 re-election loss on fraud.
The demagogic energy that Trump rode to his 2016 election, however, remains unchanged from Unite The Right to the Capitol break-in. And it’s not going to change until Americans take it seriously.
Amy Spitalnick is executive director of Integrity First for America, an organization suing neo-Nazis involved in Unite The Right. She described the attack on the Capitol as a long-brewing nightmare.
“If you're surprised by what happened today, you haven't been paying attention,” Spitalnick told The Daily Beast. “You can be horrified by it. You can be shocked by what we saw, but you can't be surprised because these extremists have been making clear—not just for months, but for years—that this is their intention.”
That drumbeat of violence includes the murder in Charlottesville, she said, but also comments from a far right increasingly emboldened by Trump’s apparent endorsement, like when he said in a presidential debate that the Proud Boys (a hate group that glorifies violence) should “stand back and stand by.”
Later, amid controversy, Trump said he disavowed the Proud Boys. But his initial comments, on a national stage, led to “neo-Nazis prominently calling for a civil war or race war and said that Trump’s comments were a call to arms,” Spitalnick said. “And so when they're saying this so explicitly, we should have been taking them at face value.”
As Daryle Lamont Jenkins watched extremists storm the Capitol on Wednesday, he recognized people from his years of monitoring the far right.
“It goes beyond Donald Trump,” Jenkins, executive director of the anti-racist organization One People’s Project, told The Daily Beast. “It is about those that stormed the Capitol, who have been about this since maybe the 1990s, when they started militia groups. I also saw a few people that I recognize from the neo-fascist circles.”
Among them, he said, was an associate of the Proud Boys who was filming an attack on CNN equipment.
Especially after racial justice protests swept the country in recent years, many far-right figures have attempted to rebrand not as racist, but as anti-left. That includes groups like the Proud Boys, who are currently defending their recent burning of a Black church’s Black Lives Matter flag by claiming to disagree with it on political, not racist grounds.
Jenkins said Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol exposed their finger-pointing as a ruse.
“This means that for all their talk about how much of a threat they say antifa or Black Lives Matter is, they—once again—are the real threat and that threat must come to an end,” he said.
Unlike the Capitol-crashers’ foes on the left, who were met with federal troops and tear gas when they demonstrated in D.C. this summer, Trump fans found a woefully underprepared security detail when they stormed the building. Their entrance to the building—past a lackluster police force—elicited shock from pundits who wondered why the Capitol was so poorly guarded.
Observers of the far right had an easy answer: even after years of warnings, authorities were not yet taking the far-right threat seriously.
Spitalinick pointed to a whistleblower this summer who accused the Trump administration of trying to downplay a report about the threat of white supremacist violence. “That report underscored white supremacy and far-right extremism as the most lethal threat to our country,” she said. “Had that whistleblower not come forward, that report would have remained buried.”
The dismissal didn’t end at the White House. After Trump’s re-election loss, some observers hand-waved the danger of an increasingly aggrieved Trump base, claiming their threat would diminish with the Trump presidency.
“Just like I expected, after the election I started hearing the ‘ignore them and they will go away,’” Jenkins said, noting that, obviously, extremists had not upheld their end of that expectation. “I will do whatever I can to keep this concern on the front burner. Would have been nice if I didn't keep getting tragic current events to use as examples why.”
Gorcenski said she predicted Trump becoming more aggressive in his conspiracy-peddling and calls to action once he is free of office.
Don’t expect his followers to stop heeding those calls.
“If people aren’t aware of the threat before today, they need to understand that this is not a simple political position,” she said. “This is a mainstream anti-democratic movement that will seek to destroy our civil society by force.”