Right-wing extremists threaten the lives of racial minorities and LGBTQ Americans, Democratic officials, and democracy itself. Donald Trump’s encouragement of hate groups, the “Big Lie,” and the insurrection of January 6, along with attempts to downplay the insurrection from Republican officials, have only emboldened fanatics. But one scholar’s intriguing research shows that far-right extremism goes beyond the small cadre of extremists who captured the spotlight at the U.S. Capitol. In fact, the research shows, white nationalist beliefs have set in among ordinary citizens who make up the rank and file of the Republican Party, people who aren’t associated with QAnon or the Proud Boys but nevertheless share some of their core principles.
Anthony DiMaggio is one of the leading scholars studying the far right. A political scientist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he is the author of several works on extremists, including Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here and a forthcoming examination of “fake news” and conspiracy theories in the United States. He joined colleagues at Lehigh to form a research team under the sponsorship of Lehigh’s Marcon Institute that scrutinizes right-wing extremism.
I interviewed DiMaggio in March about his team’s discoveries and how they should influence our understanding of American politics.
DM: How do you define right-wing extremism?
AD: Our research at the Marcon Institute is looking at various dimensions of right-wing extremism. These include susceptibility to the men’s rights movement and its heteronormative values, white nationalism, Christian nationalism, and authoritarianism. We look at heteronormative ideology as support for violence and the belief that “real” men use violence to get respect. Our research examines how people idealize the belief in the United States as a white nation. By authoritarianism, we mean support for violence to achieve political goals and a preference for leaders who suppress dissent and indulge in violent rhetoric and actions. With Christian nationalism, we’re looking at people who explicitly want the state to support and adopt a Christian identity and policies.
DM: What are your research methods?
AD: We’re using standard social science methods, drawing on Marcon’s national polling data and questions that we designed. We use “regression analysis” to look at how acceptance of various dimensions of right-wing extremism is correlated with how Americans look at political issues, including support for Trump and policies like the wall, immigration from Mexico, as well as opinions of January 6, attitudes toward Black Lives Matter, and opinions of abortion, among other topics.
DM: Since January 6th, most analysis of the insurrection has focused on Trump, his enablers in Congress, and groups like the Proud Boys. What did your team find about the prevalence of right-wing extremism and hostility toward democracy among the general electorate?
AD: Our polling data and analysis are important because they demonstrate that the effort to focus on a small number of right-wing activist groups and political officials is inadequate to examine how the nation understands January 6-style violence and attempts to subvert elections. We find that susceptibility to various forms of right-wing extremism, including heteronormative biases, white nationalism, Christian nationalism, and authoritarianism, is significantly correlated with positive perceptions of the J-6 participants, of Trump himself, and of efforts to excuse Trump for what happened on J-6. Much of the national discourse on J6 is incredibly limited. We believe that J6 represented a pivotal moment in modern history. It was not only about right-wing activists coming together hoping that Trump would be the president to impose an authoritarian, white nationalist, heteronormative Christian nationalist socio-political order. It’s also about a sizable segment of the population that agrees with these goals. That should concern anyone who believes in secular democracy, equal rights, and the rule of law.
DM: It has become folklore that the MAGA movement emerges from financial insecurity, and your team’s research busts this myth. What have you found regarding the correlation, or lack thereof, between economic insecurity and support for authoritarian politics?
AD: The Trump-financial insecurity thesis has been significantly oversold. It’s pretty clear, looking at national surveys, including ours, that right-wing political values related to immigration, abortion, hostility toward religious minorities (including Muslims), and other sociocultural attitudes are stronger predictors of support for Trump compared to various metrics of financial insecurity. This isn’t to say that economic concerns are irrelevant. One thing I’ve found in my research is that white Americans who hold a second job or work overtime and who share negative views toward immigration and welfare recipients are more likely to support Trump. A plausible interpretation of this data is that much of the Trump base is angry about working harder to make ends meet in an era of rising inequality and that they are looking for scapegoats (the poor and immigrants). Generally speaking, though, Trump’s base is not more likely than the rest of the public to indicate that they are financially insecure. It is primarily comprised of middle to upper-class voters who feel aggrieved about the demographic shift of their country away from a white majority. Our poll finds that about two-thirds of Trump voters (63 percent) identify as middle, middle-upper, or upper class in background, and nearly six in ten (58 percent) say their finances are “somewhat” or “very good” compared to 60 percent of all poll respondents.
DM: Almost half of voters supported Trump. Are they all racists or extremists?
AD: Considering the evidence, it’s difficult to argue that racism—particularly the mainstreaming of white nationalist sentiment—is not central to the politics of the American right today. We know from polling during Trump’s term that more than a third of Americans and a majority of Republicans agreed with the sentiment that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage.” Our poll’s white nationalism index looks at all types of questions, including some related to the Great Replacement theory—the fears that white voters are being “replaced” by immigrants—and that changing national demographics pose a threat to white Christian Americans and “their culture and values.” We also examine opinions about Confederate monuments as an important part of “our nation’s cultural history and heritage,” demands that the U.S. “prioritize and preserve its white European heritage,” and resentment that America’s “strength” is “diluted” by immigrants “who come from diverse ethnicities and cultures.”
Very few Americans self-identify as racists and extremists. Our survey finds that less than 1 percent of Americans identify as fascists, only 4 percent identify with neo-Nazis, and about one in 10 identify as white nationalists. Related to the last finding, our index reveals that white nationalism is much more common than people admit. Depending on the question examined, nearly half of Republicans signal support for the Great Replacement theory and for prioritizing a white national identity, and three-quarters think the effort to remove Confederate monuments from public places represents an attack on our nation’s cultural history and heritage. So, a sizable number of Republicans—about half to three-quarters—are susceptible to various white nationalist impulses. This doesn’t mean all Republicans are racist or extremist, but our findings suggest it’s a large and very significant number.
The mainstreaming of white nationalism matters to politics. Our research finds that people who identify with white nationalist sentiments are significantly more likely to say they will vote for Trump in 2024, to say they’re sympathetic to the J6 participants and their concerns, to believe that Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election, to be hostile toward Mexican immigrants and Muslims, and to support the travel ban against Muslim-majority countries. It’s an even stronger predictor of people’s beliefs than is identification with the Republican Party. In an era when parties largely drive how people look at politics, white nationalism is an even stronger predictor of how people think.
DM: Kathleen Belew, the Northwestern University historian, has written extensively about the far right’s rise in the 1970s and 80s, tracing much of it to revanchist sentiments about Vietnam. Do 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq somehow affect who is vulnerable to a right-wing appeal?
AD: The far right is a mixed bag when it comes to wars driving anti-interventionist attitudes. From what I’ve gathered looking at national surveys of Trump supporters, Trump’s base is not any more likely to be anti-militarist when it comes to military spending and foreign wars. So, there’s little to indicate that wars in the Middle East are driving the extremist segment of Trump’s base (or his base in general) into anti-war politics. Other segments of the far right also embrace the anti-intervention position, including paleoconservatives and libertarians. We saw this recently, with various activists coming together with the progressive left to attend the “Rage Against the War Machine” event. Overall, though, I’d say the evidence that foreign wars are driving most right-wing Americans—particularly those in Trump’s base—to oppose war is pretty thin.
DM: Is there an overlap with the radical left in terms of conspiratorial thinking and antisemitism? The recent anti-Ukraine aid rally was an orgy of left and right speakers. There are also obvious connections with antisemitism and QAnon.
AD: While my team’s survey work doesn’t address this question, I’ve spent a lot of time studying modern conspiracy theories. It’s fair to say that conspiracies affect all parts of the political spectrum. I know numerous people, for example, who identify as left and accept conspiracy theories related to 9/11 “truth,” who think the Democratic primary elections in 2016 and 2020 were “stolen” from Bernie Sanders, and who fall into conspiracies about COVID-19, including the claim that it was developed by China as a bioweapon. What I’ve found, though, is that conspiracy theories are more common on the American right due to the Republican Party’s mainstreaming of them. Whether it’s the birther and “death panel” conspiracies under Barack Obama, or QAnon, “big lie” election propaganda, and COVID-19 misinformation today, we see Republican officials and right-wing media indulge in these conspiracies, and the rank and file are more likely to fall into them than other Americans. Of course, on the antisemitism point, this is also linked to the Republican Party with the rise of QAnon—a movement that Trump has openly identified with—which recycles old Nazi-era “blood libel” propaganda. In the past, the claim was that the Jews were cannibalistic killers who drank the blood of children. QAnon has swapped out “Jews” for “Democrats,” but the antisemitism remains, with about half of QAnon supporters accepting the conspiracy that there’s a secret Jewish plot to rule the world.
DM: What should Americans who oppose the fascistic march of the Republican Party take from your team’s research in terms of stopping it?
AD: Our research documents how people accept extremist ideology without seeing themselves as extremists. The large majority of Republicans in our survey (72 percent) self-identify as conservatives, not as fascists or white nationalists. Yet, extremism is rising, with about half to three-quarters of Republicans identifying with white nationalist values. We believe that the most effective ways to push back against the mainstreaming of white nationalism and other forms of extremism are, first, to speak out to family, friends, and colleagues and to openly take stands against bigotry and prejudice in its many forms. Second, we think this can be most effectively done by people forming social movements and working together for a better future. Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protest, #MeToo activism, or other action, it’s vital that people collectively work to undermine racism, sexism, and extremism when they’re being rapidly mainstreamed and taking over the politics of one of the two major political parties.