The Far Right Has Exploded Along With COVID-19

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, far-right activity has increased throughout the developed world. The ideologies these activities fall under range from anti-Islamism to neo-Nazism and anti-government to anti-science, and many are capable of and involved in tremendously violent practices. While various countries and regions have seen distinct movements emerging to respond to localized grievances, a recent study published by the German foreign ministry found that during the coronavirus pandemic, far-right movements have become increasingly international. 

Drawing on racist and delusional rhetorical and ideological devices such as the “great replacement,” in which whites are supposedly being “replaced” by immigrants, or the belief that nonwhite immigration amounts to “white genocide,” the leaders and followers of this new international far-right has become increasingly comfortable and emboldened. This has led to increased violent attacks from organizations and individuals associated with the far-right throughout the developed world.

Although the far-right presents a major threat to the stability of Europe and North America, there has been relatively little action in response to it compared with other groups of violent extremists. They are often not legally classified as terrorists, and therefore are not subject to the same level of surveillance and policing as other, equally dangerous movements. The movement operates primarily online, which enables a very broad base of recruitment, with individuals drawn from other right-wing and anti-government movements. 

Additionally, anti-vaccine skepticism — more relevant than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic — has proven an incredibly fertile ground for recruitment, with skeptics common throughout developed nations. Antisemitic, racist. and other white-nationalist attacks have increased worldwide throughout the past decades, with horrific attacks taking place throughout the developed world, but have seen a dramatic upswing since 2020. The fact that this radicalization has been allowed to proliferate without concerted large-scale resistance is dangerous and will lead to more violence if not countered. 

It is difficult to critique broad responses to this issue because they are largely nonexistent. Combating extremist tendencies is incredibly difficult as it involves rhetorical and qualitative tactics, making it difficult to know if it’s actually working. Furthermore, given the economic downswing and massive upwards transfer of wealth in the developed world, greatly accelerated during the pandemic, people who previously would not have been susceptible to far-right ideation have become its most eager consumers. Additionally, according to a 2020 report by a former FBI agent, police departments and officials have documented links to white supremacist groups in over a dozen US states. In Germany and Belgium, soldiers have been put on trial or are subject to manhunts due to suspected far-right terrorist plots. 

More obviously troubling is that in many countries, heads of state and other important government figures openly encourage far-right movements, such as America’s former President Trump, Israel’s Netanyahu, or Brazil’s Bolsonaro. While the vast majority of those who voted for these men are not violent terrorists, it is nonetheless true that vanguard organizations such as the Proud Boys in the United States have been some of the most vocal supporters of right-wing ideology in protests throughout the country, and have inflicted significant violence through their paramilitary “self-defense.” Just one example is Dylan Roof, who murdered churchgoers in South Carolina on the grounds of white supremacy. In a nation where far-right organizations have the tacit support of the state or state actors, the ideology becomes legitimized and can grow further. 

There is a newly apocalyptic persona to far-right movements as well. This is present throughout societies experiencing right-wing radicalization, with US movements such as QAnon taking on a semi-religious role. In Europe, many white supremacist groups embrace pagan religious ideas through which they seek to replicate pre-Christian ideals. Taken together, these movements enable a level of fanaticism in neofascist and far-right movements not seen since the second world war and have facilitated broader recruitment for socially and economically insecure people looking for stability and an explanation as to why their lives have become so much worse. It also allows deeply disturbing values such as white supremacy, anti-vaccination, and anti-science hysteria to find mediated expression— not presented as animating causes for the far-right, but merely as subordinate duties to some apocalyptic or religious raison d’etre

Responses from governments worldwide have thus far treated these widespread and violent movements as isolated. In the United States, while the FBI has surveilled the Proud Boys in response to their paramilitary protest tactics, they have yet to declare said group terrorist. What’s more, the US government, even after its capitol building was stormed by armed far-right activists, some of whom had the intention to murder or kidnap representatives, has yet to put forth any strategy to combat right-wing terrorism. This is unacceptable and irresponsible when such groups present such clear danger to American institutions and stability. In Europe, where there have been more comprehensive and social responses in individual countries, there is no European-Union-wide strategy, and authoritarian parties and presidents have come to power throughout Europe. The global outlook is somewhat grim, but it has come about in the absence of a global response. 

However, Norway has seen positive development in combating right-wing extremism. In 2011, Anders Breveik, an Islamophobic and white supremacist radical, carried out two domestic terrorist attacks, planting a bomb in Oslo, the Norwegian capital, and carrying out a mass shooting at a nearby summer camp. In all, he killed over 70 people and injured hundreds more. Norway was shaken by the scale of these horrific attacks, but also by Breivik’s manifesto, which decried multiculturalism and Muslim immigration into the country. It was unmistakable that Norway’s far-right had been allowed far too much leeway, and Breivik’s attack led to concrete changes. Norway has completely overhauled its definition of terrorism, agreed to cooperate internationally to combat right-wing terrorism, and has launched a comprehensive nationwide anti-hate-speech campaign. There have not been significant right-wing terrorist attacks in Norway since then. 

This is the kind of response that is needed throughout the world, and there are essentially two approaches that can be taken to make it a reality. There is a top-down approach, in which international organizations such as the United Nations and European Union, supported by their most powerful member nations, provide and enforce the implementation of international strategies to combat far-right extremism and terrorism. This could include closer monitoring of suspected far-right groups, or simply forcing Norwegian-style reforms into legal practice and outreach campaigns into affected member countries. This approach has some obvious downsides, such as its uniformity in the face of diversity and its impracticality. After all, if the United States and European Union have thus far avoided condemning domestic far-right terrorism, it seems unlikely that they will do so barring a major catastrophe. 

The other approach is to focus on local efforts. This was done to great effect in Norway but has seen progress in the United States as well. For example, after Dylan Roof attacked churchgoers in South Carolina, the University of South Carolina and civil rights activists founded a collaborative council focused on more fully integrating society. Germany has designated its largest far-right party, Alternative for Germany, as a suspected extremist group, and has taken concrete steps to ensure that the party cannot use its platform to radicalize the German population. 

However, this approach also faces serious limitations. The most obvious is that local initiatives may prevent attacks by people from the area in which a campaign or initiative is undertaken, but far-right extremists may travel to conduct attacks. Anders Breivik, for example, tried to buy guns in Prague, and Americans often cross state lines to buy weapons if barred in their home states. Another obvious shortcoming is that local, community-based initiatives often do not reach their intended targets- young, socially isolated white men. One reason that people gravitate towards extremism is a profound sense of alienation, which means they are less likely to be integrated into their communities. This limits the effectiveness of South Carolina-style initiatives to those who are already somewhat sociable. 

This, then, leaves us in a difficult situation. While far-right extremism must be addressed effectively and presents an enormous danger to the public, the main strategies that are currently being used are both limited. However, a synthesis of a local and international approach is something that hasn’t been tried and could lead to a greater reduction in right-wing extremism that either approach on their own. When local attacks are carried out by people who have been radicalized online, usually by people in other cities, states, or even countries, community initiatives may not address the root of the problem. Yet if people are alienated from their communities, that makes them more susceptible in the first place. This two-sided problem requires a two-pronged solution. 

What would such a solution look like? It is easy to say that we have to synthesize these approaches, but much harder to sketch a definitive vision. While that is beyond the scope of this report, it certainly starts by raising the ambitions of both approaches to encompass the other. Where local organizations have been focused on healing in the wake of tragedy as casualties of right-wing extremists continue to mount, local organizations must try to pressure their governments into substantive, large-scale action. And conversely, as international organizations have some power in states where extreme right-wing ideology has a level of official support, they must use said power to pressure local reform where it otherwise does not exist. It is only when a comprehensive approach is taken to the issue of reactionary extremism that there is a good chance of preventing the violence it seeks. 


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