University of Michigan

Far-right groups expect to disrupt upcoming elections

14-Oct-2020 12:45 PM EDT, by University of Michigan

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Newswise — The recent alleged attempt by anti-government militias to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has put a spotlight on domestic terrorism in the United States.

And the violence could get worse with the November elections less than a month away, says Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan expert who studies far right extremism. She is author of "Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate," which applies a historical analysis, feminist studies and critical race studies to deconstructing the core ideas of the alt-right and white nationalism. 

Stern is the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture and Women's and Gender Studies.

Why have far-right groups become emboldened in recent years?

We've seen a rise in far-right groups over the past two decades, and really significantly over the past several years. This year has seen an acceleration of that process in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with protests against public health measures as we saw played out in our capital in Lansing. In addition, anti-racism protests in the summer brought people into the streets including far-right actors and instigators who want to wreak havoc. 

What role did social media play in their efforts?

Social media and information technologies have played a role in the far right and among white supremacist groups for a long time. In fact, some of the white power movements in the 1970s and '80s were the first to use encrypted computer technologies to communicate with each other. 

If we fast forward to the early 21st century, with the advent of social media. It's undeniable that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played a role in both making extremist content available and amplifying it, and also in providing ways for far-right actors to meet each other and to network.  

In the plot against Michigan's governor, we know that at least several of the13 men allegedly involved used private Facebook pages to communicate with one another. Social media was critical to honing their own identities, making connections with other like-minded extremists and also in organizing this plot against the governor. 

Why target the governor?

There are a few reasons why they targeted Gov. Whitmer. First, they're here in Michigan, which has a long history of militia movements. Second, they are anti-government by definition, and thus interpreted the governor's social distancing orders, like closing businesses and mandating face masks, as infringements on their own personal liberties. The dialogue included in the FBI criminal complaint reveals that they expressed unbridled misogyny. They talked about attacking the governor and her family in violent fantasy terms.

Finally, it is also clear that Gov. Whitmer was a target because she was called out by President Trump. For many of these far-right actors, their views align with his views. He called her "That woman from Michigan" and has antagonized her over and over again. Now she has courageously spoken back at him; they interpreted her as an enemy in the same way as he did. 

Are these behaviors unique to groups located in Michigan? 

What we're seeing in Michigan with the rise of these paramilitary groups is home-grown to the state and also to America. It's part of the recent rise of the far-right in society. However, this is a broader global phenomenon where we're seeing the rise of these groups across the world, such as Germany where there have been similar anti-COVID protests and significant growth of extremist and neo-Nazi groups. 

What actions, if any, do you expect the far-right groups, militias and other racist groups taking after the presidential elections?

I think we need to be concerned about what is going to unfold in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3 elections. We know that several groups, including the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, have stated their intent to disrupt electoral processes. They want to "monitor" the elections. They plan to stake out poll sites from vehicles with cameras. Many of them plan to arrive both visibly armed or carrying concealed weapons to be on-hand to "protect" people. They want to carry out citizen's arrests and potentially disrupt the voting process. They like to call this protection, but we need to name it for what it is: voter suppression, disruption, and intimidation. And it's important to note that this problem will be with us after the elections. No matter who wins the election, the far right will not disappear after Nov. 3.

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