In the last year, the far right has dropped off the radar of many Americans, as issues like the Israel-Hamas war, ongoing concerns about the economy, and the upcoming election have understandably dominated the headlines. The continuing January 6 arrests, trials, and convictions and Trump’s legal issues are mop-ups of crimes from years earlier. And while school board takeovers and drag show disruptions are in the public consciousness, these issues are typically shrouded behind euphemisms like “parents’ rights.”
Another reason for this oversight is because far-right ideas have permeated American politics. Although the alt right collapsed, its goal of shifting the “Overton window”—the spectrum of what is considered legitimate political discourse—succeeded. Today, white supremacist, anti-LGBTQ+, and even antisemitic conspiracy theories have become so prevalent that what was taboo even in 2018 is accepted by many as not only normal but acceptable.
However, observers of the far right are keenly aware of the movement’s continuing strength. For years many hoped the forces unleashed by Trump’s ascent in 2016 would reach a point of sudden collapse, as had happened in the past. These dreams were first pinned on Trump’s election losses (first in 2016 and then in 2020) and then on an expected delegitimization after the January 6, 2021, insurrection. But this has not been the case, and even in the absence of new high-profile events, the far right’s activist base has continued largely unfazed under President Biden. Looking at its organizations and strategies, as well as issues from the past year, shows what it will hit the ground running with as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up.
Trump remains the far right’s leading figure, commanding a devoted following and remaining the center of news coverage.
Experts who watch the far right are concerned about possible violence if Trump does not become president. David Neiwert, author of The Age of Insurrection, says that although he thinks it is unlikely that Trump will win, if he doesn’t his “hardcore supporters are going to engage in acts of domestic terrorism.” (If he is convicted and sentenced to jail time, Neiwert believes they may even go so far as to “try and break him out” of prison.) Journalist Teddy Wilson, publisher of Radical Reports, is only a little less circumspect, saying that “another mass casualty event” like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168, is “hanging in the air.” And Professor Amy Cooter, author of Nostalgia, Nationalism, and the US Militia Movement, says she “would not be shocked” by violence following the election—although she hesitates to say it would be a certainty.
If Trump does regain power, the threat he poses is exponentially greater. Wilson says that even those who’ve cooled on him, thanks to his failure to make good on promises like “building the wall,” are excited by his threats of revenge. Trump has already vowed to crown himself dictator (but only on “day one”), take “retribution” against his enemies, “stop the Marxist prosecutors” in the Department of Justice and elsewhere, and put tens of thousands of federal jobs under his direct control.
One of the most worrying recent developments is that what is now called the “MAGA movement,” which emerged in Trump’s wake, is no longer dependent on him. While it follows his politics, it acts politically without him. Its most visible elected politicians are members of Congress, particularly Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Paul Gosar. Of them, Greene has been able to garner the most attention, sharing the spotlight only with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who himself is waging a full-throated war against LGTBQ+ people and the state’s educational system. Trump’s ideas on issues like immigration and foreign policy have permeated the Republican Party to such an extent that they have dominated several GOP presidential debates that he himself has not participated in.
The most popular focus of grassroots political work in 2023 was attacking LGBTQ+ issues, with a particular concentration on transgender rights. Wilson describes this overarching framework as “focused on children” who are being cynically “used to pursue policy goals.” These include the often successful takeovers of school boards, banning of library books (usually featuring LGBTQ+ content), and attempts to shut down drag events, which are claimed to “groom” children. The main organization driving these actions is Moms for Liberty, which was founded in 2021 and has since grown to 285 chapters.
Moms for Liberty has forged close relations with the Proud Boys, who are now notorious after years of wanton street violence, Trump’s pre–January 6 nod to them to “stand back and stand by,” and their subsequent role in storming the Capitol. In fact, the long sentences handed to multiple members for their pivotal role in the insurrection—leader Enrique Tarrio got 22 years—have not stymied their growth. Among other things, the Proud Boys have made significant inroads into local Republican Party structures.
Since January 6, over 1,000 people have been charged for their role in the violent assault on the Capitol, with some receiving stiff sentences. For example, this spring Peter Schwartz—himself not a member of the Proud Boys—received 14 years for attacking Capitol police with a folding chair and pepper spray. While it was hoped that these convictions would halt the far right’s momentum, this hope was quickly dashed as even mainstream Republicans came to the January 6 arrestees’ defense. In fact, Wilson says many of those imprisoned expect Trump to pardon them if he returns to the White House in 2025.
Of course, even out of power the far right has continued to practice what it’s best known for: violence. White supremacist massacres in 2023 included one at a Jacksonville, Florida, dollar store (three killed) and one at a Dallas shopping mall (eight killed). And this is in addition to individual murders like those of Laura Ann Carleton, who was killed for hanging a Pride flag outside her store.
Enabled by online anonymity, threats toward anyone perceived as an enemy are now commonplace occurrences. While many are directed at elected officials, such as opponents of Jim Jordan’s nomination as speaker of the House, it’s now common to target judges, juries, teachers—even hospitals. According to the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center, last year federal prosecutions for these threats were the highest in a decade, and they are only expected to rise.
Social media has greatly aided the rise in threatening language and online abuse. Large accounts like Libs of TikTok, which has 2.7 million X/Twitter followers, use their significant platforms to target others, inevitably leading to waves of threatening messages. Elon Musk’s purchase of that platform has made things significantly worse. He’s brought back banned far-right accounts, loosened content moderation, and made increasingly racist and antisemitic posts himself. These reached a new low in November when he wrote that a post that claimed Jews were pushing “dialectical hatred” against whites through support for liberal immigration policies was the “actual truth.”
Even beyond January 6, the far right has kept the legal system busy. Although well after the fact, some tiki-torch wielding marchers from the 2017 Charlottesville rally were arrested earlier this year, including planned speaker and far-right activist Augustus Invictus. And three massacre perpetrators were sentenced. Robert Bowers, who in 2018 murdered 11 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, received a death sentence. Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 at an El Paso Walmart in 2019, as well as Anderson Aldrich, who killed five at Club Q in Denver in 2022, both received life in prison. So did Benjamin Smith, who committed one of four far-right murders in Portland, Oregon, between 2017 and 2022.
Private citizens also spent the year using the legal system against the far right by pursuing civil action. Families of the Sandy Hook victims are continuing to try and make conspiracy-monger Alex Jones pay the $1.5 billion judgment levied against him in 2022 for unleashing intense harassment against them by claiming the school shooting was a hoax. Militia leader Ammon Bundy of the People’s Rights Network was ordered to pay $52 million for defaming St. Luke’s Health System, which led to ongoing threats against health care workers. And Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, has been hit by a lawsuit over what is alleged to have been a racially motivated assault during a Boston march.
While groups with mainstream connections like Moms for Liberty and the Proud Boys have received the greatest amount of attention, others are waiting in the wings, including the heavily armed militia movement. While Oath Keepers’ leader Stewart Rhodes made headlines for getting an 18-year sentence for seditious conspiracy for his role in January 6, the group’s importance has always been overstated. In fact, Cooter points out that a massive Facebook deplatforming in 2020 was much more harmful to the militia movement than Rhodes’s arrest. The militias have continued to organize more quietly, and she says it’s possible they will deploy armed “observers” at voting drop boxes in November.
Two other strains related to militias have also seen upticks in 2023: Constitutional Sheriffs and Sovereign Citizens. The latter believe in a parallel legal system where they are exempt from almost all laws. Dr. Christine Sarteschi, an expert on this movement, notes that it is flourishing and is expected to continue to do so. It also has increasing global appeal and has spread to countries like Australia, Germany, and Russia. Sovereign Citizens originated in the same 1970s white supremacist group, Posse Comitatus, as the Constitutional Sheriffs movement; the latter holds that county sheriffs can decide which laws to enforce. This idea also did well in 2023, having further spread into mainstream law enforcement circles. In some places, sheriffs can now take continuing education classes based on these ideas.
Increasingly Ignored by the Mainstream, Right-Wing Edgelords Are Amassing Power Behind the Scenes
Last, while the white supremacist movement has not received as much attention as it has in recent years, it continues to germinate as well. In September in Florida, Blood Tribe and the Goyim Defense League put on the largest, explicitly neo-Nazi rally in years. The comparatively moderate Patriot Front—merely fascists, as opposed to straight-up neo-Nazis—has remained active, despite receiving a black eye after 28 members either took pleas or were convicted for attempting to crash a Pride event last year. Nick Fuentes—a Holocaust denier who has made impressive inroads into mainstream conservatism, even dining with Trump himself—made news by meeting with a major right-wing donor while the head of the Texas GOP was in the same building. But among white supremacists the year’s real winner was the Active Clubs, a loose network based around mixed martial arts and related training. It has quietly established about 50 U.S. groups: Recently they have moved out of the ring and into increasingly public political activity.
Wilson observes that the far right has taken close notes since January 6. Now they are better organized, their strategies have evolved, and they have a plan for what to do after taking power. Traditionally elections lift the boats of all kinds of grassroots movements, and with the far right so closely associated with Trump, this one will undoubtedly energize them. While it waits to be seen how everything unfolds, especially if Trump is convicted of one or more crimes, a close watch is in order.