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A war is brewing in US. Divided Republican camp pushing rivals toward far-Right terrorism

The bizarre meeting of a white supremacist, a Hitler-admiring black singer, and a former US president at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort shows all is not well with American democracy.

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Lynch the n—,” someone shouted. There wasn’t one to be seen, but someone tied a clothesline to a lamp post in New York’s Tenderloin district, just in case. “Every car passing up or down Eighth Avenue between the hours of 8 and 11,” The New York Times reported in August 1900, “was stopped by the crowd, and every n— on board was dragged out, hustled about, and beaten until he was able to break away.” Local police soon arrived—but made “little or no attempt to arrest the assailants”.

Today, somewhat less-familiar images of America’s far-Right are beginning to emerge. Inside an élite golf club, a white supremacist and self-described incel, an African-American rap musician who admires Adolf Hitler and believes Jews are plotting to have him declared insane, and a former President of the United States with disturbing sexual politics meet to plot a comeback.

Elsewhere in the world—except, of course, for those condemned to live through it—this would be the stuff of comedy. There is, however, something significant going on in America’s Right-wing politics. The global order rests, among other things, on predictability in American political life. The strange meeting held by Donald Trump at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago last week suggests it would be unwise to expect it.

Far-Right political organisations, the foundations of Trump’s ascendancy, are running into a demographic wall. Together with immigration and urbanisation, the growth of liberal-leaning millennial communities is undermining reliable Republican redoubts like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia.

The rising influence of young urban liberals—illustrated by the surprisingly robust performance of Democrats in Right-dominated states in the recent mid-term elections—will compel change. Republicans, journalist Derek Thompson notes, will have to abandon “the fumes of retrograde xenophobia, [and] compete more aggressively for votes in the New South—that is, to be a party for moderates, black voters, and immigrants.”

For the far-Right—fundamentalist Christians, white supremacists, anti-Semites, survivalists—this will mean the loss of political influence cultivated over decades. The Right hoped Trump would usher in a new millennium in which American greatness would be built around God and white supremacy, but that dream could be permanently out of grasp. This political defeat could open up new dangers—pushing fringe figures towards terrorism.

America’s not-so-Lone Wolves

The Lone Wolf is not just the product of the jihadist imagination. For no particularly comprehensible reason, Alt-Reich: Nation’s neo-Nazi member Sean Urbanski stabbed Richard Collins III to death at a bus stop because the just-commissioned second lieutenant would not step aside and give him way. Jeremy Christian killed two men on a train in Portland who intervened to stop him from insulting a woman wearing a hijab.

Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents have regularly made arrests of far-Right individuals distributing bomb-making instructions and plotting mass attacks on religious and racial minorities.

Far-Right terrorism in the United States, criminologists Matthew Sweeney and Arlier Perliger note, is in the main impulsive—“perpetrated without advanced planning and by perpetrators who are not associated with an active group or have a criminal or violent background”.

There are, however, substantial reasons for concern. Kathleen Belew, in a superbly researched book on extremism inside the US military, observes that America’s long wars gave rise to angry brotherhoods of former soldiers convinced they had been denied victory by a corrupt political system. Toting guns and training cells in military tactics, organisations like The Oath Keepers claim, the US has been captured by a shadowy conspiracy to seize its citizens’ rights.

Following the German defeat in the First World War, anthropologist John Conner has noted, similar brotherhoods of former soldiers had gravitated towards the Nazis—the products of a paranoid ethos in which they imagined themselves to be the last defence against barbarism.

A second tendency, scholar Arie Periliger has written, comes from zealots who believe a Left-wing plot is underway to strip America of its Christian character. In one post on an influential far-Right online network, a leader points to the “removal of prayer from our schools, the removal of nativity scenes from our government property, the removal of crosses or any religious symbols from many municipal flags and logotypes”.

To these groups, journalist James Pogue argues, one must add a disaffected élite New Right: “Bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters in this world are variously known as ‘dissidents,’ ‘neo-reactionaries,’ ‘post-Leftists,’ or the ‘heterodox’ fringe.”

Fed by influences as diverse as European royalism to bomber Ted Kaczynski, this cohort believes “individualist liberal ideology, increasingly bureaucratic governments, and big tech are all combining into a world that is at once tyrannical, chaotic, and devoid of the systems of value and morality.”

Also read: An indictment won’t stop Donald Trump’s presidential run. He can campaign, serve from jail

Long-running racial strains 

There’s no great imagination to see what underpins the concerns of the Right-wing white voter. Later in this century, the US will transition from being a white-majority country to one where whites are merely the largest single ethnic group. For the 18 to 29 cohort, the tipping point will come sooner, experts estimate, perhaps even inside this decade. Although America has been remarkable in its embrace of diversity, to some—especially in small towns and rural communities—change is just too quick.

America has been here before: From the 1850s to the 1870s; from 1915 to the 1920s; from 1950 through the course of the Civil Rights Movement: America’s white nationalists used large-scale violence to repress black claims to equality.

“In almost all the states where slavery has been abolished,” 19th century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “the N— have been given electoral rights, but they would come forward to vote at the risk of their lives.” He added, “He is allowed to worship the same God as the white man, but he must not pray at the same altars.”

Things were not that different in the liberal north, the work of scholars like Desmond King and Stephen Tuck suggests. In population-adjusted terms, black Americans were just at much risk of being lynched outside the south, for example.

The dystopian promise of Trump

For his supporters, scholars Rogers Smith and Desmond King have noted, Trump promised “white protectionism”. The measures he promised included “unconstrained policing, weakened civil rights enforcement, and franchise and immigration restrictions”. Instead of merely vetoing affirmative action programmes, Trump “stresses active measures to protect those deemed white against perceived inequities”.

Fears that racial conflicts could undermine, America had led President Lyndon B. Johnson—against his instincts and beliefs—to push for equality.

Although gains have been made, neighbourhoods and cities are still segregated. Every third black family has zero or negative wealth, and one in three black children lives in poverty. Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito have shown that black men and boys are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than whites.

As it enters a period of heightened strategic competition with China and Russia, the US needs to address these problems—but in the process of doing so, it risks having to confront whitelash.

Even though the mid-term elections might have seen the defeat of the most extreme elements in American politics, the bizarre meeting at Mar-a-Lago tells us all is not well with American democracy. Fighting an existential battle for survival, the Republican movement is divided between Centrists willing to engage with demographic reality and rivals willing to make common cause with the extreme fringes of American reaction. The fate of American democracy rests on the outcome of this struggle.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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