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Essential Politics: The far right’s uncertain future

In the three weeks since the attack on the U.S. Capitol, as each arrest yields new details, a clearer picture has emerged of how it happened: It had its roots on the far-right corners of the internet — a genesis that raises questions that touch on politics, tech policy and American culture.

As in a lot of newsrooms, Times journalists discuss our ideas and reporting online, comparing notes, pasting links and sharing what we’ve learned in the hope that collaboration will help us illuminate complex ideas for readers. It’s not all that different from how many Americans engage with the issues of the day — in texts, group chats and Slack channels.

So I invited four colleagues from different backgrounds to a group chat: Chris Megerian, who covers the White House, Trump and, yes, his tweets; Brian Contreras, an intern covering tech policy; Molly Hennessy-Fiske, our Houston bureau chief; and Richard Read, our Seattle bureau chief, who together with Hennessy-Fiske has been closely covering right-wing extremism.

We spent yesterday afternoon discussing how social media, a very online president and far-right groups came together to feed not just the events of Jan. 6 but an ongoing national security threat. What emerged was a portrait of an extremist movement that — despite having lost Trump as a rallying point and become a target of law enforcement — remains determined to build long-term political clout.

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Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

LAURA: What exactly Jan. 6 signified seems to vary based on whom you ask. You each cover different players — tech companies, far-right groups, Trump himself. What has the reaction been like on your beats?

CHRIS: The attack was a seismic event in Trump’s world. He was poised to leave office as the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, but the loss of two Senate seats in Georgia and then the events of Jan. 6 have changed that trajectory. It remains to be seen how many Republicans really break with Trump — many remain unfailingly loyal — but others see this as an opportunity to go a different route. And the attack led to Twitter taking his account offline, cutting off one of his favorite tools for drawing attention and rallying supporters.

BRIAN: Trump had arguably done more extreme things on Twitter before Jan. 6 (like threats of war with North Korea). But the combination of him having a clear role in that day’s events and the change in the political configuration benefiting Democrats seemed to give Facebook, Twitter and a host of other platforms a push in the direction of decisive action (i.e., booting Trump) that they’d avoided for four years.

MOLLY: Some far-right extremists disagreed with the Capitol attack, either because it broke the law or because it drew criticism of far-right movements as criminal. Others were encouraged at first, hoping it marked the start of a “second revolution.” When that failed to materialize, some became disillusioned with Trump and the Republican Party.

On far-right Telegram channels, people are asking, “Is this it? What do we do now?” and extremist groups are scrambling to offer answers and recruit them, both online and at protests for gun rights, against lockdowns, vaccines, etc.

RICHARD: In the Pacific Northwest and in Idaho and Montana, some factions of the far right are emboldened by the storming of the Capitol; other elements feel that it went too far. This is a time of regrouping and reassessment. Experts on extremism say that the hard core of the far right is apt to become more extreme, and that there’s a high risk of political violence in the months to come.

At state capitals in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, we had seen for several months what in retrospect appear to have been dress rehearsals. In Boise, Ammon Bundy, who led the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge five years ago, had gotten ejected from the Capitol twice last summer and arrested. In Salem, Ore., on Dec. 21, protesters had broken into the Capitol while the legislature was in session. And then in Olympia, Wash., on Jan. 6, protesters broke through a gate at Gov. Jay Inslee’s official residence and held a rally on his front lawn.

Crowd holds Trump flags and gathers outside the U.S. Capitol
A crowd holding Trump flags gathers outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

LAURA: A lot of people are used to hearing about Facebook and Twitter. But there are alternative platforms in organizing for the far right — Parler, Zello, 8kun. How do these platforms play off each other?

CHRIS: These are definitely places where extremists have gathered to share misinformation and plot together. But it’s a more contained ecosystem, and I wonder if they will struggle to pull in more people who are on the fence. For example, algorithms on YouTube and Facebook were powerful radicalizing tools, taking someone who had an interest in conservative politics down a rabbit hole of conspiracies about the coronavirus and election fraud.

MOLLY: I’ve heard from right-wing folks upset at being deplatformed from Facebook even before the Capitol attack for a couple reasons you might not expect: 1.) They lose access to digital family photos, including photos of their kids and relatives who have died, and 2.) They feel increasingly segregated into platforms with like-minded people, echo chambers instead of town halls where they can exchange ideas.

CHRIS: Right, a lot of the benefit of being on mainstream platforms like Twitter is getting to fight — and maybe even own the libs. You can’t do that in a purely right-wing ecosystem. But there’s a lot of gateway propaganda out there.

MOLLY: On Telegram, it’s very easy to start browsing from one channel to the next, which can take you from a right-wing Trump supporter channel to Proud Boys to so-called “terrorgram” channels replete with racism and anti-Semitism.

BRIAN: Pushing far-right conversation off of easily accessible web platforms affects the radicalization process. It won’t necessarily stop far-right actors from, say, organizing another insurrection like that of Jan. 6, but it will certainly make it harder for more casual web users to find themselves in a radicalization pipeline.

LAURA: Molly, you touched on the ideological landscape — that we’re talking about not a monolith but rather a network of different views and conspiracy theories, from QAnon to armed groups, even as they share a mutual support for Trump.

MOLLY: It’s interesting to see what’s being talked about in online forums for self-described militias. All of them discuss concrete planning tips for when the government topples or the grid goes down, like learning to operate a ham radio and storing food. The Telegram discussions are more about world politics, with an emphasis on race and economics. QAnon channels speak their own language, trying to decipher what they believe to be missives and symbols in the latest news.

There’s also a lot of concern right now in some of these online channels and groups about “fedposting” — federal authorities posing as members to lure people to “false flag” events or trick them into saying something that could be used against them.

BRIAN: That’s definitely something I was seeing right after the Capitol attack on TheDonald.win, a Reddit imitator that blew up after Reddit banned r/The_Donald for hate speech. There was lots of debate around not calling for violence out in the open, with some users saying that feds were watching and would use it against Trump supporters.

CHRIS: I expect we’ll see some splintering. It’s unlikely we’re going to have a major event like Jan. 6 that will draw all these people to the same place again. And it remains to be seen how active Trump will be when it comes to pushing conspiracy theories or rallying his supporters. Right now, he’s very quiet.

RICHARD: Splintering, certainly. Some groups are actually deciding to work more within the system.

I recently interviewed Matt Marshall, founder and leader of Washington Three Percent, a militia group that claims to have about 300 members in Washington state. That particular group is pretty much deplatformed at this point. They communicate the old-fashioned way, phone and email, from the sounds of it. Marshall scrapped a protest at the Capitol in Olympia after Jan. 6, and says his group will be working with legislators to oppose gun control legislation.

LAURA: What do your sources make of the crackdowns, both on social media and by law enforcement? We had a story last week about Instagram accounts dedicated to identifying extremists. And on the one hand, we’ve had dozens of arrests and three weeks of quiet. But these extreme online communities built up over the course of years.

MOLLY: Last week, I went to a gun rights rally in Richmond, Va., and spoke with Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, Black Panthers and several militias, all armed in defiance of a local law against armed protests. They were not intimidated by the crackdown. I see a lot of anger online, concern about people’s guns being taken away, further pandemic lockdowns, etc.

CHRIS: Trumpworld is furious, and they’re trying to turn this into a central grievance that can be used to animate the former president’s supporters. They’re accusing tech companies of silencing or censoring viewpoints that they disagree with.

BRIAN: The broad consensus does seem to be that deplatforming works. (How often do you hear about Milo Yiannopoulos these days?) But even fierce critics of Trump are raising concerns about a political environment where Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has the power unilaterally to silence the president from forums that, though privately owned, serve a clear public role in America’s political discourse.

RICHARD: Lindsay Schubiner, program manager at Western States Center, which tracks extremist organizations, says that far-right, paramilitary and white nationalist movements are not just spreading bigotry to spread bigotry — they are doing it to build political power. She is watching to see whether the events of Jan. 6 energize these movements further, and whether they turn to target state capitals and legislatures.

There are also factions that have been largely exempt from crackdowns.

MOLLY: It will be interesting to see how extremist right-wing groups deal with police moving forward, especially in states like Texas, where I live. We’ve long had gun-rights protests here where people were armed, and those were seen as low-risk by police. Now, members of these groups are saying things online about supporting the Constitution, not the government and its police — similar to what we saw at the U.S. Capitol.

Far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones rallies Trump supporters protesting as ballots are counted in Phoenix
Far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones rallies a crowd of Trump supporters protesting in the parking lot at the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center in Phoenix as ballots are counted inside.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

LAURA: Trump is a thread that runs through all of these groups. At this point, no longer in power and kicked off major platforms, who is he to these movements? Is he seen as a leader, a symbol — maybe a bit of both?

MOLLY: There are some still rallying around Trump online — what he stood for, those who stood with and up for him. But there are others deeply disappointed that he left the White House without delivering on aspects of his agenda that they cared about. And there are many who blame the Republican Party for impeding him.

CHRIS: Trump has provided a focal point for a lot of these disparate movements that began independently of him but now view him as a heroic figure. He’s also helped introduce more people to conspiracy theories and undemocratic ideas, and spread that throughout the Republican Party.

RICHARD: There was obvious disenchantment and even fury at Trump on Jan. 6, but Schubiner, of Western States Center, sees that as short-term disappointment. “Most of the anger that is still there is going to be transferred over to target the new administration,” she says. “I don’t think that there’s any reason to believe that the far-right forces that coalesced around Trump are going to give up and go away quietly.”

Stephen Piggott, a Western States analyst, says it will be important to watch for any new national leaders that emerge for these movements.

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More about extremism

— Far-right leaders across the nation — disillusioned by former President Trump’s defeat and banished from mainstream social media — have launched recruitment drives in new radicalization efforts that have turned into a “meme war,” write Hennessy-Fiske and Read.

— Arrest records show a broad cross-section of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, Megerian reported last month with Kevin Rector and Anna M. Phillips. And some insisted they had come at the “invitation” of President Trump and were certain he could pardon them.

— Over the last few years, the question of what internet platforms should do about disinformation, hate speech and harassment has grown more urgent. Industry and political leaders have settled into a familiar routine of inaction, Contreras reports.

The latest from the Senate

— Democrats formally delivered the impeachment case against Trump to the Senate on Monday night for the start of his historic trial. But support for a conviction appears uncertain: On Tuesday, Republicans forced a vote on the constitutionality of the process and though the trial will proceed, the results suggest Democrats won’t be able to get the two-thirds support they will need, Jennifer Haberkorn reports.

— Never before has an impeachment process moved so quickly or involved a trial after the president left office, Sarah Wire writes. That leaves plenty of questions, to which she has some answers.

— Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said he’s ready to move toward an agreement to share power of the 50-50 Senate after two Democratic senators pledged they won’t vote to do away with the filibuster. He had refused to agree to any deal without a promise that Democrats would keep it.

— Senators approved President Biden’s nomination of Janet Yellen to be the nation’s 78th Treasury secretary, making her the first woman to hold the job. They also confirmed Antony Blinken as secretary of State.

The latest from Washington

— The Biden administration plans to rush additional vaccine doses to states, territories and tribal governments, ramping up its effort to inoculate more Americans more quickly, as the death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise.

— More executive orders this week: On Monday, Biden ended Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military, David S. Cloud reports. He also added new COVID-19 travel restrictions and directed federal agencies to to boost government buying from U.S. manufacturers. And today, the Biden administration plans to announce a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on public lands, write Phillips and Evan Halper.

— The interim chief of the Capitol Police apologized Tuesday for failing to prepare for what became a violent insurrection despite being warned that white supremacists and far-right groups would target Congress.

— Voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation suit against Rudolph W. Giuliani, accusing him of exploiting false election-fraud claims to hawk gold coins, cigars and supplements on a podcast.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom’s abrupt move to lift stay-at-home orders — allowing outdoor dining and other business activities to resume — represents a gamble that California can avoid another deadly coronavirus surge in the coming months despite a slow, frustrating rollout of the vaccine and the looming threat of more contagious strains, write Taryn Luna, Soumya Karlamangla, Rong-Gong Lin II and Hannah Fry.

— Newsom and legislative leaders have agreed to a proposal to extend through June protections against evictions for California tenants financially harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Patrick McGreevy reports.

— Also from McGreevy: Poor planning and ineffective management left California’s unemployment agency unprepared to help workers left jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it failed to address problems in its system that were known for nearly a decade, a state audit found.

— Efforts to strengthen helicopter safety regulations after the crash that killed Kobe Bryant have stalled. Ahead of the first anniversary of his death, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge) reintroduced a bill that would require terrain awareness and warning systems.

— Can Trump rehabilitate his reputation? Ken Khachigian, who helped Richard Nixon write his memoirs just after that disgraced former president left office, agreed to offer Trump some advice on how to go about it. To start, he suggested from his San Clemente law office: “Shut up for a nice long period of time.”

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