The far right, the far left, and the far out
“This is NOT the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is chaos.” Those words, written by Kali Ladd, executive director of education nonprofit KairosPDX, at the height of the increasing vandalism and violence in Portland, Ore., this summer, reflected the confusion experienced by demonstrators in that city as protests were disrupted by acts of vandalism and other forms of violence.
“All that stuff people are doing is making it so Black voices are heard less and less and less,” Portland rap artist Edreece Phillps told a USA Today reporter. “… A lot of the people who are doing it [committing acts of violence and vandalism] are not Black.”
As recounted most recently by Farah Stockman in The New York Times, the experience of the Portland demonstrators has been replicated elsewhere. She recounts in particular the travels of Jeremy Lee Quinn, a photographer who stumbled upon the phenomenon of organized violence at demonstrations in different cities. He “expected to find white supremacists who wanted to help reelect President Trump by stoking fear of black people. What he discovered instead were true believers in ‘revolutionary anarchism.’”
Not that other agents of chaos have been missing from the fray. For the truth is that there is no shortage of extremists, who communicate on social media platforms, who are drawn from the far right and far left, and who are moving — at an accelerated pace after last week’s presidential debate — potentially toward the just plain far out: civil war.
The far right. The Boogaloo Boys emerged this summer as a threat to civic order generally and to the lives of law enforcement officers specifically. Boogaloo-inspired violence erupted in the wake of the protests of pandemic restrictions and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, resulting in widespread vandalism, attacks on police, and the killing of two sworn law enforcement officers. Boogaloo adherents were indicted in California for murder and in Nevada for conspiring to commit violent acts and for possessing an incendiary device.
They are joined, in sympathy if not in tactics, by extreme right-wing groups such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and countless locally based militias. According to an article in the current issue of The Atlantic, “A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers and Veterans,” such groups have been proliferating in anticipation of violent conflict attending the presidential election. Such groups define themselves by what they oppose: left-wing extremists and the government.
The far left. Contrary to many media reports, far-right extremists were not solely responsible for the violence attending protests across the country. Left-wing extremist groups have emerged across the country to disrupt peaceful protests. The PNW Youth Liberation Front (PNWYLF) in Portland, for example, describes itself as a “decentralized network of autonomous youth collectives dedicated to direct action towards total liberation.”
According to the Seattle Times, affiliates across the country have gained thousands of followers this year on Twitter. The group leverages the platform to offer tactical advice during rallies that often have ended in confrontation with far-right militias and law enforcement. The group also explicitly supports violent tactics, and celebrates as a martyr Willem Van Spronsen, who died in a shootout with Tacoma law enforcement while firebombing an ICE detention facility.
The PNWYLF encourages a division of labor during protests on its social media feed, assigning roles ranging from “peaceful protesters” to “range soldiers” who “throw water bottles, umbrellas and trash” in order to obstruct law enforcement, to so-called “fire made” who “come prepared to set fire to barricades and throw flammable projectiles,” and “light made” who “use laser pointers to obstruct surveillance cameras, drones and police visors.”
Nor is the PNWYLF the only participant. Members of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club (PSJBGC), with which Spronsen regularly associated, were actively patrolling Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) during its instantiation through June. The organization also had helped fill in gaps in the barricades surrounding CHAZ and deployed on regular patrol. Wearing signature attire, armed, in mass, opposed to law enforcement, and recounting martyr narratives, these themes of the left-wing extremists mirror the parallel far-right groups such as the Boogaloos. Like the far-right groups, the far-left defines itself by what it opposes: the far-right and the government.
The far out. This is, in sum, a tinderbox moment in the American experiment in self-governance. There are forces at work, from both ends of the ideological spectrum, that seek not progress but chaos, not reform but destruction, not ordered liberty but sheer anarchy. They are small but determined, and they are having an effect. In 2017, according to a YouGov survey, just 8 percent of Democrats and Republicans believed that their party would be justified in using violence to achieve political goals; as of July 2020, the number has escalated to 33 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Republicans.
While perhaps in ultimate conflict with each other, the extremes have found a common enemy, embodied materially in law enforcement officers and public monuments and buildings, and socially in our democratic commitment to norms of lawfulness and peaceful protest.
The militias of the extreme right and the extreme left have met, in short, on the darkest of common grounds — nihilism and anarchy.
The far right and far left want to achieve the far out. They want civil war. They require each other as adversaries. And they have found the ultimate agent of the chaos they hope to create as a precondition of civil war: President Trump.
By repeatedly casting doubt on the legitimacy of this year’s election, by refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election, and by not condemning white supremacy groups until two days after last week’s debate, the president has been accused of inflaming extremism at both ends of the ideological spectrum. And sowing chaos makes more likely the violence that the vast majority of Americans oppose and the civil war that the extremists crave.
No republic’s survival is self-executing. From revolutionary France and Russia to Weimar Germany, social chaos has consumed republics in the past, leading to the emergence of dictators, with their characteristic cults of personality.
President Trump should repudiate such nonsense immediately. If he fails to pledge to ensure the legitimacy of the election and, as the law requires, commit to the peaceful transfer of power should he lose, and if he continues to stoke the fires of extremism, he will render more vulnerable than ever our form of government, which is the ultimate target of extremists of the left and the right.
Reasonable people of both parties would be justified, at that point, in echoing the sentiments of Portland’s protesters: This is not our republic. This is chaos.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.