More than two centuries of peaceful handovers of power each time a new US president has entered the White House were cast aside on January 6, when thousands of far-right, often violent protesters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC to challenge Joe Biden’s perfectly legal electoral victory.
Figuring out who, or what, emboldened that mass of people to challenge the legitimacy of American democracy has been the subject of much debate ever since.
Some point the finger of blame at former President Donald Trump, who spent most of November and December rallying disgruntled voters with entirely unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.
Others blame the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory and its millions of adherents on different social media platforms who claim that Democrats are evil paedophiles. Groups boasting hardline forms of nationalism, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, have also been blamed, as well as those groups and individuals who openly profess white supremacy.
It is true that the insurrection has no historical parallel in the United States. Yet, the dogma that binds these groups together – far-right ideology – has a deep, storied history, which pre-dates those individuals who believed that the fate of their country depended on trying to overturn a free and fair election.
For some outside of the US, the American brand of far-right thought may seem strange, if not downright absurd. After all, what is the “nation” that groups like the Proud Boys seek to defend?
Generations of immigrants have regularly altered the US’s demography, making it next to impossible to pinpoint any kind of cultural or ethnic “essence”.
It is harder to say the same of, say, the French, Germans, or English. Just take a peek at the founding dates of certain universities – the University of Cambridge in the UK, dates back to 1209. Harvard is considered the oldest university in the US, beginning more than 400 years later in 1636.
Certain nationalities have more than a millennium behind them, while in the US, Americans are not only much younger as a nationality, but – with the exception of Indigenous peoples – are also made up of groups from all over the world.
Still, right-wing forces in the US have found enough commonality to forge connections with counterparts in Europe. In fact, the resurgence of right-wing ideology at different points in history has often gone hand-in-hand on the two continents.
Consider Steve Bannon, who served for a time as one of Trump’s advisers after spending years as the chair of the right-wing website, Breitbart News. After leaving the White House, Bannon found political leaders and movements in countries such as Belgium and Italy, with an appetite for his brand of far-right nationalism.
Shortly before Trump won in 2016 with his “America first” message, it was Brexit that shocked many, as English nationalism struck a blow to internationalist sentiment in the form of the European Union.
Meanwhile, Viktor Orban and his brand of anti-immigrant illiberalism remain strong in Hungary. France’s Marie Le Pen, daughter of the right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, is plotting to run for president again next year with her well-known brand of xenophobic nationalism that has attracted millions, despite losing to Emmanuel Macron in 2017.
Even though enthusiasm for the far right dampened down for a few decades in France after World War II, it has come back in past decades. The Le Pen family name is basically a brand for the far right in France.
Reflecting on this time in history – with the far right in focus – can show us a lot about the drivers of far-right politics not only in the US, but globally, today.
Moreover, a left-wing abdication of daring, combined with programmatic mass politics in favour of centrism, has provided the right-wing with ample space to fester. This, with international economic forces driving change around the world, has propelled many who feel alienated from political discourse to align with elements that provide a false promise of returning to over-hyped, past “glory” days.