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Understanding the Right-Wing Political Ecosystem

The Left’s strategy for fighting the Right isn’t constant — it depends on which segment of the right-wing coalition is dominant at any given time.

Members of the far-right group Proud Boys confront counterprotesters at the second Million MAGA March in Washington, DC, in December, 2020. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

Despite liberal appeals to the contrary, the right wing is not going anywhere after Trump’s loss and the January 6 Capitol riot. Instead, right-wing organizations will use the coming years to mobilize and radicalize while seeking to take advantage of divisions in the Republican party to change the US political landscape. Understanding the dynamic between the mainstream right and their more radical counterparts is vital to stopping their growth.

In the US context, this means contrasting figures like Trump and his imitators, like Senator Josh Hawley or Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, with right-wing militias and fascist organizations, like the III%ers or the Proud Boys, and comparing their different priorities and tactics. Different right-wing coalitions must be fought with different strategies, from government chambers to the streets, which means that the Left must pay careful attention to the nuances of right-wing politics and adjust its strategies accordingly. The same rhetoric and campaigning that worked against the mostly law-abiding right will not fare so well if it turns further toward violence.

One of the clearest differences between the mainstream right wing and the radical right is their policy priorities. For all his bombast about “draining the swamp” or forging an entirely new way forward in US politics, Trump’s actual policy commitments weren’t far from what the Republican Party has advocated for the last fifty years. From his crass nationalism to his terrible record on LGBTQ issues to his unflinching pro-business and anti-tax stances, Trump governed more or less like most of his opponents would have. Trump, like most conservatives, was fundamentally focused on maintaining the status quo.

Conversely, outsider right-wing organizations have a much more radical set of principles and plans. Unlike their conservative counterparts, groups like the Proud Boys want more than cynical appeals to the good old days. They actually intend to return to their imagined past, advocating for women to stay home from work en masse, or for the return of open and legal racism and discrimination. Directly critical of democracy as such, they go far beyond suggesting that this or that election was fraudulent and instead call for an end to the current system of elections in favor of authoritarianism.

In contrast to conservatives, these far-right factions want a radical break with the status quo. Some even deserve the label “revolutionaries,” with their goal being the complete transformation of politics and society.

The different goals of conservatives and the more radical right highlight another key difference between them: tactics. Conservatives are generally content with standing for election and gaining their power legally, whereas the forces of the far right tend to emphasize the utility of violence and insurrection. The founder of the Proud Boys, for example, has been so direct as to say that “fighting solves everything.” For these right-wingers, violence isn’t just something that is occasionally useful, it’s necessary. This is not only because their goals are more radical than conservatives’ but because they think that violence is good for the violent, that it makes better party members and citizens.

Like the Left, the forces of the Right are in contestation with each other over which of them will hold the hegemonic position among their comrades and allies — who will be at the forefront of the Right. Knowing which sector of the right wing is currently in control must inform the Left’s tactics and rhetoric. Trump’s nationalist turn in the 2016 election opened space on the Right for fascist and other far-right movements to move millions of people further to the radical right than could have otherwise been imagined. This new array of right-wing forces can’t be met with appeals for a return to normalcy — it has to be fought with a positive vision of a radically different future.

Thinking about the Right this way changes how we should understand January 6th, and how we need to change our strategy to reflect trends on the Right. The question isn’t whether the groups that stormed the Capitol building on January 6 were already large enough to take over the state or whether they had the total backing of the president. These perspectives focus overmuch on the fascist governments of Germany and Italy rather than on the ubiquitous right-wing groups, big and small, that have flourished from the genocidal militias in Indonesia to the fascist Integralists of Brazil, from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India to the pro-Apartheid parties of South Africa, and countless other examples across the world. Though many of these groups remained too small to actually contest state power, they could still wield incredible influence on their countries’ politics through murderous violence and their competition with other right-wing groups for political hegemony. They did this in cooperation with conservatives, who thought that they could use the fascists to do their dirty work — namely, stopping the growth of the Left through both organizing and violence.

In much the same way that small socialist organizations can push liberals to the left and try to get increasingly radical proposals accepted by the mainstream, fascists can push their conservative allies to the right while building their own strength within the right wing. Arguing over whether Trump is a fascist or what will become of this or that organization obscures the ongoing danger of the mounting power and influence of the far right on the Right in general. Just as we on the Left can celebrate our influence even despite individual campaigns failing, the far right can look at each of its efforts as one battle in a long war for political primacy on the Right and for social power generally.

The far right intentionally pushes the envelope of the politically acceptable, organizes at the grassroots, and works both with and against conservatives in the struggle for power. Once conservatives learn that they can use the far right to threaten and even kill their opponents, and as the far right plays that role increasingly openly, the rules of politics change. From brawls at Trump rallies to Charlottesville and the Capitol riot, the emerging alliance between conservatives and the far right is showing itself to be intentionally and strategically politically violent. If this trend continues, it will reshape what is politically possible in this country — and the Left will have to respond with a radically different strategy and vision.