Our shared work this year is drawing a hard line to keep fascists out.
A few years ago, a book caught my eye while I was browsing in a used book store. Flipping through the pages, I found that the author was asking why mocking rednecks was an acceptable form of prejudice and so central to mainstream American humor. Elated to find someone writing about a thing I had wondered about since I was a kid, I pushed my five dollars across the counter and took the book home.
I wanted, badly, to find an author who would represent the culture I was from with reverence and respect instead of mockery. Reading it, however, I grew uncomfortable. The writer’s style was brash and offensive, but I soldiered on assuming that offense was the point. But soon the author’s language became highly racialized and divisive. Dog whistles began to fill the pages. “Ironic” use of slurs began to emerge. I stopped reading and left the book to become dusty on my shelf.
Years later I looked up the author. He’s a neo-Nazi living in Atlanta. How did I bring his book into my house?
If you listen to far-right podcasts or read their ubiquitous think pieces, you will know they are obsessed with shifting the Overton Window — the range of politics, policies, and discourse acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. They want to move their ideas out of the fringe and into the center of American conversation. They want to rub elbows with you and me. They want to put their acolytes in local government. They want to put their books on our bookshelves.
It should be good news that hate groups are declining in the United States. There were 733 active hate groups in 2021, down from their historic high of 1,021 in 2018. North Carolina mirrors these trends: There were 28 active hate groups last year in our state, down from a high of 40 in 2018 (SPLC, 2022).
Unfortunately, in the place of explicit hate groups, extremist groups and ideas are flourishing. For example, the number of Proud Boy chapters in the United States has nearly doubled since 2020 and their ideas and rhetoric are seemingly everywhere (Newsweek, March 2022). What that means is that far from being on the decline, hate and extremism are growing and moving closer to home.
At one point, hate groups coveted being the black sheep and misfits of our culture, distinguishing themselves with shaved heads, neo-Nazi tattoos, and steel toed boots. However, extremists are now refreshing the ways they express their ideas and carefully curating their image so that their hate escapes detection. After the deadly Charlottesville rally, the far-right regrouped and organizations that had once used Swastikas on their uniforms switched to more innocuous runes symbology. Dressed in khakis and button downs, white nationalists tone down their rhetoric and managed to get interviews on NPR as if their ideas were downright reasonable.
Normalizing extremism appears to have worked. A year after the January 6th attack, 34% of Americans say violent action against the government is sometimes justified, considerably higher than any past polling over the last two decades (Washington Post, January 2022). What is most remarkable to me about January 6th is how unremarkable many of the people who stormed the Capital were. They were grandparents, small business owners, and dads– with hardcore racist and neo-fascists mixed in. Hanging out with neo-Nazis is not a normal thing to do in America. It’s not that all the people caught up in the mob were bad people, but it reminds us that the company we keep truly matters.
Maybe the line between “regular people” and extremists has never been all that clean, but we should at least want it to be. The blurring of these lines only benefits the worst among us, those with nefarious plans. The rest of us– those of us who want a functional and fair society and who wish well for each other even when we disagree– need to push extremism back into margins and out of our communities.
Right now, there is no more important place to draw these firm lines than at the local level. After the failed insurrection, extremists regrouped and refocused on gaining power through local elections. Last December a leading North Carolina Proud Boy was quoted as saying “The plan of attack if you want to make change is to get involved at the local level” (NYT, December 2021). This isn’t just rhetoric: North Carolina Proud Boys are currently running for School Board in one county and for County Commission in another.
Drawing the line against far-right extremism isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue, or even one of the left versus right. There is room here for all those positions and dissent leads to healthy democratic debate. What there isn’t room for is for the fox to come into the henhouse. No matter our politics or disagreements with each other, our shared job this year is to keep that door firmly shut.