Special Report: Extremism

Right-Wing Extremism is a Driving Force in Modern Conservatism

Dangerous right-wing extremism has taken over the mainstream of the Republican Party - and the same dynamics are at work in Canada as well.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 18, 2021

Let's talk a little bit about Hunter Biden. not too much, but just enough to make the jumpoff into the real story underneath.

As you may remember, Trump and his proxies tried repeatedly to promote a conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden, the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and American aid to Ukraine. It didn't gain much traction in the mainstream beyond its role in Trump's first impeachment.

But in the right-wing parallel media universe, it has become an article of faith that Joe Biden and his entire family are thoroughly corrupt and that every diabolical insinuation about them is probably true.

In all likelihood, Hunter is exactly what he appears to be: an unremarkable man who managed to land a lucrative career in investing, consulting and lobbying based on his family connections and class privilege.

However, the Trump-era Justice Department started investigating him in late 2018 over income earned from his business dealings in China and other foreign countries. According to credible media reports, the FBI began by searching for evidence of money laundering but then switched to investigating his taxes for evidence of tax violations.

Maybe they will end up finding something, maybe they won't. But in the event that the investigation is closed without any charges, the right-wing will automatically insist that the decision must be the result of political interference by President Biden to protect his son, regardless of what the evidence says.

Russian Disinformation

Here's the thing: the propaganda effort to cast Hunter Biden as a wildly corrupt criminal agent has every sign of a classic Russian disinformation campaign, amplified and abetted by American far-right propagandists.

In this recurring model, Russian spies hack into or manufacture foreign data sets (like the DNC emails in 2016, Emmanuel Macron's emails in 2017, or the infamous laptop purported to be Hunter Biden's in 2020) and then generate a cloud of vague but sinister-sounding allegations based loosely on the contents of those data systems - which they know 99.9% of people will never independently read and verify.

To this day, you can say "Podesta emails" to a group of American conservatives and they will nod their heads knowingly - but either won't be able to articulate precisely what they mean by it or will refer vaguely to Pizzagate and the QAnon conspiracy cult that grew out of it.

American conspiracy theorists take this Russian disinformation and run with it, amplifying, circulating and spreading the allegations widely. They introduce the allegations into the right-wing media ecosystem through extremism-laundering intermediaries like Breitbart, Newsmax and OAN.

It then gets picked up by more 'legitimate' agencies like FOX News, whose on-air personalities boost the allegations and whose 'straight news' journalists generate further noise by reporting the fact that politicians and pundits are talking about the allegations.

This is technically "reporting" in the sense that the politicians and pundits did say the things being reported, but it's also extremely self-referential and incestuous. It's getting a baseless allegation into the public consciousness by convincing people to talk about it and then reporting the fact that people are talking about it.

Voila - a pure fabrication is transformed into a news story and people who have no idea where it originated are left with an emotionally resonant sense that the most nefarious corruption must be going on.

Common Belief in Shared Reality

Those mainstream journalists who refuse to take the bait blindly and instead actually investigate the claims are then accused of protecting the targets of the conspiracy theories by 'suppressing' the propaganda. That, in turn, further erodes the trust of people who get their news from the right-wing propaganda outfits.

It's an insidious, corrosive strategy that has already fractured the common belief in a shared reality between the centre and the right in the American (and Canadian, and European) public. But it is a con - indeed, it's a classic con in the vein of the fascist propaganda organs of the 1930s.

The mainstream media dug into the Hunter Laptop story and could not corroborate any of the right-wing claims being made about it. But they were able to identify lots of direct linkages between the people promoting the story - like Rudy Giuliani - and the Russian spies who manufactured it.

Of course, the mainstream media's refusal to validate Trump's effort to smear his opponent just became more grist for the mill, with Trump and his proxies insisting that the media were trying to protect Biden and couldn't be trusted. That had the effect of further insulating Trump's base against any and all evidence that contradicted Trump's propaganda.

The Big Lie

The thing is, it's a lie. It's all a lie. In fact, it is a Big Lie in precisely the vein of the charismatic 20th-century fascists. I think we're at the point in recent events where we can fairly make comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, so I will direct you to a report on Hitler by the US Office of Strategic Services in 1943. Here's an excerpt:

"His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it."

Yes, this is also a perfect description of Trump, his enablers and proxies, and their relentless media assault on the American public.

The consumers of right-wing propaganda are being systematically lied to, in a specifically fascist way that is radicalizing them to accept dangerous fascist propaganda while also being inoculated against all contrary evidence that might dispel the propaganda.

The swirl of lies about Biden serves to cement the pervasive feeling that Biden is so corrupt that he would do anything to gain power - like steal an election.

Trump's Big Lie

In Trump's second impeachment trial, his lawyers tried to argue that Trump was no worse than Democrats who have also said variations on "We need to fight" in their speeches, but that that's a ridiculously fatuous argument. All politicians talk about "fighting" for their principles and policies.

Trump's crime was not saying "fight". His crime was spending six solid months systematically convincing his base of the Big Lie that there was a massive conspiracy of classic fascist bogeymen (liberals, globalists, foreigners) to rig the election and steal it from him, and that the only way to stop this from happening was for "real Americans" to march into the Capital and physically "stop the steal".

It was always an outrageous lie. But that's how the Big Lie works. And Trump, his goons and propagandists, and his media enablers in the right-wing echo chamber kept repeating the Big Lie over and over again until the base was whipped into a murderous frenzy.

This is exactly how fascist movements operate. It is classic textbook fascism, every single step of it - the cult of personality, anti-mainstream disinformation, accusations of "fake news" while peddling actual fake news, paranoid conspiracy theories, false allegations of 'rigged' elections, promotion of paramilitary terrorist groups (like telling the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by"), accusing everyone who stood up to him of being a traitor, and instigating a violent putsch when the system persevered through his efforts to undermine and sabotage it.

Trump's fascist overthrow failed, in part because American democratic values remain entrenched (a few key Republicans, like Georgia Attorney General Brad Raffensperger, ultimately chose their country over their party) and in part because Trump himself is lazy and incompetent and surrounded himself with sycophantic idiots like Rudy Giuliani.

But he opened a door, and it's only a matter of time until a smart, motivated, charismatic fascist strides confidently through it.

Mainstream Radicalization

As I keep trying to argue, this isn't just a far-right fringe problem. Three-quarters of Republicans believe the fascist lie that Biden stole the election. They believe the current president is illegitimate.

Let us be completely clear on what that means: three-quarters of the members of one of America's two major parties have already been radicalized into the outrageous false belief that there was a massive conspiracy to rig the election for Biden by manufacturing millions of fraudulent votes, and that the conspiracy includes Democratic leadership (obviously), thousands of poll workers across several states, all the major news media (including Fox News), plus key Republican governors and secretaries of state and Republican federal judges.

A poll came out recently finding that most Democrats still regard Republicans as "political opponents", whereas most Republicans now regard Democrats as "enemies".

Again, this is not just a matter of political disagreement. Believing that entire categories of your fellow citizens are "enemies" rather than just opponents is the very foundation for fascism. And sooner or later, a smart, motivated, charismatic fascist will seize the reins of that fascist movement and use it to drive a hole right through the republic.

It's Happening in Canada

It's happening here in Canada as well. Canadian Conservatives are not nearly as blatantly extremist as American Republicans - so far. But the conservative base in Canada is subject to the same media propaganda as its American counterpart, and the leadership's pandering to that base is trending in the same direction by trading in the same inflammatory, radicalizing language.

Just as in America, our conservative party is actively engaging the people who are being radicalized by right-wing media. It's no accident that O'Toole called his policy platform, "Our Country: A Call to Take Back Canada".

Who, exactly, "took" Canada? And who gets to be counted among the people taking it back?

O'Toole's fundraising efforts rail against "vandals and left-wing agitators" who are "defac[ing]" the "statues to Canadian heroes and national builders." He hails "our proud traditions" and promises to "stand up to left-wing mobs".

Last May, Erin O'Toole pushed out a fundraising appeal with inflammatory language: "help to send Justin Trudeau a strong message that we're coming for him!"

His tagline, cribbed directly from Donald Trump's xenophobic nationalism, is "Canada first".

The Conservative Party even went so far as to accuse Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of "rigging" the election against Conservatives. (They took the page down after the January 6 Capitol insurrection.)

Screenshot from Conservative Party of Canada website
Screenshot from Conservative Party of Canada website

Pandering to Right-Wing Extremists

O'Toole knows exactly what he's doing. He is appealing directly to Canada's version of Trump's MAGA base.

He's appealing to the people who get their information from Rebel Media and The Post Millennial and The Sun and other unabashedly right-wing propaganda organs pushing a paranoid, conspiratorial worldview of grievance and dwindling privilege.

He is speaking to white nationalist grievance when he awkwardly tries to defend residential schools and their program of cultural genocide against Indigenous Peoples.

That's why he defends the "heritage" of genocidal colonialism while sparing not a word for the systemic racism, institutionalized violence and generational trauma that underwrote those "proud traditions" he promises to stand up for while "taking back" the country.

O'Toole's pandering is more subtle than, say, Derek Sloan's, but is all the more effective for that. When Sloan openly attacked the patriotism of Canada's chief public health officer, the party shrugged and mostly remained silent.

O'Toole certainly didn't go directly after Dr. Tam. He doesn't have to. He relentlessly goes after "the Chinese regime" instead, as part of his "Canada First" messaging, which directly echoes Trump's racist "America First" rhetoric. He knows his base will connect the dots for him.

Sloan became a bigger problem for the Conservative Party after the Capitol riot, and the party quickly found a pretext - accepting a donation from a notorious white supremacist - to oust him from the caucus. But they did so without ever acknowledging that they've been playing the same game, albeit more carefully.

Normalization of Extremism

This stuff matters. It has real-world consequences. Principled conservatives need to speak up before it's too late - you are in serious danger of losing your entire political movement to fascist radical extremists.

I swear I am not engaging in hyperbole here. As Jason Stanley explains in his book "How Fascism Works", the incremental normalization of fascist acts means that warnings about a fascist movement will always come across as an overreaction:

"What normalization does is transform the morally extraordinary into the ordinary. It makes us able to tolerate what was once intolerable by making it seem as if this is the way things have always been. By contrast, the word 'fascist' has acquired a feeling of the extreme, like crying wolf.

"Normalization of fascist ideology, by definition, would make charges of 'fascism' seem like an overreaction, even in societies whose norms are transforming along these worrisome lines. Normalization means precisely that encroaching ideologically extreme conditions are not recognized as such because they have come to seem normal.

"The charge of fascism will always seem extreme; normalization means that the goalposts for the legitimate use of 'extreme' terminology continually move."

Trump spent four years subjecting his base to a steadily-escalating series of obedience tests. Nearly all of them stayed for the entire ride and continue to support him. Again and again, over the past four years, we have watched prominent Republicans stand up and defend practices - like systematically treating every refugee as a criminal and cruelly separating children from their parents - that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

The fact that Biden's victory was allowed to be confirmed is an encouraging sign that the system is still holding, but Trump's base is not going away. It still controls the Republican Party - either directly through unhinged proxies like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, or indirectly through calculating hypocrites like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who understand that to reject Trumpism is to risk getting primaried.

We remain in very dangerous times, and the right-wing media ecosystem, if anything, is becoming more radical. FOX News's audience, primed for Trumpism through decades of fearmongering, is bleeding over to more extremist outfits like OAN and Newsmax that are even more shameless in their propagandizing. The worldview gulf between the right and everyone else is only going to keep getting wider.

And there are already smart, motivated, hardworking fascists waiting in the wings to seize the base and leverage it for their own ambitions. What the Republican Senate's decision to absolve Trump of his insurrection (notwithstanding just seven members who broke with their party) tells the next generation of fascists is that they absolutely will be allowed to get away with it.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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