Since the deadly events of Jan. 6, government investigators have continued to identify and prosecute the hundreds of right-wing extremists who participated in what has been described as one of the darkest days in U.S. history.

But the damage inflicted on democracy that day didn’t end when the Capitol was cleared and it likely won’t end even when all the perpetrators have been caught and punished. 

Political observers now say that the right-wing ideologies that spurred the mob have become increasingly present in politics and policies at the national, state and local levels.

While Trump ultimately lost the last election, his base remains powerful and is seen in many red states as the best path to victory. Southern legislatures have aggressively appealed to the emerging far-right mindset, pushing so-called voter suppression bills, while also taking aim at critical race theory, voter fraud and issues around coronavirus.

Reckon spoke to Michael Hayden, a spokesperson and senior investigative journalist at the Southern Poverty Law Center, about how the country arrived at this point in American democracy and how it has shifted the face of Southern politics.

Hayden primarily works on the Montgomery group’s Hatewatch blog, which monitors and exposes the activities of the radical right.

Michael Hayden, senior investigative journalist and spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center

Reckon:

You recently wrote a piece about the January 6 riots and violence in Washington D.C.

You mentioned that there’s a hard right anti-democratic faction of the Republican base that is threatening to overtake the party over the long term while also aligning itself with fascist ideas.

It’s a shift that we have seen throughout history, but it feels almost impossible to conceive we’re experiencing it now.

How did we get here?

Michael Hayden:

I think there are two different timelines to follow. There’s one that’s a bit more of an epic timeline that really starts around the mid-90s when Fox News first comes into being, really pushing the divisions around red and blue states.  

Those divisions almost seem like a prequel for where we are now; a hyper partisanship that is being further accelerated by the internet and social media taking off.

The next version of events kind of starts around the time that Trump picks up what Ann Coulter calls the $1,000 bill sitting in the street that no one else wanted.

During the Obama era, the Republicans saw the changing demographics in the United States and they decided to put forward a diverse counter message to what they were seeing from the Democrats with people like Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio to be these ambassadors for their free market liberal laissez faire way of viewing things.

And what ultimately happened was very different. Trump was not beholden to any kind of game plan from party elites. He was free to exploit the very media-created ecosystems of the Republican Party that the elites chose to ignore, which is the Fox News right wing media. The Rush Limbaugh worldview, which was the ‘us versus them’ dynamic. Not totally dissimilar from what you see in fascist propaganda.

Trump comes along and picks up the controls of the party and begins, as an entertainer, to throw things out like ‘build the wall’ and all this other stuff. And in doing so, cut the ties between party elites and the base of the party that had been created from this divided media ecosystem back in the 90s.

So that’s really when you see this hard right, authoritarian movement start to rise.

In essence, we’ve got these fringe and radical far-right ideas and Trump picks up the baton and starts running with it. But he ultimately loses to Biden, yet those ideas slowly start to shift from the fringes to becoming a central political ideology.

And that seems to have crystalized after the “Stop the Steal” movement ignited and because of the January 6 riots. And now we’re in this bizarre world where 40% of people believe that violence against the government is justified if it’s in order to save the country.

So how did that leap happen and has it in any way transformed beliefs and politics in the South, one of Trump’s stronghold regions?

There was this moment on Jan. 6 where so many of the rioters were breaking through the windows and just pouring into the Capitol building, realizing the type of fantasies they had expressed online for so long.

So it was being accelerated by people who were already amenable to pushing things in extreme directions. This was absolutely what they wanted. And Trump appeared to be giving them permission to go further, to fantasize further and to dig into their beliefs.

From a Southern perspective, sadly, there have been these really long holdouts of people who admire the Confederacy and were fighting to protect Confederate statues and turning up in Charlottesville and all that kind of stuff. The ultimate battle that was fought in the first Civil War is one about seceding the Union. And here you have people seeking to take up once again for the racist right. They are again a mantle of rebellion, a rebellion against the State. That has a lot of power for some southern extremists.

And what are some of the examples that we’ve seen on the political side with regard to the anti-democratic bills being pushed in statehouses around the South?

In Georgia there’s been concerted effort to bring in Trump loyalists who believe his lies about the election being stolen. That is a very scary thing for Georgia and the state’s future.

But also, there have been more extreme examples. Again, in Georgia, look at the Cobb County Republicans. They [were] hosting an event on Jan. 6 which [would] have portrayed some of the Jan. 6 rioters as victims and patriots. That’s the sort of rhetoric we might see from the type of hate groups we monitor rather than one of our two political parties. And in the South, there’s just a flurry of Oathkeepers who are being arrested. Florida, another important battleground state, is a hotbed for far-right radicalization. It very often comes from these places where the political intensity is very high.

Republican politicians are now willing to align themselves with people like Nick Fuentes, who is a pro-Mussolini, fascist apologist who organizes with white nationalists. And mainstream politicians have nothing to gain from him on social media. He can’t really elevate them, but he relies on politicians to elevate him.

That should be very scary to people.

You brought up the idea that there appears to be a race to the far right by most Republicans, but have you identified any sort of moderate conservative candidates in the South who would dare to challenge the emerging status quo of the radical right?

I don’t want to be giving the appearance of endorsing specific candidates or anything like that. But what I will say, generally speaking, it is not a safe environment for Republicans to pursue moderate Trump critical policies. It’s really not. If you look at people like Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney who have been targeted with the wrath of the extreme right, which is rhetoric typically reserved for people like Nancy Pelosi. So it does not appear to be safe.

In the Virginia governor’s race, for example, the Republican candidate is also focusing on things that I think the center does care about, like education, while also hinting at things that excite the far right. I mean, it is a very difficult balance but there’s proof that it can be done.  

They are sort of spiking the drink in the form of the critical race theory conversation, which excites the extreme far right. But I think it’s going to be harder and harder to pull that off going forward as it becomes clear to people that the party is taking huge steps to undo democracy.

You mentioned that people may be becoming wise to the far-right messaging and that the extremist rhetoric is being used to whip up fear and endanger democracy. Is there an end in sight to all this?

It’s likely the far-right will just keep pushing further. There’s absolutely no compromise and that can only really lead in a few directions. If you are an optimist about it, they may destroy themselves in the sense that they just simply become so rigid and so extreme they become unpalatable and unelectable.

But there are backstops. It’s possible to be corrupt and succeed in Georgia, but perhaps governing the city of Atlanta is a different matter. You can also be corrupt in Florida and succeed, but remember that Miami is central to success in Florida. Cities are diverse places that don’t necessarily always favor an extremist far-right worldview, yet they remain important for winning big elections.

But also, we need to be cognizant of the fact that authoritarian regimes have ways of getting power and keeping power. And that’s why it’s important to be ready for this and embrace the fight and not expect it to go away, because it’s not going to go away. And it really has to do with us as a society and as a civilization that we reject hate and that we seek to maintain America’s democracy.