The Republican Party Has Been Infiltrated by Far-Right Extremists

Voters in the U.S. midterms are faced with a Republican Party accommodating election deniers, conspiracy theorists and far-right radicals.

This week US voters are heading to the polls in unprecedented conditions, amid a climate of extreme polarisation, rampant conspiracy theories and a looming threat of political violence.

The midterms are the first national vote to be held since the riots of January the 6th, 2021, when a mob of thousands of far-right Donald Trump supporters, who believed their candidate had been cheated in the presidential elections, stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., seeking to keep him in power by force. Despite efforts by the January 6 Committee to get to the bottom of the tumultuous events of that day, the same dangerous currents that drove the insurrection by far-right “election deniers” are hanging heavily over a vote that will determine who controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, and dozens of state governorships.

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Last month, federal officials issued an intelligence assessment detailing the threats surrounding the midterms, warning that perceptions of election-related fraud and dissatisfaction with the outcome were likely to result in heightened threats of violence. The assessment was released on the same day that Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker and leading Democrat Nancy Pelosi, was attacked at the couple’s home in San Francisco.

What’s remarkable is that the threat is not just limited to the margins of American society. In many cases, the figures seeking to sow doubt on the 2020 election results, or in some cases having actively worked to overturn them, are actually on the Republican docket. In fact, more than 290 Republican nominees standing on Tuesday have publicly questioned the outcome of the presidential election, according to a Washington Post tally.

The prevalence of so-called election deniers among the Republican names on the ballot is just one symptom of a startling jolt to the far-right within the Grand Old Party. The party, which has traditionally positioned itself as the vehicle for responsible conservatism in US politics, has increasingly become the home of radical right-wing politics, conspiracy theories, and even figures linked to militant groups, in a development that observers fear presents a potential threat to US democracy.

“The Republican Party has gone from being a traditional political party … a party that would look to solve problems, abide by the norms of governance, and often had a fairly wide range of viewpoints expressed in it – to where it is now, much closer to a cult,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative DC think tank.

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One of the most striking manifestations of this is the way that figures aligned with militant far-right groups have been infiltrating the party. The Oath Keepers is an armed far-right militia which played a key role in the Jan. 6 insurrection; the group, drawn mostly from former military and police, is characterised by extremism experts as having a conspiratorial, anti-government outlook and seeking confrontations with the government.

But in a dramatic break from that posture, members of these groups are now running for office. Mark Finchem, a member of the Oath Keepers, was at the US Capitol on January the 6th, 2021, and has sought to overturn the 2020 election results; on Tuesday, he will be on the ballot as the Republican nominee for Arizona secretary of state, which would make him the state’s top election official. Leaked records revealed that other politicians, such as David Eastman, a Republican member of the Alaska House of Representatives, and Chad Christensen, a Republican in the Idaho House of Representatives, belonged to the extremist group.

Eastman is running for re-election, although, according to reports, if he wins he may be ruled ineligible to hold public office due to the state’s disloyalty clause, which prohibits anyone who advocates for the overthrow of the government from holding office in Alaska.

Meanwhile, members of the militant far-right group the Proud Boys – also heavily implicated in the Jan. 6 uprising – have taken up positions in key Republican Party local offices, such as Miami, Florida, to try and steer the future of the party from the inside. 

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Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said these developments reflected the fact that these extremist groups felt increasingly at home in the 2022-era Republican Party.

“These groups have been out there for a while and they operated primarily on the fringe of society,” he said. “But I think what Donald Trump has done is to invite them in. If you look at what happened around January 6th, it was almost like an open invitation to come to Washington and make trouble.”

He said high-profile comments by Trump around the far-right – such as that there were “very fine people on both sides” at the infamous 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, or for the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” – had only served to legitimise extremist groups.

“I think for the first time, they felt welcomed. Not only that, they felt in some ways that they were needed – the way that Trump talked about the threats coming from the other side and the integrity of America and all of those things being at risk,” Patterson said.

Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, said that the GOP now seemed in the hands of two distinct camps: reactionary fanatics – ”people who genuinely believe in conspiracy theories, genuinely believe that those on the other side of the aisle are evil and trying to destroy our way of life” – and those who knew better, but feared standing up against the extremists for fear of being cast out of the increasingly radicalised party. 

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“What characterises a cult is that the fear of being shunned or excommunicated, of being treated as an apostate is an overwhelming one,” he said. 

He cited the treatment of prominent Republican Liz Cheney – a Republican House Representative who has faced massive blowback from the MAGA camp for her vocal opposition to Trump – as a prime example of what has happened to traditional voices within the party. 

Cheney supported the second impeachment of Trump for his role in Jan. 6, and in response was ousted from her leadership position within the party, before losing her bid for renomination in the Republican primary in August by a landslide to a Trump-endorsed candidate. 

Ornstein said that while Trump had sped up the radicalisation of the party, the groundwork had been set long before his arrival, and the problems would remain whether or not Trump returned to the political mainstage.

He said that the current crisis had its roots in the longstanding political tribalisation that had long gripped the US – a shift from viewing opponents as “honourable but misguided” to “evil and trying to destroy our way of life.” That had been exacerbated by the loss of leadership that could resist extremist impulses, and the rise of partisan media, a tendency which has been supercharged by social media.

“Trump may have been an accelerant… He remains the cult leader. But if he disappeared tomorrow, most of these pathologies remain,” Ornstein added.

(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)