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Among the Thugs

How the far-right beat went from backwater to basic

Back in 2017, nobody knew that the Proud Boys would become what they became: not the other fascists who rode Donald Trump’s coattails into popular consciousness, not the antifascists who tracked them online and confronted them in person, and not the journalists who wrote about them. It is doubtful that the Proud Boys themselves even knew. But, four years later, it was a Proud Boy who led a mob through the doors of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, ransacking the building, seeking out political enemies, and disrupting, at least temporarily, the peaceful transition of power from Trump to Joe Biden.

As an organization, the Proud Boys had passed through several evolutions before reaching the point of storming the Capitol. These changes were often catalyzed by the infamous running street battles that took place in Portland, Oregon, during Trump’s presidency. By June 2018, the Proud Boys had been rampaging through the liberal city for months, regularly showing up downtown with scores or even hundreds of supporters to provoke a response from local antifascist crews, union members, or anyone else who might object to the presence of a right-wing street gang. Video footage from that summer captured one of the Proud Boys’ brawlers, the burly Ethan Nordean, searching for a target during one such demonstration. In the clip, an antifascist swings a metal baton at Nordean, who blocks it with a padded forearm. When his antagonist swings at him again, Nordean catches the weapon with his left hand before knocking the other guy out with a single haymaker from his right.

Almost immediately, the video went viral, gaining traction across right-wing social media spaces. “The Proud Boys called it the ‘punch heard around the world,’ and it instantly catapulted Nordean to celebrity status on the fringes of the far right,” Andy Campbell writes in his recent book, We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism. “The video exploded across conservative media, presented as indisputable proof of leftist violence and as rationale for right-wing retribution.”

At the core of the Proud Boys’ ideology—and their appeal—is the right to violence: that is, the right to wield it with impunity. After Nordean went viral for his punch, juiced by subsequent interviews, Proud Boys recruitment exploded. In the month that followed, the organization vetted more than 820 possible new recruits. This was but one moment in a pattern of overall growth: in early 2017, there were just three national chapters of the Proud Boys listed on Facebook; by 2018, there were forty-four.

A talented and diligent reporter, Campbell’s key insights in We Are Proud Boys concern the group’s finances and organizational structure. The Proud Boys are decentralized, with members organized into chapters and a national leadership body exerting some influence but permitting a large degree of autonomy. Dues are collected, but they are apparently voluntary. Despite the early leadership and ongoing influence of Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys have not been able to build up an independent media apparatus that might bring in subscription revenue. What they have done is tap into mainstream MAGA fears about woke mobs, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter, such that their fundraisers are able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through crowdfunding sites. One recent data leak revealed that the majority of their donations came not from “shadowy conservative mega donors, or extremist collectives supporting a like-minded cause, or bots inflating the numbers,” Campbell writes, but “everyday conservatives giving whatever spare cash they could.”

Indeed, what is perhaps so disturbing about the Capitol riot specifically and the rise of far-right political violence more generally is that groups like the Proud Boys do not predominate, even if they clearly exert leadership. “Getting regular people to go along with violence is one of the many sobering characteristics of the Trump era that the Proud Boys helped to normalize,” Campbell writes. “Not only can you expect bloodshed at a rally where the gang shows up, but it’s no longer surprising to see weapons and armor and fighting at any civic event.”

What is the role of the journalist in such an environment? Campbell is uncertain. “The press’ job generally boils down to seeking out and reporting the most fair and accurate description of events as possible, in service of the public interest,” he writes. “But in extremism land, the route towards that goal isn’t always clear. This is a different kind of journalism, in which the subject is actively trying to wrest control of the narrative and distort it for personal gain.” Fascists aren’t the first or only actors to try to control what’s written about them, but they may be uniquely hostile to the journalistic endeavor. “Reporting on modern extremism is a difficult and ever-evolving dance,” Campbell writes, “one that we’re still building best practices for.”

White Hoods, Red Hats

I started writing about the far right in early 2016. My interest had been piqued by Ammon Bundy’s occupation of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge. At the time, I was a lowly Gawker staff writer, and more senior reporters were covering news coming out of the occupation itself. I started looking for stories around the edges, learning more about militias and the Patriot movement, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, sovereign citizens: the recent history of proto- and quasi-fascist paramilitary formations scattered across the American hinterland that had begun to cohere more meaningfully under the banner of the Trump campaign.

Since 2016, writers and reporters covering the far right have gotten extremely adept at answering the basic questions that structure good journalism: the who-when-where-how of it all.

Other reporters were drawn to these stories as well, many of them also young and ambitious and working at digital media publications. Between 2015 and 2017, something like a “far-right” beat began to take shape. Some had been on the beat for longer, when it was lonelier; others were totally new, drawn as much by the opportunity to make a name for themselves as the chance to do something a little bit dangerous, a little bit exciting, a little bit scary, and maybe even of world-historical importance. We found ourselves part of a growing group of journalists who were asking similar questions about similar subjects, covering the same events, providing support for each other in group chats, buying each other drinks, sharing press releases, gossiping, and splitting hotel rooms. This is another way of saying that I know almost everyone quoted in this story personally. Some I count as very good friends.

Huffington Post reporter Chris Mathias’s first experience writing about the far right was covering a demonstration in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 2017. A rumor had spread on MAGA Facebook that the dreaded Antifa were going to show up to piss on the graves of the Confederate dead. The trouble, of course, is that the graves of the Confederate dead at the battlefield are unmarked; Antifa wouldn’t know where to piss. Still, “you had militias, white nationalists, straight up KKK dudes, dudes in red [MAGA] hats,” Mathias recalled to me. A few months later, he reported on Unite the Right, a day of street brawls in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in the murder of Heather Heyer. When he got back to New York after the deadly rally, his editor told him that this was his new beat. He wasn’t the only one. “There was this rush across media, after Charlottesville, to make this a beat,” Mathias said.

In the early days, that meant one-off pieces about particular demonstrations and counterdemonstrations: Richard Spencer’s college campus speaking tour; Milo Yiannopoulos’s free speech events in Berkeley; Traditionalist Worker Party rallies across Appalachia and the Midwest; Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer demonstrations in Portland. “I do think there was an inclination five years ago towards shiny-object reporting—‘Look at how shocking this one thing is!’—without a real analysis of what they represent, how they’re connected to power, and why they’re a threat specifically,” Mathias told me.

Vegas Tenold, whose book Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America was one of the first written by this particular crop of journalists, remembers the period similarly. “There was a point where it seemed like all we were doing was exposing random members of Patriot Front or Proud Boys—which is fine, fuck those guys, but I think we needed to sort of reorient ourselves a bit as a beat to what was worthwhile,” he said. “Is our job just to make sure these random pieces of shit get covered or get fired? Or should we be looking at a bigger picture? The beat has always had to reorient itself as the movement morphs and changes.”

One form of reorientation was that more institutions dedicated more personnel, as well as more resources, to the beat. This meant that coverage got better, smarter, more robust. But it also meant that it got, well, institutionalized. “Pretty soon, every single self-respecting outlet had its own extremism desk,” Tenold, now at Vice News, said. “I think that when you’re an extremism reporter-hammer, everything becomes an extremism nail. Even though our coverage was smarter, there was a time there was a lot of attention paid to some pretty marginal, bad faith people.”

Based and Ubiquitous

Since 2016, writers and reporters covering the far right have gotten extremely adept at answering the basic questions that structure good journalism: the who-when-where-how of it all. Despite the depth of collective knowledge on this subject, however, we’re not much closer to answering the why more than seven years later, at least not satisfactorily. Some journalists on the beat find such discussions to be distracting or even paralyzing. “Those big picture conversations, especially when they’re speculative, they’re just inevitably inconclusive. We’re just not able to fully know all of the relevant dynamics in the present, let alone how they’re gonna play out in the future,” Jason Wilson, a reporter who has worked for the Guardian and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told me. “But there is a really grounded thing I can do, which is kind of an act of faith.” That is, keep reporting.

Even for those who are inclined to have the big picture conversations, many beat reporters just don’t have the capacity to grapple with them in the course of their work. This is not a knock on a cohort of very talented, thoughtful, and rigorous journalists, but when there’s always another rally to cover, another cop or soldier to unmask, another piece of fascist legislation to write about, it’s hard to offer anything more than the most tentative, conjectural hypotheses about what ties these seemingly discrete phenomena together.

This may simply be a disciplinary limitation of journalism: “first draft of history” and all that. But it’s also a consequence of the business model of the places where journalists covering the far right got their start: even if they have since moved on to newspapers or magazines, many of the young reporters who came onto this beat were first employed by digital publications. By 2016, digital media had developed to a point where the whole operation wasn’t simply run on news aggregation and commentary—that is, cheap content. There was money available to be invested in real reporting, but it still had to be done on a budget, as quickly as possible. And, as it turned out, the money didn’t last. “Digital media was kind of ahead of legacy organizations getting into [covering extremism],” Mathias said, “and now digital media is in such disarray.” (In the time since I began working on this piece, Vice News declared bankruptcy and BuzzFeed, which owns the HuffPost, shut down BuzzFeed News.)

Most people who are not fascists do not spend large chunks of time listening to fascist podcasts, reading fascist blogs, or hanging out in fascist group chats.

There are other built-in limitations, too. When reporting on the Florida county that sent a record number of Capitol rioters to D.C., or how a white nationalist faction of the Idaho GOP is consolidating control over more and more of the state, writers like Mathias are able to reveal how varied elements of an always-developing coalition coordinate, cooperate, and compete to build power both within and against the Republican Party under widely varying conditions. But their angle is inevitably skewed by the demands of writing a national story: any given event must be represented as either “a microcosm of stuff that’s happening everywhere, or it’s a blueprint or a bellwether for what’s going to happen at a national level,” Mathias said. When one group of armed men shows up to protest a library’s drag queen story hour, this, for the national reporter, is automatically and necessarily connected to all the other groups of armed men showing up to drag queen story hours around the country—it’s what makes the protest relevant to their audience. But this approach makes it easy to lose sight of how these men fit into wherever it is they are from: What ties do they have to local politicians, capitalists, and other power brokers? How is it that they were primed to mobilize for this demonstration? What other protests have they been going to?

Local activists and research collectives might be able to help journalists make these links, but editors are unlikely to be interested because a national readership is unlikely to be interested. And local outlets—well, what local outlets? The country’s alt-weeklies have almost all folded or been eviscerated. Regional papers, suffering one wave of layoffs after another, have been bought up and consolidated into national chains. Some nonprofit publications have found piecemeal funding to fill the gaps, but it’s not the same—and a growing reliance on philanthropy, which can always change its mind, may bode ill for the fourth estate. “This corporate bloodletting of local media really abets these surges on the far right,” Kelly Weill, formerly of The Daily Beast, told me.

The ubiquity of far-right politics also makes determining newsworthiness difficult. “Every town I know,” Weill said, “has some Moms for Liberty candidates pulling the most annoying thing you’ve seen in your life at every single school board meeting.” She continued: “You can call anyone up and ask, ‘What’s the dumbest thing that someone in a Ford F-150 has done in your town in the past six months?’ and they will have something just off the walls for you.” Journalists on this beat work with an understanding that there’s a “difference between covering someone just because they’re saying something crazy and understanding the broader systemic networks that they’re a part of,” as Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, put it. Sometimes that means being more selective, more discerning, more patient—waiting to see how a story is beginning to develop before covering it, she said. But reporters are compelled to report; you can only wait and see for so long when deadlines are looming, and your editor needs blog posts. A balance needs to be struck. “Some of the things I’ve written I don’t think will be immediately useful, but I decided to write about them because I think they will be at some point,” she said. “With so many of these people, you write about them now, because in two years, they might be part of some other movement.”

Merlan has seen this bear out before. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, she noticed that a number of different conspiracy theorists and communities had begun to converge in what she dubbed the “conspiracy singularity.” “Because we’ve been covering them for so long, we understood how extraordinary it was that a bunch of anti-vaccine people became QAnon focused, became convinced that what they were doing was part of the broader battle against ‘The Cabal,’” she said. “Sometimes you have to cover things without understanding necessarily where they’re going . . . Sometimes the import of the people that we’re covering or writing about isn’t going to be clear to us for a really long time.”

Likewise, for Andy Campbell, no story is too small: “If you have a far-right bigot that people don’t really know right now, that your audience may not give a shit about at the moment, it’s still worthy or worthwhile covering these guys on a granular level, because inevitably you have these big extremist events that pull all these extremist elements together, and you end up benefiting from the previous coverage.” Not just your own previous coverage either, but the collective body of knowledge that this network of journalists and their sources—academics, nonprofit researchers, and local antifascist activists—has produced. Before 2016, these actors were scattered, fragmented, disconnected; today, there is a much more robust sense of communal labor. “There are so many researchers, so many local collectives keeping tabs on the extremists in their network, where now, if the Proud Boys commit violence, there’s like four antifascist research collectives who have already put together dossiers on all of them, and I don’t have to sit there and grow brain worms watching them spew bigotry on Telegram,” Campbell said.

Collaborating with activist researchers (and verifying their findings) has brought some beat reporters into closer alignment with sources than might be conventional, but that, Campbell said, is the nature of this beat. The relationship goes beyond information sharing. Most people who are not fascists do not spend large chunks of time listening to fascist podcasts, reading fascist blogs, or hanging out in fascist group chats. There is a reason for this: it is a psychically taxing, spiritually unpleasant endeavor. “It’s been destabilizing, personally, to stay involved in this world too much. I celebrate any reporter on this beat that both gets therapy and gets the hell off the beat for a little bit. It’s been tough for people’s mental health,” Campbell told me. Reporters, at least, are getting paid for it; the same can’t be said for antifascist activists. Still, a certain affinity can emerge. “When you spend all your time looking at this problem, and very few other people are looking at it besides activists, besides victims, you naturally feel some kind of camaraderie with those people. It can feel as though you and that set of people are the only ones watching this incoming problem,” Weill said. “When something like January 6 happens, you and those same activist groups, the same victims of past crimes, are the only ones who’ve been doomsaying about it, and you’ve been right. It’s unusual to find yourself more ideologically or mentally aligned with a group of activists or witnesses rather than people in your own profession.”

This sometimes unusual closeness between reporters and their sources also applies, conversely, to subjects. Journalists on this beat are well-known to, and loathed by, those they cover; the feeling is often mutual. “Of course I hate fascists: I’m a journalist; they’re our natural enemy. That’s the way they see us anyway,” Jason Wilson said. “I’m not speaking from self-preservation; my point is that they want to destroy liberal democracy. They see that journalism is integral to liberal democracy. I don’t think we need to entertain the perspectives of genocidal people who want to destroy the very framework that makes any kind of meaningful journalism possible. They want to destroy all of that. And they’ll say that, given the opportunity! Why do we have to be even-handed about those people?”

Still, it seems plausible that focusing so intensely on some of the worst people in the world—people who, even if they remain relatively distant from state power, even if the realization of their exterminationist fantasies remains unlikely, pose a real threat to the physical and mental well-being of exploited and oppressed people just trying to live their lives—might lead to overestimating their social and political import. “The stuff that trickles up to us on a national level is going to be the craziest, most visceral stuff,” Vegas Tenold said. “We sometimes can create this version of the world that is more extreme than it is. That can be a risk, because we don’t have budgets to go meet people, to go talk to people. So we become products of the reporting we can do.” He continued: “We have these articles that say that America, or the Armed Forces, has a huge problem with white supremacy, or that America has an extremism problem, but I don’t know what that means necessarily. I wonder if I get blinded by my own beat.”

At a practical level, this is what the so-called fascism debate is really about, or at least the most worthwhile versions of it: Are Proud Boys and the like simply dangerous clowns playing at counterrevolution on the periphery? How close are they to power as it already exists? How much mass does this movement actually have? Does the fact that so many of them, in the wake of January 6, have flipped on each other, or been revealed as informants and collaborators and even undercover Feds, mean that the far right is effectively a controlled opposition movement? Basically, how seriously do we have to take all this?

This line of questioning becomes the basis of a kind of vulgar materialist anti-antifascism: if a bunch of journalists, untrustworthy bourgeois mouthpieces that they are, are sounding the alarm about the fascist threat, and the Democratic party is also sounding the alarm about the fascist threat in order to get votes, maybe there is no fascist threat to speak of, really. After all, don’t reporters and antifascist activists have a vested interest in the continued relevance of their chosen subject? The more significant the far right is, the more resources, prestige, acclaim, and career opportunities reporters on the far-right beat are likely to get: Campbell published a book about the Proud Boys; Tenold published one about the Traditionalist Workers Party; Merlan and Weill published books about conspiracy theorists; Mathias has sold a book about antifascists; and most importantly, my book, Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, is now available in paperback.

The Nature of the Beast

Before the Trump years, the far-right beat was something of a backwater. No one knows this better than Dave Neiwert, one of the beat’s true veterans. He got his first newspaper job in the mid-1970s in Sandpoint, Idaho, about forty miles north of where the Aryan Nations had just set up their compound. Quickly, he and his editors were confronted with a question: How was the local paper going to cover the local neo-Nazis? “We made what we thought was the astute decision not to cover them at all,” he told me. “We thought, ‘They just want attention, and we’re not gonna give it to them.’”

Within a few years, however, the region was awash in crimes committed by people drawn to the compound and the movement: armed robberies, arson, and murder. The choice to ignore the Aryan Nations, the paper’s staff concluded, had been a mistake. “We really had no choice but to cover them . . . they brought so much criminality and so much misery to the region that you couldn’t not cover them,” Neiwert said. “Not only that, but it was pretty obvious that they [used] silence as a sign of broader assent, a certain unspoken consent by the larger society—to them it [was] a sign of approval.”

It’s hard to offer anything more than the most tentative, conjectural hypotheses about what ties these seemingly discrete phenomena together, where it’s all come from, and where it’s going.

This decision would shape the rest of Neiwert’s career. (Just last year he published The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy.) By the mid-1990s, he was covering the burgeoning militia movement that had formed as part of the backlash against environmentalist efforts to protect public lands in the American West from mining and logging interests. After the Oklahoma City bombing, editors turned to him as one of the few reporters who had gone out and interviewed militia members. Soon enough, he was focused on right-wing extremism almost exclusively, although this became more difficult during the Bush years. “My reportage shifted from focusing on the groups themselves,” Neiwert told me, “and became much more focused on how this stuff was moving into the mainstream.” His was not a popular move: after 9/11, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq escalating, patriotism was the order of the day, and fear of accusations of liberal bias was particularly intense. “That accusation really serves the purposes of most media ownership, because most media ownership is already conservative, and conservatives are not eager to have this stuff exposed,” he said.

Chased out of mainstream newsrooms, Neiwert made his way through the political blogosphere, eventually writing for places like the SPLC and Daily Kos. “I was planning to retire a lot earlier and just kind of pedal off into the sunset and write about whales,” he said. “But then Donald Trump came along.” Editors and producers quickly recognized that there was an audience for stories about the freakshow that was the Trump campaign and coalition—a freakshow, it turned out, that would become the main event in American politics. Suddenly, there was all kinds of support for “proper reportage” on extremism, as Neiwert put it. “There’s always going to be crappy journalists tackling this subject, but the core of people who now treat it as a beat tend to have very similar consensus on the nature of the beast.”

It is true that people who are paid to cover the far right largely believe that it is a beat worth pursuing. But as to the nature of the beast, it seems to me that there is quite a bit of dissensus. The agreement extends at least this far: across the world, far-right politics are gaining traction via a varied array of street movements, random violence, media manipulation, and official government support; while this phenomenon in the United States is inextricably rooted in the country’s history of settler-colonialism and white supremacy, the long crisis of neoliberalism has produced some strange new political alignments; echoes of past fascisms do ring in the present.

Beyond that, however, there is barely even consensus about what to call the thing that we’re all supposedly writing about. “A lot of words are helpful shorthands, but ultimately might be misleading,” Mathias said. Even the term far right might now obscure more than it clarifies. “It’s the same with the word extremism. It’s a good shorthand, but it also implies that there is a center, or a reasonable center, which is not helpful,” he continued. “It’s always interesting to see which terms become more in vogue. Over the last few years, we’ve had a lot more people using the term antidemocratic, which I think is helpful to a certain degree but will probably fall to the wayside soon.”


Between August 2017 and January 2021, the far right beat cohered, flourished, and began to fade away—partly in proportion to its subject. “It really feels like Charlottesville and January 6 are the bookends,” Mathias told me. In the time since, something has discernibly shifted. “I’ve been interested in how quickly the organizational and journalistic interest in the far right has gone away. There’s just not as much coverage,” Merlan said. “The field has narrowed.” What’s more, writing about the far right was once a way to smuggle more radical analyses into mainstream media—say, for example, the idea that liberals and the Democratic Party are culpable in the rise of these groups. Now, however, such arguments have been subsumed by the overwhelming discourse mobilized by the Democrats, wherein all political imperatives are subordinate to the fight against the right. The beat “became inextricably linked with establishment politics and establishment political discussions,” Merlan told me. “A lot of journalism about the far right has kind of run into this dead end where folks are trying to figure out where that coverage goes next,” she continued. “Most journalists are probably right now following the trials of the January 6 rioters. Then what happens?”

Journalists on this beat are well-known to, and loathed by, those they cover; the feeling is often mutual.

Mathias has one answer. “Basically, I think everyone is an extremism reporter now, to a certain extent, and it feels like we’ve turned into normal politics reporters,” he said. “The GOP has been so captured by what we used to call far-right extremism five years ago [that] I just covered a campaign [in 2022]—I was just covering the governor’s race in Pennsylvania.” Even as the GOP as a whole has shifted to the right, the most prominent figures from the “alt-right” period—the Richard Spencers, the Milo Yiannopouloses—have mostly faded into obscurity. “They haven’t been especially successful, many of them have had financial difficulties, intense personal difficulties, legal issues. But even while those people have floundered, so much of their messaging has been taken up quite explicitly by the more mainstream Republican Party,” Weill told me. “With the move of these ideas from the fringe to the center, I’ve had to do a lot more mainstream political reporting.”

Whatever distance there once was between the fringe and the mainstream has collapsed: Trump launched his 2024 presidential campaign in Waco, Texas, the Temple Mount of American reaction. A caucus of fanatics holds the reins of the congressional Republican party, while a judiciary captured by billionaire-funded theocratic revanchists decides the fate of millions. Republican-controlled state legislatures and executives pursue genocidal anti-LGTBQ policies, beginning with the attempted eradication of trans people from public life. Suburban stormtroopers across the country make life impossible for any teacher or librarian who dares to cultivate in their children an awareness of history, much less liberation.

Given these developments, many journalists who spent the better part of the last decade writing about right-wing extremism have found reason to reflect on the nature and purpose of their work. As Neiwert’s experience demonstrates, ignoring far-right extremists, fascists, neo-Nazis, and all the rest—whatever we want to call them—does not make them go away. Clearly, however, neither does reporting on them. This doesn’t negate the importance of the reporting, or the beat writ large, but it’s a tension that has increasingly come to dominate the work that the journalists I interviewed are doing. Some are even starting to tap out. “We have to be realistic about our own impact,” Tenold told me. “For all the work we’ve done on extremism in America, I think the way to mental health for us is to realize it’s probably not going to move the needle in any appreciable way.” You can only play whack-a-fascist-mole so many times before needing to find another game.

What would it really mean to move the needle? Since January 6, 2021, nearly twelve hundred Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and masses of unaffiliated MAGA supporters have been charged in relation to the storming of the U.S. Capitol. At the time of writing, more than half have been convicted and sentenced. Several high-profile leaders have been convicted of sedition—including the Proud Boys’ Nordean, of viral Portland beatdown fame. Meanwhile, Trump himself is facing dozens of criminal charges at both the state and federal levels. All of this has unfolded to cheers from the liberal commentariat, which remains totally invested in a legalistic and electoral strategy to rescue democracy from the fascist threat. How this strategy might be undermined or blunted by the radical right’s long march through the judiciary doesn’t warrant scrutiny. Neither does what will happen to those fascists while they’re in prison, or what they might be like when they get out.

While I can only speak for myself, I suspect that for many extremism reporters, this hardly feels like the crowning victory it’s been made out to be. Ultimately, the last seven years of journalism about right-wing violence and conspiratorial thinking has produced a readership persuaded of the fact that the forces of reaction pose a real, living threat to democracy, but it hasn’t shaken their blind commitment to the very political, economic, and social structure that, in crisis, gives rise to fascism in the first place. When it becomes impossible for the capitalist system to reproduce itself in the manner it has done—via a delicate balance of consent and coercion—the violence of the existing social order can no longer be sufficiently naturalized, and domination is all that remains.

The point here is not to start banging the “We should all be Marxists” drum. (Though it couldn’t hurt!) Nor is it to say that the “real” problem is neoliberalism or the Democratic Party. But if practitioners of the far-right beat understand their work as part of a self-consciously antifascist network of knowledge production, it is worth considering how the beat might have reproduced some of the problems and limitations of antifascist organizing: taking individual fascists as the sole or even primary object of your thinking and activity makes it more difficult, in the long run, to understand what they’re actually up to and why. At one level, this is because they are, if nothing else, liars, propagandists, and unreliable narrators with a distorted view of their own place in the world. At another level, it’s because doing so requires understanding the social totality in which such people are operating.

All of which is to say that the task at hand is to investigate the relation between fascism and capitalism, fascism and neoliberalism, fascism and the party system, fascism and the mass media, fascism and the bourgeoisie. After all, the years since January 6 have not only shown us how thoroughly extremism has migrated from the streets to the center of the Republican Party; they have also demonstrated the brittleness of Western liberals’ antifascist commitments. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was recently forced to apologize after his country’s parliament accidentally celebrated “a man who fought alongside the Nazis,” as the Associated Press euphemistically put it. A less-than-transformational Biden presidency has proven itself willing to redouble its predecessor’s policies on immigration and China, while throwing sections of organized labor under the bus (or the train, as it were) and sending $14.3 billion and two carrier strike groups to support Israel’s genocidal campaign against the people of the Gaza Strip—a policy polls indicate has threatened the tenuous popular front against Trump. The liberal bloc is rapidly losing its political and moral standing; its claims to speak for and defend the constantly-invoked-but-rarely-heard vulnerable and marginalized ring hollow. Such claims, in fact, are used to justify escalating violence, both intimate and structural; and to quell dissent in the name of combating oppression. Efforts to silence the movement for a free Palestine have issued from the highest reaches of government, from Congress’s censure of Representative Rashida Tlaib, to Biden’s public questioning of Palestinian casualty figures. This organized pressure has had a chilling effect on reporters, even at liberal bastions like MSNBC and the New York Times. Whether or not Trump returns to the White House in 2024, journalists should remember that this crackdown began under a president pitching himself as antifascism’s best electoral bet.

Anyway, so much for saving democracy. At least we got some good stories out of it.