How do communities create a shared identity that can nurture or support an armed group? How do rituals and practices foster violent mobilizations in the very different contexts of the separatist rebellion in the Western Sahara and the white nationalist milieu in the United States? A comparison of armed movements in these different regions and contexts suggest that even armed groups with completely different goals and politics still use some common mechanisms to nurture shared identity and grievance.
Kurt Braddock: The concept of identity—including how different kinds of extremist groups offer a meaningful identity to people—has been part of the debate surrounding “what makes an extremist” for a long time. In the last twenty years, this has focused most heavily on Islamic jihadist terrorist groups. The September 11 attacks had a long and lasting legacy on how we have approached our understanding of these groups.
Now, though, I think we’re seeing that domestic groups in the United States are no different. We’ve long known that “traditional” far-right groups like neo-Nazis promise potential members that they can be part of something larger than themselves. But with the newest iteration of what we call the “Far Right” (which, at present, is an amalgam of different groups, organizations, ideologies, and conspiracies), there are no formal channels through which promises of identity are made. Instead, individuals who are part of the Far Right in the United States seem to cultivate a shared identity from the kinds of online and offline actions they take, which signal their willingness to fight the Left and defend what they see as “traditional America.”
Are you seeing similar things in the Western Sahara, Jacob?
Jacob Mundy: I agree that we need to think beyond normative categories like “extremist.” In Western Sahara, we’re talking about an ethnonationalist independence movement that has the incredible benefit of a territorial safe haven in a neighboring country (Algeria) where 40 percent of the indigenous population has lived as refugees since 1976. This population has been able to act, in their daily lives—at least in the refugee camps—as if they’re already a separate nation from Morocco. Inside the Moroccan-occupied territory, there are other things that Western Saharans do to mark their difference from Moroccans, from dress to cuisine to still speaking the colonial language of Spanish. But if we’re talking about the armed wing of Western Saharan nationalism, we’re talking about the diaspora in Algeria. Safe exile is an enormous advantage versus having to organize within a polity, often clandestinely, in order to shape the direction of that polity, as in the groups in Kurt’s research. An essential commonality to think about is how groups construct the “Other”—the threat—that animates the cohesion of the group. Having a strong sense of an enemy-Other, particularly one that poses an existential threat of ideological or physical annihilation, not only can work wonders for internal cohesion, but can also paper over any internal contradictions that might otherwise get in the way of organizing resistance. Again, this—the Other—is something very ready-made for Western Saharan nationalists: Morocco and Moroccans. How identity is formed “internally” has a lot to do with how it’s formed “externally.”
“What has grown increasingly concerning for me is the degree to which mainstream right-wing politicians have adopted extremist talking points to appeal to their constituency.”
Kurt: I think that is a fantastic observation, and one that transcends geographic or ideological context. The construction of the Other is one of the fundamental processes by which American far-right groups cultivate cohesion and identity. We see this in their rhetorical talking points related to the “invasion” of dehumanized immigrants, the existential threat posed by what they call “socialism” or “communism” (with little discussion of what they actually are), and the machinations of nebulous “elites.” All of these groups and ideologies are thrown into a conceptual bucket that serves as a dehumanized enemy against which the Far Right thinks it needs to fight.
What has grown increasingly concerning for me is the degree to which mainstream right-wing politicians have adopted some of these talking points to appeal to the more extreme elements of their constituency. I’m not sure if this is something that has gone on in Western Sahara, but it is certainly a phenomenon familiar to some countries in Europe, dating back to before World War II. Do mainstream politics play into how extremists in the Western Sahara cultivate their collective identity?
Tight and Loose Movements
Jacob: I think maybe we’re running up against a question of “radical flanks” and what the cart-and-horse relationship is in any given movement between armed and political wings. This question is particularly tricky in those movements that embrace or tolerate violence as a legitimate tactic or an “inevitable” endgame, eagerly or reluctantly—especially violence against civilians.
It also seems like we need to think about “loose” movements on the one hand and “tight” movements on the other. The Western Saharan independence movement has been very tightly organized since it crystalized in the early 1970s. When compared to other nationalist movements of a similar character struggling against an irredentist occupation (for example, the Palestinians), the Western Saharan independence movement has remained surprisingly unified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has, at the same time, become more and more politically and strategically cautious as the founding leadership transitioned from ambitious youth to the status of respected elders. That is, they’ve never had to contend with the emergence of a radical competitor pushing for more extreme action based on a different ideological foundation. A Socialist journalist in Spain even dismissed the movement’s leadership as “bourgeois nationalist.”
In such a “tight” setting, where distinctions between armed and political wings have been institutionally collapsed in the name of ongoing revolutionary struggle, it can be difficult to tease out the cart and horse. But we’ve known for a long time that it was the youth in the refugee camps, particularly those born after the 1991 UN ceasefire, who were demanding a resumption of the war against Morocco, which finally happened in late 2020. What I see in Western Sahara is a highly unified political-military movement that is using armed resistance (in more conventional rather than irregular ways) to maintain the movement’s cohesion. In your case, it seems like we see a potentially coalescing situation where the center (or “mainstream”) and the periphery (or radical flanks) are collapsing into each other, which raises the question of what is driving this centripetal movement. Was the collapse the result of the way in which the administration of Donald Trump directly and indirectly normalized what had been a kind of subterranean discourse on the right? Or is it a longer process? (If we can put aside the gutting of the American middle class since the 1970s as an obvious backdrop.)
Kurt: That is my read of it. Although many will argue that the mainstream Right and the radical Right had become more aligned since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 (and indeed, we saw a spike in far-right activity after his election), I do think it was Trump’s rhetoric that has led to the overt alliance between the radical flanks and elected officials like Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley, and the like. It seems to me that these elected officials have done the political calculus in determining that the flanks are a sufficient proportion of the electorate to appeal to them in the same way that Trump did—with implicit support for violence (in the form of dog whistles) and, increasingly, overt support for the groups on the radical fringes.
This brings us back to our original point in relation to identity: it seems that individuals who are supportive of the Trump clones (for lack of a better term) have built their collective identity around what has become known as “Trumpism,” a form of aggressive, right-wing nationalist-populism. Increasingly, it seems like these politicians (and the more radical elements of their constituency) hinge their identity on the fact that they are “anti-Left.” And of course, this has led to increasing polarization in the United States, as the American Left has grown increasingly concerned and angered by the new Right, which is being shaped in the image of Trump. Why do you think the American Right is increasingly collapsing in on itself into an amalgam of the “mainstream” and the “fringe,” while the groups you study seem to remain distinct in that respect (in other words, political and armed wings are separate, if affiliated)?
Extremists in the Mainstream
Jacob: I’m not sure I’d want to go there, as I’m only a casual, if concerned, observer of these trends. We probably agree that this is something latent and originary in the American polity, as a racial settler-colonial state, that has never been exorcized, but merely buried for a time by narratives of the fighting fascism in World War II and the “three glorious decades” of North Atlantic capitalism prior to the 1970s. As the historian Mike Davis likes to point out, the liberal-centrist elite in the United States, and the Left for that matter, have never really come to terms with the fact that a third of the population would embrace an American Adolf Hitler were he, or maybe she, to arrive. And so they did—and do—with Trump, as incompetent as he proved to be. But I think this convergence of the flanks and center, however unintended it may be in some ways, has a lot to do with particular and well-monied groups in the United States reacting not only to the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, but also laying the groundwork for minoritarian rule, a geographical strategy that has been decades in the making and is now bearing enormous fruit. Which brings us to the demographic question.
Kurt: One of the most difficult challenges to contend with relates to the new motivations of much of the American Far Right. The Far Right in the United States seems to be an ever-evolving Venn diagram where individuals can pick and choose which parts of different ideologies they may draw from. That is not terribly new; but what is new and difficult to contend with is the fact that many of the circles that the Venn diagram comprises include imaginary threats from out-groups that help to coalesce a group identity among the Far Right. More than ever before in recent history, several elements of the American Far Right are taken with conspiracy theories and disinformation with no basis in reality. One of the major policy implications of this is that assuaging real concerns (for example, economic inequality) will do little to reduce radicalization to violence among those who are most taken with imagined threats. There are always new imaginary concerns that a far-right group is ready to put forward, and new followers ready to latch onto them. When the practice of violence against imagined external threats is a major element of a group’s ideology, it becomes difficult to divorce a member of that group from their violent intentions.
Jacob: One of the ironies here is that in conflicts like those involving Palestine and Western Sahara, there have been genuine attempts to leverage demography for political ends. Whereas it’s difficult to say that—outside of conspiracy theories—there’s been a deliberate effort on the part of any U.S. administration to shape demographic trends in a meaningful way, apart from the bipartisan effort to enforce highly securitized borders, immigration, and asylum policies. I’m thinking of how European countries are increasing their efforts to promote immigration for specific educated classes in the developing world, while offering all kinds of subsidies and support for women to have more children; or even how China’s child policies have turned on a dime, and now encourage larger families. The New York Times ran a chart last fall that showed how dramatically U.S. birth rates have fallen since 2008. The date of 2008 should signal something in terms of the economic precarity that has been feeding the domestic anxieties behind the convergence of the right flanks and the mainstream.
“We see this stunning resurgence of nationalism that makes all the ‘end of history’ stuff from the 1990s seem so quaint.”
Another irony is how demographic decline and global warming necessitate thinking now about massive population movements from increasingly uninhabitable zones, mainly in the Global South, to habitable ones. Meanwhile, we see this stunning resurgence of nationalism that makes all the “end of history” stuff from the 1990s seem so quaint. For Kurt, I guess I would want to know what it is for these groups about territory and identity as ideological cornerstones that continue to be such motivators. This future we currently have is not the postmodern one of transnational cosmopolitan hybridity that we were promised!
Kurt: It seems that far-right groups in the United States believe they have an essential claim not only to what it means to “be American,” but to shape the United States in a way they see fit. One of the rallying cries of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists is “blood and soil.” These groups seem to consider themselves to be the epitome of what it means to be American and live in the United States. Although territory and identity are not the only elements of their collective identity, they are large ones. To them, to be American is generally to be born in the United States and white. Those who don’t match that description are outsiders to be resisted. This is really nothing new, though. Creation of an in-group through collective identity is part and parcel of extremist groups, as is the othering of perceived out-groups and the subsequent justification of violence against them.
Jacob: One thing that struck me as I was writing my thesis about the shifting territorial strategy of jihadist groups is the similar “near enemy, far enemy” dialectic on the American right. It seems to me that the Clinton administration was a time when a lot of these domestic energies were directed inward in the wake of the Cold War. That is to say, the 1990s seem to be a moment when there was this realization that mobilizing against the “internal” or “near” enemy can be an immense source of political power that is impossible to resist, even though it runs the risk of rubbing shoulders with the putatively untouchable aspects of the Right. For a brief moment, we could say that this was somewhat abated after 9/11. But the Global War on Terror’s dividends, in terms of domestic discipline, were relatively short-lived. And as you noted above, the Obama administration, as the new “near enemy,” perhaps did more to unify the Right than all of the overt and subterranean organizing that had taken place since the birth of the reactionary Right in late 1960s.
This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
header image: Members of the far-right “boogaloo boys” join other gun rights advocates in front of the Virginia State House as pro-gun supporters gather on January 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images