The conservative movement would like you to believe that it’s separate and distinct from the far-right crazies that traffic in white supremacy and paranoid conspiracies. And, on its face, that’s true. Many of the establishment conservatives abhor the most virulent extremists, like those who stormed the Capitol last January. In the words of Vox writer Sean Illing, “the high-minded conservatives…probably think those insurrectionists are buffoons.”
The problem is that there isn’t all that much high-mindedness remaining on the right these days. Even the groups that have long embraced legitimate political tactics – no matter how disagreeable their politics may be – are finding themselves increasingly swimming in the same swamp as the most extreme factions out there.
Case in point is the March for Life, a series of rallies held around the nation annually in opposition to abortion laws (which may be going away anyway thanks to the Supreme Court). The demonstrations are generally peaceful, but this year’s rally in Chicago brought a new wrinkle to the event.
Joining the March this year were dozens of members of the Patriot Front, a white supremacist group whose leader participated in the notorious Charlottesville rally in 2017. The group carried shields and a large sign reading, “STRONG FAMILIES MAKE STRONG NATIONS.”
Patriot Front isn’t just a white supremacist group. Like many of its kind, it’s also virulently anti-LGBTQ. The group was connected to the vandalism of a memorial at the site of the Pulse nightclub massacre.
March organizers emphasized that they had no affiliation with the Patriot Front and condemned white supremacy. Some March attendees heckled the supremacists, with one man yelling, “You guys are an embarrassment.”
However, the Patriot Front didn’t show up at the March for Life for no reason whatsoever. Besides the publicity, they clearly saw that it was an opportunity for recruitment.
“As we’re just on the heels of January 6th, white supremacist groups are actively trying to recruit,” David Goldenberg of the Anti-Defamation League told the Chicago Sun-Times. “They’re actively trying to recruit at events like occurred in Chicago and they’re also actively trying to recruit at political rallies.”
The fact that long-standing fixtures in the conservative movement could be considered fertile ground for white supremacist recruitment is a sign of just how far right the entire movement has shifted. What was once considered extremist is now being mainstreamed. Fox commentator Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most influential voice on the right today, has declared white supremacy a hoax and has glorified the insurrections as patriots.
Carlson is merely echoing what former President Trump himself has done. During a 2020 presidential debate, Trump even gave a shout-out to a white supremacist group.
The conservative movement’s problem is that it played along with – and often stoked – the lies that fueled extremism in its ranks and never bothered to purge the poison. By the time Trump came along, extremism had taken over. The movement can pretend to ignore it or try to placate it, but it can’t control it. As it turns out, when you lie down with Trump, you will get up with fleas–and worse.