National Mobilizations, A Failed Recall Campaign & Local Political Violence: What Does this Moment Tell Us about Far-Right Movement Building?

Western States Center
11 min readSep 22, 2021

By Eric K. Ward

What to make of the failures of last week’s sparsely attended “Justice for J6” mobilization in D.C. (left) and the California gubernatorial recall campaign (right)?

Was there an over-reaction to last weekend’s sparsely attended “Justice for J6” alt-right mobilization in D.C.? Perhaps — and maybe it’s time for that conversation. But should we be asking others questions as well?

We have to stop looking at these mobilizations as solitary events and place them in the context of far-right movement building. As I told Charles Blow on the Black News Channel over the weekend, “The truth is, there has been political violence happening since January 6th in local communities around the country: elected officials, government officials, healthcare workers, school board members, students are regularly being terrorized by an insurgent right.”

“In Missouri today, where the death rate from Covid-19 is among the worst in the country, [an] anti-vaxxer told workers at a Walmart pharmacy that they ‘could be executed’ for administering vaccines, a street level violence that mirrors that of the Capitol insurrection.” Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter to America 8/19/21

Last weekend was supposed to be a national mobilization, not just in D.C. but with far-right protests taking place in every state capitol. For the most part, they were as much of a bust as the one in D.C. (Oregon, the national pilot site for much of the far-right, was a notable exception with five to ten times the number in D.C.)

Despite the steady drumbeat of political violence on the local level — and the continued lack of accountability for the political architects and enablers of January 6th — the national mobilization last weekend drew low numbers and saw very little violence. What does this tell us about alt-right and far-right movement building and GOP collaboration in this moment?

THE FAILED CALIFORNIA RECALL ELECTION

Bear with me for a brief detour. There was an election in California last week — less than a week before what was supposed to be a huge far-right mobilization across the country. It’s an important part of this equation.

The attempt to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom was largely organized by white nationalists, the alt-right, and the GOP. By everyone’s predictions, they had a real opportunity to deliver a serious blow against democracy. Removing the Democratic Governor of a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one would have had a national impact.

What started as a grudge against Newsom’s positions on the death penalty, immigration, gun control, and taxes, the recall quickly became a referendum on the Governor’s management of the coronavirus. Recall backers hoped it would be a national referendum on the role of government as a whole. Ousting Newsom would throw California into turmoil, break up the blue bloc of the west coast, and represent a huge strategic victory for the anti-mask/ anti-vax/ alt-right movements and the GOP.

“Keep telling us we can’t do anything about it and see how much longer we’re just going to sit here and wait to give public comment. We didn’t buy guns for nothing.” California Lawmakers Threatened By Anti-Vaccine Activists During Public Hearing.

For months the far-right and alt-right have been on the streets of California and in the public meeting spaces of state and local government, stirring up violence. But at the end of the day, on Election Day last Tuesday, they couldn’t push it across the finish line. They never even got close.

Exit polls reveal a few important insights about how the Big Lie/ anti-mask/ anti-vax far-right alliance is doing. Recall proponents failed to win a majority of the white vote or even the white male vote. White men, white women, Independents were split down the middle. According to CNN, “A majority of voters said they’d be either concerned or scared if Newsom were recalled, with fewer saying they’d be optimistic or excited.” It was a dismal failure for the insurgent right in California.

Recall proponents didn’t even manage to get traction with the Big Lie. After floating the idea of voter fraud as a trial balloon before the votes were even counted, the narrative never achieved lift-off. Where was the “stop the steal” fervor? After months of violent brawling in California, intimidation of local government officials, and expectations of a successful recall, we would have expected a huge mobilization in Sacramento last weekend. Instead the only state Capitol that saw any significant turnout was (once again) Salem, Oregon.

HAS THE FAR-RIGHT OVER-REACHED IN THIS MOMENT?

As soon as the far-right lost the California recall, all of a sudden it wasn’t a big deal. As soon as they didn’t turn-out mass numbers in last weekend’s promised national mobilization, we’re hearing — see, we told you these mobilizations aren’t a big deal.

I’m here to argue that last week’s failures of the far-right are a big deal and deserve more than a quick dismissal. We should be focused on understanding what it means to those working to defend democracy.

First, we have to ask whether the leadership of the alt-right/ white nationalist/ anti-mask/ anti-vax/ GOP alliance is in deep disarray and division. If so, what does that portend? Will it provide momentum to the more radical elements, leading to more acts of violence, increased accelerationism — “we told you working within the system wouldn’t work.” Nearly half a billion dollars was spent on the recall election. Who will be made to pay for its failure?

Second, we should wonder what last weekend’s state capitol mobilizations looked like in swing states. The failure to rally the troops around the “Justice for J6” message tells us something about where the energy is in their movement right now. The biggest turn-out had nothing to do with the false narrative about who injured 140+ law enforcement officers and trashed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to circumvent and undercut the American democratic system of elections. The biggest turn-out last weekend was for a “Medical Freedom Rally” in a blue state.

The fact that pandemic management measures are proving the hottest flash point, and that Salem, Oregon was the biggest mobilization of the national mobilization weekend points to the fact that the primary battleground in this moment is not Washington, D.C. Arguing about what didn’t happen in D.C. last weekend is no consolation to the local school board members and medical teams who are catching hell on the ground every day in their communities.

This is a “both-and” situation. We need to recognize the far-right’s stumbles. We need to recognize they’re not invincible and can be out-organized and even held accountable — as in Oregon where every one of Rep. Mike Nearman’s Republican colleagues joined with House Democrats to expel him from the legislature after he admitted armed insurrectionists into the state capitol in a dress rehearsal for January 6th.

At the same time, we need to recognize that the level of assault on local governance systems, educators, and health care workers is imperiling democratic practice and the rule of law.

A Nevada school board member said he had thoughts of suicide before stepping down amid threats and harassment. In Virginia, a board member resigned over what she saw as politics driving decisions on masks. The vitriol at board meetings in Wisconsin had one member fearing he would find his tires slashed.” Toxic and impossible’: Hostile school board meetings have members calling it quits.

THE NATIONAL FOCUS NEEDS TO BE LOCAL

We and other anti-extremist groups have been tracking the enmeshed connections among re-open, anti-mask, and anti-vax leaders and organizations, including their interplay with the GOP and Big Lie/ January 6th insurrectionists. (See, for example, PRA’s report, Anti-Vaxx Events in New York Highlight Alignment Among Far-Right Militias, Alternative Health Promoters, and Local Politicians.)

Some of these trends began before the coronavirus pandemic, including increasing use of violence and concentration of anti-vax sentiment among the wealthy, the white, and Republicans.

“Opposition to immunizations was once largely limited to online bullying, but now opponents are increasingly taking their harassment tactics into the real world: aggressively following legislators and doctors and, in some cases, using physical violence.” This sounds like a description of what’s happening now but NBC News ran the article, “Anti-vaccine groups take dangerous online harassment into the real world” two months before the coronavirus appeared in the U.S.

Demographic trends — see “Unvaccinated Americans Whiter, More Republican Than Vaccinated” — preceded the pandemic, too, as documented by Money magazine in their April, 2019 piece, “Rich People Are Leading the Anti-Vaccine Movement — and Experts Have a Theory Why.”

Now the conspiracist, anti-democratic movements engaged in the January 6th insurrection and the continued stressors of this seemingly endless pandemic have combined with these existing elements to supercharge and localize this moment. Rolling Stone borrowed a Matrix reference in its analysis of this toxic stew: “How the Anti-Vaxxers Got Red-Pilled: What happens when a global pandemic, a vaccine-resistance movement, and the age of conspiracy collide? A black hole of misinformation that poses a grave threat to public health.

Take a look at the headlines below.

Local communities can’t be left on their own to withstand — much less fight — the epidemic of political violence that is infecting our local health care delivery systems, schools, governance bodies. The federal government, national faith, business and labor leaders, philanthropy, and other national civil society organizations need to mobilize their resources to support the communities where the alt-right and far-right are seeking to build a violent authoritarian movement off the back of the pandemic.

We can fight the fear together — as Integrity for America is showing by supporting the residents of Charlottesville in taking white nationalists and neo-Nazis to court. Join us for a virtual rally on September 30 before the trial starts in October.

Call your elected officials — local, state, and federal — and ask them what they’re doing to address local political violence, and what you can do to help. When civil society unites in a commitment to our democratic institutions, it closes the space for these types of attacks. We show anti-democratic movements and their leaders there is no foothold for them in our political discourse when we build a broad, diverse coalition to condemn them and their tactics, quickly and emphatically.

ANTI-MASK/ ANTI-VAX VIOLENCE AND INTIMIDATION IN THE NEWS

The links below are only a fraction of what has appeared in my news feed in recent months. They document just some of the violence and intimidation directed against health care workers; school board members; principals, teachers, and even students; city councilors and state legislators; journalists, judges, store clerks, restaurant servers, and those just going about their day while wearing a mask — at their homes, in their workplaces, on the streets, in sporting arenas, at public meetings, in medical facilities — in at least half the states in the nation, in every region of the country:

  1. Vandalism — including a swastika — painted on St. Luke’s McCall hospital, officials say (9/20/21)
  2. School Employee in Newberg Shows up to Work in Blackface, Claiming to Protest the Vaccine Mandate (9/20/21)
  3. Carmine’s hostess attacked after asking diners for proof of vaccination (9/17/21)
  4. People Give Nazi Salutes During Ohio School Board Meeting Over Mask Dispute (9/16/21)
  5. A customer who refused to wear a mask in a Wells Fargo bank waited in the parking lot to violently ambush the manager at the end of his shift, report says (9/12/21)
  6. Colorado Officials Shut Down Vaccine Clinics After Staff Face Harassment (9/9/21)
  7. Cawthorn pushes anti-mask, anti-vaccine rhetoric at Johnston County school board meeting (9/7/21)
  8. ‘They are going to hang you’: Woman harasses Texas county judge at H-E-B over mask mandate (9/7/21)
  9. Rural Oregon school superintendent fired after enforcing state mask mandate (9/3/21)
  10. Three men with zip ties confront Arizona principal after student told to quarantine (9/3/21)
  11. An Anti-Masker Just Tried to Zip-Tie a School Principal Over COVID Rules (9/3/21)
  12. ‘The war will soon commence’: Proud Boys exploit a new grievance to mainstream political violence (9/1/21)
  13. LA City Council President: Today when I was at work, a group of demonstrators showed up at my home while my family was inside. They trespassed on my property — calling out for me, filming both my home and the contents inside my car. (9/1/21)
  14. Portland Restaurant Workers Say Customer Attacks Are at an All-Time High (9/1/21)
  15. Pro-Trump PA GOP Candidate Says He’ll Rally ’20 Strong Men’ To Boot Pro-Mask School Board Members (8/30/21)
  16. The Education Department is investigating five states with mask-mandate bans, saying the rules may violate laws protecting students with disabilities. (8/30/21)
  17. At protest in Santa Monica today before the vote on mask-mandate, Jason Lefkowitz has the home addresses of each LA City Council member on his sign. (8/29/21)
  18. Michigan reporter says he was punched while covering anti-mask event (8/28/21)
  19. The Absurdity of Police Comparing Vaccine Mandates to Nazi Germany (8/27/21)
  20. ‘Toxic and impossible’: Hostile school board meetings have members calling it quits (8/29/21)
  21. As kids head back to school, battles over masks are pitting parents against governors (8/26/21)
  22. A Florida dad tried to enter a school maskless. When a student confronted him, he assaulted her, police said. (8/26/21)
  23. She Joined The School Board To Serve Her Community. Now She’s In The Crossfire (8/26/21)
  24. Anti-Masker Florida Dad Arrested for Attacking High School Student (8/25/21)
  25. Anti-Asian, anti-vaccine hate roils Orange County government — Los Angeles Times (8/25/21)
  26. Proud Boys, extremists joining anti-vaccine protests being held across Ohio (8/24/21)
  27. Man Drives Car Into COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic Workers in California (8/23/21)
  28. An Alabama man who called himself the ‘vaccine police’ told pharmacists at a Missouri Walmart that they will be ‘executed’ if they continued giving COVID-19 shots (8/22/21)
  29. Man targets church’s COVID testing tent after stealing 20-ton forklift and going on destructive rampage (8/17/21)
  30. An enraged parent in Marysville, WA grabs a flag pole and charges at the members of the School Board, causing the Board to adjourn. (8/18/21)
  31. August 24 school board meeting canceled | Salem-Keizer School District 24J (8/15/21)
  32. “Anti-vaxx” / Proud Boys rally in Los Angeles off to a great start. (8/14/21)
  33. California: Father Beats Teacher Over Mask Dispute on First School Day (8/14/21)
  34. Dad Threatened by Anti-Maskers at School Board Meeting Still Traumatized (8/13/21)
  35. Homophobic anti-mask school board official flips out while resisting arrest (8/11/21)
  36. Tennessee parents at school board meeting threaten doctors, nurses over masks: ‘We will find you’ (8/11/21)
  37. Anti-Vaccine Group Now Leading Fight Against Masks in Schools (8/6/21)
  38. First they protest masks in racist fury. Then hotbed of loud, wrong Missourians attracts COVID-19 (8/2/21)
  39. Tennessee Pastor Goes on Deranged Rant About ‘Nonsense’ Delta Variant, Shouts at Congregation to ‘Not Get Vaccinated!’ (8/2/21)
  40. Republicans Encouraged Racist Assault On St. Louis Health Official (7/31/21)
  41. Anti-Vaccination Protest Returns to Harlowe Restaurant and Gets Violent (7/29/21)
  42. Anti-Vaxxer Allegedly Threatened Fauci With Scalping, Torture, Death (7/27/21)
  43. A Georgia restaurant is standing by its ‘No Vax, No Service’ rule despite ‘threats of violence,’ owner says. Margorie Taylor-Greene attacked the restaurant on social media. (7/27/21)
  44. Eugene band Local band High Step Society canceled a concert scheduled for Wednesday night after they say members of the anti-vaccination community threatened the venue (6/24/21)
  45. An anti-vaxxer came within inches of mowing down health workers with her SUV at a county vaccine site in Tennessee earlier this week, according to local police (5/27/21)
  46. St. Paul anti-vaxxer now charged after posting videos stealing COVID-19 vaccine (5/14/21)
  47. Hundreds gathered with Ammon Bundy in Utah to burn a symbolic needle labeled MEDICAL TYRANNY (5/5/21)
  48. Woman brutally attacked with hammer for wearing mask: This is where anti-mask discourse was always headed. (5/4/21)
  49. Ammon Bundy publishes address, stages protest at home of Meridian officer behind playground arrest (4/24/21)
  50. Anti-vaccine extremism is akin to domestic terrorism (2/28/21)
  51. Inside the COVID vaccine protest that targeted Dodger Stadium (2/4/21)
  52. People’s Rights protesters force lockdown at Clark Co hospital in Vancouver, WA (1/29/21)
  53. California Lawmakers Threatened By Anti-Vaccine Activists During Public Hearing (1/15/21)
  54. Far-right anti-vaxxers target Pfizer vaccine companies as ‘coronavirus rebels’ call for ‘violence’ (11/16/20)
  55. Victim says he was attacked for wearing mask on subway (8/31/20)

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.