The Politics of Fear White Voters & the Left
New data shows a quarter of white voters in the US are concerned about extreme left-wing groups – ignoring the reality of political violence
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Just over a quarter (28%) of white voters in the United States feel unsafe because of extreme left-wing groups, suggesting that far-right rhetoric has succeeded in manufacturing fear and mistrust of anti-fascism.
In contrast, only 21% of white voters were concerned about extreme right-wing groups. For black voters, a mere 4% were concerned about extreme left wing groups, rising to 21% for extreme-right groups. 7% of Hispanic voters worried about the left, while 30% feared the right.
The research by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) measured how afraid American voters are in the run-up to the November mid-term elections.
26% of white survey respondents were “very worried” about attacks by left-wing groups like ‘antifa’, while 24% of white respondents felt the same about attacks by far-right militias such as the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers – both of which took part in the attempted insurrection on 6 January.
The poll showed that one third of Americans are fearful there will be a violent attack during the elections. A total of 28% said they were very worried about organised groups like the Proud Boys showing up to act as poll watchers, while 25% and 21% respectively are worried about intimidation from either right-wing or left-wing extremists. These fears made young, black and Hispanic people in particular feel afraid to participate in elections.
“Among conservative voters, where you are more likely to find white voters, they equate anything that threatens their status quo as left-wing and dangerous,” Wendy Via, the research’s co-author, said. “But even the white respondents who listed antifa as a concern, it did not reach the same level as the fears black and Hispanic people have of extreme right groups.”
For Via, one of the main concerns is that “Democrat voters and Republican voters both have the same fear that the other is going to do something” and “this polarisation is really worrying for democracy”.
The findings that white people fear extreme left-wing groups is at odds with the reality of who commits violence and terrorism in the US. While there was some extreme-left terrorist violence during the 1970s and 1980s – primarily involving animal rights activism – the vast majority of deadly attacks in America have originated from far-right or Islamist groups and individuals.
A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies looked at more than 900 politically-motivated attacks and plots between 1994 and 2019 and found that only one attack staged by an anti-fascist led to a fatality – that of the perpetrator. For the far-right, the number of deaths was much higher, leaving 329 victims dead.
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Left-wing attacks have left 21 people dead since 2010 – the number rising to 117 dead for right-wing violence. 95 people have been killed by jihadist violence in the same period. According to research by Emily Kramer, the far-right was responsible for 71% of domestic extremist-relating killings between 2008-2017.
Numerous mass-shootings – which 69% of white voters expressed concern about, compared to 82% of black and 81% of Hispanic voters – have been linked to far-right extremism, including the recent murders of black shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket, the murders of Thai workers in a massage spa, the murders of worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue and many more. No mass shootings have been explicitly linked to far-left political activity.
The data would suggest that white voters are responding to a perception that left-wing groups are deadly and dangerous, rather than a reality. That perception has been fuelled by far-right leaders and talk-show hosts pushing a narrative that white America is under threat by ‘antifa’.
As President, Donald Trump presented the threat of ‘antifa’ – meaning ‘anti-fascist’ – as an organised political group trying to undermine white America.
This in itself was a misrepresentation. Antifa has never stood for one single entity but as an amorphous, flexible network of activists which exist under the banner of being anti-fascist. Trump even attempted to declare ‘antifa’ as a terrorist organisation, an impossibility seeing as there was no single antifa group.
The manufactured fear of antifa gained momentum during the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. Trump tweeted about “antifa-led anarchists” who he accused of taking part in riots in Minneapolis in June 2020.
A few days earlier, when demonstrations in Washington D.C. led to clashes with police, Trump said antifa had been the “instigators of this violence”, ignoring how the FBI’s Washington field office “has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence”.
But Trump was never one to let facts get in the way of provoking fear.
Back in 2017, when the far-right descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump referred to there being “fine people on both sides” – expressing empathy for far-right thugs, one of which murdered the anti-fascist Heather Robertson. A few days later, he seemed to lay the blame on the left, this time saying: “You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything,” before blurting out “Antifa!”
The blaming of antifa for violence and instability reached its nadir during the attempted insurrection by Trump supporting far-right forces on 6 January 2021.
After a group of protestors and violent extremist-right militias invaded the US Capitol building, many on the right sought to blame ‘antifa’ for staging a false flag attack designed to stir up anti-Trump feeling.
The lawyer L. Lin Wood, who was behind multiple failed lawsuits seeking to overturn the election results, claiming he had “indisputable photographic evidence that antifa violently broke into Congress today”. The photos he produced were of the break-in to the Capitol and two neo-Nazi activists.
Televangelist Mark Burns, a longtime Trump supporter, tweeted a photo of the ‘QAnon Shaman’ Jake Angeli, writing: “This is NOT a Trump supporter… This is a staged #Antifa attack”.
According to an analysis by NBC News, 7,000 tweets in the aftermath of 6 January blamed antifa followers “posing” as Trump supporters for the violence. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton tweeted a photo of Angeli before falsely adding that the rioters are “not Trump supporters”. One tweet claiming that there was “at least one bus load of Antifa” on the way to the Capitol received thousands of shares. This false conspiracy theory was invoked by Trump himself.
Such conspiracies are amplified by right-wing political commentators.
Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson – known for his anti-immigration, pro-Trump slant – used a three-part documentary series Patriot Purge to claim that left-wing agitators stirred up the 6 January violence. Far-right YouTuber Alex Jones also pushed the conspiracy that ‘antifa’ was responsible for the riot.
“Trump, Fox News, Alex Jones are the biggest purveyors of the idea that antifa is a threat,” Wendy Via said. “Jones broadcast on Infowars that he had ‘good intelligence’ that it was antifa at the Capitol, Fox News was reporting that day that it was an antifa attack. And all Trump has to say is that left-wing people want to take your vote.”
This combination of conspiracy and anti-left sentiment coming from some of the most powerful sources in the United States may help to explain why increasing number of white voters feel concerned about extreme left-wing groups.
But such a trend is worrying, when all the evidence shows that it is the US far-right which currently poses the greatest danger to democracy.
“Polarisation is now at such a point that we don’t know how we will overcome it,” Via said. She is particularly concerned that people’s fears will keep them away from the voting booths.
“That sense of security in our democracy and electoral process, that no matter what happens, we’re gonna get to vote, had not really wavered before the Big Lie,” she added. “People don’t feel like that anymore. If we start seeing more and more of the sort of activity we have seen at school boards, public meetings, etc. people are going to think twice about going to vote.”