The far right had a dream: That one day, people who had been exiled to the unacceptable margins of American political life could play the role of Donald Trump's brownshirts.
In the weeks leading up to the election, excitement was rising among those Americans who convinced themselves that Trump would be the glorious leader in a national purge of their perceived enemies. QAnon fans buzzed with excitement that "the storm" — their term for their belief that the entire Democratic establishment, as well as many popular celebrities, would be rounded up into prison camps — was coming soon. The Proud Boys, a neofascist group that claim to defend "Western civilization," were also riled up after Trump told them to "stand by" during a presidential debate in September. The menagerie of white supremacists and militia groups were stepping up recruitment efforts, stoked about what they believed would soon be the eruption of a new civil war.
Then came the election. Trump lost. This has been very difficult for those people to accept.
People with fanatical and delusional beliefs famously don't give them up just because they've been hit over the head with reality, of course. The various subcultures of crackpots that have sprung up under Trump are no exception.
Still, the election results have sent these groups reeling. All of them have spent the past four years growing their ranks and orbiting around Trump, convinced that he was a savior figure who would crush their perceived enemies.
For believers in QAnon, that belief manifested in a fantasy that Trump was going to round up all the members of the "deep state," their imaginary shadowy conspiracy of Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and progressive activists that they believe both secretly runs the world and is also a network of Satan-worshipping cannibal pedophiles. Trump, they told themselves, was secretly organizing "the storm" to round up and destroy this sinister global conspiracy.
But since Trump's election, Q — a user account that started on 8chan and drifted over to 8kun after 8chan was disbanded — has fallen silent. QAnon faithful believe the account is run by a current or former U.S. intelligence agent and Trump loyalist. In fact, it's probably run by the father-and-son duo Jim and Ron Watkins, who are conspiracy theorists and definitely not U.S. intelligence agents. Without Q's guidance, the QAnon cult appears to be confused and angry.
"They were not expecting him to lose, and they were not expecting Fox News to call it," Fredrick Brennan, the founder of 8chan — who has spent the past few months giving interviews accusing the Watkinses of running Q's account — told the New York Times. "It was really psychologically damaging."
Q believers haven't given up the faith yet, of course. But without guidance from its leader, the QAnon community is adrift and very likely to fracture into competing and antagonistic splinter sects, as is common in these kinds of communities.
Witness, for instance, what's happening to the Proud Boys, which started off largely as a male chauvinist group but has morphed into what looks very much like a neofascist organization that purports to defend "Western civilization." The Proud Boys had their proudest moment in September, when Trump refused to denounce them during a debate and instead told them to "stand down and stand by," clearly implying that they should be at the ready to defend his grip on the White House if he felt it was under threat.
But even though Trump is half-heartedly still trying to steal the election, he has so far disappointed the Proud Boys by not calling on them to commit violence against his enemies in a glorious coup. (Mostly, Trump is hiding from public view, tweeting out articles from fringe right-wing sites and playing golf.) So, as often happens with marginal subcultures full of deeply unpleasant people, the Proud Boys are breaking apart, torn asunder by infighting.
At heart is a fight between two figureheads, Kyle Chapman and Enrique Tarrio, over whether the Proud Boys should stick by their dubious claim that there is nothing racist about the ideology of "Western chauvinism," or should openly embrace white nationalism and anti-Semitism. Chapman is representing the blatant-racism side, declaring himself the new president of the splinter group calling themselves, no kidding, the "Proud Goys." Tarrio is insisting that Chapman is a flunkey, failing to understand that the same can be said of anyone associated with the Proud Boys.
Other right wing militia and white nationalist groups, such as the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, spent the weeks before the election firing themselves up for what they believed was an upcoming civil war. Now that Trump's presidency is deflating like a day-after birthday balloon, they're not quite ready to give up the fantasy.
On Wednesday, Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, appeared on Infowars with Alex Jones and promised the faithful that the violence against hated liberals is still coming.
"We have men already stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option in case they attempt to remove the president illegally, we will step in and stop it," Rhodes declared, swearing that his forces are armed and "prepared to go in, if the president calls us up."
As with most of the threats made by far-right figures, this is both a fantasy and a dangerous one. It's just plain silly to imagine that a handful of middle-aged and badly organized conspiracy theorists, no matter how many guns they have, could manage the task of seizing the federal government in a paramilitary coup.
It's dangerous, of course, because these people do have guns. Unfortunately, as we've seen with mass shootings like those in El Paso and Pittsburgh, the car attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters, and the shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, men who have been radicalized by such talk are fully capable of acts of domestic terrorism against civilians.
On Saturday, these various groups of extremists are planning to descend on Washington for a demonstration in support of Trump's fading effort to steal the election, which they of course spin as preventing Democrats from stealing the election. (As always with right-wingers, everything is projection.) As usual, far-right figures are over-hyping their efforts, calling the supposed rally the "Million MAGA March" or the "March for Trump."
In reality, almost none of the groups who claim they plan to show up have even applied for a permit, suggesting that they know what's likely to happen: An underwhelming display by a handful of loudmouths with angry signs, whose demands are incoherent and who have no plan of action to achieve their goals anyway.
As I witnessed in Philadelphia, even when the far right had a solid target and goal — stopping election officials from counting ballots — they could barely muster up a handful of people. The ones who showed up were easily run off by a group of leftists armed with cardboard signs and a boombox. Washington, D.C., doesn't permit the open carry of weapons, taking away yet another incentive to show up for the deeply insecure men of this movement. There's nothing they can do to save Donald Trump. All they have left is impotent flailing.
None of which is to say that we can just wash our hands of the far right and never think about them again. Far from it: The right-wing fringe has been enormously successful in recruiting conservatives to their way of thinking. Surveys suggest that more than 80% of Trump voters believe Joe Biden's victory was illegitimate, and about half of all Republican voters buy into the QAnon conspiracy theories to some degree. What were once whacked-out "far-right" beliefs are now just mainstream conservatism.
The difference between the fringe and the mainstream of the Republican Party now is less about belief and more about a willingness to take action. That fringe — the ones who've actually joined far-right groups and may actually show up at Saturday's "rally" — is scrambling now. But such people never really go away. They'll find some other cause to latch onto, some other justification for their fascist impulses. Some, unfortunately, will continue to seek violence or even to commit acts of terrorism.
But for now, Trump's defeat is a mighty blow to the far right. Their dreams of crushing the people they view as "the left" and of "reclaiming" the culture of America were always ludicrous, no matter how much tear gas Trump sprayed at Black Lives Matter demonstrators. But now, with Trump on his way to Palm Beach exile, they've lost their lodestar. The process of fracture and dispersal for these self-appointed warriors of the right has begun. We must hope they don't find another figurehead to rally around anytime soon.