By Gideon Jones
The unforgettable images of a mob of Trump supporters invading the United States Capitol in January 2021 caused widespread horror and repulsion. Since then, there has been a scramble to explain the sieges’ immediate causes and its participants motivations. Undeniably behind each of these is the rise of the Far-Right in the United States.
So, who do we mean when we talk about the Far-Right? To define the Far-Right is no small feat, but at its most basic it can be thought of as an umbrella term for the Radical and extremist Right. Though the two are related, they are by no means the same.
For our purposes, it will be most useful to think about the Radical-Right as being defined by ‘ethno-nationalist xenophobia and anti-establishment populism’, as well as nativism, extreme-nationalism and authoritarianism. What differentiates the Extremist-right from the Radical-Right are their attitudes towards democracy and violence: generally speaking, we can view the radical-right as being willing to operate within the democratic system, whilst the Extreme-Right reject the democratic process and are more likely to undertake violence as a means of achieving their political aims. The great fear about the Capitol Siege was that the MAGA movement , being a Radical-Right grouping , was seeming to shift towards Extremist-Right methods to pursue their political ambitions.
Though there has been a great deal of theorising about the ascendance of the Radical and Extremist-right within the United States, one concept that has received little attention is relative deprivation.
Though there have been attempts to link a rise in extremism to absolute deprivation, the results have been mixed at best. For example, it is well established that a university degree and economic security are no barriers to radicalisation and extremism.
However, the same cannot be said of relative deprivation. So, what is Relative Deprivation, and what role does it play in fuelling radical and extremist-right movements?
Relative deprivation, contrary to absolute deprivation, is not necessarily based upon one’s objective socio-economic position within society. One can feasibly be relatively well off and still feel deprived. As the psychologists Kunst and Obaidi argue, since humans ascertain their position in society through comparing themselves to one another, and ‘relative deprivation involves the perception that oneself or one’s group does not receive valued resources, goals, ways or standards of living, which others possess and one feels entitled to’. This is what we need to understand when we begin to think about the rise of Far-Right in the United States – many Americans are feeling that their communities are worse off now relative to the past, that they have been robbed of what they considered to be theirs and are looking for someone to blame.
This can have some interesting implications when applied to the rise of the Far-Right in the United States. One theory behind the rise of Trump, and the Far-Right more generally, was the ‘left behind’ thesis: that it was those who were feeling the greatest level of economic hardship that fuelled his ascendancy to the presidency and made up the bulk of the MAGA movement. Whilst it has been observed that upward mobility was low and life expectancy was shorter in areas that leaned most towards Trump, there are several issues with this explanation. Firstly, when Trump won the 2016 election the United States was in the middle of an economic recovery, and manufacturing jobs were on the rise . Secondly, Trump supporters were generally not poor. In 2016, roughly two thirds of his supporter base had an average household income of above $50,000. Whilst economic factors undoubtedly played a role in the rise of the MAGA movement, the picture is more complicated than expected, and something more is needed to explain the populist rage that fuelled Trump’s rise in 2016 and which sustains the Far-Right today.
This is where relative deprivation enters the picture. The rise of the Far-Right was not about deprivation per se, but the perception that many in White America felt deprived relative to others, and thus that their status was diminished. This is especially true of White Supremacist organisations in the United States, who view the country as uniquely ‘theirs’. White America felt that for much of the United States’ history they had been justly dominant, and that this was something that should continue. With America’s growing racial diversity and the continued effects of globalisation, many white Americans felt, and feel, ‘ under siege by these engines of change’ . Understanding this, it is unsurprising that these anxieties and their political expression are finding increasing mainstream support, with many feeling that that their communities will face utter marginalisation unless the hierarchies of the past are re-established.
This feeling is no doubt partially responsible for the rise of the populist MAGA movement- that the elites, illegal immigrants, liberals and many more were to be held responsible for their plight, and to be opposed in order to ‘make America great again’. Far more concerning is the rise of those that are willing to attack the groups and forces that they see as taking away what they see as their rightful position in society. Events like Charlottesville and the Capitol Siege are now part of a worrying trend of Extreme-Right violence in the United States.
The rise of xenophobic, anti-establishment, and discriminatory politics is the end product of this anxiety, and like Donald Trump, it is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It may in fact become worse over time as the anxiety of white America only increases and the winds of change continue to blow.
Whether the narratives provided by the various Far-Right groups in the United States are factual or not is of little importance to their continued rise. They offer a narrative to explain world change, to frame and understand one’s anxieties and to offer a remedy. The great failure of modern liberal politics (in the US and beyond), as many are increasingly coming to realise, is that it’s narratives about the world have been ringing more and more hollow . To fail to tackle this fear head on, or to even mock it, is to allow it to grow ever more rampant, and allow extremism in the United States to grow.
The Capitol Siege should be a wake-up call to liberals the world over. There needs to be a counter-narrative, an equally compelling story that can be told that doesn’t lead people down the paths of racism, xenophobia, and violence. With the election of Joe Biden and the return of business-as-usual politics to Washington D.C, there is a fear that nothing will fundamentally change, on both the left and the right. If nothing is done to address these underlying anxieties, the worst may still be yet to come. Instead of denouncing the far-right’s supporters as being morally beyond the pale, more should be done to understand why people would even support that kind of politics in the first place.
Gideon Jones is a MA student in Terrorism, Security & Society at the War Studies Department, King’s College London, and completed his BA in History at the University of Warwick. Coming from Northern Ireland, he has been brought up in a country scarred by the issues of terrorism, conflict, sectarianism, and extremist ideology. Through this experience, he has been given valuable insight into how the legacies of such problems can continue to divide a society decades after the fighting has stopped, and how the issues left unresolved can threaten to upend a fragile peace. Gideon is a Staff Writer at Strife.