Since the earliest days of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has emboldened white nationalists, conspiracy-mongers, militia groups, and other far-right extremists to step out from the shadows and into the mainstream. These bad political actors have been welcomed by Trump’s Republican Party and have found jobs in Trump’s White House. In turn, elected officials in federal, state, and local seats have responded by increasingly embracing racist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic policies.
Under Trump, these extremists have steadily built political power within the Republican Party, and in the 2020 general elections, a number of them are running for office up and down the ballot. While the far-right won’t win every seat in 2020, its influence on American politics is growing. Ideologically, that influence moves the Overton window—the range of ideas and policies the American public finds politically acceptable—further to the right. Such a shift makes way for increasingly extreme ideas and rhetoric in U.S politics, policies and discourse.
A growing hard-right caucus in the United States Congress will further change the debate, but more importantly, it will play a prominent role in moving the Republican caucus further into extremism in policy and legislation.
This report examines the American far-right’s efforts to build political power within the Republican Party and support extremist candidates who are running for U.S. Congress in 2020, including an analysis of the of hard-right figures in the current Congress found to have links to the far-right, and those among the current field of candidates who have demonstrated some allegiance to or association with far-right ideologies and groups. The following criteria were used to determine inclusion in this report: a documented history of espousing extremist ideology or far-right conspiracy theories, ties to white nationalist and white supremacist groups and figures, or a record of expressing militant Islamophobic or xenophobic views. Although this report strives for the upmost accuracy, we recognize there is some subjectivity in how the criteria are applied.
While this report is primarily focused on white nationalists and their influence in the GOP and among members of Congress, it includes an additional section on the far-right, pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory, which began in 2017 and whose followers have made inroads into the Republican Party, often receiving praise and amplification from the president himself. In addition, this report shows how far-right candidates fit into the current political landscape, profiles a cross section of candidates who are running in 2020, and offers resources for reporters covering these races.
- During the 2020 election cycle, we have identified 86 hard-right or far-right candidates who ran or are running for Congress: 79 for the House of Representatives and 7 for the Senate. This includes candidates who have since lost their primaries.
- The current makeup of Congress that fits our criteria includes 41 representatives and seven far-right senators with links to the far-right.
- At least 86 candidates who subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory filed paperwork to run for Congress in 2020. At least one, Marjorie Taylor Greene, appears to be on track to win her race.
The Evolution of White Nationalist and Far-Right Candidates in the U.S.
Structural racism and inequality lie at the foundation of U.S. history, undermining the strength of the democratic values expressed at the nation’s founding. It follows, then, that in ensuing 244 years, far-right individuals successfully gained political prominence and popularity, occupying seats in local, state, and federal government.
While attitudes toward race have progressed throughout U.S. history, far-right extremism has waxed and waned, with extremists utilizing white supremacy, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, and other anti-democratic ideologies to gain positions of power. In the 1850s, the nativist Know Nothing Party, which peddled xenophobia and conspiracy theories, included more than 100 elected U.S. congressmen, eight governors, and control of a half-dozen state legislatures at its height. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan orchestrated a strategy to elect Klan candidates, dominating local and state politics in many jurisdictions; Klan members were elected to Congress throughout the 20th century. When Sen. Barry Goldwater—who was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans as “a demagogue and leader of right-wing extremists and racists,” according to The Washington Post—ran for president in 1964, he was endorsed by the Klan. (Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
Even with this history, President Donald Trump rocked the political system when he launched his presidential campaign with a shocking racist tirade in 2015, saying of Mexicans, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Since his first days on the campaign trail, Trump’s racist policies and rhetoric have stretched the Overton window. Even his slogan, “Make America Great Again,” left curious minds wondering just what exactly he meant by “great.” And Trump’s MAGA army, once considered persona non grata in the GOP, has put considerable effort into reshaping the Republican Party into a home for the open expression of white supremacy and white nationalism.
With Trump as the GOP standard-bearer, a broad coalition of far-right actors, including far-right militia separatists, Christian nationalists and internet trolls, has built power within the Republican Party—a development that endangers American democracy and the safety of the American public, especially people of color and immigrants.
Take, for example, Identity Evropa. This organization, which has been classified as a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, recently tried to rebrand itself as the American Identity Movement. Identity Evropa is known for targeting college-age white men for recruitment. It urges its members to become involved in local Republican politics and try to take over local GOP organizations at the ground level.
In 2017, nonprofit media organization Unicorn Riot posted leaked chats authored by Patrick Casey, American Identity Movement’s current leader, in which he spoke about his involvement with his local Republican Party chapter and encouraged members to follow his lead. Here’s what Casey, who goes by the handle Reinhard Wolff, had to say:
Today I decided to get involved with my county’s Republican party. Everyone can do this without fear of getting doxed. The GOP is essentially the White man’s party at this point (it gets Whiter every election cycle), so it makes far more sense for us to subvert it than to create our own party.
If we’re going to win this, it’s going to take time, effort, and sacrifice. If you’re unable to do activism for various reasons, I’d like to encourage you to join your local Republican party. Present as a Trump supporter/nationalist. No need to broadcast your radical views.
It’s actually quite easy to run for and win local offices. Let’s make this happen!
In an interview with NBC News less than a year later, Casey outlined a similar strategy and desire to “take over the GOP.”
But it’s not just one group or individual coordinating efforts to infiltrate the Republican Party. A broad coalition of far-right groups and personalities has built significant political influence within the GOP, from local politics all the way up to the Trump administration. The leading anti-immigrant organization Federation for American Immigration Reform flaunts its access to the Trump White House. Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist group, spoke at a GOP fundraiser last fall, telling attendees, “You need us foot soldiers.” Trump himself often retweets known white supremacist figures on his Twitter account.
Far-Right Members of Congress in the Trump Era
The GOP’s recent roster of candidates and elected officials include an array of white supremacists and others who associate themselves with extremist figures. Perhaps the most notorious among them is Rep. Steve King, R-I.A. King is a longtime member of Congress with an even longer history of racism and associating with white supremacists at home and abroad. In 2019, King was stripped of his committee appointments after telling The New York Times: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” Recently defeated in his primary race, King will leave office in January 2021.
King is hardly the only far-right Republican in Congress. In fact, over the last five years, at least six members of Congress have publicly demonstrated support for extremist ideologies:
- Former congressman Duncan Hunter of California ran a campaign ad in 2018 featuring a conspiracy theorist who peddled racist and Islamophobic claims.
- Former congressman Dave Brat of Virginia, appeared on Infowars, the notorious right-wing conspiracy outlet, to promote Islamophobic conspiracy theories in 2018.
- Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida also appeared on Alex Jones’s Infowars in 2018.
- Reporters caught Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee and Andy Harris of Maryland with Holocaust-denier Chuck C. Johnson in Capitol Hill in January 2020. Roe also invited radical right-wing conspiracy theorist Chris McDonald—who called for Obama administration officials to “swing from nooses” and asserted that “God moved” to kill Rep. Elijah Cummings for opposing Trump—to be his guest on Capitol Hill in 2019 and has appeared on McDonald’s show as recently as July.
During the 2018 midterm election cycle, a host of white supremacists ran for office as Republicans, several of whom won the party’s nomination via primaries, including Corey Stewart. Stewart won the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia after nearly becoming the state’s Republican nominee for governor in 2017. During his gubernatorial campaign, Stewart was set to appear at the neo-Confederate “Mother of All Rallies” event, canceling after Right Wing Watch reported on his planned appearance. In the November general election, Stewart lost his race to Democratic nominee Tim Kaine.
In Arizona, Kelli Ward, then vying for the 2018 Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, went on a campaign bus tour featuring Mike Cernovich, a “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist and right-wing operative who made a white power hand sign in the White House. Ward’s husband also openly ran a racist conspiracy Facebook group that promoted her posts.
After the 2018 midterms, Vox noted that candidates who explicitly self-defined as white supremacists or Nazis lost their races more frequently than candidates who were linked to white supremacist groups, suggesting that candidates with extremist beliefs will try to continue to make headway electorally by maintaining far-right connections and flirting with far-right ideologies rather than openly wearing their allegiances.
The 2020 election is rife with far-right candidates who are similarly situated to ingrain themselves and their ideologies even further into both the Republican Party and American society—and move the Overton window even further to the right. These developments pose unique ideological threats to both bodies of Congress.
Far-Right Candidates Running in 2020
Of every known federal candidate running for office in 2020, 84 candidates we have classified as either far-right or having links to links to the far-right are seeking office in Congress: 71 candidates are running for seats in the House and 13 in the Senate. This includes candidates who were running but dropped out or lost their primaries.
To compile our list, we researched every known candidate running for Congress and every current member of Congress. Candidates and members were classified as far-right or having far-right leanings based on these criteria: a documented history of espousing extremist ideology or far-right conspiracy theories, ties to white nationalist and white supremacist groups and figures, or a record of militant Islamophobic or xenophobic views. To assess candidates and members who are running this cycle, we consulted The Cook Political Report and Roll Call’s rankings to guide our analysis of the level of competitiveness of these races. A full list of far-right candidates and members of Congress and the reasons we categorized them as far-right is also included in this report.
Many far-right candidates running in 2020 share broader views of conservatism and traditionalism, expressed, for example, in their veneration of capitalism or portrayal of immigration as a geopolitical threat. Such candidates have hidden behind the veneer of conservatism to disseminate and stoke explicitly xenophobic or racist beliefs and ideologies, including Islamophobia, fascism, white nationalism, old-guard white supremacy, anti-Semitism and Christian nationalism, particularly Christian dominionism. (Christian dominionism, which is sometimes jokingly called “white sharia” by its adherents, refers to a theological and political ideology whose proponents teach that Christians who share their religious and political worldview must take control of seven areas of life—family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government. The rhetoric of Seven Mountains dominionism has been embraced by many in the larger religious-right movement.) Others support militia movements, extreme anti-LGBTQ policies and actions, and conspiracy theories like QAnon, which is discussed in further detail in the next section.
All 13 far-right candidates running for the Senate as Republicans in 2020 are running in races in which the electorate is considered to lean Republican or the contest presumed to be a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report and Roll Call. Multiple far-right candidates are or were running in Republican primaries in Alabama and Arizona, and one candidate with far-right links, Kelly Loeffler, who is running in the Georgia special election for the U.S. Senate seat she currently occupies. Three far-right candidates are running in Illinois and Delaware, in races Democrats are favored to win.
Alabama is the far-right’s best chance for a pick-up in the Senate. In the Republican primary battle, both top-tier candidates—former senator and attorney general Jeff Sessions and football coach Tommy Tuberville—expressed far-right positions. Sessions was one of Trump’s first political supporters, and his 2017 appointment to head the Department of Justice was hailed by the so-called alt-right. As attorney general, Sessions spearheaded the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Sessions also employed a pre-White House Stephen Miller, when Miller was regularly exchanging emails chock-full of white nationalist ideology with Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh. Tuberville’s extremist views are revealed in his description of abortion as “this generation’s holocaust” and use of nativist rhetoric, suggesting immigrants, particularly those from the Middle East, are going to take over the country. Tuberville, who enjoyed Trump’s backing, won the primary in July. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones faces a tough race against Tuberville. Both The Cook Political Report and Roll Call have rated the race as leaning Republican.
House of Representatives
Of the House candidates we have identified as linked to the far-right, only 26 races are considered a toss-up by The Cook Political Report as of publication. However, House races and rankings fluctuate more frequently, and November’s 2020 map will almost certainly look different as the country’s political mood continues to evolve.
Most far-right House candidates are running in districts that are ranked as either likely or solidly Democratic. Two exceptions are QAnon-promoting congressional candidates Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Lauren Boebert in Colorado, both of whom are discussed in the following section. Most far-right House candidates are unlikely to win even if they win their Republican primary, but simply by running, these candidates are able to leverage their campaigns’ earned media coverage to disseminate far-right ideology into the mainstream political conversation and further move the Overton window in their locales.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the electoral map even further. Congressional campaigns have been forced to adapt their voter contact and turnout strategies in real time. As of publication, many states have delayed or modified their congressional primaries, with a number of states using absentee or mail-in ballots or other alternatives. The Trump campaign and pro-Trump media are spreading disinformation about voting by mail and disrupting the functioning of the postal service, acts of voter suppression. This uncertainty and volatility allows more opportunities for far-right candidates to win elections than might have previously been possible simply because there are so many unknowns from week to week.
Implications for the Next Congress
If elected, any one of these far-right candidates would strengthen a growing coalition of elected officials already in Congress with links to the far-right. We applied our research criteria for far-right candidates to existing members of Congress, and found that 41 sitting members of the GOP House Caucus and seven Republican senators qualify as either far-right or having troubling links to the far-right.
While far-right elected officials have not yet formed a voting bloc, they are able to derail committee hearings, hold up legislation, or force procedural roadblocks in their individual capacities, even on votes that reflect a largely bipartisan consensus. They have done just that in every hearing the 116th Congress has held about white supremacy or disinformation, during which they frequently derailed hearings by inviting guests like Candace Owens of the Blexit Foundation or Andy Ngô, now at The Post Millennial, who used their testimony to promote their own extremist views.
If far-right candidates are elected to office this November, the far-right coalition in Congress will gain both visibility and influence, moving the Republican Party even further toward extremism. Should the number of congresspeople with far-right leanings expand, a more hostile legislative environment for legislators of color and women takes shape, as bipartisan collaboration may require working with bigoted colleagues. Such wins will be taken as validation by those in the MAGA fever swaps, likely emboldening other radical activists and conspiracy theorists to run for office.
Even if they lose, these candidates will have raised their profiles and built audiences of like-minded followers online, affording them the ability to continue influencing the political conversation with their amassed followers. A loss does not mean that a candidate will leave the political arena. Kelli Ward, the far-right candidate who ran for U.S. Senate in Arizona last cycle, now chairs the Arizona Republican Party. Patrick Little, a white supremacist who ran unsuccessfully for the California Senate seat in 2018, is now running for a city council seat in Idaho.
QAnon subscribers have become a fixture in the broader pro-Trump community and a frequent presence at Trump’s rallies. President Trump has never acknowledged the conspiracy directly to confirm it, but he amplifies QAnon memes and often retweets QAnon supporters via his Twitter account.
The Trump political operation seems to have made a strategic decision that endorsing QAnon is a line they won’t cross, but Trump and the campaign’s actions suggest they can’t afford to alienate QAnon supporters. As Business Insider reports, the Trump campaign relies on QAnon online communities to amplify the campaign’s own message and content. Amplifying known supporters of QAnon while remaining silent on the conspiracy itself allows Trump to implicitly signal support for QAnon—and make use of the QAnon amplification network–while still giving him and his administration plausible deniability.
Most pro-QAnon candidates are not considered viable, but there are a few exceptions. In May, Jo Rae Perkins won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Oregon. While Perkins is unlikely to win, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her primary in Georgia’s 14th District in June, and Lauren Boebert, who beat five-term Congressman Scott Tipton in Colorado, are. According to The Cook Political Report, Georgia’s 14th District, an R+27 district, is solidly Republican, and in all likelihood, Taylor Greene will serve in next year’s Congress.
This is Jo Rae Perkins, the Republican Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in Oregon, taking the QAnon digital soldier oath. https://t.co/Rgtm4hWcrr
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) June 27, 2020
In this election cycle, 86 candidates who subscribe to or have promoted QAnon conspiracy theories filed paperwork to run for Congress. Twenty-Seven won their primaries and are on the ballot in November. Alex Kaplan, a senior researcher at Media Matters For America, has extensively profiled each of those candidates.
QAnon, a conspiracy theory that began around 2017 in far-right message boards, posits that Trump and his allies in the White House are fighting a behind-the-scenes war against a cabal of pedophiles and their protectors, hiding in plain sight in business, entertainment, and Democratic politics. Followers believe that “Q,” the anonymous author who first posted about QAnon, is presumed by QAnon believers to be a high-level official whose cryptic riddles offer insight into this war. Prominent QAnon followers have called for violent deaths to be faced by people they believe to be a part of this “deep state” cabal, and others have been connected to violent crimes. The FBI considers the QAnon movement a domestic terror threat.
QAnon has become a fixture in the broader pro-Trump community, its members a frequent presence at Trump’s rallies. Until recently, Trump avoided acknowledging the conspiracy directly, choosing to amplify QAnon memes and retweet QAnon supporters instead. But at his October 15 “town hall” event, hosted by NBC News in Miami, Trump was given an opportunity to denounce the conspiracy theory and demurred.
The Trump political operation seems to have made a strategic decision that endorsing QAnon is a line they won’t cross, but Trump and the campaign’s actions suggest they can’t afford to alienate QAnon supporters. As Business Insider reports, the Trump campaign relies on QAnon online communities to amplify the campaign’s own message and content. Amplifying known supporters of QAnon while remaining silent on the conspiracy itself allows Trump to implicitly signal support for QAnon—and make use of the QAnon amplification network–while still giving him and his administration plausible deniability. When asked at a recent press conference whether his support for the QAnon-supporting congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene means that he embraces the conspiracy theory, Trump ducked the question but reiterated his praise for Greene. But at another press conference, he praised QAnon followers, saying, “I’ve heard these are people that love our country.”
Most pro-QAnon candidates are not considered viable, but there are a few exceptions. In May, Jo Rae Perkins won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Oregon. While Perkins is unlikely to win, Greene, who won her primary in Georgia’s 14th District in June, and Lauren Boebert, who beat five-term Congressman Scott Tipton in Colorado, are. According to The Cook Political Report, Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, an R+27 district, is solidly Republican, and in all likelihood, Greene will serve in next year’s Congress. Likewise, Boebert is now the frontrunner in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, an R+6 district.
While there are no known QAnon supporters in Congress, we found that at least 11 GOP representatives have shown some degree of affiliation with Infowars’ Alex Jones, prominent anti-vaccination activists, and other conspiracy-mongers. Similar to their counterparts in the Senate, House members with far-right links derailed multiple hearings during the 116th congressional session by pressing witnesses on debunked conspiracy theories, turning hearings into sideshows. If QAnon candidates become members of Congress, Americans can expect more derailed hearings and increased publicity of harmful conspiracy theories.
If the number of QAnon supporters in the Republican Party continues to grow, GOP candidates and elected officials could likely feel even more pressure to adopt conspiracy-mongering as a tactic and treat these supporters as a valued constituency of the Republican Party. True believers in these conspiracy theories will have more incentive to use Congress to amplify their beliefs, and non-believers might feel more pressure to embrace conspiracy theories in which they don’t believe in order to hold onto power.
Below, we have profiled a cross section of far-right extremists who are covered in the report, including one current member of Congress running for reelection, two candidates for the U.S. House, and one U.S. Senate candidate.
The far-right provocateur Laura Loomer is running for Congress as a Republican in Florida’s 21st District. Since 2016, Loomer has been an active Republican operative, supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at rallies and other events nationwide. She has since held numerous demonstrations and rallies for various Trumpian causes, often with her well-documented white nationalist friends, including Richard B. Spencer.
Loomer’s most notable ventures have been her attacks on Big Tech companies, mostly because she has been banned from nearly all of their platforms for some form of hate speech, online harassment or in-person confrontations. She frames herself as a free-speech absolutist who is fighting to restore the First Amendment rights she claims tech companies have violated. These days, Loomer uses outside-the-mainstream platforms like Parler, which is often described as “Twitter for conservatives” (and where she has gained 150,000 followers), to spread Islamophobia, disinformation, and hate. She has called Muslims “savages” and referred to herself a “#ProudIslamophobe.” On multiple occasions, Loomer has said that she does not care about what happened to Muslims at the Christchurch shooting, adding via her channel on the social-media platform Telegram, “I do care more about my free speech than Christchurch.”
The white nationalist blog VDARE has promoted Loomer’s campaign for Congress, as has Trump, Matt Gaetz, and Roger Stone, a convicted felon and associate of the Proud Boys hate group. Loomer won her primary in August, but her district is solidly Democratic, making her unlikely to win in the general election. At her victory party, Loomer rubbed shoulders with far-right figures, including Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
Marjorie Taylor Greene
QAnon follower Marjorie Taylor Greene won her primary run-off election in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District in August. Cook Political Report ranks that district as solidly Republican, and Greene’s opponent, Democrat Kevin Van Ausdal, abruptly ended his campaign in September, virtually insuring that the QAnon candidate will walk the halls of Congress.
Greene often posts support for QAnon on her social media accounts. She has called “Q,” the anonymous figure who first posted about QAnon, a “patriot” and said that “many of the things that he has given clues about, and talked [about] on 4Chan and other forums, have really proven to be true.” In the same video, she said, “I’m very excited about that now there’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it.”
Greene made national headlines in June, just after Facebook took down a campaign video in which she threatened antifa—shorthand for anti-fascist activists—while brandishing an AR-15. Shortly after her primary contest June, which she won by a margin so narrow that a run-off was required, Trump congratulated Greene on her win via Twitter. He did so again after her August win, calling her “a future Republican Star.”
Greene also made headlines for Facebook videos in which she made racist and anti-Semitic remarks, claiming that Black voters are “slaves” to the Democratic Party, that Muslims do not belong in government, and that Jewish billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a Holocaust survivor, is a Nazi. In September, she posted an image of herself with an assault rifle in front of an image of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, all women of color, with a statement that Americans must “take our country back” and “need strong conservative Christians to go on the offense.”
A newcomer to politics, Lauren Witzke is running for U.S. Senate in Delaware, but that hasn’t stopped her from closely associating with white supremacists and neo-Nazis during her campaign. In September, Witzke won the GOP nomination, beating her state GOP-backed opponent by double digits.
Witzke’s “America First” campaign platform employs Trump’s white nationalist dog-whistles to invite and welcome racist extremists into her fold. In addition, Witzke retweets, “likes” and comments on various extremists’ social media profiles, including many of the new faces of white nationalism: white nationalist podcaster Nick Fuentes; Millennial Matt, aka Matthew Colligan, who attended the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and became a face of the tiki torch march; Faith Goldy, a Canadian proponent of the white supremacist 14 words pledge; and white nationalist Vincent James Foxx of the Real Red Elephants. She also engages with lesser-known white supremacist “Groypers,” other far-right candidates and white nationalists.
These aren’t Witzke’s only online associations with white nationalism and extremism. Her tweets, and campaign messages use coded language, ideas, and hashtags like “demographic change,” “increase national birthrates,” “white genocide,” “#immigrationmoratorium,” and other such themes to solicit support from the far-right.
Some of her in-person associates are just as extreme. Witzke’s campaign manager, Michael Sisko, is a monarchist and anti-Semite who promotes white nationalists such as Fuentes on his podcast. Unsurprisingly, VDARE, an anti-immigrant hate site, has promoted Witzke’s campaign on its Twitter account.
Witzke has also voiced support for QAnon, tweeting the movement’s slogan and wearing a shirt that read, “We are Q.” However, earlier this year, she attempted to distance herself from the QAnon movement earlier this year.
Rep. Matthew Gaetz
After serving in the Florida state House for several years, Gaetz was elected to represent Florida’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House in 2017. Once Gaetz took office, he quickly rose to prominence for his extremism: In January 2018, he invited Charles C. Johnson, a far-right activist, Holocaust denier, and the founder of the alt-right crowdfunding site wesearchr, as his guest to the State of the Union address. Later that month, Gaetz appeared on Infowars—ironically to complain about being called a conspiracy theorist. In September, Johnson reappeared in Gaetz’ orbit at one of his political fundraisers. In late 2019, during the House’s impeachment investigation of Trump, Gaetz was also part of a group of far-right Congress members who stormed a closed-door House Intelligence Committee hearing in a secure hearing room to disrupt it. Most recently, Gaetz endorsed far-right provocateur Loomer in her run for Congress and offered support to QAnon candidate Greene, tweeting, “Proud to be in your corner, Marjorie!”
Like the other individuals profiled above, Gaetz relies on social media to solicit support from online extremists. He frequently “likes,” retweets, and follows the accounts of such far-right organizations as the xenophobic Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and hard-right media outlets like PragerU, The Next Revolution, and Blaze TV, as well as the far-right Jack Posobiec. While Gaetz’s comments are not often overtly racist, many of his far-right followers online view him to be sympathetic to their causes.
Among Gaetz’s supporters is white supremacist leader Christopher Cantwell, who devoted an hours-long podcast episode to praising him. The white nationalist blog VDARE wrote an article commending Gaetz for his defense of white nationalists under criticism for their dangerous, racist rhetoric.
Recommendations and Resources for Journalists Who Cover Extremism
Far-right candidates and elected officials create challenges for journalists who cover their campaigns and their work in Congress. Balancing the need to inform the general public with the skill and care required to accurately present such extremist views without amplifying them publicly is no easy task.
Media outlets that attempt to cover both political parties or both sides fairly often unknowingly amplify extremist ideology and give it added credibility by presenting it as equally valid to another political viewpoint.
When one side largely peddles in fiction, and the other largely engages in facts, such positions are not equivalent and should not be given equal airtime or space in an article. Treating them as equal does nothing to inform the reader of the facts he or she needs to know.
Nowhere is this journalistic challenge most evident than with those candidates who engage with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Media Matters’ Parker Molloy, writing about the unexpected victories of QAnon candidates in primaries, warns that journalists may be unprepared to responsibly cover such candidates and need to educate themselves:
Without a thorough understanding of internet culture and a familiarity with conspiracy theories, journalists may very well find themselves unprepared to cover Q-supporting politicians when they inevitably end up in the halls of Congress. Their ascension to those roles should in no way be an excuse to accept the conspiracy theory as anything less than a dangerous and deranged belief, but there’s reason to worry that will happen, as the eternal fight for balanced coverage in media often means accepting the far-right’s most outlandish beliefs as rational. Political journalists should spend time between now and November familiarizing themselves with this movement, because it’s not going away.
Thankfully, journalists can consult a body of research on appropriately framing extremism in their work. Data and Society’s “Oxygen of Amplification” report provides criteria for journalists to employ to determine if and how to cover extremism. The report suggests determining if a story has reached a tipping point of public awareness—that is, whether a racist claim, conspiracy theory, disinformation, or misinformation has been broadly shared outside of the small group or silo it originated. If it has, that’s your tipping point; if it hasn’t, reporting on it will only increase the likelihood it will reach that tipping point. The report expands on that tipping point, encouraging journalists to determine:
- If there is a “public health takeaway” in debunking.
- If there is a social or political action that can be taken by the public.
- “if the risk of entrenching/rewarding the falsehood in some stories is worth dislodging the falsehood in others.”
It also offers guidelines for how to proceed when a story has reached the tipping point so as to report without merely amplifying extremists’ ideas and ideologies.
Other resources include First Draft, which offers trainings geared towards local newsrooms, collaborative fact checking, research, and best practices. Right Wing Watch and Southern Poverty Law Center are sources for expert opinion and regular reporting on the far-right, conspiracy theories, trolls, disinformation campaigns, and extremist candidates.
The rise of far-right ideology in American politics and government has dangerous consequences for individuals, and for our increasingly diverse society. The political infrastructure and social networks that have contributed to the growth of conspiracy theories and spread of extremist ideologies will not disappear no matter what happens to individual candidates on Election Day. There is an urgent need for activists and journalists to understand and expose the ways that dangerous ideologies and conspiracy theories take hold in our culture and build power in our political system. This report on far-right ideology and the 2020 elections is part of our broader investment in that vigilance.
Sam Smith contributed research to this report.