6 February 2024
By: Jared Holt
The United States is on track to see the turmoil of 2020 elections dished out again by movements and institutions that have spent years manipulating public discourse and organizing themselves, intending to return to the ring with vengeance. It’s unclear whether it’s ready to weather the storm.
The presidential election of 2020 ended in a deadly riot during which extremist movements and otherwise unaffiliated supporters of President Donald Trump acted in tandem for a common goal: assisting Trump’s attempt at a self-coup. They crashed through security barricades at the US Capitol Building on January 6 and caused the democratic process to stall, albeit temporarily.
The riot predictably became a center-point for conversations about threats to democracy and issues of political violence in the US; it was a spectacle previously unseen by Americans and an undeniable display of the stakes of leaving the issues unaddressed. The events of January 6 had ripple effects around the globe.
What followed was one of the largest federal investigations in history, resulting in more than 1,100 arrests and an 18-month long Congressional investigation. Trump was indicted twice for efforts to overturn 2020 election results, yielding the nation’s first presidential mugshot. Several individuals and entities who helped Trump in those efforts have been criminally charged, sued and disbarred. The fallout drastically altered the landscape of political extremism, prompting changes in tactics and arrangements, and provoking paranoia around organizing similar events.
But despite the riot’s profound impacts on many aspects of politics, the consequences ultimately failed to alleviate some Americans’ doubts about the legitimacy of US democracy. The riot would prove to be merely an inflection point of larger, more pernicious social movements that persisted. The movements that participated proved to be stronger than any single group or political figure.
The 2024 elections will be a rematch between the far-right movements, their political opponents and whatever institutions may stand between them and power. This time they enter the arena with stronger institutional support, more established branches of local and state activists, and even fewer inhibitions around social and political norms.
We should expect the misinformation and threats hellfire that 2020 wrought to return at deafening levels, and then one louder, like an amp that goes to 11. Politically motivated violence seems like a plausible, if not inevitable, result.
‘Fringe’ and ‘mainstream’ are increasingly difficult to distinguish on the political right
While certainly not all Republicans support far-right movements— especially those that assault the functions of US democracy—, these Republicans constitute a minority of the modern conservative movement and lack the ability to moderate today’s Republican Party.
The status quo in modern conservative organizing severely punishes those who dissent from its current trajectory. For example, Republican election officials who have spoken out against false claims about the integrity of voting often suffered the same fate as their Democrat-aligned colleagues: threats, harassment and reputational damage.
Meanwhile, Republican-aligned institutions and elites have molded themselves in the image of Trump, increasingly audacious about their most extreme policy positions and unconcerned with distinguishing themselves from the conservative movement’s sometimes ugly underbelly.
Nearly one-third of Congress is made up of politicians who question whether the 2020 elections were legitimate, and one such election-denier, Rep. Mike Johnson, serves as the Speaker of the House. These 172 politicians make up 78.5% of the Republican Party’s representation in the legislative branch, granting them an overwhelming majority over elected Republicans who don’t deny electoral outcomes. Twenty-five election deniers in 19 states hold an office involved in the administration of elections.
Members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who rose to prominence promoting outlandish and hateful conspiracy theories, are now some of the GOP’s leading fundraisers and most sought-after endorsements.
One of Washington’s most powerful conservative policy shops, the Heritage Foundation, has crafted an autocratic blueprint called Project 2025. It would give the next President the authority to fire hundreds of thousands of civil servants, the ability to deploy the US military to suppress legitimate protest, and justification to appoint “acting” secretaries to bypass Senate approval. There are plans to pardon the January 6 insurrectionists and prosecute critics.
All the while, conservative media figures have adopted increasingly extreme rhetoric. Charlie Kirk, who heads the highly visible activist group Turning Point USA, has retooled the organization to act as a firehose of far-right agitprop. Just this year, Kirk has endorsed the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory and encouraged Americans concerned with immigration to buy guns.
Far-right movements will have access to a sobering amount of institutional power, backed up by some of the most powerful people in the nation this election season. There is no equivalent on the further reaches of the political left.
It will be wise to take political figures’ rhetoric and campaign promises in a more literal sense, unlike in elections past.
Election denialists and anti-inclusion activists have dominated the conservative grassroots scene
Election denialists scrambled to cement their political power and build upon it after 2020’s election by grooming activists at local and state levels and attempting to insert them into the electoral process. The results have produced headaches and hostilities toward election officials and election workers, prompting them to leave their posts in droves.
Beyond elections, the conservative grassroots have been transformed in the image of anti-inclusionary groups like Moms for Liberty, which have sought to eliminate educational curriculums that teach about LGBTQ+, racial, or certain cultural issues from public schooling. An avalanche of protests have targeted queer-friendly events, like drag shows and pride parades, and the targets of likeminded social media influencers have received violent threats. Though many activists cite concerns about First Amendment rights, many of their activities are aimed at restricting speech in public institutions, not expanding it.
These organizing forces have chalked myriad wins since 2020, and some have attracted support from major donors and political figures. In 2022’s midterms, several candidates in swing states event attempted to deploy the ‘culture war’ topics propelling this organizing in hopes of moving undecided voters (that strategy was largely unsuccessful, but that hasn’t stopped 2024 primary candidates from repeating those efforts).
ISD expects this new grassroots base to insert themselves into the voting process in 2024, as they have tried in elections past, by volunteering to work at polling locations and throughout election administration processes. It is likely that activists will continue to conduct amateur surveillance of polling locations and ballot drop boxes, or to lobby local governments for rule changes that make it more difficult to vote. And of course, we should expect these activists will dispute the legitimacy of vote-counting with well-developed narrative playbooks, networks of online media and supportive politicians.
This scale and style of local organizing introduces an increased number of inflection points where those who seek to undermine the choices of voters can act, which could have the effect of lessening the friction and consequences they faced in prior efforts from safeguards in the democratic process.
Domestic extremists have renewed efforts to unify and provoke political change
Fallout from the Capitol riot prompted many domestic extremist movements to restructure, and to trade traditional hierarchies and distinct groupings for more decentralized networks of activists.
Domestic extremism today acts as a network, rather than a rigidly defined set of groups. Smaller cells of activists and supporters cluster around issue sets, targets, and flavors of ideology rather than attempt to scale groups at national scales, like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers did.
In the last year, some of these extremists have attempted to formalize these networks to work together and build capabilities to act as a unified front. Additionally, extremists have directed hate and threats toward a range of targets including political figures, journalists, law enforcement, minority communities and religious communities.
ISD observed a swell of white supremacist ‘active clubs’ that pair racist and hateful ideologies with physical training and combat practice. Analysts noted that some have openly networked and coordinated offline activities. Though the bulk of such groups are only tangentially concerned with electoral politics, many seek to agitate public opinion around issues certain to be raised on the campaign trail such as immigration, race, and LGBTQ+ equality. Some have dabbled in electoral politics by endorsing candidates and lobbying political bodies, declaring some degree of success with those efforts.
Some activities of domestic extremists will be increasingly difficult to anticipate, as many have opted to plot demonstrations and discuss group logistics in private, for fear of surveillance by law enforcement and political rivals. Many utilize encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and closed-channel communication platforms like Discord to further evade would-be trackers.
Extremist groups have spoken explicitly about their goals for 2024. Many hardcore white supremacist movements believed the prior year brought them successes and promised to continue their efforts to propagandize and organize on regional scales into the next year.
On the far-left, loosely networked anarchists have claimed credit for vandalism and protests targeting political and business figures believed to be on the wrong side of environmental or foreign policy issues related to the Israel-Hamas war. Some have escalated their targeting, sharing personal information of police officers and politicians alongside other posts containing instructions for crafting homemade weapons.
Additionally, foreign state actors have long sought to hype up existing divisions between extremes across the political spectrum and are likely to repeat this practice concerning any extremist activity around 2024 elections.
The nation’s immune system against misinformation and hate is weak
The continued downturn of US news media and the cumulative indifference of social media platforms leaves the nation in a worse spot to stand against online misinformation and hate than it was in 2020.
Though the anti-misinformation and anti-extremism business and nonprofit landscape has rapidly grown since the Capitol riot, the venues where Americans get their news are no better prepared for the stress test 2024 is sure to conduct.
The news industry saw mass layoffs at the start of 2024, following a familiar downward trend across the industry overall. Tech industry giants have performed similar layoffs, affecting teams that were responsible for combatting misinformation and hate speech on platforms.
After Trump and his allies inspired supporters to attack the US Capitol building, social media companies exercised a sobering display of their unchecked corporate power by banning the then-president and swaths of far-right movements that supported him from their platforms in hopes it may help undermine any would-be follow-up attacks or escalations.
Most major social media platforms have since rolled back their efforts to combat misinformation and hate speech to allow for the return of Trump and other leading right-wing figures on their platforms ahead of 2024 elections. And across the sector broadly, platforms have de-prioritized their attempts at finding solutions to these issues in favor of protecting revenues.
Recent global news events, like the Israel-Hamas war, have illustrated how difficult it has been for platforms to enforce their own standards at scale in turbulent news environments. The result has been a kind of information disorder that companies publicly claim they are interested in finding solutions to.
It is increasingly important to consider solutions to misinformation and hate that are not dependent on voluntary cooperation from corporate businesses, which are often incentivized in ways that clash with effective and lasting solutions to the issues.
Practitioners of anti-hate and anti-misinformation methods may also do well to consider more robust solutions that do not depend on the friendliness of government and law enforcement, as shifts in the political landscape can quickly turn allies into antagonists.
Americans are less certain how they feel about 2020’s elections and the nation’s future
Efforts to relaunder the story of January 6 and rehash the legitimacy of 2020 elections have received crucial buy-in from Republican leaders, advocacy groups and media stars. A robust micro-industry of conspiracy theorists pump media products that seek to encourage and maintain doubts about democracy and government, and those efforts have had some success. A torrent of films dedicated to rehashing 2020 and the Capitol riot have also been released by right-wing media figures.
Today, conspiracy theories about the Capitol riot are increasingly mainstream; polling data finds that Republican voters have become increasingly sympathetic to those who rioted at the Capitol and less convinced the election was legitimate—though the larger electorate’s views have remained relatively steady.
A portion of the electorate is despondent. One recent poll found 67 percent of Americans were “tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections” and 18 percent said they would not vote in November if their choices for president were Biden and Trump.
Trump’s eligibility to appear on 2024 ballots is in limbo, though headed to a Supreme Court widely expected to rule in his favor. Republican political leaders have urged the Court to allow Trump to remain on the ballot, some warning that a decision to remove him would cause major disruptions to the US political system with waves of disqualification efforts. In the off chance that efforts to disqualify Trump are successful, they could beget more anger and action from his supporters.
While the road ahead for American democracy is largely unclear, it’s certain that the road is riddled with bumps, tilts and patches that will make the journey feel perilous along the way. An honest dialogue about the threats ahead is the first step in ensuring we are ready to face them, and critical if we are to have a chance at staving off threats to democracy itself.