This article is published in partnership with Salon.
After the November election last year, the national coordinating group of Republican state attorneys general boasted about the success of its aggressive advertising and media campaign against Democrats. The group had used incidents of violence that occurred alongside massive peaceful protests of police killings of unarmed Black men to portray Democrats as “lawless liberals” who “want to burn America.”
“Our five-month Lawless Liberals campaign earned millions of impressions” and “emphasized that the Republican AGs are America’s strongest defenders of economic freedom, defending the nation from threats of socialism, chaos, and lawlessness,” the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) wrote in its press release.
RAGA’s campaign produced at least 17 videos and a website that grossly exaggerated the degree of violence and distorted the positions of Democratic candidates to inspire fear among voters whom they hoped would give Donald Trump a second term as president and vote for other Republicans down the ballot.
As RAGA cynically manipulated the nation’s racial strife for political gain, it ignored a very real domestic threat that was snowballing across America. Far-right, violent extremism had been on the rise during the whole Trump administration, and increasing tensions associated with the upcoming elections put the threat into overdrive. Despite attempts by the Trump administration to cover up that threat and inflate the dangers posed by antifascists, anarchists, and BLM protesters, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded that “white supremacist exterimists” posed the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” in its October 2020 threat assessment.
In August, a right-wing police fan and Trump supporter, Kyle Rittenhouse, drove into Kenosha, Wisconsin from out of state, allegedly to protect businesses during a Black Lives Matter protest there. He killed two protesters and injured a third.
But none of that fazed RAGA, which continued to pin violence solely on Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa, the loose network of individuals who work to oppose fascism.
After Trump lost the election, at least 17 Republican attorneys general joined the lame-duck president in disputing the election results. RAGA’s nonprofit affiliate, the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), helped plan the Jan. 6 rally and march that culminated in the pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol that left five dead, including one Capitol Police officer.
Despite its extensive role in the day’s events, RAGA immediately issued a statement praising “the right of Americans to peacefully protest” while condemning “the violence, destruction, and rampant lawlessness occurring at the U.S. Capitol”—the same position leading Democrats took on last summer’s unrest that RAGA deliberately misrepresented for its own political purposes.
The group’s ironic statement from November—”RAGA has repeatedly warned that the violence being perpetrated by Democrats would continue even after the Presidential Election”—remains online.
Trump Sets Toxic Tone
Racist fearmongering is nothing new for the GOP, but over the last six years, Trump became the clear ringleader. Since beginning his first campaign in 2015 with a speech claiming Mexicans are rapists and drug smugglers, the ex-president’s political record was defined by numerous racist statements and actions.
Early in the administration, Trump issued the ban on immigration from majority-Muslim countries (known as the “Muslim ban”) and deliberately separated immigrant families. Hundreds of children are still isolated from their parents, and the Biden administration’s effort to reunify the families will be a challenge.
Throughout a term marked by Hatch Act violations, profiteering off the presidency, and potentially criminal attempts to work with a foreign power to swing the 2020 election, Trump tried to label people of color, and those who support their basic human rights, as criminals. He created an office within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to highlight crimes committed by immigrants. He falsely characterized the districts represented by Black Democrats, such as the late John Lewis of Georgia or Rep. Ihan Omar of Minnesota, as “crime infested.” And he repeatedly circulated videos of random incidents of Black men attacking white people, echoing the “black-on-white crime” myth beloved by white nationalists, including mass murdered Dylann Roof.
For years, neo-Nazis and other white nationalists celebrated Trump’s racist rhetoric.
“Man, President Trump’s Twitter account has been pure fire lately,” tweeted prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. “This is the kind of WHITE NATIONALISM we elected him for.”
Meanwhile, the former president lauded or refused to condemn far-right extremists. He famously stated that “very fine people” were among the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, alt-right adherents, and other malicious bigots who came together at the Unite the Right events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, leading to the murder of a civil rights protester. Trump refused to disavow the right-wing street gang and hate group the Proud Boys or members of the QAnon cult, a far-right, pro-Trump movement predicated on antisemitic tropes and wild conspiracy theories. Proud Boys and QAnon fans would feature prominently in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.
Trump’s anti-Black attacks spiked in 2020 over the backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests, which swept the nation after a white police officer killed an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for nine straight minutes.
As more than 15 million people of all races marched for basic racial justice, Trump called BLM “a symbol of hate” and signed an executive order aimed at jailing people who damaged monuments to the slaveholding Confederacy and other federal property. The June 2020 order instructed the attorney general to prioritize criminal prosecutions for the destruction of monuments on federal property, with prison sentences of up to 10 years.
That executive order was the excuse that Trump’s agencies used for sending unmarked federal agents into Portland, Oregon to round up leftist protesters. Acting DHS Sec. Chad Wolf issued a dramatic press release at the time, calling protesters who engaged in vandalism “violent anarchists” and referring to their actions as an “attack [on] America” and a “siege.”
Expensive property damage occurred at some BLM protests from May to June, but the demonstrations were “remarkably nonviolent,” according to research by The Washington Post. “The overall levels of violence and property destruction were low, and most of the violence that did take place was, in fact, directed against the BLM protesters,” wrote the authors.
Roughly 93 percent of BLM protests from late May through late August were peaceful, according to a Princeton University study. However, law enforcement intervened more often than in other protests, sometimes escalating tensions and increasing the risk of violence, the study found.
As they inflated the threat posed by leftists, Wolf and his agency attempted to hide the biggest threat facing the U.S.: right-wing extremism. Acting DHS Deputy Sec. Ken Cuccinelli ordered an intelligence official to both exaggerate the threat posed by antifa, a loose group of individuals dedicated to countering fascists, and anarchist groups and to minimize the threat posed by white supremacist groups, according to a whistleblower complaint.
Trump said he would classify antifa as a terrorist organization, and Republican members of Congress, especially Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), played along.
These distortions were the backdrop for Trump’s dishonest 2020 campaign strategy, which borrowed heavily from Richard Nixon’s racist “southern strategy” of the late 1960s. He repeatedly claimed that Democrats and violence in cities led by Democrats would “destroy” the suburbs, a not-so-subtle attempt to scare white suburban voters about crime and entice them to vote for him, the supposed “law and order” candidate.
Trump and his agencies pushed this narrative while police departments knew that far-right actors, who planned to attack protesters and law enforcement, were the primary threat. Many of these threats came from individuals affiliated with the boogaloo movement, a group of heavily armed anti-government extremists who want to incite a civil war. “Boogaloo bois” were among the Capitol insurrectionists, who ended up injuring nearly 140 police officers and killing one. Two other officers died by suicide after the insurrection.
After losing the election, in part because of his poor performance in the suburbs, Trump’s increasingly unhinged legal team set out to invalidate the votes of millions of Black voters in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. The dozens of failed lawsuits filed by Trump campaign and Republican National Committee (RNC) attorneys were so laser-focused on invalidating Black Americans’ votes that the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued Trump, his campaign, and the RNC in December for conspiring to violate the rights of Black voters.
“By targeting communities of color with false claims of voter fraud, and by coordinating actions to pressure state and local officials to discard votes cast in cities with large Black populations, [the defendants] have undermined our most sacred constitutional values,” said Sam Spital, LDF’s Director of Litigation.
The GOP’s Racist Electoral Strategy
Trump and RAGA’s dishonest and ultimately dangerous actions characterize a broader racist electoral strategy by Republicans at the state and federal levels in 2020. GOP political and advocacy groups and individual candidates used coded language and overt racism in their attempt to scare voters and win elections.
The opening night of the Republican National Convention in August was all about fear. The event featured Charlie Kirk, the head of Turning Point USA who called Trump “the bodyguard of Western civilization,” and Patricia McCloskey, who claimed that Democrats “are not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities” and want to “abolish the suburbs altogether.” McCloskey and her husband, Mark, infamously brandished guns in their yard during a St. Louis BLM march last summer.
With the president and much of the right-wing think tank and advocacy infrastructure behind them, GOP political candidates ran campaigns directly against BLM and antifa, hoping that their dishonest claims and histrionics would scare voters enough to sweep them into elected office.
Successful Tennessee Senate candidate Bill Hagerty resigned from the board of broker R.J. O’Brien & Associates after the firm tweeted support for BLM. In a statement, Hagerty lamented that BLM allegedly “seeks to destroy the nuclear family, calls for violence, promotes anti-Semitism, tears down monuments, and seeks to completely defund and dismantle our police departments.”
Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost her Senate seat to Black pastor Rafael Warnock, attacked BLM and members of the WNBA team she co-owns, even going on white supremacist Jack Posobiec’s show to do so.
Utah Rep. Burgess Owens, who is Black, compared BLM and antifa to the Ku Klux Klan, a notorious white supremacist organization that lynched Black men. Owens, like several other Republican House freshmen, appeared on QAnon-affiliated podcasts last year as he ran for office. Numerous other Republican members of Congress have bashed BLM, including QAnon adherent, Islamophobe, and antisemite Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has called it a domestic terrorist organization. The House stripped Greene of her committee posts on Feb. 4 because of her support for bizarre conspiracy theories and endorsement of violence against Democratic lawmakers in recent years.
Other Republicans ran racist ads, including successful House candidate Bob Good, whose ad claimed his Black opponent would make people less safe over images of nighttime fires, riots, and arrests.
This Bob Good ad in VA-05 may raise eyebrows…
It superimposes a photo of Democrat Cameron Webb over video of fires and looting, and tells voters to "look past [Webb's] smooth presentation."
Webb, 37, is an MD/JD who serves as the director of health policy at UVA med school. pic.twitter.com/pZlM5YFJoG
— Jacob Rubashkin (@JacobRubashkin) September 1, 2020
State and local GOP candidates, including in Texas and Kansas, used racist ads with the same theme: Democrats, under the influence of Black activists and antifascists, will set communities on fire and unleash alarming rates of crime.
Much of the conservative fearmongering highlighted the phrase “defund the police,” a slogan used by activists and some progressive Democrats. Republican campaigns frequently distorted the nature of the position (many who used the phrase supported diverting some money from law enforcement budgets into public programs and did not advocate abolishing law enforcement altogether) and attributed it to candidates who did not want to “defund the police.”
It’s difficult to evaluate the overall effectiveness of Republicans’ racist strategy. The GOP did unexpectedly well in House races, gaining over a dozen seats after many observers expected Democrats to widen their majority, and made slight gains in state elections. But Republicans lost the White House and their Senate majority.
Regardless of how successful the GOP’s racist campaigning was, it’s already clear that the party has no plans to temper its extremism. The Republican National Committee invited Trump to speak at its spring meeting, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had “a very good and cordial” meeting with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Jan. 28 to discuss 2022 electoral strategy.
Despite seven Republican Senators joining Democrats in voting to convict the ex-president for inciting the Capitol insurrection—the highest number of opposition party votes for impeachment in U.S. history—and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s condemnation of Trump’s actions, state parties have rallied around Trump and attacked Republicans who voted to hold him accountable.
The Wyoming GOP censured Rep. Liz Cheney, the House Republican Conference Chair, and asked her to resign after she voted to impeach Trump. The South Carolina GOP censured Rep. Tom Rice for voting to impeach Trump on Jan. 13. The Oregon GOP condemned the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment and dishonestly called the insurrection a “false flag operation designed to discredit Pres. Trump.” The central committee of the North Carolina GOP censured Sen. Richard Burr for his impeachment vote, and the state party in Louisiana censured Sen. Bill Cassidy.
GOP Groups Echo Trump
A number of right-wing think tanks and political networks also worked overtime in 2020 to support attacks by Trump and the GOP on BLM and to portray the discussion of the impact of slavery and racism on our country as an attack on American values.
The executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a pay-to-play organization that connects corporate lobbyists with conservative state lawmakers to produce model legislation, supported Trump’s executive order on monuments. In July, ALEC CEO Lisa Nelson signed a letter backing the order, which portrayed racial justice protesters as “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists” and “the mob.” In a nod to Trump’s attacks on the 1619 Project, an educational series with the premise that the U.S. was founded on slavery and racism published by The New York Times Magazine, the letter also says that Americans must “teach our history with honesty and respect” and uphold the nation’s “culture and values.”
Years ago, ALEC worked with the National Rifle Association to write a model bill that became Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, which led to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed an unarmed Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012. Zimmerman’s exoneration sparked the first use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media.
The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank that was co-founded by ALEC co-founder Paul Weyrich, also attacks BLM directly. One article written by two staffers, originally appearing in the conservative New York Post, attributes a “radical, Marxist agenda” to the movement, something it portrays as a grave threat. The article and accompanying video that Heritage produced goes into hysterics over BLM goals, such as making tax codes more progressive and “supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another.”
A coalition of leaders of ALEC, Heritage’s political arm, the Tea Party Patriots, and a Republican front group called Moms For Safe Neighborhoods ran dramatic ads against Biden and Kamala Harris, echoing GOP candidates’ claims that Democrats will endanger suburbanites’ lives.
The Capital Research Center, a right-wing “investigative think tank” and a member of the State Policy Network, has an ongoing series that attempts to discredit BLM. One “special report” titled “Radical Lives Matter” connected BLM with looting and radical leftist and cult violence, and compared last year’s incidents of police brutality to “a bogus martyrdom-by-police” narrative “invented by Eldridge Cleaver” to be “fed” to the mainstream media. The Capital Research Center is heavily funded by the Bradley Foundation, one of the top funders of right-wing, state-based groups.
As organizations like ALEC and Heritage attacked people’s right to challenge racist police killings and a version of U.S. history that diminishes the role that racism and slavery played, one of their main funders bankrolled white nationalist hate groups. DonorsTrust, often known as “the ATM” of the conservative movement, funneled $1.5 million to the VDARE Foundation and $10,500 the foundation behind the American Renaissance magazine in 2019, CMD first reported. The organizations are two of the most notorious white nationalist outfits in the U.S.
DonorsTrust is a donor-advised fund sponsor, meaning that it manages the individual charitable accounts of its donor clients, who “advise” DonorsTrust on which nonprofits to fund. When CMD asked DonorsTrust CEO Lawson Bader for comment, he mischaracterized his organization’s policies, claiming that his group has no control over where its donors direct their funds. However, according to DonorsTrust’s own literature, its board determines which nonprofits are eligible for donations.
The Right’s Racist Strategy Isn’t Going Anywhere
After Trump fans waged their Jan. 6 insurrection, some Republican members of Congress lied about antifa’s involvement and even attempted to blame the violence and deaths on BLM. Others, like Reps. Steve Scalise (LA) and Lauren Boebert (CO), alleged that by supporting BLM, Democrats had normalized violence. Property destruction last summer was somehow justification for white nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and white militias’ storming of the Capitol and plans to execute politicians. Republican members of Congress, including Matt Gaetz (FL) and Taylor-Greene, added to this false equivalence by accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for supporting the largely peaceful protests but decrying the anti-democratic invasion of their own workplace.
And, since the GOP’s race-based scare tactics did not succeed at keeping its leader in the White House, the party is now doubling down on racial gerrymandering and voter suppression legislation to reduce turnout in communities of color.
The Brennan Center for Justice anticipates that the GOP will seek to further disenfranchise voters of color as they redraw congressional and state legislative districts, especially in the South, where increased political and racial diversity “pos[es] a serious new threat to the longstanding status quo of white Republican dominance.” Republican state lawmakers will control this year’s redistricting process in swing states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Seizing on a sea of lies from Trump and other Republicans about nonexistent voter fraud, state lawmakers have also filed over 100 bills to make it more difficult for their constituents to vote by the end of January. If enacted, those measures will reverse 2020’s voter turnout progress and impose new, burdensome requirements on voters that disproportionately impact people of color.
This article has been edited to update its description of a Capital Research Center article.