This is the best strategy we have against extremism and misinformation

In Charlottesville, Virginia, a jury hears closing arguments in a case against the White power groups who organized the deadly rally there in 2017.

In Connecticut, a judge rules that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is liable for defamation after years of attacks on the families who lost their children in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

In Washington, DC, a grand jury indicts Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist during much of the Trump administration, for criminal contempt after he refused a subpoena from the commission investigating the January 6 insurrection. A few days later, a judge sentences one of the insurrectionists to 41 months in prison.

And in courts scattered across the country, right-wing media outlets are facing billion-dollar civil suits from voting-machine makers Smartmatic and Dominion, in response to months of conspiracy-mongering about the machines and the 2020 election.

Courts are currently clogged with cases that chart much of the right-wing extremism and misinformation campaigns of the last decade. The cases also reveal the makeshift nature of legal responses to those campaigns, an array of tools that might be able to act as deterrents — though not able to deliver real justice.

It is at once both dispiriting and hopeful. Dispiriting, because it is a sign of how rapidly the far-right has grown and how deeply it has penetrated US politics. Hopeful, because it shows how robustly the legal system is responding to the twin dangers of extremism and disinformation. That robust response is far from automatic — and even now, is likely less than the country needs.

Both right-wing extremism and disinformation — two interrelated phenomena in the US today, as the “Stop the Steal” rally and January 6 insurrection show — are particularly thorny problems for the justice system to address. There are a number of reasons why.

On the legal front, fundamental rights to free association, free press and free speech have left courts cautious to intervene. It’s one reason why the US doesn’t have a federal domestic terrorism law to match its foreign terrorism regime: too many of the methods used against foreign terror outfits are not constitutional when used against US citizens.

On the cultural front, the valorizing embrace by the right of White Americans arming themselves has made it difficult for law enforcement and legislators to fully appreciate the depth of the threats facing the US.

Kyle Rittenhouse, who was found not guilty of all charges Friday, and has said he went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to protect businesses and acted in self-defense when he shot three men, or Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who said they were defending themselves and their property when they brandished firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters in their St. Louis neighborhood, have been held up as heroes by the many on the right — portrayed as extensions of the law rather than alleged violators of it. The McCloskeys spoke defiantly on the first night of the Republican National Convention in 2020.

And while the number of far-right extremist groups exploded during President Barack Obama’s campaign and administrations, it was not until 2020 that the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged violent White supremacy, much of it fueled by right-wing extremism, as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”

There are also historical reasons that the legal system has struggled to address right-wing and White nationalist violence. As historian Kathleen Belew has documented in her 2018 book “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” federal prosecutors attempted to bring conspiracy cases against White power groups who had engaged in terroristic violence and murder, only to repeatedly lose in court. In 1979, a group made up of members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party killed five anti-racist protesters — murders caught on video — only to walk free when tried in court. Prosecutors learned from cases like that to go after violent extremists individually, winning high-profile cases like the one brought against the Oklahoma City bombers, but refraining from efforts to prosecute the entire network of activists behind the violence.

As criminal prosecutions faltered, anti-racist organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center increasingly turned to civil suits to restrict the reach of White power organizing. As Belew notes, they successfully sued organizations like the White Patriot Party out of existence, and won damages for a man killed by White power groups in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1978. Civil suits proved to be a valuable tool for bankrupting, disbanding and exposing extremist networks

That is still true today. The suits against the organizers of the Charlottesville rally have the potential to financially cripple the groups responsible for the violence. And the civil suits against Jones and right-wing networks who spread election conspiracies could demonstrate that deliberate disinformation comes with a price tag no outlet can afford.

The proliferation of far-right extremism has also prompted prosecutors to revisit the tools available for bringing criminal cases against violent extremists. In 2019, the federal government secured its first conspiracy convictions against right-wing extremists in decades against four members of the White supremacist group Rise Above Movement for their part in the deadly Charlottesville riot. This has encouraged prosecutors to pursue more conspiracy cases — there are a number in progress involving January 6 insurrectionists — although they acknowledge such cases are particularly difficult to prove in court.

The double-prong legal approach — pursuing both criminal charges and civil suits — has been a key development in efforts to combat right-wing extremism. But perhaps the most notable change has been on the cultural front. For the first time in modern America, there is a robust conversation not just about the threat of right-wing extremism but expansive coverage of the networks that spread disinformation and feed far-right violence. That has given more Americans not only a language for talking about this threat but a conceptual framework for better understanding it. That’s critical, because it makes it possible to envision a wider array of responses to that threat.

Which is not to say all Americans are open to that new understanding of far-right violence. The right has nursed a conservative victim-martyr complex in response to these increased attacks on extremist groups. Efforts to prosecute the January 6 insurrections, for instance, have fed a cottage industry of media portraying the insurrectionists as righteous warriors and political prisoners (most recently Tucker Carlson’s three-part series “Patriot Purge“). Likewise, the Justice Department’s efforts to protect school boards from threats of violence became fodder for outraged howls that the agency was persecuting parents.

That creates real limits to prosecution as deterrence. Someone like Steve Bannon wears his indictment on contempt charges as a badge of honor, evidence of his unceasing loyalty to both Donald Trump and the political forces that brought him into the presidency. But more than that, the fear of White decline and persecution at the root of so much of right-wing politics — and at the root of so much of US law and politics — makes it particularly tricky to fully counter the extremism that results from that fear.

Those limits are why the patchwork effort to dismantle extremist groups will remain necessary: with one political party unwilling to recognize the dangers of these forces — indeed, welcoming them with open arms — those seeking to rein them in will have to stay creative.

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