In late September, RefuseFascism.org, a group associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, announced it would be holding a nationwide protest on November 4th against the Trump administration. Within days, a far-right Facebook group, Vets Before Illegals, posted a video to Facebook claiming that "antifa" had declared a "civil war" on police and all white people. "If you're white, it will be open game on you," the video warns, after claiming that antifascists are "fundraising for weapons." The Vets Before Illegals Facebook page has nearly half a million followers, and the fabricated claims of an antifascist civil war, now broadly labeled a conspiracy theory, eventually spread to other far-right platforms, including the The Gateway Pundit and InfoWars.
The anti-Donald Trump protests are expected to take place in cities and towns across the country, among them San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago.
While the claims that antifascists are planning to commence a civil war are unfounded and outlandish, the consequences for RefuseFascism.org organizers is real. Sunsara Taylor, a spokesperson for RefuseFascism.org, tells Pacific Standard that the group and its affiliates have been receiving "thousands of threats, including death threats." Taylor explains that RefuseFascism.org and others planning to participate in the protests have been the subject of both "targeted and blanketed threats," including promises of sexual violence and anti-Semitic abuse.
For Taylor, the rally scheduled in Austin, Texas, is of particular concern, where there have been reports of several far-right groups planning to show up with guns to counter-protest the RefuseFascism.org event. In response to the threat of gun-wielding right-wingers, RefuseFascism.org has put out a call for anyone near Austin to come out and stand with the anti-Trump demonstrators. "I think there is a conscious awareness on the parts of people spreading this misinformation to incite violence against legitimate protests," Taylor adds.
The fears of activists are not unfounded—experts of far-right violence say there's genuine cause for concern. Daryl Lamont Jenkins, an antifascist researcher and founder of the One People's Project, a right-wing watchdog group, explains that the "antifa civil war" conspiracy theory and others like it are "part and parcel" of the far right. Although he describes the paranoia over an impending civil war as a "political stunt," Jenkins also says he believes there is a "real threat of [physical] violence."
The allegations of a leftist "civil war" are just the latest in a string of far-right conspiracy theories that date back to the colonial period, when there was significant anxiety over slave uprisings. During the 2016 presidential election season, a (debunked) conspiracy theory emerged claiming that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex-trafficking ring being run out of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. The theory, which became known as Pizzagate, was a favorite talking point of InfoWars' Alex Jones. Pizzagate grew in popularity on the right, adding fuel to the fire of anger surrounding Clinton, while becoming something of a joke in leftist and even mainstream circles. That is, until it wasn't: On December 4th, 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch took his AR-15 to Comet Ping Pong and opened fire on the restaurant (there were no injuries). Welch later said he was motivated by the rumors he'd heard about the shop's supposed connection to human trafficking.
Then, in July of this year, Lane Davis, a 33-year-old Skagit County, Washington, resident and member of the white supremacist so-called "alt-right," allegedly stabbed and killed his father, Charles, during an argument between the two in which Lane accused Charles of being a "leftist pedophile." The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Davis, who frequently posted conspiracy-laden YouTube videos under the name Seattel4Truth, was obsessed with conspiracy theories regarding "liberal pedophelia." It was his belief in these particular conspiracy theories that ostensibly led to the violence against his father: according to the SPLC, Davis accused his father of pedophilia before allegedly fatally stabbing him.
Davis' obsession with anti-liberal pedophilia conspiracy theories echoes the content of Pizzagate, which centered on baseless accusations of child sex trafficking. Members of the far-right have recently helped underscore unfounded theories about liberals and pedophilia. During protests over a talk given by Mike Cernovich, an "alt-right" conspiracy theorist, at Columbia University in October, alt-righters, posing as antifascists, planted a sign that read: "No White Supremacy, No Pedo Bashing, No Mike Cernovich." The sign also featured a logo for the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a now-defunct organization that advocated for pedophilia.
Members of the far right have also turned up in numbers to confront leftists based on false rumors and misinformation. Jenkins points to a slew of false claims and Internet-based conspiracies that prompted far-right demonstrations this year alone. Back in June, another far-right hoax claimed that antifa planned to destroy the gravestones of Confederate soldiers in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When far-right rally organizers and attendees showed up, they found one problem: None of the Confederate graves had headstones to begin with.
Earlier that month, militia groups and gun-toting far-rightists descended on Houston's Hermann Park to defend a monument of slaveholder Sam Houston after a Facebook event purported that leftists and antifascists were planning to tear it down. Upon arriving, the Confederate-flag waving group of would-be counter-demonstrators found that there was, in fact, no antifascist demonstration and there was no one there with intentions of removing the statue. Although conspiracy theories of this nature rarely conform with reality, they still serve a useful purpose for those with influence in the far right.
Referring to the claims that antifascists would rise up this weekend, he said, "Obviously, the police don't think that anything is going to go down because we would have been snatched up by now."
Matthew N. Lyons, an independent researcher affiliated with the antifascist blog Three Way Fight and the author of several books about the far right explains that conspiracy theories "offer an explanation of power relationships that are emotionally compelling" to the people who believe them. Because of the emotional response these theories elicit, they can serve as "powerful tools for mobilizing people, recruiting supporters, and even just getting attention" for right-wing causes, Lyons explains.
The emotional effects of these theories is evident by the commentary on the video posted by Vets Before Illegals. One Facebook user wrote of the protesters, "Shoot to kill orders need to be given for these idiots...." Another commenter alluded to the militarized power of the police against protesters, writing: "We are able to flank police with armored tanks and military. They should be careful what the[y] ask for! American Patriots will stand armed and ready." A slew of other comments refers to violence against protesters, and at least one mentioned that Trump will "not tolerate" the alleged civil war.
Clearly, anti-left conspiracy theories are resonant for sectors of the right, and not just among fringe vigilantes—the influence of conspiracy plots can now be found in the White House.
In August, Trump re-tweeted a tweet from the popular far-right activist Jack Posobiec, who helped spread unfounded rumors about Pizzagate. Alex Jones has also said that he occasionally speaks with the president (a claim that can be considered spurious given the source, but the president and Jones have a documented relationship). In fact, Trump even appeared on InfoWars in 2015, and praised the far-right conspiracy theorists' reputation as "amazing," Media Matters for America reported at the time. MMFA has also reported that Trump advisor Roger Stone said in May that Jones and the president are occasional interlocutors.
According to Heidi Beirich, the director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, the fact that conspiracy theorists could have an ear in the White House is cause for major concern. Conspiracy theories spread by members of the far right are now "shaping policy," Beirich says. "They're impacting the real world, and it's incumbent on all of us to take these matters seriously."