As children walked to their elementary school in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in September, anti-mask protesters showed up to protest the school’s mask mandate. Following a trend seen across the country, they harassed the students, calling them slaves and Hitler Youth.
This is just one recent example of the use of nonviolent action by the political right in the United States. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a global rise in the use of nonviolent action by members of the far right across a range of issues, including opposition to immigration, abortion and gun control, as well as mask mandates and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. This raises important questions: First, is there a qualitative difference in the use of nonviolent action by those on the political right? And, second, should we see their use of nonviolent action as legitimate, given that civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance are often linked to social justice causes?
My recent research project “The Dark Side of Nonviolent Action: Right-wing Populism and the Use of Nonviolent Action,” attempted to answer this very question by examining three case studies. One was the recent right-wing movement under Donald Trump that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. The other two were international examples, including the 2/12 Islamist-led movement in Indonesia and the anti-immigrant youth Identitarian movement in Austria. Both of these latter two movements engaged in highly public nonviolent actions. In the case of Indonesia, the movement used mass demonstrations to topple the popular Christian mayor of Jakarta. Meanwhile, in Austria, the Identitarian movement engaged in a series of publicity-generating nonviolent actions that contributed to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment.
Through my research, I discovered three key tensions that illustrate the problematic features of right-wing use of nonviolent action. Understanding these tensions help us better gauge the legitimacy of those actions, as well as the phenomenon of right-wing populism that fuels the right-wing movements behind them.
From dissent to political disobedience
When we discuss nonviolent action in democracies, we can distinguish between three different modes of nonviolent action: dissent, civil disobedience and political disobedience. Dissent is part of normal democratic political contestation. Democracies usually allow for nonviolent action — such as vigils, marches and strikes — if they stay within certain rules. Given that most democracies are imperfect, these actions contribute to the health of democracies.
Meanwhile, when people break laws they see as unjust through civil disobedience, they step out of the confines of regular dissent. They accept the legitimacy of the political structure and/or political institutions but resist the moral authority of the resulting laws and are willing to bear the consequences of their actions.
Political disobedience is the most radical use of nonviolent action, as it challenges the legitimacy of the state — often rejecting the political system as a whole. While political disobedience against dictators has proven highly effective, it is questionable whether political disobedience is legitimate in fully democratic systems, and thus it is usually seen as illegal and subject to repression by the state.
My research found many parallels among the different right-wing movements and their use of nonviolent action, some of which can be explained by looking at the phenomenon through the lens of populism. Right-wing populism has a distinct tendency towards political disobedience, as it often questions the legitimacy of liberal political elites and institutions that — in its view — do not sufficiently represent the will of “the people.” Populists are also impatient with procedures and often look for a quick way to achieve their political goals without going through the courts or the ballot box. In many instances, they are therefore flirting with political disobedience, which — the case studies show — triggers repressive responses by governments. This repression can in turn be used again by the movements to mobilize sympathy from supporters.
Means versus ends
Actors on the far right have become more astute in applying nonviolent tactics in recent years. The Identitarian movement in Austria, for example, has studied nonviolent theory and applied a wide array of nonviolent methods. So, while many of its actions technically follow the nonviolence playbook, they are being used to foster an anti-immigrant platform.
There are clearly many issues that are strongly contested in democracies, and nonviolent action can be an astute tool for nonviolent conflict resolution. Nevertheless, we should question if we can call nonviolent action legitimate if it does not have justice-seeking ends. Concerning many of the issues pushed by far-right actors, these ends are highly questionable — from trying to stop the certification of U.S. election results to pushing for the weakening of public health measures that mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
A further problem linked to the question of ends is that far-right actors often punch down when engaging in nonviolent action — meaning that rather than target the authorities or big corporations they target their nonviolent action at socio-economically or politically “weaker” parties, in particular minorities. The Austrian Identitarian movement, for example, has often targeted asylum seekers — once counter-occupying a church in Vienna, where several asylum seekers were performing a hunger strike highlighting the risks they would face if deported, in order to “claim asylum” for an imaginary white Austrian who was troubled by the number of immigrants. This punching down is a symptom of far-right populism, which often blames societal ills on minority groups and is clearly problematic in terms of legitimizing the use of nonviolent action.
Nonviolence versus violence
When looking at the use of nonviolent action by the far right, it is striking that a lot of its actions are stretching, if not crossing, the boundaries from nonviolence to violence. This boundary is of course blurry, and what some still see as nonviolent others would already regard as violent. While assaulting the U.S. Capitol clearly falls outside the confines of nonviolence, does that make the entire Jan. 6 rally a violent event? Is calling primary school children “slaves” and “Hitler youth” still nonviolent?
The issue with overstepping the boundary of nonviolence towards violence is based on the pragmatic approach that right-wing actors have toward nonviolent action. Since they see it as more of a tactical tool to achieve their ends — and not a moral commitment — it’s easier to slip into behavior that includes threats and intimidation. Many right-wing actors, such as parts of the Indonesian Islamist movement I researched, regularly engage in intimidation of minorities and have a tendency to do so when engaging in nonviolent action.
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Similarly, the U.S. right also has a long history of intimidation. One just has to think of how the anti-abortion movement has frequently engaged in heckling and insulting women seeking abortions, as well as threatening abortion service providers and their employees. Nevertheless, Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of nonviolence does include the haunting and taunting of officials and nonviolent harassment.
Here, again, the questions of ends and of punching down come to the fore. In his book, Sharp cites harassing slave-hunters as a case study of nonviolent harassment. Haunting and taunting should also target officials and not mask-wearing children or ethnic or religious minorities.
Are they illegitimate?
These tensions in the far right’s use of nonviolent action make many nonviolent actions undertaken by far-right actors highly questionable in terms of legitimacy or even legality. While one can see why right-wing actors might want to reap the tactical benefits of engaging in nonviolent action, their lack of commitment to principles of nonviolence taints much of their use of it.
Nevertheless, given that there are many issues on which we can have strong reasonable disagreement in democratic societies, the trend of far-right actors using nonviolent action cannot be seen as fully negative. If actors at the political fringes choose to engage in nonviolence rather than use violence to achieve their ends, this might actually be a positive trend. Still, this engagement should stay within the confines of dissent or civil disobedience, should not cross the boundary of violence, not punch down and be scrutinized in terms of its ends.