How The Radical Right Infiltrates Suburban Communities
Jason Luger, PhD is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK. His research focuses on the relationship between politics, society, and urban space / place, linking online and offline behavior and geographic patterns and trends.
Much of the research conducted on the radical right focuses on what happens online, or on the end-stages of the radicalization process (events like rallies, protests or terror attacks and violence). Therefore, it is useful to look more closely at how the radical right builds community in an everyday sense, deeply embedded in mainstream spaces and environments, in order to better understand radicalization and to consider how grassroots-level community interventions might be effectively utilized.
The following focuses on three types of community infrastructures that the radical right produces. These are: 1) infrastructures of faith and spirituality (‘exaltations’); 2) infrastructures of recreation and leisure (‘celebrations’); and 3) infrastructures of finance and economy (‘empires’).
Introduction: A Man Walks into a Bar
A man walks into a bar, sits down, and strikes up a conversation. This is not the beginning of a tired joke, but rather, the beginning of the process of the radical right building a community. Before the rallies and protests, riots and violence, there are micro-scale, daily interactions that begin to catalyze radicalization processes which ripple across local landscapes.
As the United States memorializes the events of January 6, 2021 in Washington DC, it is important to zoom-in to the scale of the local community, and the banal nature of daily life, to answer the questions of, how do radicalization processes begin, and what community infrastructures do they produce? And, therefore, what community infrastructures catalyze radicalization processes? Scholars, like Cynthia Miller-Idriss (2017:92), urge greater explorations of questions like these, as the radical right deeply infiltrates the cultural, social, economic, and political mainstream.
Ongoing research has identified three types of infrastructures, in particular, that are linked to the radical right and its evolution. Importantly, these infrastructures are sometimes overlooked in the quest to understand how radical right ideology takes shape and why certain segments of the community become radicalized. Based on a multi-year academic research project which focuses on the everyday community infrastructures of the radical right in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, I suggest there are three communal nodes, or ‘infrastructures,’ worthy of a spotlight. These are: infrastructures of faith and spirituality (what I call ‘exaltations’); infrastructures of recreation and leisure (what I call ‘celebrations’); and infrastructures of finance and economy (what I call ‘empires’).
More specifically in this piece, I will focus on the case study of the towns around an exurban lake in the Southern United States that has a strong radical-right community. For reasons of data protection, I will not use the real names of individual or place, but will use pseudonyms (such as the name ‘Lake Maxwell’) instead.
In this case study, I am looking at the role of local faith networks (mega-churches – ‘exaltations’); the role of the lake as a site of recreation, socializing and political expression (‘celebrations’); and the role of local crypto-currency infrastructure (‘empires’).
The importance of evangelical Christianity and new-age Christian faith communities has been noted by scholars of the right, such as Matthew Feldman’s (2021) piece on how ‘Christianism’ represents a secular hybrid of conservative Christian dogma and radical-right ideology and political philosophy. Katherine Stewart (2021) suggests that Christian nationalism, in an American context, is one of the most important ways that radical-right ideology moves between faith communities (and faith leaders) and elected political officials.
The communities around exurban ‘Lake Maxwell,’ in a Southern American state, about 30 miles from a large city, have long been hotbeds of Christian fundamentalism and the local area has given rise to several prominent national (and international) evangelical Christian leaders. Certain elected officials that represent the region (at both the state and federal levels) have close ties to evangelical Christian churches (including a former pastor, running for U.S. Senate in 2022 with a radical-right platform).
Over time, this seems to become a geographical self-selecting and self-perpetuating web of infrastructures. For example, several research subjects I have followed have relocated to this area partly because of its network of existing churches, including a few megachurches, communities which grow via word-of-mouth and via social media presences. The research subjects sought out the area also for its network of faith-based (private) schools, where, in the words of one research subject, “my son will not have to learn to hate America or feel bad about being white.”
As economic migrants seeking a lower cost of living and inexpensive land to grow their business, these subjects could have chosen many geographies to relocate to. But ‘Lake Maxwell’s’ evangelical infrastructure was an anchoring force and a specific draw. This becomes self-perpetuating because as the community grows, it will attract others by similar mechanisms; those, for example, seeking certain types of faith communities, certain types of faith-based schools. These networks, therefore, have powerful bonds of trust.
Over time, the community grows numerically, large enough to vote for evangelical-Christian and Christian-nationalist local, county, state, and federal elected officials, who fill municipal positions, school boards, courts, law enforcement institutions and planning /zoning committees. Once in power, these then have the ability to further perpetuate the infrastructures of faith by influencing school curricula, local laws and regulations, and built landscapes.
Geographic research on cities has long explored the reasons that people locate in certain urban environments that go beyond simply proximity to jobs, schools, or transportation networks. The importance of lifestyle aspects – cultural opportunities, recreation, nightlife – have been noted by authors like Richard Florida, and Storper and Venables, who suggest that the ‘buzz’ of creativity draws elites (and progressives) to certain cities. More recent work charts how political ideology also helps sort populations into specific regions, towns, neighborhoods, streets, with vivid granularity.
Less research, however, considers the lifestyle aspects – things like daily recreation and celebration – that draws radically-right populations to certain areas. Where do the radical right like to party, in other words, when they aren’t embroiled directly in a political effort?
Returning to the communities around ‘Lake Maxwell,’ it would seem that outdoor recreation is hugely important for radical-right communities in ways that are less commonly practiced by urban progressives. Following the lives of several research subjects via social media analysis over a period of 3-years reveals a web of fast-boats and jet-skis; recreational shooting (gun ranges, or just shooting into the air in a large backyard); and parties that take place with hundreds, or even thousands, of people outdoors or on the lake itself.
Certainly, celebrating outdoors alone is not at all a signpost to radical-right ideology or activity, but it is worth noting that some of the larger outdoor celebrations in recent years have had radical-right political linkages. Examples include the Sturgis Bike Rally in South Dakota which, in 2021, had an estimated attendance of more than 250,000. Lakes, in particular, have had associations with Trumpism and radical-right ideologies. Pro-Trump boat flotillas took place on several lakes leading up to the 2020 election (with some of the boats sinking, as happened on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas).
But these banal sites of celebration should not be dismissed as innocent or unworthy of serious critical exploration. These are places where signs and symbologies of the radical right are displayed and learned, shared, and upscaled. The hybridization of serious ideology and boozy fun makes radical right issues digestible, approachable, and even trendy for mainstream populations to post and share on social media. And such moments and sites of celebration serve to sanitize and mask, under the guise of a party or a margarita, ideologies of racism and white supremacy, hyper-nationalism, conspiracism, and dangerous public health beliefs associated with the radical right. These beliefs include as mistrust of vaccines which can be devastating when large groups of like-minded populations get together for celebrations, straining local hospitals – as has been the case during the Covid-19 pandemic resulting from the huge lake parties at the Lake of the Ozarks, in semi-rural Missouri.
Links between cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, and the radical right have been an increasing focus of research. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) notes how white nationalist Richard Spencer called Bitcoin “the currency of the alt-right,” and the SPLC has a helpful chart of the specific links between cryptocurrency and a large roster of radical-right extremist groups.
These cryptocurrencies, which use blockchain technologies, allow for anonymous donations from radical-right donors and are very hard (or impossible) for governments to regulate, one reason they are popular with extremists. However, less-studied is the way that cryptocurrency and radical-right communities come together to shape actual local infrastructures. The case of ‘Lake Maxwell,’ therefore, is instructive, as it ties together place, faith, recreation, and the economy of cryptocurrency – or what I call ‘empires’.
Most research subjects relocated to the ‘Lake Maxwell’ area, as stated before, primarily for economic and lifestyle reasons. But another key draw for one was the ability to build and significantly expand a cryptocurrency operation, which is given the false name here of ‘crypto-patriot-farm.’ While this is not the research subject’s primary business (instead, they are in the manufacturing of gym and fitness products), the ability to spin off a crypto-mining (as it is called) operation – where Bitcoin miners receive rewards for facilitating “blocks” of verified transactions – was a huge bonus of the local area.
The same aspects that make exurban zones attractive to urbanites who are pushed out of expensive cities because of high costs – notably, relatively inexpensive land, lower taxes and the availability of cheaper power and utility sources – make these same areas attractive for crypto-infrastructures. Crypto-mining requires large amounts of energy, and this energy is less-expensive in areas like ‘Lake Maxwell’ than it would be in a dense urban area or a higher-cost American state. The growth of the local crypto-mine not only requires physical infrastructure, but it also produces a web of shadow wealth and investments, which can be ideologically driven toward radically-right groups and causes.
As others locate nearby, ‘crypto-patriot-farm’ may continue to grow and include more investors, a sort of standalone, autonomous financial empire with an unstable and unregulated trajectory. As money is taken out of the formal financial system – easier in low-tax, low regulation places like ‘Lake Maxwell’ – and placed it into cryptocurrency, it also strains local and state budgets, further perpetuating the segregated and diffuse landscape of local communities where public services decline, harming vulnerable populations and further exacerbating distrust and displeasure with local and state governments which helps fuel the rise of radical-right and right-libertarian extremism.
To conclude, and as demonstrated by the ‘Lake Maxwell’ example in this piece, the micro-scale processes of radicalization play out in everyday manifestations long before the mob gathers to storm the Capitol, or a coherent political movement forms to elect a dangerously extreme political leader. Locating the daily geographic patterns of the radical right in mainstream places and spaces, not just familiar environments that we associate with the extreme, remains a pressing and timely task for those seeking to protect democratic institutions and neutralize hateful ideology at the source before it becomes violent.
Community-level, grassroots PVE initiatives that better engage with everyday infrastructures of faith, recreation, and micro-economies in specific places are therefore needed. To look for the next great threat, start with the grassroots: tomorrow’s riot is buried in today’s local environments and infrastructures.