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‘He’s kind of an ink blot’: how the far-right fell in line behind Donald Trump

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Five years ago, Kathleen Blee, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh, was interviewing former white supremacists and discovered something unexpected: unprompted, many of her subjects would bring up Donald Trump, who had just embarked on an outsider campaign for the White House.

“It was just striking to me,” recalled Prof Blee, who has been researching racist movements for so long that she interviewed women Ku Klux Klan members from the 1920s for a book on the subject.

Decades of experience taught her that white supremacists tend to abhor electoral politics, which they view as a feature of the corrupt world they wish to overturn. And yet, Prof Blee found, “people were saying sort of cautiously interested things about the Trump campaign”.

It was an early indication of how an extremist movement that had long operated at the margins was coming to view Mr Trump, a wealthy property developer from New York, as a promising bridge into mainstream politics.

Last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol, in which a mob inspired by Mr Trump’s lies about a stolen election ransacked the seat of American democracy, was a stunning declaration of their strength after five years of increasingly brazen displays, from the torchlight march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the overrunning of the Michigan state capitol. 

Pro-Trump rioters storm the US Capitol on January 6 © Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Police confront pro-Trump forces inside the US Capitol building © Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The insurrectionists at the Capitol were a motley crew. Their ranks included a man waving a Confederate battle flag in the halls of Congress, a QAnon shaman sporting animal horns, anti-government militia members wearing tactical gear, white supremacists and alt-right agitators. Among their dead was Ashli Babbitt, an air force veteran with legal troubles who wrote on Twitter the day before she died: “Nothing will stop us . . . They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC!” 

Conspiracy theories and white supremacy are deeply ingrained in US history and culture. What is unique is how those distinct elements found a unifying beacon in Mr Trump and coalesced into a movement under his administration, according to Peter Simi, a professor at Chapman University, who has sometimes collaborated with Prof Blee.

“That’s one of the things that’s most threatening about his rise to power,” Prof Simi said. “He’s kind of an ink blot of sorts where a lot of these different segments of the far-right — and into the mainstream — are able to project on to him their hopes and fears and anxieties and frustrations.”

The threat posed by such groups has unnerved the nation and prompted extraordinary security precautions for the January 20 inauguration of President-elect Joseph Biden, the man who defeated Mr Trump in the November election. Some 20,000 National Guard troops have been mobilised to protect Washington.

The hope that the fever will break after Mr Trump leaves office may be naive, according to experts. If Trump supporters believe, as many erroneously do, that the election was stolen, and their country is at risk, then they may deem violence not merely a justifiable response but a necessary one, they say.

Meanwhile, the very scale of the Capitol insurrection — which extremists are celebrating online — creates its own energy. “These mass mobilisations are likely to create spin-offs where one or a few people will be further radicalised by their involvement in the insurrection,” Prof Simi predicted. “It really makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves, and then they go out by themselves to try to further the cause.”

Throughout his presidency, Mr Trump has emphasised the threat of violence from Islamist terrorist groups and leftwing “Antifa” radicals. Yet the Department of Homeland Security concluded in October that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists” — are the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland”.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, said in a June study that “far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators”, and that the number of rightwing attacks had “grown significantly in the last six years”.

Ku Klux Klan members calling for the protection of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8 2017 © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty
The National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, holds a rally on April 21 2018 in Newnan, Georgia © Spencer Platt/Getty

The CSIS found that rightwing groups accounted for two-thirds of all attacks in 2019 and more than 90 per cent between January 1 and May 8 of 2020. “It’s emphatically true that there has been a rise in the number of rightwing plots and attacks,” said Seth Jones, an author of the report who has advised the FBI.

While rightwing violence has long existed in the US, Prof Blee and other experts see strands linking today’s actors to the self-declared “patriot” militias that came to prominence in the 1990s. Many were motivated by anti-government rancour and staunch opposition to gun control. Some of their ranks were filled by victims of the 1980s farms crisis, which pushed many families into bankruptcy and prompted a search for culprits — bankers, Jews and the federal government, among them.

In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh, a former soldier who had become radicalised by The Turner Diaries, a far-right pulp novel about a post-apocalyptic America that descends into race war, parked a rented truck loaded with fertiliser and diesel fuel in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The blast he detonated killed 168 people in the worst act of domestic terrorism on US soil. 

The next year a pipe bomb planted at the Atlanta Olympics killed one but might have done worse damage if it had been better orchestrated. It was set by Eric Rudolph, a follower of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, the movement seemed to wane as law enforcement cracked down. The hard core went underground — and online. “White supremacists have been early adopters of technology,” Prof Blee said, from online bulletin boards to encrypted messaging apps.

They gained more latitude to operate after the September 11 attacks as authorities shifted focus to foreign terrorists. Then they staged a resurgence after 2008 brought an epochal financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, both of which stirred extremists who believed white people were being “replaced”.

By 2009, the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that focuses its recruitment on former members of the military and the police, had come into being. Other groups, such as The Base, self-consciously mimicked the social media strategies of Islamist extremists to reach broader audiences.

“That’s kind of a turning point where they start to get connected with people who wouldn’t see themselves as extremists but are open to racist appeal,” Prof Blee said. “It’s like the beginning of the connection to electoral politics.”

Daryl Johnson, a counter-terrorism expert at the Department of Homeland Security, had warned on the potential for renewed rightwing violence in an April 2009 report. But its publication provoked a firestorm of criticism from conservatives. Michelle Malkin, a Fox News contributor, called it a “piece of crap”, and John Boehner, then the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, demanded its retraction.

Mr Johnson ended up leaving the DHS and his unit was dismantled. “We now have a huge intelligence gap for the last 10 years as this movement has continued to grow and grow,” he lamented in his 2019 book, Hateland: A Long Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart.

Mr Trump became important to the movement even before his candidacy as he emerged as a leading proponent of the “birther” conspiracy theory, which falsely held that Mr Obama had not been born in the US and therefore could not be president. While birthers argue their view is not inherently racist, the internet memes it has spawned — of Mr Obama in African garb, carrying a spear, eating watermelon — suggest otherwise.

“He becomes the face of the very worldview that says, ‘Obama’s not our president — he’s not fit to be in the White House’,” Prof Simi said.

Then, when Mr Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower in June 2015 to declare his candidacy, he called Mexicans rapists and promised to build a wall on the southern border — an idea long championed by David Duke, the prominent Klan leader.

Debating whether Mr Trump and his advisers are full-blown white supremacists or nationalists or merely proponents of a rigid immigration policy is almost beside the point, say scholars. 

“Regardless of trying to parse out Trump’s words, white supremacists are very clearly hearing something when they listen to his statements,” Prof Simi said.

In August 2017, eight months after Mr Trump delivered a dystopian inauguration speech declaiming “American carnage”, thousands of white supremacists came together for the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that, as a public display of strength and violence, now looks like a precursor to the Capitol insurrection.

White nationalists participate in a torchlight parade at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 2017 © Stephanie Keith/Reuters
A woman receives first aid after a car runs into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 2017 © Paul J Richards/AFP/Getty

Torch-bearing extremists chanted against African-Americans and Jews and vandalised a synagogue. A young woman counter-protester was killed. Prof Blee described it as a “coming-out-of-hiding” — a spectacle “to show that this far-right or white supremacist world really exists and really has power and can command space”.

In the aftermath, Mr Trump condemned bigotry and hatred. But he also declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville.

That same mish-mash of extremists would re-emerge at heavily armed protests against coronavirus lockdowns in Lansing, Michigan and other state capitols last year. Mr Trump cheered them on from the sidelines, tweeting: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

In October, members of one militia group, the Wolverine Watchmen, were arrested for plotting to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and overthrow the state government. Their members boasted criminal records and loose affiliation with a jumble of racist causes and conspiracy theories.

Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who has written extensively on conspiracy theorists, says it is mistaken to try to categorise their adherents as “left” or “right” on the traditional political spectrum. A case in point, he said, is the QAnon conspiracy, which posits that a deep state of Satan-worshipping paedophiles is battling Mr Trump.

“When you talk to these people, their policy views are all over the place. But what unites them is a hatred of the establishment,” he said.

Mr Trump’s role, experts say, was not to create such people but to bring them into a political project. “Their allegiance is to him,” Prof Uscinski explained. “Trump didn’t run and say, ‘I’m a good Republican.’ He said, ‘the entire system is a swamp and I’m going to drain it.’”

Now that they have been allowed into the mainstream, such forces will not be easily pressed back to the margins. Out of office, Mr Trump might continue to push his claims of a stolen election. Many of his tens of millions of supporters may view a President Biden as illegitimate. Some could see him as a legitimate target of violence

In the meantime, Prof Blee said, an array of white supremacists and far-right extremists were rejoicing online at their ability to make common cause and bring violence to the Capitol.

“Whether they have a retreat back into separate movements or networks, or whether this becomes a really blurry terrain of reinforcing rage — I think we’re going to find out in the next couple months,” she said.



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Analysis

Austria puts its faith in Covid testing above immunisations

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As lockdowns across Europe drag on into spring, the Austrian government says it has a strategy to get life back to normal in weeks rather than months — not with vaccines, but tests.

The country of 8.8m people will from Monday make 3.5m Covid tests available free to its citizens each week. The plan could allow restaurants and bars to start welcoming customers back by mid-March. Non-essential shops and schools are already open and many Austrians have returned to their workplaces.

“We are on the way to becoming the testing world champion,” said chancellor Sebastian Kurz. “Our goal is to be able to control the incidence of infection, or at least mitigate any growth in infection numbers, as best we can, by testing as much as possible.”

As Covid cases climb, Austria has grown frustrated with the EU’s slow vaccine rollout. The bloc’s performance particularly rankles because last May — in deference to EU solidarity — Kurz turned down a tentative offer from Benjamin Netanyahu to partner with Israel in its vaccination drive with Pfizer, two Austrian officials told the Financial Times.

Kurz has a close working relationship with the Israeli leader and the two regularly discuss the pandemic.

The missed opportunity for the kind of swift vaccination programme pioneered by Israel underscored the importance for smaller countries such as Austria to be flexible in their approach to the virus, a political adviser close to the chancellor said. 

Austria’s faith in testing has put it at odds with other European countries where the Covid policy is almost solely focused on immunisation as a means of escaping another wave of the pandemic.

That has left much of the continent languishing under stricter lockdown conditions than those enforced when the pandemic first hit a year ago.

Britain is Europe’s vaccine leader, with more than 28 doses of vaccine delivered per 100 residents. Austria has managed just 6 — slightly less than the 6.3 EU average. But last week the UK government said it still expected to impose four more months of restrictions to control the virus.

For critics, Vienna is walking a tightrope: cases in Austria have ticked up from the low of 14.9 per 100,000 residents a fortnight ago to a rolling seven-day average of 19.2. The next two weeks will be crucial: if numbers continue to rise Austria’s strategy will unravel.

But the focus on testing will also be closely watched. Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers in her party last week she believed mass testing would be a critical in helping Germany ease its way back to normality.

A hairdresser and her customer in Vienna wear FFP2 protective face masks. © Alex Halada/AFP/Getty

Thomas Czypionka, head of health policy at the Institute of Higher Studies in Vienna, said “a tight net of testing” would provide the opportunity to reopen businesses and schools by controlling transmission of the virus. “This is a different kind of strategy. It’s not perfect, but its worth a try.”

The Austrian initiative should in part be understood in the context of the government’s poor handling of the second wave, according to Czypionka.

Feted for his nimble handling of the crisis last spring, Kurz has since faced criticism as the number of cases soars. In November, Austria recorded the highest number of new infections per million inhabitants in western Europe.

Testing is crucial, according to Czypionka, because people’s willingness to tolerate restrictions and their disastrous economic consequences had reached its limit. “People have lost faith. This is the real reason the government is having to open up.”

© Ronald Zak/AP

He was nevertheless confident that the testing strategy was a good one: “It’s cheaper than keeping a country in lockdown.”

While Austria’s first experiment with mass-testing began in December, with limited success, the latest drive is markedly different. Testing will be linked to the phased emergence from lockdown itself — using reliable PCR tests for entry into venues, and quick result lateral flow tests for home use. Officials at the chancellery said they believed this “nudge” approach — where even small incentives can prove powerful motivators for social change — has been highly successful.

Hair salons have been open in Austria since February 8. But their use is conditional on testing: customers must present proof of a negative test no later than 48 hours before an appointment.

The idea is now being thrashed out for the hospitality sector. An announcement is expected to be made this week, but the government is hopeful that entry tests at restaurants, bars and cafés could allow for a reopening of some — with strict hygiene measures also in place — as early as March 14.

“My heart bleeds because tens of thousands of businesses have not been allowed to open for months. We will do everything we can to ensure that the catering and hotel industry can welcome guests again soon. I’m on the side of the industry,” tourism minister Elisabeth Köstinger said last week.

Capacity for tests has been increased dramatically. There are now 800 pharmacies across Austria offering tests, and a further 650 specialist testing stations. From Monday, the government hopes to make up to five postal tests — which can be ordered by telephone hotline or online — available to every Austrian each week.

Schools are testing pupils twice a week and workplaces have been brought onboard. The government is subsidising more than 1,000 Austrian companies — representing a workforce of just under 500,000 — to provide them with free regular tests for those who want to return to the workplace.

Testing was the best way to avoid an “indefinite lockdown”, Kurz declared last week, as he promised Austrians the government would do whatever it could to safely reopen public life.



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Rising interest rates cool sizzling rally in emerging markets

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The rush into emerging market assets since the depths of the coronavirus crisis a year ago is facing its first serious test as rising US interest rates revive memories of the “taper tantrum” of 2013.

Emerging market stocks sailed almost 90 per cent higher in US dollar terms from the nadir in March to a historic peak last week, according to MSCI’s broad index of equities in 27 countries. The surge stemmed in part from a ferocious hunt for returns after central bank stimulus depressed interest rates in developed markets to record lows.

But a sharp drop in developed-market government bond prices since the start of 2021 has sent borrowing costs sharply higher, and started to ripple into emerging markets. MSCI’s EM stock barometer has slipped about 5 per cent from last week’s high, reflecting drops in countries stretching from China to Turkey and Brazil.

“There’s no doubt that yield curve steepening worldwide is starting to spill over into other asset markets and the last thing we need right now is a full-blown bond and equity market sell-off,” said Win Thin, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.

Line chart of % change in dollar terms showing EM stocks have slipped after a soaring start to 2021

To some analysts, the set-up this time around is similar to 2013, when investors fled EM assets as the US Federal Reserve signalled an end to the ultra-loose monetary policies that had given them such a boost.

Thin at BBH notes that the Fed will probably seek this time to reassure markets it will only slowly withdraw the extraordinary stimulus measures it deployed during the depths of the Covid-19 crisis.

Nevertheless, some sectors are feeling the pressure. Chinese markets, which have been among the best performers due to the country’s rapid recovery from coronavirus, have dropped over the past week.

The CSI 300 index of Chinese equities has fallen about 6 per cent on a dollar basis from its February high, while Shenzhen’s technology-focused ChiNext market is down 13 per cent. Turkey, another large EM, has endured a roughly 8 per cent decline since February 15, according to an MSCI index.

Meanwhile, Brazilian markets have faced serious ructions after Jair Bolsonaro, the populist rightwing president, fired the boss of state oil company Petrobras for failing to keep pump prices low.

Still, some analysts and investors argue that expectations for a brighter economic outlook in many countries will help dull the risk posed by rising global interest rates.

With vaccines coming into sight, says Tom Clarke, partner and portfolio manager at William Blair Investment Management, “you can argue about how many quarters there will be of lost or much reduced income but it’s the kind of thing you can look through, even if it’s a long way into the future. That has caused a sea change in EM equities and currencies.”

This, he says, is part of a more fundamental change. Before the pandemic, several factors were weighing against emerging markets: protectionism in the US and elsewhere, rising tensions between the US and China, the uncertainty over Brexit — all of which have been resolved, to a greater or lesser extent. 

“There have been worries about a hard landing in China for several years and, lo and behold, it delivered positive growth, last year of all years,” Clarke said.

Not all EMs will come out of the pandemic in equally good shape, however. One factor crucial to their prospects will be their ability to deliver productive investment.

As recent FT analysis shows, foreign direct investment slumped around the world last year but held up remarkably well across Asia. In China and India, it grew in 2020 by 4 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively. In contrast, Africa and Latin America registered the largest contractions of any regions for many components of FDI including mergers and acquisitions, project finance and greenfield investment — the kind that generates new jobs.

Line chart of % change in dollar terms showing Growth potential has lifted India from pandemic lows, while Brazil still flounders

Investors have also welcomed domestic spending. Part of India’s response to the pandemic has been to increase public spending on infrastructure by 50 per cent over its 10-year average. Brazil, where such investment has been squeezed for decades, has concentrated its pandemic response on subsidies for consumption — popular in political terms but less good for building growth.

Paul Korngiebel, emerging markets portfolio manager at Boston Partners, describes coronavirus as “the massively distorting event that creates winners and losers by [country and] industry sector as policy differs in response to Covid”.

Just as in advanced economies, the focus of many EM investors has been on tech. Over the past 12 months, shares in electric vehicle maker Tesla are up 350 per cent in New York. Shares in Nio, its Chinese rival, also listed in New York, are up more than 1,000 per cent.

Korngiebel worries that, in some sectors, investors may have brought too much future growth into the present and that some valuations are getting stretched. Conversely, he sees opportunities in sectors, such as regional airlines, that have been crushed, as investors have perhaps prematurely written them off.

“We are really dealing with the aftershock of Covid right now,” he says. “It’s not over from an investor point of view — the pig in the python is only half digested.”



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The UK mental health crisis coming in Covid’s wake

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Owen O’Kane grew up well-acquainted with the psychological damage that bombs and bullets inflict on communities long after their immediate impact, having witnessed first-hand the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Now a psychotherapist and author based in London, he is convinced that Covid-19 risks leaving similar long-term distress in its wake. In anticipation, he has given the phenomenon a name: “Post pandemic stress disorder.”

“A lot of people have been affected by trauma. Whether its PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or PPSD you won’t see the full impact at the time. You only see it a few months later. If we don’t take this seriously we are going to have a very unwell group in the population for years to come,” said O’Kane, who was formerly mental health lead for the NHS in west London.

With Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, setting out England’s gradual and cautious exit from lockdown earlier this week and the rollout of the country’s vaccination programme still going well, there are some causes for optimism.

But O’Kane and his peers worry about the long term toll the pandemic is taking on the nation’s mental health.

Owen O’Kane: ‘If we don’t take this seriously we are going to have a very unwell group in the population for years to come’

By the middle of 2020, one in five people in the UK was suffering from depression, twice the number in 2019, according to the most recent data released by the Office for National Statistics.

The Centre for Mental Health, an independent UK charity, has predicted that this will translate into up to 10m people needing new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the pandemic. But that may be a conservative estimate given that these figures predate the latest and deadliest wave of the virus as well as a winter of intensified lockdown.

“Why I am on my soap box at the moment is that I feel all of the energy is still on getting the R (the disease’s rate of reproduction) down when we have this other pandemic brewing,” O’Kane said.

Part of the answer, he and other specialists argued, will be in allocating sufficient resources to deal with rising demands on services. Another part, argues O’Kane, will be clinical.

“A pandemic is invisible. It’s not like bombs dropping,” he said. But cumulatively its effects are no less traumatic. “If you don’t address the underlying trauma [in patients], they will relapse,” he said.

The stress associated with home-schooling children while sustaining work, of indebtedness, loneliness, or of being forced to confront at close quarters relationships that are fatally cracked, alongside the continuous threat of the virus itself, for many people has taken a grim toll.

“When you have 120,000 families who have lost someone, many of whom have not been able to say farewell; hundreds of thousands of doctors and nurses who have struggled . . . why would you not expect there to be a large number of people with psychological problems?” said Alastair Campbell, the writer and former director of communications to Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair. “It would be very weird if you didn’t.”

Campbell, who published a book last year on his own experience of severe depression, is frustrated at the lack of preparation for this crisis in the making.

“It’s not just that services are terrible in some parts of the country. It is also that the government is missing a massive opportunity,” he said, arguing that the shock of the pandemic has brought mental wellbeing to the forefront of everybody’s minds except, apparently, those in government. “They still think that if you talk about mental health it makes it worse,” he said.

The government has pledged £500m of extra spending on mental health services this year to address waiting times for specialists, which can stretch to months and more, and to invest in the workforce.

“As part of the long-term plan we have committed an additional £2.3bn a year,” said Nadine Dorries, the minister for health, suicide prevention and patient safety.

Dr Adrian James, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that it was vital this funding sustained increases in trained psychiatrists, and other specialists while addressing a hangover from years in which mental health has been treated as the poor cousin to its physical relative.

“There is a huge backlog of investment in the mental health estate,” he said, adding: “We need to be on the front foot around mental health in relation to Covid rather than reactive.”

That means taking into account what’s to come. While Johnson’s plan for lifting lockdown aims to remove all restrictions by the end of June, the end of economic support for workers and businesses will cause fresh anxiety.

“As some of the measures that have protected employment security and finances of those in unemployment come to an end, we are facing a cliff edge,” said Catherine Seymour from the Mental Health Foundation, the think-tank. It is calling for temporary £20 weekly increases in welfare payments to be made permanent in next week’s Budget and for a ban on evictions to be extended.

The Samaritans, often the last resort charity for people in distress, has been making similar pleas, pointing to the proven link between recession and increased suicides,

Jacqui Morrissey, the charity’s assistant director of research, said 1.7m people had called on the Samaritans for emotional support between March and December last year, a period, she said, when many people had been deprived of their usual coping mechanisms.

It was imperative, she said, that the voluntary sector, which provides an essential supporting role to the state when it comes to mental health, remains afloat. “We need to make sure that there is a fully funded mental health renewal plan as we come out of that pandemic and that this is at the top of priorities with government working in collaboration with the sector to deliver it,” she said.





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