In Christian art, saints often hold an object associated with their martyrdom. Saint Stephen, stoned, holds a pile of stones. Saint Laurent, burnt on an iron grate, stands with a grill. Saint Lucia offers a small dish with two eyeballs, a reference to her own eyes having been hollowed out with a fork.
If the same principles applied to right-wing martyrs these days, many would only have a trial with their name as the accused.
The hundreds of Americans who have been arrested and charged for their alleged involvement in the Jan.6 attack on Capitol Hill have been viewed as freedom fighters by some on the right, including members of Congress. This is what inspired the “Justice for J6” rally – the muted political protest that took place last weekend in DC – and it is the culmination of years of rhetoric on the far right that celebrated violent and extremist figures. This tendency to beatify certain personalities is something that mainstream conservatives now share with extremist ideologies elsewhere. Martyrs create a sense of community and emphasize a vital narrative: that you can be punished simply for what you believe, and that the willingness to receive that punishment is worthy of reverence.
The elevation of certain personalities to near-holiness has a long history on the far right, dating back to the postwar era, according to Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute for Radicalization Studies and deradicalization. Koehler expounded on this story in an article published last year, citing the example of a group of 16 Nazis killed by police in a failed coup in 1923. These Nazis became known as the “Blutzeugen” (witnesses of blood), that other Nazis honored with specific flags, medals and even two “temples”. But the narrative around these Nazi martyrs and others, Koehler wrote in the newspaper, “explicitly used the fact (or claimed) that they were still being killed by enemies of the movement.”
Most importantly, suicidal ideological protests were not part of the deal. Unlike jihadist extremists, who have cultural and religious motives to celebrate those who die in suicide bombings, the far right has tended to elevate individuals who survived or were killed in combat, rather than those who died in suicide attacks. of a suicide mission. “What their narrative usually tells their supporters is that you have to stand up and fight to the end,” Koehler said in an interview.
More recently, this has manifested itself in the idolatry of apprehended mass shooters, like Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who killed nine black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists have turned those terrorists into memes. and icons, often depicting individuals like Roof as a saint (although sometimes with the tongue in the cheek). Terrorists even inspired the formation of groups like the “Bowl Gang”, named after Roof’s haircut. The manifestos and journals of these shooters are regularly circulated online among far-right groups, almost like sacred texts. Koehler said the celebration is due to the fact that terrorists are seen as continuing the fight and willing to suffer personally for the cause.
That trend remained largely relegated to the far right until last summer, when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot dead two people during protests against police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Suddenly, those on the ruling right had a number to rally behind, as his actions could be explained as self-defense, said Ari Ben-Am, extremism researcher and information operations analyst for ActiveFence, a online security company that detects hate speech. , terrorism and disinformation.
Republican politicians have openly praised Rittenhouse, with Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky saying he “has displayed incredible restraint, presence and situational awareness,” and Florida State Representative Anthony Sabatini tweets, inexplicably, “Kyle Rittenhouse for Congress.” Far-right groups like the Proud Boys (self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists”) have said they support Rittenhouse’s case and “support him.” He’s become an American hero and we can’t wait to celebrate his exoneration with a beer. Among the larger audiences online, like the pro-Trump bulletin board patriots.win, posters closely followed Rittenhouse’s trial and celebrated his actions, calling him “Saint Kyle” and a “hero,” and making comments such as “Every freedom-loving American should be delighted that this young man was able to stand up for himself and not become a victim of the mob.”
“Rittenhouse was the first to break the barrier of popularity and mainstream support,” said Ben-Am. “He was viewed by both the far right and the ruling right as a martyr to the cause, although the ruling right didn’t really know how to articulate that.”
The right-wing response to the January 6 attack has been mixed. Many Republican politicians condemned the event, and far-right conspiracy theorists pitched the idea that the whole event was a false flag. This theory proposed that the rioters were in fact anti-fascists, not Trump supporters. Soon, however, many gathered around those who were arrested or killed, as in the case of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot dead by police on Capitol Hill in the attack. Those on the right have called these individuals martyrs in the fight against what they believe to be a fraudulent election.
That rally included the Proud Boys, who shared fundraisers on Telegram for legal funds from individuals accused of allegedly participating in the attack on Capitol Hill. They even set up a separate telegram to promote these fundraisers called “Free the Boys”. L. Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer who has filed a number of lawsuits challenging the 2020 election results and has become an alt-right celebrity, also joined those arrested on January 6, calling them “political prisoners”. And mainstream Republicans, including former President Trump and members of Congress like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, have advocated for those arrested, who they say are being treated unfairly. Ben-Am said it evokes the kind of lionization of terrorists on the far right, but with individuals who are much more acceptable to the mainstream right.
“We started with some really extreme, decentralized individuals who love people who will kill for their ideology,” Ben-Am said. “The more common it is, the less violent and extremist the group is [martyrs] are.”
Treating these individuals as ideological martyrs serves a number of functions within these groups, according to Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University who studies extremism online. Having numbers to rally around builds a sense of community among people who are often largely only connected online, Squire said, while legal fundraisers provide an opportunity to report the group values. It also fosters a narrative of persecution which is fundamental to many of these groups as they feel they are waging an unfair battle against groups who wish to destroy the American way of life. Depending on how the right-wing landscape you’re talking about, these enemies could be Democrats, the Deep State, immigrants, or Satan-worshiping pedophiles.
“It does what they fight for [feel] on par with other serious political movements and things that have happened in history, ”Squire said.
Although attendance at the Justice for J6 rally was modest, its message is evident in many places on the right, reaching out to both traditional and marginalized groups. The creation of martyrs serves a valuable function in these communities, which can be very empowering if used in the right way. And although this particular event did not, the symbol of a martyr is powerful and should not be underestimated.