From the Reichstag fire to forest fires

The historical through line in how the far-right deals with crisis

Justin Ward

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(Needpix)

The west coast is burning. Just as flames are tearing through forests and communities at terrifying speeds, rumors about antifa arsonists and Soros-funded firebugs are spreading uncontrollably online. And like the wildfires, conspiracy theories are proving difficult to contain. Federal and local law enforcement have tried to counter this misinformation only to be denounced as Deep State agents.

While some people have been arrested for individual acts of arson, officials have found no evidence that any of these incidents were politically motivated or connected to any sort of organized effort. Nevertheless, the far-right has cited these cases as evidence of a leftwing plot to foment chaos ahead of the November election.

Such rumors have found fertile soil on the American right, which is already in the throes of panic over the unrest that has broken out across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. At the same time, the growing pro-Trump QAnon movement, a largely online phenomenon, has created the infrastructure for conspiracies to spread rapidly.

The fires have created a perfect storm, exacerbating a number of disturbing trends — the most alarming of which is the rise of far-right vigilantism. In Clackamas County, the epicenter of the Oregon fires, signs have appeared everywhere with threatening messages, like “U Loot, We Shoot.”

A crew of independent journalists who were heading into the area reported being stopped at a road-side checkpoint by a group of armed militia members who pointed guns at them, photographed them and demanded to see identification.

There has already been a great deal written about the spread of narratives and misinformation blaming the fires on antifa or Black Lives Matter or George Soros, etc.

Most of these pieces point to recent rising trends in conspiratorial thinking worsened by online culture…

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Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD