For its first event of 2021, the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs was pleased to welcome Elliott Brennan, a research associate at the United States Studies Centre, to speak on his studies of far-right extremism. Brennan offered the audience a grim portrait of the swelling threat of extremist violence in both the United States and Australia, and counselled Australia to decisively confront the manifold accelerants of this phenomenon, while the United States will spend decades making up for its inaction.
Brennan began his address by recognising that both Australia and America fundamentally under-estimate the danger of far-right conspiracy theories that are increasingly saturating online political discourses. The events of January 6th, 2021 brought this reality to the fore, and illustrated how abjectly the peaceful transition of power has failed. Far-right extremism emanates from peripheral political positions, entailing nationalist bigotry, white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia and opposition to the political establishment. Its current intensity is the result of the convergence of numerous conditioning factors. A lack of regulation on social media platforms and President Trump’s unique tolerance for chaos are two such influences spurring the spread of conspiracy and misinformation that inflames extremists. In the aftermath of his administration, as Republicans have acquiesced to Trump’s legacy and as his battle-hardened supporters return from the Capitol, far-right extremism is proving intractable.
It would be remiss of Australia to assume that it was immune from this phenomenon. Brennan identified violence from the far right as a clear and present danger to Australia, that currently preoccupies 40% of ASIO’s case load. Australia not only imbibes these conspiracy theories and beliefs from America, but reciprocally shapes American extremism. The reach of Sky News dwarfs that of any other Australian network due to its American following and Australian Proud Boys gatherings have gained international notoriety. Cumulatively, it is apparent that Australia is merely a short walk from America’s current moment of violent confrontation.
As Brennan summated, “the damage has been done”. Strategies critical to the stymying of violence from the far right in Australia include working to undo the conditions that have created this vulnerable environment, leading international conversations around Big Tech regulation, and mobilising security operations in preparedness for future incidences of extremist violence.
Fielding questions from the audience, Brennan first suggested that the right, in this historical moment, is primed for extremism more than the left due to the organising influence of the Trump administration, which pandered to the fringe beliefs of an intensely loyal following rather than depending upon broad-based appeal, and the internally divided nature of the left. When asked whether embracing extremism will be critical to election success for Republicans in 2024, Brennan argued that the Republican Party is torn. However, as the party is still for all intents and purposes Trump’s, presidential hopefuls will seek to capitalise upon his political legacy.
Ending on a constructive note, Brennan acknowledged the importance of current legal challenges to the mainstream media’s promotion of conspiracies. Drawing on his own experience as a journalist, Brennan reflected on journalists’ social obligation to protect free speech without providing a platform to and sensationalising conspiracy.
Report by Alice Nason, AIIA NSW intern
*This event was broadcast on Zoom and is now available on the AIIA YouTube site