'Fringe ideas' are going mainstream in US politics. That's a danger to democracy, extremism experts say.

'Fringe ideas' are going mainstream in US politics. That's a danger to democracy, extremism experts say.
Demonstrators participate in a Defeat the Mandates march in Washington, DC, on Jan. 23, 2022.
·5 min read

Candidates for political office and sitting politicians across the country are increasingly embracing extremist talking points, endorsing hateful campaigns and promoting conspiracy theories, according to two recent studies and experts who research extremist movements.

A report released by the Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday showed that candidates for local, state and federal offices have parroted white supremacist propaganda, expressed support for conspiracy theories including QAnon, and spread lies about election fraud.

Another study led by the voting rights advocacy organization Public Wise identified more than 220 sitting politicians or candidates who participated in or “directly supported” the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, either by spreading disinformation about the election before the riot or by expressing support for the rioters.

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Oren Segal, vice president of the ADL's Center on Extremism, said the findings show a wider trend: The narratives that would have been considered in left field a few years ago are now being heartily embraced by politicians who hope to curry favor with supporters of former President Donald Trump.

“Extremists running for office in this country is not a new thing, but historically, these fringe candidates and their ideologies have been held at arm's length by the major political parties,” Segal told USA TODAY. “What we're seeing now is not only more people who are either explicitly connected to extremists or that praise extremists – or that peddle in the conspiracies that animate extremists – running for office, but frankly, that they have a chance to win.”

The ADL report outlines cases like Daniel Tooze who, according to his campaign website and state records, is running for the Oregon House of Representatives. Tooze is a member of the extremist group the Proud Boys and regularly tweets support for people who were arrested for their roles in the Capitol riot, the ADL report says.

“I’m proud of my association with the Proud Boys,” Tooze told USA TODAY. “I am running for office, I’m not an antisemite; my grandmother was Jewish and I loved her more than any other member of my family.”

The ADL report also details overt support for extremist groups by sitting politicians like Wendy Rogers, a state senator in Arizona. Rogers has boasted of her membership in the armed anti-government militia group the Oath Keepers, members of which are facing charges of seditious conspiracy stemming from the Jan. 6 insurrection.


Rogers’ social media profiles are packed with references to extremists and hate groups. On Tuesday on the social networking site Gab, she expressed support for white nationalist livestreamer and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, as well as Laura Loomer, an anti-Muslim activist and conspiracy theorist, among others. Loomer also recently ran for Congress.

“I think I made everyone mad all at the same time. Here we go! #JesusIsKing,” Rogers wrote. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Demonstrators participate in a Defeat the Mandates march in Washington, DC, on Jan. 23, 2022.
Demonstrators participate in a Defeat the Mandates march in Washington, DC, on Jan. 23, 2022.

The ADL report outlines dozens of other examples of sitting politicians and candidates expressing support for causes varying from QAnon, the disproven antisemitic conspiracy theory that claims powerful Democrats and celebrities are engaged in a secret pedophilia ring, to groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, to the false claims, pushed by Trump, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Experts on extremism said American politics appears to be entering a new era in which openly expressing support for what would have previously been considered marginal ideas is a proven and sometimes powerful campaign tool.

“I don't think we've ever had so many candidates, in so many parts of the country, who are openly conspiracists or connected to white nationalists or various forms of extremism,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism who has tracked extremists since the 1990s. “It just shows how much fringe ideas have been mainstreamed over the course of the last five or six years.”

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Earlier this month, a coalition of progressive think tanks led by Public Wise launched a new tool that aims to catalog and illustrate support for, and participation in, the Capitol insurrection.

The Insurrection Index is a searchable database that lists people and organizations who were involved in or promoted the Jan. 6 event that turned into a riot. Researchers found more than 220 currently serving politicians or candidates for office who meet that definition.

They include James Majewski, who is running for Congress in Ohio. Majewski has bragged about raising more than $20,000 to help people travel to Washington that day. Majewski declined to comment.

In the Insurrection Index files are examples of dozens of elected officials and candidates for office who have shown support for the Capitol rioters, were present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, or who helped spread Trump's lie about the 2020 election.

Christina Baal-Owens, executive director of Public Wise, told USA TODAY that the Insurrection Index will continue to be updated and that it serves as a crucial tool for voters to quickly assess whether a candidate or sitting politician was connected to the insurrection.

"The U.S. has framed ourselves as this beacon of democracy, and after what happened on January 6, and everything that led up to it, we're really fighting for a functioning democracy,” Baal-Owens said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democracy at risk? Extremism experts worry amid rise in 'fringe ideas'