In Christian art, saints often hold an object associated with their martyrdom. Saint Stephen, stoned to death, holds a pile of rocks. Saint Lawrence, burned over an iron grill, stands with a gridiron. Saint Lucy offers a small dish with two eyeballs, a reference to her own eyes having been gouged out with a fork.
If the same principles applied to right-wing martyrs these days, plenty would be holding just a lawsuit with their name as the defendant.
The hundreds of Americans who have been arrested and charged for their alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol have been lionized as freedom fighters by some on the right, including members of Congress. It’s what inspired the “Justice for J6” rally — the muted political demonstration that took place this past weekend in D.C. — and it’s the culmination of years of rhetoric on the far-right that has celebrated violent, extremist figures. This tendency to beatify certain figures is something mainstream conservatives now share with extremist ideologies elsewhere. The martyrs create a sense of community and underscore an essential narrative: that you can be punished simply because of what you believe, and that the willingness to receive that punishment is worthy of reverence.
Lifting certain figures to a quasi-sainthood has a long history on the extreme right, dating back to the post-WWI era, according to Daniel Koehler, the director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies. Koehler laid out this history in a paper published last year, citing an example of a group of 16 Nazis killed by police during a failed coup d’état in 1923. Those Nazis became known as the “Blutzeugen” (blood witnesses), which other Nazis honored with specific flags, medals and even two “temples.” But the narrative around these and other Nazi martyrs, Koehler wrote in the paper, “explicitly used the fact (or claim) that they were always killed by the movement’s enemies.”
Importantly, though, suicidal demonstrations of ideology were not part of the deal. Unlike jihadist extremists, who have cultural and religious motivations for celebrating those who die in suicide bombings, the far-right tended to elevate individuals who survived or were killed in battle, rather than those who died on a suicide mission. “What their narrative usually tells their followers is you have to stand and fight to the very end,” Koehler said in an interview.
More recently, this has manifested through the idolization of mass shooters who were apprehended, such as Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who killed nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Neo-nazis and white supremacists turned such terrorists into memes and icons, often depicting individuals like Roof as a saint (though sometimes with tongue in cheek). The terrorists have even inspired the formation of groups like the “Bowl Gang,” named for Roof’s bowl cut hairstyle. These shooters’ manifestos and journals are routinely passed around among far-right extremist groups online, almost like sacred texts. Koehler said the celebration is because the terrorists are seen as continuing the fight and as willing to suffer personally for the cause.
This trend largely remained relegated to the extreme right until last summer, when 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two people during protests against police shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Suddenly, those in the mainstream right had a figure to rally behind, since his actions could be explained away as self-defense, said Ari Ben-Am, an extremism researcher and information operations analyst for ActiveFence, an online security firm that detects hate speech, terrorism and disinformation.
Republican politicians openly praised Rittenhouse, with Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky saying he “exhibited incredible restraint and presence and situational awareness,” and state Rep. Anthony Sabatini of Florida tweeting, inexplicably, “Kyle Rittenhouse for Congress.” Far-right groups like the Proud Boys (self-proclaimed “Western chauvinists”) have stated they support Rittenhouse’s case and “are rooting for him. He has become an American hero and we look forward to celebrating his exoneration with a beer.” Among the more mainstream right online, such as the pro-Trump message board patriots.win, posters have been carefully following Rittenhouse’s trial and celebrating his actions, calling him “Saint Kyle”1 and a “hero,” and making comments such as “Every freedom loving American should be thrilled that this young man was able to defend himself and not become a victim to the mob.”
“Rittenhouse was the first one to break the barrier of mainstream popularity and support,” Ben-Am said. “He was viewed by both the far-right and the mainstream right as a martyr for the cause, though the mainstream right didn’t really know how to articulate that.”
The right’s response to the Jan. 6 attack was mixed. Many Republican politicians condemned the event, and alt-right conspiracy theorists floated the idea that the whole event was a false flag. This theory proposed that the rioters were actually anti-fascists, not Trump supporters. Soon, though, many rallied around those who were arrested or killed, as in the case of Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by Capitol police during the attack. Those on the right have cast these individuals as martyrs in the fight against what they believe was a fraudulent election.
This rallying included the Proud Boys, who have been sharing fundraisers on Telegram for the legal funds of individuals charged for allegedly participating in the attack on the Capitol. They’ve even set up a separate Telegram for promoting these fundraisers called “Free the Boys.” L. Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer who filed a number of lawsuits challenging the 2020 election results and has become a celebrity of the alt-right, has also rallied around Jan. 6 arrestees, calling them “political prisoners.” And mainstream Republicans, including former President Trump and members of Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, have advocated for arrestees, whom they claim are being unfairly treated. Ben-Am said this evokes the kind of lionization of terrorists on the extreme right, but with individuals who are much more palatable to the mainstream right.
“We started off with really extreme, decentralized individuals loving people who go kill for their ideology,” Ben-Am said. “The more mainstream it gets, the less violent and extremist the [martyrs] are.”
Treating these individuals as ideological martyrs serves a number of functions within these groups, according to Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University, who studies online extremism. Having figures to rally around deepens a sense of community among people who are often largely connected only online, Squire said, while legal fundraisers provide an opportunity to signal in-group values. It also fosters a narrative of persecution that is fundamental to many of these groups since they feel they’re fighting an unjust battle against groups wishing to destroy the American way of life. Depending on which apportionment of the right-wing landscape you’re talking about, those enemies could be the Democrats, the deep state, immigrants or Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
“It makes what they’re fighting for [feel] on par with other serious political movements and things that have happened in history,” Squire said.
Though the attendance at the Justice for J6 rally was modest, its messaging is evident in many places across the right, tapping into both mainstream and fringe groups. Creating martyrs serves a valuable function in these communities, which can be very energizing if tapped in the right way. And while this particular event failed to do so, the symbol of a martyr is powerful and should not be underestimated.