The similarity that struck me most, however, was how aimless and lost some of the rioters both in Berlin and Washington appeared to be once they had reached their target. At the Capitol, some trashed offices or sat in chairs that weren’t theirs. In Berlin, too, there was no plan beyond this spontaneous gesture of rage and disobedience. Many just pulled out their smartphones and started filming once they had reached the top of the stairs. Is this their revolution? A bunch of selfies?
It seems like protesters on both sides of the Atlantic long for some sort of control, and want to assert their power over legislative headquarters that they see as representative of their oppression. But all they get in the end is a cheap social media surrogate. Their selfies may resonate in their digital spheres — and eventually spill back into the real world to create more disruption — but their material effect may be pretty limited.
In that case, what can politicians do to deal with these extremists?
So far, many politicians have tried to defang the far-right by placating its voters. Since the rise of the Alternative for Germany party in 2015, the mainstream consensus in Germany has been to stress that these voters should not be viewed as extremists, but as angry people, who can and should be won back. Many of them, particularly people in Eastern Germany where the AfD is much stronger than in the West, are seen angry about real grievances, like deindustrialization, job loss, and all the other cultural and economic traumas of Reunification. In some places, this has worked to peel off right-wing voters and bring them back to the mainstream.
But the remaining fringe has only drifted further away. Right-wing leaders and conspiracy theorists have now redirected the anger at made-up causes largely decoupled from real world grievances: Many on the far-right in Germany believe that Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to create a “corona dictatorship” and that vaccines will be used to alter people’s genes. The American equivalent, of course, is that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump.
This is a problem. Political compromise, and ultimately, reconciliation, starts with recognition. But real-world politics cannot follow those who become believers in their alternate realities. A different strategy is needed.
German policymakers have started to realize this — and it’s only become clearer since the August protests. Germany’s secret service has decided to put sub-organizations of the AfD, which is increasingly radical, “under observation,” an administrative step that allows for the collection of personal data and the recruitment of informants within the party. Organizers of the coronavirus protest in August are becoming a focus, too. The minister of the interior banned several right-wing extremist associations in 2020.
Of course, attempts to win voters back, to wrestle them from the grip of the cult, must never stop. But there are no policies and no recognition politics we could offer people who adhere to a cult. Instead, to protect our democracies, we must watch them, contain them, and take away their guns.
Anna Sauerbrey, a contributing Opinion writer, is an editor and writer at the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.
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