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Like Father, Like Son: When Fascism Becomes Family

The mainstreaming of extremist ideas and right-wing aggression is fueling unexpected bonds in American households

Two and a half weeks before the U.S. Capitol building was overrun by right-wing insurrectionists, a similar scene unfolded outside of Oregon’s state capitol in Salem. A scrum of local fascists, white supremacists and militiamen piled up near the entrance of the building, noisily jostling for a way in.

At the front of the pack was Chandler Pappas, who pawed at the glass doors with his foot while impatiently fingering the receiver of his AR-15 rifle. Later, Chandler would pull out a canister of pepper spray and unload on a line of police officers, hoping to break through the defenses.

Pappas has been charged with assault, trespassing, burglary and more for his role on December 21, 2020, another milestone for the Oregon agitator. He is a longtime friend and lieutenant of Joey Gibson and his violent right-wing group Patriot Prayer, which has grown in influence beyond the Pacific Northwest over the last half-decade. In particular, Pappas has made a name for himself as a volatile amateur ideologue by speaking at Proud Boy events, shooting paintballs at antifa protesters and brandishing his guns while making threats at vigils for Black lives lost to police violence. He’s been witness to fatal violence in the streets, and threatened to kill others, too.

Portland-based Rose City Antifa (RCA), an anti-fascist group that works to uncover and counter extremists in Oregon, has been familiar with Pappas’ work for years. But recently, RCA researchers found something unusual: They identified Pappas’ father, Alexander, in the crowd at the state capital alongside his son, ready to fight his way into the building with a gas mask. They also found alarming parallels between the two, in their history of domestic violence and entry into extremist spaces.

Chandler and Alexander Pappas banding together to commit crimes in the name of patriotism was, in so many ways, a prescient taste of what was to come on January 6th. The insurrection was a depressing referendum on how accessible, and palatable, fascist violence can be for the American masses. But it also shined a light on the prevalence of father-son duos who bond over the alt-right cause — and how that paternal relationship reflects centuries of violent masculinity coded and mythologized as a unique, familial strength.

Consider the case of James Uptmore, who celebrated his son’s birthday with a trip to the D.C. protest and ended up joyously rioting inside the Capitol building, despite initially warning his own son against stepping foot into the property. Or 29-year-old Daniel Johnson, who flew from Minnesota to subvert American democracy with his dad, Daryl, and later bragged on Facebook that “lol Dad and I were one of the first ones inside.”

A well-honed operation this was not, given how sentimental social media posts led to the sloppy downfall of so many father-son duos. Former Navy SEAL Shannon Rusch, for instance, used the insurrection to make lifelong memories with his son Trevor McDonald, and later boasted about this on Twitter. “There is no one I’d rather be here with than my son for this historic event,” Rusch tweeted on January 5th. “The calm before the strom…. [sic]” Elsewhere, Hunter Seefried helped punch out the very same Capitol building window that his aging father Kevin clambered through, Confederate flag in hand, while the cameras rolled around them. Such examples from the insurrection go on, and on, and on.

In one sense, there’s nothing new about fathers and sons honing their relationship through an attraction to strength and violence. Indeed, the family was a crucial pipeline for much of America’s white supremacist network in the 20th century. Notorious Klansman Tom Metzger famously recruited his son to help build his White Aryan Resistance in the 1980s. So did Don Black, who created the Nazi website Stormfront in 1995 and groomed his son, Derek, as the successor of his legacy.

Yet much has changed since the turn of the millennium, namely the outgrowth of alt-right ideals into the zeitgeist proper. “It’s gotten more common to see this phenomenon, especially when you have groups like Patriot Prayer or more general pro-Trump events that will bill itself as a family-friendly event while also recruiting a very heavy far-right element,” Lucy, a member of RCA, observes. “They’ll have a barbecue with little kids running around and violent fascists standing along the outskirts.”

Along those lines, Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University, believes the last decade of right-wing ideology creeping into the mainstream has had a profound impact on making extremist action more attractive to those who would otherwise be on the sidelines. “The Boomer-ification of extremism, via Fox News and Facebook, has made this more of a family issue. It’s moved out of the subcultural space and into spaces where people of different generations mix. The issues and tactics aren’t something you only read about on and 4chan, like we did a decade ago,” Hughes says. “Now your uncle and dad might be talking about right-wing action and you can’t even avoid it.”

The mainstreaming of fascism has, in a sense, laundered the image of going to a Proud Boy meeting or protesting at a state capitol while brandishing a firearm — and it makes it easier for fathers and sons to tumble into the alt-right void while seeking a bonding moment. While gender norms continue to shift, fathers continue to be the main figure in a household to define masculinity for their sons, and they tend to emphasize these gendered ideas more than mothers do, per Andrew Smiler, a therapist and expert on men’s development.

It also remains true that American men often emphasize bonding through activities, rather than by discussing emotions and narratives, Smiler says. Those activities are a conduit for shared values — including stereotypically “masculine” ideas like resistance, self-reliance and using justifiable violence to defend the family. “This hits on the way we’ve talked about masculinity for the last 80 years in this country, especially with the idea of patriotism and fighting for something. Men are much more likely to see themselves as doers and risk-takers, and taking over a Capitol building requires that. It requires a willingness to take and inflict personal injury and bodily harm,” Smiler explains. “These are ideas we tend to emphasize to boys and men, and not typically so much for girls and women.”

The generational impacts of that feedback loop loom large ahead. It’s bad enough to know there are young Proud Boys hosting parades in their black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, throwing up the white-power “OK” sign at cheering kids. It’s somehow worse to imagine those kids growing up into violent actors complete with an appetite for neo-Nazi chat rooms on Discord, street brawls with antifa and the radical whitening of America. As Hughes points out, hate isn’t the only force that drives people to extremism — often, love and loyalty are just as compelling when it comes to warping our worldviews. “It can be easier to do that than back away from someone who we care about,” he concludes.

In other words, fighting fascism means pulling people out of their bubbles, exposing them to new information and slowly shifting their core beliefs. Yet those beliefs are formed in the bubble we trust most — that of our parents, and the things they dream for us.

The strain of those beliefs can leave men at a crossroads, as with Jackson Reffitt, the 18-year-old from Texas who was confronted by his father when he returned from an out-of-state trip on January 8th. The elder Reffitt admitted to his son that he had stormed the Capitol two days prior, and warned him with ominous words: “If you turn me in, you’re a traitor. And you know what happens to traitors. Traitors get shot.”

What must Jackson have thought at that moment, staring at his father, realizing he had already called the FBI weeks prior after hearing endless hints of “something big”?

Guy Reffitt remains unrepentant about what he did. Meanwhile, Jackson has moved out of the family’s house altogether. “I am afraid for him to know. Not for my life or anything, but for what he might think,” Jackson told the New York Times earlier this year.

“We’ll get better over time,” he added. “I know we will.”