No, the right wing is not a monolithic force. One of the key points Matthew N. Lyons details in his book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire is that the right wing is composed of groups with different historical roots. Trump, Lyons argues in this interview, is a right-wing populist.
Mark Karlin: Why is it important to break the far right in the United States into distinctive components?
Matthew K. Lyons: Because different branches of the far right represent different types of threats. They have different social bases, target different scapegoats, pursue different strategies, and have different strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these differences helps us fight them more effectively.
For purposes of analysis in Insurgent Supremacists, I define the US far right as encompassing those political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural, desirable or inevitable; and (b) reject the legitimacy of the existing political system. That cuts across a lot of political divides. Many far rightists put race at the center of their program, but others focus more on religious doctrine, or gender or a more generic form of elitism. Some far rightists advocate paramilitary organizing while others focus on electoral activism, or building community institutions, or a “metapolitical” transformation of cultural norms and assumptions. Some sections of the far right are working-class oriented while others have a base that’s predominantly middle class or professional. Some recruit whole families while others are only interested in men.
It’s not just the differences and divisions within the far right that are important, but also the interactions and creative tensions between different factions. Every far-right upsurge in the US over the past 40 years has been powered by different rightist currents coming together. In the 1980s, the convergence between Klan and Nazi forces — which had distrusted each other for half a century — gave us the modern white nationalist movement. In the 1990s, the explosion of Patriot/militia groups was fueled by a new mix of white nationalism, Christian Reconstructionism, John Birch-style conspiracism and gun rights ideology. Over the past decade, the rise of the “alt-right” has followed the same dynamic.
Where does the “alt-right” fit in?
The “alt-right” is the newest major far right current to emerge in the United States. It started to cohere around 2010, when Richard Spencer founded the online journal AlternativeRight.com to foster intellectual debate and discussion among right-wing critics of mainstream conservatism. A lot of different ideological ingredients have gone into the mix, but some of the most notable ones have been paleoconservatism (a dissident branch of US conservatism that has advocated economic nationalism and white Christian cultural dominance and opposed most US military interventions abroad), the European New Right (a high-brow initiative to rework fascist ideology that started in France in the late 1960s) and the manosphere (an online anti-feminist subculture that has fostered some of the most virulent misogyny, in both theory and practice). White nationalism has always been a dominant force in the “alt-right,” and at this point, those “alt-rightists” who didn’t embrace white nationalism have apparently all left the movement. Both Nazi and non-Nazi versions of white nationalism are represented.
A key feature that sets the “alt-right” apart from earlier far-right movements is its emphasis on web culture, social media and the use of memes. Neo-Nazis have pioneered in the use of computer networks and information technology since the 1980s, but the “alt-right” started out by developing a major online presence and only later started to form member organizations and hold physical rallies. “Alt-rightists” got very skilled at using political irony and mounting meme campaigns, such as the #cuckservative campaign in 2016, which significantly helped Donald Trump in the presidential primaries by attacking his main Republican competitors. Borrowing a tactic from the manosphere’s Gamergate campaign, “alt-rightists” also barraged political opponents with vicious online harassment, such as flooding their inboxes with rape and death threats.
The “alt-right” has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, through a combination of internal failings and external pressures, and it’s a lot weaker and more isolated than it was when Trump was elected. But it’s had a lasting impact, not only by helping to put Trump in the White House, but also by fueling supremacist violence and injecting supremacist ideology into mainstream discourse. And even if the “alt-right” itself never recovers, it’s likely that sooner or later we’ll see a resurgence of another far-right movement that builds on its example, promoting similar ideas in different form.
Why do you think there are so many different perceptions of fascism?
To some extent, it’s because fascists have never developed an agreed-upon body of political theory the way Marxists, anarchists, liberals and even conservatives have done. Mussolini declared that fascists were more concerned with action than with doctrine, which has misled some critics into thinking that fascism doesn’t stand for anything except grabbing power and brutalizing people. But opponents also perceive fascism differently because of their different starting points, different ways of understanding the world. Is fascism fundamentally an expression of “hate,” a mass psychology of exclusion? Is it an outgrowth of capitalism, or even a “stage” of capitalism in decline, as many Marxists have claimed? Or is it, as some conservatives have argued, essentially “big government” run amok?
People on both the left and the right have often used “fascism” more as a political epithet, a way to denounce your opponents, than a term of analysis. There’s a long tradition of liberals and leftists denouncing every repressive move by right-wing politicians as “fascist,” from Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts to George W. Bush’s “war on terror” to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. To me, all of these are actually examples of authoritarian conservatism, which is a top-down impulse to defend the established order and ruling-class interests. I see fascism as an outgrowth of an organized mass movement that wants to sweep away established institutions and impose a new kind of supremacist order. Fascism may cut a deal with established elites, but is at root an autonomous force with its own agenda, not a ruling-class puppet. Contrary to popular usage, fascists are not the only ones who impose dictatorships, and they are not the only ones who carry out genocide.
Are many far right groups populist in nature?
Yes, in the United States, pretty much all of them are populist to one degree or another. I follow political scientist Margaret Canovan’s approach in defining populism as an effort to rally “the people” around some form of anti-elitism. There are a lot of different versions of populism, some of which have positive elements. But right-wing populism, as Chip Berlet and I and others have argued, is a subcategory in which anti-elitism is combined with a drive to bolster the oppression, exclusion or annihilation of one or more oppressed or marginalized groups. In addition, the anti-elitism that right-wing populists promote is distorted, in that it diverts people’s anger away from the actual systems of power (such as capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy) onto a scapegoat (such as “globalist elites,” or “liberal intellectuals” or “Jewish bankers”).
There have been many right-wing populist movements in US history, but most of them have been system loyal, in the sense that they have not really called the established political order into question. The far right of recent decades is part of a larger right-wing populist upsurge, which regards the limited gains made by oppressed social groups since the 1960s as the result of a plot by “sinister elites” to undermine Western civilization. There are different versions of this narrative — some racial, some religious, some economic, and so on. System-loyal right-wing populists essentially argue that the sinister elites can be put in their place through reforming the existing system, while far rightists believe that the system is beyond repair and a political revolution is needed — a revolution of the right, an insurgency to impose a new supremacist order.
What are the relationships between national security forces, law enforcement and the paramilitary right?
This is a complex story and delving into it is one of the elements that sets Insurgent Supremacists apart from most books about the US far right. There’s a long history of federal agencies colluding with — or actively sponsoring — right-wing violence against people of color, organized labor and the left. For example, in the early 1970s, federal agencies sponsored right-wing organizations in the Chicago area and southern California that carried out break-ins, physical attacks and assassination attempts against leftists. In 1979, an FBI informer and an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms both helped plan an operation in which neo-Nazi and Klan groups murdered five members and supporters of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But when right-wing paramilitaries have turned against the state, federal agencies have cracked down hard on them. In the 1980s, security forces smashed The Order, a neo-Nazi group that had issued a declaration of war against the “Zionist Occupation Government” in Washington, and rounded up members of half a dozen other armed fascist organizations. In the 1990s, the FBI created a phony neo-Nazi organization called the Veterans Aryan Movement to help it gather intelligence about genuine far-right groups — a classic counterinsurgency tactic. The federal government has also sometimes used far-right violence as a useful scapegoat to justify increases in state repression. For example, the Clinton administration used the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to help push through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which civil liberties advocates have excoriated. Yet in recent years, federal security forces’ responses to the paramilitary right have been largely reactive, inconsistent and even passive. At the Bundy Ranch confrontation in 2014, federal officers backed down when confronted by armed Patriot movement activists pointing guns at them, and the government waited almost two years before bringing any charges for the incident.
This kind of cautious response partly reflects pressure from conservatives, but it may also point to awareness that federal government efforts to control the paramilitary right have sometimes backfired — spectacularly. In the 1960s, FBI infiltration of Ku Klux Klan groups (carried out not to end racist violence, but to bring to heel a heavily armed network operating outside government control) significantly weakened the Klan in the short term, but it massively discredited the Bureau in the eyes of white supremacists, and helped push many of them to embrace revolutionary, far-right politics. The 1992 assault on the home of white supremacist Randy Weaver — in which federal agents shot to death Weaver’s teenage son and gunned down his wife while she was holding their baby — helped spark the rise of the Patriot movement as a reaction against fears of government tyranny.
Federal security forces do their job clumsily at times and skillfully at others, are subject to a variety of internal biases and external pressures, and have to contend with shifting political circumstances. Fundamentally, however, their purpose is to protect ruling-class power. Broadly speaking, paramilitary rightists serve that purpose when they defend the existing order, and clash with that purpose when they seek to overthrow it.
How does Trump fit in with the history of insurgent supremacists in the United States?
I see Donald Trump as a right-wing populist who is system loyal, but whose rise is symbiotically connected to the far right. Trump has skillfully appealed to the double-edged sense of grievance that many Americans feel — a fear that their traditional privileges have been or are being eroded, coupled with an anger and resentment at economic, political and cultural elites above them. Many successful US politicians have done this, but few of them have opposed the political establishment as squarely as Trump did, and few of them have leaned on far-right support the way he has. Candidate Trump got more help from far rightists, especially the “alt-right,” than any other major presidential candidate in living memory. And in turn, his campaign helped “alt-rightists” gain visibility, media access and a degree of legitimation they would never have had otherwise. Several of the advisers Trump picked for his administration echoed the “alt-right” to varying degrees. Some of them (such as Steve Bannon) have left, but others (such as Stephen Miller) are still there.
Most “alt-rightists” supported Trump’s candidacy because of his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant positions, because he repudiated standard taboos (for example, advocating torture, calling for violence against political opponents and bragging about sexual assault) and because he made establishment conservatives look like fools. In the early days, long before anybody thought he could win, “alt-rightists” saw him as somebody who could destroy the Republican Party. Their view of Trump was essentially: He is not one of us, but he is useful to our cause, because he can buy us time and open up more space for us to get our message out. Since the inauguration, “alt-rightists” have applauded some of Trump’s moves, but they’ve also been frustrated and alienated by some of his actions (such as his missile strikes against Syria) and what they see as his capitulation to the conservative establishment on many issues.
As many “alt-rightists” have understood clearly from the beginning, Donald Trump is not a far rightist. His policies are racist but not white nationalist (because he doesn’t advocate a white ethno-state and the mass expulsion of people of color) and authoritarian but not fascist (because he wants to suppress opponents but doesn’t aim to impose one totalitarian ideology on all spheres of society). Also, unlike fascists, he did not build an independent organization, but instead cobbled together an elite coalition of “America First” nationalists and mainstream conservatives, and over time the latter have mostly come out on top. Despite some inconsistent steps away from the establishment line on free trade and foreign policy, Trump’s main impact has been to intensify conventional conservative policies, such as deregulating industry, making the tax system even more regressive and making life even harder for undocumented immigrants.
To be clear, Trump isn’t just more of the same. He builds on his predecessors (Republican and Democrat), but he is qualitatively worse than them. Trump is accelerating the decline of the United States’ liberal-pluralist system (often mislabeled “democracy”), and his rise has helped to mobilize popular forces that have the potential to turn toward more insurgent forms of right-wing politics. In this situation, it’s important for leftists to join with others in opposing the growth of repression, demonization and supremacist violence. At the same time, it’s also important for us to strengthen and amplify our own critiques of the established order, our own visions of radical change — and not let far rightists present themselves as the only real opposition force.