In this excerpt from Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, David Neiwert describe how the American far right flourished and grew during the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, found common ground with the more mainstream, “pro-business” right in a racist backlash to Barack Obama, and coalesced around the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The day after Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency, Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church with a gun and killed nine black people because they were black.
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It was purely a coincidence that one act followed the other, hundreds of miles apart: Roof apparently knew little about Trump and was not known to be a Trump follower. Trump had never met nor had any interaction with Roof.
Yet the two acts were inextricably connected — by the events and acts that had preceded them, and by those that followed in the ensuing weeks and months. Most of all, both acts signaled, in different ways, a deep change in the American cultural and political landscape.
The American radical right — the violent, paranoid, racist, hateful radical right — was back with a vengeance. Actually, it had never really gone away. And now it had a presidential candidate.
“Hopefully, he’s going to sit there and say, ‘When I become elected president, what we’re going to do is we’re going to make the border a vacation spot, it’s going to cost you twenty-five dollars for a permit, and then you get fifty dollars for every confirmed kill.’ That’d be one nice thing.—Supporter of Donald Trump, interviewed in the New York Times
“This robocall goes out to all millennials and others who are honest in all their dealings … The white race is being replaced by other peoples in America and in all white countries. Donald Trump stands strong as a nationalist.”
—William White (a white nationalist), pro-Trump robocall to Massachusetts voters
“The march to victory will not be won by Donald Trump in 2016, but this could be the stepping stone we need to then radicalize millions of White working and middle class families to the call to truly begin a struggle for Faith, family and folk.”
—Matthew Heimbach, cofounder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Youth Network, at organization’s website
“Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
—White man in Boston who with another man beat a homeless Latino to within an inch of his life with a metal pole and then urinated on him
“People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”
—Donald Trump, when asked about the Boston hate crime
Most Americans surveying the wreckage of the American political landscape in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election are startled by the ugliness and violence that have crept into the nation’s electoral politics. And they can recognize its source: the sudden appearance of the racist far right as players.
Almost as blindingly as Donald Trump appeared on the scene, so did an array of white nationalists and supremacists, conspiracy theorists and xenophobes, even Klansmen and skinheads and other violent radicals, who for decades had been relegated to the fringe of right-wing politics. Hadn’t they gone extinct?
Most Americans did not realize that, far from going extinct, these groups had been growing and flourishing in recent years, fed by the rivulets of hate mongering and disinformation-fueled propaganda flowing out of right-wing media for at least a decade and the hospitable dark environment provided by a virtual blackout in mainstream media concerning the growth of right-wing extremism.
These tendencies dated back to the Bill Clinton administration, when the radical right first began to try to mainstream itself as a “patriot” and militia movement, but was derailed largely by the violent terrorism that the movement also brewed up. Simultaneously, right-wing media began appearing as a new propaganda type that openly eschewed the journalistic standards of mainstream news organizations: in a classic use of “Newspeak,” they declared themselves “fair and balanced.”
The organizational drive of the new “Patriot” movement largely went into a hiatus in the early part of the new century, during the conservative Republican administration of George W. Bush, but the extremism that originally fueled the movement in the 1990s remained very much alive. On the far right the conspiracist element found fresh life in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which produced an entire cottage industry devoted to proving that the attacks were part of a plot by the New World Order. Simultaneously, the mainstream rhetoric on the right became vociferous during the Iraq War, when any criticism of Bush and his administration’s conduct of the war was denounced nastily as treason, and liberals were sneered at as “soft on terror.”
This suffused extremism came roaring back to life with the nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency in 2008, and then his election, which sparked a virulent counter reaction on the radical right. The idea of a black man, let alone a liberal one, as president made them recoil in visceral disgust. The mainstream, business-establishment right — after years of right-wing-media conditioning during both the Clinton and Bush years — apparently could no longer abide the idea of shared rule with a liberal president and set out to delegitimize him by any means possible. And it was in that shared hatred that the extremist and mainstream right finally cemented their growing alliance.
This alliance found form in the “Tea Party” which was widely celebrated as a grassroots conservative phenomenon that sprang to life in 2009, in the wake of Obama’s election. It was generally portrayed (following members’ self-descriptions) as attached to the conservative ideal of small government, expressed as limited spending and taxes. In reality, however, their founding organizations were explicitly focused on opposing Obama and every aspect of his presidency. In the ensuing years, politicians and pundits inside the Beltway assumed that this was the Tea Party’s raison d’être.
But it was more. In the rural and red-voting suburban districts where the Tea Party organized itself on the ground, it became the living embodiment of right-wing populism.
Right-wing populism in America — as distinct from its left-wing variety — has always been predicated on a narrative known as “producerism,” in which the hard-working “producers” of America are beset by a two-headed enemy: a nefarious elite suppressing them from above, and a parasitic underclass of “others,” reliant on welfare and government benefits, tearing them down and sucking them under from below. Right-wing populism has most often been expressed via various nativist anti-immigrant movements. In the twenty-first century, this brand of populism became expressed as a hostility to “liberal” elites and “parasitic” minorities and immigrants.
Thus, the Tea Party focused on conspiracy theories and the supposed “tyranny” of the president, and ardently embraced ideals that kept bubbling up from the extremist right: constitutionalism, nullification of federal laws and edicts, and even secession from the Union. The Tea Party movement became a major conduit into the mainstream of American conservatism of the most extreme, often outright nutty ideas that originated with the Patriot movement and its related far-right cousins.
The Patriots have always specialized in creating a kind of alternative universe, a set of alternate explanations for an entire world of known facts, made possible only by a willingness to believe in easily disprovable falsehoods. The Patriots describe themselves primarily as constitutionalists, but their understanding of the Constitution is based on a distorted misreading of the document and its place in the body of law. For example, Patriots believe that the Second Amendment prohibits all gun and arms regulation whatsoever; that the text of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning any kind of public lands and from creating any kind of federal law enforcement; that the sheriff of the county is the highest law-enforcement entity in the land; and that federal laws ensuring civil rights and prohibiting hate crimes are unconstitutional and thus moot. Thus, in the context of the Patriot movement, “constitutionalist” describes people who believe that most “constitutional” powers reside in local government, specifically county sheriffs — not in the national Constitution.
These beliefs about the Constitution are amplified by a panoply of conspiracy theories: A nefarious New World Order is plotting to enslave all of mankind in a world government that permits no freedom, and its many tentacles can be glimpsed daily in news events. President Obama is secretly an illegitimate president who was born overseas and falsified his birth certificate; he’s also secretly a Muslim plotting to hand the United States over to Islamist radicals who plan to institute sharia law in the United States and around the world. Global warming is a hoax, a scam dreamed up by leftists and totalitarian environmentalists who want to control every facet of our lives. In this alternative universe, facts and the laws of political gravity do not apply.
In the alternative universe of right-wing populism, down is often up. Ultimately, the right-wing populist solution to the world’s problems is to submit to an authoritarian “enlightened” ruler. Some of the leading figures of right-wing populist movements in American history — for example, Henry Ford — have been famous “captains of industry.”
Early on, Donald Trump identified this belief system as being aligned with his own. “I think the people of the Tea Party like me, because I represent a lot of the ingredients of the Tea Party,” he told a Fox News interviewer in 2011.
Trump was cannily tapping into a large voting bloc that had already been created by conservative activists and made large by the very rhetoric and ideology that nearly all of the movement’s media organs embraced to some degree before his arrival on the scene.
The political establishment, however, has studiously ignored the existence of this bloc, and so it has been utterly befuddled by the Trump phenomenon and his ability to operate in this universe where the normal laws of reason do not seem to apply and to bring it onto the national political stage.
“He is defying the laws of political gravity right now,” exclaimed the political consultant Michael Bronstein in January 2016, voicing what became the conventional wisdom. Regarding Trump’s comments and tweets, Bronstein said, “Inside the presidential race, any one of these lines, if they were associated to another candidate, it would’ve ended the candidacy … I think the establishment, the punditry class, looks at him and a lot of them are just bewildered.”
Before the Trump campaign, the true believers of the Tea Party were assumed to be on the fringe of the Republican Party, a tiny subset that had no voice and even less power. The Trump campaign revealed that their numbers were not tiny, nor were they powerless. These dark forces had been building for years, waiting for the right kind of figure — charismatic, rich, fearlessly bombastic — to come along and put them into play.
They manifested themselves on that very first day of Trump’s campaign, June 15, 2015, at the press conference he called at Trump Tower, in New York City. The atmospherics were negative: Trump was boastful and blaming as he sketched a narrative of an America whose leaders’ incompetence had allowed the nation to be beaten down in trade by foreigners. But what really stood out was his open, unapologetic expression of bigotry toward Latinos and other minorities.
“The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he claimed, to loud applause, and then continued:
Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably — probably —from the Middle East. But we don’t know. Because we have no protection and we have no competence, we don’t know what’s happening. And it’s got to stop and it’s got to stop fast.
This was a signature trope of Trump’s campaign: Trump didn’t avail himself of the coded “dog whistle” signals that conservatives had learned to employ when they spoke about race, ethnicity, crime, and immigration. He called this kind of euphemistic prevarication “political correctness,” and he intended to smash it to tiny pieces and say what he knew his listeners already thought.
Right-wing politicians had for years relied on this coy rhetoric because naked racial attacks hurt them in opinion polls. This rhetorical dancing around also spared them from being attacked for their racism while allowing them to communicate to their own audiences that their biases aligned with those of their white suburban and rural base — which, it emerged, continued to embrace racist tropes and stereotypes about people of color, regardless of the broader social stigma in doing so.
Copyright (2017) by David Neiwert. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.