Like the frog in boiling water, Americans may not realize that democracy is over and the country has descended into fascism until it is too late. In this interview, David Neiwert tells Truthout what’s new about the so-called “alt-right” and in what ways it’s a continuation of American white supremacy. The author of Alt-America also outlines how Donald Trump won over the support of far-right groups and gave their worldview a place in the White House.
Mark Karlin: Is the term “alt-right” a rebranding of a fringe white supremacist movement that has been in place for decades or should it be recognized as a distinct entity?
David Neiwert: It’s definitely a rebranding of white supremacist thought, but it is much more than just that — it’s an entire rewiring of the movement and an expansion of it as well, which is why simply calling them “Nazis” isn’t accurate. This isn’t your grandfather’s Klan. It’s been rewired to not only take advantage of technology and its rapid changes, but to leverage them as weapons. It’s also been remade entirely to appeal to young people — namely, white males ages 16-30 — using such nontraditional appeals as humor and irony and openly transgressive “wit.”
In the end, when you dig down into their thinking and examine the ideology they are promoting, it really isn’t anything new, nothing that eugenicists and white supremacists of bygone days hadn’t said already. But it’s presented in social media in adroit and new ways that are very effective with young people whose exposure to real history is shallow to begin with.
What in Donald Trump’s statements and actions have empowered the “alt-right,” which you call a “long-discredited” alternative universe, and those groups who preceded the “alt-right,” to feel that this is their moment?
Trump’s origins as a politician in 2011 revolve around his adoption of an extremist (and profoundly bigoted) right-wing conspiracy theory, namely, the so-called “birther” conspiracy positing that President Obama’s birth certificate was somehow faked.
But while the “birtherism” attracted a Tea Party crowd in his direction initially, and his campaign-opening speech denouncing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” cheered the nativist/white nationalist contingent, the event that really connected Trump to the “alt-right” was his release, on August 16, 2015, of his “immigration plan” — a document that may well have been written by Ann Coulter or his staff white nationalist, Stephen Miller, because it almost perfectly parroted the immigration agendas previously delineated by white nationalists and nativists, such as Coulter, Jared Taylor or Patrick Buchanan. That was the moment we saw the “alt-right,” almost completely across the board, jump aboard Trump’s bandwagon. And nothing he has done since has persuaded them to get off.
Why do followers of the fringe right feel such an extreme sense of victimhood?
It’s an essential component of the right-wing authoritarian (RWA) personality, which features compartmentalized thinking and a zero-sum approach to matters of race and gender. Inevitably, RWAs conceive of themselves as heroic, and an essential component of the dynamic of constructing heroism is that it not only requires the creation of an enemy, but also claims of victimization at the hands of this enemy.
My own experience, having grown up around this personality type, is that the victimhood is ultimately a kind of projection, because RWAs always create whole classes of victims by virtue of their frequently bigoted behaviors, people whose lives are negatively affected by their prejudice, and disdain for the values of equality — and so they claim victimhood as a kind of projection, a defense against being called out for their own bad acts.
Isn’t it a misconception that people in the US should be more worried about fanatical Islamic terrorism than the frequent acts of domestic terrorism?
Yes. In fact, I spent five years compiling a definitive database on domestic terrorism in the United States as part of a project for Reveal News/Center for Investigative Reporting and the Nation Institute Investigative Fund, which was published this past summer and detailed precisely how much greater the threat is — nearly a two-to-one difference in American homegrown far-right political violence than in that inflicted by radical Islamists over the past nine years. Yet, our law-enforcement apparatus and our media focus are overwhelmingly directed toward anyone with a Muslim background, but treats right-wing terrorists like Dylann Roof as “isolated incidents.” In many regards, this skew is the product of a profoundly irresponsible mainstream media.
In what respect is the rise of “alt-right” forces to the level of the White House shared by movements around the world?
The rise of the radical right in the US is just one piece of a global dark tide, and it’s a frightening phenomenon, really. In Europe, the far right is rising, not just in the UK, where the Brexit vote reflected a rising nationalism, but in Germany, where the far-right party won an increasing share of seats in Parliament recently, and in places like Poland, where thousands of young xenophobic nationalists recently marched en masse, as well as Hungary, where the new prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is also an unabashed nationalist in the Trump mold.
We have seen a rise in authoritarianism in regimes in Asia as well, beyond the largest authoritarian regime of them all, China. In Myanmar, for instance, where the military junta in charge is leading an ethnic-cleansing campaign against the Muslim Rohingya people; and in the Philippines, where the populist president openly leads a campaign of murderous, eliminationist violence against “drug users” and journalists.
Why is it important to note, as you do in your book, that what Trump has unleashed is an incremental descent into fascism?
Americans have always fancied themselves immune to fascism. After World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, we patted ourselves on the backs and said, “It can’t happen here!” And in telling ourselves that, we lied — because fascism’s own roots lie buried, in places, in [US] soil: The Nuremberg Laws were modeled on Jim Crow, the Brownshirts were inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Hitler’s Lebensraum program and the Holocaust itself were built on the Nazis’ admiration of the genocide of Native Americans in the United States.
In the ensuing years, we became increasingly facile about what fascism means and how it works, tossing it about as an easy insult, and then ultimately twisting its meaning on its head for partisan political purposes, as right-wing figures like Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D’Souza have done in recent years. It never was anything other than right-wing populism gone metastatic — a cancerous manifestation of an already toxic worldview. But because we have enabled such populism, often under the guise of “libertarianism,” to creep into our mainstream politics, we have become vulnerable to its profound animus towards all of our democratic institutions, as well as their cynical manipulation of such staple democratic principles as free speech.
Americans want to believe that their democracy will just keep on running as it always has, but it is like any other system when it comes under direct attack — ultimately every bit as vulnerable as we allow it to be.