When Donald Trump came down his golden escalator in 2015 to announce his bid for the presidency, it wasn’t long until the nation’s racist and conspiratorial fringe followed, creeping out of the shadows to form the largest and most visceral display of radical right-wing extremism the nation had seen in decades.
In the early days, this outburst stumped long-time political pundits and average American voters alike, who struggled to explain the so-called alt-right and the eruption of open racial animus that seemed to come without warning.
But, of course, there were plenty of warnings. This modern recasting of American white supremacy didn’t come out of thin air. In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, reporter and SPLC contributor David Neiwert explores the historical foundations that propelled the radical right to political strength. Neiwert sat down to discuss his new book, his observations about the causes of the movement’s newfound energy, and what Americans need to do to confront the forces of authoritarianism encroaching on our democracy.
When did you decide that this book was necessary to write, and why did you think it was so important at the time?
In late 2015 I came to the realization that Trump was having this powerful energizing effect on the radical right. I wanted to spend these last two years writing a book about humpback whales, because honestly I have gotten really tired of writing books about hate groups. It’s really taxing on you personally.
We as a society have been collectively looking away from these people for so long that it’s allowed them to fester and gain a new toehold in our society.
Typically, people in the radical right constantly are warring with each other. That has to do with the kind of personalities the movement attracts. They are contentious, paranoid, overly suspicious and extremely egotistical. Our country has been lucky in terms of the radical right because of that.
Unfortunately, our luck ran out with Donald Trump. It became very clear by late 2015 that he was successfully coalescing all these radical right movements under a single banner, and they all had somebody to root for.
Describe what you mean by “Alt-America.”
“Alt-America” is a term that I coined because I realized we had this epistemological bubble. I actually think we’re reaching an epistemic crisis in this country because of it. This bubble was created back in the 1990s, or at least that was when I observed it. I was writing about militias and it was clear they created this alternative universe for themselves, where up is down and right is wrong, and the New World Order is secretly conspiring to enslave us all.
During the first part of the new century this universe kept growing, mainly because of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists and the whole industry that came out of that. And then it finally became totally mainstreamed in 2009 after Barack Obama’s election, mostly through the auspices of the Tea Party.
I’d say, back in the ‘90s, at the most eight percent of the country lived in this epistemological bubble, and I would say now we're looking at 30 percent. That’s what Alt-America is, and it’s filled with “alternative facts.” Barack Obama is a Muslim, and more people voted for Trump than for Hillary, and whatever other alternative facts you want to come up with. And guess what? Guess who is the final arbiter of what is true or what is not in that alternative universe? It’s Donald Trump. And that’s how authoritarianism works.
In the book, you get into detail about what all these different groups are and how they used to be more separate than they are now. When did they start coming together, and why?
Barack Obama. There was this huge counter reaction from his election. There were people not willing to accept the idea of a black man as president. A lot of this has to do with a zero sum view of race that so many Americans have, that if one race is gaining then the other must be losing. A lot of people saw this black man as president as an indication that blacks were ascending and that whites were losing their place in society. This is what a lot of the reaction against him has really been about, is this underlying fear of losing white privilege. And obviously [the zero sum view] is not just a racial thing. What really came out in the 2016 campaign is that it’s also gender-power related. There were a lot of men fearful that they were losing their position in society to women.
With all the noise in the media about the alt-right, the role that anti-government groups and militias play in the current climate is less well understood. Can you elaborate a bit on how they fit in?
They all have that same belief system that’s predicated on Alex Jones type conspiracism. Of course Jones didn’t invent this stuff, but he is far and away the leading progenitor of it these days. That’s the common ground that the alt-right has with Patriot militiamen: this alternative universe they share.
Patriot militiamen tend to be more in the prepper mode, survivalist mode. What most militiamen have in their minds is this idea that it’s all going to fall apart, and we need to be able to protect our families. Whereas white nationalists are actively trying to make it fall apart. They want to create a race war. They’re doing their damnedest to create it, to create the conditions to have one. They actually want an authoritarian system. They don’t believe in democracy, they believe that democracy is a joke, and they’re doing their very utmost to destroy and undermine it.
In the book, you noted a phenomenon I thought was interesting, an objection that some mainstream conservatives have to any criticism of even the most extreme right-wing activity. You mentioned the strong negative reaction to a 2009 Homeland Security report that pointed out the threat from domestic right-wing extremists. Why do you think this happens?
Some conservative pundits have become fairly open about identifying themselves with these radical extremists. At first was a little shocking, at least in 2009. Then it became really clear that they see any kind of reportage on right wing domestic terrorism as a threat to their agenda.
When conservatives are defending the far right, one of the reasons they’re doing it is that people will make this connection between these radicals and the conservative movement. Part of the problem is that they have themselves become close enough to these radicals that you can’t help but notice similarities. They’ve been doing this for years. This stuff moves into the mainstream, and it’s mainly through this ultra-hyperbolic rhetoric, where they’re constantly trying to push the envelope, but pushing the envelope on the right means literally, you’re going to be pushing that envelope right into Nazi territory. And they don’t have any brakes on that.
Think about these three men about to stand trial in Kansas right now who were plotting to use truck bombs on a Somali Muslim community the day after the election. Islamophobes have been demonizing these people to such an extent that not only do we have militiamen believing they need to go out and bomb these guys, but it winds up arguing alongside ISIS, that Muslims will never be accepted in America. It creates a syndrome where one form of terrorism starts feeding another.
Even more important is the effect that this constant demonization has on the public. This feeds the refusal to accept that there might be right-wing extremism. They really want to believe that all of the threat to Americans is coming from the “others.” They react very violently to the suggestion that their own side is actually responsible for far more terrorism in this country than Islamists are.
Do you see any steps at this point that the administration could or may take to help steer the nation back to reality?
No. The administration actively tries to divest people from reality because that’s how their authoritarianism works. Trump tweets these things out, these things that are clearly divergent from reality. That Obama wiretapped him and he had more votes than Hillary, and all these other things that contradict reality. They actually draw his followers farther into his authoritarian bubble. Part of the appeal is that these folks feel like they’re part of something special and that they have unique knowledge and that they have unique insight. So he’s constantly doing these kinds of things to serve as a wedge between his followers and the rest of us, and it’s very effective. I don’t see them stopping it any time soon, because it’s essential to their appeal. It’s essential to his approach to governance.
You mention in your book that it’s imprecise to call Donald Trump a fascist, as some detractors have done. How would you characterize him?
He’s not a fascist ideologue. Fascists are usually genuine ideologues about the whole political philosophy. Trump doesn’t offer any of that. He’s a very visceral politician who shoots from the hip, and all of these things he does are right out of a classic right wing populist playbook. The nativism, the sublimated racism, the sublimated misogyny. Claiming that you’re going to be representing the interests of working class people when you are a millionaire is also part of right wing populism, since the days of Henry Ford.
It’s important for people to understand that fascism historically is right wing populism gone metastatic, gone out of control. One of the reasons Trump is so dangerous is that this country would never have elected an overt fascist. If Richard Spencer had been the nominee, Americans would have revolted — because he is revolting. But ultimately his ideology did win the presidency because it came under the guise of this right wing populist.
How worried should Americans be about fascism in our political future?
I think they need to be very concerned. The alt-right is profoundly anti-democratic. We’ve become complacent about democracy. We think it’s just going to happen year after year. We can go out and vote, and we’ll continue to have a voice in how our country is run.
We need to understand democracy is under attack. It’s not just a fantasy, that it’s not just hyperbole, that this is something very real. We need to start standing up for it. Unfortunately a lot of Americans now seem to be content to sort of slip the bonds of responsibility that come with democracy and outsource that responsibility to an authoritarian leader. A lot of it has to do with the corporatization of media.
The greatest generator of the epistemological bubble that is “Alt-America” for years has been Fox News. Right now we don’t even agree in the country on what is a fact and what is not. That’s a recipe for disaster in a democracy, because dialogue cannot happen if we can’t even have a common ground for debate and discourse. A lot of that has to do with media entities — profoundly irresponsible media entities such as Fox News — that have shown zero compunction about living up to basic standards of journalism ethics and factuality. Look, everybody makes mistakes in journalism, everybody has to run a correction eventually, but Fox News never corrects its mistakes because, I believe, their mistakes are intentional.
So what kinds of things can Americans do to protect democracy? And why is it paramount that action to protect our democracy is non-violent?
Violence is a horrible mistake when dealing with fascists because they feed on it. Their whole raison d’etre is violence. And if we give them the violence, they will use it as they did in the late ‘20s and ‘30s in Germany as a propaganda tool to create sympathy for themselves and disempower their opponents. And they’re very successful at it, especially when you have a compliant corporate media like we have today that is reluctant to depict right wing extremists as being violent in these rallies and street theater that we’ve been seeing.
At least they were up until Charlottesville, where it became very apparent what was really going on. I’ve covered a bunch of them out here on the West Coast, and it’s astonishing how the media report that it’s just the antifascists causing all the violence. I was 10 feet away from the man who was shot here on the University of Washington campus by an alt-righter. But of course, Black Bloc folks are hostile to democracy, too. They’re left-wing authoritarians, and they have no respect for the democratic principles of free speech. They feed the alt-right violence. The difference is, they’re a tiny faction. You can number them in maybe the thousands. Whereas the alt-right, we’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.
Looking forward into the next few years, the 2018 elections, 2020, what is the future for “Alt-America?” Do you see the authority of this alternative reality waning, or do you just see its grip getting tighter on people?
I’m always an optimist, so I want to believe that Americans will do the right thing and wipe these guys out in a wave of democratic voting, teaching them that these politics can never work in America. I believe that a lot of Americans are very angry and eager to do that. I just don’t know that we will.
I think one of the things that we’re swimming upstream against is that this is not just in the United States. It’s happening all around the world, this rising tide of authoritarianism. Perhaps America can restore its role of leadership in the world by showing the rest of the world how we fight against this stuff, by standing up and showing the wave of democracy that washes these people out of power. I really hope and pray that’s what happens, because that’s the only way we have out of this.