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Last week mail bombs were sent to more than a dozen prominent figures in the liberal and Democratic sphere, including Barack Obama, Robert De Niro, Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. Then, on Saturday, a man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down 11 people. The suspects of both terror attacks are in custody, both men who expressed nationalistic views on social media and were followers of “alt-right” extremist media.
To make sense of the environment that led to these crimes, A Beautiful Perspective called up David Neiwert, a reporter who has covered white nationalists for decades and the author of Alt-America: Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.
What do you see as the key moments in the new wave of right-wing extremism?
The spread of the conspiracy theories really started in the ’90s, but then after 9/11 there were twin strands at work. The conspiracy world started blowing up. People like Alex Jones got a lot more traction, and it was a mix of both far-left and far-right groups spreading theories. Over time it became dominated by right-wing extremists.
… Also, after 9/11 there was extreme fear mongering. There was a profound and notable rise in authoritarianism from the American right. In particular, in the response to any criticism of the war. A narrative was built up in defense of the war and decision to invade Iraq, and authoritarianism was very much in full swing by 2008.
So, how do these groups respond to the election of Obama?
Once Obama became the Democratic nominee, it began meshing with theories in the conspiracy world. It really took off in 2009 with the Tea Party victories in the midterms and the melding of mainstream conservatism with far-right conspiracism.
The Tea Party was a massive conduit for the revival of the ’90s patriot movement. It’s best symbolized by their use of the Gadsden Flag, which the right-wing militias also used in the ’90s. It became a symbol of the Tea Party and reason for that was a connection to this idea of the New World Order, conspiracy theories talking about Obama taking guns away. And, underlying it all was an innate long-term hostility to a black president.
… Eventually the Tea Party morphed into the Trumpist party. What we see now with Trump supporters? That was the Tea Party.
And how did the dynamic among these groups shift with Trump’s victory?
He gave them permission. Trump lifted the lid, and all the creepy crawlies came out.
Trump uses a lot of eliminationist rhetoric. That’s when you describe opponents as vermin, diseases, objects for elimination. This type of rhetoric has a history in America dating back to the Indian Wars. Trump uses it to attack opponents, immigrants, refugees, Muslims … basically anyone who criticizes him.
The function of eliminationist rhetoric is it combines two rhetorical devices of disgust, basically the desire to eliminate that which is impure, and contempt, which holds you in such low esteem so that you’re not deemed a full person. That creates permission for people to act out violently.
Trump’s election became an endorsement of that rhetoric and a massive form of permission for people to act out as hatefully as they wanted. The first month after the election we saw nearly 1,000 hate incidents, which is simply amazing considering it’s usually four to five per week.
So things are looking up for the alt-right. Why have some individuals turned to violence?
I think they want a violent civil war. I think it’s why they’ve been buying guns and storing large caches of ammo in their basements. They are eagerly anticipating the day when they can openly start killing liberals.
Jim David Adkisson opened fire on a church in 2008 in Knoxville, and he was upset over Obama’s nomination. His house was full of Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage and Bernie Goldberg. He said he had plans to kill the 100 people listed in Bernie’s book. This type of scripted violence is just the sort of thing Trump is doing with the migrant caravan stuff. It is an existential threat to our country. We have militia guys organizing to go to the border.
From 2001 to 2016, there were 106 murders by right-wing extremists and zero associated with the radical left.
The fear mongering about the caravan is widespread. Trump is leading the parade, but he’s not alone. InfoWars, Rush Limbaugh, all the conservative talk shows are drumming up hysteria about the caravan. Anyone who hangs out on GAB or these right-wing websites will be inflamed. The only reason the suspect in Pittsburgh doesn’t like Trump is he because he isn’t anti-Semitic enough.
Many conservative commentators say left-wing protesters, harassing politicians at home and in restaurants, are also contributing to political violence.
Yes, after being on the receiving end of right-wing ugliness, some left-wing folks are acting in similarly ugly fashion, and are responding in kind. I don’t approve of it, but it is human nature that it happens. I do think it’s unfortunate and doesn’t solve anything. I understand people are upset, people are upset that the government is locking immigrant children up in cages. It’s unacceptable, but the environment is so ripe to use that as an excuse for escalation of violence, I think it’s unwise.
There’s a lot “both sides”ism in the dialogue. Are the actions really comparable?
We have to get beyond false equivalency, this idea that both sides are doing it. Sure, you can find examples of left-wing violence, but for each example from the left wing, I could find 20 examples on the right, and when you start talking about lethal violence there is no comparison.
From 2001 to 2016, and this comes from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there were 106 murders by right-wing extremists and zero associated with the radical left. There is more street violence, more interpersonal ugliness.
Has the media failed to illustrate the issue appropriately?
A lot of the problems are coming from Fox News and right wing media. I don’t think we’ll solve the problem until we return to an ethos in journalism that doesn’t permit overt propaganda. Spreading false information, once a journalistic no-no, has become standard procedure for some media operations like Fox or Rush Limbaugh. They spread outright lies with impunity
There is an asymmetry in the discourse. It’s more complicated than saying let’s all calm down and come together as a big happy family. There is a terrible asymmetry that has to do with really lethal violence on the far-right, a serious track record of it. Until we can come to grips with that, the long term problems in civil discourse will persist.
Several right-wing news media outlets are devoted primarily to coaching half the country to hate the other half. There is-no parallel to what Fox News is doing on the left. … Until that ceases I don’t recommend anyone give up. I don’t know that we can come together if we don’t believe in common decency, facts and reality, and standards that have stood for years.
What if Trump hadn’t won?
I think we would have arrived at domestic terrorism much sooner. The anger would have spilled over sooner … Trump empowered them in ways and enlarged the faction. These groups have been successfully recruiting at a substantial rate since his election, particularly young people.
I think we’re just getting a taste of it now, and I think domestic terrorism is going to get worse before it gets better.
What has changed with the movement since your days covering the far-right militias of the ’90s?
The big difference in environment today is the internet. A lot of the dehumanization and demonization originates there. Dehumanization happens really easily on the internet, because you’re not interacting with people but bits of information. And dehumanization is the essence of right-wing extremist politics.
Guys who were apolitical are joining groups through the internet. Guys who play video games and felt their whole world was was threatened by the advent of non-traditional gaming architectures designed by feminists had a paranoid response. They decided someone was trying to destroy their world. So they go on Steam chat groups for gamers, or go to 4chan or 8chan, and they would encounter white nationalists also in these groups. It’s an open field of recruitment of gullible, very available people who are ready to hear an explanation of how someone else is responsible for their problems—in this case a liberal agenda of inclusion.
What other elements do you see at the core of the current movement of far-right extremism?
The other thing that is really important for people to understand is this underlying phenomenon of people of color joining the Trump parade. I cover the alt-right shit shows, protests, what have you, and there are a number of people of color marching with the Proud Boys. People say: How can we be white supremacists if people of color are with us? And they are typically paraded out in front for the purpose of saying that. But the underlying dynamic is less overtly racist. The dynamic they all share in common in this patriot movement is rooted in authoritarianism.
The Evangelicals will stick with Trump even though he is laughably in violation of their moral standards because they are religious authoritarians, so naturally the political authoritarianism translates over. Authoritarianism is key to coming to terms with this.
What should people do to resist this movement?
What I always stress is the radical right is a challenge to democracy and democratic institutions. It’s a serious threat that has to be taken seriously. The best answer to it is more democracy. Get out to vote is the first, best answer. We need to revive our democratic institutions that empower democratic values … as a nation we need to think of major reforms that bolster democracy.
The Maori in New Zealand have this phrase, “Kia Kaha,” which means “Stay Strong.” For the Maori that means not to stand on your own, but to be strong as an individual and link arms with everyone in your community so you are a stronger unit together. It is that strength that will defeat fascism, that kind of coming together. What I recommend is Kia Kaha.