Donald Trump, journalist David Neiwert writes in his new book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, “was the gateway drug for the alt-right.”
Neiwert has spent most of his career reporting right wing extremism, which “has always been woven into the American political and social landscape: the nativists, the paranoid conspiracists, the white supremacists, white nationalists, xenophobes, and misogynists,” as he explains in Alt-America.
Now a writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Neiwert describes how “Donald Trump had the charisma to become a national-level coalescing figure for these many threads, and for the first time united them under one banner — his banner.”
In gut-wrenching detail, Neiwert’s book explains how anti-democratic narratives grew out of the violent racist groups of the 1980s and the “Patriot” militia movement of the 1990s to infect mainstream conservatism.
First came nativist anti-immigrant fever, then paranoid delusions about Muslims and Sharia law, then “Gamergate.” As opinion leaders wove the conspiracy theories into their political discourse, Republican officials failed to denounce these fringe ideas out of cowardice or opportunism.
Neiwert traced these rhetorical foundations in his previous books. In The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, he showed how demonization and hate speech were radicalizing everyday conservatives into harmful reactionaries. In Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane, co-written with John Amato of Crooks And Liars.com, Neiwert warned readers that a dangerous and vicious new populist wave was growing unchecked across America.
Now in Alt-America, Neiwert builds on his decades of research and interviews to show how a decidedly un-American political movement coalesced in 2016 around a candidate with a dark vision for the country: “The dumpster Donald Trump’s campaign set on fire in the 2016 election had been slowly filling for many years.”
The “globalist” bogeymen of Steve Bannon and Breitbart were just a warmed-over retelling of the “New World Order” conspiracies that Alex Jones had adopted from the militia movement in the 1990s. By the time Trump rode down the escalator to announce his candidacy, an all-encompassing alternative reality existed for tens of millions of Americans — a parallel universe even weirder than Fox News, and far more malevolent.
Trump was very good at communicating with this “Alt-America” in subtle ways. Rather than condemn anti-Semitic attacks on journalists, Trump offered the most perfunctory denunciation, and only when backed into a corner; then he avoided the issue completely. Trump would do the same the verbal dance whenever he was asked to denounce the most vile strains of the alt-right. Using their own words, Neiwert shows how alt-right leaders celebrated these moments as winking endorsements of their views.
Among the foremost chroniclers of right wing terrorism in America, in every chapter of the book Neiwert draws connections from the roots of the alt-right to violence enacted on Americans. Dylann Roof is a product of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens (get it? CCC = KKK). Klansman David Duke created the first “border patrol,” spawning the nativist militia movement that produced current death row inmate Shawna Forde. Cop killer Richard Poplawski was a huge fan of Glenn Beck’s refashioned John Birch Society fantasies. The examples become a mind-numbing drumbeat.
These were explicitly political events. Hundreds of hate crimes were reported in the days after Barack Obama’s election; thousands in the days after Trump’s. Half of registered Republicans came to believe in the conspiracy theory about Obama’s birth certificate, a pure hysteria that energized tea parties and gave Donald Trump a national platform in the first place.
But it was the internet, and more specifically social media, that made all this possible. Neiwert explains that two key types of alt-right personalities have found one another online: social dominance oriented (SDOs), who are the leaders, and right wing authoritarians (RWAs), who are the followers.
While the two differ in important ways — SDOs loathe equality, while RWAs often have mixed feelings about it — “they share an overpowering tendency toward prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities,” Neiwert writes. “They also share deeply conservative politics, and consequently favor right-wing parties.”
The internet made it possible for these toxic elements to find one another in large numbers for the very first time. “It was little noted, despite plenty of evidence, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim radicals was occurring simultaneously on a large scale in a complete separate region of the Internet: among radical white male nationalists of the alt-right.”
None of this was really an accident. “Alt-America has always functioned as a refuge for people who reject factual reality, a place where they can convene and reassure one another in their fabricated version of how the world works,” Neiwert says.
From its beginnings in the 1990s as an alternative universe with its own set of “facts” to its growth during the early part of the new century through the spread of antigovernment conspiracism, through its evolution into the mainstream of conservatism through the Tea Party, and finally its ultimate realization as a political force through the ascension of Donald Trump, Alt-America’s primarily usefulness has been as a ready tool for right-wing authoritarianism. The army of followers was already fully prepared by 2015, when Trump picked up their waiting scepter.
In Alt-America, David Newert has written the definitive history of how that happened. It is a complex story, and hard to face, but we must. Otherwise, Alt-America will impose its alt-reality upon us, destroying much of what we value about our country, turning us down a dark road to oblivion.
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