What’s So Alt About Alt America: David Neiwert’s New Book

Cover of Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump

Imagine you live under a totalitarian regime. It is a led by a foreign invader who rules with an iron fist. He has started rounding up citizens and imprisoning them in camps. You are a member of the Resistance; you keep in touch with others who are brave enough to resist his diktats. Your once-great country lies in ruins, but there is still hope that you and your fellow freedom-fighters can save it. It will take courage and nerves of steel, but you are ready to fight for your freedom and those of others.

And then, one day, the worst possible thing happens: the uniformed, jack-booted thugs show up at your door on some ridiculous pretense. You know why: they are there for you. They are there to “disappear” you; to take you away to the camps for god-knows-what. What do you do? Richard Poplawski knew what to do. And that is why Pittsburgh police officers Paul Sciullo III, Stephen Mayhle, and Eric Kelly died that day.

This is only one of the many, many terrifying stories of violence and destruction recounted in David Neiwert’s new book, Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. Neiwert is an investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and has written several important books on the racist right in the past two decades. Alt America is just out and you should buy it, read it, and then join the fight against the figures he discusses. Today.

The great strength of Alt America is the detailed reporting on some of the more notorious antics of the Alt Right. Neiwert details an almost shot-by-shot account of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine people in Charleston (pp. 1-31). It is hard but necessary reading; the tragedy of the country is that we have become almost numb to such occurrences because they are so damn common. By recounting the details of Roof’s murders it brings into focus the absolute horror of such an event.

My read of Alt America might be cutting against its author’s intention, but I think the central message of the book is that there is very little “alternative” in “alternative right.”

Let me trace a thread that runs through the book to show you what I mean. Neiwert mentions W. Cleon Skousen several times as the the legal mind behind many of the Alt Right’s more outrageous theories of the Consitution. Skousen was a staunch member of the John Birch Society in the 1960s. Readers will a long memory will remember that William F. Buckley, Jr. kicked out the Birchers as too extreme for respectable conservatives. Alas, the days of Buckley’s moderation (if you want to call it that) are long over: Skousen’s theories were touted by Fox’s Glenn Beck in 2009 making Skousen’s obscure writings popular perhaps for the first time.

Skousen believed a bunch of crazy things, but important for our story are his constitutional theories:

He lifted most of his ideas from previous “consitutionalists,” especially the far-right Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s and ’80s, but stripped them of their original racism and anti-Semitism. (p. 157).

Skousen…filtered the Posse interpretation of history and the Constitution into a more benign-seeming ideology that claimed the American system was based not on the Enlightenment but on common law and the Bible, and the Framers believed in an extremely limited form of government. So limited, in fact, that the county was the highest level of law enforcement. (p. 158)

A cowboy in a white hat.

Not Cliven Bundy: You can tell because he’s wearing a white hat

Perhaps the most noteworthy person inspired, at least in part, by Skousen’s writings was Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who had been illegally grazing his cattle on Federal land for half a century. When the Bureau of Land Management tried to get his cattle off the land a long standoff ensued. Bundy was figuratively armed with Skousen’s legal theories the he claimed prove the Federal government had no right to its own land. He and his supporters were literally armed with guns. Lots and lots of guns. Neiwert provides a day-by-day account of the long standoff as Federal agents which dragged on and on. The militia movements of the racist right were all on board providing aid and comfort to Bundy’s cause. Fox News, and especially Sean Hannity, provided fawning coverage of the brave rancher who dared stand toe-to-toe with the federal government.

Most positive coverage, and mainstream Republicans, abandoned Bundy only when he began sharing his opinion on “the Negro” being on “government subsidy:”

And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.  (p. 171).

That was enough for most mainstream right wingers to abandon Bundy, although Hannity did so by blaming the “liberal media,” presumably for accurately reporting Bundy’s words. But it is not clear what exactly Bundy said that should have caused them to do so. After all, Bundy’s notion that he was a sovereign citizen, accountable not to the federal government but only to the local sheriff (though Neiwert shows when the local sheriff intervened, Bundy basically ignored him too [p. 655]). Fox News was right there with the radical right in giving that their stamp of approval. Bundy’s remarks on race, while stated in balder terms, were perfectly in line with mainstream conservative opinion on race: convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza has held for years that slavery was pretty good to enslaved people and that African American’s problems (if any) resulted from their own culture, not racism. Same goes for cross burner Charles Murray. The only difference is that Bundy spoke plainly about the things that conservatives would rather speak about in more refined tones.

So what divides today’s mainstream right from people like Skousen and Bundy? Skousen is admired by Ben Carson, our current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Our President is retweeting outright fascists. Republicans have been using dehumanizing language to describe liberals for two decades; here’s the list of words that Newt Gingrinch recommended Republicans use to describe their political opponents back in 1995:

decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, “compassion” is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.

In Neiwert’s previous book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right, In that 2009 book, Neiwert warned that it was vital, he argued, to understand the ideological underpinnings of the proto-fascist movements in the United States because, “even though we think of fascism as a distant and unlikely threat, it sits at our elbows and dines at our tables even today” (p. 242).  The proto-fascism of the radical right, he warned had “finally metastasized into a genuinely dangerous situation, on in which the GOP has become host to a totalitarian movement that exhibits so many of the traits of fascism that the resemblance is now unmistakable” (238). Almost a decade later, we are seeing the accuracy of that prediction in Alt America.

 

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