David Neiwert - The Rise of the Radical Right

From Saturday Morning, 10:04 am on 18 August 2018

The alt-right movement is fundamentally white-nationalist misogynists with a conspiracist mindset, author and expert David Neiwert says in his new book.

David Neiwert

Journalist and blogger David Neiwert. Photo: supplied

A journalist, author and expert in American right-wing extremism, Neiwert has appeared on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Newsroom, and The Rachel Maddow Show.

His latest book is called Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, and he'll be speaking about it at the WORD Christchurch festival on 30 August.

"They are fundamentally a white nationalist outfit, basically a movement that is predicated on a heavy dose of misogyny," he tells Saturday Morning's Kim Hill.

"It's actually part of the whole conspiracist mindset … really very much sort of the origin of a lot of the conspiracy theory world that we see now got its start in the '90s around the militias.

"Back then it was black helicopters rounding up conservatives to take them off to FEMA concentration camps and it's morphed to everything from 'cultural marxism', to more recently the  'qAnon' theories, and 'pizzagate'.

The rise of the alt-right movement

He says the alt right is fairly new, having started around 2009, but is based on much older ideas.

"This has been going on really since the 1920s and in many ways there's so much about the alt right - particularly this sort of eugenicist racism that they use - is very, very old.

"It's just what they've managed to do though is … put a spin on it that's very much modern. They use humour, they use irony, they use social media in ways which are very clever.

"Particularly they speak the lingo and use the lexicon of the internet, as well as the motifs in - particularly - the trolling culture to promote their view."

He says the trolling culture is a perfect fit for the radical right, and through the 'gamergate' controversy, provided a bump to alt-right recruitment in 2009.

"[Gamergate] was a sort of faux controversy over - supposedly - ethics in videogame journalism," he says.

"But what it really was, was an excuse for these guys on message boards - particularly the sort of trolling culture that has grown up around message boards and is part of internet culture now - to do what they call 'doxxing' people: That is, exposing their real life information to the public."

"It resulted basically in an attack on feminism, but it was also this huge entry for these white nationalists to come on these boards and go 'you know, there's a reason for these guys are trying to take all your fun away - your single shooter games - it's part of this scheme to destroy white male western civilisation called 'cultural Marxism'.

"They take everyday news events and translate them through the prism of the conspiracy theory that ... nefarious globalists, AKA Jews, are plotting to control the world and enslave humankind."

The right wing conspiracist personality

He says the idea has its own internal logic which makes it very attractive to those looking for a way to justify their beliefs. It seems strange the same person would at once accept ideas like pizzagate or Alex Jones' assertion that there are child colonies on Mars, while at the same time backing claims that, for instance, Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore an illegitimate president.

Alex Jones of Infowars blamed leftists and Islam for the Manchester attack.

Alex Jones’ Infowars show was recently removed from Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify platforms for breaking community standards. Photo: screenshot

"They reject anything that's from the mainstream for this sort of the official story from mainstream media automatically, because it's being told by 'the Jewish media'.

"They reject authoritarianism but actually embrace it selectively.

"No matter what [Obama] did, he would never satisfy their belief, they always start from the idea that he's illegitimate and then we're going to set out to prove it, because that's how they work, they start from the conclusion and work backwards.

"Whereas anything that Alex Jones tells them they just kind of gobble right up, even if he's talking about 'space colony 6' slaves on Mars or child colonies on Mars, which he actually has done on his show.

"It's very bizarre but the reason I call it alt-America is that it's like an alternative universe for them, very much an epistemological bubble."

"It's part of the very compartmentalised thinking that is part of the right wing authoritarian personality … which has to do with your willingness to accede to authority as well as your aggression towards anyone who does not bow to who you consider to be the legitimate authoritarian leader."

He says Jones has been particularly successful at leveraging new forms of media, including social media.

"Really the thing that spread Alex Jones more than anything was YouTube … it's certainly what got his name out there and made him internationally renowned.

"Conspiracists don't really do well in printed form in a lot of ways, when he actually published his stuff as words it's very easy to start picking this stuff apart.

"On video, or on a TED talk or something like that, it's very easy to just glide over a lot of the details and you're all about the narrative, right? And that's always what Alex Jones mastered was this paranoid narrative.

"He'd dive right in and immediately immerse his listeners in this paranoid universe that he occupies."

Different shades of racist

Neiwert says it's hard to gauge exactly how big the alt-right movement is.

"Somebody did a survey recently that suggested 24 million Americans subscribe to alt-right beliefs. Of course, that doesn't mean 24 million Americans are alt-righters but it what it does suggest is that there's a lot of latent sympathy for their kind of nationalist attitudes.

He says racist white nationalism is really a hallmark of the alt-right movement, but it's possible to distinguish between different ideologies between them.

"There are all these other figures out there including some who you've had in your backyard recently like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren [Southern] who are more in that alt 'light' category.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux faced criticism and had various speaking engagements cancelled when they visited New Zealand.  Photo: Supplied.

"Certainly we'd call them far right extremists but … they aren't white nationalists in the classic sense, they aren't out there advocating for a white ethno-state homeland, and that's basically the sort of defining factor for white nationalists."

Read more about Southern and Molyneux controversy in NZ:

However, he says white nationalists, white supremacists, and other modern right-wing ideologues are not too far removed.

"In some ways you can talk about people and just make clear what they're about. A lot of times in fact, the labels are misleading and its best to use just old-fashioned terms like 'hatemonger', 'fearmonger', and in some cases 'liars'.

"That's what a lot of these guys do is spread disinformation and false information, and in the case of [Gavin] McInnes' proud boys - they declare themselves as 'not alt right', it's like 'whatever, what you are is … still violent thugs'.

"At the end of the day, the reason they want a white ethno-state is because they think white people are superior - that's the distance that's between them."

Rallying cry: The Trump card

Neiwert says the nature of the ideology and the kind of personality that is attracted to the alt-right means it's usually a fractious group that usually finds it hard to get along.

"The whole history of the radical right …. has been typically one of fractiousness, these are some of the most unpleasant people in the world. They're paranoid, they're angry, they're constantly contentious, they have huge egos and it's very easy to get in fights with them."

He says just six years after their early beginnings, the alt-right movement faltered, but found something to unite them.

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Donald Trump’s brand of authoritarianism lends itself perfectly to springboarding the alt-right belief system.  Photo: AFP

"We never really had a powerful and cohesive radical right movement until 2016, and the difference is Donald J Trump. Trump is … he's a very charismatic unifying figure around whom they can all rally.

"By 2015 it looked like it was going to fall apart and was in the process of doing so, until Trump came along … they put aside their differences and they helped get him elected."

He says Mr Trump himself is not really a member of the alt right, however.

"Rather, he is the ideal agent for the chaos that they want to see inflicted on the American political system.

"He knows at a certain level. There was a New York Times piece back in 2017 - that, as usual, buried the lead - describing Donald Trump's thoughts about how he was attacking the NFL football players for kneeling during the anthem.

"Near the end of the story the reporter said, 'well, talking with both members of the staff around the White House, Trump sees himself as waging a culture war on behalf of his white, working class voters.

"I think that's actually the way that he frames his world, I think he sees himself as a warrior in the culture wars and he's fighting it on behalf of white people."

That perspective combines with Mr Trump's brand of authoritarianism to make him the vehicle and champion for alt-right beliefs.

"He does bring chaos to the system and it's very much by design. People are always surprised when they see Trump doing these tweets and things that seem to be just creating chaos .. that's what authoritarians do, they want to create as much chaos as possible because when you have chaos you have fear.

"When you have fear, the default psychological response of a very large chunk of the population is not to join arms democratically but to resort to authoritarian rule, to prefer authoritarianism."

Is the future looking alt-right?

Neiwert, a self-proclaimed left-winger, discusses all this with a laugh in his voice and an upbeat outlook, because - he says - the alt-right movement is largely outnumbered.

"I'm very hopeful for this fall's congressional elections. I think that there will be a big blue wave, I think we'll retake the house and I think we've got a shot at even retaking the senate.

"You're seeing a lot of people who were formally Republicans even coming on board with that, and saying it's important to vote Democrat - even if you're an old Republican - if you believe in democracy.

He says despite Mr Trump's claim to power, he sees the election outcome as a fluke.

"We're talking about an election that was won without a majority of the popular vote and was won essentially by 80,000 votes spread over three states."

He says there is more at play as well.

"I do believe there was Russian interference, and I don't believe we're prepared to deal with it yet.

"We know for a fact they were out there running these Facebook groups designed to sow political chaos.

"These were all memes that were designed to actually create racial dissent and anger from both sides. They actually targeted Latinos and blacks who were potentially disenchanted as well.

"Mostly what it was about was trying to get people to not vote - or at least people on the left to not vote - and it was very, very effective at that.

"That kind of tinkering with the election raises real questions about the legitimacy of the whole affair.

Free speech and the radical left

However, he says some of the newfound power of the radical right can also be attributed to leftist attitudes.

"We've actually had a tendency on the left to stop trying to persuade people, and we're trying to get people's behaviour to change by shaming them.

"I think we have to learn to start persuading again, try maybe listening to other people and doing so empathetically in a way that will give them a chance to express their feelings."

He says the alt-right has often used the tools of democracy to undermine democracy.

"Fascists and fascist movements and proto-fascist movements have always relied on gaining ground by painting their opposition as violent and scary.

"These guys declare themselves free speech martyrs but they actually have zero respect for the free speech of the other side."

He says the best way for the left to react is to make use of the same tools.

"I think it's possible to keep the first amendment intact without actually permitting this kind of speech.

"A lot of [alt-right] complaints amount to 'hey, these people are out there protesting me, that's mean', well, guess what, if you're gonna say hateful stuff you'd better expect people to be protesting you.

"There already are limits on certain kinds of speech: you can't use immediately threatening or intimidating speech where you say 'i'm going to kill you'. That's what we need to look at is that you can actually threaten and intimidate people by using this sort of speech and I think people ought to be liable for it."

He says it's tempting also to ignore these radicalist voices, but that's not always ideal.

"There's a level at which you don't want to give any oxygen and that's where they're actually operating at a small level and have very limited influence.

"Don't give them oxygen - unless they start to have a large public reach, and then you actually need to shine the light on them because they actually do fester in the darkness, they depend on silence, they see silence as tacit approval, and that's why it's so important to actually pay attention, expose their activities and it's actually important for the public to take it seriously."

David Neiwert is the managing editor of the popular political blog Crooks and Liars, and his work has appeared in the American Prospect, the Washington Post, MSNBC.com, Salon.com, and other publications.

His previous books include And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border, which won the 2014 International Latino Book Award.

His latest book is called Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, and he'll be speaking about it at the WORD Christchurch festival on 30 August.

See the other side of the aisle with Kim Hill's interview of British right-wing proponent Nigel Farage: