David Neiwert offers a necessary and chilling read about American extremists and the threat they pose to us all
BY CHARLES KAISER
Rightwing extremism has always been a feature of American life, from the diehard supporters of slavery in the 19th century to the 20,000 fascists who filled Madison Square Garden in 1939 and the violent opponents of integration who beat and killed civil rights workers and leaders throughout the 1960s.
Today, this ugly tradition of hatred is perpetuated by dozens of vile groups, from the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to the Family Research Council and a slew of Christian nationalist organizations.
But as the investigative reporter David Neiwert argues in his terrifying new book, there is one terrible difference: the relentless mainstreaming of such disgusting ideas. The white nationalist ideology which inspired Payton Gendron to travel 200 miles to massacre 10 people in a Black Buffalo neighborhood is becoming as American as cherry pie.
Neiwert shows such extremism has been “widely adopted” from “the highest reaches of the Republican party” to broadcasts by Tucker Carlson, “the most popular cable talk show host” until Fox News fired him.
The surge in rightwing extremism inspired by the election of the US’s first Black president was reflected in an explosion in militia groups during Barack Obama’s first year in office. Then came Donald Trump, the first modern president to celebrate white supremacists. He praised “fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia, where in August 2017 neo-Nazis clashed with counter-protesters, and he embraced the Proud Boys in 2020, telling them to “stand back and stand by”.
The collaboration between such a president and the high-speed locomotive of social media has had disastrous consequences. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have brought American wackos together faster than any previous medium.
Neiwert is a former senior writer for Daily Kos, the admirable progressive website founded by Markos Moulitsas 21 years ago. But Neiwert’s work goes back further. When he started out, he saw rightwing extremism as “an excellent bet” to propel a career in journalism, “an endless wellspring of human misery, social disruption and frightening violence – the kind of behavior that always makes news”.
When Timothy McVeigh killed 168 by blowing up a truck outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, it became clear to Neiwert that the far right was “an existential threat not just to innocent people in its vicinity, but to democracy itself … What was striking … was how frequently their rhetoric waded into open sedition.” What Neiwert has learned over decades is one of the essentials lessons of his book: “They never ever give up … They are relentless in finding new ways to insinuate their toxic beliefs within the mainstream of American politics.”
Neiwert offers some of the most detailed descriptions I have read of the movement’s biggest moments, including Charlottesville and the January 6 Capitol attack. His rigorous reporting produces many details new to me, including the fact that when a Swat team evacuated congressmen from a balcony on January 6, the officers drew guns on insurgents “outside the balcony doors” and forced them to “lie prone” as the legislators escaped.
After Charlottesville, as a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Neiwert covered events that advanced the right’s strategy for “simultaneously intimidating the general public while generating a phony narrative blaming leftists … for the brutality they themselves inflicted”. Now, he documents how so many far-right conspiracies have made their way into the mainstream, especially the great replacement theory, which says progressives want to flood the country with immigrants, to undermine white citizens.
How successful has this effort been? In 2020, the Republican party refused to withdraw support from of any of the “64 GOP candidates … with QAnon connections”. In 2022, a poll found that nearly 70% of Republicans believed in the great replacement theory. Last week, the Washington Post reported the adoption of the great replacement theory as far away as Tunisia, where President Kais Saied sparked “evictions, firings, arrests and brutal assaults” of Black Africans, causing a surge in their efforts to escape to Europe.
When Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said that any opponent of the Florida governor’s “don’t say gay bill” was “probably a groomer or a least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children”, she used language “directly inspired by the hysterical QAnon conspiracy cult … in no time at all, Pushaw’s tweets made ‘grooming’ a mainstream rightwing talking point”.
Neiwert’s book is full of reminders of how social media promote rightwing lies. When a veteran of the Tea Party movement teamed up with two ex-writers for Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News to start a “Stop the Steal” Facebook group in November 2020, it got 300,000 followers in 24 hours. Facebook took the page down but Bannon started his own page the same day, then changed its name to “Own Your Vote”. The associated groups “amassed 2.5 million followers”. YouTube, another giant purveyor of hatred and lies, hosted Stop the Steal videos which attracted 21m views and 863,151 likes.
No one has been more important to the mainstreaming of extreme rightwing views than Trump. Neiwert says the 45th president has “perfected a three-step tango with the radical right – a dance in which he’d pull them close in an embrace, spin away while staying connected, and then pull them back to close quarters. Acknowledge, deny, validate. Lather, rinse, repeat.”
The book ends with a horrifying description of how the the movement has metastasized since the January 6 attack. By fall 2021, Proud Boys and “patriots” were everywhere, harassing “LGBTQ+-friendly teens at libraries, mask-promoting school board members and mall shops that required masks”. In Trump-loving rural areas, daily life “had become filled with foreboding, intimidation, threats and ugliness, all emanating from authoritarian rightwingers directing their aggression at anyone who failed to follow their dictates”.
America’s only hope lies in the power of important books like this one to inspire decent citizens to redouble their efforts to defeat these vile scourges of freedom and democracy.
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