Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, says David Neiwert, the scourge of the US alt-right who is visiting for WORD Christchurch.
Neiwert has a deep and mortified familiarity with American democracy’s situation. His new book, Alt-America: The rise of the radical right in the Age of Trump, puts the President’s election down to not just rust-belt economics but to the far-right movement that has been on the rise since the late 90s.
Neiwert’s alt-America: “… an alternative dimension, a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia”. What had seemed to many like a ragtag roll call of near-extinct deplorables – white nationalists, supremacists, conspiracy theorists, xenophobes, Klansmen – coalesced in 2008, aided by the Internet and by resentment over the election of Barack Obama, the first black president. “They’ve created this epistemological bubble for themselves, this alternative universe that they can live within,” says Neiwert. “They call it getting red-pilled, after the Matrix films. They’ve taken the red pill that’s awakened them to the reality of how the world really operated.”
The mindset isn’t a great deal different from the ideology that the white nationalists have been spewing since the 1920s, he says. “If you look at some of the stuff the old Klansmen were saying, it’s not a whole lot different from what [white supremacist] Richard Spencer says or some of these other supposed thinkers, including some of the anti-Semites and other overtly nationalist types.”
Neiwert’s day job has long involved following extremists down various far-right rabbit holes to bring back dispatches on the potential end of Western civilisation. Or, at least, that part of it represented by US democracy as we know it. “Somebody’s got to do this stuff,” he sighs.
As contributing writer for non-profit legal advocacy agency the Southern Poverty Law Centre, he’s close to the action. “The worst that I’ve had to deal with are these alt-right free-speech events I’ve been covering for the past year and a half up and down the West Coast, because they’re really violent.” He was there when an anti-fascist protester was wounded at a 2017 event where “cultural libertarian” and alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos was about to speak. “Yeah, I was right next to the guy who got shot.”
Counter protesters have their extremists, too. “I’ve been assaulted by members of the Black Bloc, the anarchists, the anti-fascists, because I carry a camera. They knocked me to the ground and I had to go retrieve the camera. Fortunately it was in a hard shell case because I knew that might happen.”
Spencer famously took a smack on camera during an interview on Trump’s inauguration day. “Trust me, I understand it,” says Neiwert. “Richard Spencer has the most punchable face on the planet, right? I just want to reach through the screen and go ‘pow’. But I learnt long ago that’s exactly what they want.”
I tell him there’s a free-speech fracas happening here as we speak. “Ha, Lauren Southern.” Yes. She and fellow far-right Canadian Stefan Molyneux were refused permission to speak at an Auckland Council venue. “That’s right. It’s a basic right that the public shouldn’t have to be paying for people to have a venue. Also, you should not be lending the official imprimatur to these kinds of people because they’re looking for legitimisation.”
After we spoke, a private venue for Southern and Molyneux was withdrawn. Then the cancellation by Massey University of a speaking engagement by former National and Act party leader Don Brash gave oxygen to a debate framed as being about free speech.
For universities in general, it’s not about free speech but academic standards, Neiwert says. “They have standards for the quality of speakers they want to have appearing on their campuses.” Free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, “that they can spew hateful nonsense and use speech that demands the removal of the rights of others without receiving an angry response from the people that they are advocating that for, or their friends and defenders”.
The alt-right are no defenders of free speech, Neiwert says. “Google ‘Richard Spencer’ and ‘free speech’ and you’ll get a right-wing watch piece where [Spencer] says, truthfully, no, we don’t support free speech. They’re just using the issue to get themselves a platform.”
So what does he make of the Age-of-Trump scenario that played out in a Virginia Red Hen restaurant, where press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave? “Well, if I had a crew that felt they didn’t want to serve food to somebody who was doing them harm, I would back that crew up. And that’s what the restaurant owner did. That was the week the stuff about children in concentration camps was coming out.”
He’s talking about the separating of parents and children at the Mexico-US border and the detention of children in cages. “That stuff strikes deep in the heart of the immigrant community. You go in a restaurant? You’re probably being fed by immigrants.”
How has behaviour that would have brought down any other leader become almost normal? “I actually believe a lot of this is a result of having a cable TV network that devotes itself 24/7, or at least 22/7, to coaching half of the country to hate the other half.” Fox News. “It became irrevocable once Obama was elected. And, of course, there was a long period before that when the most popular man on the radio, Rush Limbaugh, was doing the same thing. The entire basis of their programming is, ‘We hate all things liberal and we’re going to find ways to help you hate them too.’ You know what? After 20 years it’s actually worked. And the other half is going, ‘You guys really hate us? Well, we hate you too.’”
His solution? “The places that call themselves news networks – there has to be accountability to standards of factuality and truthfulness. It’s going to be a long, hard road repairing all the damage afterwards. Part of the repair job has got to be media reform.” If that sounds hopelessly idealistic in the age of fake news, Neiwert is. “I came up in journalism in a very idealistic time. I still see the press as the guardian of freedom and the free press as a necessary institution, and so it really bothers me when I see how numbers get reduced through corporate attrition.”
No one can say that Neiwert hasn’t tried to warn us. His 2009 book, The Eliminationists: how hate talk radicalised the American right, anatomises exclusionary far-right rhetoric. “Eliminationism is a politics that reduces other people as objects fit only for elimination … The elimination doesn’t have to be murder, it can be removal. In either sense they want those people removed from their presence,” he has said.
Yet even he didn’t see the last five words of Alt-America’s subtitle – “in the Age of Trump” – coming. “Oh, I was assuming he wasn’t going to win when I started writing.” But Trump was always going to be part of the story. Neiwert was part of a project that created a database tracking alt-right activity “back to 2011, when Trump was first pushing the birther conspiracy” (about Obama’s birthplace). By November 2015, they were seeing a clear rise in far-right recruitment and organising. “We were seeing that revolving very much around the Trump campaign, the way the campaign was winking and nodding and encouraging it.”
In this culture war, the meaning of words is also a battleground. Neiwert cites Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway’s response to then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s counterfactual claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s. ”You’re saying it’s a falsehood. And Sean Spicer … gave alternative facts,” said Conway. Not a lie, an “alternative fact”. “Alt-Americans knew exactly what Conway meant,” writes Neiwert.
“Alt-right is an umbrella term,” he says, “for a bandwidth of far-right thinking that, at its farthest right, is a blend of old-line neo-Nazism and Klan ideology with modern-day internet-based anti-feminist misogyny.”
He cites the headline to a piece by Yiannopoulos: “The solution to online ‘harassment’ is simple: women should log off.” The book references the gamergate controversy that arose around sexism in video game culture. “That was the environment that gave birth to a lot of the alt-right,” says Neiwert. “It was very clear from the get-go that its primary audience was young white males. We’re also seeing a real tide of violence, with a series of mass shootings here in the States in which the shooter was a young white male radicalised online, mostly through alt-right sources, including the Parkland [high school] shooter.”
The mainstream media doesn’t get a pass. “The fact that it turned a blind eye, continued to pretend all during the Obama years that we weren’t having a problem with incipient white right-wing radicalism, really gave them the environment to grow and fester without being questioned.” Obama, he feels, underestimated what he was dealing with. “He kept reaching across the aisle and getting back a bloody stump.” Ugliness ensued. “I unfortunately now have to go out and deal with it as a reporter. I wanted to write a book about humpback whales.”
Neiwert also berates the press for characterising Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” campaign speech comment as a gaffe. But wasn’t it? “No. It still infuriates me. That’s actually a classic case of horrible media values, the utter, utter failure of journalism to do its job properly.” He allows that Clinton might have avoided that kind of easy characterisation. “But what she was saying was fundamentally true, especially when you put it in the context of the entire speech. It certainly was a lie that she called all of Trump’s supporters deplorables.”
Now, “deplorables” seems fairly mild. “They’ve certainly been coming out of the woodwork since.”
In the month after Trump’s victory – “Hail Trump!” cried Richard Spencer, caught on video making what looked like a Nazi salute – the Southern Poverty Law Centre was flooded with bad news. “We had over 1000 hate incidents that were recorded. Everyone who lives in the country can tell you that election saw a really marked change in attitudes by these people now coming out of the closet as open bigots. We’re catching all these viral videos of white people doing insane, nasty stuff, threatening and telling people to go back where they came from.”
Some of that might be the result of everyone having a smartphone now but Neiwert says the vehemence is new, along with using Trump’s name to intimidate people.
Children were bullied at school. “I hope President Trump does what he says he’s gonna do! He should send all you n... back to Africa!” a woman was told at Walmart. It’s distressing to read. “Yeah, it’s not a happy book. One of my reviewers compared it to chemotherapy. Well, thanks. I’ll sell lots of books that way.”
Still, chemotherapy is potentially curative. It’s easy to feel helpless when the prevailing political modus operandi is to sow chaos. “Yup. Information is power. That’s the whole point of the book. To give people the information they need so they have tools to know what they’re dealing with.”
Neiwert was raised in Idaho in a moderate Republican household. “I campaigned for Nixon in my junior high school in ‘68.” That ended in 2000. “I really had my bellyful during the whole Bush/Gore race and the fallout after, with the way that the press handled the dispute over the election. It took a month and a half, the Florida count.” Ah yes, the “hanging chads” controversy. “I was really appalled. Especially because of the severe degradation of what I saw to be basic journalistic standards. I’m not some wild-eyed radical but I do believe in factuality and truth.” From the day the Bush v Gore Supreme Court ruling was handed down – “That was to me the first real attack on our democracy and very much a symbol of what was to come” – he’s voted Democrat.
Neiwert’s focus on the rise of the radical right, forensically documented in his book, began in the 1970s, when the anti-Semitic, white supremacist Aryan Nations set up in Idaho. “It was quite the eye-opening experience because they brought a lot of criminality and a lot of bad things with them.” Through the 90s, he reported on a militia movement. “Back then it was relatively simple – [claims of] all-black helicopters and Fema [Federal Emergency Management Agency] concentration camps. But now these conspiracy theorists pile on fresh layers of theorising virtually every day that there’s some news event.”
He doesn’t think Trump is an ideological white supremacist. “He sees himself as the defender of his beleaguered white base that has been warred upon by liberals and Democrats with their political correctness. That happens to be the same framework that white supremacists work within. Trump obviously succumbs to their ignorant racial stereotypes because he references them quite regularly. But I don’t think there’s any desire to create a white homeland or any of that stuff common to white supremacists.” Neiwert characterises Trump as a right-wing populist demagogue. “But he’s creating the conditions for real fascism. These guys are out there actually organising quite explicitly as fascists.”
No wonder Neiwert would rather be out communing with killer whales (see his book Of Orcas and Men: what killer whales can teach us). When we speak, he’s been kayaking in the summer waters of the San Juan Islands, about two hours from Seattle, where he and his wife and daughter have a second home.
“We have killer-whale habitat out here in these islands,” he says happily. “I’ve been out there in the water when there have been killer whales around. I’ve had them be within 10, 15 feet of me. Your heart is in your mouth, let me tell you.”
That must make a change from some of the unsavoury types he encounters in the day job. “Exactly right. They’re just the coolest animals on the planet. I’d much rather spend time with them than with the worst people on the planet. It’s life changing. It’s what keeps me sane.”
Well, we all need a bit of that in these crazy times. He hopes to do some whale watching while here for the WORD Christchurch Festival at the end of the month. He remains hopeful. “I’m just waiting till November,” he says, of the midterm elections. “I think there’s a chance that we’re going to see Americans wake up and realise that their democracy’s at risk and they will come to its defence. Lord knows, part of the reason I was so shocked by Trump’s election was that I’d always believed that, at the end of the day, the American public would do the right thing.” That disappointment had an upside. “Of course, after it happened, I had a much bigger market for my book.”
How much worse could things get? “A lot worse. If they decide to go the full-authoritarian route in this country and negate the election, or anything like that, I really would like a job down in Auckland,” he says. I laugh. “I’m not just kidding.”
So what’s to be done? “When people ask me what to do, I say, ‘Vote, and get everybody else out to vote.’ I think in a lot of ways this is a product of people taking their democracy for granted, frankly. It’s time to stand up and defend it.”
Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, by David Neiwert (Verso, $26.99).
David Neiwert is appearing at the WORD Christchurch Festival August 29- September 2.
This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.