The following book review was originally published in Issue #110 of the International Socialist Review (ISR)
David Neiwert, a long-time investigative journalist and chronicler of the far right, has crafted a guided tour of the alt-right in America in his new book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. Though sometimes dramatic in tone, his chief accomplishment in this work has been to chronicle the relation of events, people, and movements of the far right. The bulk of the book is a narrative encyclopedia of the US far right and its relationship with the mainstream right-wing establishment and media. Its scope ranges from the early days of the far right and its reactions to the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident to the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election.
Neiwert plunges the reader headfirst into a retelling of the massacre perpetrated by Dylan Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, complete with the story of the influences which led him there.
This backstory gives the reader a taste of the expansive history Neiwert lays out in the rest of his book. His narrative style includes frequent repetition of movement descriptions, making the book easier to read.
In his opening chapter, Neiwert defines “Alt-America” as an “alternative universe” where “suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories become concrete realities.” As he puts it near the end of the book:
“Alt-America has always functioned as a refuge for people who reject factual reality. . . . From its beginnings in the 1990s . . . to its growth through the early part of the new century through the spread of anti-government conspiracism, through its evolution into the mainstream of conservatism through the Tea Party, and finally its ultimate realization as a political force through . . . Donald Trump, [its] primary usefulness has been as a ready tool for right-wing authoritarianism.”
While he goes into great detail about the psychological make-up of the denizens of Alt-America, Neiwert’s observation that the “beating heart of Alt-America . . . is the ancient drumbeat of white identity politics, a fear of nonwhite people” gets closer to the heart of the matter. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has put it, a long-standing, pervasive racism and fear of change is baked into the cake that is America. “The dumpster Donald Trump’s campaign set on fire in the 2016 election,” Niewert notes in his second chapter, “had been slowly filling for many years.”
Anyone who paid attention during the 1990s and 2000s will recognize the pantheon of right-wing TV and radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity in the narrative, but it is militia and Patriot movement personalities such as John Trochmann of the Militia of Montana, Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Project, and Charles Dyer of the Oathkeepers, to name a few, who play a key role behind the scenes. One example of this is demonstrated by the case of the Tea Party. While most mainstream accounts of the Tea Party viewed it as a middle-class suburbanite grassroots campaign, Neiwert traces its history to the wealthy donors who funded it, and the involvement of the Patriot and militia movement organizers mentioned above, who eventually took the helm as the movement began to wane. Meanwhile, right-wing media has served as a conduit for mainstreaming the conspiratorial views of the far right. Trump’s presidential campaign brought the far right further into the mainstream.
Neiwert’s final chapter discusses the nature of fascism. He argues that Trump is not a fascist, but a “classic right-wing nativist populist demagogue,” who has nevertheless exploited “the strands of right-wing populism . . . [and] has [made] the large and growing number of proto-fascist groups in America larger and more vicious.” After this, Neiwert’s prescriptions for defeating the alt-right are disappointing—a focus on human empathy in talking with others, nonviolent protest, and the use of the ballot box. But these suggestions seem mainly an afterthought, and don’t detract much from the book’s usefulness. Neiwert’s narrative history can be heartily recommended as an excellent and necessary guide to the far right in the United States.