The Radical Right Built Trump, And He Returned The Favor

In his latest book, David Neiwert, journalist and leading expert on the radical right, details how the rise of the far right lead to the election of Trump.
From Left: President Donald Trump at a press conference in Trump Tower in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rallies, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 in New York. Right: White supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, VA, and the mugshot of MAGA Bomber Cesar Sayor Jr. (AP)

From Left: President Donald Trump at a press conference in Trump Tower in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rallies, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 in New York. Right: White supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, VA, and the mugshot of MAGA Bomber Cesar Sayor Jr. (AP)

Since the unprecedented presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a flurry of publications attempting to explain the “alt-right”, the “fringe”, and to make sense of how Trump became president without following any of the “rules” we’ve come to expect from candidates (such as releasing one’s tax returns). Acclaimed journalist David Neiwert is particularly well situated to do so, as he’s been reporting on the far right for 20 years. In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, Neiwert outlines his experience reporting on the radical right in America. In addition, he outlines the formation of the “alt-right”, a movement resulting from the coordination of a series of different elements of the radical right. And, most importantly, he attempts to explain how the resurgence of the radical right in America set the stage for the Trump presidency.

Neiwert has provided analyses for a range of esteemed media outlets, such as the Washington Post. He’s also written a series of books on the radical right in America, starting with In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999) and Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (2004), to his more recent work, such as And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border (2013). However, where his experience really shines is in his ability to weave the intricacies of the far-right movement together to paint a picture of the evolution of radical right extremism and its culmination into the “alt-right” movement today. As Neiwert breaks down the various actors, events, and evolutions of the radical right, lays out how Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 resulted in the “perfect storm” for the formation of the alt-right. To the uninitiated, or those still scratching their head at how the mainstream Republican party was seemingly overtaken by the outlying fringe, Alt-America will prove both fascinating and illuminating.

Neiwert’s breakdown of the radical right is both detailed and comprehensive, albeit not chronological. He begins by juxtaposing Donald Trump’s campaign announcement with the mass shooting of worshipers in a historically black church by Dylann Roof (which occurred on the same day). While the events weren’t linked, Neiwert makes a symbolic connection, while also outlining for the reader the many ways in which Trump’s campaign was intertwined with the radical right. He goes on to provide the background for Roof’s mass murder—the convergence of the militia movements of the 1990s, the conspiracy theories, and xenophobia following 9/11, and the culmination of the Tea Party movement after the election of Barack Obama, the first black President. While Neiwert jumps from one movement to the next, rather than simply providing a timeline of the reemergence of the radical right, there’s hardly a component (or moment) of the American radical right that Neiwert doesn’t touch on. From Waco to Birtherism, Neiwert systematically details all of the various components of the radical right.

Again, this isn’t a chronological overview—in fact, it can be confusing, as the timeline of events may jump dramatically from one chapter to the next. Instead, he groups chapters by subject matter, with each chapter shining a light on a different element of the radical right. He begins by outlining what, exactly, alt-America is—an Alternative America, where conspiracy theories are the status quo and where he outlines the role of conspiracy theories in shaping radical right rhetoric. This naturally segues into the conspiracy theories that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the subsequent theories surrounding Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

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This background helps set the stage for the rise of the Tea Party after Obama’s election. He then dips back into the 90s to discuss the militia movements and their resurgence after the Oklahoma City bombing. Finally, he brings these components together to explain how all of this led to the reinvention of the radical right, and the eventual election of Donald Trump. Despite jumping around from one component of the radical right to the next, the various moving pieces all come together in the end to introduce the pinnacle focus of the book: how the alt-right laid the groundwork for Donald Trump to seize the US presidency.

At nearly 400 pages, Alt-America isn’t a short read, but it is an easy one, written in a style that’s approachable to academics and non-academics alike. However, one should expect to make extensive use of the index, especially those less familiar with the intricacies of the radical right. By departing from the conventional approach of systematically following the movement from start to finish, Neiwert instead creates a complicated web of the far-right movement from the 1990s through today. The reader can rest assured that, while it may require careful attention at first, it all comes together in the end. The radical right not only saw a revival after the Obama election, it also saw a unification, with all of the various moving parts united in their opposition to Obama. To those who haven’t been following the movement, this complicated (but compelling) background is necessary to understand where we are today.

While Neiwert’s Alt-America is long-winded, the details are important. And while he scatters in a host of his own opinions regarding the movement, for the most part, the book is factual and relevant (as well as timely). Whether or not you agree with Neiwert’s assessment at the end, the attention to detail and the extensive background will prove informative and intriguing, even to those well versed in the radical right movement. With that said, however, you will not find an extensive analysis of policies relevant to the movement, nor the larger picture of the American political system. Rather, his assessment fails to hone in on the economic conditions that allowed for the movement (such as neoliberalism and corporate influence), as well as an overreliance on psychological explanations, largely at the micro level. While racism is certainly a major component of the radical right, Neiwert tends to default to racism and anti-immigration views as a causal mechanism, rather than a mitigating variable. In addition, he relies on support for authoritarianism as primary explanation for alt-right support, a relationship that is still poorly understood.

While his book discusses the ways in which social media and internet culture have influenced the resurgence of the radical right, it’s not his primary focus. However, what happened to Neiwert’s Twitter account showcases the extent of the radical right’s impact on social media. Neiwert was temporarily banned from Twitter this week for his book cover, but Twitter still has yet to ban prominent white nationalists like Richard Spencer from their platform. The platform appeared quicker to ban an expert on the radical right than actual members of the radical right.

Ultimately, Alt-America is a fascinating and informative read, but doesn’t stand alone in understanding the rise of Trump and the current state of the radical (or alt-) right in America. To the uninitiated, the ins and outs of the movement will no doubt prove surprising and at times, unbelievable. However, if you’re looking for a comprehensive analysis that considers the larger geopolitical situation of the movement and its relationship to the rise of Trump, Alt-America falls short. That doesn’t stop it, though, from being an engaging read from an informed commentator on the radical right.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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