Written for the Powell's Books blog. Alt-America is on sale for 40% off through Tuesday, October 24.
It must have seemed to Oregonians over the past few years that they have been at the epicenter of the disturbing phenomenon that Alt-America is all about — namely, the resurgence of far-right extremism in the nation’s political landscape, culminating with the election and presidency of Donald Trump. After all, some of the most noteworthy events it documents (and some that have followed since its completion as a manuscript) have occurred right here in their backyards:
• The emergence of armed militia protests against federal land managers in southeastern Oregon in the spring of 2015, with “Oath Keepers” and other heavily armed “Patriots” gathering in the Grants Pass area, ostensibly to prevent a local miner from being overrun by federal officials.
• The fruition of that movement into a monthlong armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Bend by “Patriot” extremists, culminating in the arrest of multiple participants, and the death of one leading participants when he engaged Oregon State Police at an FBI roadblock.
• The flowering, during the Trump campaign, of open expression of white-supremacist ideology, embodied by Portland neo-Nazi Jimmy Marr’s cruises with his swastika-adorned truck up and down the Interstate 5 corridor, and the accompanying very public organization of white supremacists associated with Marr and others in the Portland area.
• Organized “free speech” protests by far-right activists that have attracted both militiamen and white nationalists, as well as factions of the alt-right, to events clearly designed to attract a violent response from black-clad antifascists and anarchists in urban centers where they organize, notably in Portland.
• The murders of two passengers aboard a Portland MAX train by a man spouting alt-right catchphrases who was attempting to harass two minority women; the same man had taken part in (and kicked out of) an earlier alt-right rally in Portland.
These events have all driven home to Oregonians the cold, unhappy reality that the open racism of radical-right politics has returned to the United States with a vengeance. As for most Americans, it may seem that this tide has arrived overnight here, but in reality, it has been building for decades.
In that regard, Oregon is a microcosm of the nation — it is divided, as a state, between a Trump-loving rural half and solidly liberal urban half, increasingly divided not just by politics but by the very cultural threads that previously united us as a country. People don’t merely disagree about politics anymore — they cannot even agree on what is factual reality and what is fantasy or propaganda. It seems that not only are we in the throes of a cultural war, we are faced with an outright epistemological crisis.
This gap has been fueled by the growth not only of the Internet, but of a conspiracy-theory industry that tries to present itself as a legitimate alternative to “official” information provided by the mainstream media, where standards of factual accuracy remain generally intact, if not horribly damaged by the increasing dominance of propaganda media such as Fox News that purveys false and distorted information with 24/7 regularity. Worse, conspiracist ideas and the ideologies underlying them make their way into such propaganda coverage with shocking frequency, lending it a legitimacy that only helps it spread to every quarter of American society.
This industry has its origins in the earliest days of the Internet, with the emergence in the 1990s of the Patriot/militia movement, where nearly all of the conspiracy theories even now in circulation first were ginned up, and many of the leading conspiracy theorists — notably Alex Jones and his Infowars operation — got their start. Even then, it became apparent that the constant flow of such conspiracism had the effect of creating an epistemological bubble for the movement’s followers: an alternative universe, if you will, in which rules of evidence and factuality were discarded for dubious evidence, conjecture, and innuendo.
This alternative universe continued to expand through the George W. Bush years, mainly through the growth of the so-called “9/11 Truther” industry built around a web of conspiracy theories ostensibly proving that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were an “inside job” produced by nefarious “globalists.” However, during the subsequent administration of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, from 2009 to 2016, it not only wildly expanded, but became increasingly mainstreamed through the anti-Obama “Tea Party” movement, which as it evolved became a massive conduit for a revival of Patriot/militia ideology and its attendant alternative universe.
The final step in creating what I call “Alt-America” – the massive alternative universe constructed by the American right – was the emergence of an anti-mainstream right, derived from an amalgamation of white nationalist ideas, far-right “traditionalist” ideologues, aggrieved male anti-feminists, organized and recruited almost entirely online, calling itself the “alt-right.” These activists not only operate in the same epistemological bubble, built around the same fact-deficient conspiracy theories, but their reach and influence became so extensive that it came to include the headline-grabbing Republican candidate, Donald Trump.
Trump’s ascendance, not just to the GOP nomination but to the presidency, baffled and astonished most observers, who could not understand how a man who uttered things that would sink most mainstream candidates could keep rising in the polls and, eventually, the ballot box. Trump, however, never operated in the world of mainstream politics: His universe was Alt-America, where the normal laws of political gravity, along with logic, reason, and even basic decency, are turned upon their heads. And he has never stopped operating in that universe.
At its core, this universe exists in the service of a politics of authoritianism, in which the norms of politics and law and good governance are overwhelmed by the instincts of a Glorious Leader (which, as it happens, is what leading white nationalists in the alt-right call Trump).
This is why, even as his presidency fumbles its way from one crisis and outrageous tweet to another, his core believers remain unwavering in their support for him. No matter how bad things get, Trump’s poll numbers never drop below the low 30s. In the universe of Alt-America, there is literally nothing he can do to make them lose faith.
Authoritarianism is toxic to democracy – and indeed, the alt-right is open about its hostility to democracy and its institutions. This is not, as the far right typically has been, a movement run by aging old haters; it is fueled by, driven by, and incredibly smart about recruiting, young white people. So Americans are now faced, in the years going forward, with a real challenge to the institutions it has taken for granted for decades: the right to vote, a consensus of striving for social, racial, and economic equality, and most of all an ineffable sense of community.
The new radical right, organized under the banner of Donald Trump but fueled by much deeper passions, is open about seeing the principles democracy, multiculturalism, and equality of opportunity as their enemies. It is long past time for those of us who believe in these principles to rise to their defense. We can no longer take them for granted.
David Neiwert is an investigative journalist based in Seattle, the Northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, and the author of numerous books, including And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border, winner of the 2014 International Latino Book Award for Nonfiction.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]