NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

Book Review: David Neiwert’s “Alt-America” is a very necessary — but difficult — read

David Neiwert's Alt-America

Alt-Amer­i­ca: The Rise of the Rad­i­cal Right in the Age of Trump, by David Nei­w­ert (Hard­cov­er, Verso/Penguin Ran­dom House)

In their first post-2016 gen­er­al elec­tion show, Sat­ur­day Night Live had a skit with Dave Chap­pelle and Chris Rock react­ing to the results through­out that night, not with plea­sure but cer­tain­ly with­out the shock or hor­ror of the oth­er urban-dwelling lib­er­als.

David Nei­w­ert’s book Alt-Amer­i­ca is as con­vinc­ing an argu­ment you’ll find any­where for why no one had an excuse to be sur­prised by Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign, its com­pet­i­tive­ness, or its ulti­mate suc­cess.

Nei­w­ert traces the his­tor­i­cal strains of xeno­pho­bia, white suprema­cy, misog­y­ny, and pet­ty resent­ments that cul­mi­nat­ed in the “alt-right”, chron­i­cling how they were able to come togeth­er to win the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and get enough votes in right places to win the pres­i­den­cy.

It’s a dif­fi­cult read, not because of the writ­ing or its orga­ni­za­tion, but because at no point will you fin­ish a chap­ter and feel bet­ter about cur­rent events.

Zoë Quin­n’s Crash Over­ride cov­ered sim­i­lar ground, but her per­son­al sto­ry includ­ed tri­umph. Alt-Amer­i­ca is like sit­ting through chemother­a­py and not know­ing whether the treat­ment will be ulti­mate­ly effec­tive.

We need a work like this because the hand­ful of attacks con­nect­ed to any sect of Islam­ic jihadism tend to be well-cov­ered by all media and lodge in our brains, even failed attempts like the Shoe Bomber in 2001 or the recent New York City sub­way pipe bomb. They all go under the same fold­er, undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed.

One of the sub­tle ben­e­fits of white suprema­cy in the Unit­ed States is that we grant white Chris­tians the dig­ni­ty of being treat­ed as indi­vid­u­als. So even their ter­ror­is­tic acts, explic­it­ly done in the name of an anti-gov­ern­ment ide­ol­o­gy or by mem­bers of an orga­nized group intent on sow­ing polit­i­cal ter­ror, are writ­ten off as just a bunch of nutjobs, wor­thy of lit­tle atten­tion or con­cern beyond their pecu­liar­i­ty.

The thor­ough­ness, though not exhaus­tive­ness, of Nei­w­ert’s book is a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to that uncon­scious prej­u­dice.

I had either for­got­ten or nev­er been aware of Jer­ad and Aman­da Miller leav­ing the 2014 Cliv­en Bundy stand­off against the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment to go into Las Vegas and fatal­ly shoot two police offi­cers then drape a Gads­den Flag over one of their bod­ies and go on to shoot more peo­ple at a Wal­mart because, in their words, “This is the begin­ning of the rev­o­lu­tion.”

Col­lec­tive­ly, let­ting our­selves for­get or tak­ing no notice of these sorts of acts that Nei­w­ert lays out through­out the major­i­ty of the book allowed them to grow into what they did. Nei­w­ert also has an insight I had­n’t seen else­where: that Trump’s sta­tus as a liv­ing car­toon is the rea­son all these ele­ments coa­lesced around him.

After detail­ing some of the fault lines between the groups that would even­tu­al­ly make up the alt-right, Nei­w­ert says, “The move­ment need­ed some­thing to make it cohere, some­thing big enough to make the play­ers for­get their dif­fer­ences.”

But rather than Trump, Nei­w­ert ini­tial­ly goes into a descrip­tion of the Pepe the Frog and its trans­for­ma­tion from web­com­ic char­ac­ter to gen­er­al meme then to mas­cot of all man­ner of deplorable ideas.

Anonymi­ty and inter­net cul­ture use shock, absur­di­ty, and irony as recruit­ment tools for rad­i­cal­iz­ing and mak­ing the hor­rif­ic accept­able, and Nei­w­ert details the way memes accrued to “God Emper­or Trump” in the same way.

Though the par­al­lel between Trump and Pepe was made, lit­er­al­ly and repeat­ed­ly, dur­ing the cam­paign, I had nev­er seen point­ed out their sim­i­lar­i­ty as ideas.

All pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, to some degree, have to be ciphers in order to con­vince enough vot­ers they’re worth sup­port­ing with­out dis­suad­ing many oth­ers. Barack Oba­ma cer­tain­ly embod­ied the hopes and dreams of many dis­parate peo­ple, which is why his rel­a­tive cen­trism dis­ap­point­ed so many on the Left after 2008, hav­ing heard what they want­ed to rather than any­thing he’d actu­al­ly said.

Trump, in con­trast, often claimed to stand for noth­ing, or that he had­n’t said what he’d said, or that what he’d said was just a joke of some sort.

“They are amus­ing them­selves, for it is their adver­sary who is oblig­ed to use words respon­si­bly, since he believes in words.”

The extend­ed quote Jean-Paul Sartre from his essay on Anti-Semi­tism has felt more rel­e­vant to the past five years than pre­vi­ous fifty, and Nei­w­ert includes it promi­nent­ly. Had Trump seemed more com­pe­tent, more seri­ous, more gen­uine­ly for any­thing in par­tic­u­lar or spe­cif­ic, it would have been hard­er for his legion of ded­i­cat­ed cyn­ics to sup­port him.

Like with “iron­ic” Holo­caust deniers or racist jokes that have the punch­line of mur­der­ing some group, the jokes reveal under­ly­ing assump­tions not so much what the par­tic­i­pants find fun­ny as who they sin­cere­ly regard as detestable.

Alt-Amer­i­ca con­cludes with advice on what we ought to do going for­ward to address this move­ment and its con­se­quences. But after so much work lay­ing out how deep and sys­temic the prob­lem runs, his pre­scrip­tion falls short.

It cul­mi­nates in the hope that peo­ple on the left will, going for­ward, be a lit­tle less smug and more under­stand­ing of peo­ple who belong to the right wing.

Nei­w­ert is cor­rect: we should lis­ten; we should be wel­com­ing, not dehu­man­iz­ing, in our pol­i­tics. But in a coun­try plagued by sys­temic racism, we need to orga­nize and work col­lec­tive­ly to change sys­tems, not mere­ly inter­ac­tions, because most peo­ple nev­er both­er to change the default set­tings on any­thing, whether that’s white suprema­cy or appli­ca­tions on their smart­phone.

You should buy a copy of Alt-Amer­i­ca for your­self and read it; you should buy extra copies to keep at your home, lend, and gift out to friends and guests as appro­pri­ate. But don’t feel bad about skip­ping the last few pages.

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