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.