David Neiwert's Alt-America
David Neiwert's Alt-America
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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