An over-capacity crowd filled the auditorium in Everett’s downtown public library Saturday afternoon to hear author David Neiwert and The Daily Herald’s local news editor Scott North discuss some recent history of extremist groups in the Pacific Northwest and the nature of white supremacism more generally.
Library staff said one hundred and seven people packed into the library’s auditorium to listen to the two investigative journalists describe a local precursor to the populist authoritarian movement now in power in the White House and answer questions about how to make sense of Donald Trump’s “Alt America”.
It was significantly more animated than the usual crowd for an author’s book reading.
“The last one I had was four people,” a University of Washington bookseller said as Neiwert signed copies of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump for more than half an hour after the event’s conclusion.
Neiwert and North began with a local story, that of convicted double-murderer, Arizona death-row occupant, and racist border-watch activist Shawna Forde.
Forde had unsuccessfully run for Everett City Council in 2007 on a platform demonizing undocumented expatriots.
However, local reporting by North and The Herald in 2008 revealed her to be a lifelong felon and grifter who’d falsely claimed to have been sexually assaulted by MS-13 gang members but had actually shot her then-husband in attempt to get money to buy a ranch in Arizona and start a militia training program.
Later, she turned to Plan B and started robbing drug traffickers and undocumented expats, which led to her murdering a man and his nine-year-old daughter, and failing to murder the wife-mother who identified Forde and her crew.
While Forde was a sociopath, Neiwert said the conservative, anti-immigrant movement she sought to exploit was as sociopathic as Forde was.
“It attracts people devoid of empathy,” Neiwert said, because, as an ideology, it is devoid of empathy.
A cohort radicalized through online video-game communities first courted through the misogynistic Gamergate movement to harass women and attack multiculturalism became a platform to radicalize an entire generation of young white males. That population is now ten times as active as those young men similarly targeted by the Islamic State group, Neiwert said, and their actions are not reflected in the overall media narrative.
“People aren’t paying attention to the fact that the Parkland shooter put Nazi swastikas on his magazines,” Neiwert said. While there isn’t evidence that he engaged with a particular group, he was radicalized online nonetheless.
Neiwert described how white supremacist viruses get into families and rip them apart. “The Internet has spread it into families even more,” as well as communities and friends. “We can’t seem to agree on what reality is — what a fact is.”
Even at this event, there was a middle-aged white man from Marysville who swore up and down that Democrats were the real racists, Nixon’s Southern Strategy was a myth, and that urban areas were the new plantations.
Unsurprisingly, “The Clintons” and “Robert Byrd” flowed freely from his lips with no room in his worldview for Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Lee Atwater, or the general drift of the GOP. Trying to get him to acknowledge otherwise agreed-upon historical events was not fruitful. Indeed, this was actually something Neiwert had pointed out earlier as a problem with the left.
“Liberals don’t argue to persuade but to win,” Neiwert cautioned, more concerned with scoring points than effecting change. The conversation consists of waiting till someone says something racist then ringing a victory bell. And that’s not enough when the point is to try convert the convertible people.
Andrea Holland-Bonneu, of Snohomish County, said she’s from North Dakota and knows many people from home who didn’t travel or expose themselves to other cultures and are susceptible to white supremacist influence because of it.
“Their lack of exposure to diversity has warped them,” she said.
Holland-Bonneu said it’s her responsibility to persuade family members and friends who let their guard down around people like her, because her friends who are people of color don’t have that same access.
However, not everyone is saveable.
Wendy Zieve, of Shoreline, came to the event and described her brother, millionaire aerospace businessman Peter Zieve of Mulkiteo, as an enthusiastic Trump supporter who had already been lost to the hatred of the extreme right wing, despite sharing Jewish grandparents on both sides that immigrated from Lithuania and Ukraine in the early twentieth century.
“His entire self is obsessed with who he hates,” she said, and it’s been a consistent drift since he was at least thirty.
Other than his wealth, Peter Zieve is not exceptional in white American society.
Neiwert described how authoritarianism is always propped up by a sizeable portion of the population who want authoritarianism, and he laid out their general characteristics in his talk.
- They’re submissive: they see society as needing to submit to a strongman — albeit one they consider legitimate — in order for civil society to remain orderly and functional.
- They’re conventionalists: they claim to represent the mainstream of society, in our case the Real America in contrast to illegitimate Americans, however numerous.
- They’re aggressive: against those who don’t go along, even to rituals like someone not standing for the national anthem.
Neiwert said authoritarianism is always propped up by a sizeable portion of the population who wants authoritarianism, and that the Nazis in Adolf Hitler’s Germany based much of their worldview and specific polices on American models — from Manifest Destiny to Jim Crow laws to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
However, Neiwert made a point that he goes into more thoroughly in his book: although Trump attracts fascists, he’s not one himself.
He lacks the coherent, consistent worldview to be a fascist, Neiwert argues.
He’s an authoritarian, and has been for almost thirty years, considering his praise of the Chinese government’s violent response in the 1989 Tiananmenmen Square protests. Trump is currently admired by many white supremacist groups, who have been emboldened by his election.
Once Trump leaves the scene, where will the energy go?
“If (Trump) disappears tomorrow, we’re still going to have the problem of a horde of anti-democratic, authoritarian followers,” Neiwert said.