David Neiwerts body of work as a journalist centres on the radical right wing in the United States of America, and the discussion here was centred around issues brought forward by his latest book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.
The USA, and by extension the world, sits on the edge of an apparent historical precipice; Neiwert remarks that America has been very lucky when it comes to Facism and Authoritarianism, in that a movement has not emerged with a singular, charismatic leader. Until now.
Donald Trump has risen to the top of a movement mired in the fascistic elements which have long been a part of the American psyche, but those elements have become emboldened begun to draw together in a way that has not previously been seen. The emergence of Trump as a right-wing populist demagogue has taken the country to the precipice of authoritarianism in unprecedented manner, and it is – Neiwert argues – on the back of the emergence of an Alternative America where people’s connection with reality, truth, compassion, empathy and reason have been eroded by a relentless stream of misinformation and hateful rhetoric. A counterfactual culture driven by Fox News and Infowars, emboldened to take to the streets and behave violently. American Fascism has its leader now, and the mid-term elections and 2020 presidental race are ultimately pivotal in the success or downfall of the regime and the ideology.
New Zealand in the past has tended to ultimately be dismissive of America and its influence on us, othering the American as a brash, arrogant, imbecile who is ultimately little more than an annoyance, though events since 2001 have changed this perception, and there was a sense palpable among those present that the politics of America are in 2018 of great concern to us here in New Zealand. With our neighbours in Australia unapologetically legitimising authoritarian mistreatment of refugees and migrants, the trajectory of politics in the USA and the ability of this to influence the lives of people here in the South Pacific is clear.
Neiwert’s analysis does not initially inspire a great deal of confidence that the movement of people’s thinking toward the extreme right can be halted. He talked of the way that those seduced by the ideals of the alternative right are generally immobile in their thinking, driven by gut fears and paranoia, and discussed the ways in which debate – both public and personal – tends to have the result of hardening the beliefs of the radical right wing.
He talked repeatedly of the individuals who are consuming and producing the hateful rhetoric of this alternative universe as being “down the rabbit hole” of white supremacy and anti-semetic conspiracy theory, remarking on how rare it is for people to be shifted in their beliefs once they are established in their profound denial. The apt comparison was made with the mentality of religious cults producing self-fulfilling prophesy over and over, though religious fervour is replaced by paranoid beliefs about minorities and a belief that the white way of life is under threat. Crystallised by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the movement has gone from fringe groups of militia, tinfoil conspiracists and internet trolls all the way to control of the Republican Party and the WhiteHouse.
Neiwert’s suggested responses are not necessarily direct, but the encouragement of empathy and compassion in our society and encouraging participation in democracy from all quarters is hard to argue against. Faced with the potential emergence of global authoritarianism, it is vital that we take the in-depth understanding that David Neiwert has dedicated himself to and fight these ideologies, lest the lessons of the horrific atrocities of the 20th century be forgotten and repeated.
Attended and reviewed by Brett Johansen
David Neiwert: Alt-America
WORD Christchurch, Thursday 30 August
Buy the Book – Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump
by David Neiwert
Published by Verso Books