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The Guardian, January 2019

... Neiwert has spent his career studying far-right movements. Alt America analyses their growth over the past several decades, and looks at how authoritarianism and conspiracy thinking have come to hold sway over US politics. Neiwert believes that the far right’s surge, the election of Donald Trump and mass homelessness in Seattle all spring from a common root: the deliberate assault on democracy by the US right and the Republican party.

For several decades following the Great Depression, when capitalism and liberal democracy teetered on the brink, Republicans and Democrats “agreed to defend democracy, and defend the values of democracy because it benefited them all by following basically FDR’s program. Now, we’ve lost that because conservatives have decided they are no longer willing to submit to any kind of government run by liberals,” Neiwert says. “The current conservative movement has decided it no longer wishes to be part of a liberal democracy.”

The principal reason, he thinks, is greed. “By the time they got to the 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president, all they cared about was: ‘Well, fuck you, you can’t take my money away. You can’t tax me!’ Politics has become so focused on economics that we’ve lost sight of humanity.”

For Neiwert, Trumpism is the apogee of the decades-long drive to create a dog-eat-dog economy. The chaos that this has unleashed, and the deliberate promotion of anti-democratic sentiment, has led conspiracy theories and authoritarianism to permeate the political right – and the brain of the current occupant of the White House. Neiwert says that “authoritarianism appeals to our desire for security and safety and control. When fearfulness and chaos are being promoted, authoritarianism ramps up.”

He points to a recent example of incipient authoritarianism – the young men from Covington Catholic college in Kentucky who hooted and taunted in the face of a Native American man on the National Mall. “It’s yet another indication of how we’re radicalising this generation of young men,” Neiwert says. “The rabbit hole they’re falling down leads to white nationalism, but the pathway is authoritarianism.” He mentions the new media landscape that has been crafted to appeal to young men, such as the “authoritarianism lite” offered by the likes of Jordan Peterson. “These young men are being conditioned to develop authoritarian personalities.”

Authoritarianism, in turn, uses conspiracy theory to drive a wedge between a movement’s followers and the world. “Conspiracy thinking ensures that the authoritarian leader has their followers’ loyalty because they thereby enter his version of reality.” He offers a concrete example: “When Trump is lying nakedly, but all of his followers still believe him, well, that’s what he’s doing.

“Democracy is about people actually linking arms, and having the franchise, and real political power resting with them, not with the people at the top. If we don’t revive democracy, frankly I don’t know where we’re going.”

Neiwert’s observations, and his arguments in Alt-America, are rooted in decades of tireless, and sometimes thankless, reporting on the far right. He has developed the knack of getting up close to the ugliest parts of American life without being obtrusive. He is still a regular at far-right rallies in the Pacific Northwest, which he has, until recently, reported on for the Southern Poverty Law Center. (In early January he began working as a correspondent for the progressive website the Daily Kos.)

“I blend in because I am a schlub like most of these guys are,” Neiwert says on the way to a December open-carry militia rally, entitled Liberty or Death, in Seattle. The self-deprecation is typical, although in fact Neiwert takes pains not to stand out in such crowds. But in middle age, with a round and creased face, and a certain heaviness in the midsection, Neiwert does resemble the average attendee at the far right’s public events. ...
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