Primers on the alt-right’s wrongs

September 4, 2018

In a column written in August, before the one-year anniversary of the deadly white supremacist mobilization in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the planned far-right demonstration in Washington, D.C., Scott McLemee reviews a number of recent and forthcoming titles that analyze the rise of the far right around the globe.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 12, will be the first anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that culminated with a white supremacist driving his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing one of them and injuring several more. A similar event in Boston the following week drew an estimated 40,000 counterprotesters, outnumbering participants at a rate of roughly 800 to one. After that, the momentum of the alt-right — its effort to move away from its keyboards and into the streets — melted away like so many snowflakes before a blowtorch.

So it seemed for a while, anyway, though recent clashes in Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, suggest a certain recovery of nerve. In the meantime, hard-core Trump supporters have been gathering to re-enact their 2016 campaign rallies as often as the president’s schedule permits, which has also fostered a face-to-face community for the QAnon movement, which adheres to an apocalyptic conspiracy theory that defies brief description, although the phrase “contagious insanity” does seem applicable. And on Sunday, the organizers of the original Charlottesville rally will commemorate it with a demonstration in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. A large turnout of uninvited participants is likely to attend — not, presumably, to celebrate.

Fascists on the streets of Charlottesville
Fascists on the streets of Charlottesville (Rodney Dunning | flickr)

University presses and other scholarly publishers have been paying attention, with a number of recent and forthcoming titles analyzing not just the alt-right but also the nearly global wave of new authoritarian and nativist movements. This seems like the best possible moment to point out some of the books. The following roundup, based mainly on information from the presses, is not comprehensive but should give readers some idea of what is available. And it seems like any good research library would want all of them.

ALMOST A year has passed since they appeared, but George Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right (Columbia University Press) and David Neiwert’s Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso) are both valuable accounts of a movement that each author has studied in depth. An earlier book by Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (University Press of Kansas, 2016) appeared at just the moment pundits and the press corps were catching on that the distinction in its title was more than semantic, while Neiwert’s The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (first issued by Paradigm Publishers in 2009 and republished by Routledge in 2016) documented the normalizing of genocidal rhetoric that was already well underway 10 years ago. Hawley focuses on the alt-right as “a movement that not only disagrees with liberalism but fundamentally rejects most of the tenets of American conservatism.” Neiwert treats it as part of a well-established political culture “the violence of which in the last decade has surpassed anything inspired by Islamist or other ideologies in the United States.”

Mike Wendling seems to concur in Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House (Pluto Press, distributed by University of Chicago Press, April), which “explores links between alt-right rhetoric and hate crimes and terrorism, showing that the evidence connecting them is undeniable.” The lethal auto attack on pedestrians in Charlottesville is a case in point. But the author holds that “the movement’s lack of a coherent base and its contradictory tendencies are already sapping its strength and will lead to its downfall.” Perhaps, but the same was said of the violent but chaotic political milieu that Kathleen Belew describes in Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, April). She focuses on a “small but driven group of veterans, active-duty personnel and civilian supporters” that joined forces with “Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, radical tax protestors and white separatists” who shared their belief “that waging war on their own country was justified.” The alliance did not last, but it managed to unleash a considerable amount of domestic terrorism before death, prison and mutual suspicion took their toll.

Scholarship on the alt-right and its precursors seems destined to grow in any case. It’s hard to imagine a resource more likely to ensure that it does than Archie Henderson’s four-volume Conservatism, the Right Wing, and the Far Right: A Guide to Archives (Ibidem Press, distributed by Columbia University Press). Providing “a detailed overview of primary sources in more than 4,500 archives across twenty-two countries,” it covers “documents, film, video, sound recordings, microfilm and microfiche, cartoons, sheet music, newspaper art and more,” including oral histories, commercial databases and digital resources. Running to some 3,000 pages, it calls to mind Samuel Johnson’s remark about Paradise Lost: “None could wish it longer.”

TWO FORTHCOMING volumes revisit The Authoritarian Personality, a landmark work on political psychology by Theodor W. Adorno and others, originally published in 1950. A sui genesis combination of public-opinion research methodology, Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and unorthodox Marxist theory, it argued that while professed allegiance to democratic values was the American norm, a significant minority of the population was prone to feeling (among other correlated things) hostility toward ethnic and religious differences, anxiety in the face of ambiguity, and tendencies to identify with aggressive or domineering leaders — a group especially susceptible to the appeal of fascism. The researchers’ techniques and findings were the subject of much debate when the book appeared, within the social sciences and beyond, and it has flared up from time to time ever since.

South Atlantic Quarterly’s special issue on The Authoritarian Personality, out in October, treats it as a matter of urgent interest, given “the recent rise of neo-fascist movements around the world, the intensification of racist violence against black and brown people, the reactionary backlash against feminism, and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism” — which is understandable, but also as a neglected work, which is not, except as hype. The same contemporary issues motivate the contributors to Authoritarianism: Three Inquiries in Critical Theory (Chicago, November) who “do not offer the false comforts of an easy return to liberal democratic values” but instead “investigate the historical and political contradictions that have brought about this moment.”

Salvatore Babones also pursues a systemic explanation in The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts (Polity Books, November). He finds that democracy “has been undermined by a quiet but devastating power grab conducted by a class of liberal experts” who “have advanced a global rights-based agenda which has tilted the balance away from the lively and vibrant unpredictability of democratic decision-making towards the creeping technocratic authority of liberal consensus.” The analysis sounds more plausible than the cure, for Babones welcomes “an imperfect but reinvigorating political flood that has the potential to sweep away decades of institutional detritus and rejuvenate democracy across the west.” That sounds good if — but only if — cults of authoritarian personality are not the primary benefactors. Otherwise, it’s too reminiscent of Travis Bickle behind the wheel of his cab at three in the morning, longing for the rain.

First published at Inside Higher Ed.

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