David Neiwert reported on the US far right for decades and watched as the conservative movement steadily adopted its outlook and ideas
Jason Wilson interviews Doug Neiwert Guardian Jan 27, 2019
David Neiwert has lived in his Seattle neighbourhood for decades. But it, like the US, has changed beyond recognition around him. Once upon a time, the journalist and author of the book Alt-America explains, “most of the houses were older, but they were cheap. They were places where working-class people who work on these fishing boats out here” – he gestures towards the docks at Salmon Bay – “could live, right? You know, 500 bucks a month. It all got torn down during the gentrification phase and replaced with multi-story condos that cost $1,500 or $2,000 a month.”
Amazon, whose headquarters are in Seattle, “changed the city”, he says. “All the folks who work on those fishing boats are still in the neighbourhood, but they’ve got no place to live. They’re all living on the street.” He offers a characteristic wry grin. “We’ve got a lot of motor homes around the neighbourhood now.”
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 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.
“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.
Generally, he maintains a silent, watchful presence, smiling his sardonic smile, usually decked out in the colours of the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL team he is devoted to. At the rally, Neiwert moves easily among a crowd of AR-15-toting members of the Three Percenters group, who oppose what they call the tyranny of the gun restrictions, and who are named after the supposed proportion of the American population who fought against Britain in the revolutionary war. That day, they were there to protest what they called leftwing media bias. Neiwert, who they would probably lump in with leftwing media, was unfazed.
If he looks at home among the self-styled rebels on the radical right, it is because, in a complicated way, this is his tribe. Neiwert grew up as a rural Republican in the years before the Republican party went, he says, “completely over the cliff”. His childhood in the 1960s and 1970s was spent in south-east Idaho, as a scion of a German-American clan who arrived in the state as pioneers. Although his family were Methodist, the area was predominantly Mormon. At the time, he says, elements of the Mormon church were heavily entwined with the conspiracy-minded, anti-communist John Birch Society. This was known for proclaiming far-reaching communist conspiracies in every area of American life (it has enjoyed a small resurgence in the Trump era, although nowadays it talks more about “the deep state”). “That’s probably part of why I’m immune to conspiracism,” he says, “because I got exposed to it at a pretty early age and I think by the time I was 12, 13, 14, I’d figured out that it was 90% bullshit.”
As a boy he hunted and fished in the great wilderness of the inland west, and in college he worked on campaigns for Republican politicians. Almost as soon as he left college to work as a reporter, he was confronted by the first in a long string of far-right surges.
His work as a reporter on smalltown papers, and later as an environmental journalist, brought him face to face with a succession of movements that were seeking to push back – sometimes violently – against the encroachments of a modern, pluralistic world. From the late 70s, he saw activists associated with the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion – in which ranchers and farmers demanded that the federal government cede control over public lands, and spread conspiratorial stories about environmentalists, and misinformation about the law and the constitution. A strong anti-environmental strand remains in the so-called Patriot Movement, the umbrella term for far-right nationalist, anti-government, pro-gun and often survivalist groups. The occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon demanded that the federal government hand back its land to the states so it could be opened once more for unfettered economic exploitation.
At the same time, “damaged men” who had returned from Vietnam were heading into the wilds of Idaho and Montana to build a survivalist movement. Eventually, some of this became entwined with the militia uprising of the 1990s. “But by the 90s,” Neiwert says, “I would say three-quarters of the guys that I would see joining militias were Larpers.” This term, derived from “live-action role playing”, is for those who have lots of shiny weapons and equipment, but precious little training or smarts.
Then, as now, the problem was what he calls “the McVeigh factor”, referring to Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf war veteran who killed 171 people when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1996. In a comprehensive study of domestic terrorism in the US that he authored in 2017, Neiwert found many incidents of extremists plotting various horrific acts of terrorism, “but they’re rarely competent enough to pull it off. But the guys who concern you, obviously, are the Tim McVeighs, the ones who are competent, the ones who have the military training.”
The US’s endless wars still produce a steady stream of veterans, a small but alarming proportion of whom have joined or even formed far-right groups in recent years. Parts of the fragmenting “alt-right” have displayed a growing interest in paramilitary organisation, and groups such as the Three Percenters encourage veterans to join their ranks.
Despite all this Neiwert still sees a reluctance of mainstream media organisations to properly cover the far right because, he says, of a fear of being accused of “liberal media bias”.
After McVeigh’s bombing, the militia movement stalled. But Neiwert argues that the far right never went away, and what we see now is the result of decades of momentum. Soon enough, prominent figures in conservative media began in earnest to build an alternative reality in which to envelop their audiences. After 9/11, he says, he saw “the conservative movement really starting to develop rhetoric and behaviour that I thought was deeply authoritarian, especially towards critics of the war”.
In his 2009 book The Eliminationists, Neiwert explained how this post-9/11 authoritarianism was fuelled by increasingly lurid fantasies in conservative media of destroying liberals, Muslims and other perceived enemies. These bubbled away throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, himself the subject of endless conspiracy theorising. Trump, of course, became the principal pusher of the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the US. His subsequent presidential campaign was powered by authoritarian and conspiratorial fantasy. And so, Alt-America has its president.
But can the problems Neiwert points to actually be remedied? “I’m not optimistic,” he says. “I believe that we’ve dug ourselves a really deep hole and we have a really long way to dig up.” He believes that while Trump is likely to lose in 2020, the movement, and the party, that propelled him to power will continue to have a malign effect.
One important step to challenge this would be media reform. He says that the internet and corporate ownership of local media have “basically gutted the ability of local newspapers to cover local news, gutted the ability of larger newspapers to do consumer and investigative reporting”. Social media, a paradise for conspiracy theorists, is filling the gap.
Political reform is also needed. “The Democrats need to become more progressive and stop being afraid of their progressive wing.” The Republican party as it stands, he thinks, may be too toxic to change, but the US does need a legitimate conservative force that is loyal to democracy.
If nothing else, Trump’s election has disclosed some home truths to a group of Americans who “were asleep, but now maybe are awake”, he says. Among these truths are “that America is not over its racism. That we still have a lot of work to do. That we still have a long way to go to become an equitable and fair nation that lives up to the values that it proclaims to the rest of the world.
“I mean, Trump’s all about ‘make America great again’. It’s this idea that this American exceptionalism will never die. And it has to die,” he says. He looks out of his window once more, over a neighbourhood partly buried under the glass, steel and concrete of the gentrifiers.
“It has to die because it’s killing us.”