David Neiwert’s latest book “Alt-America” feels like chemotherapy

In their first post-2016 general election show, Saturday Night Live had a skit with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock reacting to the results throughout that night, not with pleasure but certainly without the shock or horror of the other urban-dwelling liberals.

David Neiwert’s book Alt-America is as convincing an argument you’ll find anywhere for why no one had an excuse to be surprised by Donald Trump’s campaign, its competitiveness, or its ultimate success.

Neiwert traces the historical strains of xenophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, and petty resentments that culminated in the “alt-right”, chronicling how they were able to come together to win the Republican nomination and get enough votes in right places to win the presidency.

It’s a difficult read, not because of the writing or its organization but because at no point will you finish a chapter and feel better about current events. Zoë Quinn’s Crash Override covered similar ground but her personal story included triumph. Alt-America is like sitting through chemotherapy and not knowing whether the treatment will be ultimately effective.

We need a work like this because the handful of attacks connected to any sect of Islamic jihadism tend to be well-covered by all media and lodge in our brains, even failed attempts like the Shoe Bomber in 2001 or the recent New York City subway pipe bomb. They all go under the same folder, undifferentiated.

One of the subtle benefits of white supremacy in the United States is that we grant white Christians the dignity of being treated as individuals. So even their terroristic acts, explicitly done in the name of an anti-government ideology or by members of an organized group intent on sowing political terror, are written off as just a bunch of nutjobs, worthy of little attention or concern beyond their peculiarity.

The thoroughness, though not exhaustiveness, of Neiwert’s book is a necessary corrective to that unconscious prejudice.

I had either forgotten or never been aware of Jerad and Amanda Miller leaving the 2014 Cliven Bundy standoff against the Bureau of Land Management to go into Las Vegas and fatally shoot two police officers then drape a Gadsden Flag over one of their bodies and go on to shoot more people at a Walmart because, in their words, “This is the beginning of the revolution.”

Collectively, letting ourselves forget or taking no national notice of these sorts of acts that Neiwert lays out throughout the majority of the book allowed them to grow into what they did.

Neiwert also has an insight I hadn’t seen elsewhere: that Trump’s status as a living cartoon is the reason all these elements coalesced around him.

After detailing some of the fault lines between the groups that would eventually make up the alt-right, Neiwert says, “The movement needed something to make it cohere, something big enough to make the players forget their differences.”

But rather than Trump, Neiwert initially goes into a description of the Pepe the Frog and its transformation from webcomic character to general meme then to mascot of all manner of deplorable ideas.

Anonymity and internet culture use shock, absurdity, and irony as recruitment tools for radicalizing and making the horrific acceptable, and Neiwert details the way memes accrued to “God Emperor Trump” in the same way. Though the parallel between Trump and Pepe was made, literally and repeatedly, during the campaign, I had never seen pointed out their similarity as ideas.

All presidential candidates, to some degree, have to be ciphers in order to convince enough voters they’re worth supporting without dissuading many others. Barack Obama certainly embodied the hopes and dreams of many disparate people, which is why his relative centrism disappointed so many on the Left after 2008, having heard what they wanted to rather than anything he’d actually said.

Trump, in contrast, often claimed to stand for nothing, or that he hadn’t said what he’d said, or that what he’d said was just a joke of some sort.

“They are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.”

The extended quote Jean-Paul Sartre from his essay on Anti-Semitism has felt more relevant to the past 5 years than previous 50, and Neiwert includes it prominently. Had Trump seemed more competent, more serious, more genuinely for anything in particular or specific, it would have been harder for his legion of dedicated cynics to support him. Like with “ironic” Holocaust deniers or racist jokes that have the punchline of murdering some group, the jokes reveal underlying assumptions not so much what the participants find funny as who they sincerely regard as detestable.

Alt-America concludes with advice on what we ought to do going forward to address this movement and its consequences. Disappointingly, after an entire book detailing how the most influential strains of conservative virulence operate in a hermetic bubble of bad faith and paranoia, who delight in sheer grotesquerie of racism, misogyny, and other bigotries—Neiwert’s answer seems to be that urban progressives, especially white ones those from rural, conservative families who go home for the holidays, really needed to learn how to have more conversations, to find more empathy and common ground with people who regard vulnerable populations as subhuman or who don’t particularly mind casting their lot in with those who do so long as their taxes go down.

This is the worst sort of Hillbilly Elegy, fawning New York Times profile of neo-Nazis, centrist nonsense we already have a glut of and to no avail. At no point in the first 369 pages did I expect the final seven to be able to be summarized by a dril tweet.

But this is a relatively small thing, and good answers are tough to come by. You should buy a copy for yourself and read it; you should buy it as gifts for people for the holidays; you should buy extra copies to keep at your home, lend, and gift out to guests as appropriate. But don’t feel bad about skipping the last seven pages.

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2 thoughts on “David Neiwert’s latest book “Alt-America” feels like chemotherapy

  1. I really enjoyed the review, David, including the critical passages. And you are right — I am more of a journalist who wants to explain how we got here, and an analyst on those matters. The issue of how we get out is for a different kind of writer and thinker than I am, and frankly I am not sure I’d be adequate to the task in the event. What I can say — and what the afterword tries to speak to — is that this phenomenon is a profound challenge to democracy itself, and I’m rather strongly in the camp that wants to defend it, unlike some leftists I know who want to move on to something else. So I purposely limited my remarks to how we go about defending democracy in our daily lives, which I think ultimately comes down to our interpersonal actions even more than organizational ones; it’s a matter of culture, not policy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! And as is obvious to anyone else who read the review, I found the space to criticize the conclusion but somehow ran out of space when it came to offering a better suggestion than your own.

      However, I do entirely disagree that interpersonal interactions matter all that much or are a solution of any sort.

      I don’t mean that they don’t all add up or that you shouldn’t believe your actions have consequences, just that, like climate change or acid rain, me and my household composting or even convincing my neighbors to compost doesn’t solve or meaningfully help solve the problem. Municipalities requiring energy-efficient recycling does somewhat, legislation targeting emissions does, car mileage standards and water quality regulations do.

      Registering people to vote, mobilizing voters, and electing candidates who care about democratic values and the public good do matter in order to effect those sorts of changes and protect them. But conversations require people to opt-in to empathy and racial harmony, and instead we want laws, policies, and systems that require people to opt-out of basic decency if they’re going to side with bigots.

      Outside of politics, I’d rather focus energy on pressuring Twitter to treat Neo-Nazis on their platform more like they treat ISIS or push Facebook to pursue false, racist viral content as vigorously as they do people posting their own fem areolas. I’d have more targeted lawsuits against Breitbart, the Daily Stormer and their ilk for content that is obviously libel. It benefits public discourse to punish people when they publish malicious falsehoods.

      This is more effective and reproducible than having conversations with the people producing the content, using Daryl Davis-style friendships (https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes). That’s an amazing story, but it’s amazing because it’s not truly replicable and requires preternatural goodness and energy from people guilty of nothing.

      I mentioned Zoe Quinn’s book favorably, but that was the aspect I really appreciated: what individuals can do to solve a particular problem, what organizations they can support, and how those organizations can work with, exhort, and chide public and private sector actors. For the alt-right and increasingly mainstream conservative politics, that’s a subject weighty enough to be a book or project unto itself.

      Liked by 1 person

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