What I’m Reading (January 14, 2017)

By Penny Smith

David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017).

Neiwert is an independent writer and blogger, currently living in Seattle. Early in his career he was associated with MSNBC as a writer and producer, leaving to begin his own blog, then moving to Crooks and Liars, and currently posting on the Southern Poverty Law Center site. He is the author of seven books, the latest of which is Alt-America.

Perhaps it’s coincidental that I was finishing this book the week that Donald Trump decided to tout Norwegians as ideal immigration candidates and to popularize an anatomical insult. However, given the number of books out there about the rise of a radical right, my masochistic desire to understand what’s happening in my world by reading, and our President’s penchant for tweeting, maybe it was inevitable.

Neiwert has been visiting the white supremacist rabbit hole for over a decade. He knows the authors, the bloggers, the militia leaders, the whole basket of Hillary Clinton’s unfortunately labeled “deplorables.” So, if you are looking at an introduction to this once shadowy world, now proudly marching down university town streets, here it is. Their vitriol is now easily accessible to that portion of our population swayed by conspiracies, black helicopters, world order mythologies, and the worst of stereotypes about people who are not like them.

However, Neiwert’s purpose isn’t simply to “show and tell” the crazies. It is that “America has been very, very lucky so far when it comes to fascistic political movements. And now, with the arrival of Donald Trump presidency, that luck appears to have finally run out.”

Robert Paxton in The Anatomy of Fascism proposes a five-stage theory about the development of that brand of despotism. It (a)  begins with a disillusion in democracy and a perception of lost national vitality; (b) transitions to a period of “political gridlock and polarization,” leading to the appearance of an alternative – nationalism with a nativist bent; (c) at which time mainstream conservatives begin to make alliances with that group to diminish the power of their more liberal opposition; (d) culminating in the rise of an appealing individual who wins control of the political apparatus of the state, often with the help of business and religious leaders; and (e) the state gradually becomes more radical and authoritarian.

Sound familiar? It’s fairly easy to overlay on that template the United States. The meme “Make America Great Again” plays directly to disillusionment. We don’t have to look hard to see hyperpolarization in Washington DC or Raleigh; we know not much is getting done for the good of the whole, as opposed to the accumulation of more wealth by the few. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers (Americans for Prosperity, for example) thrive on the contributions of capitalists seeking a regulation-free marketplace. Trump is president and is consciously politicizing the Department of Justice, the judiciary, the regulatory agencies, and the military. Simultaneously, he is eroding confidence in science, a fact-based reality, and a free press. Allied with him are billionaires and religious leaders hoping Trump is God’s instrument in winning their cultural wars. All one needs to do is watch a full-on Trump rally to see what happens when frustration, fear, loathing, and our lesser selves, that irrepressible id, take over a crowd (“Lock Her Up,” “Fake News,” “CNN Sucks,” “Get him outta here”).

We’ve been part of a fairly resilient republic to date, but there has never been a guarantee that will continue. Our response: vigilance, resistance, persistence, and GOTV.

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Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (Vintage, 2014).

I read this memoir the year it came out, but after spending hours with the anti-immigrant alt-right, I thought I needed to be reminded of some of the things that work in this country. So, if you look at Neiwert’s tome, and want to pick up something that will make you happy, this is it.

Sotomayor is the first Hispanic and the third woman on the Supreme Court. She was President Obama’s first court selection: a Bronx Puerto Rican with a troubled, albeit ebullient, extended family. Sotomayor went from barrio to Princeton and from Princeton to Yale. Her autobiography traces that journey, the complications of becoming part of two distinct American cultures, and the ways she navigated that divide to her current position.

What I liked about the book was the person within it: she’s candid, reflective, authentic, and playful. She’s probably the only justice, who can salsa. She may be the only higher court member who has been in Yankee Stadium’s Judge’s Chambers. We have never had another member of our highest court as intimately familiar with immigration, poverty, aspiration, other cultures, and everyday working men and women.

My Beloved World makes you proud to be an American, something some of us need on a regular basis right now.

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Mark Oppenheimer, “How to Turn a Red State Purple,” Politico Magazine (January 12, 2018) and Michael Kruse, “The Wall that Trump Actually Built,” Politico Magazine (January/February 2018).

Let’s start with Kruse. He concludes that when he returned to Pepin County to check in on the post-election mood, what he… found … was not at all a community knitting back together … Republicans and Democrats, Trump voters and Trump haters, natives and newcomers, told me the same thing: The gap between them has widened. And this colder, more rigid strain of political division, I heard repeatedly, has curdled a regional habit of happy-faced avoidance into something that feels more like a toxic silence.

My take-away from this article is that it is going to be very difficult to bridge the communication gap that has been erected between conservatives and liberals in this country. We need to be sensitive to its existence and the likelihood that it will deepen and become wider. We also need to be the party reaching out a hand of reconciliation, knowing that it will often be rejected, and still keep doing it – with humility and faith in MLK’s “beloved community,” and without righteous indignation.

 

The Oppenheimer piece profiles the slow take-over by Democrats of the Alaskan state legislature, bucking a national trend that has sent the majority of state houses into the hands of the GOP. It emphasizes the importance of “local” in winning local and statewide elections, the need to pound the streets to gather votes (activist candidates only need apply), and the potential influence of millennials.