The Normalization of Hate: David Neiwert on Trump and the Rise of the Alt-Right

November 21, 2016

There’s no getting around the fact that the alt-right has come out of the shadows to fully embrace Trump as their candidate. From Steve Bannon to David Duke, controversial support did not wait long to rush to Trump’s side. It’s clear that for many “make America great again” may just mean to make America white again. To help us get to the root of this unprecedented following Trump has produced, we welcome author and award-winning journalist and blogger, David Neiwert.

Neiwert is an expert on the radical right and a correspondent for the anti-hate group the Southern Poverty Law Center. He most recently coauthored an award-winning piece in Mother Jones titled, “How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream.” Neiwert and coauthor Sarah Posner have thoroughly tracked Trump’s social media engagement with the white nationalist movement from the start of his campaign. Neiwert suggests that while we can’t know for certain how many of these alt-right ideals are ones Trump personally adheres to, he undoubtedly shares alt-right rhetoric that has enticed a strength in the white nationalism movement we haven’t seen in decades.

Sarah Posner also appeared on Point of Inquiry last year in Sarah Posner: Trump, Carson and the Religious Right in 2016.

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production at the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is veteran journalist, author and blogger Dave Neiwert. Dave is an expert on the radical right wing and a correspondent for the anti hate group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SBL See. 

He’s also the winner of the November Sydney Award from the Sydney Holmen Foundation, where I work when I’m not hosting Point of Inquiry. Dave and his coauthor Sarah Posner won for their article entitled How Trump Took Hate Groups Mainstream, published in Mother Jones and supported by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Dave’s here today to talk about President elect Donald Trump’s appointment of All Right phenomenon. Steve Bannon, A Bright Baat as his top strategic adviser. Dave, welcome to the program. 

Always a pleasure. Lindsey, good to see you again. 

Likewise. You’ve been a watcher of the right wing for many years. Can you tell us how you got interested in this unorthodox subfield of journalism? 

Well, it was actually back in the 90s and I was starting to freelance and I was actually the environmental reporter and started covering these militias forming in the northwest as kind of a environmental backlash story because they’re, you know, organizing militias out here in the northwest, as you know, sort of a counter to efforts to create these biosphere projects. 

And they were you know, they were going round claiming that people were planning to round people up and put them in concentration camps. And that was one of the bases for their environmental organizing. I started writing about it at the time. And I you know, I talked to all these militiamen, missile militia leaders. And then after Oklahoma City happened, I was one of the older reporters talked to them and I’d had a long career in the northwest dealing with the SPDC and folks like that. 

Florida, my years as a newspaper reporter, partly because, you know, we had always had these activities here in the Northwest revolving around the Aryan Nations. So I you know, I had kind of a long running relationship, the folks who were doing the organizing against them. And so in the 90s, I got to know them very well. 

I was profoundly influenced by a Catholic priest named Father Bill Wilesmith, who had his home bombed by the Aryan Nations back in the 1980s quarterly and was the leader of an outfit called Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. And they were basically, you know, an anti fascist organizing group. And they were they were like the SPL see the Northwest. And Father Bill talked to me. 

You know, we would sit around and chat and he would say, you know, one of their frustrations was that too many journalists would just parachute into these stories and not have any background. And they were constantly having to update people. There is nobody who took this as sort of a long running story of seriousness, you know, that needed to be covered consistently. 

And there are very few journalists doing that. So I thought, well, I’m going to keep doing that. And then after Oklahoma City, I said we became one of these militia experts and wound up doing a lot of that work. I still do the environmental work. 

I have a book out about killer whales right now that’s doing very well, I might add. Congratulations. Thanks. I’m excited about it. Yeah, it’s a fun. It was it was a pleasure book. 

So but, you know, all my other books have been about hate groups and hate crimes and that sort of thing. And it was kind of nice to take a break. But yeah, obviously, Donald Trump has changed. 

I really wanted to be writing about a book about a humpback whale Smaltz that Donald Trump kind of changed my plans. 

So as we speak, Donald Trump has just recently appointed Steve Bannon of the Art Right fame to be his top strategic adviser. Who is bad and why should we be concerned about this appointment? 

Well, Bannon is a guy who, you know, he’s a creature of the whole bright part news operation, which, you know, when it started up, Lindsey, as you know, I mean, Breitenbach, Bart himself, he was a pretty hardcore conservative, but certainly not a racist or anybody who would tolerate that sort of thing. 

But after his death, you know, the organization began slowly picking up all this stuff from the white nationalist. Right. And pretty soon became, you know, one of the leading voices of what is now known as the old right. 

And Bannon, you know, in his interview with my partner in crime on this story, Sarah Posner said, describe a bright. The leading voice of the all right. And, you know, that’s probably true. There certainly are them or one of them or may sort of mainstream leaning. All right. Outfits. You know, they’re not nearly as vile as the Daily Stormer or anything like that. 

But they only say that birth control makes women crazy and unattractive and just right. I mean, just basic stuff. 

Yeah. Yeah. It’s just, you know, your basic crude misogyny, whereas, you know, Stormers running neo Nazi stuff, that’s genuinely vile. So, you know, there are degrees of violence as to this and bright parts, probably more on the less vile end of that spectrum. 

But there’s still fires. What is the art? Right. Well, the old right is this. 

It’s this new basically it is the state’s far right of the 21st century. 

It’s all bad news, really, in many ways a creature of the Internet. But it essentially is the way the extremist trade is organized now. And they’re recruiting a lot of people online. I mean, really, what it is in a lot of ways fundamentally is a massive online radicalization movement because it has the effect of recruiting all of these people. 

And the really frightening thing about the. All right. Is this opened up all these vast new horizons for them to be able to recruit, especially young minds. You know, they specifically target their audience to try to recruit people from the gaming community, which is actually a significant component of the. 

All right, because a lot of the ALRIGHT arose out of gaming chat forums where there was originally it was men’s rights activism and some of this men’s rights extremist stuff that they that they were organizing around. And that’s really an important component of the ultra right. 

So GamerGate and that kind of stuff. 

Yeah. GamerGate. And that’s kind of stuff became was really kind of an important formation ground because, you know, guys like Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer and Richard Spencer of what was then called his magazine was called the alternative. 

Right. 

Were very much part of this. And so the name, the Ultra Right, does come firm. Spencer’s original magazine, the alternative. Right. It just got shortened to alright, even though that magazine’s defunct and he has another magazine right now, that is what gave sort of the movement its name. 

What are they positioning themselves as an alternative to mainstream conservatism? 

Yeah. In fact, they see themselves as aiming to destroy conservatism that are pretty, you know, blatant about that. 

They talk about how they’re going to they wanted to know whether chief objects of derision is the CUK or conservatives. These are supposedly cuckolded conservatives is what they’re saying. And cuckolded. It means they’re sexually humiliated or whatever. 

So how does that analogy works? Like if a cuckold is somebody that gets sexual gratification from watching his wife have sex with somebody else? Who are the players in this cuckold? Right. 

Well, yeah, I’m not really sure that it’s that well thought out. 

It’s mostly I think the idea is that this is a person who is sort of sexually humiliated. These are people who have been, you know, are. And and that’s really more of the concept of the CUK is that, you know, if not castrated, sort of mentally castrated. 

And that’s what they’re saying. Conservatives are, you know, mainstream conservatives aren’t being real conservatives. 

They’re not telling the real truth, especially about the need for white people to have their own place, beloved, beloved a lot, or men to be able to be as misogynist as they want to be. You know, that that’s part of their argument. 

How did Donald Trump come to get such a strong hold on this on the subculture? 

Boy, I don’t know. I actually think he came in more through the Alex Jones window. 

Originally, he was, you know, as we know, he was the birther conspiracist in chief. 

And he clearly spent a lot of time listening to Alex Jones because he regurgitates a lot of Jones’s world view. 

And as we know how to heal it, Jones himself has remarked on how he’ll say something on the show. One day and two days later, Trump is saying it. And that’s really was kind of the sort of entree for. Into this realm. But he the other aspect of it was that they quickly embraced him immediately after his announcement. You know, his announcement speech where he called Mexicans criminals, rapists. 

And like two days after that speech, Angaleena the Stormer announced his endorsement of Trump. And a lot of the rest of the outrage was a little slower to catch on when they really came on board, especially the white nationalists like Jerry Taylor and Spencer. 

They came on board about two months later when he laid out his immigration plan. And it was Bates. You may recall, basically echoed all the themes that he had laid out in that announcement speech, but gave specific plans for carrying it out, including, you know, me, deportation of 11 million people. 

And he, you know, as you may recall, is still holding true most to that. He did announce the other day that he is going to immediately deport up to 30 million people. 

So at any rate, that’s when they. That was when they caught on. And that was when they really got behind him and they started tweeting Pru’s Trump stuff out on social media. And Trump would reach start rich reading it. He rather infamously in October of 2015, retweeted an image of himself as Pepe the Frog, who, as we now know, is the mascot of the. All right. And it’s still up there. 

It’s still up there on it is what is Pepe the frog and where does it come from? 

Well, so one of the other fonts of the ultraright was a four was this forum called 4chan that started out as being a forum about Japanese anime. 

Seems bad enough. A very Beniamino little tentacle rape and whatnot, but. Right. 

But the guy who ran it ran it as basically an anything goes site. It was completely open to any kind of conversation. 

So these skinhead neo-Nazi young Pointes premises types started invading the place and created these huge, huge section of 4chan that was really devoted to their stuff as as did the men’s rights activist slash extremists. 

I mean, as you know, these people are very close in now with the white nationalists and the. 

So 4chan became this place where what you got was they were generating a lot of meems with cartoons that were based on Japanese anime but had various kinds of neo-Nazi stuff attached to it. 

And Meems, of Japanese anime characters wearing Nazi uniforms and that sort of thing. 

And Pepé the Frog was this cartoon who was created by is very nice, middle of the road liberal guy who who’s piece of art was picked up at 4chan. 

I’m pretty sure. And recirculated millions of times with as part of these cartoon, Meems. And pretty soon it came to Pepé became one of the really dominant names in these forums and began spreading everywhere. And so now Pepé is more or less official, the the mascot of the ultra right. Much to its creators dismay. 

And this award winning piece, you describe this kind of elaborate dance that Trump has done with the art. Right. And with hate groups to kind of bring their message into the center of U.S. politics without ever officially endorsing it. 

How does that work? Well, there are two ways that he did that. 

In one regard, for instance, we had a number of incidents where his followers or people attached to him would do horrific racist ads, for instance, to Hispanic men committed to this awful hate crime in Brooklyn against stay or rather two white men committed. 

It’s awful. It was actually in Boston against a Hispanic man and said that they were inspired by Trump, was that he was a the victim was sleeping and they attacked him. 

Yeah. And and credited Trump as being their inspiration. And when asked about that, Trump said, oh, well, that’s awful. 

I wouldn’t want to condone anything like that. But, you know, my PAC, my supporters are very passionate and they’re very angry. And there’s a lot of anger out there and people are really passionate and he would make excuses for them. 

He would rationalize their behavior and and at other times, for instance, when you may recall, there is a journalist who did this. Less than flattering interview with Malana, who is a Jewish journalist and a stoolie I offer. 

Yes. And she was just inundated with this horrific deluge of anti-Semitic hate crap on our Twitter feed and elsewhere. 

And when asked about that, Trump refused, even saying that it was bad. He said, well, he basically kind of said she had a comment. So this is kind of the part of the dance that he did around this stuff. And then there is the the issues of his endorsements, the many, many, many endorsements. 

I mean, look, other presidents have there been a few other presidents in the past, are typically conservative Republicans who have been endorsed by various white supremacist figures. I remember George W. Bush getting endorsed by some white supremacist figures in 2000. 

I mean, he in a two party system, you are going to pick up some weird endorsements, right? 

Right. And and so, you know, we recognize that that’s part of the thing. But what’s unique about Trump was the utter deluge. 

I mean, it was just consistent and across the board and everyone came on where it was really unusual to see that kind of move. So that was part of why we started tracking all of these endorsements. 

And it wound up just, you know, we created a database about it. It just was massive. 

We actually had a lot of trouble figuring out just where to start with this story, because the amount of data that we collected was huge. And credit Sara and Esther Kaplan, I might add, for just doing a wonderful job of pounding it into shape. 

You guys did a really interesting analysis quantitatively of Twitter activity one week in September to kind of quantify Trump’s relationship to hate groups. Can you tell us how that worked? 

Well, we we worked with the SPDC to identify some really key hash tags that would, you know, help us sort out the real racists who are out there active on social media and try to ascertain, you know, the the amount of their connectedness to the Trump social media campaign and social media world. 

And did it better be pretty extensive, especially people who were aides to Trump and members of the campaign staff and as well as in the end, you know, people like Donald Trump, Junior, who was doing all kinds of stuff, posting all kinds of anti-Semitic tweets and crap like that. 

So, yeah, it was you know, it was it was a really interesting analysis. It showed that there was this really powerful social media confluence going on between the Trump campaign and and the the all right world. And, you know, it’s it’s very it’s very much out in the open. 

I think that’s part of the most disturbing part about it is we always used to see conservatives doing a lot of this dog whistling and, you know, stuff like that sort of surreptitious promotion of racism. And it’s just out in the open. 

And, you know, we can see it’s just had this profound effect on the public out there, the Trump supporters and the public. You know, we saw even before the election, it was as though the lid had been lifted off the national ID and people were just being out there is nasty and racist as they wanted to be. And, boy, it’s even gotten worse now that he’s won. So we all better buckle in and be ready to do what we can to stop it. 

What do you think Bannon’s end game is? I mean, he’s been a strategic advisor trying to get Trump to win the election. But now that Trump’s in the Oval Office, what do you think he ultimately want? What do you think he’s telling Trump’s to do and why? 

Well, I can’t guess at that right now other than to me. 

I mean, I can’t say anything definitively for sure. But if I were to guess, I would say he’s likely he’s likely to be acting as sort of a a provocateur. 

I think he’s going to be advising Trump to do provocative stuff. That’s going to be aimed at setting liberals back on their heels. 

I think he’s going to think strategically about how to attack the liberal establishment as well as that. I think he’ll also be at war with mainstream conservative establishment. 

You know, he’s he’s going to be actually fighting two fronts in that regard. And maybe it’s time for some of us to think of mainstream conservatives as our allies in some regards. And they say. 

His end game. Does he have a picture of a society that he wants to build? Is it authoritarian like Nazi Germany? Is it anarchy? What is it that he wants? 

Well, you know that I can’t tell you. I can tell you that the followers are definitively authoritarian. You know, the people you know, that’s her who are my sort of specialty is I go out and I go to these rallies and I listen to people talking in the field or monitor what people are saying on social media. And I can tell you that pretty clearly that the hardcore Trump followers are really authoritarian personalities. People who insist on they want an authoritarian leader. They want a big a big honcho in charge of the world. They think that somebody like that is going to be more capable of making the world a better place the way they want it to be. 

And, you know, they kind of there’s right wing, left wing authoritarianism. But this is very clearly right wing authoritarianism. And, you know, I would say that that’s who Bannon is going to be responding to. He’s going to be listening to that base and sort of responding to their demands. If I had my guess. But what is what is Bannon’s endgame? It’s really hard to say. What I do know is that, you know, the white nationalists really do believe that this signs that we see, it may quite make America white again, are you know, that’s sort of the lurking subtexts of Trump’s campaign slogan. And we see it popping up all the time now. And the. All right. That that’s. 

And I think that they sort of want to make America back to a place where proud people know their place and feel like people are running the show again. 

What role, if any, does religion play on the right of. 

It’s typically actually very a religious indeed. There’s probably some streak of Athie ism running through it. There is a confluence there in Trump and that’s where the event evangelicals and the All right come together is on Trump. 

It’s fascinating how those two. I mean, Trump is such a secular guy and yet evangelicals are also flocking to him. 

Well, it’s it’s really for the evangelicals, it’s just confirmation bias at work. You know, they they have convinced themselves that he basically just a culture war and they’re on that side in the culture war. 

So even if they’re linking up arms with people who whose own ideologies they really want nothing to do with or are, you know, reluctant to at least adopt themselves, they’re willing to link arms with them for what they see as their greater good, the greater cause, because they’re keeping the eye on the big picture. 

So if mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives were to join up to fight the kind of anarchic outright, what do you think the areas of common ground would be? I mean, it doesn’t seem like mainstream conservatism is all that interested in defending a pluralistic society or social programs that help people with respect to gender or race or, you know, a lot of things that mainstream liberals might be interested in. 

Where would that common ground come from? 

Common ground in terms of where what we can talk about going forward, you mean? 

Yeah. If there were going to be a coalition between liberals and conservatives against the outright. What could bring those two sides together? 

Rural America, I think. 

I think actually it’s been a horrendous mistake for progressives to abandon rural America, as it have done for the last 30 years, is created. 

You just have to look at that map and just see the red out there and the rural districts and the blue and the cities and understand, you know, I understand that there’s no point in time. 

It bothers me that rural states actually have more power electorally. 

But nonetheless, I mean, look, I I grew up in rural America and I have zero tolerance for the bigots and bullies and ignoramuses who have been running rampant there in recent years. And we’re a part and certainly part of the cultural landscape. And I grew up. It’s why I don’t live in rural Idaho anymore. 

But, you know, and let’s be honest about that. So trying to reach out to those kinds of people, forget about it. Those people will never, ever be your friends. They’ll ever be who you support. 

But there’s a lot of common people out there who are frustrated and angry and just want to change. And we certainly progressives weren’t offering anything in that, or at least liberals weren’t offering anything in that regard in this election. 

What can we ask? What do we have when the sort of standard liberal playbook, what do we have to offer to rural America that they would want? 

Well, we have to remember, Lindsay, that, you know, the great progressive coalition in the 30s and 40s was built around here, hard’s rural Americans, people in Granges and stuff like that. 

And that’s just been utterly abandoned. And that’s what I’ve been saying. 

It’s like a modern liberal, modern liberal economics has no place for the liberal part of the liberal coalition. Doesn’t seem to want the kind of policies that would favor family farmers continuing to be self-sufficient or factories. Go back to the Rust Belt either. 

Right. Right. No. And see, this is part of the problem. You go to you go to rural America now. And it is not these. These are communities have been gutted by the Wal-Mart ization of America. They don’t have corner drug stores. They don’t have theaters in their towns anymore. Two main streets are all dried up and blown away. 

They if they go shopping now, A.J., 40 miles, Wal-Mart. 

And a lot of that is a product of the change of agriculture, where everything is much more industrialized and and people are employees of corporations instead of owning their family farms. 

And I think that that’s part of what Progressist really need to address. I think there’s a huge demand out there for fresh, organically grown produce. I think there’s a huge demand out there for people to have small family farms again and be doing things in an organic way that they can be feeding people with as well. 

Do you think there might be a future for mass unionization or collectivization of industrial farming? 

There could be. You know, I would just say that I’m really a fan of employee owned companies. 

I think that employee corporations are actually a great model for progressives to sort of adopt as a form of capitalist advancement. 

I think, you know, employee owned companies are perfectly capitalist in their basic but is it’s different is a very different alignment than what you’re saying, get, say, with a communist system. Right. 

Right. That they would still be collectives that would make money, but they would be. Yeah. Making money for people on them. Right. Right. Exactly. Like some mutual insurance companies that everyone says are perfectly capital. Yes, I think so. 

So I think there are a lot of things that progressives could do to help ordinary working people. And a lot of it is just that, look, we based our politics in for the last 30 years on looking at where the numbers are. 

We politically have kind of shaped liberal, the liberal agenda to help, you know, advance our our numbers in the cities as much as we can. 

So they’re very we’ve had very urban friendly policies, which I don’t object to, but we’ve really abandoned people in rural districts and particularly rural progressives, having been a rural progressive and growing up in that environment. 

I can tell you that people out there there saw a lot of them out there. They form, you know, minority in the states and probably get like 30 percent of Idaho. But they’re still there and they’re still working and they’re still keeping their heads up, which is pretty hard. 

That kind of retirement, let me tell you. 

And I think, you know, as part of that was one of the things that I think the 50 state strategy that Howard Dean. Danta in 2008. He was kind of rete. That was sort of the model that worked. 

And I think it was really stupid of Democrats to abandon it. So, you know, those I think that progressives need to start thinking of themselves as being a movement for everyone. And we need to stop looking honestly. You know, I’m even though, like I said, I have no use for the ignoramuses out there. 

I am always disturbed by the ease with which, you know, my urban neighbors will slip in to this sort of bigotry, hate about people who live in rural areas. 

So I think we need to look after ourselves in the mirror as far as that goes. Rethink our priorities and move forward. 

What’s the number one thing that people can or should be doing right now to sort of stop the Trump agenda as he rolls into office? 

I think we have to just be out there opposing him at every turn. 

I fully support the protests against them, but not the violence that is coming. I think those people are stupid, if you ask me. But that’s just hype. 

And, you know, there if you want to step on your message, that’s how you do it. 

Yeah. But yeah. No, I. I think protests. Is there a lot of anti Trump violence that’s happening right now? 

Now, no. No, no, it’s not it. Well, it’s it’s people doing damage to property out there. That’s happening in association with the. It’s not an anti Trump violence. It’s people just acting out out their rage. 

Some more sort of generic rioting. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So that’s just that’s what was the day calling them as rioters. Right. That’s the name that they’re using in the media for these protesters. And this like these people are not rioting poster. 

There’s just a tiny handful people, handful of them, who are going out from Beijing windows and setting fires, and some of them are assaulting other people. So, you know, so there has been some unfortunate incidents of violence associated with those protests. 

And I think that has to be changed. But especially going forward. But at the same time, you. Yeah, I just think we need to oppose him at every turn on every policy, every appointment that we possibly can. Certainly, that was how they greeted Barack Obama in spring of 2009. And they deserve nothing less. 

Dave, that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

My pleasure. 

Lindsay Point of Inquiry is a production at the Center for Inquiry, become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry dot org slash membership.