Chip Berlet has spent the past four decades studying right-wing political movements as a writer, activist and scholar. Now retired, he worked for many years as a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a think tank based in the Boston area.
Working with Matthew Lyons, Berlet co-wrote “Right-Wing Populism: Too Close for Comfort,” which traces the politics back to the 1600s. He’s well-positioned, then, to make sense of the forces propelling President-elect Donald Trump’s ascendance. While many observers have portrayed Trump’s rise as a total break from the traditions of American politics, Berlet takes a different view: As he and Lyons write, “demagogic appeals,” “demonization” and apocalyptic thinking “have repeatedly been at the center of our political conflicts, not on the fringe.”
Berlet, who has written for The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications, currently serves as an advisor for the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. We spoke to him Dec. 12 from his home in Massachusetts. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
If you were going to add a new chapter to your book, if you were going to describe this moment, what would you say?
Well, first, I’m writing a new book for Routledge about it, so I’m immersed in it. I’ll tell you, the use of conspiratorial rhetoric and bigoted rhetoric targeting and demonizing ‘others’ is nothing new in American politics. It comes and goes in cycles that are not regular. So it’s not a pendulum. There’s no time frame. It has to do with the actual conditions people are experiencing — or think they’re experiencing, because people’s perceptions of their status are just as important as their actual status. If people have been pushed down the economic, social or political ladder, well, that’s real. If people feel they’ll be pushed down the ladder, that’s real, too.
I did a bunch of interviews before the election down in San Antonio, just talking to dozens of people. A lot of the sentiment was, ‘We’ve been screwed over, now we’re going to screw them over.’ It wasn’t so much that people liked Trump — or Clinton. They figured both parties were ridiculous. And neither of them was going to do what they promised, because politicians never do. So to hell with the whole system.
That’s a pretty dreary place to be in a democracy.
Late in the campaign, Trump gave a speech in Florida in which he claimed, “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty” in order to enrich her friends and allies within the financial global elite. What did you make of that messaging?
Near the end, after Steve Bannon got involved, the stuff Trump said about the international banks, that was a dog whistle. The thing about that kind of dog whistle, the coded language, is that it’s heard differently by different audiences. So if you’re an angry farmer in Nebraska and someone talks about “international banks” you think Wall Street maybe. But if you’re in a white supremacist movement or wrapped up in conspiracy theories about money manipulation you think Jews.
Where does this conspiratorial thinking come from?
It’s a narrative in the U.S. that goes back to the late 1800s. It developed originally from a series of panics about the Illuminati and the Freemasons. And then in the 1900s, in Russia, they published the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (the bogus text used to stir up fears that Jews were plotting to take over the planet) and it actually borrows from the original two books about the Freemason conspiracy.
People will say to me, “Well, nobody really believes this stuff.” But as a reporter I go out and talk to people who do believe it. And they can talk about it for hours. They can go into mind-numbing explanations about how the Jews control everything.
What are you most concerned about at this moment?
Even before the election you had the armed occupation at the federal preserve in Oregon. A few days ago you have this guy walking into the pizza place in D.C. There are armed people who think that liberals and gay people and Jews and Mexicans and Muslims are an existential threat to the constitution of the United States. They hear this every day on AM radio, every day on the internet, every day from some of their pastors.
At some point it’s going to slip one way or another: either we will slip back towards a consensus that armed violence is not a solution, or armed violence will grow.
I’ve never said that before … This is different. These are self-motivating armed people seeking to stop evil with guns.
In your view, what message are they getting from the incoming president?
That there are evil people destroying America and it’s a conspiracy and time is running out and we should do something about it — that’s what millions of people hear Trump saying.
So it’s a very drastic message coming from the president-elect that you worry will lead to very drastic actions by people on the ground.
Even before the election I was saying that the rhetoric used by Trump was going to cause violence before and after the election. That was easy to predict. It’s sociology 101. If you scapegoat a group from a high public place for long enough it’s inevitable that some people will act out on that belief and say, “If they’re so evil and they’re out to destroy America, why don’t we get them before they get us.” Some scholars call this scripted violence.
You’ve described the alt-right and white supremacist movements as a very small group of people…
Yeah, a couple hundred thousand.
So why should we be worried about them right now?
They have a lot of guns [laughs]. The alt-right is a coalition. Part of the coalition is relatively angry people with guns. Part of the coalition is intellectuals who have an idea of racial nationalism, which is very popular in right-wing populist movements in Europe. The alt-right believes in racially separate nation-states. Which begs the question: As a white nationalist, what do you do? Do you send people away? Do you force them out? Do you kill them?