Donald Trump's voters are like the zombies and ghouls in Michael Jackson's beloved "Thriller" music video. Trump provides the lyrics and Fox News is making the music. But while "Thriller" was all harmless fun, what Trump and the right-wing echo chamber have done to America (and the world) is all very deadly and very serious business.
Trump leads a political movement and party that exhibits the signs of a political cult. They are united in overturning American's multiracial democracy by assaulting basic democratic norms and values. Fox News serves as Trump's personal Ministry of Truth, circulating lies and distortions where empirical reality is twisted and usurped to serve the will of the strongman autocrat.
On one extreme this creates malaise and confusion among a large portion of the public. Apathy is the result. Despite all the media attention focused on next week's midterm elections, a large proportion of eligible adults will not vote. There are other members of the public who will believe anything that he says and do his bidding. These are the Americans who, according to a new PRRI survey, will stand by Trump no matter what he does, even if that includes bringing shame to the office of the presidency, embarrassing the United States on the world stage, and damaging American democracy. Trump really could -- as he boasted during the 2016 presidential campaign -- "stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody" and not lose the love of his supporters.
Then there are those members of Trump's political cult (and others) who have been activated and compelled by his fear-mongering, racism, misogyny and nativism. These are the right-wing domestic terrorists who engaged in lethal violence in Charlottesville and have participated in hundreds if not thousands of hate crimes, including fatal attacks, against nonwhites, Muslims, Jews and other targeted groups during Trump's presidential campaign and through his first two years in office.
These most extreme and dangerous members of Trump's base (and those who share their values) were also responsible for the mail-bomb campaign allegedly conducted by Cesar Sayoc Jr., aka the "MAGAbomber," as well as the mass murder of 11 Jewish people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue and the killing of two African-Americans in an apparent hate crime in Louisville, Kentucky -- all events that occurred over a span of several days last week.
What role do Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media play in encouraging and giving permission for political violence? Are they responsible for the violent acts committed by their public? Has eliminationist rhetoric and "scripted violence" become a central aspect of the American right's political strategy? What is the relationship between the racists and white supremacists of the "alt-right" and the increase in political violence under Trump? If the Democrats are successful in the upcoming midterm elections, how will Trump and the far right respond, given their consistent strategy of appealing to violence?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with David Neiwert. He is one of the United States' leading experts on right-wing political violence and domestic terrorism.
Neiwert is an investigative journalist and a contributing writer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is also the author of several books including the new "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump," "Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right" and "Over the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Over the course of several days America has experienced a large-scale assassination plot against prominent Democrats, a likely hate crime in which two African-Americans were killed by a white supremacist in Louisville, and then the massacre of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Is the timing just coincidental, or is something else taking place?
It’s not a coincidence at all. We are going to start seeing a lot more of this type of violence. I think it is going to be a regular trend. It is being encouraged by conspiracy theories and the hatred that is being whipped up by the right wing. It is not just Donald Trump. He plays a key role of course, because as the president he gives permission for these acts and people follow his example. The alleged mass murderer at the synagogue was enraged by the so-called [migrant] caravan. This outrage is being fueled by Fox News and Donald Trump. Michael Savage and Infowars are also involved too. Together those right-wing voices have a powerfully unhinging effect on people.
Of course there will be deflections and denials by Trump and his news media that they are not responsible for the violence. How do we respond?
No matter what we do they are going to deny, deny, deny. Nobody wants to think that they are a bad person -- and obviously condoning that violence makes you a bad person. They’re in absolute denial about the extent to which they have condoned this kind of behavior and given permission for it to occur. There are going to be all kinds of contortions of denial. Yes, in this case it is true that the alleged Pittsburgh anti-Semite mass gunman didn’t like Trump -- but he was very much inspired by and fueled by things that Donald Trump says. This is particular true in terms of Trump's comments about immigrants. This alleged mass murderer was clearly going after Jewish people because he believes they are responsible for immigrants crossing over the United States border.
This narrative also comes out of the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones' Infowars. It also comes from white nationalists and other sources too. These voices then connect what they are doing with what Fox News is saying. Fox News is busy drumming up fear: Fox won't say, “The Jews are doing this.” But once the fear-mongering gets going from Fox News, then people with even more extreme points of view pick up on it.
What is the role of Fox News host Tucker Carlson in disseminating these talking points?
He’s not alone, but clearly Carlson is the leading figure for this at Fox News. It’s not a coincidence that white nationalists love Tucker. They love him because he says the things that they love to hear about how America is being invaded by brown people, essentially. That’s exactly the kind of stuff that the shooter in Pittsburgh was picking up on. They take this stuff very serious. When people are being told that their country is being invaded by brown people, they get frightened and angry and they decide to act. That’s what the alleged mass murderer at the Pittsburgh synagogue did.
Trump has literally said that black and brown people from Latin and South America are "vermin." He has also called them, as well as Muslims, "snakes" or an "infestation." This is quite literally Nazi rhetoric. But few if any voices who are allowed on mainstream cable news or other outlets will explain this reality.
I haven’t been able to get on TV for the past year. My new book "Alt-America" has been selling very well on its own, but I haven’t been able to get on TV at all because bookers and producers run away from the fact that I associate Trump with the radical right directly in my title. The reason it makes them uncomfortable is that they know that me coming out and saying this brings the flying monkeys from the right wing. They’ll come descending. These networks do not want the controversy.
Given all of the evidence of how the right is engaging in political violence in America, especially under Donald Trump, why do so many people still deny it?
Consider the "MAGAbomber." Immediately after the news came out, so many people were saying, “Well, maybe it’s a false flag. Maybe it’s somebody trying to make Trump look bad?” How about we just go with Occam’s razor and the explanation that Cesar Sayoc is apparently a right-wing extremist nutcase?
What is "scripted violence" or the more technical term "stochastic terrorism"? How is it connected to "eliminationism"?
Scripted violence is where a person who has a national platform describes the kind of violence that they want to be carried out. He identifies the targets and leaves it up to the listeners to carry out this violence. It is a form of terrorism. It is an act and a social phenomenon where there is an agreement to inflict massive violence on a whole segment of society. Again, this violence is led by people in high-profile positions in the media and the government. They’re the ones who do the scripting, and it is ordinary people who carry it out. Think of it like Charles Manson and his followers. Manson wrote the script; he didn’t commit any of those murders. He just had his followers carry them out.
What are some concrete examples of this from Donald Trump and the American right more generally?
The Pittsburgh mass shooter who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue is obviously a good example. He allegedly shot people because of a fear of the "caravan" -- immigrants and refugees crossing the border. Dylann Roof is another example. He was reading all this material about fake "black crime" statistics and decided he needed to do something about it. He was basically whipped up into a state of implacable hatred by the Council of Conservative Citizens and Daily Stormer and other websites of that ilk. These websites were telling him that black people were trying to kill all the white people in America. Roof acted on that. Then several months after Dylann Roof’s murder rampage, Donald Trump tweeted out those very same "black crime" statistics on his Twitter account. This false information ends up being reinforced, because we don’t actually tackle the underlying false beliefs. Instead we mostly are left reeling and repulsed by the horror of the violence that they produce.
Eliminationist rhetoric is always designed to dehumanize other people to the extent that it’s not only acceptable to act violently against them, it becomes virtually a duty to do so. Trump's "snake" story is another classic example because you are depicting an entire race of people -- Muslims or Latinos, depending on who Trump is describing that day. You are holding the snake and it decides to bite you. The snake is made into vermin so it is in your interest to kill it first. Right? That’s the object of that story. It’s really a classic eliminationist rhetoric.
Those refugees in the "caravan" are being depicted as monstrous invaders who are going to "poison" America. Trump and his spokespeople are using very threatening language toward people who are poor, desperate and vulnerable. Trump's just threatened them with the United States military. It is a clear encouragement to violence.
It is similar to when Donald Trump made the remark about the "Second Amendment people" in reference to Hillary Clinton. The American right does this all the time.
Once this right-wing violence machine is put in motion, what usually happens?
It tends to go in cycles. There will be a fairly intense period of terrorism that creates widespread horror. The cycle then tends to die down for a while. Eventually it works itself back up. These people who act out violently have been getting ginned up for a long time. When the fear-mongering reaches a type of rhetorical peak, violence is most likely to start breaking out again. Right now we are in that phase. The fear-mongering from the right, and particularly from President Trump and Fox News and the right-wing media more generally, is just horrendous at present. I’m not surprised at all that there is political violence in America right now.
I would also not be surprised that if Democrats win back the House of Representatives there will be violence directed at liberal politicians, prominent people like Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters. There could be a really ugly backlash after the midterm election. Some of that will be inspired by rhetoric, but it will also be inspired by the reality on the ground that what really makes these people fearful is losing power. That’s when these right-wingers become panicked and act.
Donald Trump is not just making suggestions about political violence. He is in a way giving orders and instructions. The alleged "MAGAbomber" and the Pittsburgh Tree of Life mass murderer were really just following through on what Trump and the right-wing media are instructing them to do.
I think they see themselves as taking orders. I don’t think the people who are giving the orders necessarily see themselves as doing that. They see themselves as just trying to urge their people to act, get their supporters off their butts, as it were. Then again, Donald Trump clearly believes that his followers will do anything he says. So that element of giving orders may actually be present.
Trump uses repetition and has a clear narrative and call to action for his supporters.
That is how authoritarianism works. Authoritarianism is the underlying dynamic here. Democracy and democratic institutions are being overwhelmed by these authoritarians. They want to replace our democratic institutions with authoritarian ones.
How does anti-Semitism work in the political imagination of the "alt-right" and other right-wing elements allied with Trump? This is more and more mainstream in today's Republican Party. It is not on the fringes.
Anti-Semitism is more or less the model for eliminationism. You target a vulnerable minority group. You make them out to be the cause of all of the world’s problems and then begin taking various incremental measures to disenfranchise and disempower them. Then the next step is for a leader or group to try to drive this population out of the country or area. Ultimately it turns to murder. It turns to genocide.
The natural progression is that eventually, as it builds and builds and builds, this effort to "purify" the nation by removing "undesirable" peoples becomes genocide. In the case of Jews, it’s a form of insanity because they are a vulnerable minority and they really don’t control the world in any real fashion.
Eventually, it’s not just Jewish people who are singled out. It then becomes blacks, Latinos, Muslims, whoever the target group is. Eventually liberals are targeted for murderous violence too.
Last week Trump declared himself a "nationalist." He is also talking about "globalists" and George Soros. Is Trump really anti-Semitic and a white supremacist or is he just parroting and channeling his advisers and inner circle?
I suspect it’s Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. That’s all Bannon talks about now. He claims it is "economic nationalism" only. The reality is that there has never been a nationalist regime in the history of the world that did not eventually become a dictatorial state which engaged in genocide. It just hasn’t happened. That’s what basically Bannon and others are envisioning when they talk about "nationalism." Saying they are not "white nationalists" is just a distraction and deflection from the truth.
What about "globalism" and the references to George Soros?
That’s Alex Jones. It is anti-Semitism because when these right-wing leaders talk about "globalists" and George Soros, they mean "Jewish." Eventually, at some point, I expect to hear Donald Trump start talking about "cultural Marxism." This is a hoax concept, created by a guy named William Lind in the late 1990s and then promulgated by Patrick Buchanan and Jared Taylor. Cultural Marxism is basically "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" translated into a 21st-century setting.
Instead of having a cabal of Jews, it has George Soros as the leader of the conspiracy -- but it’s still a conspiracy. The goal is to convince their public that they face an existential threat at the hands of a targeted minority. The natural response of ordinary people is to act out violently against that existential threat. That’s what people who smear George Soros and use language such as "globalism" and "cultural Marxism" are doing.
What can people of conscience, genuine American patriots, do to stop this movement?
The first thing is to get everybody you know out to vote. Take these people out of power. That’s the most important step that we can take. What can we do in our personal lives? The Maori have a lovely phrase about this, “Kia Kaha.” This means, "Be strong."
But "Kia Kaha" means more than just being strong. It’s not a strength by yourself. It is a strength in community. It’s a strength in linking arms with your fellow humans and being strong that way.
People of conscience who want to stop this alt-right movement and Donald Trump and the Republicans have to stop fighting with each other. They have to get over the Bernie stuff. They have to get over the loftier-than-thou, holier-than-thou, purity-test nonsense. Recognize that we are in a constitutional crisis in this country.
Ultimately it all depends on whether people want to believe in democracy. A lot of people unfortunately seem to think that democracy is dead. I’m not ready to give up on it yet. Too many people on the left believe that democracy is a dead letter. I don’t. I’m willing to fight for democracy until my dying breath.