Reviewed by Joan Braune
James Pogue’s Chosen Country and David Neiwert’s Alt-America both study the contemporary American far-right. Pogue in Chosen Country follows the 2016 armed occupation of the Oregon Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by right-wing rancher Ammon Bundy; Ammon Bundy’s father Cliven Bundy previously led the 2014 Nevada “ranch standoff.” In Alt-America, David Neiwert explicates the rise of the U.S. “radical right” from the 1990s to the present, including the Nevada and Oregon standoffs. Although the authors address some of the same events, they differ dramatically in their methods and assessment.
David Neiwert is a highly respected, long-time researcher and journalist on the far-right in the United States, especially the Northwest region. Alt-America can be seen as a sequel to his book In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (Washington State University Press, 1999), which focuses on the “patriot” movement or self-deputized citizens’ “militias” in the U.S. Northwest. Alt-America similarly follows violent right-wing extremism, although greater attention is paid to the problem of misinformation, conspiracy theories (like the anti-Semitic “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory), and “alternative facts” (the infamous phrase coined by White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway). In Neiwert’s account, the far-right lives in an “alternative America” in which former President Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, immigrants of color are having babies in a deliberate plot to outnumber whites, and the United Nations is gearing up to confiscate Americans’ guns. Neiwert’s topics include not only the context addressed by Pogue (the Bundy family’s movement), but also the Tea Party, the neo-fascist “alt-right,” and the Trump movement broadly. The role of the internet in building misogynistic and racist movements is also addressed.
Alt-America often reads like a crime report, and a terrifying one; the endless stream of hate crimes and murders leaves the reader reeling, forced to confront the reality that the “id unleashed” (as one chapter is titled) by Trumpism will likely yield yet more violence. In seeking to understand this extremist crime wave, Neiwert would undoubtedly consider an FBI agent to be a more credible source of information than the right-wing standoff leader Ammon Bundy. Here’s Neiwert, giving his typical take:
Probably the [FBI] should have known better than to imagine that releasing the videos [of officers shooting and killing right-wing ranch occupier LaVoy Finicum] could contain the bile: the Patriot movement would never let an opportunity to create a good martyr go to waste. Embracing martyrdom and the idea of martyrdom is a key—an essential—element of what makes such extremist belief systems tick. The movement has a long history of attracting violent actors who are willing to both kill and be killed in the name of their extreme worldview (211).
There it is. The Patriot movement: Extremists, killers, a cult of martyrdom unmoored from reality. The FBI: Well-meaning, naïvely believing that the truth will set us free, fact-based. Neiwert’s imagined audience seems to be some combination of well-meaning liberals who are not sure what is going on, and authorities (cops, Google algorithm designers, etc.) who have not yet decided whether to be concerned. Despite his overwhelmingly valuable compilation of research, this tendency to see far-right movements as a crime problem or a problem of misinformation that can be properly corralled by authorities, presents certain limitations, a topic I will return to momentarily.
The other of the two books, James Pogue’s Chosen Country, is personal, combining memoir with reporting. Pogue is not trying to persuade readers that the rebellious ranchers and gun-toting militia-members are dangerous—rather the contrary. Pogue seems to be writing to convince the left that his right-wing subjects are complex human beings reflecting contradictions within contemporary society, and that while their views may be odd and somewhat problematic, they are not knuckle-dragging racists. In fact, he believes they can teach us something about both “America” and the present condition of U.S. class politics. Pogue is much more sympathetic (or empathetic, or both) towards his far-right subjects than Neiwert. Pogue sees something in Ammon Bundy—the charismatic leader, devout Mormon, a kind of “prophet” to his followers—and at the end of the book, Pogue himself clearly feels let down, even betrayed, by Bundy, as he had felt that his “Constitutionalist” movement might represent something partially worth saving. In contrast to Neiwert, if Pogue wants to understand Ammon Bundy, he will ask Ammon Bundy, long before it will occur to him to ask the FBI.
Pogue is candid about undergoing personal crises (a break-up, family tragedy, addictions) while writing the book, after spending time living in the rough in the wild west, camping alone on Western “public lands.” He is fascinated that these public lands represent a vast commons in the United States, a commons that most Americans are not aware even exists, and a commons that embodies something of the stereotypically American in its openness to the libertarian, rugged individualist spirit, with all the contradictions that includes (both a critique of established power structures and a fetishization of liberalism and capitalism). He seeks to understand how a movement in love with an ideal of “freedom,” and that seems to be defending some notion of the commons (letting ranchers use public lands for grazing), can be so right-wing. Although he acknowledges that their movement is subject to manipulation by capitalists seeking to open lands to more resource extraction, Pogue sees a genuine and partly healthy rebelliousness in the Bundy movement.
Pogue is careful to differentiate the Bundy family’s “Constitutionalism” from white supremacism, while Neiwert makes every effort to illuminate connections between the two. Maintaining the distinction seems overly important to Pogue, who comes off a bit defensive on the topic. At the end of the book, Pogue is surprised when the Bundy movement appears to become more clearly allied to racist politics.
As hate-tracking Neiwert knows so well and might be keen to point out to Pogue, the Constitutionalists and militia movements have always been blurry around the edges, overlapping with ideological racism. Consider the impact of the pro-Hitler Silver Shirts (Silver Legion of America), the most prominent fascist group in the U.S. Northwest in the 1930s. The group was shut down by the government after Pearl Harbor, as the U.S. entered the Second World War on the side of the Allies, but some former Silver Shirts migrated to other movements. Some helped to form the Posse Comitatus, the origin of today’s U.S. “patriot”/militia movement, branches of which claim to reject racism and supported the Bundy standoffs. Another former Silver Shirt, however, Richard Butler, formed the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations. A frequent guest of Butler’s compound was Robert Mathews, who formed the white supremacist terrorist organization known as The Order; Mathews himself began his political journey, not with an explicitly racist politics but with the anti-Communism of the John Birch Society. The John Birch Society famously claims to be only anti-Communist and not racist, but it dabbles in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Its early leadership included former members of the powerful capitalist National Association of Manufacturers, which had quietly funded the Nazi war machine (Yeadon and Hawkins 2008, 164, 225, 227). In short, the lines have always been porous between white supremacist or fascist movements on the one hand, and the down-home patriotic American, Constitutionalist, gun-toting, “freedom-loving” militia-types, on the other. Pogue mostly glosses over this reality.
Pogue, like Neiwert, does discuss the influence of the writings of Mormon anti-Communist ideologue Cleon Skousen on the Bundy movement. Pogue points out that Skousen shared the Mormon belief that the United States was “Zion” and that the Constitution was divinely inspired. Pogue is aware that Skousen influenced the Bircher (John Birch Society, conspiracist) far-right. Pogue rightly notes that Skousen “believed in a Rothschild-headed globalist conspiracy against American civilization”(62). Despite his acknowledgment of Skousen’s bigotry, it seems that Pogue is too quick to dismiss interpretations of the Bundy family’s movement as bigoted.
Although Pogue’s on-the-ground investigation gives him the advantage of an insider perspective, he is also clearly uncomfortable at points, wondering if he is being sucked in by Ammon Bundy’s charisma. At the end of the book, he visits Ammon Bundy in jail and firmly rejects his movement. A similar dilemma surfaces in another recent book about the radical right, Vegas Tenold’s Everything You Love Will Burn. As an embedded journalist following fascist Matthew Heimbach’s organizing prior to the August 2017 racist march in Charlottesville, Tenold won some trust from the fascists he was studying. In one poignant scene, the fascist Heimbach asks Tenold why he has never asked for his opinion on the Holocaust. Tenold, who knows that Heimbach will defend or deny the Holocaust, admits to readers, “I realized that a part of me had begun to enjoy Matthew’s company, and perhaps subconsciously I knew that asking about the Holocaust—a subject about which I was fairly certain I knew what Matthew thought—would mean shattering the illusion that perhaps he was different from the others … It was a wake-up call, a reminder that however friendly we had become, there was still a chasm between us that neither of us wanted to cross and certain things I could never condone” (Tenold 2018, 204). Pogue also at times appears to be avoiding the chasm between himself and his subjects. Although Pogue is right to distinguish the far-right Constitutionalist movement from neo-Nazis—these are not identical groups or ideologies—one wonders if there are certain questions he should have asked that he didn’t. For example, some outspoken anti-Muslim bigots were helping to lead the wildlife refuge occupation, but if Pogue ever asks Ammon Bundy what he thinks about Muslims, it never makes it into the book.
Careful empathetic engagement with or study of the far-right can have uses in assisting counter-recruitment and building class solidarity. Not everyone involved in militia-type movements is a hardened ideologue, and left groups like Redneck Revolt have made inroads in right-wing rural movements. A grandmother Pogue interviews at the Oregon occupation says she got involved in the Bundy movement because right-wing militia members in her hometown were helping people, building a playground for kids and fighting wildfires (a reminder, perhaps, that the left needs to be engaged in projects of mutual aid or building dual power). Others Pogue interviews say that they would be interested, hypothetically, in working with left movements like Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, but fear they would be rejected as “hicks” or “rednecks.” These are the nuances that Neiwert’s crime-chronicling approach will inevitably miss. However, any empathetic engagement with the far-right needs to be held in tension with the understanding that participants’ beliefs are problematic, that many are prone to violence, and that they belong to a social movement seeking power. Pogue’s analysis suffers from a deficiency of caution in its pursuit of common ground and from his understandably blurred personal boundaries while undergoing a personal crisis.
If Pogue’s analysis might lead us to naively befriend right-wing extremists and fall under the sway of their charisma, Neiwert’s analysis could lead us to rely too comfortably on established authorities to rescue us. An emphasis on “alternative facts” suggests that fascism can be overcome through administrative solutions and law enforcement practices. While tamping down on hate speech on social media, altering Google search results to ensure that bigoted material is located “further down” in the results (one of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s demands), and investing more resources in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of hate crime can all assist in reducing the spread of hateful ideologies, these are temporary measures that are insufficient to defeat a social movement.
Anyone seeking to understand the far-right in the United States today should read both books, though Neiwert’s is far more comprehensive and impressive in its research. It remains for the left to forge a methodological synthesis that can account for the economic conditions that give rise to far-right movements, these movements’ pursuit of power and alliances with systems of power, and the psychological alienation of individuals recruited into these movements. Understanding all of these dimensions requires theoretical work as well as empirical analysis, and the Marxist philosophical tradition, and especially the Frankfurt School (with its attempt to understand fascism and the authoritarian personality at both societal and individual levels) has much to offer. Of the cottage-industry of new books explaining the U.S. “alt-right” to the general public, few make any reference to Marx, Freud, or the Frankfurt School. Until a stronger analysis can be more widely conveyed, many community responses to the far-right will remain mired in administrative solutions or in fractured, risky attempts to “dialogue.”
10 December 2018
- 2018 Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America (New York: Nation Books)
- 2008 The Nazi Hydra in America: Suppressed History of a Century (Joshua Tree: Progressive Press)