The failures of far-right white nationalist rallies over the last month are significant as a barometer for telling us where we stand as a country. The reactionary “Patriot Prayer” and “Proud Boy” groups failed to galvanize a mass turnout in their “Freedom March,” in Portland in early August, with only 400 supporters attending, in comparison to more than a thousand counter-protesters. Similarly, the turnout at the “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington D.C., organized by Jason Kessler as a follow up to the Charlottesville, VA rally last year, saw just 30 people attend, and they were militantly opposed by thousands of counter-protesters.
These anemic turnouts suggest that the “alt-right” – and white supremacists more generally – are increasingly marginalized in American political culture, and that they are on the defensive in the face of a significant public counter-mobilization that has included both violent (Antifa) and non-violent components. None of this is to suggest that the threat of reactionary politics has subsided. As an ABC-Washington Post poll from August 2017 found, one-in-ten Americans, or 22 million people, said they were supporters of the “alt-right” movement, and claimed it is “acceptable” to hold neo-Nazi, white supremacist views. And these numbers may be an underestimate. In a national survey I designed that was administered in January 2018, I asked Americans across the nation what they thought of the “alt-right” or “alternative right movement,” on a scale from 0 to 100, with a “0” representing strong disagreement, a “50” being undecided, and a “100” signifying strong agreement. One in five Americans – 21 percent – expressed some form of approval for the movement by assigning a score of “60” or higher to the “alt-right,” while 12 percent expressed strong support, assigning the movement a score of “75” or higher.
The above findings are disturbing. They suggest that, while few Americans are willing to be publicly shamed and attacked by turning out for white supremacist rallies, the “alt-right” movement benefits from many closet-supporters throughout the nation. These individuals represent a significant threat to democracy, in that their support for authoritarian and fascistic policies could be readily mobilized, particularly behind a charismatic autocratic leader like Donald Trump, who has a history of flirting with fascist and far-right political beliefs.
It is not entirely clear how strong of an understanding academics have when it comes to spotlighting the dangers inherent in the rise of the alt-right. For example, political scientist George Hawley argues in his prominent and widely-reviewed book, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, that it is unfair to equate officials like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon with the alt-right, since the former do not officially endorse white supremacy, while members of the latter do. But this position displays an extraordinary naivete to the reality of rising American fascism, in which individuals like Bannon and Trump seek to serve as a bridge between the Republican Party and overtly fascist and white nationalist political figures and views.
A more sophisticated and grounded analysis of American fascism – advocated by scholars and journalists such as David Neiwert and Alexander Reid Ross, describes American politics as succumbing to a “creeping fascism,” where reactionary and white supremacist views are incrementally smuggled into “mainstream” media discourse, at outlets like Fox News, on talk radio, and in other far-right news sources, without acknowledging the fact that such views originated on the white supremacist right. This practice was/is apparent in the Obama “birther” conspiracism of Fox News’ Sean Hannity and talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh, in the stereotypes and blatant attacks against Muslims purveyed by Fox News, in the blatant anti-semitism incorporated into stories on Alex Jone’s Info Wars, and in the xenophobic conflation of immigrants and terrorism on programs such as Fox News’ “Tucker.”
There can be no neat distinction made between far-right media figures and the Trump administration on the one hand, and members of the “alt-right” on the other. Trump dedicated his election campaign and now his tenure in office to assaulting people of color, immigrants, women, and religious minorities, while flirting with openly white-supremacist forces. The definitive proof of the cross-pollination between the conservative and fascistic right is apparent in my (January 2018) survey of American attitudes on the “alt-right.” Closely examining that poll, I find that, statistically speaking, the strongest predictor by far of support for the “alt-right” is trust in and reliance on far-right media sources, including Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart News, Sean Hannity, and Info Wars– despite none of these venues openly claiming to be “alt-right” or white supremacist. In contrast, other factors such as respondents’ income, political party, and gender are statistically unrelated to attitudes of the “alt-right.” Education (being more highly educated) and race (being white) have a slightly negative impact on opinions of the movement, while age has a moderately positive impact in driving support, although it is the 30-45 age group, not the 18-29 group, who are disproportionately more likely to support the movement. Still, right-wing media reliance is three times as powerful a predictor of “alt-right” support than is age, speaking to the central role of these “news” outlets in propping up the creeping fascism phenomenon. These findings demolish any notion that the allegedly “alt-lite” media discussed above, or their supporters, including conservative Americans and the Trump administration, can be cleanly separated from the “alt-right” phenomenon.
There are too many red flags in public sentiment to ignore the threat of creeping fascism. Ominously, one of the strongest statistical predictors of support for Trump is the desire for a strong leader who will “crush evil” and “get rid of the rotten apples” who “disturb the status quo.” Half of Republicans say they trust Donald Trump (and by extension his Twitter feed) as a more reliable source of information than the news media – more reliable even than conservative media outlets. Nearly half of Republicans think media outlets should be “shut down” if they are “broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate,” raising ominous possibilities regarding precisely who will act on such allegations. No doubt the Trump administration would lead such a charge, considering the president’s claim that the media are “the enemy of the people,” a position that is now embraced by more than half of Republicans. The cult of Trump is not an abstract phenomenon, but one that has real implications. It has motivated hundreds of American newspapers to unite in a joint declaration reaffirming the importance of press freedom, in opposition to the Trump administration’s and far right’s attacks on the First Amendment.
The danger of the fascist creep is also seen in the support from most Republican Americans for shutting down the 2020 election, so long as Trump declares it necessary to combat fictitious voter fraud. Conservatives’ acceptance of this conspiracy theory continues, unfortunately, despite the president’s own “voter fraud commission” being disbanded after failing to find any evidence of it. Such an attack on American elections would represent an unprecedented attack on democracy but can no longer be ignored in light of mass Republican support and Trump’s unending obsession with this subject.
Under a system of separation of powers, Congress is supposed to combat fundamental assaults on the law. But Republicans in Congress have displayed little alarm about the Trump administration’s flirtation with fascism or his supporters embrace of authoritarian policies. Just recently, Republicans in Congress introduced the “Unmasking Antifa Act” (2018), which seeks “to provide penalty enhancements for committing certain offenses while in disguise” in the form of a maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison. This stands in contrast to current federal criminal law covering Assault, which mandates a 10-year maximum punishment for assault (18 U.S.C. 351 (e)). The civil liberties experts I’ve spoken with agree this initiative represents a blatant threat to First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, expression, and association, since it targets members of an individual political group – Antifa – while failing to reference other individuals or organizations whose members may engage in violence. Nonetheless, the proposal is well in line with the Trump administration’s own authoritarian political philosophy.
The Antifa legislation may not make it through Congress considering its incredibly controversial nature. But it need not succeed to demonstrate that the process of creeping fascism is at work. Today, it’s considered acceptable by legislators to entertain a political discussion about whether leftists should be criminalized for their political activities. Who is to say that government will not act on that conviction tomorrow, under convenient political circumstances, for example in the wake of a terrorist attack, and undertaken in the name of preserving “national security?” Regardless of the fate of the “Unmasking Antifa Act,” it is yet another point of escalation in the incremental campaign to normalize authoritarian and fascist principles in government. That campaign has been quite successful among Republican adherents, to the detriment of principles of freedom and democracy.