David Neiwert – Alt America: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Two leather chairs, a small table with a bowl of decorative flowers, a rug underneath, all on an otherwise empty stage. David Neiwert and Paul Thomas - of the New Zealand Listener - walk out and take their seats. Thomas introduces the topic and starts the talk with this quote from Neiwert’s book, Alt-America':

“America has been very, very lucky so far when it comes to fascistic political movements”.

From here, the magnitude of the conversation to follow is set.

Neiwert was a composed and confident speaker who spoke with the authority that his years of research has given him on the subject. Thomas, as interviewer, did a fantastic job allowing Neiwert space to highlight his obvious expertise on the topic. Together they dived into the depths of the horrifying reality and violence of the extremist right in American politics. The horrifying elements of such a movement were explicitly put forward for all to understand as Neiwert described a scene in which a counter-protester was shot by an Alt-Right supporter 10 metres in front of him - a harrowing example of the violence the new American extremist right is capable of.  

Neiwert described Alt-America - the world in which the new extremist right in America appear to live in - as an “epistemological bubble comprised of conspiracy theories, alternative facts, and outright fabrications”. This world, is of course curated and manufactured by various influencers and conspiracy theorist of the far right - including the notorious Fox News and the infamous Alex Jones.

Most chilling of all was the conversation about domestic terrorism in the USA. Here, Neiwert spoke of extremist far right elements in America that have done unspeakable violent acts (such as the one described above). As he spoke about the race based crimes committed by Dylann Roof in a Charleston church two days after Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, chills ran down my spine at the horror of the reality of it all. This was of course, just one such example.

Something that Neiwert did very well - which sets him apart from other commentators attempting to understand the rise of the Alt-Right as a political phenomenon - is the manner through which he historicises the fascistic tendencies that define the Alt-Right as they have appeared throughout American history. He places a particular emphasis on the conspiratorial militia movement of the 1990s and how a lot of the ideas of the Alt-Right can be directly traced back to this.

Put succinctly by Neiwert himself:

“This isn’t an overnight thing… this has been building for a very long time”.

Given America’s history of flirting with fascism, from slavery, to the KKK, and segregation, it is easy to see his reasoning.

He then went on to discuss how the future is uncertain and that a lot could depend on the 2020 election in America. Not just the outcome itself, but if Trump is defeated in the election, what kind of reaction should we expect from his fan base. They have proven in the past that they are capable of violence.

At the end of the talk the conversation was opened up to the audience for questions. The question that got the most striking response was a question on gender and the Alt-Right. Here, Neiwert explains that the Alt-Right is a fundamentally misogynistic ideology and that a central aspect of their Alt-America belief is that American values are being ruined by women; most notably, feminist women; this continues with the conspiratorial theme of Alt-America. 

Neiwert is an obviously intelligent man who has braved the depths of far-right politics as a liberal and lived to tell the tale. As harrowing as the topic could be, it was equally informative and explained well the rise of this new radical political movement. Neiwert was a fantastic speaker, and Thomas facilitated the conversation exceptionally well.

This is of course, a chilling subject. Something that is on the minds of many and something that frightens many; understandably so. When Paul Thomas introduced the talk by opening with that quote about America’s luck with fascism up until this point in history he was doing so to highlight the gravity of this talk; is America’s luck about to run out?

Neiwert’s book, Alt-America, is a very well written account of the re-emergence of right wing extremism in America. Through tracing the ideological blueprints of the self-proclaimed ‘Alt-Right’ back to the American Patriot Militia Movements of the 1990s, its mainstream manifestation in the backlash to Obama’s election; most notably in the Tea Party movement that arose, and through controversial conspiratorial politics, he successfully explains the emergence of what was to many a seemingly overnight political phenomenon.

David Neiwert's sessions at WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

David Neiwert: Alt-America Thursday 30 August 6pm