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A MAGA movement betrayed has now morphed

MAGA; Donald Trump SupportersPhoto illustration by Salon/Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

For most of the press and political establishment, the insurrection of January 6, 2021 felt like a shock that came out of nowhere. For journalist David Neiwert, who has reported on the far-right for over three decades, however, it was all too predictable. Fascist movements, Neiwert tells Salon, have “been present in America since at least the early 1900s,” eager and ready to commit violence for their cause, and Donald Trump offered a catalyst. 

In his new book, “The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy,” Neiwert traces how groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers have their roots in an authoritarian militia movement that goes back decades. He also details how knowing this history can help the rest of the country anticipate what comes next — as the violent impulses of the MAGA right have not receded. Neiwert spoke to Salon about his new book and how what was once a fringe movement has captured the Republican Party.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Most in the mainstream media talk about the events of January 6 like they were a surprise that came out of nowhere, but you were out there early, warning people this could happen. Why wasn’t this surprising?

I’ve been writing about writing extremists for a long time since at least the 90s. My main concern over all the years has been the infiltration of extremist beliefs into the mainstream of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. There’s been a gradual radicalization of the American. I published a book in 2009, before the Tea Party had actually erupted, warning of this radicalization process that really started taking off after 9/11. We certainly saw it take off once the Tea Party happened. It was very clear to anyone who had experience with the Patriot movement that this stuff was now being mainstreamed at a massive level, through the auspices of the Tea Party. Among the people that were responsible for that was Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers and others like him. These people are still very much with us, and they played a huge role in January 6.

I noticed one name you didn’t say: Donald Trump.

There’s this narrative out there that Donald Trump is what radicalized Republicans, that this is his doing. That he has a magical hold on people that’s turning ordinary conservatives into fascists. What is your feeling on that? How do you understand the role he plays in the larger MAGA movement?

I don’t underplay the role that Trump played; it was critical to the final radicalization of the GOP. But he himself was a symptom of that growing radicalization. He really represented this conspiracy worldview that kept bubbling up on the right. His whole political career was founded on spreading the birther conspiracy theory. There’s no doubt that he played the major role of fulfilling their ambitions. He was exactly the kind of politician those of us who had studied the radical right for years feared happening to America.

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If you understand fascism and neo-fascism, it’s actually been present in America since at least the early 1900s. Those threads that we now identify as fascist, many of them had their origins in the United States. Hitler was inspired by the Native American genocide and it inspired the Holocaust. He based the Brownshirts on the Ku Klux Klan. The Nuremberg laws were inspired by the Jim Crow laws in the United States. But even though we had these threads in our political system, fascism itself never took root in the United States in large part because there wasn’t really a good political space for it. It was always overwhelmed by democratic forces and the robust quality of American democracy. 

What all of these people found is that this beast that they’ve created is not something they can control.

But our democratic institutions have been increasingly hollowed out by extreme wealth, and by right-wing forces that are innately anti-democratic, over the last 30 years. It’s created space for fascists to emerge and gain traction. We’ve been very lucky through most of American history to not have that critical element that makes fascism actually succeed and gain traction, which is to have a singular charismatic leader. It has to be somebody with charisma and who has popular appeal. We’ve never seen that on the radical right. Most people on the radical right were horrendous people who turned everybody off. But when Trump emerged and was given a mainstream platform, and he insinuated himself into the mainstream, that was the realization of a lot of our fears. Now they have their charismatic leader. The fascist strands in American politics are emerging. 

Trump has now twice appeared in court to face felony indictments. Both times he really tried to amp up his followers into doing another January 6. He pushed violent rhetoric, he aligned himself with the Waco fire. He couldn’t have been more over the top about this. Why did January 6 happen, but they kind of didn’t heed the call to riot to stop him from getting indicted?

There’s a complex set of elements involved. First, Trump’s followers were able to see that he was all too happy to throw them all under the bus after they committed acts of violence on his behalf. Some people have peeled away from him because of that.

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He didn’t have the ability to go on Twitter and send out “be there” and “will be wild” tweets. Organizations like the Proud Boys are now much less focused on Trump than on their ongoing post-January 6 strategy of targeting more localized entities like school boards, libraries, state legislatures, that sort of thing. One of the aspects of authoritarian personalities is that they uniformly overestimate, wildly, the amount of popular support they actually have. They believe they represent the real America, right? Trump thinks he has this big army out there still. There are still really dedicated fervent believers who will go out there and holler on his behalf and, and threaten people and get out their AR-15s. But there are fewer of them now than there were before. And not having the mainstream entity in power, which was the case during his tenure as president, makes a big difference for them.

Your book is about how Trump may have lost and January 6 didn’t work, but we should still be extremely concerned about this fascist movement, which has not given up. How do you square that concern with feeling like he’s lost some of this enthusiasm?

The people who’ve been radicalized into an authoritarian worldview are still very much enmeshed in that. Some have shifted their loyalties to Ron DeSantis or whoever else they might have. More importantly, there is still a substantial part of the country who are eager for and anticipates real violence. They’re all here for a civil war. They have AR-15s in their basements. They’re capable of violence and we never know what’s going to trigger them.

If you understand fascism and neo-fascism, it’s actually been present in America since at least the early 1900s.

I don’t think that a right-wing extremist coup is actually feasible or possible. I do think they are going to continue to try to replace American democracy with an authoritarian autocracy. A lot of people are very much working towards that. In the process, some of them are going to be acting out violently. Maybe in ways that will re-wake the country up as to the threat to democracy that we face. 

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I don’t think they’ll win. I don’t think they’re capable of winning, but I think a lot of people can get hurt and I think there will be a lot of people hurt by this, including them. One thing I’ve learned about right wing extremists over 30 years of covering them is that people who get involved in these movements destroy their lives. It’s one of the most toxic forces in America. It draws people into the abyss. It ruins their family relationships, ruins their relationships in the community. A lot of the time they wind up in prison.

But even more so there are the people who they target, who will definitely also be hurt. I am thinking of  the shooter in Colorado who targeted the gay bar and the shooter in Allen, Texas who just went to a mall and started ripping off rounds. 

When you talk about the mainstreaming of these attitudes, the Club Q shooting is a really good example. Despite the fact that we’ve already seen how this escalating of transphobic and anti-queer rhetoric has led to death, has led to murder, you nonetheless got this widespread right-wing boycott over Budweiser, because they had a trans influencer do a little commercial for them. What are we to make of this? 

That’s the nature of the beast that they created. Think about how Trump tried to push back on the anti-vaxxers because he wanted to take credit for the vaccine. He dropped it because the pushback from his own followers was so intense and so immense.

Or think of how Fox News, in November 2020, briefly attempted to resuscitate their journalistic credibility by calling Arizona for Biden, which brought the wrath of all of those Fox viewers down on them. Their broadcasts promptly flipped. Even after the January 6 insurrection they were justifying the attack on Congress and normalizing it. Also normalizing the “Trump won” discourse. What all of these people found is that this beast that they’ve created is not something they can control. The authoritarians follow their own impulses and they believe their own things. What they believe is what everybody else has to get in line to parrot. They’re both so bellicose and threatening, and their numbers are quite large. 

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