Independent scholar Matthew N. Lyons has been regarded by many in the field as one of the leading experts on right-wing populism since 2000, when he co-authored, with Chip Berlet, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.1 In January 2017, just months after the election of Donald Trump, Political Research Associates published Lyons’ “Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right,”2 a pivotal report that helped explain the sudden prominence of the White supremacist Alt Right that rallied to Trump’s campaign.
Lyons expands upon that research in his new book, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018).3 An incisive survey of today’s Radical Right, Insurgent Supremacists explains the Trump-empowered movements and people who have been wreaking havoc and provoking hate crimes since 2016.
This September, Lyons spoke to David Neiwert, researcher and author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, about his new book.
David Neiwert: One of the things I really admire about this book’s organization is how you open each chapter by describing the discrete ideologies of various movements, but then carry them forward into subsequent chapters, exploring how they touch different aspects of the phenomenon. That gives a clear picture of the cross-pollination of ideas across the Far Right, which seems to be intensifying thanks to the Internet and social media. As many of the old ideological lines are breaking down, what do you foresee, in terms of this kind of fluidity, going forward? What kind of long-term effect could this have?
Matthew Lyons: I hesitate to make predictions in general, because there are so many factors and so much room for surprise. But part of my purpose in looking at the different ideological currents within the Far Right is precisely to look at the interactions between them.
Looking back over the last several decades, each time there’s been a major upsurge of Far Right activity in the United States, it has come out of a combination of different ideological currents. The first was in the 1980s, when you had a convergence of Ku Klux Klan and neonazi members, who traditionally had been very suspicious of, and fairly hostile to each other, then suddenly were joining forces. You had cross-burnings and Klan rallies with the Aryan Nations. They were holding events together; reading the same literature; looking very explicitly at ways to synthesize their different forms of White supremacist ideology into something new. That was, I think, one important element of what we now call “the White nationalist movement,” which was not really a term at that time.
The second example was in the 1990s, with the explosion of the Patriot Movement and so-called “citizen militia” groups. That was, in part, a reworking of ideological themes inherited from Posse Comitatus [an antigovernment White supremacist movement that had brief popularity in the 1970s and ‘80s, notably in rural America], and that kind of White nationalism. But it also was very much influenced by other ideological threads: the gun rights movement; the kind of John Birch Society conspiracism then operating through right-wing Mormon political networks; the Christian Right, and Christian Reconstructionists, specifically. Posse Comitatus activists were talking about forming citizen militias in the 1980s, but so were the Christian Reconstructionists.
In the early ‘90s, you had Christian Right anti-abortion groups, like Missionaries to the Preborn, urging people to form militias. So there was very much a Christian Right thread in the mix too. In the Estes Park meeting that was the supposed birthplace of the militia movement,4 people talk about how there were Christian identity folks and neonazis there. But Larry Pratt, present as the representative of Gun Owners of America, was not just a sympathizer with White nationalism, but basically a Christian Reconstructionist as well. He was invited to help forge an alliance between Christian Reconstructionists and neonazis. Again, it was this interaction, the coming together of different ideological threads.
The third example is the Alt Right, which is very much a synthesis of different threads of paleoconservatism. Richard Spencer came out of Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative journal, but also combined a lot of ideas taken from the European New Right—a long-standing project to rework fascist ideology to make it more palatable to a modern audience.
More recently, a lot of influence has been coming from the “manosphere,” a movement of intense misogyny and anti-feminism that bought into the Alt Right. So again, we see this convergence and interplay between different columns of right-wing ideology. I think it will continue, and there may be unexpected forms of interplay we haven’t even anticipated yet.
That said, I think distinct ideological currents will continue too. We should remember that these various forces aren’t just different ideas; they’re really different subcultures. Christian Reconstructionism doesn’t get the headlines that the Alt Right does, but it’s very much a force. There are hundreds of thousands of people in homeschool networks that use curricula based on Christian Reconstructionist teachings. They’re engaging in base building, community building. They’re urging people to form families and have lots of children. Which is, in large part, about waging demographic warfare against their political rivals. That whole subculture has some inter-connections with the Alt Right, but it’s also very, very distinct.
One thing I try to emphasize is that right-wing politics doesn’t stand still. It’s not just people stuck in the past trying to just say the same thing over and over. Like the Left, the Far Right is composed of people continually trying to develop their ideas and strengthen their analysis, their strategies and organizing tactics. They’re borrowing and sharing ideas. That’s why it’s so important to watch them closely—because if you don’t pay attention, you may lose track of something important. The Alt Right went from a totally marginal force to something that influenced presidential elections in just a few years.
You talk a lot about fascism in the book, and emphasize using clear, scholarly definitions of fascism, rather than half-baked Internet offerings, like the fake Mussolini quote that fascism is the marriage of corporatism and the state. In your appendix, you note historian Roger Griffin’s argument that palingenesis— the myth of Phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes—is a defining aspect of fascism. That’s staring us in the face with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” theme.
Fascism is a difficult concept to use well at this time, because people use it in so many different ways, and they get so heated about it. It’s hard to make a political argument based on a concept of fascism that many people disagree with, without having the focus become an argument about what fascism is.
That’s why Insurgent Supremacists is framed as a book about the Far Right, rather than a book about fascism. The two are not identical. All fascist forces in the U.S. are Far Right in my concept, but not all Far Right forces are necessarily fascist. Because—and this is just a definition for the U.S. context today—I define Far Right as those political forces that, on one hand, regard human inequality as natural, desirable, or inevitable, and, on the other hand, also reject the legitimacy of the existing political system.
Fascism has a contradictory relationship with the existing order. It’s about bolstering and intensifying systems of oppression and social hierarchy, exclusion, and in many cases, mass killing. But it’s also about challenging the established elites and overturning the existing political framework—either dismantling it or at least going off and establishing their White ethno-state.
Somebody like Trump has certainly been aided by Far Rightists. He has played to Far Right supporters and made use of their ideas and themes. He has placed himself in opposition to the political establishment to a greater degree than any other successful presidential candidate in living memory. But ultimately, he’s not about overthrowing the system.
He’s system-loyal, as you put it.
He certainly has authoritarian desires, impulses, and tendencies. He is contributing to the growth of state repression and a political culture of absolutism—all of which is extremely harmful, but also is something you can do without overturning the system. There’s tremendous room for authoritarianism within the existing framework.
So I think it’s a mistake to call him a “fascist.” I remember during the presidential campaign, a lot of us were debating how to make sense of what was going on. Is Trump a fascist, or are his supporters fascists? I remember you published a piece5 that argued he’s not a fascist, but he’s helping create the conditions that make it much easier for fascism to come to power. I thought that was a very smart and insightful approach—much better than the either/or argument a lot of people were making.
So much of this is not just about dividing politics up into separate categories, but asking how do they interact with each other? How do fascist and non-fascist forces feed off each other? How do they interrelate in ways that are synergistic and symbiotic?
Because the odds that fascists are going to seize power in the foreseeable future are—well, they’re hard to calculate, but they’re much less than the odds that fascists will have significant, negative effects on our political system and culture. They already have. They’ve contributed to the growth of supremacist violence and ideology, to demonization, and to the deterioration of open political space. All of that without gaining power.
- Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000).
- Matthew N. Lyons, CTRL-ALT-DELETE: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right, Political Research Associates, Jan. 20, 2017, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/01/20/ctrl-alt-delete-report-on-….
- Matthew N. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, (Oakland, CA: PM Press/Kersplebedeb, 2018).
- See Leonard Zeskind, “Armed and Dangerous: The NRA, Militias and White Supremacists Are Fostering A Network of Right Wing Warriors,” Rolling Stone, Nov. 2, 1995, https://www.leonardzeskind.com/1995/09/02/armed-and-dangerous-the-nra-m….
- See David Neiwert, “Donald Trump May Not Be a Fascist, But He Is Leading Us Merrily Down That Path,” Huffington Post, Jan. 14, 2016, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-neiwert/trump-may-not-be-a-fascist….