Although some markers of the Trump presidency may be fading, the xenophobic, exclusionary nationalism it helped elevate remains a defining force in U.S. politics. Within the same two weeks this April, Fox News host Tucker Carlson helped mainstream the White nationalist “great replacement” theory on primetime television, while some Republican members of Congress proposed an “America First” caucus that would oppose “mass immigration” in the name of protecting “Anglo-Saxon political traditions…societal trust and political unity.”
How this sort of naked nativism has become so prominent is the subject of a recent book by journalist Brendan O’Connor, Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, published this January by Haymarket Books. “Drawing upon existing myths and ideas about race and nationhood,” O’Connor writes, “the fascism of our era is a border fascism.” It’s one defined by a constant focus on nativism and the border, and upheld by a coalition of White nationalist movements, anti-immigrant organizations, corporate profiteers, and far-right and centrist politicians alike.
In a recent conversation, PRA researchers Ben Lorber and Ethan Fauré asked O’Connor how he thinks border fascism will evolve under the Biden administration—which has already reneged on campaign promises, deporting thousands and refusing to eliminate Trump-era restrictions on refugee admissions—and how progressives can counter these challenges.
PRA: Have any developments since the book’s publication either affirmed or made you reconsider your arguments?
O’Connor: [January 6 happened] about two weeks before my book officially came out, but I did feel that it affirmed key arguments I made. In the midst of a hegemonic crisis of neoliberal capitalism, we expect to find a proliferation of oppositional ideologies not only on the Left but on the Right as well. Neither the participation of current and former law enforcement and military officers in the autogolpe nor the federal government’s subsequent crackdown negates the fact that a mass base exists for 21st Century neofascism in this country, and that a layer of that base is willing to lay siege to the state to get it. It just happens that they failed.
Basically, I think that there was insufficient support for a Trumpist autogolpe among the Republican Party’s ruling class backers. Maybe they just didn’t believe he could pull it off. Maybe they think they can continue to play the minoritarian long game—control of state legislatures and the judiciary has proven a powerful combination. Maybe they believed that even during a Biden administration they will be able to exploit the contradictions of bourgeois democracy to continue to loot and plunder. I’m not sure exactly; further research is required.
What institutions and organizations do you identify as the most significant drivers of border fascism today?
Within the state, the Department of Homeland Security—especially Customs and Border Protection (and the Border Patrol within it) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—as well as sheriffs’ offices and police departments that cooperate with it. In the media, Fox News and the extended universe of Tucker Carlson knock-offs whose role it is to sustain a certain level of racial paranoia and fear. In industry, the employers who continue to profit off the hyper-exploitable labor of undocumented and deportable labor and who undermine the right of citizen and non-citizen workers to organize collectively.
How have the purveyors of border fascism responded to the opening months of the Biden administration?
It’s a complicated picture right now. Biden’s promised 100-day deportation moratorium is all but forgotten, although detentions and deportation numbers have nevertheless dropped. Career immigration enforcement officials, having enjoyed free reign under Trump, are seeking ways to circumvent the Biden administration’s attempts to limit their activity. I know Jon Feere and Robert Law, [former] policy advisors at ICE and USCIS, respectively, are back at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of CBP, was hired by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
These two organizations have long played a major role in the production of nativist ideology. I suspect they will become all the more influential for their association with the Trump administration. Currently they are portraying President Biden as a traitor to American workers and his immigration policy as confused and inconsistent. Apparently, the president gets no credit for keeping Title 42 in place, which the Trump administration used to create a black hole in the immigration enforcement regime.
I do think the nativist Right occupies a different position in the wider conservative and reactionary ecosystem today than it did during the Obama administration, if only for having actually attained state power—albeit in coalition with capitalists that hold a more ambivalent relationship to immigration. But the truth is that liberal immigration politics are contradictory: consider the Biden administration’s brutal treatment of Haitian refugees. [Relying on policies sought and implemented in 2020 by the Trump administration, the Biden administration deported hundreds of Haitians during its first months in power. The administration eventually offered deportation relief to some Haitians by expanding the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program in late May.] I suspect that the nativists and border fascists will continue to exploit that contradiction, gleefully skipping by their feckless enablers in the mainstream press.
You discuss author Matthew Lyons’s distinction between “system-loyal” and “system-disloyal” portions of the Far Right. Under Trump, the former included militias that worked with ICE to patrol the border and detain migrants, and White nationalists who sought jobs in anti-immigrant think tanks like FAIR and CIS, hoping to craft even more xenophobic border policy. After January 6 and under a Biden administration, will the Far Right move towards a “system-disloyal” stance?
Immediately after January 6, I wrote, “As Joe Biden takes office, the influence of the accelerationist Right likely will grow, inciting greater violence not only against the Left but also opportunistically against police and the state as well. The potential path to state power presented by the Trump administration has been closed, so the fascist right will pursue its political goals through other means.” In the weeks that followed the failed self-coup and Biden’s inauguration, fascists actively recruited QAnon believers struggling to make sense of reality. And even if the shooter himself was not a formal member of an organized fascist group, the massacre of Asian massage workers in Atlanta should be understood as existing on the continuum of nativist vigilante violence.
But much hinges on the choices that Trump makes in the coming months and years. At the moment he is reportedly “torn between playing the role of antagonist and party leader.” If he embraces the former, I suspect we will see a parallel rise in the influence of “system-disloyal” actors, especially if he remains disinterested in leading a new party. On the other hand, if Trump reasserts control over the Republican Party, this would reinforce the “system-loyal” tendency, insofar as it’s difficult to argue that there is not a place in a Trump-dominated GOP for their politics.
In the book, you examine how White nationalist movements masked their racism through more populist framings—like “American culture” or “Western civilization”—even as right-wing commentators, such as Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, have adopted White nationalist rhetoric like “replacement” and “invasion.” Looking forward, do you think the mainstream Right will become even more explicitly White nationalist, or has that future already arrived?
I think that future has already arrived, insofar as the Republican Party has committed itself to a strategy of White minority rule. It’s increasingly difficult to pretend otherwise anymore, so instead of trying to explain why this is not happening, the party’s ideological spokespeople have to come up with explanations for why it’s actually good that this is happening.
However, I think there’s only so much of this that big capitalists can tolerate, especially in industries that require the smooth flow of capital around the world, which rising nationalist ideologies might impede. On the other hand, there are industrialists that stand to profit from those very ideologies: defense and security firms, surveillance and technology companies, arms manufacturers. It’s conceivable that large parts of the capitalist class that currently support the Republican Party may abandon it for the Democrats, if they believe that’s a more stable bet. The GOP would then become a thorough-going ethno-nationalist party. That’s total speculation and highly contingent on how a number of existing tensions and contradictions are resolved; it just seems not outside the realm of possibility.
Blood Red Lines focuses on White nationalists, the anti-immigrant movement, militias, and street-fighting groups like the Proud Boys as prime movers of border fascism. How does the populist conspiracism of QAnon, and the decades-long organizing of the Christian Right, fit in?
To be totally honest, I didn’t anticipate how influential QAnon would become on the Far Right when I was reporting the book in 2018 and 2019. It was only when I was already writing and revising that QAnon’s real weight became clear to me.
That fascist and nativist ideologies are fusing with new modes of conspiracy theorizing and Christian fundamentalism is clear. Again, just look to the Atlanta shooter’s religious background. It’s not just in the United States either: this can be seen in Bolivia, Brazil, Hungary, and Poland.
Throughout the book, you draw on Clara Zetkin’s analysis that fascism is a “vulgar, unscrupulous bourgeois class state” that must be confronted by working people. What are some contemporary organizing examples you’ve observed of Zetkin’s “iron-like community of struggle” being created to confront border fascism?
The coalition that was built in and around Portland, Oregon, over the past five years seems exemplary for its tactical flexibility and ideological diversity: organizers with PopMob, Portland DSA, and Rose City Antifa, have consistently been able to mobilize thousands of people to confront the fascists who descend on their city, winning support not only from the activist Left but many of the city’s community groups and unions. Admittedly, there is a vast difference between mobilization and organization, but when labor turns out for antifascist and abolitionist demonstrations, as union dock workers did in the Bay Area after Heather Heyer’s murder and again after George Floyd’s, Zetkin’s vision seems not too distant.
Tracing the significant advances of the Right can leave people feeling hopelessness and despair. What gives you hope?
This is what solidarity is for! To remind us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, that we’re not alone, that our comrades in this country and around the world are standing with us, that we are moving through history and history is moving through us. I find hope in the existence of a growing socialist and abolitionist Left that can fight to improve people’s lives in the here and now while also advancing the struggle for a world where fascism not only doesn’t exist, but can’t exist.