Editor’s Note: Editor’s note: David Neiwert is an investigative journalist based in Seattle, a staff writer for Daily Kos, and the author of several books, most recently “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.” He is also a contributor to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report and is affiliated with Type Investigations, formerly known as The Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN. To learn more, watch “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
I think Lady Sansa may have put it best the other night on “Game of Thrones:” “That’s the most heroic thing we can do now. Look the truth in the face.”
Americans who are grappling with their new reality – one in which white nationalism and various kinds of far-right extremism are not only ascendant, but now also serially producing horrific mass killings – need to look the truth in the face, too: It’s real. And it isn’t on the margins. Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens are blowing smoke. It’s not a figment of the liberal media’s imagination or anyone else’s. And hate groups are recruiting our young people into a toxic belief system at a disturbing, even alarming rate.
And the truth is that this did not just spring up overnight, nor is it borne of a momentary, passing national impulse. The roots of this phenomenon are deep and systemic. It may feel as though they arose only alongside Donald Trump and his far-right white-identity politics, but they have been long in the making, and they will remain with us long after Trump has departed the national scene.
The hardest part of looking this truth in the face, however, is that these are our children, our neighbors and our friends who are being radicalized. Terrorism expert J.M. Berger did a Twitter census and found 200,000 alt-right users.
Over the past several years I have been reporting on the alt-right, and speaking with the traumatized families of young white men who believe they have been what’s called “red-pilled.” Like Neo in The Matrix, they believe they have been awakened to reality, even though that reality actually is a fantasyland defined by tincture-peddling conspiracy theorists and radical fascists.
One of these young men, in an argument at his family home over the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy theory, stabbed his father to death with a kitchen knife and is now serving a 17-year prison term. Another “red-pilled” Proud Boy with a fondness for David Icke’s conspiracy theory that alien lizard people disguised as humans secretly run the world, stabbed his brother to death with a sword because he thought his sibling was one of those lizards.
And that’s just a small sampling of what American families are facing. If anyone epitomizes the problem, really, it is the family of the young man who walked into the synagogue in Poway, California, last week and opened fire. He had consumed many anti-Semitic beliefs and absorbed much white-nationalist ideology. Their statement after the event, filled with regret and angst, reflects the fear of so many parents in the age of the internet and the alt-right.
“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” they said. “Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith, and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do. How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act.”
Most families don’t have to face these kinds of unspeakable tragedies. But many families are nonetheless being ripped apart by the phenomenon of “red-pilling” and the spread of conspiracism, even if it doesn’t end in violence.
We all share in the blame for this, because – perhaps understandably – we have all been looking away from the problem or dismissing it too easily. But this is a beast that thrives in darkness, and grows and blooms there, sometimes into something we can no longer keep to the margins. The radical right draws energy from the silence of their neighbors, because they uniformly interpret it as tacit, even implicit support. This is why every hate criminal thinks he’s actually a hero.
I devote most of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump” to explaining how the radical right really started taking root and expanding its reach into mainstream politics in the 1990s. The radical right isn’t only the alt-right; it also includes the alt-rights in the “Patriot”/militia movement and associated far-right hate movements devoted to specific kinds of bigotry against Muslims, LGBT people, immigrants and women. Its growth continued during the Bush years and intensified during the Obama years, part of a reactionary revolt against a black president.
A right-wing propaganda media network enabled this flow of extremist ideas into the mainstream during those years: Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and, yes, Fox News. These entities normalized ideas that had lurked for decades on the far right – particularly the demonization and scapegoating of immigrants and targeted minority groups – and moreover encouraged a kind of authoritarianism in their politics that took root and manifested itself in Donald Trump.
Trump himself, from even before the 2015-16 campaign, has long had a relationship with the far right, and particularly its conspiracist element, but this blossomed into a full-blown symbiotic romance during the campaign. The President remains hesitant to criticize white-nationalist marchers, particularly when they are wearing red “Make America Great Again” ballcaps and chanting “Hail Trump!”
However, Trump is as much a symptom of this deeper problem as he is an active participant in bringing it to the surface of the American cultural landscape. Now that the demons have escaped and are running rampant, it will be years before they can be put back in the Pandora’s box the President opened.
That’s where all the rest of us – the Americans committed to an open, just and free democratic society – come in. It’s time for us to stop looking away and start paying attention. We need to acknowledge that our own children are being radicalized online, and that a social media ecosystem predicated on a toxic libertarianism that allows hateful speech to run rampant has been the main platform enabling this phenomenon. Before the arrival of the alt-right, white nationalism was on its elderly deathbed. Now the numbers are unquestionably surging with youthful converts. Judging from pure internet, social media and gaming-hub traffic, we’re talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of new young white nationalists being born online right now. We need to recognize that there are policies that are fueling it, as well as irresponsible media entities doing the same – and that these things must cease.
The rise of white nationalism is a serious problem for any democracy, and serious citizens really are obligated to rise up in democracy’s defense and make their opposition unmistakable. That means we need to look the truth in the face. The hardest truth about the rise of white nationalism is that it is our own faces looking back at us.