Conservatism against democracy

Two new books on the authoritarian roots of the Alt-Right stand out from the accumulating pile of Trump-lit
May 1, 2018

Alt Right Rally June 2017 Washington

Alt-Right rally in Washington, D.C., June 2017 (Photo by Blink O'faneye, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the “Alt-Right.” Now Alt-Right is short for “Alternative Right.”

Such were the words of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in August 2016—less than three months before her shock electoral college defeat by Donald Trump.

Clinton’s rhetorical attempt to separate Trumpism and its militant fringes from the Republican Party and the conservative mainstream channelled a deeper current of thinking among liberals and other American elites. Namely, that the former is wholly an exception to and aberration from the latter, which, we are ceaselessly told, is merely interested in pursuing the more respectable goals of smaller, less meddlesome government and defending states’ rights.

Trump’s surprise election, to the most powerful political office in the world, was understandably experienced by many as a sudden and cataclysmic event. Yet more than a year later, we still find something resembling Clinton’s dichotomy informing and inflecting much of the cultural mainstream’s understanding of the Trump phenomenon, often with poor and decidedly unhelpful results.

This suggestion forms one of the key narratives in David Frum’s bestselling anti-Trump polemic, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, which undertakes great effort to salvage the idea of a more upright conservatism from the Trumpian nightmare. It continues to stimulate the sometimes well-intentioned but ultimately misguided project to forge a cross-partisan Resistance, consisting of everyone from committed Democrats to anti-Trump columnists at conservative house journals like National Review .

But the widespread impulse to treat the Trump phenomenon as some temporary short circuit in the history of American conservatism, or as a sudden spasm in an otherwise functional political experiment (comforting as that idea may be), carries with it considerable risk. That risk can already be seen in the lacklustre responses of some leading Democrats to the rolling offensives of the Republican congressional majority, from tax cuts to anti-immigration initiatives. Such is the president’s unpopularity, some may conclude, that a relatively conventional electoral strategy is all that is required.

Eventually, perhaps (so this reading of events goes), the Republican Party will once again take the more respectable form it assumed during the candidacies of figures like John McCain and Mitt Romney. The midterms will bring the Democrats surging back in the House and Senate, building momentum for 2020, after which an acceptable equilibrium can be restored.

Regardless of outlook or political affiliation, those of us who both recognize and seek to understand the Trump phenomenon, particularly in light of a seemingly ascendant far-right worldwide, would be advised to eschew this complacent thinking. The Trump presidency did not emerge from nowhere, and it cannot be stressed enough that many of its root causes and core elements will still need to be addressed following its defeat.


Amidst the largely uninspiring bonanza of mainstream Trump lit (e.g., Frum, Timothy Snyder’s cash grab On Tyranny) and cultural paraphernalia (Steven Spielberg’s cloyingly smug The Post) there has been a less recognized but vastly more interesting current of commentary emanating from the alternative media, smaller publishing houses, and journalists and historians determined to pierce through the often deafening white noise.

In contrast to a media culture now predisposed to short-termism and rapid response, Angela Nagle’s detailed study of the alt-right subculture, Kill All Normies, and Lawrence Grossberg’s Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right seek more serious explanations and accounts for the Trump phenomenon and the various currents surrounding it. Within this emerging cannon, two books, both published in 2017, stand out as particularly interesting efforts at understanding the right’s ascendancy in America.

The first is Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, an expansive history of conservative ideas whose story begins in the 1950s but reaches back into the 19th century. The second is David Neiwart’s Alt America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, a more recent history of the far-right fringe. Only the latter deals with the man himself, Trump, but both offer us useful, if somewhat different, accounts of how he got to the presidency and who put him there.

Neiwart’s story appropriately begins amidst the wreckage of the 2016 U.S. political scene. Most Americans surveying the damage, he writes in the book’s opening chapter, are “startled by the ugliness and violence that has crept into the nation’s electoral politics,” and recognize its source in the form of “the sudden appearance of the racist far right as players.”

But, argues Neiwart, these groups never really went away and have, in fact, “been flourishing in recent years, fed by the rivulets of hate mongering and disinformation-fueled propaganda flowing out of right wing media” and the mainstream media’s complacency.

What follows is a rich and detailed account of various fringe groups and their activities: neo-Nazis and other white identitarians, Christian fundamentalists, “patriots” and neo-confederates, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, Tea Party fanatics and others. Even before the Trump ascendancy, Neiwart argues, the threat posed by these militants and their ideas was all too visible in the form of rising instances of racially motivated domestic terrorism, such as Dylann Roof’s murderous shooting spree at the Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in June 2015.

In Trump, Neiwart argues—and convincingly demonstrates with primary sources—many of these groups had found their muse. While Trump is not, according to the author, a fascist in the formal meaning of the term, his candidacy and subsequent presidency have been hugely emboldening to the militants of the radical right, thanks largely to his abandonment of the more restrained racial dog whistles common to some of his less ostentatious progenitors.

For Neiwart, information is the key to understanding the robustness and persistence of the far-right. It is nothing short of “an alternative universe,” he writes, whose residents have “reconfigured their imaginations…. [It is a place where] suppositions take the place of facts, and conspiracy theories become concrete realities.”

Internet conspiracism unsurprisingly features heavily in the account, particularly in the chapter Neiwart devotes to the alt-right. The conspiracy industry, from Alex Jones’s widely viewed Infowars to Breitbart to even more fringe sources, thrives on being a closed system of confirmation bias and weaponized misinformation. This feature inevitably leads to ever deeper radicalization and eventually the full-throated embrace of authoritarianism.

“Trump is the logical end result of a years long series of assaults by the American right, not just on American liberalism but on democratic institutions themselves,” says Neiwart. “With Trump the long-term creeping radicalization of the right has come home to roost.”

Alt-America, particularly given its level of detail and decades-spanning narrative, has much to commend it and there is no basis for disputing the conclusion quoted above. Those seeking to better understand the history of the racist militants who accreted to the Trump campaign, and so terrifyingly made their presence felt last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, could look no further than his book.

Nonetheless, Neiwart’s focus on the epistemological structures and psychology of the radical right, while undoubtedly important, at times risks giving the impression of a malignant information system rather than a conscious political project at work. (To his credit, the author doesn’t let liberal America entirely off the hook and refuses to dabble in the kind of amateur, Trump-voter anthropology that’s become such common fare for the legacy media.)

While Neiwart very much understands the long-term influence of the movement’s many fringe groups in attacking and degrading democratic institutions, defending racial exclusion and perpetuating racist violence, Alt-America contains little analysis of how sublimated versions of all three have enjoyed a parallel existence within the ideologically conscious mainstream of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.


In Democracy in Chains, historian Nancy MacLean also seeks to pull back the covers on the sinister and secretive thinking of the radical right. But her subject is something altogether different from the activities of militiamen, neo-Nazis and other groups operating on the cultural fringes: MacLean is interested in the highly educated ideologues and intellectual activists of the conservative movement.

Beginning her story with the southern backlash to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending state-enforced school segregation in 1954, MacLean develops a rich historical narrative detailing nothing less than a conscious, decades-long counterinsurgency by billionaires and other white elites aimed at replacing democratic governance with oligarchy.

Her main character is the Tennessean (and eventual Nobel prize-winning economist) James McGill Buchanan. While he is less known in the pantheon of conservative intellectuals than figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, MacLean makes a strong case that Buchanan played a formative role in shaping over a half-century of right-wing politics, beginning with his efforts to establish a centre for political economy and social philosophy at the University of Virginia in the wake of the Brown decision.

This was, in many ways, the foundational event of modern American conservatism, says MacLean; the moment at which conservatives would visibly begin to embrace the ideological themes that would prevail in the decades that followed, informing the doomed 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, the thinking of leading Republicans from Nixon to Reagan, the efforts of contemporary GOPers like Scott Walker and Chris Christie.

Buchanan’s pioneering efforts, MacLean argues, would lead U.S. conservatism, if windingly, into the ongoing war against democracy spearheaded by plutocrats such as Charles and David Koch, with its rhetoric of “individual rights” over and against the ostensibly opposed actions of the state, its rabid embrace of the market as the preeminent sphere in human life and property rights as the basis for freedom, and the foregrounding of “states’ rights.”

She writes:

A quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet basic national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposition of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.

As a historian of social movements, MacLean is as keenly interested in the specifics of Buchanan’s ideas as their impact. (The book apparently came into existence when she quite accidentally stumbled upon the economist’s archives and correspondence.) For Buchanan and the wealthy patrons in his orbit, she argues, “equal protection under the law,” as stipulated by U.S. federal courts, primarily implied coercion and an imposition on “the rights of the individual.” Liberty, in this view, consists in limiting the state’s role as much as possible, at least when it comes to non-disciplinary functions like health care, education and social protection.

Those ideas will be familiar enough to anyone who has engaged with modern conservatism. But, as MacLean shows, their actual origin lies not in the stolid calculus of economics, but rather in the profoundly antidemocratic social theory of the 19th-century U.S. vice-president John Calhoun, nicknamed “the Marx of the master class” by historian Richard Hofstadter.

In the views of both Buchanan and Calhoun, the democratic majority posed a mortal threat to the elite economic minority and thus had to be curtailed. Intervention by the state itself, influenced as it was by majoritarian pressures, in fact created and enabled a class society over and above the labour relations inherent in a capitalist economy. Popular movements of any kind that might threaten their economic privileges or exact concessions through the state, whether the civil rights movement, feminism or organized labour, were also a threat. The solution, they believed, amounted to nothing less than mass disenfranchisement, maximum political obstructionism, and the divestment of the state from many of the responsibilities it had assumed with the New Deal.

As MacLean demonstrates, far from being a democratic theory in competition with liberalism or socialism, the ideas Buchanan taught and promoted, with the help of activist billionaires and sympathetic Republicans, consciously set out to destroy the institutions of democracy altogether. To this end, their alliance with white supremacy was not just incidental but foundational—an outgrowth of southern grievances born from the federal desegregation efforts of the 1950s and ‘60s, and ruling class backlash to the redistributive properties of postwar Keynesianism and the New Deal.


In trying to ground the Trump phenomenon within the broader history of American conservatism, to which conservatives should we look? To the fringe militants and neo-confederate conspiracists of the socially atomized, jackboot-sporting far-right? Or to the academy-dwelling intellectuals and economists who, decades ago, quietly set their antidemocratic counterrevolution into motion?

The answer is that we must turn to both groups: the one is not independent of the other. Racism and oligarchic capitalism have always been intimately connected in America, and their primary political locus since the 1950s has been the conservative movement and the Republican Party that represents it.

Let’s face it, the GOP has been all too happy, for many decades, to gesture and wink clandestinely at those on the radical fringes. Trump may be an aberration in the sense that he was not the first preference of the party establishment, its leading intellectuals or its billionaire power brokers. But, whether he knows it or not, the president is arguably a purer expression of their core values and beliefs than those politicians hatched from think-tanks and chambers of commerce that the party usually selects as its tribune.

In Trump, elite contempt for democracy and its racist undertones becomes explicit in the figure of a billionaire uninterested in rhetorical deference to its norms or constraints, and who, in 2016, traded in the Republican Party’s familiar dog whistle for a foghorn. A more nuanced and effective response to Trumpism, therefore, does not consist in rescuing the better angels of American conservatism, but in recognizing the overriding threat to democracy it poses and fighting back by rallying to democracy’s defence.

Luke Savage writes and blogs about politics, labour, philosophy and political culture. His articles have appeared in Jacobin Magazine, Canadaland, Maisonneuve, The Tyee, Now Magazine, Current Affairs, and on CBC Radio. Follow him on Twitter @LukewSavage.