The Triumph of the Lie: How Honesty and Morality Died in Right-Wing Politics

This article is an online feature of the Summer 2017 issue of The Public Eye. Subscribe today!

This is how lies move to normalization: A small “white lie” is put forward, just to clarify a point. A larger lie follows, but it’s still only a detail in a larger argument. The whopper, down the line, performs another function: drawing attention from even more pernicious deceit. The earlier lies, accepted with a shrug, had set the stage for acceptance. Lying has become a strategy.

In February, President Donald Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway talked, in all seriousness, about a “Bowling Green massacre”1 that never occurred. That fabrication became the scandal du jour, rather than Trump’s outrageous immigration order that Conway was defending. Just weeks later, Trump himself illustrated the whole process by speaking of a terrorist attack in Sweden that didn’t exist.2 These lies became the issue, overriding any serious debate about terrorism, its causes and the best responses. If intentional, the strategy had succeeded.

Photo of Joe McCarthy from the Library of Congress taken on December 31st, 1953. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The bafflement caused by this strategy, of lying to distract, dates back at least to Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s 1950 claim that he had a list of communists in the State Department. Waving a paper at a West Virginia audience, he said there were several hundred of them, a charge he never substantiated. We don’t know what was on that piece of paper, but it was certainly no roster of communists. Yet Democrats who opposed McCarthy played into his hands by responding to the lie while his real agenda—establishing his own power—continued unobstructed for four more years. Tellingly, McCarthy’s chief counsel at the end of those years, Roy Cohn, would become Donald Trump’s mentor.3

Political lies can be well intended, with supposedly noble ends justifying unseemly means. As great art uses fictitious details to illuminate greater truths, the lies of wartime—ruse de guerre—can bring about victory, as in “Operation Mincemeat,” when fake letters on a corpse washed ashore in Spain fooled the Germans out of reinforcing Sicily during World War II. In other instances, however, the upshot becomes less noble: Conway and Trump ratcheting up fear so that less attention will be paid to real problems facing the United States.

Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief aide, Roy Cohn, later became a mentor to Donald Trump.

Perhaps the most durable political lie of the past generation is the “Laffer Curve,” the idea that lowering taxes can actually raise government income by fostering economic growth. Although there is no evidence it has ever worked—when Reagan tried it, the budget deficit exploded and the state of Kansas has now backtracked from its own experiment with it 4—this lie has been used to excuse reduction of taxes for the rich and, ultimately, government services for everyone else for more than 30 years. No one in government believes that, though it is again being trotted forward to justify Trump’s proposed tax cuts.

While the Laffer Curve lie obfuscates, the intent of most political lies is to sow confusion, as McCarthy used deflection for political gain. Today, as psychoanalyst Joel Whitebook writes, “By continually contradicting himself and not seeming to care, Trump generates confusion in the members of the media and political opposition that has often rendered them ineffectual.”5 This cannot be done without an opposition that supposes at least a half-hearted commitment to truth. Today, liberals and members of the news media are often confused by the lack of respect they get for upholding the virtue of truth, and still want to believe that there are real positions being explicitly stated by the other side, and not just lies that make debate impossible.

The Rationale Behind the Lie

Political lies can also be used to build skepticism toward those who are its targets, as I have previously written in these pages.6 Today, Robert Mercer, co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies and a major backer of the Heritage Foundation (as well as of Trump), along with his daughter Rebekah (who heads the Mercer Family Foundation) and current chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, have put the lie to good use in this regard. As Matea Gold of The Washington Post writes, they have “quietly built a power base aimed at sowing distrust of big government and eroding the dominance of the major news media”7 through, among other projects, Breitbart News. Today, trust in news media is at an all-time low, primarily because of lies used against them.

The triumph of the lie today isn’t to Trump’s credit alone, though he lies with frequency; it belongs to a broad right-wing trend toward winning at any cost, toward lowering the importance of ethics and moral values, and toward reducing the importance of idealistic political philosophy itself to the point of meaninglessness. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the former Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, spent several years creating an aura of dishonesty around Hillary Clinton through fruitless “investigations” of her actions in relation to the Benghazi killings of American diplomats in Libya in September 2012.8 But he seemed to abandon his supposed concern for truth and openness once Trump became president. After it became apparent that former national security advisor Michael Flynn had lied about meeting with the Russian ambassador—lies compounded by later revelations that Flynn had neglected to indicate on an application for security clearance that he had accepted money from Russia and Turkey, something no retired general is legally able to do without permission—Chaffetz declared, “I think that situation has taken care of itself.”9 Chaffetz subsequently announced his decision to resign from Congress at the end of June 2017. Could it be because he became uncomfortable in his new role as a check on Trump? Likewise, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul suggested there was no point in pursuing falsehoods or fraud when the perpetrators are Republicans, saying, “we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense.”10

Political expediency controls conservative concern for truth today, just as in McCarthy’s time: only the lies of the opposition (real and imaginary) are worth pursuing.

One of the checks on political lies should be one’s own allies, especially those presumably committed to the ideals of a movement, whether conservative or liberal. On the Right, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., claimed that mantle for half a century. Yet he and conservative activist L. Brent Bozell, Jr. (whose son, the right-wing publisher L. Brent Bozell III, is a major Trump supporter), penned a 1954 defense of McCarthy which, in the words of reviewer and historian William S. White, suggested that mistakes “are not tolerable when made by non-McCarthyites. When made by McCarthyites, however, and especially by Mr. McCarthy himself, they call only for a gentle chiding .”11 Though McCarthy was only a senator, that sounds much like many contemporary conservatives’ attitudes toward Trump’s “mistakes” and lies. Indeed, the afterword of the Buckley/Bozell book can chill a reader today: “Current reports indicate that American intellectuals travelling abroad divide their time, more or less equally, between sight-seeing and apologizing for McCarthy. For Europeans, it seems, have lost faith in America, where McCarthyism is rife.”12 McCarthy was only a Senator; his spiritual successor, Trump, is president.

American intellectuals traveling in Europe found themselves apologizing for McCarthy, who was only a Senator.

The tendency to forgive one’s friends while condemning one’s enemies has a long political history but it has grown, today, to unprecedented proportions. For that reason alone, Trump is able to lie with impunity, assured that his political allies, even the most reluctant ones, will not call him out even though, just last year, they shouted “Lock Her Up!” in response to allegations that Hillary Clinton had lied.

Over his first 100 days, The Washington Post found, he made “469 false or misleading claims.”13 Falsehood has become such second nature to Trump that, as David Remnick reports in The New Yorker, he once told an architect to add size and stories when talking to the press about a building they wanted to erect. “Trump has never gone out of his way to conceal the essence of his relationship to the truth and how he chooses to navigate the world,” Remnick writes.14 Yet Trump’s putatively conservative, morality-based supporters show no concern, let alone outrage, about these lies—whether because, as some argue, right-wing belief is inherently authoritarian, making followers willing to accept whatever the leader says, or because Republican politicians don’t actually care about Trump as long as he provides them cover to push through their agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.

Just last year, they shouted “Lock Her Up!” in response to allegations that Hillary Clinton had lied.

Whatever the case may be, the general acceptance of the President’s lies by his supporters illustrates the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the Right, and the culmination of a process of casting aside belief for expediency that began with McCarthy. Perhaps the best example of the depths into which he has cast them came during a broadcast part of a cabinet meeting on June 12, 2017, when the Vice President and other members of the cabinet in turn extolled the wonders of Trump.15 Demagoguery and hyperbole have become standard fare.

The Legacy of the American Lie

Right-wing strategist David Horowitz speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011 in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Meshae Studios via Flickr.

Right-wing strategist David Horowitz justifies political lies in his 2010 book, The Art of Political War for Tea Parties,16 as necessary parts of both “art” and “war,” wherein there are no constraints in either creative expression or fighting for dominance. That is, Horowitz argues for an extreme politics—politics as a type of war, where the art of waging it successfully justifies anything. Horowitz didn’t invent this. The political notion of “honest graft,” for example, goes back much further than the Tammany politician George Plunkitt, who coined this phrase to excuse dishonesty “in the public interest.” Trump bothers with no such sophistry. He wants to believe he had a smashing victory at the polls; therefore, he’s not really lying when he says he won with legitimate voters. He appears able to simultaneously lie and still believe his own “alternative facts” (to use another phrase of Conway’s17)—quite a feat of sophistry.

Clouding the issue, members of the news media often don’t always clearly separate fact from opinion. Speaking on January 25, 2017 on the National Public Radio program Morning Edition, senior NPR Vice President of News Michael Oreskes, after agreeing with one of his reporters that defining a “lie” is simply a matter of establishing intent (often an impossibility), said, “Our job as journalists is to report—to find facts, establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. And I think when you use words like lie it gets in the way of that.”18 But these “facts” Oreskes wants reporters to find aren’t always facts; they are often simply utterances by newsmakers. By not calling untruthful statements lies, the media can end up abetting the Right’s strategic use of lies.

From World War II until the election of Ronald Reagan, the mainstream news media tried to establish an ethos of fact-based reporting, but that was never completely successful and it failed when media owners discovered that news could be a profit center. (Even NPR, a nonprofit, pays close attention to numbers and income.) Today, journalists who cover politics often find themselves trapped—between opinion and fact, between Horowitz’s vision of art and war—and they don’t know how to get out. This results from their “ingrained habit,” as political scientist Norm Ornstein describes it, of “the reflexive ‘we report both sides of every story,’ even to the point that one side is given equal weight not supported by reality.”19 The Right has become adept at taking advantage of this.

A currently influential right-wing activist and writer, Horowitz actually started as a leftist. But when he saw which way the wind was blowing in the 1970s, he trimmed his sails and headed far to the Right. Like Trump, who has also shifted political allegiance, Horowitz’s compass always seemed to point more towards particular goals with a personal as well as political element. For both, the lie has no moral aspect, but is simply a tool.

Ramparts magazine, where Horowitz worked from 1968 into the 1970s, was an outlier even among leftist publications in the 1960s. Founded in the early 1960s with a Catholic focus, the magazine later “added generous doses of sex and humor, adopted a cutting-edge design, forged links to the Black Panther Party, exposed illegal CIA activities in America and Vietnam, published the diaries of Che Guevara and staff writer Eldridge Cleaver, and boosted its monthly circulation to almost 250,000,” as one history of the publication put it.20 Horowitz’s experience there, starting shortly after the magazine published William Turner’s shaky article on New Orleans’ District Attorney Jim Garrison’s equally shaky investigation into the Kennedy assassination 21—a theory that blamed the CIA—showed Horowitz the power of manipulating the truth. TIME magazine described Ramparts as “slick enough to lure the unwary and bedazzled reader into accepting flimflam as fact.”22 Embracing the lie as a tool allowed people like Horowitz to flourish and eventually, through the likes of Fox News, and right-wing provocateurs Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe III, to take over the U.S. conservative movement. They, and not more traditional conservatives like George Will and David Brooks, are now the plow that cleared the way for Trump.

Horowitz argues in his 2010 edition of The Art of Political War that “politics isn’t just about reality.

Horowitz argued, in a 2010  edition of The Art of Political War for Tea Parties, that “politics isn’t just about reality. If it were, good principles and good policies would win every time. It’s about images and symbols, and the emotions they evoke. This is the battle that conservatives generally lose.”23 Though Horowitz’s argument is strained—the Right, in fact, has become particularly adept at winning on emotional appeals and not so often on sound, proven policy—one implication is clear: the old rules don’t apply. In right-wing politics today, one can lie without concern for the truth behind such things as “images and symbols.” The constant repetition of the lie that Obama was born in Kenya left many Americans with the impression that he was at least a Muslim, if not a Kenyan. The power of the accusation lay not in its veracity—it had none—but rather in its symbolic ability to create the impression of Obama as “un-American.”

Horowitz continues to trot out staples of right-wing argument that he certainly knows are untrue, like “Everything that is wrong with the inner cities of America that policy can affect Democrats and progressives are responsible for.”24 Further justifying his lies of this sort, Horowitz presents what he calls “the principles of political war.” Namely:

  1. Politics is war conducted by other means
  2. Politics is a war of position
  3. In political wars the aggressor usually prevails
  4. Position is defined by fear and hope
  5. The weapons of politics are symbols evoking fear and hope
  6. Victory lies on the side of the people.25

By accepting these principles, Horowitz validates the use of political lies. But by equating politics with war he also approves of leaving morality and honesty aside in pursuit of winning—a dangerous proposition, as we are now seeing in the age of Trump.

New Journalism and the Rise of Its Evil Twin

As Ramparts was reaching its heights in the 1960s, the phenomenon of New Journalism was also taking hold in U.S. magazines. It played with the truth in another way, as its most famous practitioner, Tom Wolfe, recalls in describing his first encounter with it:

My instinctive, defensive reaction was that the man had piped it, as the saying went . . . winged it, made up the dialogue . . . Christ, maybe he made up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geek . . . The funny thing was, that was precisely the reaction that countless journalists and literary intellectuals would have over the next nine years as the New Journalism picked up momentum. The bastards are making it up!.26

Some of them were making it up. Or embellishing. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is no paragon of factuality.27 Hunter Thompson’s nascent “gonzo journalism” in Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga didn’t let truth get in the way of a good story.28 However, much of their work could be justified on the same grounds one uses for fiction: small inaccuracies served a greater point. In right-wing politics, however, this strategy has been twisted into an excuse for saying anything and never having to apologize for being wrong.

In the 1970s, the philosopher Sissela Bok made the obvious connection between lies, politics and journalism, outlining the practical genesis of the lie in each field:

the cub reporter who will lose his job if he is not aggressive in getting stories, or the young politician whose career depends on winning an election, may in principle be more sorely tempted to bend the truth than those whose work is secure; but this difference may be more than outweighed by the increased callousness of the latter to what they have come to regard as routine deception. 29

U.S. culture worships success. Winning means everything; the path there, very little. And some moral constraints on that objective have loosened over the years or have even been modified to allow for deception. Together, they have moved American culture to the cynicism of Pontius Pilate, who (according to John 18:38) asked Jesus “What is truth?” just before allowing him to be crucified.

Pilate’s question, today, has renewed importance, as even the president struggles with the concepts of “real” and “fake” news. In May 2017, Trump was shown two doctored TIME magazine covers about climate change that quickly got him “lathered up about the media’s hypocrisy”30 (unsurprising, given the fake cover of TIME hanging in some of his golf courses31). And his administration has tried to find ways to justify his lies (something he personally never would have bothered with before being elected). From St. Augustine on, “truth” has been central to understanding relationships between individuals, and has colored perceptions of the lie and the liar. This may have changed for today’s political activists on the Right, but the president is finding himself in an awkward position where Pilate’s question can no longer be ignored. Today, for Trump, it has aspects of life and death that he’s never faced before. His lies, no longer meaningless, move through the entire world.

Prime Movers of the Lie in Politics Today

Though Trump may be the most prominent liar in contemporary politics, he’s far from alone. I’ve already mentioned two of his most effective contemporaries: James O’Keefe of Project Veritas and the late Andrew Breitbart, whose website, under the subsequent leadership of Steve Bannon, has become a major right-wing (and Alt Right) source of fake news.32 The two men have spawned an entire industry, one whose most famous recent success is the Planned Parenthood “sting” videos of David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, edited in such a way as to make it seem as though Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue.

Belying its name, Project Veritas has little to do with truth of any sort. It is a project of political “warfare” in the tradition Horowitz has established. Its website claims as its mission to “Investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”33 O’Keefe’s method of operation involves two types of lies: first sandbagging opponents by disguising himself and his associates in such a way that those they interview let down their guard, and then creatively editing their responses—often captured on hidden cameras—to make the points he wishes about the organizations he’s attacking. His greatest success was the destruction of the community activist group ACORN through dishonest presentation of interviews with ACORN workers, a formula also used by Daleiden and Merritt.

Both O’Keefe and Breitbart have tried to justify themselves by claiming continuity with the muckraker tradition within journalism. “Discovery,” however, is not part of their lexicon; rather self-justification and winning are. Today, O’Keefe keeps to his playbook, though he has been exposed as a fraud many times, and Breitbart acolyte Steve Bannon has propelled into a premier political website that has now gone global and himself into a position as one of the president’s most important advisors.

Defeating Lies

Unknown protester holds sign at the Anti-Trump protest in New York City at Tompkins Square Park in January of 2017. Photo: Meshae Studios via Flickr.

Responsibility for the triumph of the lie in American public discourse rests not with any one group of people or movement, though the Political Right benefits from it most.

If the current defeat of truth is to be reversed and the lie once again relegated to a position of approbation, the old tactic of simply exposing lies must be abandoned. It took years for this to work in McCarthy’s time and will likely take even longer now, perhaps too long. Though exposing lies is necessary, we have to develop a different strategy if we are to bring back any pride in truth. We have to reinvent moral and ethical standards, apply them to our own lives, and insist that we never reward liars, no matter how much we like them or agree with the positions they adopt.

The response to Trump’s flagrant use of the lie in firing FBI director James Comey in May—claiming he was responding to the bungled investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails34—may be a start toward a national realignment in favor of the truth. The real reason for the firing was obvious—the investigation into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign had to be stopped—and the public rejected the cover story with a level of outrage missing throughout the many lies of the primaries and 2016 election. The White House, used to its lies working in its favor, was taken aback.

We have to reinvent moral and ethical standards, apply them to our own lives, and insist that we never reward liars.

For years, politics in the U.S. has been devolving toward the logic of professional wrestling, where truth is irrelevant and the fan favorite is the champion. Politicians have played agreed-upon roles, while the people have cheered for victors it already knew would win—or, in Trump’s case, would provide the best show. The public response to the Comey firing—an angry and full-throated denunciation of political lies, which eventually led to the appointment of a special counsel to continue the investigation into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia—was the first hopeful sign in a long time: that the lie hasn’t yet triumphed completely, that democracy isn’t yet dead.


1 Samantha Schmidt and Lindsey Bever, “Kellyanne Conway cites ‘Bowling Green massacre’ that never happened to defend travel ban,” The Washington Post, February 3, 2017,

2 Eric Bradner, “Trump’s Sweden comment raises questions, CNN Politics, February 20, 2017,

3 Marcus Baram, “Eavesdropping on Roy Cohn and Donald Trump,” The New Yorker, April 14, 2017.

4 Max Ehrenfreund, “Kansas Republicans raise taxes, ending their GOP governor’s ‘real live experiment’ in conservative policy,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2017,

5 Joel Whitebook, “Trump’s Method, Our Madness,” The New York Times, March 20, 2017,

6 Aaron Barlow, “The Art of the Slur: From Joe McCarthy to David Horowitz, The Public Eye Magazine, Fall 2006.

7 Matea Gold, “The Mercers and Stephen Bannon: How a populist power base was funded and built,” The Washington Post, March 17, 2017,

8 Amy Davidson, “The Politics of the Benghazi Report,” The New Yorker, June 29, 2016.

9 Cristina Marcos, “GOP chairman: Oversight won’t investigate Flynn,” The Hill, February 14, 2017,

10 Andrew Kaczynski, “Rand Paul on Flynn: ‘Makes no sense’ to investigate fellow Republicans,”, February 14, 2017,

11 William S. White, “What the McCarthy Method Seeks to Establish,” The New York Times, April 4, 1954,

12 William F. Buckley Jr. and L. Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and its Meaning (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), 336.

13 “Fact Checker,” “100 Days of Trump Claims,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2017.

14 David Remnick, “A Hundred Days of Trump, The New Yorker, May 1, 2017,

15US News Today, “FULL President Trump Cabinet Meeting 6/12/2017- President Trump Holds First Full Cabinet Meeting, Youtube Video, June 12, 2017,

16 For more on this see my article “The Art of the Slur: From Joe McCarthy to David Horowitz,” The Public Eye, Volume 20, Number 3, Fall, 2006,

17 Emma Stefansky, “Kellyanne Conway Introduces Concept of “Alternative Facts” to Account for Sean Spicer’s Lies,” Vanity Fair, January 22, 2017,

18 Michael Oreskes, in “NPR and the Word ‘Liar’: Intent Is Key,” Morning Edition, January 25, 2017,

19 Norm Ornstein, “Yes, Polarization Is Asymmetic—and Conservatives Are Worse”,The Atlantic, June 19, 2014,

20 Peter Richardson, A Bomb In Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (New York: The New Press, 2009), i.

21 William W. Turner, “The Garrison Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy” (Ramparts, January 1968), 43.

22 “A Bomb in Every Issue” (Time, January 6, 1967, Vol. 89, Issue 1, 41).

23 David Horowitz, The Art of Political War for Tea Parties (Sherman Oaks, CA: David Horowitz Freedom Center, 2010), 7.

24 Horowitz, 9.

25 Horowitz, 10.

26 Tom Wolfe, “The Birth of ‘The New Journalism’; Eyewitness Report,” New York (February 14, 1972, Volume V, Number 1),

27 “Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ Accuracy under Scrutiny,” CBS This Morning, December 5, 2014,

28 James McClure, “Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Hell’s Angels’ Turns 50 This Year,” Civilized, June 23, 2016,

29 Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Pantheon, 1978).244.

30 Shane Goldmacher, “How Trump gets his fake news,” Politico, May 15, 2017,

31 Francisco Alvarado and David A. Fahrenthold, “At one Trump golf resort, fake Time magazine covers are taken off the wall,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2017,

32 For more information about the activities of O’Keefe and Breitbart, see my chapter “The Pride and Reward of Falsification” in News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism edited by Burton St. John and Kirsten Johnson (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 26-41.

33 “About,” Project Veritas website,

34 Noah Bierman and David Lauter, “Trump fires FBI chief, citing handling of Clinton email investigation,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2017,


Birth of the Alt Right

Click here for a PDF version of this article

This article appears in the Winter 2017 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play…They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

—Jean-Paul Sartre, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” 19441

Sometime on October 10, 2014, feminist computer-game developer Brianna Wu began receiving a series of tweets on her Twitter account from someone named “DeathToBrianna”:

You just made a shitty game no one liked. That’s it. No one wil lcare when you die. [sic]

I hope you enjoy your last moments alive on this earth. You did nothing worthwhile with your life.

If you have any kids, they’re going to die too. I don’t give a fuck. They’ll grow up to be feminists anyway.

Your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow and there isn’t jack shit you can do about it.

I’ve got a K-Bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt.

Guess what bitch? I now know where you live. You and Frank live at [her real address].2

Wu, the development chief at gamemaker Giant Spacekat, and her husband called the police and moved out of their home that evening for several days, eventually hiring a bodyguard. Within days, she was accused by her tormentors of having “manufactured” the threats; they advised their readers in memes to “incite as much butthurt as possible, so don’t engage in civil reasoned debate. Flame anyone who disagrees …” Two years later, she continued to receive threats at such a volume that she hired a staff member to track them all.3

The threats directed at Wu arose from her involvement in the so-called “Gamergate” controversy, a bitter online dispute that revolved around the internal politics of the video-gaming community. On one side were feminists and other liberals who argued for greater inclusion of games appealing to women. On the other side were men who found such talk not merely threatening but a declaration of a “culture war,” wherein “social justice warriors” used the cudgel of political correctness to impose the values of multiculturalism.

The predominantly White men making these arguments, however, were not content merely to debate their positions online. Instead, a whole army of them swung into action on social media and Internet chat rooms, harassing and threatening feminists and liberals like Wu.

One of the feminists’ chief online assailants was Milo Yiannopoulos, a young gay man living in London who wrote a widely read column for Breitbart News. In a September 2014 piece he described the anti-Gamergate faction as “an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, [who] are terrorising the entire community—lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.”4

Yiannopoulos, who would parlay his Gamergate activism into a job as Breitbart’s tech editor and later as a leader of the emerging “Alt Right” phenomenon, responded to the threats against Wu in a typically “not-my-fault-she-deserved-it” tweet: “Whoever sent those tweets deserves to be charged and punished,” he wrote. “It was vile. But I cannot be alone in finding the response distasteful.”

The controversy heralded the rise of the Alt Right: A world dominated by digital trolls, insanely unbridled conspiracism, angry White-male-identity victimization culture, and ultimately, open racism, antisemitism, ethnic hatred, misogyny, and sexual/gender paranoia. A place where human decency and ethics are considered antiquarian jokes, and empathy is only an invitation to assault.

Troll Logic

The most influential aspect of the rise of the Internet in the 1990s was the liberation of information from the constraints of the mainstream media—something expected to further democratize the globalized economy. After all, the more information people had at their fingertips, the thinking went, the more they could be liberated by the truth.

Within a few years, however, it became evident that there was a serious downside to all this liberation: While the constraints on information imposed by a top-down mass media had seemingly been lifted, one of the press’s important by-functions was vanishing as well: namely, the ability to filter out bad information, false or badly distorted “facts,” and outrageous claims designed not just to titillate but to smear whole groups of people and to radicalize an audience against them. The Internet, with its easy anonymity and wanton disregard of the rules of evidence and factuality, by the early 2000s had already become host to a swamp of conspiracy theories, false smears, and wild speculation. As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have observed, the 1990s Patriot/militia movement was the first right-wing movement widely organized and promoted online.5

False or badly distorted “facts,” and outrageous claims designed not just to titillate but to smear whole groups of people and to radicalize an audience against them.

And the same “anything goes” ethos applied doubly to people’s behavior online. No entity embodied this anarchical and deliberately destructive sensibility quite like the digital troll: the usually anonymous creatures who lurk under the bridges of our discourse, lobbing insults, nonsequiturs, off-topic remarks, and racial or religious incendiary grenades. Their chief tactic is called “flaming,” in which they mercilessly abuse their target, substituting aggressive abuse for debate.

“Trolling” which takes its name from the fishing technique of dropping a lure on a long line and waiting for fish to take the bait, was initially considered a relatively benign, if juvenile, pastime. There was even a kind of “positive” trolling in which the “troll” used fact-based questions to lead a target to a logical conclusion. However, as “flaming” behaviors matured and spread, the resulting ethos created a “troll” whose deportment came closely to resemble the dreaded creatures who dwelt under bridges and snagged unwary travelers of legend. Trolls are ultimately engendered by a third kind of consequence of the rise of the Internet: Namely, the ability of people in modern society to construct their entire social lives online, with only a nominal interaction with the reality of the physical world. Increasingly, some people’s social lives began increasingly to revolve around chat rooms, email listservs, political and special-interest forums. As social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter took off, this phenomenon became not only widespread but profoundly consequential.

False or distorted “facts” create an alternative “reality” for people largely detached from the real world—profoundly toxifying people’s worldviews, their understanding of news and current events, as well as their interactions with others.

As media theorist Judith Donath explained in her groundbreaking 1999 study of trolling behavior: “In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity. The norm is: one body, one identity … The virtual world is different. It is composed of information rather than matter.”6

This helps explain why the introduction of bad information—false or distorted “facts” that creates an alternative “reality” for people largely detached from the real world—so profoundly toxifies people’s worldviews, their understanding of news and current events, as well as their interactions with others. The culture of trolling, by its very nature, quickly attracted some of society’s most toxic elements: sociopaths, psychopaths, and sadists. And that, in turn, had a profound political effect.

The Psychology of Trolling

A disturbing study released in 2014 by a team of psychologists led by Erin E. Buckels of the University of Manitoba sketched out a personality profile of trolls, focusing particularly on people attracted to “antisocial” uses of the Web. Buckels’ results found that many trolls share what psychologists call the “Dark Tetrad” of psychological traits: Machiavellianism (willing deception and manipulation), narcissism (self-obsession and egotism), psychopathy (an utter absence of empathy or remorse), and sadism (enjoyment of the suffering of others). The correlation of trolls with the last of these—sadism—was particularly powerful.7

“Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” Buckels wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

And the more time a person spends exclusively online (as opposed to in the material world) the stronger the connection becomes, Buckels found.

Buckels’ study also found that even though trolls have an outsized influence on Internet discourse, they comprise only a small percentage of Web users—just 5.6 percent of the survey’s respondents said they enjoyed trolling, while some 41 percent reported they don’t engage with other people online at all. Some trolled merely for fun, while others were driven by personal motivations, including politics.

As it happens, Buckels explained by email, there is, in general, a high correlation of these “Dark Tetrad” traits with another important mass-psychological phenomenon known as “social dominance orientation,” or SDO. It’s based on the recognition that people orient themselves socially based on a kind of fundamental view: Do they believe people are inherently equal, or unequal? Psychologists have tested people accordingly, devising an “SDO scale” that measures a person’s level of preference for hierarchy based on inherent inequalities within any social system, as well as the concurring desire for domination over lower-status groups.

The original 1994 study that designed the SDO scale asked participants whether they favored ideas such as “increased social equality,” “increased economic equality,” or simply “equality” itself. Conversely, subjects were asked whether they agreed that “some people are just more deserving than others” and that “This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people were.”8 SDO trolls, by dint of their personalities, were often inclined not only to share but to act out right-wing political views, often of the extremist variety.

“In short,” writes Robert Altemeyer, a psychologist who’s studied authoritarianism, “in social dominators’ way of thinking, equality should not be a central value of our society or a goal toward which we should strive. To high SDOs, ‘equality’ is a sucker-word in which only fools believe.”9

In contrast to the trolls who played the trolling game for its own sake, right-wing political trollers saw their activities as direct reflections of their politics. If trolling was often rude and openly transgressive, so were their politics.

If any movement could be said to describe the manifestation of Social Dominance Orientation in the political realm, it’s White nationalism. A far-right movement that took hold among “academic racists” in the 1990s, who contended that racial genetics imparted inherent characteristics such as intelligence, White nationalists followed these arguments with a call for distinct ethnostates that could enable racial separation. Moreover, the movement’s ideologues claimed, traditional White European culture faced an onslaught from non-White immigration and liberal multiculturalists.10

White nationalism quickly devolved from its original claim—to be simply promoting the interests of ethnic Whites—to, by the late ‘90s, demonizing non-Whites and LGBTQ people, as well as embracing far-right undercurrents of antisemitism and conspiracism. And indeed, many of the movement’s leaders displayed the kind of personality characteristics—lack of empathy, manipulativeness and aggression, and hostility to femininity and equality—associated with people who score highly on the SDO scale.

During the Bush administration years, White nationalists focused less on attacking liberalism than on attacking Republicans who they believed were failing to “stand up for White interests.” The antagonism created a gulf in which the movement, rife with contentious would-be leaders, struggled to reach new followers.

A sign at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. Photo: Mark Dixon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The White nationalists’ predilection for conspiracism, however, soon brought them the audience they sought. The conspiracy theorists who’d first become mobilized through the 1990s antigovernment Patriot movement found new inspiration in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which they portrayed as an “inside job” perpetrated with assistance from the Bush administration and its “New World Order.” As the decade wore on, the far-right conspiracists fixated on the idea of “political correctness” as a form of what they called “Cultural Marxism.” This idea grew from a fundamentally antisemitic White nationalist theory: that a small group of Jewish philosophers at Columbia University in the 1930s had devised an unorthodox form of Marxism that aimed to destroy American culture by convincing mainstream Americans that White ethnic pride is bad, sexual liberation is good, and traditional American “family values” and Christianity are bigoted and reactionary. (Among the subscribers to this theory, circulating in far-right circles since the ‘90s, was the right-wing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who in 2011 slaughtered 69 children at a Norway youth camp after detonating a series of bombs in Oslo that killed eight.11)

The audience for conspiracy theories, as Altemeyer observes, is often comprised of right-wing authoritarians: people who are inclined to insist on a world in which strong authorities produce order and peace, often through iron imposition of “law and order.”12 Highly ethnocentric, fearful of a dangerous world, aggressive, dogmatic, and inclined to extreme self-righteousness and poor reasoning, they are, as Altemeyer explains, “very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know, almost every news broadcast they see, almost every radio commentator they listen to, tells them they are. That is, they screen out the sources that will suggest that they are wrong.”13  

A Lethal Union

To understand the growth of the Alt Right, one must explore the relationship between social dominators and right-wing authoritarian followers. Altemeyer, who conducted groundbreaking work on the psychological makeup of right-wing authoritarian (RWA) personalities, explains that people with high SDO scores—“dominators”— correlate poorly with people who score highly on the RWA scale. The two groups are distinct. Authoritarian followers lack dominators’ lust for power and they are generally much more religious; their hostility is rooted in fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority, while dominators use hostility as a means of intimidation and control.

Though they are dissimilar in many ways, dominators and right-wing authoritarian followers share an overpowering tendency towards prejudice against racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ people, and religious minorities as well as deeply conservative politics.

Altemeyer’s 2006 book warning about the rise of authoritarianism focused on the special kind of chemistry that happens when right-wing authoritarian followers and social dominators come together. He called it the “lethal union”:

When social dominators are in the driver’s seat, and right-wing authoritarians stand at their beck and call, unethical things appear much more likely to happen. True, sufficiently skilled social dominators served by dedicated followers can make the trains run on time. But you have to worry about what the trains may be hauling when dominators call the shots and high RWAs do the shooting.14

It was during the Obama administration years, following the election of the first Black president, that the gradual coalescence of the alternative-universe worldviews of conspiracists, Patriots, White supremacists, Tea Partiers and nativists occurred. Fueled in no small part by racial animus toward Obama, the Internet and social media became the ground on which this “lethal union” could finally occur, after decades of internecine bickering among and marginalization of far-right factions. Those same chat rooms and Facebook threads where trolls gathered and harassed became the places where far-right social dominators—many of them espousing openly transgressive worldviews such as neonazism and misogyny—could come together with the right-wing authoritarian followers whose ranks grew with every conspiracy-theory convert and wannabe Oath Keeper militiaman.

That “lethal union” ultimately gave birth to a new baby created for the 21st century: the Alt Right.

The Road to Gamergate

It all began with people talking online about Japanese anime—the animated cartoons featuring everything from ultra-cute kittens to horrifying monsters, and everything in between.

The website’s owner, a then-15-year-old New York City student named Christopher Poole, called it 4chan when he launched it out of his bedroom in 2003. His idea was to create an open forum where anyone could post images and chat about anime and associated manga comic-book culture. And it was an immediate success, drawing a million hits in his first six days of operation. Soon it had expanded into a massive operation, one of the Internet’s most influential referral sites.15

Much of its original success was built on memes like “LOLcats,” featuring photos of cats over-scripted with funny phrases (the most famous of which, “I Can Haz Cheezburger,” went on to spawn a million-dollar company hosted at 4chan). 4chan also became known for its trolling, with resident trolls creating, among other things, the long-lived internet prank known as “RickRolling.”

But 4chan was also the ultimate open forum. People could register without entering an email address, so most commenters posted anonymously. 4chan’s boards became host not just to gamers and hobbyists but also neonazis, White supremacists, gay-bashers, and a flood of pornographic material. Trolling—of the nasty kind—soon became not just the ruling ethos but a competition among peers at 4Chan.

The “manosphere,” too, was a major presence at 4chan. An online community comprised of blogs, chat forums, and Reddit sub-communities, the manosphere was generally dedicated to the “men’s rights” movement, ostensibly to defend men against feminism. In reality, the movement had quickly become an open sewer of rampant misogyny and rape culture, particularly at the “Men’s Rights Activists” (or MRA) discussion boards at 4chan. Within this world, MRAs called feminism “a social cancer,” and asserted that, “Feminism is a hate movement designed to disenfranchise and dehumanize men.” They complained that women “cry rape” too easily, and, using Holocaust denialism as a metaphor, claimed that feminists had “created” the concept of patriarchy to justify abortion and “the destruction of men and masculinity.”16

Given the various communities gathering at 4chan, it was unsurprising when, in early 2013, all these forces converged to create the “Gamergate” controversy—an initially online phenomenon that crept over into the real world.

“Gamergate” began when a feminist game designer named Zoe Quinn was lauded for her woman-friendly online game “Depression Quest,” which guided users through the trials and tribulations of a person suffering from clinical depression.17 Quinn’s creation, reviewer Adam Smith wrote at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, transformed computer gaming from a mere exercise in conflict to “‘game’ as communication, comfort and tool of understanding.”18

The positive coverage of Quinn’s creation, however, attracted the ire of anti-feminist gamers, livid at the success of a feminized game that was a stark departure from “male” battle games. She soon found herself inundated with hate mail and threatening social-media messages. Someone mailed a detailed rape threat to her home address. Then, in August 2014, a year after “Depression Quest” was released to the general public, a former boyfriend of Quinn’s published a nasty tell-all post about their relationship, complaining that her new boyfriend was video game journalist Nathan Grayson. At 4chan’s boards, this story quickly took on a life of its own, as Quinn’s critics began claiming that Grayson had written a positive review of “Depression Quest” as a result of their relationship, even though, in reality, no such review existed.19

In a glimpse of trends to come, though, that fact did not matter.  The 4chan trolls were off and running, claiming they had uncovered an ethical scandal within the world of gaming journalism. Grayson’s supposed breach of standards reflected what they claimed was a pro-feminist, pro-liberal, anti-White-male bias growing within the computer-game industry. Soon anyone who questioned their interpretation of events was part of the conspiracy. Actor Adam Baldwin, highly active in right-wing circles, dubbed the controversy “Gamergate” in a Twitter hashtag, and it spread like wildfire.

Quinn’s previous flood of hate mail was dwarfed by the incoming tide of vitriol that now descended upon her. She was “doxxed”—her home address and personal contact information published online—and forced to flee her home.20

Nor did the harassment end with Quinn. Anita Sarkeesian, a well-regarded feminist cultural critic, endured death and rape threats, as well as a phoned-in bomb threat that canceled a speaking appearance, after she became a public critic of the Gamergaters. That was followed shortly by the online threats against Brianna Wu.21

Appalled by the wave of harassment emanating from their boards, the owners of 4chan announced in September 2014 that they would ban any further Gamergate discussions. However, a longtime 4chan user named Fredrick Brennan had, that previous October, already created a similar, competing website called 8chan, because he believed 4Chan had become too censorious.

The Gamergaters at 8chan, on Twitter and Reddit and other forums created a lingo of their own: mainly a range of pernicious rhetorical devices designed to create a buffer between themselves and the threats that were flooding out to women, LGBTQ folk, and people of color in the industry. It was a language of dismissal and belittlement. They called their targets “special snowflakes” and “cry bullies,” derided their websites as “safe spaces” and their hope for civil discourse as “unicorns.” The targets of the abuse, they claimed, were lying or exaggerating; and even when the abuse was factually substantiated, Gamergaters’ usual response was that people on their side were being abused too.22

The Gamergaters shared a predilection for conspiracism as well. Feminists , for example, were portrayed as a subset within the larger “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy to destroy Western civilization. But what was once an idea with limited popular appeal was gaining widespread circulation through popular conspiracists like Alex Jones, creator of the massively popular conspiracy mill InfoWars. At 4chan and 8chan, the threat of “Cultural Marxism” became the focal point of many discussions, first about Gamergate, then, increasingly, politics. A common theme began to emerge: that White men were being systematically oppressed by dangerous left-wing forces, and that mainstream conservatives, through their “weak” response to multiculturalism, had “sold them out.”

Eventually Gamergate passed out of the news cycle, and the controversy subsided, to no one’s real satisfaction. What had transpired in the process, though, was far more important. Aggrieved MRAs from the “manosphere,” White nationalists who shared their virulent hatred of feminists and adoration for “traditional values,” as well as gamers and online trolls, had coalesced as a movement. And they continued on as a community, talking now more about politics and conspiracies than gaming, and how much they hated “sellout” mainstream conservatives. They reserved their most bilious outbursts for liberals, multiculturalism, gays and lesbians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews—especially Jews.

Their growing community of likeminded defenders of the White race and “traditional values” had to have a name, and so they gave it one: the “Alt Right.”

The Mob Is the Movement

White nationalist Richard Spencer is credited with coining the term “Alternative Right” in 2009. Photo: V@s via Flickr (CC BY2.0)

In 2009, a young White nationalist named Richard Spencer coined the term “Alternative Right” while writing a headline for the paleoconservative Taki’s Magazine, where he was an editor at the time.23 The headline was for an article by White nationalist Kevin DeAnna, describing the rise of a new kind of conservatism— one hostile to neoconservatism and open to “racialist” politics. Less than a year later, in early 2010, Spencer founded his own webzine and named it The Alternative Right. In short order, the name of the movement it promoted was shortened to “Alt Right,” and it stuck.

The name was developed with public relations well in mind; after all, it permitted White nationalists to soften their image while drawing in recruits from mainstream conservatism. When the movement rose to national prominence in 2016 in conjunction with the Trump campaign, a controversy erupted over whether to use the movement’s preferred name or simply call its members what many took them to be: “neonazis” or “White supremacists.” (This mirrored a similar discussion in the 1990s over whether to call the Patriot movement by its chosen name or other descriptors such as “antigovernment” and “antidemocratic.”)

However, as researcher Matthew Lyons explains, the movement is much more complex than any of those simple terms.24 It incorporates elements not only from White nationalists and supremacists of various stripes, but also misogynist anti-feminists, certain “neoreactionary” activists who regard democratic rule as a threat to civilization, as well as some right-wing anarchist elements. Identifying it as only one of those elements is not only inaccurate, but obscures the Alt Right’s peculiarly culture-savvy orientation and the strength of its appeal.

Take Pepe the Frog, for example. Pepe did not begin life, as it were, as the mascot of the Alt Right. His cartoonist creator, Matt Furie, a liberal Democrat, drew the smiling character in 2005 as part of an absurdist comic book; Pepe’s panel featured the frog peeing with his pants down around his ankles, saying, “Feels good man.”

Pepe the Frog was one of the most popular memes on social media before getting hijacked by the Alt Right. Image via

Pepe’s catchphrase and image—big-eyed, large-lipped, cheerful—proliferated and became a common part of memes. By 2014, he had become one of the most popular memes on social media.

And then he was hijacked by the Alt Right. Already wildly popular among the far-right trolls at 4chan, Pepe’s image came increasingly to be featured in Alt Right memes as the trolls spread to other forums. Andrew Anglin, a former skinhead who was one of the leading trolls at 4chan, featured Pepe’s visage prominently at his neonazi blog The Daily Stormer; other Alt Right activists followed. Soon regular users stopped using Pepe in memes out of fear that they would be presumed to be racist White nationalists.25

It was only a dumb cartoon, but what Pepe really represented to the Alt Right was something much more powerful: irony. Unlike their historical forebears in the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations, the leaders and followers of the Alt Right see themselves as smarter and more sophisticated, their rhetoric of racism, violence, and open eliminationism wrapped in more wit and humor, at least of a sort.

As Anglin explained, “A movement which meets all of the [Southern Poverty Law Center’s] definitions of Neo-Nazi White Supremacism using a cartoon frog to represent itself takes on a subversive power to bypass historical stereotypes of such movements, and thus present the ideas themselves in a fun way without the baggage of Schindler’s List and American History X.”26

Pepe is hardly the only cartoon figure deployed by the Alt Right. The movement’s roots in 4chan are evident in its many anime-fueled memes, most of them showing cute cartoon girls wearing various kinds of Nazi regalia, or sporting openly misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic texts. Comic characters of various kinds are deployed to ironically promote White nationalist ideas.

The Alt Right established itself primarily through its cultural agility—its ability to stay at the forefront of current events, themes, and ideas by adapting them to its own uses and then running wild with them. Spencer explains that these memes have “power” and are “a way of communicating immediately.” The movement takes pride in the inscrutability of its memes and other cultural markers—from the “echo” of placing parenthesis around the names of Jews (a tactic since reclaimed by some Jews), to the use of “Shitlord” as an honorific to describe Alt Right true believers—and revel in using them as a kind of secret handshake. The most pernicious of these is the #WhiteGenocide hashtag that handily reduces the White nationalist “mantra” that “Diversity is a Code Word for White Genocide.”

Many Alt Right memes tap into popular culture: Taylor Swift’s image pops up to promote “Aryan” beauty standards; the new Star Wars films are mocked for including central Black and female characters. Masculinity is a fixation for Alt Rightists, reflected in lingo such as “cuck” or “cuckservative,” which characterize mainstream conservatives as spineless cuckolds. They revel in naked racism for its transgressive value, reflected in their term “dindu nuffin” (caricatured dialect for “I didn’t do nothing,” used to describe African Americans, especially Black Lives Matters protesters). The terms spawned social-media hashtags (#Cuckservative, #Dindu) that spread the ideas behind them to a mostly young and impressionable audience.

Frequently, Alt Right activists describe the conversion to their point of view as getting “red pilled,” after the red pill in the 1999 science-fiction film The Matrix that enables Keanu Reeves to see reality. Alt Righters see it as a metaphor for what they consider to be the revelatory power of their ideology, which cuts through the lies of “social justice warriors,” “Cultural Marxists,” and the mainstream media they insist is actively suppressing their views.

“The Alt-Right is a ‘mass movement’ in the truest possible sense of the term, a type of mass-movement that could only exist on the Internet, where everyone’s voice is as loud as they are able to make it,” explained Anglin. “In the world of the internet, top-down hierarchy can only be based on the value, or perceived value, of someone’s ideas. The Alt-Right is an online mob of disenfranchised and mostly anonymous, mostly young White men. … The mob is the movement.27

And yet, by virtue of its spreading online presence, and the genuinely extremist nature of the ideology it promoted, the Alt Right was much more. It had become a massive mechanism for the online radicalization of mostly young White Americans.

Internet Radicals

In the wake of domestic terrorism attacks in the fall of 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and San Bernardino, California, committed by non-Whites ostensibly motivated by Muslim extremism, various media pundits, experts on terrorism, and government officials began raising concerns about the role of “online radicalization” in fueling such violence. The massacre of 49 people at an Orlando gay nightclub in June 2016 by a Muslim man who espoused beliefs from radical Islam, seemingly picked up online, only intensified the conversation.

The massive media attention paid to these incidents, however, underscored how acts of terrorist violence related to the influence of White supremacism or other far-right ideologies rarely received the same treatment.28 When 20-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a Charleston church in a June 2015, both media accounts and law-enforcement officials were reluctant to identify the act as domestic terrorism, despite the fact that it more than adequately fit the FBI definition of such crimes.29 Similarly, when an anti-abortion extremist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November 2015, killing three people, the crime was again not identified as terrorism.30 And when a (White) militia gang was arrested for plotting to bomb a Kansas Muslim community in October 2016, even though the plotters were ultimately charged with domestic terrorism, there was relatively little media coverage of the case.31

Dylann Roof, for example, spent most of his days reading Alt Right websites. It was clear, but little noted, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim “radicals” was occurring simultaneously in a completely separate dimension of the Internet: among the gathering White male nationalists of the Alt Right.

But all of these incidents had one thing in common: their perpetrators were all motivated in large part by Internet communities. Roof, for example, spent most of his days reading Alt Right websites. It was clear, but little noted, that the same phenomenon believed to be fueling terrorist acts by Muslim “radicals” was occurring simultaneously in a completely separate dimension of the Internet: among the gathering White male nationalists of the Alt Right.

How does online radicalization happen? A number of different models have been developed for understanding the phenomenon. Most of them, unsurprisingly, have been geared toward examining Islamist radicals, but their findings fit remarkably well in explaining how the same process works with White nationalism.

One of these theories is called “identity demarginalization,” articulated by psychologists Katelyn McKenna and John Bargh in a 1998 study. It attempts to explain why some social groups are more drawn to the Internet than others. People with “concealable and culturally devalued identities” were found to be more likely than people with mainstream identities to participate in and value online communities. McKenna’s and Bargh’s study found that people who posted in online forums dedicated to concealable identities, such as being LGBTQ or a neonazi, valued the feedback and opinions of other group members much more strongly than people who belonged to forums focusing on easily perceivable marginalized identities, such as obesity and stuttering.32

“For the first time,” McKenna and Bargh wrote, an individual exploring his or her marginalized identity in an online environment “can reap the benefits of joining a group of similar others: feeling less isolated and different, disclosing a long secret part of oneself, sharing one’s own experiences and learning from those of others, and gaining emotional and motivational support.”

The process of radicalization occurs in steps. Journalist Abi Wilkinson, noting that concern about Islamist radicalization had produced such government efforts to combat the problem as the U.K.’s “Prevent” program, examined the course of various Alt Right adherents as they became increasingly vitriolic and even violent in their views. “Reading through the posting history of individual aliases,” she wrote, “it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.”33

Southern Poverty Law Center analyst Keegan Hankes, who devotes much of his time to monitoring the activities and growth of the Alt Right, explained that the very shape of the movement’s discourse plays an important role in its recruitment: People are first exposed to their ideas by going wildly over the top with jokes that celebrate Nazis or other kinds of ugly behavior designed to attract attention by its craziness.

“You know, people will laugh at these things, just because they’re so transgressive. And who is most susceptible to that? Young minds,” continued Hankes. “The idea is to attract young minds, and of course, they are targeting the people who spend the most time in these environments. This movement is very immersive, and people wind up building their whole lives around it.”


1 Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), pp. 13-14.

2 Andrew Hart, “Game Developer Brianna Wu Flees Home After Death Threats,” Huffington Post, Oct. 12, 2014;

3 Dean Takahashi, “Brianna Wu Speaks Up About Death Threats and Personal Cost of Opposing #GamerGate,” VentureBeat, Feb. 9, 2015;

4 Milo Yiannopoulos, “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart,” Breitbart,  Sept 1, 2014;

5 Chip Berlet, “When Hate Went Online” presented at the Northeast Sociological Association, Spring Conference, Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University, April 28, 2001.

6 Judith Donath, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community,” MIT Media Lab, Nov. 12, 1996;

7 Erin E. Buckels, Paul D. Trapnell, Delroy L. Paulhus, “Trolls just want to have fun,” Personality and Individual Differences, Vol. 67, September 2014, pp. 97–102;

8 Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, “Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994, Vol. 67, No. 4, pp. 741-763.

9 Bob Altemeyer, “Highly Dominating, Highly Authoritarian Personalities,” The Journal of Social Psychology, 2004, Vol. 144, No. 4, pp. 425.

10>/sup> Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), pp. 367-379, pp. 393-398. See also “White Nationalists,” Southern Poverty Law Center;

11 Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism Catching On,” Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center), Aug. 15, 2003;

12 Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians (University of Manitoba, 2006),, pp. 88-90.

13 Bob Altemeyer, “Donald Trump and Authoritarian Followers,” Daily Kos, March 2, 2016;

14 Altemeyer, The Authoritarians, op. cit., p. 176.

15 Aric Suber-Jenkins, “How 4chan, a small anime forum, became Donald Trump’s most rabid fanbase,”, Oct. 31, 2016;

16 “Misogyny: The Sites,” Intelligence Report (Southern Poverty Law Center), March 1, 2012;

17 Simon Parkin, “Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest,” The New Yorker, Sept. 9, 2014;

18 Adam Smith, “Mostly Indescribable: Depression Quest,” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Feb. 14, 2013;

19 Nick Wingfield, “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘GamerGate’ Campaign,” New York Times, Oct. 15, 2014;

20 Radhika Sanghani, “Misogyny, death threats and a mob of trolls: Inside the dark world of video games with Zoe Quinn – target of #GamerGate,” Daily Telegraph, Sept. 10, 2014;

21 Nick Wingfield, ibid.

22 Matt Lees, “What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’,” The Guardian, December 1, 2016,

23 Kevin DeAnna, “The Alternative Right,” Taki’s Magazine, July 26, 2009;

24 Matthew N. Lyons, “Calling them “alt-right” helps us fight them,” ThreeWayFight, Nov. 22, 2016;

25 Olivia Nuzzi, “How Pepe the Frog Became a Nazi Trump Supporter and Alt-Right Symbol,” The Daily Beast, May 25, 2016;

26 Andrew Anglin, “A Normie’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” The Daily Stormer, Aug. 31, 2016;

27 Andrew Anglin, ibid.

28 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network or Lone Wolf? Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right,” Political Research Associates, June 19, 2015;

29 See Rick Gladstone, “Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?,” New York Times, June 28, 2015; See also Kevin Cirilli, “FBI head won’t call Charleston shooting a terrorist act,” The Hill, June 20, 2015;

30 Eric Tucker and Sadie Gurman, “Why the Planned Parenthood shooting isn’t legally referred to as ‘domestic terrorism’,” Associated Press, Dec. 1, 2015;

31 Bryan Schatz, “Feds Charge Kansas Militia Members With Plotting to Bomb Somali Immigrants,” Mother Jones, Oct. 14, 2016;

32 Katelyn Y.A. McKenna and John A. Bargh, “Coming out in the age of the Internet: Identity “demarginalization” through virtual group participation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 75, No. 3, September 1998, pp. 681-694.

33 Abi Wilkinson, “We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” The Guardian, Nov. 15, 2016;

Neoliberalizing Public Higher Ed: The Threat of Free Market Ideology

When we talk about the privatization of public education, we often think of K-12 education. Certainly, the growth of charter schools and voucher programs and attacks on teachers unions indicate that the “education reform” movement poses a major threat to the traditional public school. As prominent education historian Diane Ravitch writes, “‘Reform’ is really a misnomer, because the advocates for this cause seek not to reform public education but to transform it into an entrepreneurial sector of the economy.” But discussions of the entrepreneurialization of public education institutions must also be understood within the context of higher education.


Image via Turnstyle News.

The current crisis within higher ed is often discussed primarily in terms of rising tuition and student debt, but the debt crisis is just one particularly ugly manifestation of a larger trend involving increased corporate investment in college campuses, the exploitation of adjunct faculty, and a de facto attack on scholarly and professional training that does not  directly lead to corporate opportunities for graduates. Taken together, these seemingly distinct problems in higher education, and public higher ed in particular, point to a common, underlying ideology that is consistent with that of the K-12 education reform movement: a rationale of neoliberal corporatization and privatization.

As Wendy Brown, a prominent political theorist based at UC Berkeley, writes, neoliberalism represents a “unique governmental and social rationality—one that extends market principles to every reach of human life”:

[Neoliberalism] formulates everything in terms of capital investment and appreciation (including and especially humans themselves), whether a teenager building a resume for college, a twenty-something seeking a mate, a working mother returning to school, or a corporation buying carbon offsets. As a governing rationality, neoliberalism extends from the management of the state itself to the soul of the subject; it renders health, education, transportation, nature, and art into individual consumer goods, and converts patients, students, drivers, athletes, and museum-goers alike into entrepreneurs of their own needs and desires who consume or invest in these goods (emphasis is mine).[i]

Neoliberalism is thus a turn away from collectivity and commitment to the public good and a turn toward individualism and an acceptance—embrace, even—of structural inequality. Such ideologies prepare students for life under the domination of large corporations.

But public universities should not act like corporations. They should train students to be great citizens; they should provide academics with resources and security to challenge convention by producing novel ideas and inventions for the public good; and they should be affordable and attainable to any qualified student, and particularly those who come from communities that have historically been isolated from higher ed. Unfortunately, the neoliberal corporatization of public universities is responsible for a number of dynamics that directly undermine these principles.

Rising Tuition = Supply and Demand

Contrary to popular belief, tuition hikes at public universities date back to the 1980s, far before the 2007 financial crisis. According to Salon reporter Thomas Frank, the rise in tuition took off in 1981, the same year that Ronald Reagan took the White House. While politicians and journalists have blamed students, professors, and the new demands for a diverse student body from a more liberal society, it’s now clear, Frank says, that the real culprits behind rising tuition are administrators and other decision makers who have long embraced a neoliberal, corporate approach to university administration. This shift was further exacerbated by increasing economic inequality. Indeed, tuition pricing became subjected to “market forces” at the same time that degrees were becoming ever-more important for middle-class employment and upward social mobility.

Donations with Strings Attached

Another reason why universities have increased tuition is the lack of adequate state funding—a trend that has only grown worse since the recession. Disinvestment in state universities has forced colleges to look elsewhere for funding sources, and the corporate sector has eagerly stepped in.

For example, John Allison, former chairman of BB&T Corp.,  has worked through the BB&T Charitable Foundation to provide schools with “as much as $2 million” under the condition that they “create a course on capitalism and make [Ayn] Rand’s … Atlas Shrugged required reading.” Former hedge fund manager Jim Simons has tried to privatize tuition practices within the SUNY system, wielding an apparently conditional pledge of $150 million at Stony Brook as a bargaining chip. The Koch brothers have also been widely criticized for their politicized contributions (particularly for funding economics professorships at Florida State University); the Charles Koch Foundation can rescind funding for professors’ salaries if their work is deemed “unacceptable.” These donations, which come with ideologically charged strings attached, use a not-so-invisible hand to influence university administrators and to promote development strategies and curricula lauding capitalism and the super-rich.

Squeezing the Workforce

Public universities have also sought to shift financial burdens onto faculty and staff. The rise in the percentage of contingent faculty, the precariousness of their positions, and the effect it has on academic integrity and teaching quality are all characteristics of what Claire Goldstein calls the “emergent academic proletariat.”

In 1970, “78% of faculty were permanent and full time;” now, says Goldstein, “close to 70 percent of all faculty appointments in degree-granting institutions are off the tenure-track, a number that includes over one million people.” Contingent faculty are more likely to be overworked, under-resourced, and left out of important decision-making groups. Lacking job security and other resources, contingent faculty may be less likely to include controversial course material, too. As law professor and free speech activist Marjorie Heins has argued, the dominance of corporate rationality recalls an earlier era of academia, before tenure was a well-established policy and professors could be dismissed for championing scholarship or causes that went against the outlooks of university boards. Now, the public university is again squeezing out those who might otherwise push for some much needed progressive thinking, teaching, and learning.

Entrepreneurializing the Public U

Given the landscape of public disinvestment, rising tuition, and a persistently weak labor market, many have called for the American university to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit they claim is required in an increasingly competitive global economy. As universities take heed—and follow the money—the “entrepreneurial university” is being born before our eyes.

Great public universities can certainly be centers for innovative and pragmatic partnership, and the production of quality goods and services that benefit the larger world should indeed be a part of the university’s activities. But in the long term, focusing exclusively on entrepreneurship and the development of “marketable skills” is a different and even dangerous project. Private investors and firms that support an entrepreneur are, by their very nature, interested first and foremost in the profitability of their investment. When an entrepreneurial profit motive is the driving force of decisions instead of a desire to make people’s lives better, the university stops being a center for the betterment of society and becomes another means of capital accumulation.

Under this paradigm, certain fields of knowledge yield a higher return than others—as do certain students, namely those who are willing to pay full tuition, accumulate assets of their own as well-paid professionals, and give back to their beloved alma mater. It just so happens that the kinds of learning and teaching deemed most useful—what Henry A. Giroux would call “instrumental pedagogy”—are not those that are essential to progressive social thinking: the critical orientation and self-reflexivity of the humanities and interpretive social sciences pose a threat to neoliberal rationality. And given the price, projects, and results that neoliberal education demands, students from historically marginalized backgrounds or who present points of view challenging corporatization are often shunted aside.


When the market rules, ordinary people and inclusive social structures do not. Instead, rigid hierarchical structures proliferate, free market ideology dominates, progressive and critical thought declines, and disparities among employees abound. Those who have money and influence—corporate billionaires and university administrators—accumulate more of it, while those who do not—students and their families, contingent academic workers— are further marginalized.

In the post-war era, a democratic project began to establish a widely and rigorously educated general public through well-funded and subsidized public higher education. It was an imperfect project at best—African Americans and other people of color were largely denied access to many of these programs—but we should do well to remember the democratic promise of the public university before we relegate it completely to the cold hands of the neoliberal market and corporatization.  The stakes are high: who and how we are educated forges us into the kind of society we become. A vigorous public education system, higher ed included, is the best defense against an ascending neoliberal plutocracy where democracy is deemed second to entrepreneurship and capital accumulation.

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[i] Brown, Wendy. Neoliberalized Knowledge. History of the Present Vol. 1, No. 1 (Summer 2011). University of Illinois Press. pp. 113-129


The Tea Party, the John Birch Society, and the Fear of “Mob Rule”: An Interview with Claire Conner

Claire Conner, author of Wrapped in the Flag

Claire Conner, author of Wrapped in the Flag

Claire Conner’s parents were early members of the John Birch Society (JBS), an aggressively right-wing organization that was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. It drew much of its energy from opposition to the New Deal and Great Society programs that dramatically expanded the social safety net in the United States. The JBS was also active in opposing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In foreign policy, many of its members believed that U.S. participation in the United Nations was part of a communist conspiracy to create a “one-world” government. The JBS also viewed mainstream politicians from both major parties, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, as communist sympathizers.

Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013) is Conner’s memoir about growing up in Chicago as the daughter of two of the organization’s earliest and most dedicated members. Kirkus Reviews named Wrapped in the Flag one of the best nonfiction books of 2013 and described it as “an invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism.” A paperback edition will be published in March 2014.

In the following interview, Conner discusses the organization’s early years and its influence on the contemporary conservative movement. For more about the history and recent resurgence of the organization, see PRA’s brief profile of the JBS and the article “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right”—both by PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick.

What motivated you to write this book now? 

When I started writing it more than 10 years ago, no one was interested in the story. People didn’t really want to hear about what it was like growing up in the radical Right. In 2003, I revisited it again and did some more work. And again, no one was interested. Then in 2008, we were sitting in the family room watching television, and Sarah Palin was really digging into Obama. And a group of people started shouting [at the mention of Obama], “Terrorist!” That said to me, “Finish your book.”

It became clear to me that something was happening. The level of hatred, fear, and paranoia was so familiar to me that I began to realize that the Right was making a comeback. They were emerging again from their cocoon. And as I say in the book, all it took was the election of the first African-American president, health care reform, and an economic crisis. And they were back in the saddle. This time they were called the Tea Party. Basically they had the same ideas, the same policy prescriptions for the United States, as the John Birch Society (JBS) had back in the 1960s and ’70s.

You mentioned the hatred and paranoia that are shared by the JBS and the Tea Party. What accounts for that? 

It comes from a very different view of what government is—and what government should or could be. The John Birch Society came from the principle that the federal government is essentially evil. That’s extremely difficult for liberals to grasp. But it was exactly where they were coming from. They believe the government is essentially evil and should either be privatized or completely done away with.

For example, the John Birch Society said that Social Security should never exist, because it is a giant embezzlement. They also held that the 16th Amendment to the Constitution—the amendment creating a federal income tax—should be repealed because the federal government did not have the authority to collect those sorts of taxes. The John Birch Society basically believes that anything the federal government does, beyond what is specifically mentioned in the Constitution, is wrong.

Here are the things that, according to the John Birch Society, the federal government can properly do. It can negotiate treaties with federal powers, declare and conduct war, run a postal system, and deal with disputes between the states. Because those are the essential functions of the federal government, those are the only things the John Birch Society sees them as having the right to do. From that particular point of view, you can see why they don’t believe in the Department of Education or the Highway Department. They don’t believe in any regulation of business. They don’t even believe in nuclear regulations or the Federal Aviation Administration. We’re talking about reducing the government to a level that would be, at the very least, astounding.

I said to my mother one time, “What would happen if we actually did all these things?” What if there was no Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, food stamps—no safety net at all. And she said, “Oh, it would be glorious. It would be what the Constitution intended.” I’d say, “Mom, the Constitution is not going to feed a hungry child”. I can still see her face looking up from her teacup, saying, “That’s not my concern, dear.”

One of the messages I have for liberals is that they’re not going to change that basic viewpoint. We are not going to convert people who hold that viewpoint to a liberal view of government. So we have to find a different way to mobilize Americans to understand that government is a good thing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything government does is without glitches, mistakes, or problems, like the rollout of the health care website. But I believe that government is human beings, communities, Americans banding together to do the things that we can’t do alone. Like building bridges, schools, and guaranteeing civil rights.

You became a member of the JBS at a very young age. Why? 

I was 13 years old, and my father was a very powerful guy. I loved my parents and didn’t want to disobey them. I tried to be a good, right-wing girl. But there were things that happened along the way that didn’t feel right to me.

The first one had to do with my parents’ view of the Holocaust. They ran into a fellow who was part of the leadership of the John Birch Society, named Revilo Oliver, one of the most vile, hateful, and nasty human beings I have ever had the unpleasant experience of knowing. He’d come to our house and was full of religious and racial hatred. He hated people of colors, Jews, immigrants—practically anyone who wasn’t White, it seemed to be beyond his capability of caring for. He was a professor at the University of Illinois.

Before we knew Oliver, my father had taught me about the Holocaust, and about how our soldiers freed the camps and found bodies stacked like wood, and crematoriums, and how the ashes floated over everything. And I knew it as well as my name—that Hitler had tried to kill all the Jews in Europe. Well, when Revilo Oliver started coming to dinner, suddenly my parents were less appalled by the Holocaust. They began saying that Hitler really wasn’t trying to kill all the Jews. He was trying to kill the communists, and most of the people that were detained in the camps were actually traitors to Germany. And the military was just following orders. That did not sit well with my experience as a kid growing up in a very Jewish neighborhood.

Another thing really bothered me was the attitude of the John Birch Society towards people who were in need. I always felt, as a kid, that if somebody was hungry, you fed them. If the churches weren’t able to help and the need was too great, the government had to help. That made perfect sense. And then I discovered that it was totally against the principles of the John Birch Society. They actually believed in what they called “healthy poverty.” That sounds like a complete contradiction, but that’s what they called it.

Robert Welch wrote about this at great length in 1976. He talked about the fact that healthy poverty was what existed in the United States at the turn of the century—about 1900 to 1920—and that it was an ideal time of economic growth and increase in productivity in the United States. He admitted that there were pockets of poverty, but he said that it was a healthy kind of poverty, free from government interference. I’m telling you, when I heard the debates in the House of Representatives in 2013 about eliminating food stamps completely from the farm budget, all I could say was, “Oh my God, they sound just like John Birchers!”

Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state in Ohio during the uproar over who could vote in Ohio in 2004, left the state of Ohio and went to work for the Family Research Council. He said that getting rid of food stamps would be an exercise in Christian compassion, because it would allow people to participate in their own uplift. That is the same JBS idea: If you’re poor or in need, or your child is disabled, then somehow you’re in the wrong.

As an adult with some perspective on all of this, how have you made sense of your parents’ ideas and their involvement with the JBS?

For a long time, I wanted to say that my parents had just put their apples in the wrong cart. And then I had a real wake-up moment and realized that my father wasn’t just someone who was led around. He was on the leadership of the John Birch Society for 32 years. He was out selling the John Birch Society all over the United States, as one of its speakers, and was often paid for his speeches.

When it came to compelling speech giving, he was better than either Revilo Oliver or Robert Welch. So I had to face the reality that my parents weren’t just led around. My parents believed all of this. And my father was one of the leaders. And I have to say, it was a hard realization for me. It’s easy to say that your parents were just going along. It’s hard to say that they were leading the pack.

The question is: Why did he believe all of this? I think it’s partially because of World War II and seeing the communists [emerge as a threat]. He picked up on a level of fear and paranoia that was prevalent in the country in the 1950s. We have this imaginary view of the ‘50s—women in their aprons making cupcakes, children quietly playing Monopoly, and it was always a good day, like in the movie Pleasantville. But the United States was in turmoil during the 1950s, because after World War II, communist boots were marching across Eastern Europe and Asia. And it looked for all the world like they were coming for us. And then Sen. Joe McCarthy [R-WI] just threw gasoline on that fire and said that the government of the United States was run by these guys.

After McCarthy was discredited, my father didn’t stop believing what he was selling. He always said, “We’re going to need a lot more Joes to save this country.” And he found people who agreed with him—lots of them. Robert Welch wasn’t a particularly good speaker, but he had a plan. He had an idea to actually get something to happen. Whereas, as my dad used to say, “All the rest of these anti-communists were just debating societies.” They just gave speeches. My father wanted to change the country. So he looked for someone who had a method to his madness. Robert Welch had a method.

[The] John Birch Society did something that nobody else has ever done. They organized all their volunteers to do the same thing—at the same time. Before that, people who were upset about the country would go to these speeches, and everybody would take home a pamphlet. But Robert Welch believed that they weren’t going to change the country that way. So he actually put in place a structure and said, “Everybody’s going to do this at the same time.” And if you didn’t, you got kicked out. They didn’t tolerate deadwood in the organization.

Robert Welch made no bones that he thought democracy was the worst form of government—not just for his organization, but for a country. The John Birch Society believes that democracy is mob rule. So, that explains a lot about the way the government is organized. It also explains a lot about some of the things that are happening in the United States today, in terms of that belief system.

A whole bunch of people on the Right don’t think that everyone ought to vote. Why? Because if you’ve got everybody voting, you have yourself a mob. And that idea comes from [National Review founder and editor] Bill Buckley, who is sort of a patron saint of the Right. Buckley, the John Birch Society, my father, and a very prominent political science professor [who taught at Yale], Willmoore Kendall, all believed that the franchise, or the right to vote, had to be limited, as it was in colonial in times, when you had to be White, free, over a particular age, and a landowner in order to vote.

JBS members often believe in conspiracies, and many of them view the Catholic Church as part of a grand, global conspiracy. So it’s interesting that your parents were very dedicated Roman Catholics. 

My parents were very right-wing Catholics. And it was a big surprise to me that they could find common ground with Robert Welch, who was a Baptist. My mother used to say all the time, “Once we save the country, then we can argue about theology.” But I would say, “You do know that these people hate you, right?”

My parents, being Roman Catholics, wanted the United States to be governed by papal law. So my parents loved [the Roman Catholic Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco, and the idea that the church and the state were inseparable. I always figured that if the John Birch Society ever took over the United States, they’d have a religious war, because members wouldn’t agree about how to interpret the Bible, or what was the role of the Pope, or any of that. And many Protestants and evangelicals saw the Catholic Church as the “Whore of Babylon.” As I got much older, and much more aware of these things, I would say to my parents, “How could you possibly do this?” I mean, just in terms of religion. And my mother would say, “We have to save the country first, and then we’ll worry about theology.”

There’s an interesting tension there, between believing that there’s a grand conspiracy—and everything is already determined—and believing that they can somehow “save” the country.  

First of all, they never think they’re losing. After the government shutdown fiasco [in October 2013], if you read what the Right says about it, they loved what they did. They think they won. And that’s how my parents were. They always said they were in for the long haul. My mother might have a day where she was frustrated, but she never did stop. And where I thought that the Right had suffered a great loss, she didn’t see it that way. So they looked at the government shutdown as a success. And the corollary is, “Let’s do it again.” They don’t mind being a minority. In fact, my father used to say all the time, “Minorities take over countries.” And he’s right. Historically, they do.

The other thing my father used to say is that “you have to shut down the government before you can take it apart.” They hate the government. They want to break it. That’s the hardest thing to grasp. Why would you want to wreck the government? But if you think it is essentially evil, and you think, as Robert Welch said, that the people who work for it are going to destroy the country, then you think you are doing a good thing if you wreck it.

Earlier in the interview, you said that you see the JBS and the Tea Party as essentially the same thing. Can you expand a little on the parallels? 

There are some differences between the two, but in terms of policy, I see very little difference. The Tea Partiers would probably take exception to that, because they don’t want to think they’re just leftovers from a bygone era. They want to think they’re original and unique. But the fact is that the early funding for the Tea Party came from Americans for Prosperity, which is a Koch Brothers group.

The Koch Brothers are Birch kids. They were raised by a John Birch Society father. So we’re talking about people who were raised with that same hatred of government that I was. So, I like to look at the continuity of ideas from the 1950s to today, and it is extremely difficult to find much difference between them. The only differences are, where we used to focus only on this communist conspiracy, they’ve expanded that word to include socialists, because you don’t see the communists as one marching group like they used to before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But basically, the ideas are the same. Government should be 60 percent smaller than it is, there should be no Social Security, no income tax, no direct election of U.S. Senators, no safety net or Department of Education or Environmental Protection Agency—exactly what we heard during the circus that was the GOP Presidential debates in 2012. The same exact thing. People always say to me, “But they’re not Birchers.” But what difference does it make? It’s the same exact idea.

One theme of your book is how concerned your parents were with the “corruption” of the school system. This has been a defining issue for the JBS and the conservative movement more generally, hasn’t it? 

We forget that people have been arguing about the content of textbooks since the mid-nineteenth century. So this has been an ongoing fight in America. In the 1960s, my mom and dad had literally piles of textbooks in our apartment flat in Chicago, and they would go through every textbook I had, every textbook my brother had, every textbook in the Catholic school system, and then they branched out to the public schools in Chicago. That’s a lot of books. They went through every line of every textbook to find any hint of socialist, communist, or collectivist, “un-American” ideas. They used to study my lessons at home, then send me to school with directions as to what to tell the teacher was wrong in the book.

Now, I went to the Catholic schools in Chicago in the 1950s, so you can imagine that I was not the most popular girl as far as the teachers were concerned. Because you didn’t stand up in the class and say, “By the way, this is wrong.” In my book, I tell this story about when I was in seventh grade, and my father asked me what was going on at school that day, and I made the mistake of saying to him, “Well, we learned in geography that the farms in Sweden had electricity in their barns before the barns in the United States.”

Well, my father jumped out of his chair like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He was so furious with me for saying such a thing, because Sweden, being a socialist country—there was absolutely no way it could possibly have anything before the United States did. It wasn’t until I got to college, and I was taking a history class, that I found out that my book had been correct. Sweden did electrify their farms, 20 or more years before the United States. But for my mother and dad, the idea that Sweden could do something better than we did it, or sooner, could not possibly be the case.

They just didn’t care about the actual facts? 

Well, they just assumed there were no facts. It wasn’t like they investigated it. They said, “No, that can’t be, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” It’s a very strange way of looking at the world, because my parents, as well read as they were, they read only books that were on the approved list. And it’s probably a very good lesson for all of us: You can’t just read what you already agree with. You can’t, and we shouldn’t. But it is certainly more comfortable.

But even though they may have ignored inconvenient facts, your parents were very intelligent people. One point you make in the book is that, even if we find some of their ideas outrageous, we’re mistaken if we think conservatives are ignorant. 

My father had a degree from Northwestern University. His degree was in speech. He actually raised part of his tuition by giving speeches. He was on the debate team at Northwestern and never lost a debate. He was very well read, very professional, and he owned six businesses.

The leadership of the Right has never been uneducated. It has never been poor, uneducated, or uninterested. Look at the Koch brothers—both of them are engineers. If you are laughing at these people, you are completely wrong and doing great harm. If you look at one of those silly Facebook posts where some goofball has tea bags on his hat, and a sign with three or four misspelled words, everyone goes, “Gee, they’re fools.”

But they are winning on ideas. For example, let’s take the government shutdown. This is the perfect example. We ended up calling it a victory to reopen the government at sequestration budget levels, which were originally an absolute no-go for the Democrats. So, while we are saying that these folks are foolish and are losing the battle, in fact, our policy debates are now on right-wing terms. Which is why I say to people that you have to quit underestimating our competition. Look at Ted Cruz. Someone said to me that he’s just a dumb cowboy. No he’s not. He’s a Harvard [Law School] educated lawyer that never lost a debate in college, who has argued many cases in front of the Supreme Court—successfully. This is not a guy we should be dismissing. This is, in my opinion, the most potentially dangerous guy out there, because he’s a demagogue in training. He has the command of the room. When you hear him speak, you may disagree with everything he says, but you can’t look away.

When you look at the list of Birch leaders, you’re talking about former military men and very successful businessmen. Robert Welch was a multimillionaire. And I think that is the most important message: You have to take this seriously. They are very smart. They have a belief about the United States. They want to change the way we are governed. They want to change the nature of the federal government, and take it back to a time before any New Deal programs.


Conservatism: Racism When You Need It

2012 primary debate

In the Winter 1999 issue of The Public Eye Magazine, PRA printed an excerpt from Founder and President Emerita Jean Hardisty’s book Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers. In it, Hardisty discussed affirmative action, providing the history of its conception along with the Right-Wing’s stance against the policy.

After the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson and his administration sought to eliminate discrimination in the hiring and promotion process by issuing Executive Order 11246, which required affirmation action from employers who had contracts with the federal government, and sanctions for the ones who didn’t. In 1972, Richard Nixon signed into law Congress’s Equal Opportunity Act, which expanded anti-discrimination protections for women and people of color. The Right, of course, cried “reverse discrimination” then, and is still finding ways to explain the “needlessness” for affirmative action now.

One of the Right’s tactics that Hardisty examined was their appropriation of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech, which conservatives still interpret as an endorsement for colorblind ideology. The right has warped MLK from a radical for justice into essentially these few words: “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They ignore the context of this quote, which addressed King’s opposition to White power, the root cause for judgment of race in the first place. In his 1964 book, Why Can’t We Wait, however, he made it evident that race is very important because, unless people of color are provided some type of assistance, their rights will never meet with that of White people’s. King wrote:

It is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.

Hardisty discussed how the right had undergone a transformation in the 1980s, which created a “new racism.” Rather than upholding Jim Crow laws and practices—something that had “declined steadily since the 1940s”—the right attempted to use policies like affirmative action against people of color, utilizing a colorblind argument. This new racism, ignoring a person’s race, and suggesting that group identifiers are “unnecessary”—that cultural backgrounds have no place in today’s society because “racism is a thing of the past”— modernized discrimination in the hiring process.

Republicans, especially White male Republicans, expect marginalized groups to be able to rise above oppression on their own accord because, in their minds, race should not affect their merit and skill.

During the 2012 presidential primaries, Republican candidates played to this colorblind strategy. Mitt Romney objected to the extension of voting rights for convicted felons, despite it being “an issue that disproportionately affects African-American and Hispanic males…[as] a direct result of…the drug wars implemented during the Reagan administration.” Newt Gingrich, when asked by Juan Williams about why Newt insisted on “talk[ing] about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” said he did not see why it was an insult to Black Americans. Rick Santorum, during one of his campaign stops, offered the statement, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” These Republicans refused to consider that institutionalized racism caused much of the disparities between White people and people of color—that somehow Black and Latino Americans were content with living off food stamps, or that they expected to be given free money, which are racist stereotypes and assumptions in and of itself.

Hardisty then went on to note the distancing of the Right from the Far Right’s White supremacy philosophy throughout the 1980s. While the Far Right—White supremacists and neo-Nazis—had no issue with openly promoting “White rights,” the Right Wing attempted to remove themselves from bigoted attitudes and activities. The New Right Republicans of the time, if discovered making racial slurs, were denounced quickly by their leaders and prompted to apologize soon afterward. This trend of immediate condemnation of racist statements made by conservatives is still present today. Some recent examples of this include:

By protesting against the most egregious of violations within their own Party, Republicans can defend against accusations of racism against themselves. To them, eradicating affirmative action is nothing like the overt racist language of their prejudiced peers.

Affirmative action cases are being closely watched today because of how race issues in the United States have developed. The Justices appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George Bush—according to Jean Hardisty—have created a rightist tilt, and thus have halted much of the progress made by civil rights leaders. Evidence of this is found in their lack of ruling on the case at the University of Texas and their divided opinions on how to handle the case for Michigan schools.

In situations where affirmative action has already been banned, statistics show decreases in enrollment numbers of students of color, particularly for Black students. At the University of Michigan, Black student enrollment dropped 30 percent in their undergraduate and law schools after they prohibited race as a factor for consideration. After California’s passing of Proposition 209 in 1996, University of California schools found major drops as well; the percentage of first year Black students at UC Berkeley fell from 6.5 percent to under 3 percent in 10 years, and UCLA first years dropped from 7.3 percent to under 2.7 percent. The University of Florida also saw a decrease from 11.3 percent to 9.4 percent from 2000 to 2005 after the policy was changed.

Comparably, because the public-sector has historically provided fair and impartial job opportunities for women and people of color, government jobs show far more diversity than private institutions. Not only are the proportions of public-sector workers more balanced, they “face smaller wage disparities across racial lines” as well.

Hardisty noted that recipients of programs such as welfare and affirmative action are met with shaming by Right-Wing politicians. They were labeled as “‘undeserving’ individuals” who benefited “at the expense of ‘deserving’ taxpayers.” Present-day conservatives continue this victim-blaming and colorblind practice. During his 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called the “47 percent” who were going to vote for Barack Obama entitled, that they believed the “government has a responsibility to care for them.” He continued, “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” His statements were echoed by Glenn Beck, who said on his radio show, “That is the problem with government welfare and everything else, get a damn job,” and Newt Gingrich, who said “[Republicans] believe in work and education, [liberals] believe in food stamps and dependency.

The Right readily pretends that racial injustice does not exist, and that anyone can overcome obstacles if they simply tried hard enough, which is blatantly false.

In discussing how White the Right is, it is important to understand there are conservatives of color. Jean Hardisty discussed how they “play a politically important role in the Right’s attack on affirmative action.” By using a person of color, especially a Black person, to make their argument publicly, White conservatives can then use the “legitimacy” of that argument to back their own hostility. Denouncing affirmative action appears more authentic when a person of color says they have no need for it. White conservatives can shield themselves from the adverse reactions of people for trying to dismantle these policies.

It wasn’t hard to find examples. Just take a look at this year’s Values Voters Summit, when Dr. Ben Carson compared the Affordable Health Care Act to slavery. His talking point was immediately embraced by White conservatives such as Bill O’Brien, John Fleming, Rush Limbaugh, and more who would never have dared make such an audacious comparison on their own. His Blackness allows White republicans to say that their Black representative was the one to issue such a statement, not them. They can hide in the background—the focus on conservatives of color—while supporting the racist proclamations made by people such as Ben Carson.

When former Democrat Elbert Guillory announced why he switched to the Republican Party, calling for other Black Americans to abandon the “government plantation and the [liberal] party of disappointment,” pundits such as Glenn Beck had no issue publishing about it as if it were a step in the right direction.

Conservative activist Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, posted an article on his website that said, “Wanting a White Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American,” written by Kevin Jackson, a Black conservative. Rather than writing this piece himself, Wurzelbacher used Jackson’s article as a means to voice his own opinions without taking on full responsibility.

Some members of the Right ironically reject affirmative action while favoring racist policies such as racial profiling. Writer and columnist Victor Davis Hanson wrote a piece that advised individuals to “watch out if you see young black men on the street or approaching your house or vehicle—they commit ‘an inordinate amount of violent crime.’” On the other hand, he does not favor affirmative action, offering the question, “what exactly is the justification for affirmative action’s ethnic preferences or admissions [?]”

Conservatives claim that by discussing the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, President Obama is “race baiting;” yet they are colorblind when it comes to acknowledging the racial disparities that Black Americans go through in the United States, such as New York City’s Stop and Frisk program. Colorblindness ignores the racial discrimination that people of color go through on a daily basis.

As racial justice gains more in ways of equality, the right will continue to push back against it. While it’s clear conservatives continue their firm colorblind belief that any individual, regardless of race, can earn their way into a higher institution of learning or the workforce, revealing their hypocrisy and showing the actual race issues people of color face is the only way to make progress.

Profiles on the Right: Young America’s Foundation / Young Americans for Freedom (YAF)

YAFYoung Americans for Freedom (YAF) is a conservative youth activism organization that offers college students across the United States a variety of outlets for promoting Right-Wing ideology. YAF originated at two separate points in time, but Young Americans for Freedom specifically began in 1960, when 100 conservative students assembled to construct YAF’s guiding principles at the Great Elm Conference, hosted by William F. Buckley. In 2011, Young America’s Foundation and Young Americans for Freedom combined into YAF, with Young America’s Foundation maintaining the name of the parent organization. In 2015, it raised $36.2 million, and it spends around $20 million a year.

YAF focuses more on general national politics as opposed to on-campus issues. Some of their campus initiatives have included: Resist Obama fliers, March Liberal Madness, 9/11: Never Forget Project, No More Che Day, and Who is Dividing Our Campus?—the last of which claims that liberals are “often the first intimidate, attack, and silence conservatives when they speak out.”

YAF reveres former president Ronald Reagan and works to preserve and protect the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara. YAF’s website says the “Ranch is an important component of the Foundation’s broader mission to ‘ensure that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of limited government, free enterprise, a strong national defense, and traditional values.’”

Board members of YAF, past and present, have a history of supporting oppressive programs and organizations.

Former board member, the late Howard Phillips, was appointed as as the head of the Office of Economic Opportunity by president Richard Nixon where he immediately defunded anti-poverty programs, although a federal court ultimately stopped him, ruling his actions illegal because he was never confirmed to the post by the Senate.

In 2004, YAF president Ron Robinson and board member James B. Taylor donated $5000 to the Charles Martel Society, a White Nationalist group. Since then, the three-person board of the group’s PAC has raised and spent over $5 million on various Republican candidates. Robinson spoke out against concerns that the donation to White Nationalists was racist, saying that the PAC’s donations to Allan Keyes, Ken Blackwell, Allen West and other Black conservatives proved the contrary.

James B. Taylor, on the other hand, was once the vice president of the National Policy Institute (NPI), which was founded as a White Supremacist think tank, according to Marilyn Mayo, codirector of Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. While Taylor says he would no longer involve himself with NPI, tax returns prove he was serving as vice president of VP of NPI as late as 2007, when they released the book The State of White America 2007, which called Brown v. Board of Education “arguably the worst decision in the Court’s 216-year history.”

Robinson was, in 2017, given the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s Annie Taylor award, which is an award given to those who are “going over the ledge when others would be afraid to even go near it.” The Horowitz Freedom Center commended Robinson for creating the conservative movement’s “most important youth organization.” A key goal of his organization is supposedly to “restore sanity” to college campuses.

One of YAF’s most controversial speakers is Ben Shapiro, who is scheduled to speak at Liberty University, Georgetown University, and Susquehanna University in 2018. The former editor of large at Breitbart News, Shapiro is well-known for books such as The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case against the Obama Administration. Shapiro has also been an advocate against same-sex marriage, and even stated that those who pay taxes and pay tuition are sponsoring the “militant homosexual agenda.”

YAF’s website offers its students a recommended reading page, which consists of books from conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent, and David Horowitz. They’ve also hosted speakers such as Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter, and Newt Gingrich on various campuses.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) listed the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom as a hate group, making it the only student hate group in the United States. MSU-YAF hosted White Supremacist speakers for lectures on their campus and organized racist events. Activities they’ve organized range from a “Catch an Illegal Alien Day” game, to a “Koran desecration” contest. They’ve also condemned and attempted to eliminate affirmative action at the school.

In 2013, after the student congress of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill passed a rule to enforce stricter rules on the use of their student funds—a rule which hindered the school’s Tar Heel Rifle and Pistol Club from using those funds to purchase ammunition—YAF said liberal students improperly targeted the gun club, calling it an act of discrimination.

In 2012, YAF invited Fox News personality Andrea Tantoros to speak on campus at Guilford College. During Tantoros’ speech, she made flagrantly anti-Muslim statements, including a claim that all Muslims have been commanded by Muhammad to perform Jihads on non-Muslims. The speech sparked outrage, and prompted the school to formally apologize for allowing Tantoros to speak on campus. YAF spokesperson Ron Meyer responded with an article claiming it was not a racist speech, and referred to the Muslim students who protested the speech as “jihadists” who were intolerant of free-speech.

Other YAF writers have put out articles on the following topics:

Next ProfileUpdated: 4/10/18.


Profiles on the Right: Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)

FAIR logoThe Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is an anti-immigrant group founded in 1979 and is currently one of the United States’s leading anti-immigrant organizations. According to their website, FAIR as of 2018 has more than 1.9 million members. They have been growing exponentially, as they had only 250,000 members in 2013. Their growth is largely due to their fear-mongering tactics, in which they argue that undocumented immigrants are bad for the U.S. economy and present a physical danger to Americans. While they work hard to maintain a front of moderation and legitimacy, claiming to be “a non-partisan group […with] diverse members and supporters,” their nativist, xenophobic, and White nationalist ideologies are well documented.

Founded in 1979 by John Tanton in Washington D.C., one of FAIR’s main goals is to overturn the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) of 1965. The INA ended a decades-long racist quota system that limited immigration to mostly White Northern Europeans. Current FAIR President Dan Stein has called INA “a key mistake in national policy” and “a source of error” that was “a great way to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance” and “will continue to create chaos done the line.

FAIR has received criticism over the years for its links to eugenicists and White supremacists. Garrett Hardin, a now deceased biologist and board member of FAIR wrote in his 1968 paper “Tragedy of the Commons” that “[the] freedom to breed is intolerable.” Current board member Donald A. Collins was one of the most prominent writers for, an anti-immigration site. In an infamous 1986 memo, titled “Commentary on the WITAN IV” and later published in the Arizona Republic, founder John Tanton warned of the “Latin onslaught” in the U.S. and the low “educability” of Latinx people. He also expressed concern that the Catholic Church would capitalize on the faith of Latinx people to exert more political influence in the U.S. FAIR has also come under fire for taking grant money from the Pioneer Fund, a controversial nonprofit organization who share FAIR’s eugenicist ideologies. FAIR also promotes The Social Contract Pressa quarterly journal that routinely publishes race-baiting articles written by white nationalists, founded by John Tanton in 1990. The Social Contract Press issue topics include “The Toxic Threat of Infected Migrants” and “The Unmaking of America? The 1965 Immigration Act after 50 years.”

Despite the numerous criticisms and controversies surrounding FAIR, the group remains an influential player in immigration politics. FAIR was a key advocate for the defeat of the DREAM Act in 2010, a widely supported bipartisan bill, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young immigrants raised in the U.S. In the debate surrounding the DREAM Act, FAIR president Dan Stein was often quoted in the mainstream media and appeared on Fox News Latino. The FAIR website claims “FAIR spokespersons are interviewed regularly on CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, in the New York Times, USA Today, hundreds of radio stations, and in hundreds of other newspapers, magazines and websites annually.”

As of 2018, the main concern of FAIR appeared to be endorsing the end of the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to gain work permits and avoid deportation. FAIR claims DACA is illegal and adds that it is not in the “national security, public safety, and economic interests of the United States to reward 800,000 immigration law violators.”

FAIR releases studies, op-eds, and statistics on immigration that are frequently misleading or wrong and their content is often quickly debunked. This does not stop conservative pundits and publications like The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, and Politico from using their content.

FAIR campaigns for policy that promotes White nationalism under the guise of improving society. A report, released by FAIR in October, 2013, titled “Republicans Have an Immigration Problem,” combines extensive economic and demographic data with opinion research to prove that “Republicans are having problems expanding their voting base because the U.S. immigration system brings in individuals who are less-educated, less-skilled, and low-income.” Implicit throughout the report is the notion that Latinx people are less educated and more dependent on welfare—echoing the same bigoted stereotypes found in Tanton’s 1986 WITAN memo–and therefore drawn to the Democrats’ platform. The report also posits, “Hispanic voters do not vote based on immigration, they vote their pocketbooks.” Citing one of their favorite immigration reform talking points, the report asserts the U.S. should shift immigration policy “to a skills-based model. This will convert our immigration population from one that tends to affiliate with the Democratic Party [Latinxs and other minorities], to one that—over time—is more receptive to core Republican messages [White people].” This kind of thinly veiled white nationalist ideology is representative of both FAIR’s successful “moderateness,” and their obvious racism.

Recently, as of 2018, FAIR has relied on fear mongering in order to promote their ideologies. The home page of their website features “Examples of Serious Crimes by Illegal Aliens.” They go on to discuss examples of “stolen lives” taken from those who were killed by “illegal aliens”, and support the idea that the U.S. government’s immigration policies have led to the deaths of “tens of thousands” of Americans. They have taken their campaigning a step further by appealing to law enforcement to help stop the “murder” of Americans by “illegal immigrants.” In February 2018, they collaborated with Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime (AVIAC) to host a press conference enforcing immigration enforcement, where they stated that their goal was to “ensure that the American Public will be protected.”

FAIR also discusses the ‘high costs’ of undocumented immigration to taxpayers, and they have been complaining about the dangers of chain-migration and advocating for President Trump to end legislation allowing for chain migration. FAIR and their legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), are also active in pushing anti-immigration laws at the state and local level. IRLI attorney Kris Kobach helped draft Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which was signed in April 2010. The bill forced police officers to detain individuals who they suspected to be in the country illegally, and made it a misdemeanor for non-citizens to fail to carry immigration papers. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated three of the bill’s four provisions, but that has not stopped Kobach and the IRLI from working to pass similar laws in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other localities. FAIR and IRLI support efforts to end the birthright citizenship provision in the 14th Amendment.

With the Trump administration increasing support for anti-immigrant legislation and enforcement practices, FAIR is working to attack local governments that try to help undocumented immigrants. They have turned their attention to sanctuary cities, arguing that sanctuary cities and anti-detainer policies are put in place by law enforcement agencies who are “bullied by the illegal alien lobby into believing they must follow the open borders agenda or risk being sued.” They also focus on making sure Trump “keeps his promises”, and they support his ideas of building of “The Wall” and making a so-called “merit-based” U.S. immigration system.

Updated 4/10/18.

Right Wing Messaging on Marriage Equality Continues to Evolve

As we watched New Jersey, Illinois, and Hawaii become the 14th, 15th, and 16th states to embrace marriage equality in the last 30 days, it’s worth taking a look back at how the U.S. Right Wing has continued to evolve their messaging around marriage. As equality pushes forward step by step, the Right—particularly the Christian Right—is continually refining their talking points in order to slow down the inevitable.

As recently as the mid 90s—I know it seems forever ago, but 20 years really isn’t that long—marriage for same-sex couples was virtually unthinkable. Now, the needle couldn’t be moving faster, and equal marriage is seeing success after success in the courts, legislative bodies, and even at the ballot box. But each success comes on the heels of countless defeats by an incredible skilled Right Wing PR machine, who have spent decades learning how best to counter human rights. Understanding their tactics, and how their messaging strategies evolve and where they come from is crucial to the LGBTQ movement’s future.

Click the image to read the full report

Click the image to read the full report

In January, 2013, David Dodge authored a report for Political Research Associates called The Right’s Marriage Message: Talking Tolerance, Marketing Inequality. The report culls lessons from how the Right has waged successful electoral campaigns in the past in order for LGBTQ rights groups to extend and defend their gains. In particular, the report tracks the effective media campaigns run by opponents of LGBTQ rights, such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), groups aligned with the Family Research Council (FRC), and Right-Wing spin masters such as Frank Schubert.  

Perhaps the most significant point of the report is the evolution of the Right from blatant homophobic campaigns claiming that “gays are evil who will pervert your children,” and the Anita Bryant-style ads claiming that “accepting gays will lead to bestiality,” to the softer nuance of today’s lines of “we just want to protect our religious freedom.” The arguments are the same, but in the world of politics tonality and language choice is everything.

Being able to effectively counter the Right’s arguments is a massively simpler task if you understand the origins of their arguments, and are able to strip their messaging down to its foundation of misconceptions and intolerance.

Here are some of the great takeaways Dodge highlights in his report, as he highlights advertising used by the Right from 1998 to May of 2012:

  • In states where they enjoy a large base of support, anti-LGBTQ advocates aired conservative Christian-oriented media describing the deep roots of traditional marriage between a man and a woman that is under threat. Seventy-five percent of the ads tracked used this argument.
  • They reached moderate voters with advertising focused on the supposed harm to children that will occur if pro-LGBTQ ballot measures pass – particularly from the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools. The California LGBTQ rights group Vote For Equality found this to be a potent argument for its opposition. Forty-eight percent of all media reviewed had this theme.
  • Forty-two percent of the ads warned of elites like judges or powerful people from outside the state seeking to advance a “gay agenda” against the will of the people, resonating with existing Right-Wing populist arguments.
  • In ten percent of the ads, the Right relays stories of Christians as “victims” suffering from religious persecution as same-sex marriage becomes legal.
  • Twenty percent of the anti-LGBTQ media reviewed prominently features people of color, and were largely aired in California, Arizona, and Oregon. They tended to use arguments about “defending traditional marriage.”

Nazism, Godwin’s Law, and the Far Right

obama hitler

There is an internet adage coined in the 1990s by Mike Godwin called Godwin’s Law. The rule states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the possibility of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” This adage is often invoked to signal desperation in an argument. The use of such inappropriate and hyperbolic language suggests the side making the comparison has exhausted any substantive rhetorical devices.

Among the Far Right’s favorite phraseological bricks to throw at anything or anyone they do not approve of are the terms “Nazi” and “Hitler.” Comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are nothing new in politics, and people from both the Far Left to the Far Right have invoked the Third Reich for comparative fodder for decades. In 2011 Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) compared Republican plans to repeal Obamacare to Nazism and the Holocaust. George H.W. Bush called Saddam Hussein the “new Hitler,” while building support for Desert Storm.

Members of the Far Right, however, outshine their peers in their cavalier and demagogic use of Nazi terminology.

This name-calling phenomenon is a good example of using a word to invoke a meaning that does not reflect the actual nature of a concept. Instead, it reflects an attempt to conflate anything the Far Right finds objectionable with Nazism. But the Far Right leaders’ use of Nazi terminology is not thoughtless. Their practice of invoking Nazism and Hitler is both shrewd and fraught.

There are political benefits to reducing something as complex and nuanced as the current state of the United States to being a direct analogue to the Third Reich. At this year’s Values Voters Summit (VVS), former Arkansas legislator Jim Bob Duggar compared the current state of the U.S. to Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, saying “that’s where we are at in our nation.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has compared those skeptical about defunding Obamacare to “Nazi appeasers.” By using Nazi terminology and conflating it with anything “bad”, people such as Duggar and Cruz are able to conceal conceptual complexity under rhetoric that is both inflammatory and simplistic.

The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer and anti-LGBTQ crusader Scott Lively both claim gays were responsible for the Nazi Party and the Holocaust (suggesting an understanding of German history based solely on Mel Brook’s The Producers). Fischer also claims LGBTQ Americans are “literally” Nazis and will launch a new Spanish Inquisition. Glenn Beck was quoted on Honest Questions With D.L. Hughley saying, “ I think Jesus Christ and Hitler had a lot in common, and that was they could both look you in the eye and say, ‘I’ve got an answer for you, follow me.’ One was evil; one was good.” Mixed metaphors such as Fischer’s and Beck’s are par for the course when talking about the Far Right and Nazi terminology.

The Far Right’s weaponized soundbites are, on one hand, an attempt to vilify anything they disapprove of by linking the issue in question to one of the darkest moments in history. Institutions and people that the Far Right have compared to Nazis and/or Hitler include: the IRS, feminists, NPR, religious pluralism, secularism, Boy Scouts, Obamacare, gun laws and background checks, and abortion. Matt Barber of the Liberty Counsel has cited an “exact comparison between those who stood by silently during the Nazi Holocaust and those who today stand by silently and allow, accept the abortion holocaust.” Again, a mixed metaphor, but in a way, whether or not such comparisons hold up to scrutiny does not matter. Mention of Nazi Germany can engender a reflexive and involuntary sense of disapproval that allows Far Right leaders to bypass conceptual complexity and accuracy in favor of a passionate knee-jerk response.

Nazi rhetoric also justifies an evangelical, pre-millennial dispensational ideology. Many people thought that Hitler and the Third Reich were a sign of the end times, and that no atrocity could be more horrific. If humanity is going to usher in the end times and the second coming of Christ, humanity must be in a state that rivals or is worse than that during the Third Reich. Pat Robertson speaks to this effect, having stated that the “abortion holocaust” has been more lethal than Hitler’s Holocaust. Truth In Action has also released content claiming that the US “is becoming Nazi Germany.”

Along these lines, another way to look at this rhetorical phenomenon is how it represents an ideal for the Far Right. It seems that they wish that the United States were more like the Third Reich. Such conditions would create a call to action they so desperately desire. If, in the U.S., Christians were being persecuted like the Nazis persecuted Jews, if homosexuals were Nazis, and if abortion provided a direct corollary to the Holocaust, then the Far Right might be justified in their outrage. This idea is reflected in the hypothetical nature of a lot of the Nazi rhetoric being used by the Far Right. Glenn Beck has commented on how the Obama administration could “shut down the Tea Party” and “round up” Tea Party members like Hitler did to the Jews. It isn’t happening, but it would justify Beck’s rancor if it were.

In a way, the Far Right is attempting to reverse engineer a Nazi state by labeling anything they disapprove of as an analogue to the Third Reich. Far Right leaders wish to invoke Nazism as a way to justify their vitriolic hatred of any number of diverse groups, people, and ideas.

Labels create a favorable condition in which complex, nuanced, and often abstract ideas can be reduced to simple words and concepts. They are often useful for groups of people who want to gain political room, but can be problematic and reductive when a person or a group of people let the word choose the meaning, instead of the other way around. The Far Right ignores the loaded nature of such terminology, choosing to use Nazi rhetoric to evoke passionate fear and anger. From an outside perspective, though, the Far Right’s use of Nazi terminology seems to suggest a group of people who have lost an argument and have resorted to petty name-calling. So while the Far Right may be using Nazi terminology for a purpose, that purpose seems mainly to be desperation.

Profiles on the Right: Brian Brown

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marraige

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marraige

Brian Brown, perhaps most infamous for his tendency to equate the LGBTQ community to pedophiles, is the current president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and a hard-line member of the Christian Right. A Quaker turned Roman Catholic, Brown has been a key player in the anti-equality movement for over two decades—even moving his family to California in 2008 for the sole purpose of defending the now-repealed Proposition 8 ballot initiative. Brown’s anti-LGBTQ crusades have included the exportation of homophobia to Russia and, on a domestic level, supporting the anti-transgender movement in public schools.

Co-founder and original executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brown succeeded Maggie Gallagher as president in 2010 when she accepted the title of president at the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, an anti-marriage equality think tank. NOM’s main goal is defending the “traditional family,” meaning that the organization does everything within its power to prevent same-sex couples from gaining civil rights, most particularly the right to marry.

One of the organization’s biggest strengths is its ability to keep the sources of its funding secret.  In a previous report that details the anti-LGBT movement, it is recognized that Brown uses the promise of anonymity as a fundraising tool, telling prospective donors that “unlike in California, every dollar you give to NOM’s Northeast Action Plan today is private, with no risk of harassment from same-sex marriage protestors.” NOM has also defended its financials by suing states such as California and Maine when they have asked for the organization to disclose its financials. PRA’s profile on NOM also notes: “In response to a 2010 ethics investigation from the state of Maine, NOM committed millions for litigation to delay disclosure in the courts as long as possible.”

NOM’s desire to shroud its monies in secrecy should come as no surprise, given that the IRS opened an investigation on the organization’s financials in 2013.

Brown also employs results-driven strategies against his opposition, and carefully avoids placing blame on individuals, instead asserting that “good-hearted people can have ideas that are profoundly wrong.” He further deflects blame away from himself by claiming he has friends and family who are gay, and that they “can disagree on all sorts of things and still care about each other.”

If Brown cares about his “gay friends” at all, it’s certainly not apparent in his actions. In June 2013, Brown headed to Moscow on the invitation of Illinois-based World Congress of Families (WCF), an organization that has been hell-bent on forwarding horrific anti-LGBTQ legislation abroad. In Moscow, Brown and other WCF supporters testified before Russian Parliament in support of banning same-sex couples from adopting children. In a transcript posted by the Duma, Brown told Russian lawmakers that “We will unite. We will defend our children and their normal civil rights. Every child must have the right to normal parents: a mother and a father.”

Brown and WCF certainly touted some influence in Moscow, days after Brown left, the Duma not only passed the adoption law, but also began to debate a frightening proposal to remove children from the homes of LGBTQ parents.

Another aspect of Brown’s stratagem is the utilization of fear-driven hyperbole. In a 2011 newsletter that reflects on the Senate hearings on repealing DOMA, Brown declared “President Obama and the hard-left core of the Democratic Party in Washington declared war on marriage, on federalism, on democracy and on religious liberty.”

In another NOM newsletter, Brown described the push to legalize same-sex marriage as analogous to accepting pedophiles. He inquired if the “pedophiles [will] become “minor-attracted persons” in our culture? Will courts which endorse orientation as a protected class decide down the road that therefore laws which discriminate against ‘minor-attracted persons’ must be narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest?” However skewed his rhetoric, Brown is still careful to not demonize the individual.

Brown’s crusades are not limited to the LGBQ community though; his most recent domestic crusade is against transgender students in California public schools. In August 2013, California passed a bill that allowed transgender students to use facilities and participate in after-school activities that correspond with their gender identity. The bill, which took effect in January 2014, gave California transgender students a chance at equality in an already-uphill battle.

Brown characterizes the new bill as “horrible,” a “weapon,” and said that it “doesn’t prevent bullying – it is bullying. It is not about protecting kids; it damages kids.” Brown further urges readers to sign a drawn up by Privacy for All Students (PAS) in an effort to overturn non-discrimination requirements, claiming the legislation “is politically-correct madness that risks the privacy and security of our children and grandchildren.”

NOM and PAS only support gender-conforming youth, refusing to even refer to the students they’re persecuting as transgender, preferring to say they have “so-called gender identities.”

As strategic as he is, Brown’s rhetoric is causing him to fall out of public favor. At the 2013 Values Voters Summit, Brown complained that media outlets such as ABC and CNN seldom give him air-time anymore.  But make no mistake, NOM still reaches many, as exemplified by the wide support the 2013 “Marriage March” on Washington, D.C. garnered. And Brown only seems to be motivated by equality victories. After the defeat of both Prop 8 and DOMA, Brown called the DOMA decision “an absolute travesty” and in The Washington Post said “The National Organization for Marriage intends to vigorously urge Congress to safeguard the remaining portion of DOMA, which protects the right of states to refuse to recognize same-sex ‘marriages’ performed elsewhere.”

When the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing the Obergefell v. Hodges case in 2015, which eventually led to the federal legalization of marriage equality, they campaigned constantly for “traditional” marriage and bussed groups of people from the surrounding states to protest at the capital. While NOM continues to campaign for anti-LGBTQ candidates and for those who support “traditional” marriage, their domestic presence is losing breadth. Their annual “March for Marriage” on Washington, D.C. in 2017 drew less than 250 participants throughout the entire day.

Brown continues to fight marriage equality, hoping to one day get it overturned, but his current focus is a “First Freedom Initiative” to defend the Christian Right definition of religious freedom. He is also active abroad, supporting the international anti-“gender ideology” and “pro-family” group CitizenGO as a board member.

Updated 5/14/18.


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