Domestic terrorism and militia-style white supremacist groups have been on the rise since early 2000, according to a speaker who recently visited the island.
David Neiwert, author and Northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been tracking their movements, as detailed in his recently released book “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.”
“Readers have compared the book to chemotherapy it can be a difficult read. This is really ugly stuff,” said Neiwert, who advocates for confronting and understanding the roots of hatred and bigotry rather than turning away from it and letting it fester in society’s shadows.
Neiwert spoke to a full house on May 31, 5-7 p.m. at Brickworks in Friday Harbor. This was the first event in a series of educational lectures sponsored by San Juan County Democrats. Neiwert was joined by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. Tickets were $20 and all proceeds went toward the San Juan County Democrats.
Ranker noted that during the George Bush Senior administration in the 90s, and again during George W. Bush’s administration, people may not have agreed with their politics, but the office of the presidency was still respected. After Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, there seemed to be a shift, he said, using the episode when South Carolina’s Sen. Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at Obama during a presidential speech as an example.
Neiwert agreed with Ranker’s assessment, adding that it was during the later George W. Bush years that the country really began seeing a rise in militia groups. In 2008, he noted, a Tennessee man pleaded guilty to shooting people in a Unitarian church, killing one. In his confession, the man stated all liberals should die. Those sentiments were later echoed throughout media channels, such as talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
“As soon as Obama was elected, militia groups and conspiracy theorists united and began taking their ideas mainstream,” Neiwert explained.
Suddenly, behavior that had been considered extreme was normalized, and conspiracy theories like Obama was born in Kenya, a Muslim and trying to kill off American children by bringing diseases across the border were brought into the mainstream. At the lecture, Ranker asked how one can have a conversation with someone who is so far from reality, that it is akin to arguing about whether or not the sky is blue.
Ranker and Neiwert then discussed the 2016 election and how it was handled by the media. Ranker said the media showed the world it’s possible America is even more sexist than it is racist.
“The mentality of nationalism revolves around control, who can run the country and who can’t,” Neiwert responded, adding that Hitler and Nazis were as misogynistic as they were anti-semitic and racist and that neo-nazis have disturbing fantasies about women and controlling women’s bodies.
It is a deeply misogynist movement, he said, that has been targeting young white males, telling them their lives suck because of women, minorities and liberals.
“Who benefits when citizens are run into rabbit holes and spun out on conspiracy theories, and how does this affect us, our communities?” Neiwert asked, adding the Trump presidency has been like taking the lid off the national id, exposing and feeding societies underbelly of hate, fear and paranoia.
“It is absolutely vital for liberals, moderates and conservatives to fight back against this fascist tide,” Ranker read from “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump,” adding that communities must come together and treat each other with respect, kindness and compassion. Many Trump supporters do not believe their basic needs are being met, and those concerns should be addressed, he added.
Ranker and Neiwert then took questions from the audience. The first question was how to respond to the argument that the United States is not a democracy but a republic.
“I grew up hearing that all my life,” Neiwert laughed. “Republic simply refers to how the general infrastructure is organized. There are many different types of republics,” he continued, citing Russia as an example. America, he said, is a democratic republic.
“We need to empower ourselves so we can empower others,” said Ranker. “We [Washington state]can protect our immigrants, our people of color and our women to become a shining beacon for the nation.”