Review- Neiwert, “Alt-America”


David Neiwert, “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump” (2017) – I thought it would be interesting to try to keep up with the literature on the altright as it comes out, which is made a little easier given that few printed books have been written on it yet (and that it’s impossible to do more than try to keep up with the more relevant online pieces on the same subject). One downside of this is all of them, so far, appear to be rather hastily-assembled and not as well thought-out as one would like.

Dave Neiwert is a long-time watcher of the far-right for left-liberal circles, whose earlier work I haven’t gotten around to reading. I know he’s written about militias and about talk radio before, and both take up much of “Alt-America,” which places the altright squarely in a right-populist tradition that goes back… and here, things get vague. Neiwert does a good job going through the actual narrative of the 21st century far right in America, but he is very light on historical or political analysis of why these things happened the way they did. He does little to place the far right and the “Alt-America,” a whole different worldview/culture he posits but does not really flesh out, in any kind of context. Where the other most prominent book on the alt-right, Angela Nagle’s “Kill All Normies,” is thesis-heavy (it’s all vague-left culture warriors fault) and narrative-light, Neiwert’s work is the reverse. Arguably it’s somewhat more useful- it’s nice to have all those dates and events in one book. But it should be possible to have both.

A lot of the analysis he does provide is basically psychological- authoritarian types and social dominaters, etc. I don’t dismiss this as much as I used to but there needs to be something more- if nothing else to explain why these psychological types are so prominent now. And this weakness of analysis extends to what’s always the worst part of any of these types of books (not just ones about the right, either), the “what do now” section. If you’re referencing Harry Potter as a role model for how to deal with pretty much any political issue, and worse yet citing Rowling’s works as great literary examples of empathy, you’re kind of on the wrong track.

I get the feeling that this is where we’re gonna be at for books on the new far right for a while. They’ll suffer from the inevitable weaknesses of books about fast-moving contemporary movements (books about the altright’s more ambitious reactionary cousins in ISIS had the same issues a few years ago) and more from the way that these altright people make any decent type anxious and angry in a way that always comes out in the writing. And so we’ll wind up with very basic narrative explainers (Neiwert) or with inter-left ax-grinding using the altright as a prop (Nagle) or alarmism and often enough simple gawking at the weirdos over on the far right (most internet pieces). It’s a shame, because I think there’s some interesting historical dynamics that this whole thing illuminates, but that can be a hard sell for publishers, I suppose. ***

Review- Neiwert, “Alt-America”

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