The recent white supremicist rally and murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia have brought attention to the rise of far right groups in the United States. The Australian journalist Jason Wilson, who now lives in Portland, has been reporting on the rise of these groups since the election of Donald Trump. Prior to attending a far-right rally hosted by the organisation ‘Patriot Prayer’ in Portland, Green Agenda editor Simon Copland sat down with Wilson to talk about Donald Trump, the rise of far-right in the U.S., and how the left should respond.
Edited Transcript of interview between Jason Wilson and Simon Copland
Simon Copland: I’m just going to start at the start. There’s been lots said about Donald Trump. I want to get your sense about what led to his election. What were some of the key factors from your perspective, living here in the U.S.?
Jason Wilson: Well, it’s complicated. As more and more data emerges, we’re getting a picture of who voted for him and who didn’t, and it seems like there was a bit of a surge amongst people who don’t usually vote, particularly older rural people. The idea that the white working class voted for him has been oversold slightly. A lot of his voters were familiar Republican voters. The Democrats tried to make it about him, and tried to peel off these mythical, moderate Republicans and that doesn’t seem to have happened at all. But I think the Democrats didn’t really have much of an offer, in a sense with their campaign. And Hillary Clinton didn’t turn out to be the most popular politician they could run as a candidate.
I think there was – I’ve spent a lot of time resisting this idea – but I think there was some damage done by things late in the campaign, like the Comey situation where he said that she was under investigation in the last week. I was kind of sceptical about that, but there does seem to be some evidence for that now.
But really, on the whole, I think that the headline reason is that the Obama Coalition mostly didn’t turn out, and a lot of that was down to the fact that they just didn’t have a great candidate, and they didn’t have a great offer, and they were mainly trying to make it about Trump. Not enough Republicans were persuaded by that to either not show up, or to switch their votes.
Simon Copland: Hillary’s message changed quite significantly when it became clear that Trump was going to be the candidate. She took away a lot of the message about what she was actually running for.
Jason Wilson: But outside the basic mechanics, I suppose, of the election, which is what all that was, and the campaign, you’ve also got to remember that Trump won a primary before that.
Simon Copland: And quite convincingly, really.
Jason Wilson: Right. And there is, wherever you look amongst Americans who are conservative, or people who are more progressive, this kind of frustration that the political system doesn’t really serve their interests. There is a way in which the crisis of 2008 has never really gone away, and a lot of jobs that have been added since that crisis are bad jobs, income disparities are continuing to grow.
I mean, these are multiple overlapping crises really that people sense the political system is unable to solve. And people see those crises in different ways. Just like in Australia there’s a lot of people here who don’t believe that climate change is real, quite a lot. But whether or not they believe it, it’s starting to have effects on their lives.
And there’s a generational issue here, where you’ve got a bunch of young people under 35 whose careers have never really started, and whose professional lives have never really started, who don’t have the stake in the system that their parents did. Maybe their parents respond to that by voting for Trump. Maybe they respond to it by flocking to Bernie Sanders, but either way the time’s right for someone like Trump to come along.
A lot of his (Trump’s) appeal is as a wrecker, and as someone who represents a blow against a system that so many people find themselves despising.
It’s possible to over-read him as well. A lot of his appeal is as a wrecker, and as someone who represents a blow against a system that so many people find themselves despising. That’s the larger picture, I guess.
Simon Copland: His administration seems to be in constant crisis. Six months in they’ve not passed any major legislation, and there is this continuing Russia investigation.
I’m wondering what your thoughts about how the left is dealing with all of this? Has the response to his administration been good from a left perspective? Or what do you think the left should be doing given the current situation?
Jason Wilson: I think it was always going to be difficult. I was really concerned during the election, not that I was ever someone who thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be someone who was able to respond to the crisis particularly well, but I did become concerned during the campaign when people were saying that – and it wasn’t many people, but you did see people saying on social media or even in articles – they’re pretty much the same, it doesn’t matter.
I always thought that it would be difficult for the left with Trump in charge, just because of his Attorney-General, because of the way which last week he was encouraging police violence. I think that as we go along, dissent is going to become more and more difficult, and more and more dangerous, because he’s instinctively an authoritarian sort of person, and because he’s outsourcing so much of his authority to police, to agencies, he’s surrounded by generals. I’m really not looking forward to the first security crisis, like a terrorist attack.
And I really do think that for all that I expected the Clinton administration to be almost neo-conservative in its overseas adventures, I feel like dissent is going to be more and more difficult as things go along, and it’s already become more difficult in some ways. And you’ve got people who are now facing many years in prison for protesting in Washington D.C., and I’ve seen a lot of stuff right here in Portland in terms of the way in which police are approaching enforcement of protest and stuff, which is pretty hardcore. And there’s no Justice Department like there was in the later years of the Obama administration restraining it either, and putting pressure on the way police do what they do.
So with all that said, I feel like it was very encouraging early on when Trump signed his executive order banning Muslim immigration, effectively, from certain countries, there was a kind of spontaneous protest where people shut down airports, and that was all really not only heartening, but effective. And seemed to me to point a way to what could be done, and also people are showing up to oppose the radical right, here in Portland and elsewhere. They tend to be heavily from one tendency, they tend to be anarchists who have that history of anti-fascism. Although on June the 4th it was a much broader coalition of people, that was the big one here. But that’s continuing to happen, and personally I think that’s important too.
But I think that some of the energy has gone out of protest. I think that people are at cross purposes. I think that what I’ll call, for want of a better word “grass-roots Democrats”, the aim of their protests is to mainly get rid of Trump. Whereas the people on the radical left are wanting to address broader issues and to often take direct action around the results of Trump’s policies or things that they think his administration’s encouraged, like these radical right rallies.
So it feels a little confused and muddied at the moment. This always happens, but it’s less helpful now than ever. There’s a lot of infighting on the left, and a lot of fighting between left and left, and liberals, grass-roots Democrats about what it is that we should be opposing; about what the nature of protests should be; about what’s appropriate in terms of tactics or strategies.
With all that said as well, I wouldn’t want to be in the position where I’m lecturing people, because I don’t see my role as being an activist or an organiser. I’m a journalist, and a witness to this stuff. So that’s just my impression. I’m not inside those organisations having those conversations. I’m an observer in some, whether IRL or on social media, or in the various organs of these digital paths of being the anti-Trump movement.
But that’s just my sense, it’s a little stalled at the moment, and my biggest concern is that for now repression is being stept up slowly, steadily, but slowly. Should there be some kind of security emergency, and that is intensified, my concern would be whether certain groups or tendencies get thrown under the bus by everyone else. And I’d hate to see that happen. That would be my concern at the moment.
Simon Copland: Let’s talk about the radical right, or those ultra-rights which you write about a lot. What are some of the key tenets of the radical right here, and what distinguishes it from the more established conservatives?
Jason Wilson: It’s probably worth from my point of view in Portland, and with the events and incidents I’ve been covering, it’s worthwhile to distinguish between what we might call the patriot movement, which is the part of the radical right that really overlaps the most strongly, I would say, with grass-roots Republicans and the Republican party in the Pacific North-West.
So in that you would put groups like the one we’re going to see in action today, Patriot Prayer, and maybe even militia type groups like the Oath Keepers. So publicly they’re anti-racist, that’s the way they certainly present themselves. But they are extremely conservative. They would say that they’re protesting on the grounds of things like free speech, and they’d be protesting against the overreach of the federal government, and militia groups are really concerned with the second amendment. And so these groups are more extreme version of what we might call constitutional conservatives. They’re constitutionalists who are prepared to take direct action in order to safeguard what they see as the meaning of the constitution.
So you had a bunch of guys who I covered last year out in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge here in Oregon, occupying a bird sanctuary in the name of the constitution, and their reading of the constitution. And it’s quite a fundamentalist reading of the constitution that ignores a whole bunch of things that the Supreme Court has had to say about the meaning and application of the constitution. But that’s what they claim to be standing for, especially for the first and second amendments, but in some cases also, like in Malheur, there’s a dispute there that they have about the way in which the federal government acquires and manages land. So government overreach.
The thing is, they really blur, especially here – where the Republican party is quite radical in some ways – they really blur with the Republican party. And at their events, and sometimes under their protection in many cases, you’ll find even more radical, and frequently explicitly racist groups. The alt-right proper, as opposed to what’s often called the alt-light, the alt-right proper I would say are white nationalists. The common thread is a belief their race is real, and that certain consequences flow from that about the way society needs to be arranged and run. There’s usually an implicit white supremacy, they’ll be saying things like black people have a lower IQ, or a lot of them have anti-Semitic beliefs as well. They believe that Latino people have a lower IQ and less fitness to be in a society like the one we’re in. And that’s where you put people like Richard Spencer.
So white nationalists sometimes will end up saying we need a white-ethno state in America which is exclusively for whites. Sometimes that winds up just in calls for a more explicitly white supremacist American polity. It just depends. But there are a lot of groups, new and old, under that broad designation.
And I think people make too much of this distinction sometimes because it’s pretty blurry, but there’s also the alt-light as it’s called, which is people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, and Gavin McInnis. The distinction is often made, it’s a distinction between white nationalism and cultural nationalism. And this description does fit people within that group. There’s a kind of American cultural chauvinism that animates these people rather than white nationalism per se. But it turns out that they always have this stuff in the background.
Let’s just put that aside for the sake of argument. The problem is that on June the 4th here in Portland where we had a really big rally organised by these patriot guys, Joey Gibson’s group, you had the alt-right proper standing in the park with them including groups like Identity Europa, started by this guy called Nathan Damigo, which is an explicitly fascist group, I would say.
And you also had the Republican party there, represented by the local chairman, making appeals to all these guys to join the Republican party. So that’s the difficulty we’ve got here. I mean a lot of these guys will, like Joey in conversation, will explicitly disavow racism. He’s a mixed race guy himself, and he’ll say he threw out Jeremy Christian and they don’t have Nazis in their rally, but then it turns out that they do. So that’s really the problem. There’s this kind of petri dish right now, on the radical right, where all kinds of different elements and different groups are associating with one another, and cross-pollinating in terms of ideology and all the rest of it.
Simon Copland: I think it’s really easy for progressives to dismiss the radical right here as being fringe groups, but you’ve written about the need to take them seriously, how we just can’t dismiss them or ignore them.
Can you just talk a little bit about why you think it’s important to be taking these groups seriously?
Jason Wilson: I think there are ways to talk about recent American and Australian history that show that it’s quite easy for these ideas to be absorbed into mainstream politics.
There’s a couple of guys who I would see as colleagues, a guy called Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons who wrote a book about right wing populism in America, which is really good. I recommend people read that one. And they say that sometimes the extreme/moderate, or extreme/centre model can be misleading, and that to a certain extent the American state and the Australian state, I would say, has white nationalism in its DNA. Australia was founded in this act of excluding people of colour from the country. A lot of that happened in the Pacific North-West as well, and United States was founded as a slave society. These things run deep.
But extremist groups, or what often call extremist groups, can have pretty immediate effects on mainstream policies. So what you’re hearing now from the Trump administration – building a wall, trying to end immigration from certain countries just on the basis of religion – all it took in this case was the kind of collapse of what had been mainstream Republicanism to allow that stuff in. It’s just below the surface. And there’s millions of voters who are fine with that.
Extremist groups, can have pretty immediate effects on mainstream policies.
I think in Australia for a generation now we’ve seen policies which were once most associated with someone who is still around, Pauline Hanson, the idea of just ending people coming in on boats, ending refugees coming in on boats, refusing entry to those people under any circumstances. That’s now bipartisan-policy.
It’s easy to explain that, in a way, in a period where the centre left party has become more and more cautious and is itself comfortable with offering populist economic policy, and where both parties craft policy where they’re pretty close to one another, they try and minimise the differences for electoral purposes. John Howard recognised the populist appeal of this issue, and kind of gradually co-opted it from the far right, and now it’s at the centre of Australian politics. And that’s happened over just 15 years.
There’s a real danger I think of complacency. Here’s the problem: people think – and this happens to me all the time, whenever I write this stuff – people dismiss it on the basis that they’re never going to take power. Well, here’s the thing. In the United States they are in power, to some extent, there are white nationalists I would say in the White House. In Australia, what you’d see is they don’t need to take power to effect policy. It just happens through the mechanisms of electoral politics.
So being aware of what they’re saying and doing is the minimum that we should do, and I feel like that’s my job, and I think that if there was more attention to some of this stuff at the right time, maybe we could have thought more clearly about ways to avoid it happening. People didn’t take Trump seriously until election day, until the end of election day, there were people who were saying he’s got no chance.
I think people got a shock when One Nation did as well as it did in the elections as well. And they’re not going anywhere. Pauline Hanson’s in the senate for six years now, and who knows what’s going to come out in the wash? They’ve taken a bit of a beating …
Simon Copland: But yeah, they’re not going anywhere.
Jason Wilson: I don’t know if their voters have anywhere else to go.
Anyway, in terms of how to resist it, it’s not my job to devise ideas for that. But I think that the folks who choose to resist this stuff militantly cop it a lot, including from people on the left. And I’m not sure a lot of the arguments made against them really hold water. I think sometimes anti-fascists are the only ones showing up to actually counter-protest. Maybe if you want to change the nature of those counter-protests the thing is to show up and do that.
I think sometimes anti-fascists are the only ones showing up to actually counter-protest. Maybe if you want to change the nature of those counter-protests the thing is to show up and do that.
Simon Copland: I’ve just got one last quick question, if that’s alright. In Portland we had this high profile stabbing of two people by a member of the alt-right.
Jason Wilson: Someone who was certainly expressing white supremacist ideas and had turned up to their rallies. They’d disavowed him, and there’s something in what they say that’s kind of persuasive, but this is the kind of person that the rallies attract.
Simon Copland: I’m just wondering what the broader response in Portland, and maybe in Oregon or even the U.S. in general was to this event, and what you think that says about the response to the alt-right within the community here?
Jason Wilson: I think the response to the rally they held immediately in the wake of that showed that there is a kind of widespread opposition to this movement. Portland’s a liberal city, as most cities in the United States are, more liberal than rural areas or provincial areas anyway. But Portland especially is quite a liberal city. And on that day, June the 4th, a really broad range of people showed up to protest against that and I think that reflected the community’s opposition to these groups.
To return to an earlier question of, we were talking about, I think you asked me about what the left should be doing. Part of the problem is it’s such a cavalcade of stuff. It’s just seems like every day there’s a new outrage that people, for understandable reasons, are finding it hard to focus on any one issue. So that’s happened with these guys too. I think on June the 4th, there was a huge response to what they were doing and it’s kind of dropped off. I don’t know what’s going to happen today. It seems like it’s dropped off a little though, because there’s just so much going on.
The other danger is I think people are just getting a little numb to it. And I find myself thinking this too, that after a certain amount of outrageous events or outrageous claims, there’s a certain amount of desensitisation that goes on. So I think you will see people showing up today to counter-protest, but we’ll see, it may not have the urgency that it did just a couple of months ago. That’s the problem at the moment, we’re just getting bombarded day in, day out. That’s a pretty depressing note to end on.
Simon Copland: That’s alright.
Jason Wilson: I mean, on the other hand the Democratic Socialists of America had a big conference yesterday. They claim to have 25,000 people now. There is movement on the left as well, but it’s a tough time.
Simon Copland: Well let’s leave it on that note. Thanks a lot Jason. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Jason Wilson: Thank you for having me.