The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right
by David Neiwert, PoliPoint Press, 266 pages, $16.95
David Neiwert's The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right arrives in stores as if conjured up by the zeitgeist. Since the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a culture of paranoia has hijacked the conservative movement. Examples of the hysterical style abound: Glenn Beck portraying Obama pouring gasoline on the American people; Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota calling for "an orderly revolution" against the Democrats; a right-wing conspiracy nut killing three Pittsburgh policemen because of unfounded fears that the government was going to take away his guns. It seems among all segments of the conservative movement -- from the vanguard on the air, to the leaders in the Capitol, to the rank-and-file on the ground -- the mood is apocalypse now.
The thread that connects them is the subject of Neiwert's compelling new book. A journalist based in Seattle, Neiwert has for years been doing yeoman's work reporting on the extreme right. On his personal blog, Orcinus, as well as on Crooks and Liars, where he is managing editor, Neiwert has trained his focus on the extremist ideas of the right-wing fringe and the echo chamber that launders them for mainstream consumption.
Neiwert's paramount concern is the transformation of terrible thought to murderous deed. Richard Poplawski, the Pittsburgh man who killed those policemen last month, is the textbook example of the type Neiwert worries about. Poplawski liked to publish posts on Stormfront, the largest white-supremacist online forum, and visit Infowars, a Web site run by right-wing conspiracist Alex Jones. Poplawski believed that the Obama administration was out to get his guns, a baseless myth that nonetheless gets repeated again and again on conservative outlets -- and that, in his case, apparently inspired a violent spree.
But Neiwert argues that these tall tales are not confined to (or spread by) the fringe. "Transmitters" like Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media figures circulate such conspiracy theories to a wider audience. The result is a feedback loop of paranoia and hysteria, as the transmitters "inject extremist ideas into the mainstream and … bring the two sectors closer together."
He offers the example of the Patriot movement, which thrived in the Northwest in the 1990s. According to Neiwert, the movement "provided most of the early audience for The Clinton Chronicles," a conspiracy documentary about Bill Clinton's alleged involvement in the death of his aide Vincent Foster as well as drug-running and murder in Arkansas. Although easily debunked, the wild accusations bounced around in the right's outer reaches long enough "that the claims obtained currency in the mainstream." That symbiotic relationship between shadowy fringe and conservative mainstream has only deepened in recent years, thanks to the rise of the Internet, a more entrenched right-wing echo chamber, and an even more rigidly ideological GOP caucus.
The Eliminationists attempts a grand theory of the right-wing mentality. "What motivates this kind of talk and behavior is called eliminationism: a politics and culture that shuns dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination," he writes. Calling eliminationism "a signature trait of fascism," Neiwert offers a deft and scrupulous synthesis of academic research on fascism, which has been drained of its meaning from both liberal overuse (as Neiwert admits) and conservative up-is-downism.
Neiwert's commentary is depressingly timely. While paranoid and anti-intellectual rhetoric has long defined conservative media, the latest strain seems to be louder, meaner, and more pervasive. Where once the kind of hate talk Neiwert describes was confined to the fringes, it's now part of daily programming at Fox News. To a distressing extent, much of mainstream right-wing culture and politics is predicated on hatred and exclusion. Hardly a day goes by that an epithet isn't hurled against Hispanics, Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other bêtes noire in conservative media and the right-wing blogosphere. And let's not forget the greatest enemy of all: liberals. More than low taxes, traditional values, or a hawkish foreign policy, hatred of liberals (as opposed to mere disagreement) is the one true unifier among conservatives. Neiwert sums up the right-wing mentality by citing a line from Benito Mussolini to a left-wing critic: "The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo." For many conservatives, the goal isn't so much to enact conservative policies as it is to vanquish the liberals in their midst.
At a brisk 266 pages (including notes), The Eliminationists serves as a useful primer on the violent and doomsday strain of American conservatism. At times, Neiwert's slim book can barely sustain its ambitious scope. More detailed dispatches from the ground from his experiences as a reporter would also have been welcome. The peeks at a subterranean and yet potentially dangerous world make up some of the book's most compelling passages.
But it's hard to deny the fundamental truth of Neiwert's argument. The recent departure of Republican Sen. Arlen Spector for the Democratic Party -- and the response by the right's standard bearers -- is only the latest illustration of Neiwert's thesis. As the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys cement their status as the party's de facto leaders, the GOP has become increasingly radicalized, alienating moderate Republicans like the Pennsylvania senator. Progressives have looked upon the radicalization of the right as a good thing for the left's political prospects -- the farther right the Republicans go, the smaller their tent becomes. But as Paul Krugman recently wrote, "In the long run, this is not good for American democracy -- we really do need two major parties in competition."
Neiwert also bemoans the radicalization of the Republicans and the refulgence of the fringe. He writes that the poisonous rhetoric that now dominates the right represents the "death of discourse itself" -- and possibly presages the coming of a new American berserk. Bookending The Eliminationists is the story of Jim Adkisson, a Knoxville man who killed two and wounded seven in a July 2008 shooting at a Unitarian Church. In a manifesto released in February, he wrote, "Know this if nothing else: This was a hate crime. I hate the damn left-wing liberals. … Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book."
The scariest part of all this? We are just a few months into the Obama presidency. The ugliness has just begun. Neiwert's book should serve as a wake-up call not just for progressives and moderates but also for conservatives who still seek to participate in the American pluralist experiment. Some may want to brush off the Adkissons and Poplawskis as deranged aberrations, but that would be a dangerous temptation. As The Eliminationists persuasively argues, they are less anomalies than inevitabilities: the terrifying end products of a conservative movement that has nothing left to offer but the conspiratorial murmur and the rabble-rousing howl.
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