Insurgent Supremacists -- a new book about the U.S. far right
By Matthew N. Lyons
Originally posted on Three Way Fight
April 5, 2018
My book Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire is due out this May and is being published jointly by Kersplebedeb Publishing and PM Press. It draws on work that I’ve been doing over the past 10-15 years but also includes a lot of new material. I want to highlight some of what’s distinctive about this book and how it relates to the three way fight approach to radical antifascism. I’ll focus here on three themes that run throughout the book:
1. Disloyalty to the state is a key dividing line within the U.S. right.
For purposes of this book, I define the U.S. far right not in terms of a specific ideology, but rather as those political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and (b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system. That includes white nationalists who advocate replacing the United States with one or more racially defined “ethno-states.” But it also includes the hardline wing of the Christian right, which wants to replace secular forms of government with a full-blown theocracy; Patriot movement activists who reject the federal government’s legitimacy based on conspiracy theories and a kind of militant libertarianism; and some smaller ideological currents.
Insurgent Supremacists argues that the modern far right defined in these terms has only emerged in the United States over the past half century, as a result of social and political upheavals associated with the 1960s, and that it represents a shift away from the right’s traditional role as defenders of the established order. The book explores how the various far right currents have developed and how they have interacted with each other and with the larger political landscape.
I chose to frame the book in terms of “far right” rather than “fascism” for a couple of reasons. Discussions of fascism tend to get bogged down in definitional debates, because people have very strong—and very divided—opinions about what fascism means and what it includes. Insurgent Supremacists includes in-depth discussions of fascism as a theoretical and historical concept, but that’s not the book’s focus or overall framework.
As a related point, most discussions of fascism focus on white nationalist forces and tend to exclude or ignore other right-wing currents such as Christian rightist forces, and I think it’s important to look at these different forces in relation to each other. For example, critics of the Patriot/militia movement often argue that its hostility to the federal government was derived from Posse Comitatus, a white supremacist and antisemitic organization that played a big role in the U.S. far right in the 1980s. That’s an important part of the story, but Patriot groups were also deeply influenced by hardline Christian rightists, who (quite independently from white nationalists) had for years been urging people to arm themselves and form militias to resist federal tyranny. We rarely hear about that.
2. The far right is ideologically complex and dynamic and belies common stereotypes.
Many critics of the far right tend to assume that its ideology doesn’t amount to much more than crude bigotry, and if we identify a group as “Nazi” or as white supremacist, male supremacist, etc., that’s pretty much all we need to know. This is a dangerous assumption that doesn’t explain why far right groups are periodically able to mobilize significant support and wield influence far beyond their numbers. Yes, the far right has its share of stupid bigots, but unfortunately it also has its share of smart, creative people. We need to take far rightists’ beliefs and strategies seriously, study their internal debates, and look at how they’ve learned from past mistakes. Otherwise we’ll be fighting 21st-century battles with 1930s weapons.
For example: because of the history of fascism in the 1930s and 40s, we tend to identify far right politics with glorification of the strong state and highly centralized political organizations. Some far rightists, such as the Lyndon LaRouche network, still hold to that approach, but most of them have actually abandoned it in favor of various kinds of political decentralism, from neonazis who call for “leaderless resistance” and want to carve regional white homelands out of the United States to “sovereign citizens” and county supremacists, from self-described National-Anarchists to Christian Reconstructionists who advocate a theocracy based on small-scale institutions such as local government, churches, and individual families. One of the lessons here is that opposing centralized authority isn’t necessarily liberatory at all, because repression and oppression can operate on a small scale just as well as on a large scale.
This shift to political decentralism isn’t just empty rhetoric; it’s a genuine transformation of far right politics. I think it should be examined in relation to larger cultural, political, and economic developments, such as the global restructuring of industrial production and the wholesale privatization of governmental functions in the U.S. and elsewhere.
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"We need to take far rightists’ beliefs and strategies seriously, study their internal debates, and look at how they’ve learned from past mistakes. Otherwise we’ll be fighting 21st-century battles with 1930s weapons."
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As another example of oversimplifying far right politics, it’s standard to describe far rightists as promoting heterosexual male dominance. While that’s certainly true in broad terms, it doesn’t really tell us very much. Insurgent Supremacists maps out several distinct forms of far right politics regarding gender and sexual identity and looks at how those have played out over time within the far right’s various branches. Most far rightists vilify homosexuality, but sections of the alt-right have advocated some degree of respect for male homosexuality, based on a kind of idealized male bonding among warriors, an approach that actually has deep roots in fascist political culture.
In recent years the alt-right has promoted some of the most vicious misogyny and declared that women have no legitimate political role. But when the alt-right got started around 2010, it included men who argued that sexism and sexual harassment of women were weakening the movement by alienating half of its potential support base. This view echoed the quasi-feminist positions that several neonazi groups had been taking since the 1980s, such as the idea that Jews promoted women’s oppression as part of their effort to divide and subjugate the Aryan race. This may sound bizarre, but it’s a prime example of the far right’s capacity time and again to appropriate elements of leftist politics and harness them to its own supremacist agenda.
3. Fighting the far right and working to overthrow established systems of power are distinct but interconnected struggles.
A third core element that sets Insurgent Supremacists apart is three way fight politics: the idea that the existing socio-economic-political order and the far right represent different kinds of threats—interconnected but distinct—and that the left needs to combat both of them. This challenges the assumption, recurrent among many leftists, that the far right is either unimportant or a ruling-class tool, and that it basically just wants to impose a more extreme version of the status quo. But three way fight politics also challenges the common liberal view that in the face of a rising far right threat we need to “defend democracy” and subordinate systemic change to a broad-based antifascism. Among other huge problems with this approach, if leftists throw our support behind the existing order we play directly into the hands of the far right, because we allow them to present themselves as the only real oppositional force, the only ones committed to real change.
Insurgent Supremacists applies three way fight analysis in various ways. There’s a chapter on misuses of the charge of fascism since the 1930s, which looks at how some leftists and liberals have misapplied the fascist label either to authoritarian conservatism (such as McCarthyism or the George W. Bush administration) or to the existing political system as a whole. There’s a chapter about the far right’s relationship with Donald Trump—both his presidential campaign and his administration—which explores the complex and shifting interactions between rightist currents that want to overthrow or secede from the United States and rightist currents that don’t. During the campaign, most alt-rightists enthusiastically supported Trump not only for his attacks on immigrants and Muslims but also because he made establishment conservatives look like fools. But since the inauguration they’ve been deeply alienated by many of his policies, which largely follow a conservative script.
Three way fight analysis also informs the book’s discussion of federal security forces’ changing relationships with right-wing vigilantes and paramilitary groups. These relations have run the gamut from active support for right-wing violence (most notoriously in Greensboro in 1979, when white supremacists gunned down communist anti-Klan protesters) to active suppression (as in 1984-88, when the FBI and other agencies arrested or shot members of half a dozen underground groups). This complex history belies arguments that we should look to the federal government to protect us against the far right, as well as simplistic claims that “the cops and the Klan go hand in hand.” Forces of the state may choose to co-opt right-wing paramilitaries or crack down on them, depending on the particular circumstances and what seems most useful to help them maintain social control.
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Insurgent Supremacists isn’t intended to be a comprehensive study of the U.S. far right. Rather, it’s an attempt to offer some fresh ideas about what these dangerous forces stand for, where they come from, and what roles they play in the larger political arena. Not just to help us understand them, but so we can fight them more effectively.