Among the pro-Trump mob at the US Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, a flag depicts Trump as a Rambo-like figure. (Photo/Lloyd Wolf)
Among the pro-Trump mob at the US Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021, a flag depicts Trump as a Rambo-like figure. (Photo/Lloyd Wolf)

Q&A: The extreme ‘animating myth’ that unites Trump bloc

Photos taken at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 showed a bearded man, later identified as Robert Keith Packer of Virginia, wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Camp Auschwitz” above a skull and crossbones. Under it: “Work Brings Freedom.” News reports said the back of the sweatshirt read “Staff.”

Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” carrying lighted tiki torches at a 2017 rally whose aim was to unite disparate right-wing extremist factions, many of which were represented in D.C. Despite all of this, the Proud Boys insist they have Jewish members, and their figurehead, Donald Trump, plumbly denies claims of antisemitism, pointing to Jewish members of his own family.

Lawrence Rosenthal
Lawrence Rosenthal

There were antisemites at the Capitol riots, but one might fairly ask just how central antisemitism is to the insurgent populist right in America today.

J. asked these and other questions of professor Lawrence Rosenthal, a sociologist and expert in modern Italian history, who in 2009 founded UC Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, a research unit dedicated to the study of right-wing movements of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Last year Rosenthal published “Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism” (New Press). It explores how the American populist right, upon embracing Trump, migrated from the small-government, low taxation libertarianism of the tea party movement to the anti-immigrant nationalism of today’s Republican Party, which bears similarities to nationalist parties common in Western Europe.

This interview, conducted on Jan. 13, has been edited for clarity and concision.

J.: You write in your book about the migration of right-wing populism from the tea party to Trumpism. In that context, how would you describe the types of folks who are today the most active Trump supporters, the ones who attend rallies and protests like the one in Washington, D.C.?

LR:My book takes a very clear position, which is that cultural aspects are more significant than economic aspects in the formation of the Trump populist bloc.

[Those who attend Trump rallies] are people who flocked to the tea party … and things like that. These are people who, in very large measure, [even] previous to the tea party — which starts with the election of Barack Obama — were the people in various other organizations, like Christian conservatism and things of that nature. The people who stuffed the envelopes and raised the money. The continuity among that cohort of people is continuous into the tea party era.

J.: To what extent is antisemitism central to American right-wing populism, peripheral, or neither?

I think that Nazism is a component of something which is larger, but does not define the whole thing. While you had “Jews will not replace us” being chanted in Charlottesville, it was alongside the chant “you will not replace us,” which is something that one hears in Western Europe. The idea of “replacement theory” comes from France in the 1970s.

If you were to ask, what is it that animates right-wing populism in the Western world in this age, it is that elites — often liberal elites, but in any case the global elite — are attempting to displace populations, the real populations like the “real Americans,” or the “real French.” But in that, there is a component which identifies very strongly with the “Nazi tradition.” And the permeability between these things is pretty strong.

Furthermore, in the world of conspiracy theories and so forth, note the emergence of QAnon. Conspiracy theory during the tea party era and during the Trump era indulged in a lot of fantasy thinking. Much of those conspiracy theories involved projecting things onto the liberal world. With QAnon, that which is being projected picks up — as I’m sure you know — themes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

So there is a way in which, in this really extreme, almost hyper-fantasy which QAnon represents, that without saying so — it’s written into the subtext of their thinking — is the suggestion that people are dealing in what Jewish people call “blood libel.”

In your book, you write about the crucial role of demagoguery in mobilizing the populist right. I’m struck by the way in which Trump inspires almost undying love and affection from his supporters, basically no matter what he does. 

As you may know, the evangelical support for him wound up rooting itself in the Bible. The two exemplars from the Bible, but there are more, are King David, who was an adulterer and perhaps a murderer, and more than that, King Cyrus, who saved the Jews from Babylonian captivity.

So God sent this flawed character to save his people. And that’s what Donald Trump is. And that worked. People sincerely feel that in the evangelical community.

Beyond that, scholars of fascism talk about what they call the leadership principle, or “Führerprinzip.” And I’m not calling Donald Trump a fascist; I’m talking about the general category of leadership among authoritarian movements. The leader is understood along the lines of a providential deliverance. Here comes this person who uniquely understands, as though channeling the national interest.

What’s unusual about Trump is what he channels are so plainly less national interests than his own; both political and personal. If you think back to things like Anonymous, who published an op-ed in the New York Times and then a book saying there are people in the administration who can’t stand this guy, but are sticking around to keep the world safe, Trump says that is treason. Treason is redefined as, in effect, opposition to him.

Trump is finally getting repudiated by mainstream Republicans, from Sen. Mitch McConnell to Betsy DeVos to others who have supported him in the past, such as Mick Mulvaney, Lisa Murkowski, Liz Cheney and so on. Do you think this turn will effectively stop Trumpism, or weaken his grip on the party?

What it does is it places the party in crisis. A civil war inside the party.

In terms of the Trump movement, there are going to be those like [Missouri Sen.] Josh Hawley who will attempt to be the successors to Trump, if it is not Trump himself. Or the baby Trumps.

But the party is going to have to see if there is a viable synthesis between, let’s call it Republican orthodoxy, pre-Trump, and Trumpism. And whether some kind of synergy can form around that. That seems to be the project, as it were, of the Republican establishment at the moment.

Do you think after Biden’s inauguration the country will manage to turn a page from insurgent right-wing populism?

No, I don’t. But I think that the violent populism, which culminated so far on Jan. 6 — I think that Joe Biden, the Biden administration, can stem that through really aggressive law enforcement.

The presumption in the world of the militia-types is that the liberal world is flabby and soft, and they’re the tough guys. But when the liberal world comes down on characters like that, they kind of slip away. So I think that it is urgent for the Joe Biden administration to aggressively pursue, via law enforcement, anybody and everybody who has been violent.

But turning the right-wing populist base of Donald Trump away from that populism is very hard. Because this populism is so deeply rooted in — almost as its prime mover, the thing that is at the center of it — despising blue America. So that’s a really tough nut to crack.

You might get some kind of exhaustion on that side. But you might get something quite the opposite. Here’s an analogy: At the end of the Civil War, the South loses. But they retain the myth, which goes by the name of the Lost Cause. It is an animating myth, which can organize and bring together political movements in that name, and represents a kind of mindset of us vs. them. There is the potential for the “stolen election” to be an enduring animating myth after Jan. 20.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.