I finished David Neiwert’s new book The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right right before I left for New York, and now I’m back and have some time to really review it. I did an interview with David on RH Reality Check a couple of weeks ago, and it was really interesting. We talked a lot about the current right wing movement’s tendency towards eliminationist rhetoric, and how it’s resulted in a number of murders and terrorist threats since the Obama election. For a podcast about reproductive rights, and a short interview, that’s about as much as we could cover. Obviously, eliminationism is a major issue with reproductive rights, since encouraging their followers to dehumanize and murder providers has been a part of the anti-choice movement for a long time now. But the book covers a lot more territory, looking at fascism and social movements like it, and spelling out a history of American eliminationism.
The way the anti-choice movement has rolled for a long time has become the mainstream of American conservatism, and the result is incredibly scary. David’s hardly claiming that mainstream American conservatism is fascist, but there are fascist elements in its margins, and more disturbingly, those marginal ideas are rapidly being mainstreamed through people he calls “transmitters”—people like Sarah Palin, Lou Dobbs, and even Rush Limbaugh, who put a smiley face on eliminationist ideas and make them more palatable to the public. This has been going on since the 90s, really, and I’d argue it was one reason that the mainstream conservative movement embraced the anti-democratic idea that it was acceptable to impeach a rightfully elected American President by any means necessary. Not, as liberals were arguing with about Bush, because he was a war criminal, or any kind of criminal at all. Whatever it took—getting rid of Clinton was the goal, and no matter how illegal or unethical the means, it had to be done. Luckily, they failed, but they were just successful enough to get an appetite for it.
David focuses on the funnel between far right nutjobs cranking out ideas that justify eliminating your opposition, mainly through inciting panic about them (such as anti-choicers do about abortion providers, or immigration hysterics do about immigrants), or dehumanizing them (those groups get it, as do all liberals—David amasses an enormous amount of evidence that conservatives increasingly use vermin metaphors to talk about liberals). I’d add to this that right wingers are growing increasingly tolerant of discourse that suggests that inconvenient people should be squeezed out of the democratic system altogether, from demanding that women’s suffrage be repealed to seeking ways to prove that Obama is ineligible to be President. Once you’ve absorbed the idea that it’s legitimate to get rid of power-sharing with liberals by any means necessary, violence becomes much easier to justify.
All this plays out in interesting ways. It’s not just the uptick in domestic terrorism, though that alone is troubling. It also laid the groundwork for kneejerk conservative support for Bush’s insane power grab and torture program. Once you start to absorb eliminationist ideas, then it’s a quick leap to suggesting that it’s okay for a conservative President to shut down the democratic system, if it accomplishes the goal of shutting liberals out. And of course, the torture situation is a direct result of eliminationist rhetoric—that people who’ve been rounded up and tortured may even be innocent of any wrongdoing doesn’t give supporters pause, because they’re so full up on hatred towards Muslims that the idea of a Muslim who is not the enemy seems inconceivable to them. David also traces the relationship between eliminationist rhetoric and hate crimes, specifically noting that the more hysterical wingnuts get about immigration, the worse the hate crime rate against Latinos gets.
But what really makes this book so great is that David rejects the American tendency to forget the past, and places the current right wing movement in a long historical context, to show that eliminationism is far from impossible in American society. He places this in the context of the genocide of Native Americans, the use of lynching and running black people out of town that characterized the late 19th/early 20th century, and the internment camps for Japanese-Americans that resulted in a permanent destruction of the majority of Japanese-Americans’ livelihood as farmers. The enemies of conservatism have been more nebulous and harder to define on sight since then, but the increasing racist hysteria is scary in large part because it gives right wingers focus. David also careful explains what fascism is and what it isn’t, and how the biggest problem right now isn’t that conservatives are fascist, but that they play footsie with fascism.
The good news from my perspective is that the American public seems eager to push back. The NFL’s rejection of Rush Limbaugh, and the impotence displayed by right wingers in terms of getting anyone to care, is a heartening sign. The danger that David spells out is from right wing ideas being transmitted by mainstream figures and gaining popularity; but the rejection of Limbaugh shows that some people with real power are willing to stop that process. In general, the more shrill and hateful the Republican party gets, the fewer people are willing to call themselves Republicans, and this is a heartening development.