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Roots of the
Attack on Democracy

A selection of scholarship from Project MUSE publishers exploring the political and societal forces that built up to the violence of January 6th.


The violence that took place on January 6th at the United States Capitol shocked the country and observers around the world, but its root causes are deeply embedded in American history and society. While the full scope of that day’s insurrection attempt has yet to be fully realized, there already exists a wealth of scholarship through which we can trace the long history of white nationalism and the gradual mainstreaming of anti-democratic thought that ultimately led to this moment.

 

“Roots of the Attack on Democracy”, the latest in our MUSE in Focus series, explores the history of American right-wing extremism and the modern forces that culminated these attitudes in our current moment. Understanding the nature of these challenges provides the best chance to overcome them.


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BOOKS

Free Speech, The People's Darling Privilege: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American History
Curtis, Michael Kent, Devins, Neal, Graber, Mark A.
Duke University Press, 2000.
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Modern ideas about the protection of free speech in the United States did not originate in twentieth-century Supreme Court cases, as many have thought. Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege” refutes this misconception by examining popular struggles for free speech that stretch back through American history. Michael Kent Curtis focuses on struggles in which ordinary and extraordinary people, men and women, black and white, demanded and fought for freedom of speech during the period from 1791—when the Bill of Rights and its First Amendment bound only the federal government to protect free expression—to 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment sought to extend this mandate to the states. A review chapter is also included to bring the story up to date.
Curtis analyzes three crucial political struggles: the controversy that surrounded the 1798 Sedition Act, which raised the question of whether criticism of elected officials would be protected speech; the battle against slavery, which raised the question of whether Americans would be free to criticize a great moral, social, and political evil; and the controversy over anti-war speech during the Civil War. Many speech issues raised by these controversies were ultimately decided outside the judicial arena—in Congress, in state legislatures, and, perhaps most importantly, in public discussion and debate. Curtis maintains that modern proposals for changing free speech doctrine can usefully be examined in the light of this often ignored history. This broader history shows the crucial effect that politicians, activists, ordinary citizens—and later the courts—have had on the American understanding of free speech.
Filling a gap in legal history, this enlightening, richly researched historical investigation will be valuable for students and scholars of law, U.S. history, and political science, as well as for general readers interested in civil liberties and free speech.

Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right
Cynthia Miller-Idriss
Princeton University Press, 2020.
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A startling look at the unexpected places where violent hate groups recruit young people

Hate crimes. Misinformation and conspiracy theories. Foiled white-supremacist plots. The signs of growing far-right extremism are all around us, and communities across America and around the globe are struggling to understand how so many people are being radicalized and why they are increasingly attracted to violent movements. Hate in the Homeland shows how tomorrow's far-right nationalists are being recruited in surprising places, from college campuses and mixed martial arts gyms to clothing stores, online gaming chat rooms, and YouTube cooking channels.

Instead of focusing on the how and why of far-right radicalization, Cynthia Miller-Idriss seeks answers in the physical and virtual spaces where hate is cultivated. Where does the far right do its recruiting? When do young people encounter extremist messaging in their everyday lives? Miller-Idriss shows how far-right groups are swelling their ranks and developing their cultural, intellectual, and financial capacities in a variety of mainstream settings. She demonstrates how young people on the margins of our communities are targeted in these settings, and how the path to radicalization is a nuanced process of moving in and out of far-right scenes throughout adolescence and adulthood.

Hate in the Homeland is essential for understanding the tactics and underlying ideas of modern far-right extremism. This eye-opening book takes readers into the mainstream places and spaces where today's far right is engaging and ensnaring young people, and reveals innovative strategies we can use to combat extremist radicalization.

Must We Defend Nazis?: Why the First Amendment Should Not Protect Hate Speech and White Supremacy
Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic
NYU Press, 2018.
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A controversial argument for reconsidering the limits of free speech  

Swirling in the midst of the resurgence of neo-Nazi demonstrations, hate speech, and acts of domestic terrorism are uncomfortable questions about the limits of free speech. The United States stands apart from many other countries in that citizens have the power to say virtually anything without legal repercussions.  But, in the case of white supremacy, does the First Amendment demand that we defend Nazis?  

In Must We Defend Nazis?, legal experts Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic argue that it should not. Updated to consider the white supremacy demonstrations and counter-protests in Charlottesville and debates about hate speech on campus and on the internet, the book offers a concise argument against total, unchecked freedom of speech.  

Delgado and Stefancic instead call for a system of free speech that takes into account the harms that hate speech can inflict upon disempowered, marginalized people. They examine the prevailing arguments against regulating speech, and show that they all have answers.  They also show how limiting free speech would work in a legal framework and offer suggestions for activist lawyers and judges interested in approaching the hate speech controversy intelligently. 

As citizens are confronting free speech in contention with equal dignity, access, and respect, Must We Defend Nazis? puts aside clichés that clutter First Amendment thinking, and presents a nuanced position that recognizes the needs of our increasingly diverse society. 

Confessions of a Free Speech Lawyer: Charlottesville and the Politics of Hate
Rodney A. Smolla
Cornell University Press, 2020.
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In the personal and frank Confessions of a Free Speech Lawyer, Rodney A. Smolla offers an insider's view on the violent confrontations in Charlottesville during the "summer of hate." Blending memoir, courtroom drama, and a consideration of the unhealed wound of racism in our society, he shines a light on the conflict between the value of free speech and the protection of civil rights.

Smolla has spent his career in the thick of these tempestuous and fraught issues, from acting as lead counsel in a famous Supreme Court decision challenging Virginia's law against burning crosses, to serving as co-counsel in a libel suit brought by a fraternity against Rolling Stone magazine for publishing an article alleging that one of the fraternity's initiation rituals included gang rape. Smolla has also been active as a university leader, serving as dean of three law schools and president of one and railing against hate speech and sexual assault on US campuses.

Well before the tiki torches cast their ominous shadows across the nation, the city of Charlottesville sought to relocate the Unite the Right rally; Smolla was approached to represent the alt-right groups. Though he declined, he came to wonder what his history of advocacy had wrought. Feeling unsettlingly complicit, he joined the Charlottesville Task Force, and he realized that the events that transpired there had meaning and resonance far beyond a singular time and place. Why, he wonders, has one of our foundational rights created a land in which such tragic clashes happen all too frequently?

How to Prevent Coups d'État: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival
Erica De Bruin
Cornell University Press, 2020.
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In this lively and provocative book, Erica De Bruin looks at the threats that rulers face from their own armed forces. Can they make their regimes impervious to coups?

How to Prevent Coups d'État shows that how leaders organize their coercive institutions has a profound effect on the survival of their regimes. When rulers use presidential guards, militarized police, and militia to counterbalance the regular military, efforts to oust them from power via coups d'état are less likely to succeed. Even as counterbalancing helps to prevent successful interventions, however, the resentment that it generates within the regular military can provoke new coup attempts. And because counterbalancing changes how soldiers and police perceive the costs and benefits of a successful overthrow, it can create incentives for protracted fighting that result in the escalation of a coup into full-blown civil war.

Drawing on an original dataset of state security forces in 110 countries over a span of fifty years, as well as case studies of coup attempts in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, De Bruin sheds light on how counterbalancing affects regime survival. Understanding the dynamics of counterbalancing, she shows, can help analysts predict when coups will occur, whether they will succeed, and how violent they are likely to be. The arguments and evidence in this book suggest that while counterbalancing may prevent successful coups, it is a risky strategy to pursue—and one that may weaken regimes in the long term.

The Rise of the Alt-Right
Thomas J. Main
Brookings Institution Press, 2018.
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What is the Alt-Right, and how will it affect America?

Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 suddenly brought to prominence a political movement that few in political circles or the mainstream media had paid much attention to: the so-called Alt-Right. Steven Bannon, Trump's campaign manager, was a leading figure in the movement, and the election results seemed to give it a real opportunity to gain some political power.

But what is the Alt-Right? Is it a movement, a theory, a trend, or just an unorganized group of people far outside of what used to be the political mainstream in America? Or, could it be all of these things? Why has it suddenly emerged into prominence? What impact is it having on American politics today, and what are the prospects for the Alt-Right in the future?

Through careful research and analysis, The Rise of the Alt-Right addresses these and other questions, tracing the movement’s history from the founding of modern conservatism in postwar America to the current Trump era. Although the Alt-Right might seem to be just the latest extremist group to arise in the United States—one likely to take its place in the graveyard of its many predecessors—Thomas J. Main analyzes evidence that the Alt-Right is having a greater influence on the American political mainstream than did past extremist tendencies. The Rise of the Alt-Right is thus an important study for anyone interested in the future of American politics and public life.

What So Proudly We Hailed: Essays on the Contemporary Meaning of the War of 1812
Pietro S. Nivola, Peter J. Kastor
Brookings Institution Press, 2012.
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<P>With distrust between the political parties running deep and Congress divided, the government of the United States goes to war. The war is waged without adequately preparing the means to finance it or readying suitable contingency plans to contend with its unanticipated complications. The executive branch suffers from managerial confusion and in-fighting. The military invades a foreign country, expecting to be greeted as liberators, but encounters stiff, unwelcome resistance. The conflict drags on longer than predicted. It ends rather inconclusively —or so it seems in its aftermath.</P><P>Sound familiar? This all happened two hundred years ago.</P><P> <I>What So Proudly We Hailed</I> looks at the War of 1812 in part through the lens of today's America. On the bicentennial of that formative yet largely forgotten period in U.S. history, this provocative book asks: What did Americans learn —and not learn —from the experience? What instructive parallels and distinctions can be drawn with more recent events? How did it shape the nation?</P><P>Exploring issues ranging from party politics to sectional schisms, distant naval battles to the burning of Washington, and citizens' civil liberties to the fate of Native Americans caught in the struggle, these essays speak to the complexity and unpredictability of a war that many assumed would be brief and straightforward. What emerges is a revealing perspective on a problematic "war of choice" —the nation's first, but one with intriguing implications for others, including at least one in the present century.</P><P>Although the War of 1812 may have faded from modern memory, the conflict left important legacies, both in its immediate wake and in later years. In its own time, the war was transformative. To this day, however, some of the fundamental challenges that confronted U.S. policymakers two centuries ago still resonate. How much should a free society regularly invest in national defense? Should the expense be defrayed through new taxes? Is it possible for profound partisan disagreements to stop "at the water's edge"? What are the constitutional limits of executive powers in wartime? How, exactly, should the government treat dissenters, especially when many are suspected of giving aid and comfort to an enemy? As Americans continue to reflect on their country and its role in the world, these questions remain as relevant now as they were then.</P>

Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era
Darrell M. West
Brookings Institution Press, 2019.
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Why are Americans so angry with each other?

The United States is caught in a partisan hyperconflict that divides politicians, communities—and even families. Politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly-held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno. This polarization has become so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective.

Drawing on his personal story of growing up as a fundamentalist Christian on a dairy farm in rural Ohio, then as an academic in the heart of the liberal East Coast establishment, Darrell West analyzes the economic, cultural, and political aspects of polarization. He takes advantage of his experiences inside both conservative and liberal camps to explain the views of each side and offer insights into why each is angry with the other.

West argues that societal tensions have metastasized into a dangerous tribalism that seriously threatens U.S. democracy. Unless people can bridge these divisions and forge a new path forward, it will be impossible to work together, maintain a functioning democracy, and solve the country's pressing policy problems.

Race, Place, and Memory: Deep Currents in Wilmington, North Carolina
Margaret M. Mulrooney
University Press of Florida, 2018.
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"An immensely welcome longitudinal study of the intersection of race, place, and historical memory in Wilmington, North Carolina. Richly researched, beautifully written, and deeply analytical, Mulrooney’s study is a tour de force."--John David Smith, editor of Interpreting American History: Reconstruction "With clear and compelling prose, Mulrooney dives beneath the seemingly calm waters of a ‘progressive city’ to find evidence that racialized violence and memory-making were foundational to southern settlement and development rather than a mere aberration."--Derek H. Alderman, coauthor of Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory

A revealing work of public history that shows how communities remember their pasts in different ways to fit specific narratives, Race, Place, and Memory charts the ebb and flow of racial tension in Wilmington, North Carolina, from the 1730s to the present day.

Margaret Mulrooney argues that while the port city has long celebrated its white colonial revolutionary origins, it has ignored the revolutionary acts of its African American citizens who also demanded freedom--first from slavery and later from Jim Crow discrimination. Lingering beneath the surface of daily life, she shows, are collective memories of violence and alienation that were exacerbated by the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and racial conflicts that occurred in the city throughout the twentieth century. Critically evaluating the riot's centennial commemoration, which she helped organize, Mulrooney makes a case for public history projects that recognize the history-making authority of all community members and prompt us to reconsider the memories we inherit.

Extremism in America
George Michael
University Press of Florida, 2013.
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The American Republic was born in revolt against the British crown, and ever since, political extremism has had a long tradition in the United States. To some observers, the continued presence of extremist groups--and the escalation of their activities--portends the fragmentation of the country, while others believe such is the way American pluralism works. The word extremism often carries negative connotations, yet in 1964 Barry Goldwater famously said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

Extremism in America is a sweeping overview and assessment of the various brands of bigotry, prejudice, zealotry, dogmatism, and partisanship found in the United States, including the extreme right, the antiglobalization movement, Black Nationalism, Chicano separatism, militant Islam, Jewish extremism, eco-extremism, the radical antiabortion movement, and extremist terrorism. Many of these forms of single-minded intolerance are repressed by both the state and society at large, but others receive significant support from their constituencies and enjoy a level of respectability in some quarters of the mainstream. The essays in this volume, written by area specialists, examine the relationship between these movements and the larger society, dissect the arguments of contemporary American anarchist activists, look at recent trends in political extremism, and suggest how and why such arguments resonate with a considerable number of people.

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Global white nationalism: From apartheid to Trump
Daniel Geary, Camilla Schofield, Jennifer Sutton
Manchester University Press, 2020.
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This book offers the first transnational history of white nationalism in Britain, the US and the formerly British colonies of Rhodesia, South Africa and Australia from the post-World War II period to the present. It situates contemporary white nationalism in the ‘Anglosphere’ within the context of major global events since 1945. White nationalism, it argues, became more global in reaction to the forces of decolonisation, civil rights, mass migration and the rise of international institutions. In this period, assumptions of white supremacy that had been widely held by whites throughout the world were challenged and reformulated, as western elites professed a commitment to colour-blind ideals. The decline in legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced international alliances among white supremacists and new claims of populist legitimation.

ISSUES

World Policy Journal
Volume 34, Number 1, Spring 2017
Duke University Press
Tikkun
Volume 32, Number 3, Summer 2017
Duke University Press
TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies
Number 41, Fall 2020
University of Toronto Press
Canadian Review of American Studies
Special Issue: Ceasefire or New Battle? The Politics of Culture Wars in Obama’s Time A Special Issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies
Guest Editor: Frédérick Gagnon
Volume 42, Number 3, 2012, supplement
University of Toronto Press
Canadian Review of American Studies
Special Issue: Special Issue on Fantasies of Nation: Canada-US Relations in the Era of Trump / Numéro spécial sur la nation fantasmée : les relations entre le Canada et les États-Unis à l’ère de Trump
Guest Editor / Rédactrice invitée : Jennifer Andrews
Volume 48, Supplement 1, 2018, supplement
University of Toronto Press
QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking
Volume 4, Number 2, Summer 2017
Michigan State University Press
Soundings: A journal of politics and culture
Special Issue: Beginning to see the light?
Issue 66, Summer 2017, supplement
Lawrence & Wishart

ARTICLES

“Trump”—What Does the Name Signify? or, Protofascism and the Alt-Right: Three Contradictions of the Present Conjuncture
Matthew Flisfeder
Cultural Politics Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2018: 1 - 19.
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Abstract:

This article examines the rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump’s successful campaign for president of the United States in the context of three overlapping contradictions: that of subversion in postmodern culture and politics, that between the democratic and commercial logics of the media, and that of the failure of the Left in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The article looks at the rise of “Trumpism” and the new brand of white nationalist and misogynistic culture of the so-called alt-right in its historical context to show how it is consistent with but also distinguished from previous right-wing ideologies. More generally, the three contradictions presented here are proposed as explanations for understanding the mainstreaming of the alt-right in contemporary politics and culture.

Trump, the Working Class, and Fascist Rhetoric
William E. Connolly
Theory & Event Volume 20, Number 1, January 2017 Supplement: 23 - 37.
Incels, Compulsory Sexuality, and Fascist Masculinity
Casey Ryan Kelly, Chase Aunspach
Feminist Formations Volume 32, Issue 3, Winter 2020: 145 - 172.
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Abstract:

Incel, the now-widely circulated portmanteau for involuntary celibacy, denotes a growing community of mostly cisgender men who are unable to find sexual partners or forge romantic relationships. Organizing in online networks, these men blame their exile from sexual relations on everything from feminism and sexual liberation to genetics and natural laws of attraction. In this essay, we offer an asexual critique of compulsory sexuality in online incel communities to illustrate how the sexual imperatives that animate fascism and the politics of the alt-right rest on myths of an insatiable male sex drive. We argue that incel discourse repurposes liberal conceptions of sexual liberation as well as alternative theories of intimacy crafted by queer and asexual communities to advance an abject and fascist form of masculinity. Rather than understand incels as sexually repressed and unable to assimilate hegemonic masculinity, we theorize incel discourse as a white militant extension of compulsory sexuality that transforms alternative intimacies into violent masculinist fantasies of invulnerability and the sexual will-to-power. Content warning: this essay examines potentially traumatizing discourses concerning sexual assault, racial violence, and discriminatory beliefs. Please read with caution.

"Deplorable" Satire: Alt-Right Memes, White Genocide Tweets, and Redpilling Normies
Viveca S. Greene
Studies in American Humor Volume 5, Number 1, 2019: 31 - 69.
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ABSTRACT:

In the past decade, people associated with what is known as the alt-right have employed a strategy similar to that of progressive, antiracist satirists to advance a decidedly white supremacist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, and deadly serious agenda. As this article documents, the alt-right weaponizes irony to attract and radicalize potential supporters, challenge progressive ideologies and institutions, redpill normies, and create a toxic counterpublic. Discussing examples of satiric irony generated by the extreme right alongside those produced by the (often mainstream) left, this article pairs two satirical memes, two activists' use of irony, two ambiguously satirical tweets, and two recent controversies pertaining to racism and satire so as to illustrate how people with very different political commitments employ a similar style with potent effects. Of particular significance are reverse racism discourses, including "white genocide," and the increasingly complicated relationship between intentions, extremism, and satire.

Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus (review)
Deborah Stevenson
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Volume 70, Number 10, June 2017: 462 - 463.
Trump and the F-Word
Michael Kazin
Dissent Volume 64, Number 2, Spring 2017: 6 - 8.
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It is tempting to call our new president a fascist. Yet nailing the F-word to Trump is a temptation we should resist. While thoroughly abhorrent, he does not live down to the standard of tyranny set by erstwhile dictators in Germany or Italy, or their latter-day disciples in other parts of the world. What’s more important, a fixation on Trump’s authoritarian personality obscures the real menace that he, with support from nearly every Republican officeholder, represents. We have to keep building a movement of resistance. Our main target must be Trump’s awful policies, not the despicable performer who boasts about his greatness, while his reactionary party is busy trying to make America meaner and less equal again.

The Trump Era: hope in a time of escalating despair
Cornel West
Transition Issue 122, 2017: 22 - 41.
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The inimitable Cornel West preaches radical piety, and fortitude that may bend but not break, to the “warriors” fighting an oppressive Trump agenda.

The resistance & The Stubborn But Unsurprising Persistence of Hate and Extremism in the United States
Jeannine Bell
Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies Volume 26, Issue 1, 2019: 305 - 315.
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ABSTRACT:

Though the far right has a long history in the United States, the presidential campaign and then election of Donald Trump brought the movement out of the shadows. This article will analyze the rise in White supremacist activity in the United States—from well-publicized mass actions like the White supremacist march in Charlottesville in August 2017 to individual acts of violence happening since November 2016. This article focuses on contextualizing such incidents within this contemporary period and argues that overt expressions of racism and racist violence are nothing new. The article closes with a call to strengthen the current legal remedies used to address bias-motivated violence.

The eight-year period between 2008 and 2016 has been a fascinating time for assessments of the state of race relations in America. After the election of Barack Obama, America's first Black president, commentators described the country as "post-racial." In a dramatic turn of events for a country that had transcended race just eight years later in 2016, Donald Trump's election as president was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of documented race-based hate crimes—crime motivated by bias on the basis of the target race.

The increase in reported hate crimes continued well into the Trump Administration's first year. What was most compelling about the new hate activity was the rise of a new, open presence of extremists—those ideologically committed to White supremacy. For decades, racial extremists—members of organized hate groups and others ideologically attached to the tenants of White supremacy—had lived in the shadows. After Trump's election, racial extremists stepped into the light.

This article grapples with the rise of racial extremist behavior—both by ideologues who are part of hate groups and those who commit hate crimes seemingly randomly—in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In this article, I explore the roots of bias-motivated activity that many found surprising in the election. I demonstrate how bias-motivated behavior has been part and parcel of recent American history. The article addresses not only the origins of such activity but also resistance to it and the capacity of American institutions created to address bias-motivated behavior. In the end, I argue that to effectively address extremist behavior, we must examine the seriousness of our societal commitment to racial separation.

Trump's Unwitting Prophecy
Robert L. Ivie
Rhetoric & Public Affairs Volume 20, Number 4, Winter 2017: 707 - 717.
The Great-Granddaddy of White Nationalism
Diane Roberts
Southern Cultures Volume 25, Number 3, Fall 2019: 133 - 155.
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Abstract:

This article examines the influence of the North Carolina novelist and filmmaker Thomas Dixon Jr. on twenty-first-century white nationalism and the discourse of white identity as employed by the current political Right. Dixon, an heir of Sir Walter Scott, whose romances gave white southerners a vocabulary for romanticizing their defeat in the Civil War, helped create a rhetoric of racism which survives to this day in various Fox News commentators, neo-Confederates, and others worried about non-whites “invading” America. Dixon’s depiction of Reconstruction as an attack on Anglo-Saxon hegemony inspired D. W. Griffiths to make his seminal film The Birth of a Nation, and was instrumental in the reboot of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the far-flung reaches of the white Internet, and followers such as Dylann Roof, killer of nine congregants at a Charleston church, demonstrate that, a century on, Dixon’s voice is still powerful.

This is not an essay about Trump
Lawrence Grossberg
Soundings: A journal of politics and culture Issue 73, Winter 2019-20: 38 - 53.
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Abstract:

This essay rejects efforts to understand the political field in the US as a war between two easily identified camps. It begins to think about the rise of the reactionary right (and Trump's place in it) by considering some of the stakes in play and strategies at work. Drawing on Gramsci's notion of organic crises, it considers how such crises are being constructed, deployed and contested. It argues for the need to understand the ways in which the reactionary right has 'weaponised' and affectively managed the chaos of the overwhelming heterogeneity of the fields of political struggles.