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book review

President Donald Trump speaks in Indianapolis on Sept. 27, 2017.Michael Conroy/The Associated Press

On Jan. 20, 2017, history was made. Not once, but twice.

The date, obviously, occasioned the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, an event marked in different quarters by disbelief, disgust and rapturous adoration. Secondly, and slightly less important, it was on the occasion of Trump's inauguration, near the corner of 14th and K Streets in Washington that Richard Spencer, a 38-year-old white supremacist and leader of the so-called "alt-right," was socked in the head, on camera, by a black-clad anti-fascist activist.

The moment – which launched a thousand remixed viral video memes, the best of which synchronized the moment of fist-meets-face impact with the triumphant chorus of Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back in Town – condensed a fundamental antagonism of Western political life into a single explosion of signs, symbols and political violence. There was the "dapper" Spencer, a man in tailored suits who dresses an abhorrent campaign for the expulsion of ethnic minorities in graduate-seminar verbiage and who effectively is the new face of American far-right extremism, being cold-cocked by someone about whom little to nothing was known.

In that electric, volatile instant, it's easy to imagine light bulbs flickering to life above the heads of acquisitions editors at publishing houses across the globe. Enter a raft of little books accounting for the rise of the alt-right in particular and the changing tides of U.S. political extremism more generally.

The first – and best – of these books, Angela Nagle's Kill All Normies, was so obviously rushed to market that its first edition misspelled Barack Obama's name on the first page. Typographical hiccups notwithstanding, Nagle offered a vital account of how the American alt-right – that motley collective of white supremacists, nativists and nationalists – was fermented online, the result of a long-brewing left-right culture war.

George Hawley's more polished Making Sense of the Alt-Right takes a similar tack. It connects the alt-right to online subcultures and catalyzing events, such as the 2014 "GamerGate" controversy, a campaign of targeted harassment that "showed that any army of anonymous activists and trolls can have a substantial and lasting impact on real-world organizations." Hawley also connects the alt-right to existent strains of white nationalism, paleoconservatism and European anti-immigrant sentiment.

A difference between the alt-right and those more old-fangled hate groups, noted by both Hawley and Nagle, is tone. "Whereas older white nationalists came across as bitter, reactionary and antisocial," Hawley writes, "much of the Alt-Right comes across as youthful, light-hearted and jovial – even as it says the most abhorrent things about racial and religious minorities."

The deployment of jokes, memes and stupid jargon is a deliberate tactic of the alt-right, intended to confuse and confound. It also defines the great paradox of the alt-right, which "may ultimately be a greater threat to mainstream politics than these earlier groups precisely because it often comes across as much less threatening," Hawley writes.

(Any lingering illusions that the alt-right was unthreatening were demolished on Aug. 12, when a Dodge Challenger driven by an alleged Hitler-sympathizing alt-right agitator smashed into a crowd of protesters marching against the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, N.C., killing one person and injuring 19.)

In Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, David Neiwert offers the most comprehensive account of the United States' renewed extremist cultures. Neiwert views the alt-right not merely as an alternative to mainstream conservatism but as part of a grander phantasmic version of America – a new, "alternate dimension, a mental space beyond fact or logic, in which the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia." It's a world where Obama and Hillary Clinton are puppets of a New World Order, where globalist elites aim to strip Americans of their Second Amendment rights and where "political correctness" has turned white men into second-class citizens.

Among the deluge of books on the subject, Alt-America excites in its ability to connect the seemingly extraordinary alt-right to the broader culture of wing-nut conservatism, drawing white nationalism, 4chan, Donald Trump, Alex Jones and Fox News together into a wonky negaverse version of political life – the All-American Upside Down. It proves exceptionally compelling not only as a metaphor but as a unifying master theory.

What these books share, beyond their subject matter and the conspicuous closeness of their publication dates, is a well-meaning, almost manic desire to account for and intervene in a real-world dystopia that seems frighteningly imminent and proximal – one that may already be here.


The question naturally follows: Where, precisely, is "here"?

There is a tendency to conceive of the West as a homogeneous whole, sharing the same political and economic systems, culture industries, movie stars and master dialect. Seismic shifts in the United States and Britain (Trump and Brexit, respectively) have splintered this taken-for-granted wholeness. Canada's doubly constituted inferiority complex, as both commonwealth subject and the United States' pigeon-chested kid brother, has mutated over the past 18 months. With our hunky, colourfully besocked Prime Minister and with The Economist hailing us as "the last liberals," Canada has gone from gawky dork to smug, burly protector of Western democracy pretty much overnight.

In Could It Happen Here?, Environics founder Michael Adams digs into this spirit of "Canadian exceptionalism." For Adams, the election of Trump and the Britain's shocking vote to leave the European Union aren't mere flukes of "xenophobic populism." Rather, they constitute a "vertiginous global reordering" unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By analyzing decades of Environics public polling and research data sets, Adams sets out to investigate just how immunized Canadians really are from "the malaise affecting other Western democracies." It takes him just 67 pages.

After indexing recent instances of violent Islamophobia (such as the massacre at a Quebec City mosque in January) and the marshalling of anti-immigrant sentiment by Canadian politicians copping Trumpist rhetoric (see former Conservative leadership boogeywoman Kellie Leitch), Adams wonders if such occurrences constitute "evidence of a real shift in social values in Canada?"

"The answer," he says, "is 'no.' " And his data prove it. Generation after generation, more Canadians embrace equality and immigration. Canadians have become increasingly tolerant, not only relative to our American neighbours but to previous Canadians. Canadians statistically prefer compromise, where Americans err toward hardline partisanship. The numbers show that "Canadians and their governments have managed, over a period of decades, to prevent or mitigate the accumulation of corrosive social forces that finally surfaced angrily in the populist politics of the Trump/Brexit era."

Plenty of Canadians will be satisfied by such conclusions. In a recent National Post opinion piece, Conrad Black played to the statistical boom in tolerance in Canada. He did so, perplexingly, by railing against people who accuse racists of racism, in a time and place in which fewer people than ever are actually racist. He writes: "The fact that there is such a consensus has driven the forces of hate to the desperate nostrum of accusing those that they hate, for reasons of envy or political disagreement, of being racists."

Beyond being hysterical, Black's argument makes zero sense. Even if it is true, as Adams's book also suggests, that Canadians are more tolerant and less racist than ever, such a shift in public opinion demands not celebration but increased vigilance. Why let up as the project nears completion? One imagines Black's instructions for baking a cake: "When the cake is almost done baking, remove it from the oven. Enjoy your mealy, soggy cake, which is just fine as it is, actually."

Or to use another favourite analogy, Karl Marx often conceived of history using the imagery of pregnancy, with one epoch birthing the next. "Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one," he writes in Capital. Hannah Arendt compressed this to "Violence is the midwife of history." If we are not prepared to accept the ethical viability of political violence, then surely we must accept Marx's less literalized usage of "force." If we cannot commit ethically to on-the-ground skirmishes against a fascistic, white-nationalistic alt-right, then we must, at the very least, commit to a forcefulness of rhetoric – a clarion call to rally against the mounting forces of racism, xenophobia and all-purpose intolerance that is shrill, strident and, yes, even ostensibly "annoying." After all, no half-decent midwife would advise the mother to stop pushing just as the baby's head is crowning.


The statistical comfort offered by Could It Happen Here? proves, ultimately, unsatisfactory. For one thing, even if it isn't happening here, it sure seems as if something is. Despite the data sets speaking to our tolerance, Canada still produces groups such as the anti-immigrant, street patrolling Soldiers of Odin. It nurtured alleged Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette. It tolerates the anti-Islamic incitements and more hollow provocations of Rebel Media.

And while prominent, homegrown right-wing provocateur and Rebel "Commander-in-Chief" Ezra Levant has the charisma of moist bread strapped into a cheap suit, plenty of Canadians have opportunistically seized on the spiked rhetoric of Trumpism. Canadians are conspicuous among the ranks of the so-called "alt-lite," media personalities who play to the anxieties and pathologies of the alt-right without declaring anything like formal membership. (See Gavin McInnes, Faith Goldy, Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern and Jordan Peterson.)

These incidents and personalities may be excused as outliers. But such things are always anomalous until the point at which they begin to multiply, increasing in frequency and severity, until anomaly after anomaly can be charted on a graph, trending dangerously upward. As Adams notes in Can It Happen Here?, "Brexit and a Trump presidency were unthinkable until they happened." It always can't happen here. Until it does.

Maybe the most troubling thing is how those oft-touted Canadian values of tolerance and equality may blind us to the realities of discrimination and intolerance at home. In her new book, Policing Black Lives, my friend Robyn Maynard analyzes the "Canadian proclivity for ignoring racial disparities." As she writes: "Many Canadians who are attuned to the growing discontent surrounding racial relations across the United States distance themselves from the realities surrounding racial disparities at home."

Our ingrained, self-reproducing belief in our own tolerance thus becomes a reflexive, self-reinforcing denial. We turn a blind eye to intolerance because it undermines the fundamental, and wholly pleasing, belief that we are tolerant. Tolerance, to paraphrase Goethe, is thus revealed to be little more than an insult. It becomes an attitude savoured by the powerful in lieu of full recognition of the minority's rights and, as Maynard's book suggests, of the very conditions of their existence. (The Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan, arguing in a similar vein, has termed tolerance "the intellectual charity of the powerful.") Such happy delusions constitute the conceptual perimeters of an Alt-Canada as phantasmic as its U.S. counterpart.

Defending against a homegrown insurgence, mounted from the alt-right or elsewhere, demands a thorough, constant critique of the basic constitution of our national character. It also demands nurturing a healthy skepticism toward bar graphs and data sets that seem to comfortably confirm those happy assumptions – and not merely because pollsters and technocrats failed so tremendously at anticipating seismic political shifts such as Trump and Brexit. But because, when it comes to calculating rates of national tolerance for immigrants, refugee claimants and ethnic and religious minorities, how can we, the so-called last liberals, settle for anything south of 100 per cent?

John Semley is a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail.

At an event promoting her new book, Hillary Clinton says she's unhappy with the era of 'alternative facts' ushered in by the Trump administration.


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