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Mark Rupert on the Campbell Conversations

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On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Mark Rupert, an Emeritus Political Science Professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship, about the rise of far-right groups and their general role in the nation.

Program transcript, plus post-interview comment and reading list from Mark Rupert:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. The House January 6th Committee hearings have showcased the involvement of far-right political groups and the invasion of the U.S. Capitol Building. Those hearings left me wondering about those group's presence and role in our nation more generally. My guest today has been researching and writing about the far right in recent years. Mark Rupert is an Emeritus Political Science Professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship. Professor Rupert, welcome to the program.

Mark Rupert: Thank you for having me, Professor Reeher.

GR: Well, I'm delighted that you can make the time. So before we get into the substance of this topic, tell me briefly how and why you got interested in this enough in order to research into it and want to write about it.

MR: I started out my career as a scholar of international political economy, and I was especially interested in globalization. And in the mid-1990s, I was in the process of writing a book about debates in the U.S. surrounding NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and processes of economic globalization. And I was talking to people who were opposed to those things and they tended to be trade union activists, progressives of various kinds who were concerned that those agreements would enhance the power of multinational corporations relative to democratic self-determination in the US and elsewhere. But I began to notice that there were other people, not the usual suspects, who were coming to these meetings and speaking out and expressing views that seemed to me more conservative. People who were influenced, for example, by Pat Buchanan and that strand of conservatism. And even at some points, I attended a rally at the federal building in downtown Syracuse, I think 1994. And there were neo-Nazis in the crowd who were walking around handing out cassette tapes of William Pierce, who was the leading neo-Nazi in the country at the time. William Pierce was claiming that NAFTA was a disaster for white American workers and would result in, you know, a mongrelization of the white race in America and a reduction of America to the status of a third world country and so forth. So at that point, I realized if I was going to be serious about these globalization debates, I was going to have to take account of these folks. And so I began to research it, and I talked to officials from the John Birch Society, which at the time was the leading propagator of conspiracy theory ideology in the US and I read a lot of their materials. So I began to be really interested in this starting in the nineties and it played an important part in the book that I published in 2000 about ideologies of globalization. And since then, I've been kind of following and writing about it on and off. And it's, I guess, unfortunately become increasingly important for everybody else to know something about these people as well.

GR: Well, that's the part I want to get into in depth here. So let me start with this question, kind of laying the groundwork. What's the difference, if you could really crystallize this? What's the difference between the right and the far-right or the extremist right? What marks the boundary line there?

MR: I'm not sure there's a sort of discrete, definitive, clear red line that differentiates them. But the way I think about it is like this. When I think about the right, I think about modern conservatives. I think about the modern conservative movement that emerged around the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the writings of William Buckley and the kind of conservatism that those guys espoused combined to really crucial values of freedom and virtue. And it's often referred to as fusionist conservatism because it combined those elements. So it appealed to and provided common ground for convergence. On the one hand of libertarian and free market conservatives who emphasized individual freedom of choice, especially in a market context, and on the other hand, social or religious conservatives who emphasize traditional social values and moral codes oftentimes grounded in faith traditions. And so when I think about the right, I think about the convergence of those tendencies in the modern conservative movement. And I think about that as being, you know, an intellectually respectable perspective with deep philosophical roots that's worthy of debate. The far right, on the other hand, is not one thing. It's kind of a bunch of things that overlap to one degree or another. Sometimes a lot, sometimes not much. And at the core of it is what I would think of as a right wing populist view. And that right wing populist view features a story of politics in which the birthright of American exceptionalism, that all real Americans ought to be entitled to, that birthright is under an existential threat from alien or un-American or anti-American forces that are seeking dominance within the country. And so, in other words, to put that in a nutshell, someone is taking their country away from real Americans. That's the core narrative of a right wing populist view. That overlaps with several other categories of the far-right and provides a kind of common ground for those folks to come together. That would include conspiracists, it would include Christian nationalists. It would include white supremacists and white nationalists and insurrectionists. And so all of those sort of sectors of the far-right overlap, to some extent, the borders between them are not kind of hard borders. Groups can migrate from one sector to another or individuals can migrate from one sector to another. When I think about the far-right, I find it useful to use the metaphor of a cloud where, you know, you look in the sky, you see a formation of water vapor. Maybe you see a particular shape there that appeals to you and you look back 10 minutes later and the water vapor is still there, but it looks very different, it's now assumed a different kind of shape. So the far-right is this constellation of political tendencies that are in constant movement and sort of morphing. So that's how I would describe the far-right and distinguish it from a run of the mill, you know, ordinary conservatives.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with Syracuse University political science professor Mark Rupert. And we're discussing the far right in America. So let me ask you on that point, I think most of us, when the far-right is thrown around the distinguishing characteristic that we carry is, and maybe this is in part because of January sixth now, but we'll get into that a little bit later, is violence, is the is the willingness to engage in violence? Is that something that unites all of them or are some of them nonviolent?

MR: I think there is a sort of inbuilt tendency within the core narrative of the far-right, an inbuilt tendency toward insurrectionism, which is to say if, you know, if you believe in your very core, in your political identity is you believe yourself to be a real American who has been disinherited from your birthright by people who have taken over your government, who are dominating your culture, who are turning your country against you. Then the punchline of that narrative is you have to figure out who those people are and politically neutralize them in some way. And if you believe they're in charge of the government, then it's a very short step from that to a kind of insurrectionist ideology. Now, having said that, not all of these people embrace violence as the sort of form in which their, you know, insurrectionism is expressed. Some people especially, I think you know, will want to change the institutions, our political institutions so that real Americans have more of a voice and the people they consider not real Americans are to one degree or another disenfranchised or discriminated against. Their votes are made more difficult to you know, it's more difficult for them to vote. The votes can be, you know, manipulated in some ways by state election officials, you know, things like that. So, in other words, there's one tendency that says we can work within the political system to fix it so that real Americans have their voices registered and people who are a threat to real Americans are less likely to, you know, illegitimately in the view of these folks capture the system. And then there are other people who believe, you know, we're too far gone for that and violence is a necessary and important part of recapturing America for real Americans.

GR: And how about the ethnic component of this? I think a lot of folks also tend to assume that there is a certain kind of ethnic identity that's shared on the far-right. Is it more varied than that?

MR: Yes. There are a cluster of identities that research has identified as sort of clustering around this shared narrative of right wing populism and real Americans being disenfranchised and so forth, especially white evangelicals. I should say, not all of them, of course. There are a number of white evangelicals who are serious about their faith, who attend church regularly, who do good works, who reject the core ideology of a Christian nationalism that has a sort of racial undertone to it. But there are quite a number of them who embrace that. And I can I can give you some figures here.

GR: Sure. Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that the more generally, too, if you can and and if you could do this relatively briefly, but just the general prevalence of those that you would consider far-right. I mean, what are the numbers that we're talking about? Well, go ahead and cite your numbers as well.

MR: Yeah. I don't know if there's a way to give an overall figure of the far-right. But I would say, you know, if we're talking about different segments of the far-right and we can get a better sense. So, for example, if we talk about conspiracists or people who believe that, fundamentally, politics is about a group of evil doers who are bent on the destruction of Western civilization or the American republic or Christianity in America, those kinds of conspiracies, narratives, a 2022 study by Oshinsky and his coauthors said about 44% of Americans believe in the Deep State conspiracy, which is to say that there are, you know, bureaucrats, unaccountable bureaucrats within the federal government who are willing to exercise their power to disenfranchise or discriminate against real Americans. That same study said about 34% of respondents believe in an elite sex trafficking ring. So that's basically the QAnon conspiracy there. Another survey from 2021 said about 16% of Americans and roughly 26% of Republicans are QAnon believers or in other words can be categorized their way based on their response to a battery of questions that reflect QAnon type beliefs. If we're talking about Christian nationalism, a 2021 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found about 43% of Americans believe being Christian is important to being truly American. That number rises to 63% when you're looking at Republicans and it rises to 76% when you're looking at white evangelicals. A study by the sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, who published a book called, “Taking America Back for God”, said about 20% of Americans are hardcore believers in Christian nationalism, and another 32% are sympathizers, fellow travelers. You add those together, you've got over 52% of the population.

GR: Yeah, I want to come back to that on the other side of the break. But you've brought up some very provocative numbers there. You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Mark Rupert. He's an Emeritus Political Science Professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. And we've been discussing the presence and the danger of the far-right in the United States. So those were very provocative, and I think for a lot of people, disturbing numbers that you gave before the break. And certainly it can't be the case, and I don't think you are arguing the case that, that more than half of America is in this extremist right. Maybe you are, I don't know. But that would seem hard for me to believe. I want to put my political science professor hat on for a minute and say I'm a little suspicious of what those numbers are telling us in that, I think there's a tendency sometimes for respondents to kind of try to think about what the surveyors really asking them. And given the polarizing effect of Donald Trump, and in recent years, they might be saying, look, you know, I don't really believe the QAnon stuff, but what they're trying to get at is whether I'm a Trump supporter so I'm going to say yes. I may be oversimplifying it a bit.

MR: I think you are and the studies sort that out. They have ways of doing that statistically. And so you know, they're focusing in on people who are QAnon supporters and, you know, I think that's a reasonable procedure. And let me say about the Trump administration, I think that's an important point that you made. And the fact I'm not saying that 52% of Americans belong to the far-right. What I am saying is that under the Trump administration, there has been a considerable sort of mainstreaming of far-right beliefs of one kind or another. And so we can talk about hardcore far-right insurrectionists being, you know, somewhere around maybe a quarter of the public, and then people who sympathize to one degree or another with some of the beliefs that are held by those folks, and who were brought together under the Trump administration in what they perceived to be a common cause, then you've got a quite substantial chunk of the American public. And that, I think, is the real danger that we're facing now is the legacy of the Trump administration in mainstreaming a lot of far-right narratives.

GR: So I have to come back on this. Did I hear you correctly, and you said that you think that one quarter of the American public are insurrectionists?

MR: Yeah, there's a ton of studies that indicate…

GR: So one quarter of us in this country are willing to take up arms against the American government if we're given the right message to do so.

MR: Yeah, especially well, you know, a quarter - I'd have to go through the numbers, right, to get the exact number. But it's very substantial. 30% of Republicans believe that things have gotten so far off track that true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country. So that's a third of Republicans. That rises to 40% of Republicans among people who get most of their news from right wing sources, Fox News, One America, etc. White Evangelical Protestants are the religious group who’d most likely agree that American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country, it's about 26% of them. Among those who believe that God granted America a special role in human history, 27% agree that violence may be necessary. Among those who think the election was stolen from Trump, 39% agree that violence may be necessary to save the country.

GR: So let me interrupt you there, because it sounds like you got tons of figures to throw at me, I have to come back on this and then I'm going to move on. But you know, I get around. I mean, I live in my little enclave where I live I'm sure but nonetheless, I do travel around the country and I just, I do not have a sense of this. I have to say. I mean, this is I'm this is hard for me to believe. I mean, that the prevalence is that great. So is there a way that you can try to convince me that this is the case?

MR: OK, Grant, let me put it to you this way. Before January 6th, would you have believed that an insurrection storming the capital to contest a legitimate election was, you know, was conceivable? Right? I mean, I think what that showed us is that these ideologies and these political tendencies are way more widespread than we would have imagined previously, and have been mainstreamed under the Trump administration to a degree that we could not have imagined previously.

GR: Let me ask you a question about that then, because you've anticipated a question about January 6th I wanted to put to you, and I think it will allow you to develop a point there. I wanted to ask you this hypothetical: let's imagine if we can, that for whatever reason, the far-right groups that we heard about in the committee hearings, you know, the Proud Boys and the other groups that were mentioned, for whatever reason, let's imagine that they did not go to the Capitol that day, you know, they decided to sit it out. Maybe they thought that the protest wasn't pure enough or whatever. I don't know. But let's just imagine they weren't there and you just had the rest of the folks. What do you think would have happened? I really am curious to get your take on that. Would it have ended in the same way? Or were those groups really the reason why people ended up breaking in and injuring those police officers and doing what they did?

MR: Yeah, I think that's hard to answer. But the information that we do have from a University of Chicago study that looked at all the people who had been charged with offenses related to the insurrection, some 800 odd people, they found that only about 13% of those people had any detectable affiliation with the bad boys or the Three Percenters or other kinds of organized far-right groups. So, you know, the vast majority of them were rank and file MAGA supporters. So on the one hand that may indicate that the hardcore violent tendencies are quantitatively fewer than we might have thought within the insurrection. But on the other hand, they played a tactically critical role in riling up the crowd, in directing them at the police, in storming the barricades and breaking the windows and doors and storming the building. So their role was really important in terms of their tactical leadership. But in terms of numbers, it was sort of rank and file MAGA supporters. And so what that tells me again is that we're looking at a situation where there is a considerable overlap and convergence among these various political tendencies, and that's what frightens me most. It's not possible to say, well, these are all just these nutty extremists when you have the vast majority of these people being rank and file MAGA’s who are who are, you know, consumed in the moment with this insurrectionist ideology.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is Professor Mark Rupert. So what is your sense then of how some of the numbers that you cited and the prevalence of the far-right United States has changed in recent years? Have their numbers increased? Has this become more popular? You mentioned Donald Trump before, we both mentioned the former president. Do you do you have any sense of what the trend has been in the last few decades?

MR: Well, yeah. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked these things for decades, and they're especially focused on hate groups. So groups with overtly racist or anti-gay or Islamophobic kind of agenda or anti-Semitic kind of agenda. And those groups grew dramatically under the Obama administration and according to the SPLC, they peaked during the Trump administration in 2019. So there's been some decline since then. But they're still at, you know, worrisomely high levels.

GR: And so it sounds like, if I'm inferring correctly from what you said, in recent years then it was the election of Barack Obama that, in some ways, started this fire of increase and then the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump really took it to another level, is that fair to say?

MR: …opened the door, yeah. And if you think about the argument I'm trying to make about a convergence between hardcore far-right conspiracists and insurrectionists on the one hand, and you know, highly motivated GOP supporters on the other. Think about the emergence of the Tea Party as foreshadowing the MAGA movement. And the Tea Party emerged as a backlash against the Obama presidency, right? And so you know, I would say we can we can look at that and see a process of development that culminated in the MAGA movement, the sort of interpenetration of the MAGA movement with the hardcore radical right and leading into the insurrection.

GR: We've only got a couple of minutes left and I want to try to squeeze at least a couple more questions in. We haven't talked about Central New York yet specifically. So briefly, do you have any idea about the presence of, I want to limit it I guess, in this question to the more organized far-right groups rather than the survey data that you were citing before but do you have any sense of whether there is a high presence of these organized groups in Central New York, or is this a phenomenon more elsewhere in the country?

MR: Yeah, they are present in in Central New York. They're present everywhere. But I can give you some personal examples from personal experience. In, I believe it was 2014, then Mayor Stephanie Miner invited the Federal Government to house undocumented refugee children in Syracuse, and there were demonstrations opposed to that. And I went to some of those demonstrations and observed people in militia t-shirts. And the logo of the t-shirts said, “New York Revolution”. So I looked into those people and they were a Three Percenter militia group. They've since morphed and taken on a different identity which is then the New York Lightfoot Militia and those people were present in 2017 at a rally against Sharia in downtown Syracuse. And those people were also present in Charlottesville, fully armed, body armor etc.

GR: All right we've only got a few seconds left. This has been a uniquely depressing conversation, I have to say (laughter). So I wanted to ask you if you could, at the end, give me something on this topic that is hopeful for the future.

MR: Well, what I'm reading recently in the news is that some Republicans appear to be experiencing Trump fatigue. So it may be that the party base is getting ready to move away from Trump, and if it happens, that's a step in the right direction to be welcomed.

GR: All right. That was Mark Rupert. And for our listeners who would like to dig deeper into this topic, a short reading list, which we will include on the online version of this interview, which you can find at wrvo dot org. Mark, first of all, thanks for your important research into this and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

MR: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you for having me.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Professor Rupert requested that we add the following information to the survey findings he cited in the interview, regarding the prevalence of certain right-wing views in the U.S.: Actual survey figures vary. For instance, "A year after a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol, a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds that about 1 in 3 Americans say they believe violence against the government can at times be justified. The findings represent the largest share to feel that way since the question has been asked in various polls in more than two decades. …The new poll identified a sharper rise on the right — with 40 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of independents saying it can be acceptable” (Washington Post 1/1/2022). A 2022 study by UC-Davis found that over 20% believed political violence was sometimes justifiable. Also this year, a University of Chicago study found 24% of Americans (62 million people) believe Trump’s Big Lie; 10% (25 million people) believe the use of force justified to restore Trump; and 8% (21million) believe both. These figures clearly indicate that a very substantial proportion of the public, especially on the right, are willing to contemplate political violence and this is deeply worrisome for the future of our democracy. --Mark Rupert

Here's a suggested reading list provided by Mark Rupert:

1. David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017).

2. Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard, 2018).

3. John Finn, Fracturing the Founding: How the Alt-Right Corrupts the Constitution (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019).

4. Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018).

5. Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright/Norton, 2020).

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.