Comments on “Whither America” by Floris D’Aalst

Floris D’Aalst’s essay “Whither America? Class and Politics in the Era of American Decline” covers a lot of ground. I appreciate that his overview of the unfolding crisis of us capitalism highlights the role of right-wing political and cultural forces, and that he surveys not only how these forces have developed, but also how this development has been bound up with changes in the structure of us capitalism. I’m not going to offer a comprehensive response to his paper as a whole, but will concentrate my comments on certain issues related to the us political right.

D’Aalst traces the development of “a neo-Right, neo-fascist oppositional culture” in the United States. He is certainly correct that right-wing political forces have greatly increased in size and influence since the mid 1970s. But D’Aalst drastically exaggerates the unity of these forces, glossing over major divergences and conflicts between them, and thereby distorting and oversimplifying the political situation. He compounds this problem with a misguided discussion of race that ignores the systemic nature of racial oppression, and a seriously disturbing foray into 9/11 conspiracism.

In D’Aalst’s account, what he calls the neo-Right encompasses “a hierarchy of institutions” ranging from corporate donors, wealthy individuals, and private foundations at the top, through think tanks, evangelical churches, and “ ‘respectable’ groups operating on the terrain of formal bourgeois politics,” down to “nativists, fascists and neo-Nazis on the ground.” With the exception of evangelical ministries (which he acknowledges “function quite autonomously”), D’Aalst argues that all of these forces operate in concert: “Organizations and generations of leadership interlock; strategies are often jointly planned; and the same politically authoritarian, militaristic and nationalist, patriarchal and unfettered capitalist vision animates their views of American society.” D’Aalst describes the neo-Right bloc variously as either just neo-fascist or as tending increasingly toward neo-fascism.

I think it’s a mistake both analytically and strategically to treat fascism as simply a wing or incremental endpoint of a broad rightist coalition, and better to reserve the term fascism for political forces that advocate a radical break with the existing political system.1 But even if we set that aside, there’s no hint in D’Aalst’s account of the fierce disagreements that have riven the us right for decades, regarding such major issues as the politics of race, wars, trade, immigration, and the role of the state. The New Right coalition that elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980 never included the neonazi movement (much of which the Reagan administration actively suppressed) and the coalition itself largely broke apart with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unity that anticommunism had provided. The late 1980s and the 1990s, for example, saw sharp clashes between neoconservatives and self-described paleo-conservatives, who opposed mass immigration, free trade, and most us military interventionism abroad. Paleo-con Pat Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns in the Republican presidential primaries attracted significant support, and his attacks on “globalism” resonated with the Patriot movement’s first upsurge during the same period.2 Many paleo-conservative themes have reappeared in the “America First” politics of Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign attracted enthusiastic support from alt-right white nationalists not only because of his racism and nativism, but also because he ridiculed and vilified establishment conservatives.3

I have argued elsewhere that since the 1990s, the us far right has supported some elements of neoliberalism but has also developed largely in reaction against it:

For example, Christian Reconstructionists have generally applauded the privatization of public services, while Patriot activists have called for rolling back environmental regulations and have embraced the ethos of individual property rights as a cornerstone of freedom, just as neonazis and other racists have endorsed the rollback of social programs identified with people of color. [On the other hand,] non-European immigration and multinational free trade agreements are cornerstones of the neoliberal system and prime targets of far right rage. Far rightists have also denounced the us economy’s trend toward runaway financial speculation (an organic consequence of the deregulatory policies of the past three decades), persistent military interventionism overseas, and even—when it targets white people—militarization of the police. This ambivalence about neoliberalism, as much as anything else, expresses the far right’s contradictory relationship with established systems of power.4

Similarly, in claiming that Donald Trump “provides leadership” to the neo-Right, D’Aalst obscures Trump’s own conflicted relationship with neoliberalism. Much as the Nixon administration in the early 1970s included both defenders and enemies of the weakening New Deal system, Trump put together an administration by jamming together neoliberals and America Firsters. His team has furthered the neoliberal agenda by pushing to dismantle industrial and environmental regulations, open up public lands to greater exploitation by business, and make the tax system even more regressive than it was before. But on immigration, trade, and foreign and military policy, Trump has repeatedly, if somewhat erratically, challenged and undermined neoliberal positions.5 Yet D’Aalst glosses over the conflict between neoliberals and America Firsters, claiming for example that the Koch brothers support Trump’s protectionist and anti-immigrant politics when the opposite is true.6

D’Aalst’s paper also includes a very problematic discussion of race. Although this is separate from the section on the neo-Right, I want to address it here because race is central to rightist politics in the United States. D’Aalst describes race as an “imaginary social relation” that is shaped by “institutions” but is essentially a form of false consciousness without material foundations. He argues that since the 1970s policymakers have successfully used public schools and popular culture to instill “de-racialized sensitivities” in many millennials. For these young people, he argues, “the issues of ‘white,’ ‘race’ and ‘color’ simply do not weigh heavily.” The implication, although not clearly stated, seems to be that those with “de-racialized sensitivities” can operate outside of racial categories altogether.

The element of this that I agree with is that over the past half century color-blindness (“not seeing color”) has largely replaced explicit racial bigotry in the consciousness of many white Americans. But as Lorraine Hansberry commented in her anti-colonial play Les Blancs, “it is pointless to pretend that [race] doesn’t exist—merely because it is a lie.” 7 Nowhere does D’Aalst acknowledge that racial oppression is a systemic reality in us society, deeply rooted in a whole network of institutions, practices, and social relations. In this context, color-blindness functions as an ideology that masks, and thereby protects, the continuing reality of racial oppression. And color-blindness isn’t limited to millennials or left-leaning people. Many sections of the us far right have embraced it as well, including Patriot groups such as Oath Keepers, most Christian rightists, and even the Lyndon LaRouche fascist cult network.8 This is crucial for understanding how rightist politics continues to evolve and adapt.

D’Aalst himself seems to back away from his own conclusion about “de-racialization,” as indicated by the extraordinary ambivalence in the following passage:

“Whiteness” cannot and will not be abandoned by those who are its bearers. Its impact, however, will lessen (not societally, but as an internal relation of the working class with itself) over time, but not as dramatically as we might wish, but lessen nonetheless; that is as large numbers of self-consciously “white” workers will “age up” and no longer be significant for the class relation. Perhaps not, but an eminently defensive sound position, and a rational hope.

The last issue I want to address is D’Aalst’s discussion of the 9/11 attacks. D’Aalst asserts, without providing any documentation or evidence, that al-Qaeda hijackers could not have carried out the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or even the plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and that these attacks not only may have but must have been carried out by “a rogue network of operatives housed inside the intelligence agencies, the military command structure and the Executive-based permanent bureaucracies.” He declares further that “belief in the official version of the events of 911 [sic] September 2001…is the myth of our time binding the working class to ‘its’ ‘nation’ [and] no revolutionary transformation is possible without breaking the back of this (among other) myth(s).”

I strongly disagree with all of these claims. I won’t rehash the many arguments that have been advanced to refute the “inside job” theory of 9/11, except one: the sheer implausibility that all of the supposed conspirators—not only the spies and soldiers and bureaucrats who supposedly engineered the attacks but everyone involved in all of the official investigations—have kept utterly silent about their roles for seventeen years.9 D’Aalst himself acknowledges that revolutionary communists have “good reason” not to engage with the so-called 9/11 truth movement: namely, the likelihood they will encounter “arguments whether the Queen of England [or] the Vatican in pursuit of Satanic rituals control[s] the world of great capitalist finance.” Another factor that D’Aalst doesn’t mention is that 9/11 “truth” has become a major tool for right-wing antisemites such as Kevin Barrett and Christopher Bollyn to repackage their ideology for left-leaning audiences.10 In this context, the burden of proof is on D’Aalst to explain why his version of 9/11 conspiracy theories is any different or any better. But he doesn’t back up his claims in any way. Not only does this undermine his argument on this point, it calls into question his overall judgment and credibility.

  1. Matthew N. Lyons, “Two Ways of Looking at Fascism,” Socialism and Democracy 47 (vol. 22, no. 2; July 2008): 121–156; Don Hamerquist, “New Stuff From an Old Guy—Part 2,” Three Way Fight (blog), 28 October 2018.

  2. On the Reagan administration’s anti-nazi crackdown, see Leonard Zeskind, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009), 145–147; on the fracturing of the New Right coalition, see Matthew N. Lyons, “Business Conflict and Right-Wing movements,” in Unraveling the Right: The New Conservatism in American Thought and Politics, edited by Amy E. Ansell (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 93–97.

  3. Matthew N. Lyons, “Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right,” Political Research Associates, 20 January 2017.

  4. Matthew N. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists: The us Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire (Oakland, CA: PM Press and Montreal: Kersplebedeb Publishing, 2018), xv.

  5. Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists, 200–205; see also Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen, “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election,” Working Paper No. 66, January 2018, Institute for New Economic Thinking. Ferguson et al. argue (p. 48) that the coalition of business interests backing Trump’s administration is “extremely unstable” and is “made up of several layers of investor blocs with little in common other than their intense dislike of existing forms of American government.”

  6. John Verhovek, “Koch network takes aim at ‘protectionism,’ slams Trump administration as ‘divisive,’ABC News, 29 July 2018; Maggie Severns, “Koch network raps Trump, won’t support House immigration bills,” Politico, 19 June 2018.

  7. Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 92.

  8. Matthew N. Lyons, “Ammon Bundy, the refugee caravan, and Patriot movement race politics,” Three Way Fight, 20 December 2018; Lyons, Insurgent Supremacists, 87.

  9. On the “9/11 Truth movement,” see Dave Thomas, “The 9/11 Truth Movement: The Top Conspiracy Theory, a Decade Later,” Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2011; Jeremy Stahl, “The Theory vs. the Facts: 9/11 conspiracy theorists responded to refutations by alleging more cover-ups,” Slate, 7 September 2011.

  10. Cloee Cooper, “Kevin Barrett: Repackaging Antisemitism,” Political Research Associates, 23 October 2017; Jacob Siegel, “Jew-Hater Christopher Bollyn Brings 9/11 False Flag Act to the Brooklyn Commons,” The Daily Beast, 10 September 2016.

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