The Radical Right and Trans-Media Digital Narratives in the United States of America. Interview with Mark Potok

Receipt: October 25, 2021

Acceptance: February 17, 2022

Political news around the world, especially in Europe and the United States, is conditioned by a multitude of disruptive discourses that provoke great social upheaval and permanent controversy in the media. The financial crisis of 2008 led to a socio-economic crisis without recent precedent in Western countries and, at the same time, to an accelerated deterioration of quality of life standards. At the present time, these cyclical conjunctures have been aggravated by the first signs of the effects of climate change and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. This very complicated situation for the popular classes has generalized a progressive malaise, which has been seen by the retarded conservative groups and radical right-wing groups as a unique opportunity to gain electoral power and institutional representation. The escalation of hate speech has occurred in parallel with the rise in popularity of many right-wing leaders, to such an extent that the multidisciplinary frameworks of the social sciences have been filled with concepts such as "fake news", "collective fear", "disinformation", "populism", "ideological endogamy", and so on.

The structure of the research attempts to establish thematic balances on a series of key questions to understand the cultural composition and mentalities of the far-right groups, from their leaders and ideologues to the social mass of followers and sympathizers. President Trump has many emulators around the world and a large programmatic predicament. Since 2016, U.S. election campaigns have increased their media following to become a global journalistic phenomenon. The first thematic block, "The Trump Administration and Social Polarization," seeks to raise some comparative elements between the current generations of Republican politicians and historical leaders such as Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush (Jr.). The levels of social tension and the problems of coexistence are also other aspects addressed in the questions of the first section.

Historical books are often full of myths and quasi-literary devices. Since the pre-industrial era, economic and political elites have often constructed triumphalist narratives with their version of historical events. The patriotic-nationalist intellectual world, since the great theoretical breakthroughs in the 20th century xix on the ways of telling history, has deformed the narratives by ideological passions, often falling into "presentism" and empty and futile comparisons. This conservative discourse often identifies present contexts as transcendental and unique moments. Likewise, such discourses tend to establish comparative referents without much success in clarifying the historical narrative. In other words, each generation of conservatives considers that it is living in a moment of transgenerational influence and of paramount importance.

The second section of questions is entitled "The myths of the American radical right"; its different elements seek to provide a concrete vision of the process of historical idealization over time, through the prism of the American radical right. The third section, "The goals of the radical right", tries to identify which are the most outstanding agendas of this type of conservative groups, without losing the historical perspective, since the past is always presented as an aspect of political legitimization.

In the early years of the xx a collaborative alliance was forged between the most conservative sectors of society and fundamentalist Protestant groups. Conservative representatives of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party vied for the favor of religious conservatism. In the middle decades of the last century, that alliance was refocused into an openly common strategy between the Republican Party and the cultural heirs of fundamentalism. These ties became much closer during the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan and George Bush (Jr.). However, with Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 Republican primaries strategic priorities and electoral discourses formally shifted. Religious traditionalist movements continued to provide staunch support for Republican projects, while religious rhetoric declined in electoral stagings; new radical variables sprouted outside the traditional network of Protestant activists. The great conservative tele-preachers who had always contributed to the presidential victories of the Republican Party have been displaced in recent years by other types of discourses of attrition and methods of activist pressure. "The alliance between fundamentalism and conservatism" is the title of the fourth thematic block of the interview.

The history of the present, also known as "lived" or "current world" history, is often a field of confrontation and accusations of professional intrusiveness between historians and journalists. In the last decade, with the generalization of social networks and new digital platforms, political discourses and historical narratives have increased considerably, in such a way that the interpretations and methods of journalism and historiography have been called into question. To defend themselves against this radical questioning, journalistic information professionals and academic researchers of history have coalited to combat the manipulation of the past, information intoxication and hate messages. Social polarization has clear ideological motivations and is also weakening the democratic models that were considered consolidated in all Western countries. The last three sections of questions, "Journalists and historians facing hate speeches", "The global dissemination of specialized information" and "Radicalism and the instrumentalization of the past", have concomitant elements and refer to the previously mentioned issues from various communicative and historical review assumptions.

Image 1. Mark Potok. Source: Mark Potok's website.

The interview was conducted in the second half of August 2021 through the exchange of several questionnaires and texts (via email). At the beginning the interviewer and the interviewee did not know each other personally. The main motivation for the interview lies in getting to know the interpretations of Mark Potok, one of the foremost experts on current political thought and radical and violent right-wing movements in Europe and North America. His career has been characterized by great social sensitivity, a hyperactive work pace and a selfless commitment to the dissemination of his areas of expertise in all types of media.

Mark Potok is a graduate of the University of Chicago. For more than twenty years he was a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (splc) to try to expose hate groups and promote human rights and a culture of peace. Potok is a reporter and editorial commentator who, thanks to the impact of his interventions on television and radio, has become a very recognizable and influential personality. The project splc (non-governmental) has given him the opportunity to disseminate content in favor of the civil rights movement and to promote a social model that is tolerant of minorities. In his long and fruitful career as a journalist, he has collaborated with use Today and The Miami Herald.

The Trump administration and social polarization

José Abreu (ja):

From the very moment he was sworn in as president, with his unusual speech and charismatic management, Donald J. Trump caused institutional disarray and provoked protest demonstrations. Did President Trump lead a radical right-wing movement or did he instrumentalize radical groups? What level of power did the right wing of the Republican Party achieve with President Trump's electoral victories?

Mark Potok (mp):

Essentially, Trump normalized ideology and behavior that were previously off-limits to respectable mainstream discourse. This is what has been characterized as the "Trump effect." To be clear: when Trump did things like say that there were some "very good people" among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, he made it acceptable for Americans to push the ideas of white supremacists and white nationalists. I wouldn't call Trump the "leader" of the American radical right; there really is no leader. But he unleashed white nationalist forces by making people with those inclinations feel that it is perfectly acceptable to push those kinds of ideas in public. There are many studies that show how his statements made large numbers of people feel that they could say and do things in public that were previously not socially acceptable. The January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol is a good example of this. As for the Republican Party, Trump allowed a truly radical wing to emerge. The party has been very right-wing for decades, but in recent years it has become so radical that it could ultimately collapse, especially as the country's population becomes more diverse.

ja:

President Trump's electoral and institutional messages have involved a kind of selective synthesis of Republican conservatism: Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, etcetera.. Is the communication strategy of the Republican Party partly responsible for the current context of social polarization? Can the rate of increase of social conflict be explained without the impact of social networks and the new uses of the Internet?

mp:

I think the Internet and social media have helped the rise of the radical right, but I don't think they are the root causes. In short, that rise is a direct response to a major socioeconomic shift, not only in the United States but also in Europe and elsewhere. So, for example, in the United States, the changing demographics-the fact that whites will lose their majority here within the next 20 years or so-has created a major backlash among whites who feel threatened by the changes. There are also major economic and cultural changes that have contributed to this backlash. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by the Republican communication strategy. But I am sure that the rise of right-wing commentators like Lou Dobbs, Tucker Carlson and many others has contributed greatly to American political polarization. And yes, the Republican Party has also contributed greatly, both by endorsing the likes of Dobbs and Carlson, and by allowing their party to become the home of extremists, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

White supremacists rally at the University of Virginia, occurring before the march called by radical groups in Charlottesville on August 14, 2017. Source: IDENTITY IS UNSTOPPABLE, license. Attribution 3.0 No cover (CC BY 3.0).

Myths of the U.S. radical right

ja:

Historically, radical narratives have laboriously constructed a political imaginary and cultural heritage for a large part of the country's conservatives. What are the main myths disseminated in the discourses of the radical right? What types of radical discourses have gained the greatest social acceptance?

mp:

The main myth of the American far right is the idea that America is a nation created by and for white Christians. That was never true and, of course, is much less true today than in the nation's early history. From the beginning there were many other cultural and demographic influences. One very important myth that has grown up recently is the "great replacement" idea: the claim that traitorous elites and other groups are hard at work trying to replace the native white population with other people. The claim is that these elites, typically seen as "liberal" whites or Democrats, are even more destructive and, therefore, more of an enemy than, say, Jews, blacks, Latinos, Asians, immigrants, people lgbtqetc. The American radical right is also consumed by, and has been for decades, a number of conspiracy theories that push the idea that certain evil individuals or groups are acting to destroy what the United States should legitimately be.

Image 2. Trump's institutional speech at the White House on August 5, 2019. Source: The White House.

ja:

William Peirce Randel claimed that many propagandistic discourses eventually transcended their political moment thanks to the work of historians. Has the work of conservative historians contributed to socializing the belief system of the radical right? Is there a "battle of the books" today?

mp:

The late Samuel Huntington of Yale University proposed the idea of a clash of civilizations, particularly between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Although Huntington was not a white nationalist, his ideas formed the basis for future white nationalists: the idea that the nation that European immigrants built in North America is threatened by people who do not look, act, speak, believe, or worship like the rest of us. On a more local level, the work of conservative historians of the American South has contributed greatly to the idea that the South was right in the Civil War, that the South is the most American part of the country, and, not in parentheses, that blacks achieved a lot in the United States and should stop complaining. There are also many other battles from the books. The idea of the "great replacement," proposed by European radicals like Jean Raspail and Renaud Camus, is another one that has a lot of currency.

The goals of the U.S. radical right

ja:

Apparently, radical movements of a conservative nature are not homogeneous and are not coordinated with each other. What are the main objectives of radical agendas today? Is it possible that such radical agendas will succeed in exerting pressure on legislative processes in the short term?

mp:

The main goal of the extreme right is to create a white ethno-state within the United States, most likely in the Northwest, which is the whitest region of the country. Others even go further, hoping to wage a race war that will end with the annihilation of
blacks and many other minorities. The more "moderate" sectors
of the radical right, like the January 6 insurrectionists, are quite fascist, as they are very fond of the idea of an authoritarian state run by Donald Trump or someone like him. In general, the radical right dreams of turning the U.S. into a country much more like the one they imagine existed, a place where minorities, women, people lgbtq and others are essentially repressed and have very little power. In that latter regard they are making great strides, thanks to the radicalization of the Republican Party, which is now engaged in serious suppression of laws and attacks on the fundamental institutions of democracy. In terms of creating a white ethno-state or provoking a race war, no, these agendas will not gain any legislative support.

ja:

The institutional impact of the Ku Klux Klan was made possible by the cooperation of many individuals who were not part of the organization. William Peirce Randel went so far as to use the concept of "Klan spirit," to try to explain these conservative synergies. To what extent has the radical right conditioned society as a whole in the recent past? Are comparisons between the historical Ku Klux Klan and today's QAnon or Proud Boys groups reasonable?

Image 3. Rally of radical groups in Charlotteville, August 12, 2017. Source: Anthony Crtider, Generic Attribution 2.0 license (CC BY 2.0).

mp:

I think the Klan and today's multitude of formations, such as QAnon and Proud Boys, are quite different. The Klan, at least in the 1860s and 1920s, its first two eras, was largely an expression of mainstream American society: white, Protestant, and overwhelmingly male. It was supported by leading politicians and intellectuals across the country. That is much less true of contemporary groups like the QAnon believers, whose conspiracy theories are ridiculous even in the eyes of the vast majority of Republicans, and the Proud Boys, who are well known to all Americans as a gang of violent, petty street thugs.

The alliance between fundamentalism and conservatism

ja:

Since the first third of the century xxWhat are the reasons why conservative church organizations end up adopting radical political discourse? Are conservative religious organizations disoriented by the current political landscape?

mp:

Because of the reactionary doctrines that have taken root in religious organizations in many places: the idea that homosexuality is a repugnant practice that should be suppressed by society and the concept that abortion is actually the murder of children, the claim that Islam is not a religious practice but only a bloodthirsty doctrine of conquest, and so on. The fact that many people today are very critical of certain aspects of Christianity has also caused many churches and religious leaders to drift further and further to the right in a kind of defensive reaction.

Image 4. Donald Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr, president of Liberty University, and co-founder of the Moral Majority Movement, on May 13, 2017. Source: The White House.

ja:

In the second half of the xxHas the communication discourse of these churches gained a large following for conservative activism? Are the current conspiracy theories of the radical right spreading among communities outside the traditional information channels?

mp:

The religious right has been important in helping to spread the idea that traditional American civilization is under attack by a constellation of forces. It has been a key contributor to a kind of paranoia among white Christians. Parts of that right, particularly anti-abortion hardliners, also helped normalize the idea that it is just to murder enemies such as abortion providers in "defense" of the unborn. The religious right has also been a leader, and in many ways the creator, of incredibly cruel attacks against people lgbtq for the last 30 or 40 years. And yes, conspiracy theories spread very quickly in Religious Right circles in the United States, primarily through social media, certain cable TV channels, and at speeches and other face-to-face meetings.

Journalists and historians in the face of hate speeches

ja:

The work of journalism is often discussed and undervalued in current times: crisis of the traditional model, fake news, social networks, changes in information consumption habits, etc. Is progressive journalism wrong to consider that democracy is an irreversible process? Does conservative journalism undervalue the effects of socio-political phenomena triggered by fake news and hate speeches?

mp:

I don't think progressive journalism takes democracy for granted; on the contrary, many progressive American journalists right now see American democracy as very much under threat, or even in crisis. With conservative journalists, it's not so much that they underestimate the effects of fake news and hate speech, it's more that they don't really care. They are willing to say almost anything if they think it will help strengthen the far right in American politics. Most of them don't believe that the vaccine against the covid not work, but they are willing to say that such a vaccine can contribute to mass death if it helps their nefarious cause.

Image 5. Trump voters at the march to storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Source: TapTheForwardAssist, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license.

ja:

Conservative media consumers often see multiculturalism as a loss of national identity. Why is pluralistic thinking interpreted as a cause of the breakdown of the traditional value system? Why are many hate narratives and many historical interpretations of supremacism still very much alive in social sectors far from radical organizations?

mp:

Because they see identity as a destiny. That is, who you are by birth is far more important than what your ideas are. It is the basic fallacy that their dnaas opposed to your education or exposure to new ideas, is what makes you who you are.

Global dissemination of specialized information

ja:

Many communication and journalistic information theorists believe that the work of popularization is greatly favored by the current technological context. How does the digital revolution affect the traditional process of historical popularization? Why is there such a big gap between the academic world and the media specialized in topics related to the social sciences and humanities?

mp:

The basic advantage of new media for the radical right is that it bypasses traditional gatekeepers. They can write or speak directly to people without the intervention of, say, the editors of The New York Times or nbc News. Of course, the algorithms of Facebook and others, along with serious flaws in the policing of Internet content, also contribute.

Image 6. Trump holds a copy of USA Today, February 6, 2020. Source: The White House.

ja:

Life testimonies and academic synthesis are two of the main contributions of orality in audiovisual archives today. What is the value of oral sources in the documentation process of a historical research? What is the weight of academic assessments made to disseminate historical and political topics?

mp:

It seems more like a question for an academic historian, not for me.

Radicalism and the instrumentalization of the past

ja:

The extreme right (neo-fascism, neo-Nazism, xenophobic nationalism, racial supremacism) is gaining strength in many countries in Europe and America. Could conservative radicalism crystallize again in the institutions? Is the instrumentalization of the past one of the political strategies most used by hate speeches?

mp:

No, I do not believe that conservative radicalism can rebuild traditional institutions. The world is changing and institutions will have to change with it or they will ultimately fall. And yes, of course the radical right instrumentalizes history, as discussed above with respect to the American Civil War. It is a key concept. Even radical right-wingers, perhaps especially radical right-wingers, need to feel they are doing well, and a falsified version of history is critical in helping them maintain that illusion. A good example is the debate in the United States over Confederate statues and other Civil War memorials.

ja:

Nationalism in Europe became much more moderate in its discourse after the material devastation of World War II. What do you think of the strategy of some nationalist leaders who adapt historical narratives to justify and support current political agendas? Is the European Union in danger of disappearing due to the rise of nationalism and the new economic mentality that is close to protectionism?

mp:

Fascists and ultra-nationalists in Europe moderated their discourse after World War II because they were completely and utterly defeated. The concentration camps and other aspects of the Holocaust became public and shocked the conscience of much of the world. So, for example, it is key for the neo-Nazi movement to deny the Holocaust. You can't claim that such a movement stands for all that is right and good, say, if people know about the extermination of the 6 million Jews. So you are obliged to say it wasn't so, and to hell with all the historical evidence if that is going to recruit people to your cause. My opinion of those who try to rewrite history to support their extremist ideologies is that they are fucking liars. And they are very, very dangerous. It's the road that ultimately leads to genocide. In the European Union, yes, I think there is a substantial danger that it will be severely weakened by the new nationalism and protectionism. If the European Union cannot discipline, for example, Hungary, it is in trouble. Moreover, the incredible bureaucracy of the Brussels bodies poses a serious threat to its lasting power.


José Antonio Abreu Colombri. He completed his undergraduate studies in History (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) and Journalism (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos). Subsequently, he completed his graduate and doctoral studies in the American Studies program. Social and Legal Sciences (Universidad de Alcalá). Over the last few years he has written several publications on the history of social communication, evolution of mentalities and cultural studies. At the same time he has carried out research stays in several universities in Portugal and Mexico.

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EncartesVol. 5, No. 10, September 2022-February 2023, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: encartesantropologicos@ciesas.edu.mx. Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at https://encartes.mx. Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 22, 2022.
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