The insurrectionary violence at the US Capitol that Donald Trump instigated on Jan. 6, 2021, marked another dark page in American history. But while many saw the events of Jan. 6 as an aberration that did not represent who or what America is supposed to be, the fact of the matter is that anti-democratic conservative minorities resorting to violence to maintain power is as American as apple pie. Confronting this fact is essential for understanding how the antecedents to today’s right wing have shaped our society—and how we can fight back today.
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, published one year after the attack on the Capitol, we discuss the long road to Jan. 6, the failures of corporate media and a feckless Democratic party to address the serious threats posed by the right, and what everyday people can do to stop the rising authoritarian tide. This is the first installment of “Rise of the Right,” a new, ongoing series on The Marc Steiner Show co-hosted by Marc and Bill Fletcher Jr. that critically and fearlessly examines the roots of today’s right-wing movement—where it came from, the existential threats it poses, and how to combat it.
In this conversation, Marc and Fletcher Jr. are joined by world-renowned journalist and historian of the American right Rick Perlstein. Perlstein’s most recent book, the fourth in an award-winning series investigating the history of modern American conservatism, is Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980. Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Monday and Thursday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. A year ago, Jan. 6, America witnessed the violent takeover of the United States Capitol. Some would label it an insurrection. Now, Trump clearly enjoyed the moment and exhorted them on. Now, 71 people have gone to trial, mostly on minor charges, and the House has created a select committee to investigate how officials and some congressional representatives were complicit in supporting our takeover.
Now, those are the headlines, but what lies behind the headlines? What does that moment last Jan. 6 portend for the future? What does it mean that at least 43 million voting-age Americans who supported it also think the election was stolen? How organized is the right? What does 1877 in America and 1932 in Germany have to teach us about this moment? If this is the root, the right wing takes over our nation and society, how do we respond?
One of our guests today is Bill Fletcher Jr. who’s been a racial justice, labor, and international activist for a long time. Author of numerous books, including “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions, Solidarity Divided. And his mystery novel that I personally love, The Man Who Fell From The Sky. And Bill and I are working together on a series for you on the rise of the right and what can be done.
We’re also joined once again by Rick Perlstein, who is president of the journal in these times, author of numerous books, including Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; and Nixonland: The Rise of the President and the Fracturing Of America; The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan; and his most recent book, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980. So he’s been looking at this right-wing movement for a long while now and gentlemen, welcome. Good to have you both with us.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Good to be on board.
Rick Perlstein: Wonderful to be here.
Marc Steiner: So let’s just begin. I’m really curious about both of your perspectives on what this moment really says, how serious a moment it is that we’re facing, and what is the establishment media missing in this conversation? Bill, let me start with you and then jump to Rick.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So I think Marc what’s important about this moment is that we’re looking at a crisis of constitutional democracy. And so we’ve seen the Republican Party morph into a party for dictatorship. A party that embraced the coup attempt of Jan. 6, a party that is encouraging gangs to attack elected officials – Election officials, I should say – As well as voters. And so this is a different kind of moment. This is not a moment simply of a clash of Republicans versus Democrats. It’s not even a clash of the Newt Gingrich Republicans. We’re looking at something different.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And I think Steve Bannon and others have been very clear that they’re looking for a different form of governance, and those are their words. And so what I think is happening within the mainstream media and within much of the Democratic Party leadership is this notion that the institutions of US democracy can contain this kind of virus and that there’s nothing special that needs to be done. And I think they’re making a tremendous mistake.
Marc Steiner: Rick.
Rick Perlstein: I think that the subject of what the media is missing may be the biggest part of all this. I’ve been trying to pull together my thoughts on the totality of what we’re talking about. This hinge moment for Americans, America’s Republican form of government, small hour Republican, obviously. And I’ve been going back really to the beginning of the American project and theorizing that there’s always been this reactionary minority that believes that the country is theirs to rule.
I mean, it was the slavocracy before the civil war, it was the post Reconstruction attempt to recreate that in all but name. It’s generally been rooted in the South. But one of the most important things in the history I’ve been writing about talking about the right from the ’50s until the present is the nationalization of that Southern anti-democratic, feudalist project.
My favorite quote is the Barry Goldwater delegate from the South in 1964, Goldwater won the nomination, said we’d move the Mason Dixon line up to Canada. And the important thing to understand about this formation that’s pretty consistent across American history, basically white male patriarchy uber alles, has been that it’s perfectly willing to use the formal instruments of democracy if it can get its way using those and when it can’t it’s always adverted to violence. Whether it is the Civil War or Klan terrorism in the 1870s and moving forward or the era when they were dumping African American boys in rivers in the 1950s or Jan. 6.
And you just really see this with a special clarity now. And the issue of the media and all this is probably the most fascinating piece in all of it. In my second last previous book, The Invisible Bridge, which covered 1973 to 1976, I talk about what happened after the Vietnam War and I used the metaphor of what happened in 1877 when basically the reactionary minority did what Trump tried to do in 2020, which was basically conned their way into being able to maintain white supremacy, this dirty deal with the Republicans that gave the Republicans the presidency so long as they took the troops out of the South. And I quote The New York Times, the ancient ghosts of The New York Times now saying well all these abolitionists are talking about what’s happening in the South. And they’re saying we’re going back to what it was like before the war, but really only the tiny suspicious circles care about that stuff. This elite wish to wish away the ineluctable conflict.
And in the case of Trump and what’s happening now the metaphor people use is normalization. That if you read Politico and The New York Times and The Washington Post, they’re willing to use the word lie when it comes to Trump now, but basically they’re talking about the upcoming off-year elections as if it’s an election. And not an apocalyptic confrontation between people who believe in the formal raiments of democracy and people who believe that anyone who’s liberal or minority or isn’t part of their tribe is not a legitimate partner in governing the country and is willing to enforce that, as Bill says, through arms, through violence, and the media’s just constitutionally unprepared to think about that.
The way in which this has been a long time coming. The way in which just enormous amounts of Americans – Again, that reactionary minority – Have basically begged off of democracy. So I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve been putting it together for a possible book, and I apportioned tripartite blame. It’s the authoritarian ration of the Republican Party, the elites let it happen, the Republican elites. It’s the fecklessness of the Democratic Party. I mean, Obama the moment the Republicans were willing to grind the government to a halt in order to force their reactionary aims was when he should’ve rang the alarm bells. And that’s way back in 2011, 2012, 2013. And then the media, which systematically deranges America’s citizens’ ability to understand what’s going on. So it’s very dire stuff. And the fact that nature is not cooperating with us. My great hope was that Biden would be able to restore a little bit of the public’s trust in government as a force in their lives by getting this pandemic in hand, and the pandemic didn’t cooperate. So I’m very frightened.
Marc Steiner: So Bill, do you have anything more you want to say before I jump into these? Because there’s three areas I really want to jump into, but if you have a response or a thought from what you just heard…
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Yeah, no I agree with much of what Rick was laying out. I think that the other thing that needs to be stated here about the media is people should watch that classic film Network from 1977, because I think that movie for those that never saw it revolves around the combination of a news host who goes nuts and then starts yelling, I’m sick of this and I won’t take it anymore. And people start responding and the network decides to manipulate him and events in order to increase their network share, their media share, despite the consequences as they start pushing things. And they get tied up with this urban guerrilla group, et cetera. Now, at the time that this came out people thought it was absurd, a very good satire, but basically absurd. But when you look at the way that the media responded to Trump from 2015 on – Actually prior to that, with the birther movement – You see a similar pattern that this notion that you take advantage of a perceived nut in order to increase your media share that people will pay greater and greater attention the more extreme the situation is.
Rick Perlstein: Now, one of the things that that means is that each time the situation becomes more extreme it means that things that were done earlier – And this relates to your point about normalization Rick – Things that were done earlier that were outrageous seem less outrageous. Because each step in the move towards greater irrationalism makes other steps seem mild. And people get used to a situation where things are unraveling. And this is one of the reasons that I think it’s correct to raise criticisms of the media and to the media around this, but also ringing the bell to the broader public that this is a real problem. Now, the one thing I’ll hasten to add is that I think it’s important to remind people that what we’re experiencing is not unprecedented. And I don’t say that in order to calm people but in order to put things in the context that we have seen repeated exam examples of threats, authoritarian threats, over the history of the United States.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Whether it was, as we were talking about, the end of Reconstruction, the 1898 coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. The various lynchings that have taken place, the destruction of the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rise in the ’30s of various fascist groups, like the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, et cetera. This is part of the herpes of US capitalism. And I think that we have to remind people constantly that this kind of right-wing populism is very much in the system. This is not an aberration. This is part of the system.
Rick Perlstein: That’s right. And that’s why it’s so important to have an opposition party willing to say that instead of saying, as Obama did for eight years, well, if we just are calmly charismatically rational we can make the fever break. And while this is all happening, speaking of capitalism, it’s like Lenin talking about capitalists selling the working class the rope. You got this particularly crushing brand of capitalists who creates computer programs, algorithms, that literally operationalizes the process you’re talking about, Bill.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: That’s right.
Rick Perlstein: That’s the algorithm that basically shoves conflict in people’s faces because that generates clicks. Someone figured out some computer program or that you can get people to gawk at their screen more addictively when you start some kind of irrational fight. And that’s an awful development. And it’s like Network factorialzed.
Marc Steiner: And as you two were talking about that, two points here for me. That you said so much, that one is historical, and one is the moment in the future. Let me start with the historical in the time we have left and then jump to the moment and the future. So, I am obsessed with looking at both 1877 and 1932, and also the years between 1930 and early ’70s. And I was thinking about how in 1877, the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of 90 years of terror against the Black world, enhanced terror, I should say, in the Black world. It also had to do with legions of former soldiers, both mostly Confederate, but both Union and Confederate, and the forming of the KKK and the power of the South rising again politically, and the destruction of what could be considered close to the contemporary left with the folks who wanted Reconstruction with the parts of the radical Republicans who were really trying to build a different America.
And that was crushed. You look at 1932, you look at Adolf Hitler, you look at his minority government when he took power. It was because the center party went into an alignment with the Nazis to create a majority government allowing Hitler to take over and to push and to blame the… They didn’t have any Black folks, it was the Jews that were the fault of all this. And they pushed this right-wing terror and this fascistic government took over and we saw the results of that.
And so in our modern era, it seems to me, we have, from the 1930s to the early ’70s, you had this push to build a different kind of America. And it went through a lot of struggles internally. And the power of the civil rights movement really altered that and began to change things in a major way, in terms of our country. And you add on that the anti-war movement that gave birth to the women’s movement and the environmental movement, and that began to change the culture of the country in many ways. And there was this massive pushback from the right that began in the early ’70s. From Louis Powell, who later became justice, to this moment that we’re facing at this moment. So, if we look at that history for just a second, what does that history tell us about what we should be thinking abou?. History can’t define this moment, but it can give us a sense of what we face and what we keep missing in what we face.
Rick Perlstein: I think, if I may, I’m seeing with a little more clarity that all these moments of reactionary peril, the sociological parallel is that you have, or a political parallel, is that you have a reactionary minority party that has a parliamentary and a paramilitary wing. And the Republicans are just reproducing this pattern with elegance. And if you look at the Jan. 6 investigation, they’re proceeding on two tracks. And the two tracks are the majority, literally the majority, of senators and House members who tried to overturn the elections using their votes as outside the gates, you have people massing with truncheons. And you have to follow that thread in 2020. You talk about the Movement for Black Lives, at the same time as, I think it was about a dozen states, indemnifying people for the crime of driving their vehicles, vehicular homicide into crowds. And if you look at the statistics, I think there were something like nearly 100 vehicular assaults. This is terrorism. The automobile as a weapon and pushing back movements for democracy and equality.
And then as we look at this Jan. 6 investigation you have this House committee that seems to be doing very aggressive work and this justice department that seems to be nowhere to be found because they’re “institutionalists.” That’s where you get into the Democratic Party fecklessness where we have this attorney general who hopefully is building these cases from the ground up but we don’t know, we haven’t heard anything. So we have no organized voice within the Democratic Party who is really naming the stakes with any clarity and aggressiveness that has the power to do something about it, or maybe not. And that’s why we’re on the precipice. And you still have this Adlai Stevenson-Obama strain on the Democratic Party that says the problem is polarization and we’re saying too many mean things about the opposition. And that’s a real problem.
Marc Steiner: And Bill I’m going to –
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Yeah. So, I think it’s really important that people don’t leave this show and commit suicide [Marc and Rick laugh][crosstalk]. I really do. And it’s not just because I’m a crazy humanitarian. See, first of all, I think, I’m going to say two things that will sound perhaps paradoxical. One is that I think this moment was inevitable. The second is that I do not think that the outcome is inevitable.
So I think that this moment was inevitable because this is the result of racial settler colonialism. This is the result of the failure of the Civil War to actually resolve part of the question. And it was also the result of the fact that during this great democratic – Small D – Moment in the South called Reconstruction Native Americans were being annihilated in the West. So you had these contradictory things that were going on. So, I think that the failure of the United States to ever come to grips with its own past and with the question of a genuine democracy, even within the context of capitalism, made this inevitable, this clash. And I think that when I talked before about right-wing populism being the herpes of capitalism it’s because the virus is in the system. It’s not outside of the system and periodically, like a stomach bug, hitting you. It’s in the system.
So the system needs to be cleansed. And so the outcome of this clash is not inevitable. So we have at least 70% of the population that has not lost its mind. I mean, that’s very significant. And I think that what is critically important – And Marc you and I have talked about this – Is that people have to organize at the base. And it can’t be relying on the eloquence of Barack Obama or the feistiness of Biden in order to stop this plague. When the right shows up at school board meetings we need to be there. When the right attacks or tries to stop the vaccine we need to be there. When they come after election officials we need to be there. Now, I realize the implications of this. I realize that that may lead to physical altercations. But in general I have found the right to be quite cowardly. This is true, not just in the United States, but in other places. They are bullies.
And they often think they can get away quite literally with murder. Until and unless progressive stand up and say, no pasaran, we’re not playing this game. And we should remember, just historically, the Spanish fascists in 1936 could have been defeated in a matter of months had it not been for the Nazis and the Italian fascists intervening. We can actually stop this thing from happening. So I think it’s really important that we do not fall prey to fatalism, which I see, certainly in the liberal media, but also in segments of the left. And one final thing, Marc, there’s also segments of the left you and I have discussed that really downplay this danger from right-wing authoritarianism. And continue to think that the main enemy are centrist Democrats. I want to go upside people’s heads and ask them, what are you smoking? What is it? Is it like alcohol and herb, or are you adding some other stuff in there? What is it that you think is going on here? So I think we just have to grapple with that.
Marc Steiner: So let me jump in here for a minute. And so you two just brought us to this moment. Let’s talk about this moment. What you just said really means, Bill, and what you were saying earlier, Rick. So, how does that happen though? Let me posit something that may sound negative, but let me just posit it anyway and we can tear it apart, okay? So I’m watching the right and I see a right wing that appears to be more organized than progressives of the left or anybody else, and well funded and well armed, I might add. In all these complications that we talked about whether it was Germany in 1932 or 1877 or right now, a lot of it is being fueled by… No, let me take that back. That part of it is that people who have been in the military are upset and angry and on the right, as my two grandsons who now serve in the United States Army said to me, that almost all the guys they meet in the combat units are on the right, as opposed to units they’re in where they’re much more open-minded because they’re in the Space Corps and all that kind of stuff.
So they’re in a very different kind of place. But so that reality exists. And the fact that the right wing inside the Republican Party has literally control of 26 states in the union. And in 41 states they’re put in legislation to diminish voting rights and to control the vote so they can control the elections coming up. And that means that it could possibly, for numerous reasons, including the failure of Biden and others, to take over in 2022 the federal legislature, which is significant. And the left is kind of… And progressives are embedded inside the Democratic Party – And I’m not saying here go start another party that has no power at the moment – But that are embedded inside the Democrats with very little power within them. And the unions are now struggling to get back on their feet and you see strikes taking place and people organizing, but the power of the unions is not what they were.
So what do we mean? And what do you mean when you say now it’s time to stand up? I mean, I understand standing up to them and even my dotage here I’m willing to stand up against these fools. But the question is what does that mean if we are not organized to really confront either in the street, holes, or in the community, in the elections, in school boards and more? So, what is it going to take to really stop them is the question I’m asking the two of you.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Well, Marc, the Democratic Party didn’t organize the civil rights movement. The Democratic Party didn’t organize the Chicano Moratorium in 1970. The Democratic Party didn’t organize Stonewall. I mean, so I think it’s really important that people break with passivity and start thinking about, okay, how do we organize? Like, I’ve been talking for years about the necessity to organize democracy brigades. And my critical image was the union leagues of the 1860s and 1870s that were organized based particularly among African Americans, but also among poor whites to fight to advance Reconstruction.
The problem there is that they didn’t take the necessary steps to ultimately smash the terrorists, the white terrorists. But I think that we need to be thinking at the local level of building brigades of people, volunteers that are engaged in this fight for democracy. And I think that the longer that we sit back and we wait for something to come out of Congress or out of the White House, it ain’t going to happen. And I agree with you, Rick, I keep hoping that the justice department is working something up, and I actually think that they probably are, but man, are they quiet. Yeah. And so I think that that’s necessary. I mean, I want to see at a school board meeting when these lunatics show up, I want to see our forces there. And basically saying to these lunatics, do you want to debate about critical race theory? Let’s have the damn debate but you are not going to bully this board into some ridiculous stuff.
Like these different pieces of legislation are being passed in various state legislatures. We are our own liberators. We’re the ones that are going to have to constitute these organizations. And so it might not be entire national unions. It might be local unions. It might be NAACP chapters. It might be immigrant rights groups that come together, even if on an ad hoc basis, and say, one of the things we’re going to take up, making sure to protect these election officials, making sure that people can vote, making sure that vaccines happen, making sure to protect the right to abortion. That we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it in the streets.
Marc Steiner: Rick, you want to jump in on that?
Rick Perlstein: Well, yes. I’m a big fan of a socialist thinker, Karl Polanyi, who points out that societies organized around market values always create basically neolistic apocalypses and that there are always people within basically the ambit of capital and the ruling class who grasp this. And so we have allies within the ruling class like the Rockefellers who, in the 1860s and ’70s, built a school system in the South for African Americans which was a very radical thing to do. So we have allies and we have to search them out because people grasp that if we’re talking about a Republic of insects and grass, as, who was it, the great writer about nuclear apocalypse, That they don’t win either. But power yields nothing without a demand. And after the urban rebellions of the ’60s, one of the things that happened was employers were like, holy crap.
If you read the Harvard Business Review, they were like, we need to bring African Americans into corporate America. So we have to find all sorts of pressure points. All sorts of pressure points. Because we’re talking about civilization or barbarism and we might have allies that are not our usual allies because we’re talking about whether the thing, basically human life, can be sustained on the planet. And so bottom up, top down, inside out, outside in, we got to build a real popular front for democracy.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: I want to just add to that. I agree with you 100% Rick. And I’ll just point out something that your comment triggered. In response to the ’50s and ’60s there was what you described, but there was also the response from the right, the what became a right-wing populous movement. And this politics of revenge, revanchism, that we see germinating in the late ’60s and then spreading out. And I thought about that a lot after 2020 because we had this historic post George Floyd murder movement around the country. We had demonstrations, uprisings, everything. And so there were two responses. Part of corporate America and the political establishment responded with greater attention to so-called diversity, to reexamining US history, et cetera, et cetera.
But then there was equally this right-wing authoritarian backlash that I would argue that the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole was completely unprepared for because that right-wing backlash was organizing it, wasn’t just protesting. They were organizing. And the George Floyd Black Lives Matter movement was protesting, but did not create lasting organizations and points of pressure. It was predictable. It’s what we saw in 1968. Nixon didn’t appear out of nowhere. George Wallace didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was a particular response that we have to always keep in mind. It’s part of this virus in the US system.
Marc Steiner: That’s an interesting analogy. I mean, I think that’s true. As someone who was in the midst of 1968, I think about all the failures of ’68, that those of us who were too busy in the streets battling as opposed to in the community organizing. And I think that’s part of the issue we face. But I’m getting this on a positive note that there’s light at the end of this tunnel and there’s room to stop the right and to build something new. And I think that’s really the message that we need to push really hard. And in the conversation today, both of you have been really great in describing why we’re here and also what we have to do to get there.
And I do want to thank both of you for joining us today, Rick Perlstein and Bill Fletcher. This has been a really good conversation. And I want to tell all the folks out there who are watching, listening to us today, that we’re going to continue this conversation. That Bill Fletcher and I will be producing a whole series of conversations, not just about, oh, woe is me, but what can be done, why we’re here and what can we do? And I’ll also be talking to organizers from across the country, the Poor People’s Campaign and other organizations who are actually organizing on the ground. There is a way to stop this. And that’s what we’re going to focus on. And we are in the middle of a battle for the future. And I think we’re all here.
And for me, who has children and grandchildren and [inaudible] even great-grandchildren, which is scary to say, but I do, that it’s for them, we’re going to let them inherit a better society, not something that the right can control. And again, I want to thank you both so much both for the work you do and for being with us here today on the Steiner Show, on The Real News. It’s always good to talk to both of you. I mean, it’s really important to do that. Thank you both so much.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Pleasure.
Rick Perlstein: With loving hearts like these we can’t fail.
Marc Steiner: Amen to that. And all of you out there, remind you that to hear at The Real News, you can still go to therealnews.com/donate, continue your donations to Real News to keep these things alive and can look to our reports on the rise of the right and other projects we’ll be doing. I’m going to thank Dwayne Gladden and Stephen Frank for editing and monitoring this broadcast. And thank you all for watching today and listening to the end, and being part of the Marc Steiner Show. So thank you. Take care and keep on fighting. Stay the course.