To the Far Right and Back Again
A new book explores whether the far left is driving people toward right-wing extremism.
|Melissa Langsam Braunstein||Sep 1, 2020||29||113|
An overriding message from the last few months of protests is that it’s not enough not to be racist. Rather, one must be explicitly anti-racist. It’s not enough to support the peaceful demonstrations going on around the country. “Silence is violence” is the new mantra.
That has led to such harrowing scenes as we saw this week, with protesters threateningly confronting white diners at D.C. restaurants and trying to goad them into raising their fists in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s likely that this race-centric messaging will generate a backlash.
Take, for example, working class white men who keep hearing not only that their racial identity is their defining trait, but that it makes them inherently blameworthy. In a timely new book, Monster of Their Own Making: How the Far Left, the Media, and Politicians are Creating Far-Right Extremists Jack Buckby explains not only how those arguments sound to working class white men, but also why the elevation of a radical leftist view of race could result in more recruits for the far right.
Buckby, now a 27-year-old counter-extremism author, intersperses his personal story with a larger look at contemporary British and American politics, explaining how a teenager from an apolitical family found his way to the political fringe, attaching himself to the far-right British National Party (BNP). Along the way, the book also fills out Peggy Noonan’s “protected versus the unprotected” framing, with Buckby offering a view from the latter.
Buckby, who grew up in a former mining town, comes across as the British version of a Trump voter in a post-industrial, Middle American town that’s been ravaged by opioids. In sharing his own journey as a self-described mild-mannered teen who fell in with the far right for a time, Buckby personifies his point that people can be radicalized when their genuinely held concerns are dismissed rather than addressed.
Buckby traces his own trajectory to two particular triggers. First, his sense that elected officials didn’t care about his neighbors’ economic hardship, which was complicated by rapidly rising immigration. Second, was the widespread cover-up of grooming gangs. Americans may not be as familiar with the latter, but Rotherham Borough Council commissioned a study that found “at least 1,400 young [primarily white] children were trafficked, raped and abused by mostly Muslim men” in Rotherham, between 1997-2013. “Police literally tore up paperwork relating to child sex abuse victims,” because, according to a Member of Parliament from Rotherham, “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat.” This was the ultimate third-rail of politics. “Not a single mainstream political party in the UK was willing to address this issue.”
But Buckby was determined to discuss it; his 2016 campaign for Parliament even highlighted the issue. Buckby writes, “On my first day of campaigning, trying to find those first ten signatures, almost everybody I spoke to either knew somebody who had been targeted by these grooming gangs, or had children of their own who had been affected.” Buckby describes being shadowed by a reporter on that campaign, when “some Muslim women [took] me aside and quietly [told] me they’d be voting for me, because they came to England expecting freedom and instead nothing had changed, and they were still controlled by the men in their community.”
Buckby recalls feeling “enraged” because “members of the press call[ed] working-class people like me racist for expressing genuine fears and concerns for our future,” and warns that “when the media demonize normal people, at a time when the politicians refuse to represent their interests, they create fertile ground for the far right.” Buckby, for example, gravitated to the BNP, because only they acknowledged his concerns.
Buckby writes: “I was young, I was angry, and I was being told by political leaders that I simply had no identity. As a white man, I’m a citizen of nowhere, and my home country was a culturally neutral space with no native population, just waiting to be enriched and changed. This is how you make someone who doesn’t care about race care about race.”
Once in the BNP’s orbit, Buckby met the “joiners,” people who aren’t particularly ideological but crave community, as well as the “principled fanatics,” who see the far right as the antidote to the far left’s extremism. The latter group underscores Buckby’s exhortation that “whether they realize it or not, far-left activists, progressives, and Marxist ideologues are lending credibility to the arguments of the far right.” Buckby believes our “broken society has created a generation of joiners,” who find themselves drawn to the far left or far right, depending on whether they want to maintain “any sense of national pride or identity.”
Radicalization is a “three-pronged-attack,” with “mostly young, white, working-class men neglected by their elected representatives, smeared and demonized by the national press, and relentlessly attacked by far-left ideologues in practically all areas of their lives.” Buckby details how the three components—neglect, smearing, and attacks—demonstrate how much the far right’s growth is a reaction to the far left’s actions, or liberals’ unwillingness to police their own side’s extremists.
But his criticism is not limited to those on the left. He chides mainstream conservatives for “either ignor[ing] the existence of the real far right or [trying] to pin the blame of far-right terror attacks on far-left radicals.” He wants the mainstream right to acknowledge that the far right exists; while it may be small, he believes it is growing. Buckby also wants conservatives to engage in “real [bipartisan] discussion about extreme politics and why people are being radicalized.” It’s a modest suggestion, and yet, in our current context, it’s no small thing.
Buckby went off to college hoping for a climate that fostered open debate. Instead, he was harassed by both leftists and neo-Nazis. Buckby explains “the threats became so bad that the police reached out to me about it.” It was around this time that Buckby concluded “the ‘small minority of crazy people’ in the party and wider nationalist movement were more common than I’d initially thought,” and that “I’d spent years of my young life trusting people I should never have trusted, amongst many other naïve and decent people who had been hoodwinked in the same way.” He believes he was saved from neo-Nazism by “the rumors of me being Jewish that started from the very beginning of my experience in nationalist politics.” (Buckby’s step-great-grandfather, who was not a blood relative, was a Jewish Holocaust survivor.)
Buckby toggles back and forth between British and American politics. He writes as someone who believes preserving culture and national identity matter and who is repelled by the leftism associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He’s a fan of President Trump’s policies, including enforcing immigration laws. Buckby writes, “Both Europe and the United States have seen whole towns and cities fundamentally transformed by mass immigration, and it doesn’t affect the rich.”
There are some things I would have done differently with the book. For example, the different groups within the far right should have been introduced earlier. Buckby is more generous than I would be in describing President Trump’s flaps with extremists and declining to label a French politician a Holocaust denier after the Frenchman opined that “‘historians could discuss the number of deaths ... [and] the existence of gas chambers.’” I also would have appreciated concrete suggestions for individuals interested in combating extremism, because most people have no control over whether politicians faithfully represent their constituents, or journalists choose activism over reportage.
Overall though, Buckby offers readers a great deal to think about. Especially in light of the events this weekend, in which Portland protesters clashed with Trump supporters. There is video that appears to show Trump supporters firing paintballs and pepper spray at protesters. In a separate encounter, a member right-wing Patriot Prayer group was shot to death. Polarization is killing people, and it’s likely to spark even more violence.
He increased my own awareness of how many right-wingers prefer to dismiss the far right’s existence—in part because the term has been so misused by those on the left—but also how fighting extremism intersects with the cancel culture debate. Buckby writes of leaving the BNP, “I left. And, when I did leave, I tried to write about it. Nobody wanted to listen to me, of course. ... it was at this point I realized I would never be forgiven.”
If conservatives, and especially religious conservatives, are serious about repentance and redemption, we must be prepared to prove it. Those interested in leaving the far right need to know that if they leave that world behind, they’ll be welcomed by the mainstream right. Because if there’s one thing Buckby demonstrates over and over, it’s that the antidote to extremism isn’t more extremism.