Nancy MacLean’s 2017 book, Democracy in Chains, was the object of sustained criticism from Koch-allied libertarians for its bold claim that the radical right was inherently and self-consciously anti-democratic. It’s the rare work of history that proved predictive — in this case, of the current crisis of American democracy. The book focuses on James McGill Buchanan, one of the architects of right-wing strategy, and Charles Koch's work to weaponize Buchanan’s ideas. MacLean demonstrates that Buchanan and other libertarian intellectuals understood that the public would never be persuaded to elect people who wanted to abolish Social Security, Medicare, and public education. So, they sought to limit the power of democratic processes to drive change — that is, to close the levers of power off from the people 

In the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, historian and labor organizer Dave Kamper met with MacLean to discuss the connections between the billionaire-funded academic right and white nationalist violence. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

  

Thinking from [the 2017 white power violent protest in] Charlottesville to now, is what we're seeing new or is it a continuation?

I would say the answer is “both, and.”  It's a continuation of elements long in the culture. My first book was about the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, so I feel like I've seen this movie before. But Donald Trump gave them much more, not just oxygen, but gasoline. And also, this goes beyond white supremacists to the Republican Party, in that the incentives of our public life are all in the direction of encouraging this stuff right now.

We also have to have accountability for the corporations who funded these protests and the organizations behind them. I hope your readers will follow sites like the Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch and True North, who are tracking the corporate contribution to all of this. Because what we're seeing now that may be different from twenty years ago is a greater fusion between many big rogue corporations and the alt-right, as strategists lean on the latter to move their unpopular agenda in statehouses (as in the reopen protests) and incite “their” voters to go to the polls. 

 

What are some of the parallels from the Klan of the twenties to today?

The porous boundary between mainstream and extreme is a really significant continuity between the Klan of the twenties and now. People can forget, but the Klan had five million members and was strongest in places people might not expect. Another continuity between the Klan of the 1920s and what we're seeing now is the mainstream suggestions of violence that are then acted upon by the street fighters. Another parallel, one of the things that ultimately defeated the Klan: mass mobilizations by those it opposed. African-Americans in the NAACP; Catholics, particularly Catholic workers in the industrial areas of the Northeast and Midwest; and Jews, who did a lot of significant work exposing and condemning the Klan. 

 

Do you think we've underestimated the importance of white supremacist ideology within the intellectual portion of the radical right? 

There is a way that many people think about racism, which is not helpful. That racism is a sin of the individual heart or an irrational holdover from the past. White supremacy is central to the right but not in the sometimes simplistic way that people think about racism. It's embedded in their belief that the capitalist system is pure and wonderful. Some of the highly placed donors and strategists would bristle at the notion that they are racist, and I don’t think they are motivated primarily by racism in that simplistic sense. But their policy agenda has a profoundly racist impact.

A second part of this is the perpetual slide from the libertarian right to the alt-right. If you look at the protestors in Charlottesville, it was really striking the number of them that had come from libertarian backgrounds. If you look at the people who were at that January 6th insurrection, many of them had Liberty t-shirts; there was also a significant presence of libertarians. If you want to insist, against history and present evidence, that capitalism is a flawless, fair system, then the slide to some kind of Social Darwinism or more aggressive racism is easy. 

 

Where should organizers be looking to find those porous barriers between respectable people who weren’t on steps of the Capitol, but who are putting ideas out there that support what happened?

The big funders of the right would like nothing better than to have us all engaged in street battles with one another. What’s crucial is to follow the money. I am impressed by the number of people who quickly started pointing out the corporate funders. That's where we need to take the fight. And I think it's a particularly important moment to start pointing to Fox News as a toxin in our culture. They are not informing people but inciting them. I also just saw today that 30,000 Republicans have dropped their membership in the Party after January 6th. I think that's a really good sign that there are ordinary Republicans who are repelled by this.

 

You even had Charles Koch who gave this interview in November where he sort of apologized. What do you make of a Charles Koch, of a Mitt Romney, who seem to be moving a bit?

Mitt Romney as presidential candidate in 2012 contributed to this mightily, but at this point I do believe he has some integrity. For Koch, I think it's diabolical. What Koch is trying to do with his new book is to win over enough African Americans, Latinx, and other people of color that the operations he funds can use as ambassadors to move the larger, devastating agenda. They're already doing that in the mass incarceration space. To some extent, it's working. Groups like the ACLU have taken Koch money, and so are some formerly incarcerated activists who don’t know the peril of the Koch agenda. People can make a whole bunch of money working for Koch instead of the local anti-mass incarceration group that they used to work with. It’s so cynical on Koch’s part — and tragic for those being used this way.

 

Is there a danger of folks like Koch losing control of the tiger of white supremacist violence?  What would that look like?

Absolutely. The Republican party has been feeding disinformation and red meat to people for a very long time. I think Romney is now frightened of it. I think some others are becoming more wary. They should be: they have already lost control of those they incited. We saw it in the Capitol, the craziness of so much of it, the phenomenon of QAnon. We had a President who was asked to denounce them and wouldn't. The fact that so many Republican elected officials value holding on to their positions above integrity and honesty and conscience is a real problem.

Progressives could think more creatively about the affiliations that some of these politicians value. Are there genuine people of faith who could hold them accountable?  Or college alumni associations or business associates? It's not just the Kochs or the arch right-wing donors who funded the groups involved in the insurrection. It's also Comcast, Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon. Campaigns to expose corporate complicity could also advance organizing and antimonopoly agendas.

 

It's never good to ask historians to make predictions, but what do you think is the most likely place we're going to be in five years?

I don't think there's much of a middle ground: it’s either/or. These fossil fuel-based corporations especially, the costliest industry in our lifetime, if they are able to continue doing what they do, it could be game over.

On the other hand, what I see on the progressive side is a huge number of people, and so much energy. And we have so much talent on our side. I do believe something is building now that is really quite amazing. The single most important finding of my work in Democracy in Chains is the radical right knows nobody wants the agenda they're trying to impose. That's why they have to break the power of unions and other progressive groups, rig the rules with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and rely on disinformation. 

So once we recognize that we really are the majority and organizations start to row together to save democracy and to do the things we need to do together, then I think we could reinvent and renew democracy. And it could be quite an extraordinary new era.

 

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