September 2021 Special Edition Faculty Publication Spotlight
In our very first Special Edition Faculty Publication Spotlight we speak to Marxe Professor Thomas Main about his new book, The Rise of Illiberalism.
How do you define illiberalism?
Illiberalism can emerge from the political left or right. It is a political ideology that rejects principles of liberal democracy such as political equality, electoral democracy, human rights, limited government, and the rule of law. Illiberalism rejects a political culture of tolerance and the legitimacy of lawful democratic processes. Right-wing examples of illiberalism include the Alt-Right and its watered-down version, the Alt-Lite, and hate ideologies such as neo-Nazism, the KKK, and white supremacy. Left-wing forms of illiberalism include communism, anarchism, and anti-democratic versions of Marxism; such ideologies negate fundamental principles of liberal democracy. Conspiracy theories such as QAnon and opinion outlets that trade in lies and vituperative rhetoric are illiberal because they reject fact-based inquiry and open discourse. All forms of racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny are examples of right-wing illiberalism.
How many people espouse illiberal ideologies? Is the audience for such extremism too small to worry about?
American liberal democracy is facing a significant challenge by right-wing illiberal ideologies. I drew this conclusion from a study of web traffic to self-identified illiberal and mainstream websites. I identified 215 right-wing illiberal websites, opinion outlets, and political magazines. Analyzing web traffic data for the first 11 months of 2019, I found these sites received a monthly average of about 186 million visits. This is nearly one-third the size of the monthly average traffic to sites of the mainstream Right, which received about 604 million visits. It is an impressively sized audience, considering the extreme radicalism of Right illiberal sites.
The audience for left-wing illiberal sites is much smaller. I identified 131 left-wing illiberal sites. Over the same time period, they received a monthly average of about 2.5 million visits. That’s about 0.2 percent the size of the audience for mainstream Left sites, which received about 993 million visits on average monthly. The audience for right-wing illiberalism is substantial, and much larger than is usually understood. Left-wing illiberalism is a small tendency.
What ideas and opinions are found on right-wing illiberal websites?
Websites adhering to right-wing illiberalism radically reject liberal democracy. For example, American Renaissance has posted, “No phrase in history has done more harm than ‘all men are created equal.’” The Daily Stormer describes itself as: “an outreach site, designed to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses. The basic propaganda doctrine of the site is based on Hitler’s doctrine of war propaganda outlined in Mein Kampf….”
Some sites reject American democracy itself. Occidental Dissent is an example. It posted: “America has now evolved into its final form as a cultural and political dung heap of liberty and equality—just like every other republican experiment in the modern West.” Similar views on race and equality can be found on illiberal websites such as Vox Popoli (“[T]here is no such thing as equality, the grand rhetorical flights of Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding…[t]o claim it was self-evident that all men are created equal…is nothing more than a logical and empirical falsehood….”), and Counter-Currents Publishing (“The reality is that black lives don’t really matter that much. It is the white race that is the indispensable race.” )
How much influence do illiberal ideas have in American political culture?
Besides its explicit, radically anti-democratic ideas, the rhetorical style of illiberalism is based on open scorn for tolerance. It features: an insistence that politics is war, an embrace of the friend-versus-foe conception of politics, an illegitimate appellation of treason applied to all political opponents, and a vituperative style of criticism. The Illiberal Right rejects the premise of political discourse based upon reasoned debate, established facts, and a search for common ground. Instead, words are held to be weapons, the goal of consensus is rejected, facts are countered with factoids and falsehoods, and conspiracy theories are disseminated. The illiberal ideology can be communicated through this rhetorical style in situations where too explicit radicalism is inconvenient.
For example, Breitbart News, once described by its former editor Steve Bannon as “the platform of the alt-right,” has one of the largest audiences of any political web magazine, with about 51 million visits on monthly average. Syndicated columnists Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Pat Buchanan, long-time practitioners of the illiberal style, appear in Alt-Right outlet VDARE; Malkin and Buchanan also appear in the more radical American Renaissance. They also reach many millions of people through their columns, best-selling books, and television appearances. Tucker Carlson’s eponymous show on Fox News Channel was the top-rated prime-time cable show in July, 2021 with 3 million viewers, according to Forbes. Daily Stormer editor Andrew Anglin referred to Carlson as “literally our greatest ally,” and described Carlson’s show as “basically Daily Stormer: The Show.” Anglin featured Carlson in 265 stories on the site. Former President Donald Trump is the highest-profile exponent of illiberal style and continues to be a major influence in American politics.
Illiberal rhetoric is a serious problem. Of particular concern are its anti-democratic characteristics such as nasty, alienating rhetoric; hyper-partisanship; race baiting; highly biased news reporting; treatment of political adversaries as enemies; scorn of democratic institutions; and the idea that politics is literal war. These features have deeply penetrated mainstream political culture.
How can illiberal ideas influence political events?
Some rioters who tried to stop the counting of the electoral vote at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, were influenced by illiberal ideology. Videos show protesters near and inside the Capitol displaying flags with an “AF” logo, which stands for the America First movement of Nicholas J. Fuentes, who is known for his anti-Semitic videos. Video has emerged in which Fuentes, who was not seen entering the Capitol, declares: “We stopped the counting of the Electoral College. We forced a joint session of Congress and the Vice President to evacuate.” The Proud Boys is another extremist organization whose logos were sported by some rioters. The nooses and gallows displayed at the riot referenced a guiding text of hate movements: The Turner Diaries and its fictional celebration of “The Day of the Rope,” when blacks and anti-racists are strung up en masse. Also on display was iconography of movements known for anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, conspiracy theory-oriented, and otherwise illiberal ideas, including QAnon, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers.
The Capitol rioters also expressed their illiberalism in words. They shouted that the law enforcement officers were traitors. Some wore sweatshirts that declared “MAGA: Civil War. Jan. 6” An analysis by USA Today found that “Calls for civil war intensified on the right-leaning social media platform Parler on Jan. 6 as President Donald Trump spoke and urged his followers to march on the U.S. Capitol.” Donald Trump Jr. told the crowd: “Friend or foe, today, Republicans, you get to pick a side for the future of this party.” The rioters and their leaders expressed themselves in illiberal terms: opponents are traitors, politics is war, the world divides into friend versus foe. The premise of the riot was illiberal: based upon an anti-democratic conspiracy theory.
How does identity play into illiberalism?
A type of identity politics is at the heart of illiberalism. Ordinary identity politics typically concern politically incorporating new ethnic, racial, gender, or other interest groups into a pluralistic environment. Black Lives Matter is a salient example. This type of identity politics is compatible with liberal democracy because it is an extension of traditional pluralism.
The racist identity politics of illiberalism is better termed identitarian politics, which seeks to fuse a plurality of interest groups into a homogeneous identity group based on race. Identitarian politics are destructive of multiracial nations such as the United States. Identitarianism is incompatible with liberal democracy because it is based on white supremacism.
While identity is a necessary aspect of political thought and life, illiberals have fashioned racialistic identity theory into a weapon to attack liberal democracy. Those who oppose illiberal ideas are in a defensive position: rebutting illiberal identity rhetoric and defending identity concepts consistent with liberal democracy. The intellectual history of illiberal identitarian thought shows that illiberals have learned there are rhetorical and political advantages to painting themselves—rather than blacks, gays, women or others—as the underdog, and thus the only group capable of changing the nation.
How can we defend American liberal democracy and halt the rise of illiberalism?
To seriously address the illiberal challenge, America must come to terms with identity politics; reorient its intellectual life away from glorifying transgression and toward appreciating rational discourse; make better use of the ideals central to the American identity to facilitate the development of a New American Majority; and reform its political institutions to make government action more effective. How to achieve these goals is discussed at length in my book, The Rise of Illiberalism. All of these remedies are possible. Whether they are accomplished is now up to the America people.
 Gregory Hood, “The One-Way Conversation,” American Renaissance, November 7, 2014 www.amren.com/features/2014/11/the-one-way-conversation/.
Daily Stormer, Style Guide, https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/4325810 /Writers.pdf.
 Hunter Wallace, “The Southern Project: On Romanticizing Failed Republics,”
Occidental Dissent, January 17, 2015 (www.occidentaldissent.com/the-southern-project-on-romanticizing-failed-republics/).
 Vox Popoli, “Fantaisie, utopie, égalité,” April 9, 2018, voxday.blogspot. com/2018/04/fantaisie-utopie-egalite.html.
 Quintilian; “The Future Is White,” Counter-Currents Publishing, August 28, 2017 (www.counter-currents. com/2017/08/the-future- is- white/).