‘The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy’ Explains How We Got Here — And What Comes Next

Protesters outside the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Image: Tyler Merbler/Flickr

“As far as I’m concerned, I’m done with this,” investigative reporter David Neiwert told us, followed by a tremendous sigh, as if setting down an enormous weight that someone else would be obliged to pick up. “Next, I’m writing a book about whales.”

The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy

David Neiwert
Melville House Publishing
Jun 27, 2023

We were at the International Conference on Hate Studies,1 a biennial gathering of scholars, researchers, journalists, and fellow travelers who spend our time tracking fascists. There to speak on understanding and countering hate in the Northwest, Neiwert was a veteran in this crowd: his three decades of reporting on the Far Right includes several books on the subject, making him one of the beat’s key journalists.

In hand Neiwert had a preview copy of his latest book. His longest to date at over 500 pages, The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy 2 is the result of a career spent dredging the swamp of the American Far Right—and with it, nights attending militia meetings, days muddling through White nationalist demonstrations, and countless hours scouring fascist message boards. Through these efforts, Neiwert has built the most incisive, compelling, and accurate look at the Trump movement’s fringes through the former President’s rise and controversial final months.

I had first met Neiwert when he was promoting his 2017 book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump,3 a definitive chronicle of the rise of the Patriot, Alt Right, and MAGA movements that led to Trump’s election. Neiwert’s reporting had a unique quality: no matter how established he was in covering this world, he always found something new, injected a fresh perspective into the coverage, and explained to readers why it mattered to their daily lives.

“Neiwert examines how the insurrection, which is often discussed in isolation as a singular, if catastrophic event, was actually the culmination of hundreds of smaller insurrections.”

Neiwert’s new opus, The Age of Insurrection, continues in this vein, leading the reader through a complicated and multitudinous world of conspiracy grifters, armed insurgents, and online cultists. The book has a certain breathlessness to it. Covering one of the narrowest time frames in Neiwert’s canon, the book strings together a narrative so overwhelming, with such a broad cast of characters, that it’s surprising he was able to capture it in as few pages as he did. 

From the opening page, Neiwert’s prose feels like a gunshot: The Age of Insurrection starts with the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and never truly leaves it behind. Instead, Neiwert focuses on the years and months leading to January 6. He places the insurrection in context by weaving together chapters on groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the QAnon movement and the online conspiracy world, White nationalism during and after the Alt Right, and, especially, the worldview that these groups have tried to construct from a hodgepodge of rumors, half-truths, and bold-faced lies. The book is rich in detail and delivered through classic nonfiction storytelling, a craft Neiwert has honed for many years. He first tracked this story as a newspaper reporter in Idaho chasing violent militants at Aryan Nations, then across the country at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and more recently, while reporting for Daily Kos. The Age of Insurrection is the culmination of his feverish journalistic coverage of the Far Right’s activities during Trump’s presidency. 

The book is broken down by activist type and time period, taking readers through the various stages that mobilized subgroups of America’s Far Right: Trumpism’s turn to seditious conspiracy, followed by QAnon’s break with reality, and the return of this unhinged style of politics into the mainstream electoral realm. In doing so, Neiwert examines how the insurrection, which is often discussed in isolation as a singular, if catastrophic event, was actually the culmination of hundreds of smaller insurrections. As Neiwert observes in the book’s “postscript,” the Far Right isn’t just preparing for war, they are already “at war.”4 The final third of the book focuses on this culture of insurrection, as cultivated by the Trump years, and its result on January 6, 2021. Neiwert’s detailed reporting drills home the significance of the violence the U.S. has collectively endured and can leave a reader feeling brutalized: it’s been a hard few years for many—especially marginalized communities facing far-right violence, such as homes with trans children and activists fighting police brutality. But the author never fails to remind us that people put up a fight. Everyday community members refused to accept this slow-moving coup, acting in ways big and small throughout. The “age of insurrection” was also an age of resistance. It still is. 

Rather than provide an encyclopedia, Neiwert zooms in on a few subjects and regions to share his vantage point with readers. The Pacific Northwest—particularly, Oregon and Washington, where he resides—is central to Neiwert’s account of organized violence on the Far Right. A quick look at the region’s past and present illustrates why this focus is warranted. As a center of the Klan in the 1920s and neonazi skinheads in the 1980s, and where Anti-Racist Action and antifa came into their own, the Pacific Northwest is where activists continue to face off in the streets over which political vision will prosper. The region’s growing rural Patriot movement and far-right backlash to “blue state” values has also generated a vanguard of militant antifascist resistance. Neiwert’s attention turns here to increasing clashes between Proud Boys and other far-right groups and antifascists. Amid tear gas fog and street fights at these confrontations, Neiwert and I shuffled between these groups, fending off angry “patriots” asking if we were “antifa,” and watching as police turned their attention on the antifascist crowd. Age of Insurrection captures the heat and paranoia in the air at those events, which have wafted into the suburbs and exurbs and become the country’s general tenor. 

“The January 6 insurrection was not a capstone to Trump’s reign, but a manifesto of resistance for what came next.”
Like his books Alt-America and Red Pill, Blue Pill 5, Neiwert discusses how conspiracy theories and misinformation have enabled these movements to capture the political imaginations of those they hope to recruit. Antifa conspiracy theories are a mainstay of this process of recasting social progress as being piloted by covert malevolence. Neiwert chronicles how a small radical movement became the outsized boogeyman that justified some of the Far Right’s worst excesses in streets and statehouses across the country. Far-right radicals and Patriot stalwarts live in a different world than the rest of us, seeing around every corner “communist subversion” and “queer perversions” that threaten to erode the stable lives they and many other working-class conservatives believed they were promised. In such a heightened state of fear, anything becomes possible, including violence as a seemingly pure, restorative act—thus wiping away the possibility of a “peaceful transfer of power” that supposedly defined the American experiment.

Early in Trump’s presidency, in 2017, I heard Neiwert say to a crowd, “I’m not ready to give up on America.”6 He spoke with a kind of optimism then. Readers of his latest treatise might wonder which part of that America is left, whether its democratic values are reclaimable, or if it was always an illusion. The last eight years have shattered any collective belief of forward momentum built into this country’s DNA, whether from the failure to stop a careening Far Right, our inaction on climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement’s magnifying glass on structural and institutional racism, or the January 6 insurrection’s frightening image of our future.

The Age of Insurrection ends suddenly, which makes sense. We started at the conclusion, which became our lens for the entire journey: we know we will end with the doors to the Capitol bursting open and an occupation afoot. As the Trump administration came to an end, Trumpism went into overdrive. The January 6 insurrection was not a capstone to Trump’s reign, but a manifesto of resistance for what came next: an extralegal assault on U.S. democracy from opponents who deem fraudulent its political legacy. We are now living in the book’s aforementioned Age of Insurrection, and the years discussed in the book are simply a prelude. While Neiwert analyzes their impact, he also catalogues them in a narrative framework, acting as our memory by documenting stories that would be unbelievable if they weren’t set on the page. In a certain sense, the book doesn’t end as much as it leaves us in the present, an unwritten sequel that continues the same terrible story we have experienced. 

As Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote from an Italian prison, a revolutionary change in society requires a shift in values, identity, and sense of reality from the masses who would have to enact such a revolution.7 While the violence of January 6 may seem like the real threat to America, it was ancillary developments, conspiracy theories, disaffection, and the breakdown of civil relationships and family bonds that made up the bulk of Neiwert’s horror as he watched the values that he treasured in America crumble. Age of Insurrection plows through all this at a breakneck pace. The book’s concluding abruptness may be its most profound commentary: nothing has ended.

This continuing violence brings us back to the conference. Neiwert’s sense of exhaustion was not new, nor was it uncommon among our peers. In regular meetups over the past ten years, we’ve shared recent scoops, imperiled projects, and “war stories” about this work and its personal cost. But as years went by, and as Trump’s ascent changed the political landscape, fatigue set in. We are tired. Dave’s not the only one.

At post-conference drinks, some of us shared hopeful stories about communities we had been traveling in: mutual aid projects during the pandemic, growing progressive religious groups, the labor movement’s return. Dave smiled wistfully, drinking quietly. 

“I appreciate your optimism, but I’m not sure I share it,” he told me as we called it a night. “It’s not necessarily that I think the Right is going to win in the end. It’s just that a lot of people might die along the way.”

This review from the forthcoming Fall 2023/Winter 2024 issue of The Public Eye is republished with the permission of Political Research Associates, Religion Dispatches’ parent organization.


Endnotes

1 The conference is hosted by Gonzaga University’s Center for the Study of Hate. 

2 David Neiwert, The Age of Insurrection: The Radical Right’s Assault on American Democracy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2023).  

3 Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2017).

4 Neiwert, The Age of Insurrection, 450. 

5 Shane Burley, “Conspiracy Theories Are Killing Us — and Trump’s Departure Hasn’t Ended Them,” Truthout, March 14, 2021, https://truthout.org/articles/conspiracy-theories-are-killing-us-and-trumps-departure-hasnt-ended-them/. 

6 David Neiwert, talk at Powell’s City of Books, November 5, 2017. 

7 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (New York City: Columbia University Press), 2011.