Blood Red Lines: An Interview with Brendan O’Connor

Shane Burley

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Lately, the focus has been on Donald Trump’s unsuccessful attempts to stoke enough paranoid rage from his base to eventuate a slow-moving coup, but less has been said about the lasting impression he has made on U.S. policy. While Trump, and his idea men like Stephen Miller, have escalated the war on immigrants and the militarization of the border, they only were able to realize this far-right vision in part due to decades of nativist lobbying and policy proposals from what’s often called the “Tanton Network.” This series of organizations created by white nationalist John Tanton, the most famous of which is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (F.A.I.R.), had a hand in writing Trump’s immigration policy—but they’ve also been influencing the direction of the GOP for years.

Brendan O’Connor has been covering the far-right as a reporter during the Trump years, with a particular focus on the nativist obsession with borders: both the borders of nation-states and less tangible divides like identity, all of which promise to loom large in the post-Trump years. In his new book from Haymarket, Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, O’Connor pulls together various threads of right-wing anger into one story: how big business exploits white anxiety, and how white nationalism has a coercive relationship with statecraft.

We spoke with O’Connor about his new book, how the nativist movement is affecting our collective relationship to immigration, and what ‘border fascism’ means for the future.

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Shane Burley: So Blood Red Lines starts with your story a bit, your own political development and how you changed while covering these issues. How did you end up focusing on the far-right and border politics, and how did that relate to your own organizing work?

Brendan O’Connor: I came to writing about the far right during the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016. I was working at Gawker at the time, and there were already people covering the story, so I had to look around for other angles in because I really felt like there’s something very strange going on here. This is just one small part of a bigger story.

I started going down the many different rabbit holes of the Patriot movement and Sovereign Citizens and Three Percenters and learning about all of these longstanding fragments of the movement and thinking about how that coincided with what became known as the alt-right. And part of my reporting project, since then, which has culminated in the book, is trying to think about how those things relate to the wider capitalist order and the political and economic crises that we that we are living through—how these far-right/radical right extremists, the activists and organizers and movement builders, fit into that bigger picture.

Because while in my working life I am a journalist, I’m also an organizer involved in DSA and union organizing, and so having a grasp on what the fascists are up to is not just an intellectual exercise. These people pose an existential threat to the project of liberation that I see myself participating in.

SB: You single in on this concept of ‘border fascism’ in the book. How does ‘border fascism’ unite the continuing colonial status of the U.S. with insurgent white nationalist movements?

BO: The phrase ‘border fascism’ was something that I came across when I was doing some background research on the fascist regime in Italy, under Mussolini. And it is a turn of phrase that scholars of that period used to describe a particular strain of the fascist regime, particularly as it manifested in the city of Trieste and along the border region between Italy and Slovenia. I found it to be a useful umbrella to think about how these seemingly disparate parts of the far-right movement [today] relate to each other. The idea of the border looms really large in a lot of different strains of American political life generally, but on the far right, in particular, and the physical area that constitutes the U.S.-Mexico border.

What I came to realize is that not only is the border everywhere, but borders are a really important structuring idea everywhere in the thinking that is developing on the far right. So in the book I talk about the imposition and defense of national borders and borders between races and ethnicities and genders and classes. It all seems to be operating under a similar kind of logic. When you are researching the far right, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the various taxonomies they apply to themselves. (It’s a kind of inversion of a similar phenomenon that you see on the left.) Looking at it from one angle, it’s important to be able to differentiate, because there are serious differences between Zoomers on Telegram in the accelerationist sphere, and Three Percenter or militia guys. There are real differences. But then from another angle, it’s important to understand them as operating under, I think, a single umbrella. And so that’s where the idea of ‘border fascism’ comes in.

SB: For those who are not familiar with John Tanton, who is he and how is he continuing to affect American border policy?

BO: John Tanton was a guy who was active in the environmentalist movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s who was very influenced by ideas of population control. At the same time that you had this boom of interest in conservation, there was also this intense fear and anxiety about overpopulation. And these ideas were very closely intertwined. Tanton became enamored with a sort of eugenicist thinking within these movements, and brought this to its logical conclusion. “Okay, if we’re having an environmental crisis, and it’s because there’s too many people on the planet or in the U.S., then we need to reduce the number of people that are here.” And part of that for him was keeping people out.

In this effort, he made an important political and financial alliance with a woman named Cordelia Scaife May, who was an heiress to the Scaife and Mellon fortunes in Pittsburgh. She more or less singlehandedly funded his organizing efforts over the course of the ’80s and ’90s and into the early aughts. And what that looked like was creating a network of think tanks and nonprofits, mostly based in Washington, D.C., that, in different ways, gave an intellectual framework to the nativist politics that Tanton believed was so important.

This network existed kind of at the periphery of the Republican Party for a long time. Partly I think [due to] Tanton and Cordelia Scaife May’s support for abortion. They were pro-abortion not because they supported reproductive justice, but because they saw it as another way of keeping population numbers down. I think that’s part of what kept them out of the inner sanctum of Republican Party politics. But they still exerted an influence, particularly whenever comprehensive immigration reform bills came to Congress.

The Trump campaign of 2016 and the Trump administration were something that this network had basically spent three decades preparing for. Then they were able to step into this moment and provide not only the kind of policy ideas and framework, but the personnel to carry it out. There were Tanton Network people working on Trump’s campaign, and then when he won and took office, there were Tanton Network people named to policy positions in over half a dozen federal agencies, all of which touched immigration in one way or another.

SB: This feeling of white anxiety, of being kind of swamped and overwhelmed by non-white people, is really core to Tanton’s thinking. So how did you think this concept of eco-fascism develops out of this and how does it relate to kind of white genocide conspiracy theories?

BO: The eco-fascist idea is something that made itself felt in public, popular consciousness in a really brutal way in 2019 when it was specifically referenced by the shooters in Christchurch and in El Paso. They specifically referred to themselves as eco-fascists. This is logical conclusion of white genocide, Great Replacement, conspiracy theory/fantasy of existential doom that many on the far right—not just in the U.S., but really kind of across the Western world—have been dabbling in for four decades now. This fear of, like you said, being swamped, which I think is a very apropos way of describing it.

So your question was how do they relate? The idea of the Great Replacement, which Tanton never [referenced] explicitly, is this anxiety about white Anglo culture being supplanted in some way through a demographic invasion. It is very much present in Tanton’s intentions, correspondence, and his archives. While he doesn’t present himself as a fascist per se, he was pulling on a lot of the same threads that would culminate in these massacres and the Trump administration. Some of the policies that people like Stephen Miller tried to carry out, like the construction of the border wall, have proven to be something of a farce. But at the same time, the Trump administration has basically succeeded in dismantling the asylum program. So that’s a kind of bureaucratic wall that has been very successfully built and will prove, I think, quite difficult to take down.

SB: People have focused on the explicit Great Replacement theory very heavily, but there is a sort of less official version of the theory that seems to undergird major parts of the nativist and even mainstream right that does suggest it with a formalized theory. Instead, it’s demographic white anxiety, and the theory just gives a conspiracy to name the concept that the Republican Party is pushing to its base all the time. That white civilization is under attack and that people are going to “disappear.”

BO: The white genocide, Great Replacement language is just people on the far-right saying the “quiet part loud,” which is to say that these are the same anxieties that underpin policies like voter suppression. And what we saw recently with the discursive and legal distinction that the Trump administration and campaign tried to make between “legal” and “illegal” votes, basically trying to say anyone in Detroit is ineligible to vote, because those are black votes. Ideas like “voter fraud” are not about fraud at all, when the narrative that is created to support the idea that voter fraud is happening hinges on the false claim that there are millions of undocumented people voting in huge numbers. These are all slightly more polite ways of telling the same story, of [expressing] panicked fears over demographic replacement.

SB: When I’m studying antisemitism, it seems really clear that there is a lot of power to a narrative that is emotionally satisfying. It is satisfying to locate your anger at capitalism on an individual person, a particular banker. And it was particularly satisfying as finance capitalism developed to locate the anger for poor and working-class dispossession on Jews, since there was already a Christian antisemitic script available about Jewish cabals and usury. So the displacement that early capitalism caused was just blamed on Jews, as if the new world of financialization emanated directly from the Jews themselves.

So when we are talking about “stolen and fraudulent elections,” this is not factually true, but the emotional part is using that rhetoric as a proxy for saying “people who are not like me are controlling the country now, and I think that feels illegitimate.” But to say that out loud would be a step too far, so instead a complex narrative to explain that emotional experience is necessary. A complex conspiracy theory about how alien peoples are “stealing” our country, which lines up emotionally with how people like white racists feel about demographic shifts. But it’s gotten to the point where conspiracy theories are not even self-serving anymore, they aren’t even helping the political right achieve its goals, it is instead literally just ingratiating people into a death cult. It’s like a parasite that was created to attack their political enemies and is now just eating them alive.

BO: I’ve seen it described as “main character syndrome.” The way that conspiracy theories like Pizzagate or QAnon function and proliferate hinges on the participants being able to see themselves like actors in this struggle, in this dramatic clash. Whether it is in terms of deciphering the Q drops and analyzing these secret codes or parsing through John Podesta’s emails to put together the secret message and share it with people in their community. Part of why this is so powerful is that I think that people who are participating in it are able to see themselves as heroes in this story. When believers in these things start to turn on each other, I think that’s what happens when you go too deep.

I think conspiracy theorizing fills a similar need that [movement] organizing does: it gives people a sense of meaning and purpose. Obviously it’s not real—it’s completely detached from reality—and it can turn on itself very quickly. There is no organizational accountability like you might see in other social movements. But that seems to be part of the power of it and what gives Pizzagate and QAnon its particular character that’s different than, say, Flat Earthers. There is a major dark side to this stuff, but there is a sense that it makes the believer the protagonist in the story. And it is what drives somebody to pick up a gun and go into Comet Pizza or an El Paso Wal-Mart. I think those things are not so different.

SB: One of the talking points you hear on the fascist right is that any loosening of immigration policy will actually help the capitalist class. This is sort of an appeal to low-income white workers, suggesting that it is in their interest to close the border and demonize immigrants as a class protection method. But this gets at the way that immigration is often bifurcated by the rich and the right: they support the most exploitative versions of immigration policy while also drumming up anti-immigrant hate at the same time. Can you unpack the dual nature of the nativist approach to immigration, that simultaneously wants to hyper-exploit immigrant labor and wants to rally racist whites against non-white immigration?

BO: This is a really critical distinction, and I think is a contradiction of world-historical significance that is proving increasingly unstable. And it’s that instability that’s going to shape our politics for the next century—the contradiction between capital and the nation and nationhood.

The dynamic that has been operational for the past half-century or so when it comes to immigration and border politics is this kind of push and pull between the sectors of the ruling class that rely on migrant labor, [resulting in] policies that allow the flow of that labor force back and forth across the border, while also having a enforcement apparatus that can manage that flow and maintain the size of the labor force and the conditions the labor force is working under, at the same time creating […] a population of undocumented workers who serve the interests of the people who employ them as a class of hyper-exploited workers. So while industries like agriculture do rely on immigrant labor, they also need that labor to be deportable.

The whole mechanism of exploitation relies on this workforce existing in a separate category than citizen workers, and that stems from the kind of balance between the interests of capital and the interests of race formation and nation formation. Capital is mobilizing the racist sentiment in order to create this deportable workforce. The interests of whiteness are [historically] sublimated to the interests of capital. [Now] the coordination between capital and whiteness is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain and that, I think, is why you have this proliferation of openly white ethnonationalist politics being able to assert itself on its own terms. The story of the Trump administration is its failure of white ethnonationalism to pursue its project without having to defer to capital. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s new in recent memory to have a white ethnonationalist formation standing on its own two feet.

And Tanton talked about this in his letters. In one of his letters in the early ‘90s, he talks about how by the year 2020 it is possible we will see a political party that advocates for white people as white people. He was only off by four years. He saw it coming. The bifurcation is really critical, but the balance of forces that it describes are actually not as stable as they once were or as some people would like to imagine that they are.

SB: There’s a lot of data that shows that more than economic instability, white nationalist politics are driven by the emotional feelings of a potential loss in status or identity. Why do you think that this racial identity of whiteness trumps class interests and identity in some of these communities, and how do we build a mass, multiracial antiracist movement against the right?

BO: Part of it is the degeneration of the American labor movement. The crushing of the American movement, putting it into the vice, has a lot to do with it. Not to valorize some romantic past of American labor, but in the absence of institutions that can develop working-class consciousness among white people (that unions represent the potential for) no one else is going to do it. There’s no other way for that to happen. A strong labor movement is a necessary precondition for developing actively antiracist, antifascist working-class consciousness. Those things don’t necessarily follow from a strong labor movement, but you don’t get them without a strong labor movement.

SB: You also have sort of two approaches to two areas of the problem. An antifascist movement that confronts insurgent fascist groups, like white nationalist organizations, and then you have movements to confront border imperialism and issues around the State’s treatment of immigration.

BO: I think you’re right at the level of tactics, different things are called for in those two cases. I don’t think that there are any serious antifascist organizers who would suggest that you can bring the same sort of energy to dealing with Proud Boys that you would dealing with hardened Border Patrol units. These are not the same thing, and call for different kinds of responses.

But the thing that I would see, when I would come out to Portland to cover demonstrations and rallies, is the coordination and the alignment between the fascists and the cops. At one of the rallies that I covered, I was standing on the Proud Boys’s side and, for whatever reason, that day, the cops weren’t letting them through. And they were getting all frustrated. And then the cops started firing tear gas at the antifascist protesters, and it was this libidinal release for them. They either want to beat the shit out of people or they want to watch people get beaten. And so the cops provided that for them on that day.

The Occupy ICE protests, in encampments across the country, not just in Portland, encampments were getting attacked by fascists on the days when ICE or CBP weren’t harassing people. So there’s a clear practical unity and ideological unity between these organizations in these institutions. And, more to the point—to apply a materialist lens to it—the industrial involvement in border security, and the militarization of Border Patrol and ICE and CBP, and the incorporation of local police departments and sheriffs into the immigration apparatus, and the billions and billions of dollars that are there to be made off of that, creates a material base for border fascist politics that is embraced both by law enforcement and these “non-uniformed” enforcers of border fascism.

So we need a unified political idea that can be applied to [fight] all of these things. I think, broadly, socialism is the overarching idea. My book was mostly done before the uprisings of the summer, but moving forward, the abolitionist idea seems to me to be the unifying principle that allows us to think positively and inspire people’s political imagination to fight against repressive institutions and do so in a way that brings people into the struggle and prepares them to be able to think about how all of these elements are related. That is still going to require the organization and formation of working-class institutions, like unions, in order to create a social base for these ideas to take hold and be carried through. But abolitionism seems to me to hold the most vibrancy on the left right now, and is stepping into the vacuum that the Sanders campaign left, and can unify both people who were activated by that campaign and people who have been activated by community defense—fighting back against Proud Boys—because it targets the institutions that provide a social base for these class enemies.

SB: What do the next four years look like in confronting border fascism after Trump is out of office, and what does the far right look like in this period?

BO: I’ll take the second part first. It’s going to hinge, in large part, on what Trump does with the next six months. Whether or not he breaks from the Republican Party to pursue his own personal, financial, and political interests, which are intertangled. What I am waiting to see is to what extent does the Republican Party becomes an openly and primarily white ethnonationalist party, which then forces the layers of the ruling class that are still invested in it to decide how much it supports their business interests or if they should defect to the Democrats. If Trump breaks and creates his own media venture and withdraws into a universe of self-serving mythology, then that’s going to lead to a lot of fractures in the movement because they won’t have the same connections to the party that they have had the past four years and the institutional grounding. If he stays in politics and is going to run for President again, then the GOP has to recuperate all this energy.

No matter what, we are going to see the continued proliferation of far-right street movements that will make their presence known and felt, especially if the nascent socialist movement in this country continues to build and position itself against the Biden administration and neoliberal Democrats across the country. The stronger the left is, the more violent and threatening the fascists will be. They understand that we are a threat to them in the way that we understand they are a threat to us.

When it comes to the border, Joe Biden has been very clear that he believes in the necessity and importance of border enforcement. I think we will see a return to the Obama-era practice of hiding the ugly parts of our politics. There’s something very analogous to the Obama administration’s embrace of drone warfare to this technocratic “smart enforcement.” What that will mean is that people will care a lot less what is happening in detention centers and on the border itself, and I think that it is the job of the left, of socialists and communists and anarchists, to take this idea of abolition, which is not only about police and prisons but about borders and detention centers, and make it a central part of our political project. And to make people see that a world without police and prisons must also be a world without borders. And as the climate crisis deepens, this is only going to become more and more necessary because the numbers of people who are going to be displaced by droughts, fires, disease is unthinkable, but already happening. ♦

 

 


Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.