Jack Smith IV

Documenting a Fascist Ascent

Air Date: August 7, 2018

Jack Smith IV, senior writer for Mic, talks about American nationalism and White Supremacy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind, one of the leading chroniclers of the modern age fascist and anti-fascist movements is our guest today, senior writer for Mic, Jack Smith IV has resonated as a most audacious truth-telling journalist when the status quo of reporting is to magnify the sensational, on the one hand or to normalize extremism. Think Donald Trump’s “very fine people” remark in response to Nazis and white supremacists marching, Smith is forthright, forthcoming, demanding that we confront hate and hold accountable those who infect our society with it.

Smith also movingly captured the spontaneous airport demonstrations, rallying against the administration’s Muslim ban. It has exposed a nationwide surge in antisemitism and hate crimes capturing viral portraits of everyday racism posted to social media. In response to one CNN anchors criticism of a guest who called out a documented white nationalists, I tweeted, ‘Civility is speaking truth to power for the preservation of civil society. It’s necessary to call out bigots for their bigotry and it’s uncivil to not do so.’” Jack would. That is our preamble. It’s really great to meet you. Thank you for being here today.

SMITH: Thanks for having me. Strong lead.

HEFFNER: Strong lede, but I’m inspired by your reporting all the way from the advent of this administration and its implementation of the travel ban. Take us back to that moment, maybe recognition in our society in America that this administration was governing within authoritarianism or a discriminatory attitude that we haven’t seen in the oval office in recent decades.

SMITHL Particularly the work I do. You know, I’m no, I’m no beltway journalist. My experience of the administration is generally I try to be present where there is activism, where there is radicalism, extremism where there’s sudden outpourings of grassroots energy. I think it became clear from the outset of this administration that this was going to be an audacious offensive, a brash loud moment in which people didn’t know what stood anymore in the realm of acceptable politics, or the realm of what’s possible sort of in our civic life. And so, right out the gate in the Trump Administration, we have people challenging the realm of possibility. We have an incredibly, we have an incredible excitement from the left, this is going to be an opportunity, this crisis offers us an opportunity to really re-imagine what liberals and progressives and the left should be asking for and how they should carry out those demands, and on the right, an opportunity to shift the boundaries of conversation more in their favor. And so right out the gate we had the administration and we had activists both on the right and the left immediately issuing their challenges. And one of the, you know, I was so, so the first thing that happens is the J20 riots, right? It’s inauguration day. And for the first time in really recent memory for somebody as young as me, we have hundreds of antifascists and anti-capitalists taking to the streets and burning a stretch limo. We have.

HEFFNER: That was on Trump’s inauguration.

SMITH: That was on Trump’s inauguration day. Many people don’t. I’m sort of spend a lot of time talking about the J20 riots because immediately sort of comfortable a progressive liberals who fancy themselves, respectable citizens and maybe even centrists were very quick to decry the violence. I got back to the hotel in DC from inhaling smoke from a burning limo to see Rachel Maddow looking on the activists and shaking her head.

What a shame to have distracted from the protest that day. So immediate consternation, but hundreds of people were, I think around 200 and I’m ashamed. I don’t have the number of top of head, something like 198 were facing felonies 10 years in, in jail or whatever, rounded up en masse and have been prosecuted. And batches. Now, luckily most of those cases have been dismissed. But the prosecutorial effort towards a J20 antifascist who broke a Starbucks window and a McDonald’s window, burned a limo and, and otherwise create a little mess that was mostly cleaned up by the next day, these people have faced in incredible, incredible and indiscriminate crackdown. So we had the J20 at the outset, immediately explosions of uncommon, what you might call uncommon activism. And then the, what’s called the Muslim ban, or more accurately, obviously the travel ban protests, right, which would be, it would have been about a month later, you know, mid- January.

As soon as people realized that individuals were being detained and held indefinitely at the airports, it wasn’t just people who were rushing in to stand outside of JFK’s international arrivals and protest by the thousands. There were lawyers, you know, the, one of the untold stories of that day is the dozens of lawyers who showed up working pro bono, setting up a shop in the terminal, taking 24 hour shifts. You know, those are some of the fascinating progressive stories from this thing. But obviously the right has been hard at work in terms of grassroots activism.

HEFFNER: We’re taping on a day that Trump’s travel ban was upheld. Seems to me that when Donald Trump called for a total shutdown of Muslims entering this country, that that was a particular, not a peak moment because we haven’t necessarily reached peak bigot for Donald Trump, but it was an alarming recognition that whether it was for Breitbart‘s extremist readers or for the body politic, this man was going to govern in a way, again, as I said from the outset that was different from his immediate predecessors that was actually targeting people, potential immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and our own Americans – targeting them based on their religion, targeting based on their skin color and so connecting the dots of that decision being realized. It’s different from the tears of the Clinton supporters not breaking that glass ceiling at the Javits Center, because the tears that I myself shed that day when we were denying entry of people on the basis of their religion, that was a different tear that was not a partisan tear.

SMITH: Yeah. And I think that kind of denial, it’s denied, it’s a, fundamental denial of humanity. Right? And you know, when today, while this is being recorded, we’re also dealing with the issue, which hopefully by the time this is airing is not so much our or in our conversation, but the issue of detaining immigrant children, family separation just yesterday, I believe some of the same antifascists who have been, have been protesting white nationalism, the Trump Administration for the past year and a half or so, have of shutdown in immigration courts here in New York to sort of throw their bodies at ICE to prevent them from doing their work. It is of a different character. But, I, I reject the notion that, for example, the anti Muslim sentiment of the Trump Administration is, of a new character, you know, that Donald Trump would him that President Trump would employ anti Muslim sentiment speaks to sort of what the heart of much of the modern conservative movement has become. We talk about anti blackness as an important demography of racism in this country because anti-blackness is very, very strong form of racism in our national history, clearly, but one of the things that we don’t talk about in terms of Donald Trump’s presidency is the Christian nationalism that drove it and the Anti Islam sentiment that drove it. We like to think of the Evangelical Movement of something that was a Bush era problem. Remember that we were young and everybody thought to themselves, Oh God, this whole thing’s just. It’s the New York Times says the heart of the new American suburb is the mega church in and now you know, God is out the window. Well, actually we, what we know now is that Christian nationalism, some studies out of, I believe it was Clemson show that Christian nationalism is one of the, probably not being a white Protestant, but holding Christian nationalist beliefs that America should be a Christian nation, et cetera, is one of the highest predictors for Trump support and controlled for controlling for Christian nationalism and anti Islam sentiment taken together, predict Trump’s support higher oftentimes than anti-feminism, than generalized xenophobia, than anti black sentiment and more than economic, what we call economic anxiety.

And so this anti Muslim rhetoric is incredibly important to speaking coherently, and directly to the fears of modern conservatives, not just in the US, but most certainly in Europe.

HEFFNER: The idea that permits would be awarded or rewarded to documented white nationalists, when we think of that reality in 2018, how do we deal with it as journalists and as citizens? I think there is a legitimate argument to deny white pride permits, at least in certain spaces where there is an acknowledgement of what is the public good and the public good is not white nationalism.

SMITH: And I will say it will be a comfort to those at home, maybe to know that’s in Charlottesville they’ve had a pretty rough time, the, the formal ultra right movement, sort of what we think of as the 10 to 20 figureheads of modern white nationalism and white and White Neo Nazi as you know, the real fringe, right, they’ve had a real tough time in the past year since Charlottesville. Charlottesville really heightened the sense of anxiety and heightened the rejection of those movements. Many of the leaders have a fallen into disgrace, gone to jail, uh, tried holding follow-up permits to getting drowned out embarrassingly. Many of them have had domestic abuse scandals. It’s really been, they’ve had a pretty miserable time of it and were rejected for follow-up rallies in Charlottesville. So on the one hand, there will be a follow-up rally, Jason Kessler, who who initially held the unite the right rally in Charlottesville, finally got one for outside the White House. You know, Washington DC is pretty permissive. I think it’ll be him 10 sympathizers, 100 reporters and a thousand counter protestors, but I think when you say how do we handle this thing, we have two things. There’s two things that we can deal with explicitly. We can deal with the alt-right, so we’ve got a combination of a misogynist extremists, but more viral and racists people who believe that America should be a whites only nation or that or white separatists, people who believed that white people should break off, that there should be self determination that we should read gerrymander and segregate the nation. These are extremists and we …

HEFFNER: Including the newest supreme court member, Neil Gorsuch.

SMITH: Well then we have American conservatism, reactionary thought and mainstream racism at large. And I think one of the ways that we can address white nationalists, the fringe guys explicitly, is by looking at the through lines between what they believe and seeing the common threads between what were white nationalism, the white nationalist leaders and movement are similar to and different from modern conservatism. On the one hand, modern conservatists, modern good conservatives, sorry, are nominally pro constitution, right? Very not a white nationalist belief. On the other hand, if you watch, and I’ve done plenty of work documenting sort of like Tucker Carlson’s slide into some pretty ugly rhetoric, Tucker Carlson’s show and, and many other conservative media outlets are channeling some very, very ugly and dark narratives that explicitly mainstream fringe white nationalist lines of thinking, for example, of one idea is the concept that immigration, that there’s there’s going to be a demographic shift that black and brown people from within and without will overthrow the order and displace White Protestants. Well, if you watch Tucker Carlson and he is, his segments on the panic of the state of men, what do you see when you see a major news media figure, national news figure linking, delicately linking, but linking immigration to declining fertility in white men, well, men in America, but I think the implication is meant to be white men. It’s that I think is the way we can look at white nationalists responsibly is by, is by becoming expert at it, by the way. Because then you’ll be able to see it. Then we can see it

HEFFNER: You identify in the more encouraging news, the marginalization of the folks like Richard Spencer at the top.

SMITH: That’s right.

HEFFNER: But in a most depressing reality, you cite simultaneously that the elite, the Fox News hosts, are signaling and president Trump too, to those very fine people that it’s okay. So you have on the one hand campaigns like Sleeping Giants, and for those in the audience, Google Sleeping Giants, Sleeping Giants is a campaign to make bigotry less profitable.

SMITH: They’ll go to, they’ll see a Sears ad on some horrendously racist Breitbart article and they’ll screen grab it and send it to Sears and say, can you believe that your, your ads are showing up on the site and Sears or whoever it is, will, will say, oof, I’m out.

HEFFNER: And one of the notable examples of a mega corporate giant that has not acted responsibly is Amazon because, according to Sleeping Giants, Amazon will still advertise Breitbart and hosts the NRA TV show, which is engaged in, I would say, hateful rhetoric that could be very much aligned with white nationalists

SMITH: And sells white nationalist literature by the way.

HEFFNER: And sells white nationalist literature.

SMITH: If you want to get writers like Jared Taylor, the head of American Renaissance, if you want to get his books, all of the foundational texts of the modern, what we might call the modern intellect, you know, that the elite racist literature of the day, oh, it’s all available on Amazon. Amazon Prime probably.

HEFFNER: We had Shane Burley here, an expert on modern day fascism and talked about how do you transcend the Antifa or antifascist idea that you’re calling out outrages, but you don’t have a counter vision that is also rooted in civil society and civil norms. The vast majority of folks in those inaugural protests, were not setting a blaze the streets. There were certain people who probably were…

SMITH: Oh, probably a couple hundred antifascist protestors, several thousand, uh, Mic, Mic, my news organization and one or two others, you know, the Washington Post live blog covered them. But yes, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt = to maybe 10,000 peaceful protesters marching through the streets. Black Lives Matter shut down an entrance.

Remember what we saw the inauguration lawn and the famous picture of like there’s not many people there, and everybody sort of teased Trump about that. Well, that was because peaceful protesters and Climate Justice, Black Lives Matter, Antiwar coalitions shut down the entrances almost nobody talks about that to this day. Black Lives Matter activists chained themselves, wrapped themselves in chains and closed down, I think there are eight entrances to the inauguration or something like that, maybe three of them closes, astounding, but yet the many peaceful protesters.

HEFFNER: In this environment where Trump and his allies want to bemoan in and demonize the other, how do you coalesce around a vision of democracy and an American pluralism that is going to unify this country?

SMITH: Well, it’s an enormous question. I think that the… Here’s what I, I could say without, because I think the funny thing is a lot of journalists who cover activism from the sitting in the office in writing op-eds perspective, proselytize over proselytize to protesters. Antifascists will behave however they want. I think that what well meaning progressives would maybe might recognize right now are what their values are independent of what they are opposed to. I think one of the great criticisms of the 2016 Democratic campaign was that it identified only by its opposition to Trump’s garishness.

Right now we have a Democratic Party struggling and its messaging and struggling to articulate its vision. That’s been pretty well documented by political reporting. I mean it’s, it’s pretty uncertain who’s going to take up the mantle for 2020. It feels like a pretty broad game. There’s some very interesting research and some fascinating writers who write of a big truism that we should come to terms with, with, which is that progressives are actually pretty firmly united on certain issues like antiracism, Universal Healthcare and such broadly to the left of the Democratic Party, broadly to the left of the Democratic Party poll. If you polled Democrats something, the Democratic base, you know, they don’t have problems with identity politics.

76 to 80 percent of Democrats poll for repealing Obamacare and replacing with Single Payer healthcare. And we don’t see that as reflected as a, as a Democratic talking point. More and more we do, but I think that modern progressivism has maybe, I think many people will say, has lost its sense of shared values that yes, as you said, present a vision for the future. The Conservatives right now have an incredibly active imagination for what’s possible in conservatism. What if we shut down the borders? What if we separate children? It would do well for progressives to imagine if we, if a progressive, if we as progressives could imagine whatever we wanted, Universal Healthcare, different, a much more broad pathway to immigration, a return of the labor movement which used to be so important to the progressive vision. What is a progressive stand for? And if you could say what you wanted without apologizing, what would you say? The great, the great trick, you know, progressive, every progressive, somebody wrote this in Rolling Stone. Every progressive grows up being told that you’re a utopian who has to compromise when you come to the table, come ready to appease the conservatives. We had Obamacare written into law with a hundred, I think 100 or so provisions meant to appeal to conservatives and not a single one voted for it. Well, what, what would you ask for if that if that center that you’re appealing to didn’t really exist, because a lot of the good data that says that it maybe doesn’t as much as Democratic establishment would like you to believe.

HEFFNER: And I also think a question for the Democratic Party and progressive is do they acknowledge the betrayal of actual conservatism because what conservative thinking has become is Willie Horton on steroids – directed animus at Muslims, and there are definitions of conservatism that can fall actually squarely within more forward thinking Democratic Party or progressive ideas defending the Constitution. That was at one juncture a conservative idea. So how do you channel both the progressive ideals and at the same time appeal to people who really are now no longer registered Republicans because since Trump’s election, they’ve become unaffiliated or now they’re willing to vote Democratic. And I will just say to our viewers, I think that there is an understanding among the citizenry that in 2018, voting for a Democrat is not a political or partisan choice if you care about oversight and restoring democratic norms, it’s a patriotic duty and I think there’s at least the beginning of that understanding. We only have a minute or so left Jack, but I want to just present this final question to you, which is thinking about the authoritarian’s playbook. We have every reason to be alarmed at what’s going on, but we don’t want to be fatalistic in believing that Trump’s way or Trump-ism has to be the future. What can you say from your reporting on those who fought tooth and nail, the rise of that authoritarianism that gives us inspiration that we shouldn’t be fatalistic about Trump’s erosion of democratic norms.

SMITH: Both sides rightly see a crisis. There’s a crisis, there’s ecological crisis, there’s economic crisis. We face all sorts of crises and there are two opposing visions. One comes from the far right. One of the things that are wrong about so much, they are right about one thing is that we have a crisis in their solution is shut it down, bring back hierarchy, set up the – make the walls higher. There isn’t enough. What would an alternative vision look like? I’ll just end like this. In England, the when, when the Prime Minister called for reelection of all the, of all the, of all the MPs, okay. She believes she’s going to have a super majority and the left made a very big move. Jeremy Corbyn on the left made a very big move. Let’s have a manifesto.

We’re going to nationalize the railways. We’re going to shore up Universal Healthcare. We’re going to make college free for all. He said we don’t need anything except for up an unapologetic vision of solidarity. It was one of the greatest electoral upsets in British history. They thought they were going to move from a majority, to a super majority and she almost lost her seat as Prime Minister. It would do well to think not what do we say to those who are afraid and want to build the walls higher, but what would it mean if we actually live in a society where everyone can be taken care of and what can we do to actualize the distribution of those resources for the benefit of all people.

HEFFNER: To be continued. Jack, a pleasure. Thank you.

SMITH: Thanks so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.