On January 6, 2021, a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power from former President Donald Trump to his successor, President Joe Biden. The insuing riot led to five deaths, hundreds of arrests, and renewed concern over the impacts of right-wing rhetoric. Lawrence Rosenthal, the founder of Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, believes that right-wing Americans’ ideology stems from an understanding of America’s foundational principles that is fundamentally different from their progressive counterparts.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In 2009, you started the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. Why?
I taught a course at a UC extension, and in the middle of the intermission of the first lecture, which was on the Tea Party, people came to me and said, “How can people believe these things?” And I said, “That’s the point of the course.” And, in a way, that’s the point of the center; it is the attempt to make right-wing movements, right-wing thinking, comprehensible to people who live outside that world.
In your latest book, Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism, you compare contemporary American politics to Italian nationalism of the early 20th century. What parallels do you see?
There are many. Surely, the attack on the Capitol on January 6 leaves no doubt about the constituency for illiberalism in this country and makes plausible a conversation about to what extent this resembles fascism. Fascism comes to power in Italy through something historically known as the March on Rome, the logic of which was pretty close to the logic of January 6. On the other hand, the March on Rome worked; Mussolini got the mandate even though his troops, the Blackshirts, did not take over the parliament. The reverse is the case with Trump. That is to say, it failed, but his followers did invade Congress, with apparently some intention of taking representatives or senators hostage, presumably with the notion that they would be a bargaining chip to get Trump another four years. But the connection Trump established to the militia, like the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo Boys and so forth … that’s characteristic of fascism.
What’s the path from the Tea Party to the Proud Boys?
The Tea Party essentially developed identity politics. These are different from the identity politics in the progressive world, which are about attempting to get a seat at the table around questions of social justice, access to political power, and things of that nature. The Tea Party was an identity movement of people objecting to their displacement at that table. It’s an identity built around dispossession. With Donald Trump, these people became radicalized and racialized, and it caught the eye of white nationalists, who had not had a role in national politics since the 1920s or 1930s. As the marchers in Charlottesville chanted while carrying tiki torches, “You will not replace us.”
How did Trump win the support of the religious right?
His evangelical followers, who perhaps make up the largest voting bloc in the Republican electorate, used to call themselves the “moral majority.” They came to accept and embrace such a plainly immoral character by reading Trump into the Bible as a flawed character sent by God, as King David or King Cyrus were. King David was perhaps a murderer and certainly an adulterer, and yet he saved the Hebrew people. And King Cyrus, also a fallen person, saved the Hebrew people from Babylonian captivity. These characters provided biblical prototypes for Trump.
What are your thoughts on the 1776 report, which was released on MLK Day, two days before Trump’s term ended?
It’s ideologically crucial for Trumpism. The document comes out of the world of “national conservatism,” as it’s now called, to directly challenge the New York Times 1619 Project marking 400 years of slavery in America. In this emerging ideological conception there is this fundamentally different understanding of the founding of America from that which people in blue America take for granted. Take the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creators, with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these… .” In blue America, those words stand by themselves. In the world of national conservatism, what’s important is the identity of the people who wrote the words. It’s not simply their intellectual background that matters, but their religious background and who they were as social and ethnic beings. And versions of this thinking have been around since the Tea Party days, when it was argued that the Constitution was cribbed, 100 percent, from Protestant preachers of the colonial period. In that conception, the founding of America is not based on propositions, it’s based on ethnicity.