My Day with the Far-Right, Where I Live and Breathe

shelly tochluk
May 29 · 17 min read

Everything I have learned about the alt-right has made me fearful and worried. I have also been horrified, witnessing the expanding reach of their rhetoric and attempts to convince people that we live in a world I don’t recognize. But until recently, I thought this movement lived at something of a distance, outside my community.

Imagine my reaction, then, the moment I saw a flyer promoting a far-right conference that was to be held at the mainstream, Lutheran church I attended as a 6-year-old child until I went away to college. My mind raced. Who was this group? And, what were they doing at the church where I grew up, where my mom still attends? I needed to know.

So, last month I attended the day-long, conservative Christian conference promoted in that flyer. It took place in Huntington Beach, CA. And it resulted in a pit forming in my stomach so heavy and large that it made me queasy for the next several days.

The only reason I even learned of the event is because my mother asked me if the latest article I’d posted on Medium, Swastikas in the Bathroom, includes a list of white nationalist groups. It doesn’t. That’s when she showed me the flyer. The event had been mentioned at the close of her church’s service that day and the flyers were left in the back for congregants to take as they left. It made my mom feel funny.

The two keynote speeches listed on the flyer warned of the dangers of diversity education and spoke of protecting the nation from Marxism and the Deep State. My mom asked if this was related to what I’d been researching about white nationalists. I told her it may not be directly related, but the language was concerning, in the neighborhood of the alt-right. She said her pastor told the congregation the event’s sponsors were renting the church.

That night I searched the web for more information. A Facebook event page listed two co-sponsors for the event, the Orange County chapter of the Eagle Forum and Turning Point USA. Well, there it was. Turning Point USA is one of the groups highlighted in the post I wrote on Medium. One section of the piece explains how white nationalists are infiltrating the GOP in an attempt to attain leadership positions through membership in what purport to be mainstream conservative organizations, such as Turning Point USA.

My intent with this reflection is to offer readers my rationale for attending, what I learned about the connections between this group’s rhetoric and white nationalists, and implications for organizing among equity and justice-minded people.

So, why did I decide to attend? First, this event was happening on my family’s home turf. Second, the previous months spent learning about the rise of white nationalism had motivated me to make sense of the overlapping ideologies of hate groups and how their rhetoric is taking over mainstream conservatism. Third, I wanted to know how popular this event would be. Would 350 people attend or 35? And finally, I wanted to know what they said to each other and how they framed their concerns in order to gain insight into their mindset.

As quickly as my decision was made to attend, however, a tension arose. There was to be a rally held by several groups of white nationalists that same day, just a few miles down the road. Where should I put my body? I opted to be ready for both. If the event at the church was too crowded and no seat was available (as I had declined to pre-register), then I would go to the rally as a counter protestor with some local SURJ-affiliated members.

On the day of the event, I arrived early to a more than half-filled parking lot. A woman holding a sign-in sheet welcomed me warmly and I took a seat. As the event began, approximately 60 people were in the room. That grew to over 100 by the afternoon. Including those in the exhibit area, approximately 150 people attended over the course of the day.

For the sake of brevity, I will spare you the details of what was unsurprising within a far-right conservative Christian setting, such as 1) opening statements that ridiculed gender studies, the cult of science, and the big bang theory, 2) the frequent use of old testament scripture to bolster arguments and give weight to calls to action, and 3) strict biblical interpretations regarding LGBTQ issues, sex, and traditional gender roles.

To be honest, I don’t know what I expected, although I did find myself surprised at various points. (Maybe I’m naïve. I do not watch enough Fox News to stay abreast of all the narratives pushed by many of their pundits. So, forgive me if what I write seems obvious to some readers.)

What I noticed over the course of the day were connections to what I’d been reading about white nationalists, white supremacists, the alt-right, and the light-right. Sometimes these connections felt like direct links, clear as day and jaw-dropping. More often, they felt like obscured, unnamed, overlapping Venn diagram circles, where the overlap is larger than what distinguishes them.

The first section below describes what I perceive to be the overlapping interests of white nationalists and far-right, conservative Christians. This is important because although most people I know think standing against hate should be a non-partisan value, members of far-right Christian groups will never stand against white nationalists. I now understand why.

The second section explains how these far-right conservative Christians frame their concerns, the impact on their organizing and mobilizing efforts, and what it means for the movement for justice and equity.

Hold on. This is quite a ride.

Section 1. Connections between the Rhetoric of Far-Right Christianity and White Nationalism

White Knight Imagery and References. The first thing I noticed when receiving the program for the day were the images. Along with the speakers’ pictures were five photos corresponding to each of the day’s themes. Each one included the motif of a knight in shining armor; the first, a knight with a sword pointed skyward atop a hill (protecting land); the second, a kneeling knight reminiscent of the inquisition (defending church and religious liberty); the third, a smiling man in armor with a wife and naked infant nestled in his arms (protecting family); the fourth, a child in full Halloween-type, knight-themed regalia (representing the need to protect schools); and fifth, a knight in full armor in front of a castle (protecting our nation). Does it need to be said that the images included only white people?

The theme was also articulated verbally, as conference speakers called multiple times for attendees to be like knights in shining armor. They even had a small statue of a knight in the front of the room, which was referred to reverently during the conference opening.

When I recounted this aspect of the day with a black friend a couple of weeks later, he nodded and said, “Yeah, okay, so this was their motif. Sure. It’s Christian. Okay, so what?” I had had a similar reaction at first. For dedicated Christians who look back at the Middle Ages and the Inquisition as Christianity’s glory days, their harkening back to these traditional, uncompromising, times of battle makes sense. As a child, I had sat in the very pew where I sat for this conference and had sung “onward Christian soldiers.”

I then told my friend what I’d learned about how white nationalists have recently replaced their overt racist symbols with imagery that is more palatable to the mainstream. They now publicize their goals as preserving and protecting white culture, uplifting traditional masculinity, and living out the masculine, warrior ideal…all within the iconography of the European, white knight in shining armor.

“Oh, damn,” he said. Yeah, exactly.

Enemies Threaten the Nation; We are in Danger. I had no idea how much of a precipice we are on as a nation. Globalists, Communists, Muslim refugees, and homosexuals, oh my!

Let’s start with the globalists. Did you know about Agenda 21? I didn’t. But, the first speaker told us we should all go look it up and be deeply afraid. Turns out, she was warning against the United Nations Agenda for the 21st Century. The key term she told us to be concerned about is…wait for it…Sustainable Development. “These two words no longer mean what we think they mean,” she warned. They have been replaced by three associated ideas, all of which the audience was told mean a loss of property rights, individualism, and personal freedom. They include…again, wait for it… Yep, you guessed it: “1) equity, 2) social justice, and 3) and environmental justice.”

To be fair, she is a cattle rancher who is deeply concerned about the expansion of eminent domain regulations and calls to reduce meat production. However, she went on to paint a picture of a leftist, globalist agenda that functions as a machine which ensures that “rocks have rights.” I’m not completely clear on the logic, but somehow the thread also included the revelation that Earth Day is actually a celebration of Lenin’s birthday.

The important connection between what I experienced at this conference and my research into white nationalists is the similar rhetoric about a globalist threat. According to white nationalists, both the liberal and conservative parties are advancing a New World Order (run by Jewish people), where globalism ruins the U.S. To them, this means the federal government cannot be trusted (although members may try to infiltrate and take over local government seats). Calls to exit NATO and undercut the U.N. are all part of this larger frame.

White nationalists consider not only globalization, but also immigration, to be existential threats to white families. I was aware of this, and was therefore primed to make the connection as the conference progressed and the scope of threat the speakers detailed expanded. While at no time did speakers at this conference refer to a Jewish threat, the speakers did identify two primary attacks occurring against Christianity today, Islam and Marxism.

First, we were warned of a “civilization jihad” that seeks to change communities from within by devout Muslim refugees and immigrants conducting a “stealth invasion.” Slides offered “7 ways to hold back the Islam agenda,” Parts I and II. Some highlights included advice about being aware of the globalist agenda pushing chaos and a New World Order, avoiding being involved in “inter-faith councils” that have Muslims in them, and raising an army of Christian soldiers. Let’s be clear, according to the speaker, any devout Muslim must want to kill you if you are not following Sharia Law.

Second, attendees were warned about the threat of Marxism in the guise of liberation theology. Yes, liberation theology is considered a warped and destructive force. My eyebrows raised. Here, a slide explained the difference between Modern Jesus (linked to a liberal, Marxist agenda) and Biblical Jesus, with a call to adhere to Biblical Jesus’ demands. Overall, it was stated that Modern Jesus wants to be nice to everyone, while Biblical Jesus recognizes that following God’s word will make you an outcast. Why this tidbit is important, and caused my heart to race as I heard it spoken aloud, is because the call to be warriors for God, unafraid to go into battle, closely hews to the white nationalist call for protecting white families and the nation from immigrant invaders.

Additionally, also argued by multiple speakers was that the childbearing rate per woman is too low for sustainability and Christians need to have more babies to push back against this rising tide of Islam. Here, again, the conference warned of an existential threat via increased immigration. This is very closely related to white nationalists’ belief that Jews are using multiculturalism and a liberal agenda to increase immigration and miscegenation in order to lower the white birth rate. It’s outlandish, I know. And yet, there are people who really believe this.

According to white nationalists, white people are under attack and need to fight for their preservation. After all I heard at this event, any good Christian soldier “wrapped in the armor of God” sitting in one of the pews at this conference would feel similarly.

The threat of communism was also woven into multiple speeches. It reminded me of a book I read a few months earlier called Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew. The book details how many white power and white nationalist groups have historically included a strong anti-communist thread, particularly as disgruntled veteran soldiers were recruited to, quite literally, bring the war home with them, twisting their anti-communism into anti-governmental rhetoric.

This connection between this history and the conference came into focus as I watched former Vietnamese soldiers being asked to speak on the dangers of communism today. Let’s be clear, communism in this context includes the proposal for a New Green Deal and calls for universal healthcare. To this crowd, these proposals, with AOC as their poster girl, threaten tyranny and impending chaos.

One final group was the focus of much ire at this conference. Homosexuals. While for many white nationalist groups, Jewish people are considered the primary enemy, Blacks and LGBTQ folks are not far behind. The connection here is how both the white nationalist and far-right Christian groups’ ideologies preach virulent homophobia along with a deep concern over a declining fertility rate.

The lengths the conference speakers went to in order to make their point is both disturbing and fascinating. See if you can follow the logic thread four of the speakers crafted. You’ll be forgiven if you’re confused by this shortened version, and so if you dare, you can read one of the handouts provided. In sum, the speakers collectively argued the following:

1. Sexual orientation is socially constructed, so cultural norms are what create gay people.

2. Now that LGBTQ identity is being accepted in schools, more kids are turning gay. (One speaker argued that it’s easier to “go this direction” because then young people don’t have to deal with relating to the opposite sex, and so the rise in LGBTQ youth will only increase.)

3. We already have a low birthrate in the U.S., and this trend is only going to make it worse.

4. This threatens our nation because we aren’t repopulating.

The fact that this group identifies the acceptance of LGBTQ people as a threat to our nation’s ability to repopulate its Christian soldiers is significant because of the way it easily aligns with white nationalist rhetoric about how a low fertility rate is a threat to white families. And while the people in the pews at this conference are not calling for violence against LGBTQ people, their rhetoric emboldens white nationalists, who do.

Shared Tactics. The final point of connection is a simple confirmation that far-right groups are sharing tactics and joining forces in response to real and perceived shared values and interests.

Listening to the representative from Turning Point USA, I heard the exact language that had been reported in the links I shared in the Medium post, Swastikas in the Bathroom. I know I shouldn’t have been surprised. But, it was the exactness of the messaging that caught me, the level of discipline displayed, and the dedication I could feel among audience members to take the message and run with it.

The college representatives at this conference talked about never giving in, never conceding that hate speech is a real issue, and instead, always claiming that conservatives’ free speech is under attack. Their effort is about controlling the debate, not letting liberals witness any divisions between conservatives, and using “redpilling” as a strategy. (See this article for info about what “redpilling” means.)

These are, again, the exact strategies espoused by white nationalists and it aligned with what I’d read about white nationalists getting less extreme right-wing people to unwittingly make their arguments for them in online and on-the-ground recruiting. It’s brilliant, actually, what they’ve achieved. White nationalists now have a large group of relatively conservative folks parroting their decades’-old, extreme talking points.

For more information about why Turning Point USA is linked with the alt-right agenda, consider reading this article, from The New Yorker.

The big take-away is that Turning Point USA is a large, well-funded effort that masks its underlying intentions with a mainstream conservative agenda, making the potential consequences harder for people to recognize and challenge.

In the end, I was left with these questions:

· What in the world could prompt these Christians (convinced that proponents of diversity and inclusion are part of a globalist, communist, Islamic threat against their very existence) to stand up against the hate-filled rhetoric of white nationalists?

· And, what does it mean that they are sharing tactics and organizing strategies with conservative groups (purporting to be mainstream) who are well-funded and increasingly active on college campuses?

Ugh! While I may not have the answers to these questions, I certainly want to support the organizing efforts of anyone who does.

Section 2: Implications for Organizing and Mobilizing

A Multiracial Event. As expected, the conference offered a primarily white slate of speakers addressing a primarily white audience. However, the inclusion of non-white voices was notable. Vietnamese war veterans were honored, a Vietnamese pastor spoke, and a Black pastor from Georgia was on the speaker’s panel. Race was never, and I mean never, mentioned throughout the entire day. Not once.

Okay, maybe once. You could argue that race came up when the black pastor told the audience he tells people they can call him a homophobe as long as they don’t call him a N*****. This was met with rousing laughter and applause.

Do I think this was a colorblind celebration of difference? Hardly. The Vietnamese veterans were there to warn the audience about the dangers of communism. The black pastor received the most generous helping of applause, with the white audience co-signing and hollering. These figures said exactly what this group needed to hear from them, and they offered it in such a way that the audience could easily walk away from the event feeling confident that racism had nothing to do with the event in any way. Good luck trying to get them to recognize the racially coded language amidst their positions. Based in Christian religiosity, their positions craft a narrative wherein anyone calling actions or speech that occurred in that room “racist” would be perceived as foolish.

My takeaway: If our push back begins and ends with calls of “racism”, it will not resonate. Even if the goal is to rally the “movable middle” into action, these events don’t look or feel like overt racism. We need an expansive, intersectional toolkit.

Democrats are Socialists. Socialists are Communists. Ergo, all Democrats are Communists. This is the unmistakable thread that dominated the day, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes (D-New York) is the current face of the threat. From the opening with the veterans to the keynote at the end of the day warning about Marxism and the Deep State, exposing the threats against individualism and the capitalist system was paramount.

A speaker even quoted a keynote from last year’s White Privilege Conference to demonstrate the left’s “anti-capitalist movement and embrace of communism.” This was a political event, make no mistake. And the effort to re-elect Trump is high on the priority list. What struck me was how quickly all speakers fell in line with the rhetoric, such that only once did a speaker slip and actually use the word Democrat, before quickly restating, using communist as the replacement.

The important part about all of this, to me, was how the values the left prizes were portrayed as evil harbingers of doom. Equity and justice were portrayed as watch words, code words for attacks on property rights, religious freedoms, and individual liberties. Universal healthcare, in a quick aside, was swept away as a communist plot that, once unleashed, would make people worry over those who drink soda, and therefore, would become a government takeover of personal freedoms.

My takeaway: People really believe that Democratic policy proposals seeking to benefit the majority are covert attempts at unleashing a communist takeover. We need to disrupt the narrative that caring for the collective equals communism when speaking with those with whom we seek to find common ground or shared values. This could include an effort to inquire more deeply into what it can mean to “love our country” and be “patriotic,” highlighting the relationship to a concern for the wellbeing of all of us.

Misleading data, twisted conclusions, and direct lies. Forgive me for not being more keenly aware of how the deception works regarding attacks on the LGBTQ community. The packaging of data attempting to show members of the LGBTQ community as dangerous, disturbed pedophiles who should not be able to work with children was hardly skillful. It was effective, however, for those who already believe the premise.

And in a completely unexpected twist, my greatest surprise of the day occurred when a speaker veered off script onto a tangent and alerted the group that there was…pause for a gasp…an Antifa rally happening that very day in the city. Umm, yeah. I didn’t see it coming that the white nationalist rally that I was prepared to attend as a counter protestor would be reframed for this group as an Antifa rally.

My takeaway: Members of these groups are horribly misinformed. But, they are working really hard to ensure that their narrative has an internally consistent logic. They are more than happy to misapply their “data” to convince those around them their interpretation has merit. Knowing that we are right is not enough. We need to be articulate about the evidence underlying our belief system. We also need to recognize that these groups use language, such as “socially constructed,” in a manipulative way to spread misinformation. We need to explain that race as a social construction does not transfer to issues of sexual orientation.

Energized, Broad, Strategic Organizing. California is in the midst of adopting a new Comprehensive Sex Education curriculum and Health Framework. This was the crux of the keynote on protecting children from diversity education. The fact that sex education curriculum raises concerns among religiously conservative parents is not surprising. What I didn’t realize was the high degree to which far-right political action groups are targeting conservative, minority communities through church outreach. They are arguing that this is a non-partisan issue and the only way to protect children from 1) LGBTQ recruitment into being gay, and 2) sex education that confuses children about their gender identity is to vote GOP.

My Takeaway: Three things. One, conservative white people feel very comfortable outreaching to, and recruiting, minority voters to join them around Sex Ed Curriculum and Gender issues. We fool ourselves when we think demographic change means the GOP is in a death spiral. Two, this group is highly motivated and organized. Although passionately engaged now, they will be even more so if they lose the next election. They are already planning for specific lawsuits around California’s transgender bathroom bill (which they know will fail in California) with the intention that it will move toward the U.S. Supreme Court on religious freedom grounds. Three, electoral politics and the seating of judges is critical, even if imperfect and insufficient.

Shared language/tactics among the right and left. A surreal moment occurred when a speaker provided a minutes-long call to action via an update on their group’s organizing efforts on college campuses. Having listened to discriminatory, dehumanizing language for hours, it was notable that some of the messages I was hearing could have been heard at our local SURJ-affiliate meeting. They actively seek to replicate the left’s organizing strategies and engagement tactics. Calls to be kind to those who aren’t yet politically formed in order to slowly pull them into understanding made me feel like I’d entered a parallel universe for a moment.

My takeaway: While the fuel underlying their rationale is fear and homophobia, their organizing strategies seek to spread their word by showing love and kindness to those they are trying to recruit. If the center left doesn’t adopt an attitude of kindness as well, who do you think will win the battle for the hearts of minds of those who aren’t yet politically determined?

Comparing messages among the far right and far left. One thing progressive and far-right groups seem to both understand is that there is no point trying to recruit one another. The “movable middle” is the battle ground.

My takeaway: The right is definitely mobilizing people by playing upon fears rooted in misinformation, distortion, and attacks on people’s identities. It’s also true that some on the left call out this hate using dehumanizing language about those they are criticizing. We will need more than a simple, singular narrative for understanding why people are attracted to hate movements or far-right positions. This includes recognizing that many who join hate groups do so after having experienced significant trauma themselves. Just as we seek to provide support to extract youth from gang violence or prisons, empathetically humanizing those caught up in the cycle of hate is necessary.

All in all, it was a long day. It took quite some time to process it all. Some have asked if this is a new thing I’ll be doing on a regular basis. I doubt it. But, I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open for what is happening in your community. Events and groups pushing fear and hate are likely closer than you think.