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The Far Right’s Apocalyptic Literary Canon

When Trump tweets about "civil war," he's echoing books about race wars and nationalist coups that a violent fringe has long cherished.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As tensions in Washington ratchet toward the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump, dark matters are suddenly part of the discussion. “If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office,” Rev. Robert Jeffress told the gang at Fox & Friends Weekend on Sunday, “I’m afraid it will cause a civil war-like fracture from which our country will never heal.” Trump posted the comments to his Twitter feed overnight, and Washington reacted immediately to the ominous invocation of civil war in the United States.  

Some very frightening folks on the radical right reacted as well. The Oath Keepers, one of the largest antigovernment militias in the country—claiming tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans among its members—doubled down on the president’s admonition, tweeting: “The term ‘civil war’ is increasingly on people’s tongues. And not just ‘cold civil war’—full-blown ‘hot’ civil war. Fact is patriots consider the left to be domestic enemies of the constitution bent on the destruction of the Republic.” 

So-called serious people may consider this kind of assertion to be extreme, even crazy. It’s neither. As impeachment proceedings gain speed, Trump is getting backed into a corner, and Trump gets aggressive when cornered. He’s already prepping his followers for a wider “us” versus “them” conflict, tweeting last weekend: “They are trying to stop ME, because I am fighting for YOU.” 

With Republicans in control of the Senate, it remains unlikely that the president will be forced from office by anything besides an electoral defeat next year. It’s doubtful he’ll go away quietly in any event. Trump’s now-jailed former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, concluded his testimony to Congress earlier this year with a warning: “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also publicly aired concerns that the president might contest a close election, telling the The New York Times, “If we win by four seats, by a thousand votes each, he’s not going to respect the election. We have to prepare for that.”  

You know who is prepared for that? Lone wolves, domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and militiamen on the far-right fringes who have long trafficked in an expansive body of published manifestos and propagandist fiction. Theirs is a kind of sick pop culture, constantly updated and running parallel to the mainstream, that fully accounts for apocalyptic race wars and nationalist-driven coups d’etat. Those steeped in this body of literature are primed to expect the moment where their rhetorical “shit” hits the real-life “fan.” Many hope this will happen in their lifetimes. Many others expect to participate in this great reckoning when it does. It’s all written down in the stories they tell one another.

If and when this moment arrives, those who have drunk heavily from this subculture will be expecting to take their cues from Trump. He has done his part in raising these expectations, having repeatedly and bluntly floated the idea of extending his time in office beyond the constitutionally mandated term limits. He once posed this question to his Twitter followers: “Do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?” More recently, he posted a fake campaign meme: “Trump 2024, Keep America Great.” And back before he even took office, candidate Trump was flatly asked whether he would accept the election results, should he be defeated in a close race. He refused to answer, instead snarking, “I’ll tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense.”

The suspense is killing us. Cesar Sayoc, the “#MAGABomber,” name-checked Trump and his ideologies in a written manifesto. The El Paso shooter did as well, but added the caveat: “My opinions…predate Trump and his campaign for president.” The words of these men have been effectively inducted into the literary canon of the far right, for future extremists to cite as inspiration for their own actions. This sinister virtual lending library contains more than just a bunch of loose-limbed screeds. In fact, they quite neatly mirror mainstream literature in its mix of highbrow and pulp, as well as its range of subgenres: earnest historical novels, dystopian sci-fi fantasies, broad comic farces, and more. Some of it is well written, most is not. Over the years, these books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, primarily via person-to-person sales online or at gun shows. It’s a world that most people—“normies,” as they call us—know very little about, but it’s as expansive and varied as the average person’s reading list. These books are proven fodder for terrorist attacks and, in this American moment, they portend a dangerous confrontation.

The premier classic of the genre is The Turner Diaries, written in 1978 by William Pierce, founder of the white supremacist National Alliance. It is the fictitious diary of Earl Turner, an everyman soldier for a secretive organization of racist insurrectionaries, called the Organization, which successfully hijacks a nuclear arsenal and leverages those weapons to incite a race war and eventually overthrow the U.S. government. The book has inspired hundreds of attacks worldwide, including a gruesome series of murders in the eighties. Most famously, police discovered pages torn from The Turner Diaries in a baggie in Timothy McVeigh’s car at the time of his arrest for the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City.

The next-best-known book is probably Jean Raspail’s 1973 anti-immigrant fantasy novel, The Camp of the Saints, which depicts the invasion and eventual destruction of white European culture by hordes of brown-skinned immigrants. It begins with a surreal depiction of a mob of Indian mothers swarming the gates of a European embassy, desperately pressing their children through the bars, and onto the good graces of white society. The Camp of the Saints, notably, has its hooks in the White House. Julia Hahn, special assistant to the president, who works on immigration policy with Steve Bannon protégé Stephen Miller, once delivered a glowing essay about Raspail’s novel—a love song really—to Breitbart News. Bannon himself regularly mentions to the book in discussions of immigration. To anyone familiar with the paranoia-fueled xenophobia of The Camp of the Saints, it is not surprising to learn that a White House staffed by devotees of the book would commit themselves to corralling migrant children into pens. The book informs this policy; it did not happen by accident.

Politico has reported recent discussions among White House staff of a self-published, rambling essay called Bronze Age Mindset. The book is a dizzying 198-page treatise, written under the pseudonym of “Bronze Age Pervert”—shorthanded to “BAP” by his ardent fans. And they are legion. It’s a smash hit with the right, and is currently ranked #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list in Ancient Greek History, and #174 in Humor—an inarguably more competitive category.

The author’s Twitter presence is a post-post-post-ironic blend of jokey homoerotic photos of bodybuilders and boorish far-right memes. But while BAP’s prose is rather artfully penned, Bronze Age Mindset’s arguments are fractured and incoherent. Imagine the opinions of Jordan B. Peterson, as expressed by Ayn Rand’s Superman, in the playful vernacular of Donald Barthelme. The essay nevertheless manages to exert a sneaky power on the reader, despite being so chopped and screwed. BAP’s introduction to the book is an incantation of sorts, the haunting final sentence of which ends without a terminal period; a detail that is unlikely to have been omitted by mistake:

I want to prepare you to receive this old spirit—old spirits are moving from behind the reeds... the silhouette shimmers against a river in late summer, and I see already men who know how to honor such uncanny old friends. May they inhabit us again and give us strength to purify this world of refuse

The far-right literary oeuvre provides ample opportunities for such spirits to be conjured. In the years since Trump’s election, one particular work—Gerald James McManus’s 2001 political thriller Dark Millennium: A Visionary Tale—has felt eerily prescient. Its protagonist, U.S. President Alexander McGrail, is presented as both a hero and a beloved villain. He’s a narcissistic sociopath and a racist. He treats women badly. He betrays trusted allies. As the story progresses, he enlists a top military officer, General Brandt, to help him put a diabolical secret plan into action: Together they fake a terrorist attack that kills every Democrat in Congress. McGrail blames Muslim extremists for the tragedy, but the press doesn’t buy his explanation. Their offices are thus raided and the media is eventually shut down completely. Then, as is the case in many of these authors’ fantasy scenarios, things spiral into race war.

Incited by the media’s accusations against the president, America’s black ghettos ran red with blood and flame. Uprisings broke out first in the eastern cities. ... In Manhattan, Brandt oversaw the execution of thirty thousand captured blacks. They were dragged kicking and screaming to the edge of a huge pit that was dug out of Central Park. Some blacks demanded their rights, most begged for mercy, but they were all thrown into the pit and remorselessly machine-gunned by Brandt’s men.

The violence spreads throughout the country as McGrail’s America systematically murders all people of color, feminists, socialists, and, of course, Jews. The story ends years into a future wherein McManus’s fictional leader is, despite his personal flaws, venerated as the hero–founder of a pure and enduring whites-only ethno-utopia.

The point is not to say that the harrowing plot of Dark Millennium is about to come true. It is, rather, to acknowledge that there exists a broad, far-right subculture, which is actively posting, plotting, and praying that it will. Charlottesville was an attempt to galvanize this very movement. Its organizers sought to “Unite the Right,” and bring together the various outlier factions—men’s groups, paleo-libertarians, “sovereign citizens,” and the like—that constitute the nebulous “Alt Right” and “Alt Light.” Instead, things quickly devolved into hooliganism, as the same old clowns rolled up, united only by the same old hatreds of the same old groups that have been targeted for decades, as codified in books like The Turner Diaries, The Camp of the Saints, and Dark Millennium: people of color, feminists, socialists, and Jews. 

Despite this movement’s failure in Virginia, the right has since become increasingly unified online, emboldened by evidence of their influence on Trump, and a mounting sense that they are gearing up for something big. The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer recently featured a homepage header image of cartoon machine guns circling the Constitution. The site’s publisher, Andrew Anglin, posts multiple times daily, revving up his followers, and has called for a soon-to-come “age of ultraviolence,” followed by a forceful solicitation of compliance with leadership:

There will be leaders. You need to be prepared to recognize them for who they are, and you need to be prepared to do whatever they tell you to do, exactly as they tell you to do it. You are going to be required to do things that you cannot possibly imagine yourself doing right now. And if you do not do these things, you will die.

If Donald Trump loses the presidency next fall, we all know he’ll tweet up a storm on election night—railing against the corrupt media, decrying rigged elections, shrieking about socialism. But … then what? What if he takes it to the next level and calls for violence or declares martial law? One hopes that those to whom we entrust the power of state violence—cops, soldiers, spies—would keep the oaths of a constitutional order. Or, might they instead take us down a new path; a darker one, snaking though clearings felled by norm-breakers like Mitch McConnell and Devin Nunes: hearkening to the paeans to the “great replacement” of Tucker Carlson, the fragmented agitations of BAP, or the fascist violence of Andrew Anglin? All of these folktales could quickly come into competition, with the winner determining whether or not a Trumpian crie de guerre will accomplish what Charlottesville could not: calling the lone wolves to the hunt, bolstered by a newly-unified army of Bronze Age Mindset’s “uncanny old friends.” 

What if the next Democratic debate kicked off with this question from the moderators: “Senator Warren, let’s say you win the election in a narrow victory. Rather than concede, President Donald Trump goes on live television and whips his crowd into a frenzy, exclaiming, ‘They’re trying to steal the presidency from us! The time is now! Rise up and fight!’ How would you, as president-elect, respond?” 

The Beltway set may yet believe this question to be crazy. But in Trump’s America—where Greenland is for sale, weather is changed with the swish of a Sharpie, and tanks roll down Pennsylvania Avenue on July 4—they should know that crazy people are seriously contemplating these questions, and looking to the books they’ve spent a lifetime reading and sharing for prophecy, if not instructions. We so-called normies must be prepared to answer.