We’re inundated with lists of books aimed at helping us understand the rise of Trump. They tend to focus on dystopian literature (e.g., Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here), and titles such on the American right or the white underclass such as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. (One of the best resources is the Trump Syllabus 3.0) Toward the top of my own personal list is David Neiwert’s harrowing And Hell Followed with Her (2013) which chronicles the rise and fall of the nativist Minuteman Movement around the brutal murders of nine-year old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul “Junior” Flores by militia organizer Shawna Forde and Jason Bush.
The Minutemen were founded in 2004 to recruit citizens to the US-Mexican border to prevent people crossing illegally. The organization enjoyed a brief prominence under the leadership of far right political activist Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox, before collapsing because of internal bickering and – in part – because of their association with and support for Forde.
Shawna Forde came to the nativist movement with a long criminal record, despite the insistence by Gilchrist and others that recruits faced a rigorous screening process. She was listed as Gilchrist’s “director of border operations”, then went on to found her own “Minutemen American Defense (MAD) militia”. Forde bragged about her plans to finance a militia movement by robbing drug traffickers. Eventually, she came into contact with Jason Bush, a murderer, former member of the Aryan Nations, and fellow psychopath.
In Arivaca, Arizona, Forde met drug dealer Albert Gaxiola who suggested robbing Flores (a competing marijuana dealer). Forde, Bush and Gaxiola (along with a fourth, hitherto unidentified man) gained entrance to the Flores home by posing as Border Patrol officials searching for a fugitive. Bush murdered Brisenia and her father, also shooting Gina three times who played dead as they looked for cash and drugs. When they left she went for her husband’s gun and called 911. The 911 dispatcher heard as Bush reentered the house, looking for a misplaced AK-47. Gina shot him, hitting his leg as he fled.
Forde’s sordid story is gripping, but And Hell Followed with Her is more than a true crime novel. The murders of Brisenia and Junior Flores are a window into the rise of the far right in America – an environment where people like Forde thrived. The Minuteman anticipated the Tea Party which anticipated the rise of Donald Trump (and Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions). Neiwert writes:
In one important way, the Minuteman Project was indeed a success, but not for actually doing anything substantive to stop illegal immigration. Rather, it was eminently successful in mainstreaming and legitimizing extremist vigilantism. After all, not only was it eagerly embraced by a gullible press, but in short order it was given the blessing of a wide range of public officials and politicians. (114)
These officials included Tom Tancredo, Tom DeLay, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The press included not only the right-wing talk radio and the blogosphere (to which Forde eagerly contributed), but also mainstream news, most notoriously Lou Dobbs on CNN (and of course Fox). This helped make many of the topics that drove the Minuteman part of mainstream American politics (including paranoid fears of immigrants committing “voter fraud” or using public assistance – the latter is part of the most recent Trump Executive Order and DHS Guidance on Interior Enforcement).
Gilchrist liked to pretend that the Minutemen had nothing to do with racism, that they rigorously vetted participants, and did not condone vigilantism. This position is false. The Minutemen included members of extreme right, hate groups and because of their behavior when they were off-camera (and sometimes on it):
The participants almost uniformly had nothing but contempt for the journalists as exemplars of “the liberal media,” though they were content to participate in the media game for the sake of “delivering the message.” But there was a profound mistrust: one team even dismissed a fellow Minuteman from Tucson because he kept talking to reporters. Little did this same team know that it was hosting an undercover group of journalists from Phoenix’s KPHO-TV who recorded all this for their audience.
The KPHO journalists found that when the Minutemen thought the cameras were gone, they revealed more open race-baiting and ethnic xenophobia aimed at Mexicans: one reporter described the racial epithets he heard, as well as the desire of some participants to go “hunting a certain group of people.” (91)
To the oft-repeated claim that opposing immigration or valuing national security has nothing to do with racism, Neiwert wryly remarks:
Though the Minutemen often proclaimed their efforts to “weed out” racists from their ranks (begging the question: Why did they need to do so in the first place?), movement leaders never took seriously the need to thoroughly vet the backgrounds of their recruits, not to mention their leaders (278).
Why indeed. Neiwert rightly points out:
The core of the Minutemen’s politics was scapegoating: blaming Latino immigrants for being forced into circumstances that they did not create and that were for that matter created by Americans as much as Mexicans. By insisting on “securing the borders” before fixing the problems that had made the borders so insecure, most of them a product of antiquated immigration laws, they actually ensured that the borderlands would remain a volatile place (277).
Unfortunately, this scapegoating has been taken up by politicians throughout the United States, most notoriously (until recently) in Arizona:
It was an eventful nineteen months in Arizona, as it happened. The nativist politics that had brought forth Shawna Forde and the Minutemen was reaching its apotheosis, embodied in an anti-immigrant bill passed by the Arizona legislature in April 2010 titled SB 1070, whose entire purpose was not to merely encourage but require local and state law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws – particular to take into custody anyone who could not prove their American citizenship.
The bill had been largely written by an operative for the Federal for American Immigration Reform – the outfit Shawna had once claimed to represent on that Yakima town-hall broadcast – and its chief sponsor was one of the most notorious nativists in Arizona, state senate president Russell Pearce, who had a history of dalliances with Arizona neo-Nazi figures and outrageous anti-Latino pronouncements. Pearce is also a longtime ally of another noted Arizona nativist, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (252).
What is perhaps saddest is how Brisenia’s death was covered. The media largely downplayed it, suggesting that the responsibility lay in Junior’s marijuana and smuggling, rather than the right-wing extremism.
More than a few people noticed the different in how the media had covered the respective deaths of Christina Taylor-Green [the eight-year old murdered by Jared Lee Loughner after he shot Gabriele Giffords] and Brisenia Flores: even in spite of the dramatic recording of Gina Gonzalez’s 911 call, media coverage of the Shawna Forde case had been muted at best and utterly non-existent at outlets like Fox News. At the trial, family members wondered aloud if it was because Christina was white and Brisenia brown (256).
This brings to mind the Trump administration’s silence on right-wing, white terrorism – for instance, Alexandre Bissonnette’s murder of six Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City on January 29thor Adam Purinton’s murder of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla on February 22.
Neiwert wrote And Hell Followed with Her in 2013. With three more years of the Obama Presidency, few imagined that influence that the Minutemen’s ideology would now enjoy. In 2017, hate groups have increased for the second consecutive year, emboldened by Donald Trump’s rhetoric – and now policies. The extreme elements of the Tea Party are now guiding the ideology of the US Presidency. Neiwert’s book is a truly frightening hint of what this may bode for the future of the country.