The Stories They Tell Themselves: Interview with Cat Ashton on Trump's Base and the Insurrection
Cat Ashton, Senior Editor at Peeps, is also a researcher whose work assesses the stories people tell themselves to communicate collective context as communities and nations: or communities of communication, as Canadian academic Jocelyn Letourneau has described them. Cat’s recent work, which she shared in our last issue, is on one of the complex communities that comprise Trump’s base, white Christian evangelicals, and the ways they create a separate, concurrent truth alongside those of other communities in the States. We sat her down to follow up on that article and asked her to share a kind of map of the groups involved, the stories they’re sharing and the actions those stories are provoking.
Hi Cat, thanks so much for making time to share your insights with our readers. First off, can you describe the groups you analyze and the kinds of materials you look at when doing your research?
Well, my job is more analyzing texts. I look at how people, groups, and nations use narratives to establish or reinforce their identities. My specialty is fantasy and science fiction novels. One of the questions that has always driven my research is, How do ordinary people, who think of themselves as good and decent, come to do or support things that I consider at odds with goodness and decency? A lot of it comes down to the stories they tell themselves. And science fiction and fantasy in particular are instructive because they let writers set the rules of the world.
One of the groups whose texts I’ve had an enduring interest in is white conservative American evangelical Christians. They’re fascinating to me, because as you probably know, that’s a group that conceives of the world very differently. The greater the gulf between the world as they understand it and the sort of, um, secular/mainstream consensus reality that the rest of us operate in, the harder they have to work to depict a version of the world that is consistent with their beliefs but still recognizable to readers, particularly secular readers they’re hoping to win over. It’s a very fine tightrope to walk.
So I’ve been reading, among other things, a lot of evangelical Christian science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels, and then looking at blogs and news stories that help me contextualize them. And my most recent project came about because I realized that Donald Trump’s presidency and his supporters were drawing on a lot of the narratives that I was seeing in evangelical fiction.
I can’t wait to get to that! First, though, could you describe the groups that largely comprise the key support base for Trump at the moment—those who drove the insurrection on January 6?
I should start by saying, I’m not certain that those two groups are necessarily the same thing. I think that the rioters on January 6th, 2021 were a small subset of his supporters. Even in radical movements that consider violence one of the options open to them, it’s typically only a fraction of people who will carry out the violence. And then a larger number will condone it, and an even larger number will condone the goals but not the violence.
But you’re asking about some of the groups that had a presence at the riots. One group that apparently had a lot of representation there, based on the signs and flags and prayers, is Dominionists, or Christian nationalists, who basically believe that America was founded as, and should remain, a Christian country, often with undertones of white supremacy and patriarchy, and the country needs to be taken back from the forces they see as having led the country astray.
Another of the more organized groups we’ve been hearing a lot about are the Proud Boys, who describe themselves as Western chauvinists and see the recognition of diversity and plurality as efforts to shame them. Because recognition of diversity and plurality often comes also with a recognition of a history of oppression and exploitation, facing that history can be painful. A lot of the time people who have been “safe” up to now and haven’t had to think about this stuff see it as an effort to make them feel guilty, even though these efforts to acknowledge the past are about seeking justice in the present, and not about feelings at all. The Proud Boys are a group of people who have noped out on that whole line of thinking, and decided to push back.
And then there are the Oath Keepers, which is a group that actively seeks out members who have past or current ties with the police and military, in the expectation of a leftist uprising. And many smaller militia groups and white supremacist groups, including Neopagan white supremacists.
White conservative American evangelical Christians, they’re fascinating to me. The greater the gulf between the world as they understand it and the sort of…secular/mainstream consensus reality… the harder they have to work to depict a version of the world that is consistent with their beliefs.
What are Neopagan white supremacists?
A lot of white supremacists cling to a certain idea of European heritage—usually Northern European, usually Germanic. I think they do this sometimes in order to connect to what they see as their own roots, and sometimes because they see romanticized versions of Northern Europe as strongholds of authentic white masculinity. Sometimes they’re reaching back to Nazi Germany, and sometimes back to the Viking era. It’s a problem in Europe, and it’s also a problem in North America. And some people make Neopagan and Heathen beliefs a part of this framework of ethnic nationalism.
Typically—I don’t want to say always, but overwhelmingly most often—the belief system they’re working with is Asatru, which uses the Nordic pantheon, so Thor, Odin, Freya, those folks. Sometimes the white supremacist version also calls itself Asatru, and sometimes it calls itself Odinism. It’s a huge problem for mainstream and progressive Asatruars, as well as Asatruars in marginalized groups, because like progressive evangelical Christians, they’re seeing their holy symbols used as symbols of hate.
Historically speaking, the movement to reclaim pre-Christian European belief systems was part of a broader eighteenth-century movement to construct nations based on ethnicity and the culture of a reclaimed past. Odinism is actually the oldest sect, and it was conceived as explicitly white supremacist, so it doesn’t really work to frame this as misappropriation of the faith and its symbols, or an incursion of white supremacists into somewhere they haven’t previously belonged. But just because something has roots in racism doesn’t mean that the racists get to keep it, and progressive Asatruars are working very hard to build an inclusive Asatru that rejects white supremacy.
What else is there to say about the insurrectionists?
Well, I think it’s important to say, a lot of these people were unaffiliated with any group. They were acting on their own, as people who believed that this was justified and necessary.
I should also mention the QAnon conspiracy, which says Trump is the last best hope to bust up a satanic left-wing pedophile ring. If you remember the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which also argued the existence of widespread satanic pedophile rings, that has a lot of the same contours. Going back a little further, there were similar rumours about Catholics in England, and about Jewish people in Europe. Basically, if you want to dehumanize a group, you accuse them of ritually victimizing children.
A progressive evangelical blogger whose analysis I like, Fred Clark, points out that technically the people who react violently to the whole QAnon conspiracy are less culpable than the people who spread it and repeat it and then try to distance themselves from the violence. Because if you genuinely believe it, then it’s kind of your moral duty to rise up and do whatever is in your power to make it stop. But he doesn’t think most people genuinely believe it; he says, and I quote, “whether they’re grifters seeking money, or demagogues seeking political power, or nihilists seeking ‘lulz’ they’re all just opportunists taking advantage of the same very strange and very disturbing fact: millions of people want their lies to be true.” Because he’s an evangelical, he frames this as bearing false witness against one’s neighbour.
Even in radical movements that consider violence one of the options open to them, it’s typically only a fraction of people who will carry out the violence. And then a larger number will condone it, and an even larger number will condone the goals but not the violence.
That’s a pretty cynical perspective. The idea that people would create such confusion and fear merely to be entertained would be pretty disheartening if it were true, no?
I think he’s frustrated. These are people he considers members of his own community, engaging in what he sees as bad-faith arguments and hypocrisy, and people are dying because of it. But a thing he points out, and I think this is really a very compassionate insight on his part, is that believing these things makes one’s own life more exciting and meaningful. And that’s for sure the case for a lot of right-wing Christian beliefs, and I think it holds true for other areas of the right.
If you believe that there is a left-wing conspiracy theory of child molestors, then you have special knowledge the people around you don’t have, and are in the position of the heroic truth-teller, disbelieved by all around them. If you believe that the Bible is a coded series of prophecies about the end of the world, you have access to a secret code that tells you the future. If America is beset by enemies on all sides, then your suffering is the nation’s suffering, and it means something. If you believe that you and people like you are persecuted, then just being you is an act of heroic resistance. And those are attractive ideas.
On January 6th we saw some of those beliefs used to stage what I’d characterize as a menacing display of aggrieved entitlement. There was a sort of theatre to it. But at the same time, it’s giving people something they need. We’re in a situation now where a lot of the Western world, and America in particular, has been ravaged by economic inequality, austerity measures, and lack of access to resources; and people are being told, No, it’s fine, you just need to try a little harder. I agree that that’s a horrific problem, and it’s worth getting angry about, but I attribute it to very different causes. But the face of these beliefs, it’s not just someone storming the capitol with camo pants and a rifle strapped to their back. It’s also someone working two jobs and barely getting by, who knows something is desperately wrong with the way things are, who draws strength to endure from thinking that they are part of a vast but silent persecuted remnant that is going to triumph in the end. And with what’s coming out about the people who participated in the riot, it looks like sometimes both of those faces can be the same person on different days, or at different points in their life.
Are they all alike? Are they all looking for the same things from a government reimagined under Trump?
They’re alike in the sense that they all believe a country over which they feel a degree of ownership has been taken from them, by people who they see as not having a rightful place and as warping it into something it’s not supposed to be. The kind of ownership they feel, the One True Way that they see America having departed from and the character of that departure, all of that depends on the group, and then there’s a lot of diversity within groups. Another way I guess you could say it is, they’re looking for purity, but the question is, pure what? And as you can tell by the presence of Christian Dominionists and Neopagan white supremacists, the answer to that varies widely. The more hardline Dominionists advocate the death penalty for Paganism. So, these are some strange bedfellows.
Some voices on the left have asserted that condemnation of the actions of Trump’s base is the only option left.
I think that expressing condemnation is useful for asserting cultural values. But it’s also really cathartic for people who have been harmed by their behaviour, and potentially deeply emotionally satisfying.
But if we’re interested in actually making a change, and ensuring this never happens again, then we can’t let condemnation be our whole response. Yes, people are making choices, and they should be held responsible for those choices, but we also have to understand the forces that led to those actions. If we’re going to acknowledge that everybody else’s problems have complex causes, we can’t just turn around and say the far-right are somehow exempt. Just because you’ve thrown your weight behind a system or construct or ideal—or a fantasy version of any of those—doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt you. It just hurts you differently.
There’s a tricky intersection of class, race and socioeconomic status at play here, with Trump’s base ostensibly being largely middle, lower-middle class, and blue-collar, white Americans. They seem to be fighting to further entrench racist class systems, seemingly out of the fear of being subsumed into a lower economic station. Is that too reductive an understanding?
I think economic anxiety is almost certainly a part of it. It’s been pointed out that while many of the people at the capitol riots were quite well off, nearly half of them had a history of financial distress. But whiteness is another HUGE part of it, and Black Lives Matter representatives in both Canada and the US have remarked upon the disparities between policing at BLM protests and policing at the insurrection.
Trump’s presidency emboldened white supremacists, and reinforced structures that prop up white supremacy. Even when the Oath Keepers, for example, make an effort to distance themselves from white supremacist groups, they’re still working with a conception of law and order that has been used to oppress Black and Indigenous people and Black and Indigenous communities for centuries. But that’s not just a Trump supporter problem, to be clear; white supremacy is at the foundation of a lot of American institutions—and Canadian ones, and European ones. And changing those institutions and systems is going to be everyone’s responsibility.
If you remember the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, which also argued the existence of widespread satanic pedophile rings, that has a lot of the same contours.
Your studies focus on the white, Christian evangelical far-right. Have you seen the recent news items on how the community’s leaders are speaking about the election and Trump?
The fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump notwithstanding, he’s always been a fairly divisive figure in the community. Several of the authors I study, who made the America that got Trump elected in 2016, have professed a dislike for him, although given America’s polarization it’s possible that they could have held their noses and voted for him anyway. This is a voting bloc that knew a lot of unsavoury things about him going in. One rationale I saw in 2016 is that, well, he’s not a godly man, but he can still be used by God to accomplish godly things. So there were people who voted for him who never thought he was a righteous man.
I would expect some evangelicals to withdraw their support in light of the capitol riots, but at the same time, this is, as a USA Today article acknowledges, a group that is very skeptical of the mainstream media. There’s one author in particular, Frank Peretti, and, every time one of his novels involves an accusation of professional or sexual misconduct, it’s really a leftist conspiracy to discredit an upstanding member of the community. Every single time. So in this community’s stories, perhaps not all of them but certainly some key bestselling ones, there’s a pattern of automatically treating accusations of wrongdoing as false, and a weapon of the left.
Additionally, there’s a group called premillennial dispensationalists, and they’re a branch of evangelicalism that concentrates mainly on the Bible as apocalyptic prophecy. They’re the ones who originated the idea of the Rapture. And that’s a sect that is fairly used to entertaining these really strong apocalyptic beliefs. And then when the times change, they pivoti and recover and reattach all these deep biblical meanings to a different set of figures, events and anxieties that are more in line with whatever is going on right now, while at the same time honouring the tradition of these previous prophecies, even though they were wrong.
I’ve heard that kind of thinking called Orwellian, but I don’t think that word does justice to what’s going on. Big Brother isn’t telling people to think like this; they’re developing it to cope with the anxieties of the modern world, and the gulf between it and the world as they have always understood it. It’s like they’re walking a tightrope that vanishes behind them. There’s a certain virtuosity to it. And a kind of resilience that I have to admire, even though it’s been turned to very destructive ends.
So the Rapture is a speculative fiction of its own?
Okay, buckle up!
It’s based on a fairly recent (1850s) hermeneutic—that is, a method of reading the Bible—as developed by the founders of the sect I mentioned earlier.
Dispensationalism separates the Bible or time periods or, as they call them, dispensations. The key to reading the Bible properly, it says, is knowing which passages apply to which dispensations. And they are not laid out chronologically. You need a whole other book, the Scofield Reference Bible, in order to read it “correctly.” It leaps around the text, cross-referencing passages.
If you’re a Christian who believes this way, it has a couple of implications. The first is that context just isn’t useful to you. The truth as it applies to you is independent of its context, and pleas to look at context look like excuses or misdirection. The second is that there are some parts of your own holy book that you can just ignore, because even though you don’t dispute their truth, they don’t apply to your dispensation. It’s a way of handling contradiction and multivocality in what they believe must be an infallible text.
Premillennial dispensationalists believe that the Second Coming—which is fairly established Christian doctrine, but as a single event—happens in two parts, the first of which is the Rapture. Soon, very soon, they say, the current dispensation is going to end and Jesus is going to scoop up the faithful, and the unbelievers will be left to suffer on a dying Earth for seven years, oppressed by the Antichrist who persecutes remaining believers and unites the world under one government and one religion, in what is known as the Tribulation. At that point, Jesus will stage a permanent return, the Second Coming, and reign forever.
And this new narrative, with the Rapture and the Antichrist and the oppressive government, caught on spectacularly in America, to the point where people think the Rapture is in the Bible. Whether you believe it or not, it’s oddly compelling, and secular authors use it to talk about issues like nuclear war, environmental devastation, mass media, and anxieties about technology. And the Rapture itself, the idea of believers disappearing, and their loved ones being left behind on Earth to wonder what happened and to suffer through seven years of torture, is nightmare fuel that even secular fiction comes back to again and again.
So here’s a story—more than a story, an alleged prophecy from a book believers consider infallible—about a Satanic leader who preaches cooperation and tolerance and then persecutes Christians. And because of that, virtually any call for cooperation and tolerance, political or ecumenical, is met with skepticism, alarm, and defiance. Among premillennial dispensationalists. As I said, there’s a lot of diversity among evangelicals.
If we’re interested in actually making a change, and ensuring this never happens again, then we can’t let condemnation be our whole response…if we’re going to acknowledge that everybody else’s problems have complex causes, we can’t just turn around and say the far-right are somehow exempt.
And what about the Rick Warren Never Trumpers in the evangelical community. Are they outliers in the studies you’ve done? Are they reading the same literature and engaging in the same conversations?
I can’t speak specifically to Rick Warren and the Never Trumpers, but there’s a lot of diversity within the white evangelical movement, and there’s a substantial progressive evangelical community who are some of the most outspoken critics of the groups I’ve been talking about. They’ve been a great boon for my work. For those who aren’t familiar, possibly the most successful evangelical fiction series in the world is the Left Behind novels, which narrate the premillennial dispensationalist version of the Christian apocalypse from a conservative evangelical point of view. And the best critique of these novels I’ve ever read is by the progressive evangelical blogger I mentioned earlier, Fred Clark, who spent 5 YEARS reviewing Left Behind. He went through these books a few pages at a time, and broke down everything that was wrong with them, not just from a literary or political or historical perspective (although there was plenty of all three), but also from a Christian one. He had the background to recognize certain kinds of ideas, and to link errors in the writing to a particular way of reading the Bible. That was a huge—pardon the pun—revelation for me. And he was also able to point out what was so appealing about these ideas, and the stakes for people if they rejected them.
So, I guess the answer is, in my experience there are indeed some progressive evangelicals who are reading the same literature and engaging in the same conversations, but they’re doing so with a more critical eye and a broader background, and compassion for both sides; and they are furious about the things being done in the name of their faith and their God.
What do you think is driving the diverse groups you’ve described in Trump’s base to work together? If their interests are so different, how are they managing to work in unison. Are there spaces where they are having conversations together?
Conservatism tends to be really adept at overcoming difference. Liberalism and progressivism are more inclined to honour, accommodate, and celebrate difference, which is my personal preference, but it means more discussion and negotiation and delicacy. More voices saying things more carefully is, I think, fabulous for civil discourse, but the right has an advantage when it comes to gathering people under a banner and pushing for something. There’s a researcher in Florida, Johann Pautz, who writes about far-right apocalyptic narratives, and he points out that in a lot of far-right fiction—not just conservative evangelical fiction, but stuff like The Turner Diaries—the final battle is won by a bunch of leaderless cells coming together for a final push to destroy common enemies. And that kind of narrative happens a lot in mainstream fiction, too, because there is something really stirring about your whole world banding together to take on Sauron or Voldemort or the Hunger. But far-right groups aren’t fighting magical monsters; they’re fighting fellow human beings that they’re investing with monstrous properties.
As long as these groups share a common goal—toppling what they perceive as a leftist regime—or even just as long as they hate the same people, they will work together. If they ever achieve that goal, though, then I think there will be splintering.
In terms of spaces where they all talk, I’m sure there are still online spaces, the attempts to deplatform them notwithstanding. There’s a lot of cross-pollination between right-wing movements. So, Proud Boys content might be getting flagged and removed from various platforms, but, say, content from the manosphere, which involves a lot of, let’s say, adjacent ideas, stays, and if the conversations there veer into some of the same territory occupied by the Proud Boys, it probably stays up for a lot longer.
In the white supremacist movement in particular, if you know what to look for, there are fairly simple codes designed to fly under mainstream radar but help white supremacists identify each other.
What do you think is the biggest connector between them? And the biggest divider?
Right now they have at least a commonish goal: the overthrow of what they perceive as a corrupt and inauthentic establishment. But the biggest divider would be what would come next if they succeeded. And it’s cold comfort to think that after they would have finished subjugating a democratic nation, they’d turn on each other, but it appears pretty inevitable. The organized groups that participated tend to be anti-pluralism, anti-compromise, and they have beliefs they’re willing to back up with violence. Even in cases where their goals aren’t wildly divergent, that’s not a recipe for playing well together.
What are you seeing, if anything, in these communications since January 6?
I haven’t seen much, to be honest. The on-the-ground stuff is a bit outside of my field, so what I’ve seen amounts to a few chat room screenshots posted by other people. Based on those, though, it looks like some people have fallen away, disillusioned, but some have dug in, which is what I would expect. They are rewriting the story as it goes, to be what they need it to be.
Cat Ashton received a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University in 2018. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, and Children’s Literature. The insights in this article were first presented in the paper “‘One doesn’t defer to process when dealing with the devil’: Alternative Facts and Evangelical Fiction” for the Alternative Realities: New Challenges for American Literature in the Era of Trump conference at The Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin, Dublin.
Stephanie Keith started working for the news wires Reuters and Getty in New York City in 2015. In 2017, The Guardian shortlisted her as one of the top ten wire photographers of the year. In 2019 Reuters, Buzzfeed News and The Atlantic chose her in their photos of the decade lists. Her work focuses on political and religious subcultures. She has followed the rise of the right wing in America since Charlottesville, 2017. Born in Manhattan, educated in California, she now lives in Brooklyn.
Absolutely fascinating, thank you.
Throughout the piece, I kept thinking about in/out group behaviours and reward systems.
“But a thing he points out, and I think this is really a very compassionate insight on his part, is that believing these things makes one’s own life more exciting and meaningful.”
If the meaning making is attached to some greater body/force/power, then it is possible to situate oneself within a larger narrative. Engaging in other actors within that narrative can then lead to operant conditioning and, I would imagine, a laddering effect where people get drawn more and more deeply into patterns of behaviour/thought etc.
Perhaps this is what helps to bind the disparate groups together (thank you for such a clear sighted discussion of these. Super interesting and helpful). I was certainly put in mind of England’s UKIP party, where members came from across different bits of the political spectrum and then, once Brexit was voted through (sob) disappeared back to wherever they came from. It is a much less insidious and dangerous example, but I feel there are parallels between the situations.
Great questions too!