If you weren’t on NextDoor over the past week, you likely have a peaceful inner life and the mental fortitude necessary to handle anything life throws your way.

And then there’s us.

We waded into the armpit of Chapel Hill’s political milieu, hoping to find a few curious neighbors keen on discussing the history and civic life of Chapel Hill.

That, uh, didn’t happen. Instead, we were called names, received vague-yet-wordy threats, and watched an entire side conversation take place about the rhetoric of fascism, which was actually quite revealing.

You’re probably wondering how we got here.

Let’s go back to 1986. Ok, maybe not that far — unless you’re really a glutton for punishment.

We’ll start, instead, with November 2021.

After a vigorous off-cycle election season, CHALT’s mayoral candidate and one of their two town council candidates lost at the polls. The night after the election, a CHALT leader posted the following on NextDoor: “CHALT IS NOT DEAD. THIS IS NOT A SPRINT. The council and NEXT took a few pages from the GOP and Nazi handbooks…”

CHALT is an organization with a PAC that has opposed basically every new development in Chapel Hill since 2015 and fought tirelessly for their vision of what they think Chapel Hill should be – which seems to basically be a dying small town like you find all across eastern North Carolina, but with a Wegmans. On their website, they describe themselves as “set[ting] a model for respectful and thoughtful dialogue with Town officials and citizens as the preferred way to solve problems.”

The NextDoor comment, in contrast, can be described as completely fucking unhinged. It went on for 17 more paragraphs describing an “us vs. them” dynamic, amorphous charges of corruption, and some mythical stuff.

Ok fine, maybe they were a bit salty about their mayoral candidate losing. It was Election Night. People were upset. We let it slide.

Which brings us to this past week….

In a thread purportedly about the potential zoning changes that would allow residents to build granny flats or duplexes, the leader of The Local Reporter, the non-profit newspaper with close ties to CHALT, wrote this:

chapel-hill-democracy-dictatorship

First, we’ll state the obvious: this is false. Each seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council is up for election every four years, and the mayoral election is held every two years. The people who gain the top votes are appointed to town council. They then vote on various items throughout their terms.

But the idea that our town council is not a “democracy” is an idea that CHALT leaders float regularly when they don’t hold a majority on council. The purpose seems to be twofold:

  1. To sow doubt in the idea that Chapel Hill’s democratically-elected council — voted on by thousands and thousands of people — can make decisions without endless input, stalling, and misinformation circulated by CHALT. We see this in calls for endless studies, additional stakeholders, task forces for CHALT representatives to serve on, and more and more input — all of which are meant to give the illusion of authentic community engagement and delay any decision-making.
  2. To encourage disgruntled homeowners who agree with this sentiment to then join CHALT.

It may be an effective recruitment strategy – there will always be homeowners with assorted grievances – but CHALT sowing doubt in our local democratic process is troubling, and mimics what we’re seeing on a national stage.

A commenter on NextDoor named Rob L. responded to Del S.

rhetorical-fascism-on-nextdoor

And that’s when all hell broke loose. Commenters piled on Rob L.. They called his post “amazingly crude, inaccurate, and far-fetched”….”repugnant.”….”sketchy.” (This was new. No such comments were made about the 17-paragraph “Nazi” rant back in 2021.)

But Rob L’s comments were interesting. They were focused on rhetoric, not content. And being somewhat curious people, we decided to review hundreds of letters that CHALT leaders have sent to Town Council members over the past several years, in addition to their posts on NextDoor and Facebook. We’ve pulled out some of their more common rhetorical techniques.

A mistrust of authority: When town staff – all of whom have expertise in their respective areas – make a decision, CHALT members call for different or additional stakeholder input and/or bring in their own experts — who may or may not have a background in the subject at hand — to provide a different opinion, or to provide an opinion before local and state-level experts have weighed in.

Throwing out misinformation: We routinely correct misinformation from CHALT ranging from small things – the number of voters in the Berkshire – to larger things – vacancy rates in Chapel Hill. But it’s hard to keep up with them, and the amount of misinformation spreads on a weekly basis and makes its way straight to council members’ inboxes.

Selective populism: CHALT members and their petitions should carry utmost weight, even if they are very, very small and don’t demographically represent the town. If the Town Council doesn’t vote that way, or considers other options, they’re not listening.

Us vs. Them: Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Yale, says that fascist rhetoric tells the story of a dominant in-group beset by outsiders. We see this, too. In local discussions about housing, we see long term residents and homeowners set against newcomers, renters, students and “transients.” Fear of outsiders and change creates group cohesion in the in-group.

The mythical village: Chapel Hill was a village, and everything was great back in the day. (Black residents might have slightly different opinions!) It’s the new changes, new council, new apartments that are ruining everything.

Shadowy figures are behind everything: An out-of-control Town Council participates in backroom deals and has a financial stake in these outcomes. (This isn’t true.)

Fear and victimization: Fear is constantly used to gin up outrage over any change, large or small.

Is this fascism? No, it’s not. We know that the majority of these people are Democrats and support many progressive causes outside of their own backyards.

But these fear-based rhetorical techniques are effective — that’s why we see them used locally and nationally — and they do drum up outrage, fear, and mistrust. And they make things worse – both here and next door.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....