In Texas, freedom of speech has recently been sidelined by a new liberty: freedom from speech. Novels are being pulled off the shelves of school libraries in suburban Houston; the Legislature is circumscribing drag performances across the state; universities are suspending professors for criticizing public officials. The owner of Defiance Press, an upstart publishing house, has seen enough. Last January at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, just north of Houston, he hosted a rally against censorship. In front of a reproduction of the Alamo church’s facade, dissidents took the stage to protest, though their main targets—schoolteachers, liberals in general, and, oddly, drag queens—might not have been what you’d expect. 

To hear Defiance’s owner, David Thomas Roberts, tell it, censorship isn’t necessarily affiliated with a specific party, but today the protectors of the First Amendment are on the right. “For a long time the left was the champion of free speech,” he told me after the rally. “Look at the McCarthy era and look at the protesters in the sixties, in the Vietnam era. But today I think it’s mostly the conservative voices that are silenced.”

It’s hard to credit this notion. Countless conservative authors such as Mark Levin and Jordan Peterson write nonfiction books that are purchased by millions. But Roberts may have a point when it comes to novels; there isn’t much right-wing fiction on the best-seller lists. Is this the result of censorship, though, or just the market making its choices? Eric Nelson, the publisher of Broadside, the conservative nonfiction imprint of HarperCollins, told me that “conservatives want to read good fiction, not ‘right-wing fiction’—the same stuff everyone wants to read.” 

But Roberts thinks there’s more to it than that. After his first novel, the political thriller Patriots of Treason, was published in 2012 by the Missouri-based vanity press AKA Publishing, Roberts found himself frustrated that it wasn’t displayed at an AKA event and felt confident that this was because of its right-wing content. 

Roberts parted ways with AKA in 2012 and launched Defiance Press & Publishing, in Conroe, just sixteen miles southeast of Montgomery, where the Illinois native and telecom-company founder lives. His mission: to republish his book and bring to market others like it without the intercession of liberals. “When you walked into a publishing conference, it was like walking into a Star Wars bar, with those creatures,” he explained at the anticensorship rally. “My god. I couldn’t tell a man from a woman at those events.”

Today, Defiance has the reach of a small university press. Roberts says its top titles, such as Texit, which makes the case for Texas secession, sell around 10,000 copies each. The press puts out dozens of titles a year, offering a mix of traditional publishing and what is known as “hybrid publishing,” in which the author subsidizes some of the costs, with Defiance otherwise offering the same services as a traditional publisher.

Most of what Defiance produces resides in the nonfiction category, though books such as Corona-Fascism, Trump and the Resurrection of America and Roberts’s self-help tome, Hunt It Down, Kill It & Drag It Home, often stretch the definition. But Defiance offers plenty of intentional fiction too. Its novels range from paranoid fever dreams (Fake News) to historical fantasies (the Folklore Cycle series, in which fairies and dwarfs play a clandestine role in American history) to young adult agitprop (Looks Like a Cheetah to Me, an anti-trans parable). 

Though at least one of its fictional offerings—an account of 9/11 for middle school readers—seems to have no political thrust, most Defiance authors treat the first word in “right-wing fiction” as the key one. Many of the company’s novels are ripped from the headlines—or at least from a Facebook news feed. These books offer not an escape from the events of the day so much as a thinly veiled reinvention of them. In a chat with Blaze Media, the Irving-based company founded by Glenn Beck, Roberts explained his artistic process: “I watch Fox News, get mad, can’t sleep,” he said. “Then I turned the TV off and wrote my first book, thinking it would just be therapy.”

Much of Defiance’s fiction functions as a crude form of therapy for readers as well: a means not of understanding others and their points of view but of reinforcing one’s beliefs and prejudices. Why bother with novels that demand self-examination and empathy when you can read works that offer easy self-exaltation? 

Patriots of Treason is a time capsule of pre-Trump right-wing thought that commences with an unpopular Democratic president calling a joint U.S.-Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to bolster his chances in an upcoming election. This wag-the-dog gambit works, but the president is wounded on election night by a would-be assassin: a disgruntled Iranian American graduate student whose sister was killed in the bombing. That student had been writing his thesis on the tea party, and though he’d set out to excoriate the group, he had come to admire it over the course of his research. After he’s killed, the feds discover the paper and hatch a plot to pin the assassination attempt on grassroots conservatives and start locking up American patriots. 

The arc of the book’s plot is long, but it bends toward secession. Eventually, the Texas Rangers are fighting the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and the state votes to extricate itself from the union. “Since when is fighting for your independence treason?” one character asks. “If that logic were true, then Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Henry were traitors.” 

The novel frames itself as a hyperrealistic what-if, and by that standard it’s meticulously crafted. Before a single character is introduced, the first page trudges through five types of aircraft and antiaircraft guns that would be deployed during the attack on Iran; a Texas Rangers standoff with the U.S. military is interrupted for a recounting of the headlines that thirteen real-life publications run about the conflict. (Roberts has the syntax of newspaper headlines down cold.)

Many of the characters are modeled on real-life public figures. One of the book’s main antagonists is a thinly veiled stand-in for Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder; a lesser villain is a ringer for Republican senator John Cornyn, who’s viewed as too squishy by half. The president, Tyrell Johnson, is an Obama knockoff—and even appears to have originally been named Obama in the book. (Each chapter starts with an epigraph, and one is a quote from former Texas governor Rick Perry that mistakenly points a finger at “President Johnson,” suggesting that the name “Obama” was searched for and autoreplaced throughout the book.) 

And yet despite the novel’s stabs at realism, Patriots is less an alternative history than an alternative Wikipedia entry. Evoking a sense of time and place, developing full-bodied characters, detailing complex chains of causality—things that can’t be copied and pasted from the news—are barely attempted. When Roberts does offer color, it’s usually by referencing other fictions: one venue is described as “like a war room out of the movies,” a group of Texas Rangers is characterized as “peeled right off a 1960s Marlboro ad,” and another lawman is akin to a “legend right out of Texas folklore.” It’s as if Roberts can’t help admitting that his novel’s world bears no resemblance to the world we live in.  

Most first-rate thrillers offer at least one character possessed of something like an actual psychology and a conscience that makes their difficult choices in defense of their country interesting. Patriots eschews such interiority, perhaps anticipating that its right-wing characters are simply surrogates for the readers, who don’t need to be told how they feel or how they’re supposed to feel. 

A few of the American apocalypses Roberts envisions are prescient; one character complains that the impeachment process is too politicized to remove corrupt presidents, which is a startlingly contemporary observation for a book that came out a dozen years ago. But the book’s Horsemen are riding the wrong steeds. The character bemoaning our inability to impeach bad presidents is a Ted Cruz doppelgänger who resents Democrats’ unwillingness to acknowledge wrongdoing by members of their party—not, say, a Mitt Romney type regretting his inability to oust an authoritarian figure from his own party. (The book does have a Romney double, portrayed as a weak-kneed Republican in Name Only.) 

Similar misreadings of the real world plague much of Defiance’s catalog, even when books are written with the benefit of hindsight. Blaine L. Pardoe’s Blue Dawn, a Tom Clancy–esque thriller, published in the summer of 2021, about a fictionalized 2020 election, opens with what appears to be a factual statement: “It began with a virus. It ended with a coup.” Then, a few pages later, unreality begins to make itself known when we learn that the coup, in the wake of a widely contested election, is being led by an absurdly formidable and well-organized antifa, which storms the U.S. Capitol. 

It’s hard to remember now, but Donald Trump’s 2016 election was expected by many think piece writers to provoke a renaissance of protest art from the left. We can debate the quality of the angry cultural monuments that appeared, but it’s clear that Trump’s ascendance also inspired a different sort of art, one that derides liberals and relishes their humiliation. Let’s call it counterprotest art, and let’s stipulate that Defiance Press is one of the country’s leading purveyors. Chadwick Bicknell’s 2022 novella, An American Carol, reimagines Ebenezer Scrooge as Alex Le Dumas, a militant gay lefty who has sworn off attending a Fourth of July party with his relatives because many of them support a Trumpian president. After visits from George Washington (the “Ghost of America’s Past”), Marilyn Monroe (the Ghost of, bizarrely, “America’s Present”), and Death (which, apparently, is what the near future holds for us if we don’t watch out), Le Dumas realizes the right is more tolerant than the left, recognizes that the Trumpish commander in chief actually has made America great again, and is spiritually reborn as a docile gay Republican. 

In the wake of Trump’s rise and (perhaps temporary) fall, many of Defiance’s authors seem to have dropped any pretense of commitment to pluralism and civil society. Roberts’s Patriots strained for relative fair-mindedness—that Iranian would-be assassin, for instance, is portrayed somewhat sympathetically. But in some newer Defiance works, the xenophobia and racism are out in the open. 

Published in 2022, William Palafox’s The Algerian tells the story of Jack Kolesaar, an art-school dropout turned assassin. Kolesaar is part of a loosely organized network of seeming lone wolves whose resistance against the liberal “colonists” of America is inspired by the National Liberation Front of Algeria, which violently repelled French settlers from the North African country in the mid-twentieth century. Palafox’s bio clarifies that his book is not “a clarion call to revolt” but a sociological analysis of what form an American insurgency will take if the country continues its
“dramatic internal collapse.” 

This distinction, it soon becomes apparent, is a fig leaf. Palafox’s protagonist, from the opening pages, is ruthlessly violent, and the novel is vile—filled with epithets, bloodlust, and racist musings. The exceptionally well-educated Kolesaar, an aspiring painter, abhors all nonwhite men and their allies. He resents that Lincoln, Nebraska, is named after our sixteenth president and dubs MLK Jr. “Martin the Looter King.” He assaults women he’s about to have sex with and calls them “sluts.” He calls undocumented immigrants “locusts.” He is, to be clear, the closest thing the book has to a hero, a man who’s portrayed as a rational agent in an “inhuman age.”

Kolesaar is burdened by “the twin unbearable conditions of stultifying physical isolation and the inescapable gibbering intrusion of the electromagnetic spectrum”; like a noir detective, he resents that he must perceive the world honestly. Whereas another book might play Kolesaar’s loneliness as a plight, Palafox paints it as a virtue. The only noble response to an ignoble world is to forswear it or change it by force. 

Like a considerably better-known failed artist who also had some pretty extreme ideas about race and moral degeneracy, Kolesaar decides to compensate for his aesthetic shortcomings by engaging in violent acts. When he’s hired to murder a drag queen, he briefly wonders whether it’s right to “kill someone just because they held a differing opinion.” Disgust soon overwhelms him, though, and he shoots the target in the groin, rationalizing: “Regardless of time, place and culture, eliminating deviants by brute force [has] almost always [been] considered good form.” 

Such thinking marks a grand departure from what Defiance purports to champion. After the Rally Against Censorship, Roberts told me that, though he doesn’t publish many books by LGBTQ authors, he’s a staunch proponent of their First Amendment rights. “We actually do read [their manuscripts]; we look at them and we have a discussion about them internally. I believe in their right to get published.”

Oddly, though Palafox is perhaps the most offensive of Defiance’s authors, he’s one of the only ones who has created something resembling a full-bodied character, a person with dreams and regrets and ambitions. Throughout The Algerian, Kolesaar interrupts his fascistic killing spree to offer meditations on how his surroundings—a quiet diner, a city street—remind him of the paintings of Edward Hopper, his artistic hero. Hopper is in some ways an obvious touchstone: a conservative whose mid-twentieth-century works are often interpreted as exposing the hollowness of cosmopolitan life. To Kolesaar, though, he represents something more: the ability to find beauty in the spiritual and moral poverty of modern existence.

At such moments, Kolesaar resembles a crude version of a modern literary antihero, someone who, like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas or Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, is an asocial loner whose penchant for violence is a reflection of both personal failings and our society’s fallen state. “Representing ugliness was easy and any talentless hack could do it, while claiming some manner of social relevance in that he was holding a mirror up to the hideous face of our existence,” Kolesaar thinks, as he ponders his own inability to paint a beautiful scene from his childhood. “The modern world, so enthralled with efficiency . . . reveled in ugliness for that reason.” 

Kolesaar might as well be describing the book in which he’s trapped. Existence is inexplicable and a source of suffering and joy, sometimes both at once. Revealing that truth is a noble province of art, but one that too many of Defiance’s novelists forgo. It’s far easier to rant about the world’s horrors and claim you’ve been denied an audience than to sing of its treasures and persuade others to listen.  

Clarification: This story has been updated to include a more detailed description of Defiance’s hybrid publishing arm.

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Elements of Right-wing Style.” Subscribe today.