September 14, 2017
In Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House, the term “white supremacy” has been used with increased frequency in mainstream news media. Rightfully so. Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and Trump, each with their own public histories as racists, found the range of the usual dog whistle to be too short; instead they’ve turned the demand for white supremacy into a battle cry.
But the foot soldiers do not all march under the same flag.
To the oppressed (and the opposed) white supremacist organizations are all the same. But consider the nuances of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the self-identification of its participants. Members of the Ku Klux Klan marched alongside Neo-Nazis, side-by-side with the newly minted alt-right, all brandishing their preferred banners of hate, Confederate flags waving alongside swastikas in the glow of tiki torch lighting.
Consider the Confederate and apartheid-era flag patches that adorn the lapels of Dylann Roof in photos. Roof shot and killed Black parishioners of Charlestown’s Mother Emanuel AME, defenseless as they bowed their heads in prayer, because he reportedly wanted to start a race war.
White supremacy is a kind of umbrella organization; the industry is hate, its coordinated institutions varied and vast, pooling resources against similar opposition, but for slightly different agendas.
Still, until Unite the Right, these groups have been unable to reconcile their philosophical differences, making the Charlottesville demonstration a significant one, not only in its ability to draw the hateful from the fringes but in the demonstrated belief that inciting a race war is reason enough to put those differences aside for the first time. By aligning themselves publicly and showcasing their numbers, they are able to intimidate as well as appeal to the legitimacy of their cause. No longer content to exist on the fringes (and no longer needing to with noted sympathizers, supporters and advocates at top levels of government) the white supremacists seek the spotlight in the hopes of destigmatizing racism and getting “good white people” to join their cause.
Fighting for what’s white
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites the Klan as “the most infamous—and oldest—of American hate groups.” The organization is primarily comprised of God-fearing Christians and sees blacks as its primary opposition, though it also attacks members of the LGBTQ community, Jewish people, and even Catholics in the early part of 20th century.
The latter may seems strange until one considers the history of Catholic opposition in the United States, rooted in Reformation thinking and the pursuit of religious freedom that drove early British colonists (the forefathers of the agrarian, slaveholding south) to settle in places like Jamestown, Va. As the country grew into its new identity, Catholicism was seen as anti-American. It’s part of the reason the election of John F. Kennedy was such a big deal—he was the first Catholic U.S. President, and still the only one ever elected.
The KKK has its own emblem, but also marches proudly under Confederate flags. The group can be classified as Neo-Confederate or Southern Nationalist; it remains committed to the bigoted fan fiction that Confederate soldiers fought a noble cause to maintain the Southern way of life. Its members are strong proponents of states’ rights (as were leading slave owners in their day). The Klan is rife with history revisionists and/or those who outright deny that slavery was the impetus for the war itself, placing heavy emphasis on Southern “cultural heritage” and ignoring almost totally that the rebel South lost the Civil War (making them, by definition, traitorous losers).
Though a relic of the enslavement period and antebellum South, Confederate flags have surpassed their geographic origins and can be found dotting the front lawns, bumper stickers and dive bars in Northern cities, too, a kind of shorthand for “Blacks not welcomed here.” You see, anti-black racism prevails across the country, with or without endorsement from an official group, and is easily taken up as an individual pursuit. The legend of racism in the south has loomed so large for so long, its northern variety has subsisted largely undetected and unchecked in comparison.
Neo-Nazis, however, “share a hatred for Jews and a love for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany,” according to the SPLC. They, too, hate people of color, gays and lesbians, and some Christians. They are especially xenophobic but have focused the brunt of their hate on Jewish people. They erroneously believe that Jewish people control financial and political institutions, as well as the media, and are thus to blame for all societal woes. Much like the Klan, Neo-Nazis are also are revisionist historians; many are Holocaust deniers.
Politically, Neo-Nazis seek the creation of a fascist political state, and with the advent of digital communications, connections between North American and European Neo-Nazis have strengthened, with First Amendment protections enabling American groups to proffer propaganda on the internet. If the Klan is bound by cultural heritage, Nazis are bound by a belief in their superior blood—the eugenics theory championed by Adolf Hitler (and, apparently, the president).
In Charlottesville, the Neo-Nazis descended on the Rotunda, swastikas held high, chanting “blood and soil,” originally a German nationalist phrase that saluted the country’s farmers as a kind of purestock to be protected. In other words, the logic of Neo-Nazis (also, textbook second-generation losers) defies American patriotism.
Because nothing is new under the sun, and racism is an especially intellectually lazy enterprise, the so-called alt-right also joined the fray in Charlottesville. The SPLC describes them as “groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.”
They are ardent believers that multiculturalism and immigration will lead to a so-called “white genocide.”
The alt-right offers racism for the digital era. Because of the youth of its core constituency (the alt-right despises many Boomer-era conservatives for what it perceives as support of a “globalist agenda”), it's a social-media savvy lot, good at creating and disseminating memes, and applying a sort of slick modern veneer over garden-variety racism. PSA: Millennials should be considered no less racist than their parents, just more subversive.
The tactics of the alt-right are a testament to this. Members pay particular attention to their appearance, branding themselves sartorially almost in an aspirational way, marketing themselves to “sensible” and “reasonable” young white men, the kind that might have trouble reconciling their identity with a burned cross, but nonetheless feel palpable, simmering racial resentment.
The group’s internet savvy has helped the spread of conversation and messaging via memes and hashtags, and is buoyed by the Commander-In-Chief, who often tweets images found on alt-right sites or reddits from his own Twitter account, and panders to the racial biases of the base. They have slowly begun to infiltrate the mainstream, with leaders like Richard Spencer being featured in major metro press and speaking engagements hosted at the National Press Club.
In fact, the success of the Unite the Right rally can be attributed to “lots of planning,” says Marilyn Mayo, Senior Research Fellow for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Having attracted the attention of media and attendance of about 100 people during a smaller rally in May, the groups planned to boost August’s turnout, which Mayo notes as “advertised broadly” on blogs, social media and via private messaging apps.
Politically, the alt-right advocates for Western traditionalism, according to the SPLC, “stridently reject[ing] egalitarianism and universalism” in favor of race-based science and libertarian government. Unlike the Klan, the alt-right embraces Catholicism wholeheartedly and denounces establishment Republicanism. Antisemitism still threads within factions of the group.
While the likes of David Duke, former Grand Wizard for the KKK and Charlottesville rally attendee, publicly endorsed Trump as a presidential candidate (an endorsement that took Trump days to denounce), the alt-right was also given refuge by Trump and, in some ways by the media when it labeled counter-protesters and antifa the “Alt-Left.” White supremacist leaders such as Richard Spencer, who Mayo says originally coined the term “alt-right” in 2008, eagerly praised the president for his remarks.
In fact, Trump’s campaign promise, “America First” has origins within the KKK and among anti-semites who opposed United States involvement in WWII. The phrase currently litters the Issues page on the White House website. He repeated it twice during his inauguration speech: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
Recall that the president's father, Fred Trump, was reportedly arrested at a Klan riot in 1927.
Still, though hate may unite the right, appearances matter, particularly to groups like the alt-right who want to appear moderate, modern, and urbane to would-be recruits who don’t see themselves as the racists they are (after all, this is about “history preservation.”)
The SPLC found that the number of hate groups operating in 2016 rose to 917 – up from 892 in 2015, according to its site. That number is 101 shy of the all-time record set in 2011, but high by historic standards.
The ADL also notes that Identity Evropa, an alt-right white supremacist group that focuses on “the preservation of ‘white American culture’ and promoting white European identity” has gained increasing ground on college campuses throughout the country with its use of promotional fliers and other traditional recruitment tactics.
“During the 2016-2017 academic year, ADL tracked 65 incidents of racist propaganda from Identity Evropa distributed on campuses in 19 states,” according to the ADL website.
The sliver of good news here is that the violence in Charlottesville revealed that the fissures among white supremacists, both in ideology and approach, can't be easily patched over, even in the interest of a race war. As hateful people are wont to do, these assholes are turning on each other.
Take, for example, the war of words between Buzzfeed alum turned Twitter provocateur Baked Alaska (Tim Gionet) and alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich, who publicly feuded over how to brand the Deploraball event hosted after Trump won the election. (“JQ” is supremacist shorthand for “Jewish Question.”)
— Baked Alaska™ (@bakedalaska) December 27, 2016
The event, which was noted as black-tie optional on its website, is a nod to the new direction taken by the alt-right to shed the low-class, uneducated redneck image consistent with other hate groups in an effort to gain broader appeal.
This infighting among white supremacists, and their general concern with respectability, is nothing new, as Ashley Feinberg explained recently in WIRED:
“In 1954, southerners created White Citizens Councils to protest desegregation. A 1956 article described the Citizens Councils this way: 'They shun both the Klans’ reputation for violence, and their haberdashery; their members are respectable citizens of the community, the quintessence of the civic luncheon club. At their meetings there is emphasis on speakers from the ministry and the universities. ... The White Citizens Council movement today has had to throw off the Klan’s stigma and repudiate its legacy.’”
“The movement will either have to renounce violence altogether or give up its aura of respectability and start really fighting in the open,” the article goes on to say. “Right now the Councils are a determined and sincere group; but in the long run they may prove more determined than sincere.”
But while Mayo says the White Citizens Council was formed “mostly by people in southern communities to fight back against desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement,” she says groups today are “feeling really energized and emboldened by the 2016 election.”
The Census predicts America will be a so-called “majority-minority” country by 2050, making the Trump administration the Great White Hope for a legacy that is rapidly disappearing. The resurgence of white supremacists is directly correlated to their fear of white people losing their dominance over people of color who have been historically and systematically subjugated by their courts, law enforcement, by social service industries and by business communities. It is a fear of being at the bottom, of losing control; a baseless fear that people of color would seek retribution and exact vengeance to right both historic and and modern-day wrongs.
And above all, it is cowardice.
It is the last stand of white men, who were terrified at the idea of a black president and are unwilling to concede defeat against an increasingly financially and sexually independent population of white women who seek equity in society. Which is not to discount white women as an integral part of the white supremacist movement, as well. They comfortably serve in supportive roles, advocating for traditional gender roles, rearing the next generation of hate mongers, providing safe haven for their partners’ racial animus as effective co-conspirators.
That no digital footprint nor cellphone camera snapshot could deter white supremacists from convening offline en masse is demonstrative of their shared commitment to dismantle the Civil Rights gains of the last 50 years.
The fact that the president appointed historic racist Jeff Sessions to serve as Attorney General and, just weeks after Charlottesville, pardoned racist former Arizona Sheriff (and fellow Birther) Joe Arpaio, only further demonstrates his commitment to the cause they all share.