The Alt-Right Is the Modern, Hideous Face of White Supremacy
Barkun: The present strength of the white supremacist movement has always been notoriously difficult to measure. The “movement” — I use the word advisedly, as a term of art — has always been riven by factionalism, and no group wants to divulge membership numbers except in the most grossly inflated forms. It is fair to say that right-wing extremism probably peaked in the early 1990s, when the Christian Identity movement was still vibrant and before paramilitary organizations had attracted the full attention of the federal government after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1993.
There are clearly still militia groups active, some with apparently aggressive agendas. The Hutaree Militia in the Midwest was one such case, although despite substantial evidence of an impending attack, its principal leaders were acquitted of the most serious charges in a 2012 trial. The Aryan Strikeforce leaders in the mid-Atlantic states were recently indicted before their plans could unfold. However, there is no evidence that these or other recent paramilitary activities have been linked or coordinated.
The conceptual difficulty lies in separating out the white supremacist element from other beliefs that are often associated with it. For example, virtually everyone on the extreme right is a conspiracist, buying into ideas about what is termed the “New World Order” — the belief that there is an overarching conspiracy seeking to establish a global dictatorship. There are numerous variations on this theme: religious and secular, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-Masonic, anti-capitalist and so on. In some versions of the New World Order, there is also the claim that the aim of the conspirators is to enslave or destroy the white race. Some conspiracists, in other words, are racial supremacists, and some are not.
The same is true of another frequently overlapping theme, anti-immigration. As has been true during other periods when anti-immigrant sentiment has been strong — the 1890s, for example, or the 1920s — it can be more or less racist. Not everyone seeking to limit or even ban immigration is a white supremacist, although some are. The mere presence of opposition to immigration is not, without further inquiry, evidence of white supremacist beliefs.
In light of the increasing migration of fringe themes into the mainstream, mentioned above, the real danger is that forms of white supremacism will insinuate themselves into mainstream American culture. There have already been attempts to do this in the South in the form of the so-called “neo-Confederate” movement, with its disingenuous claim that it is simply celebrating history and heritage. Something similar may appear elsewhere using such labels as “Western civilization,” “Christian civilization” or even “Judeo-Christian civilization.” Thus white supremacy may begin using code words that seem on the surface to be innocuous or even positive but in the eyes of the knowing are read through a racist lens.
3. The leadership of the white supremacist movement
The founders of most of the leading white supremacist organizations have died in the last decade or two: William L. Pierce, Ben Klassen, Richard Girnt Butler, Willis Carto and others. Who are the new leaders we should know about? Is there a difference in leadership style between the deceased older generation and the newer generation? Is there a leadership vacuum? If leaderless resistance was the reigning philosophy in the 1990s, are we still operating under that or have we moved on to other forms of organization?
Kaplan: The leaders of the white supremacist organizations of the 1980s have passed from the scene. Their dysfunctional compounds like Aryan Nations or the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA) are gone too, victims of civil suits, government suppression or simple ennui. The mail-order faiths, Klassen’s Creativity or Pierce’s Cosmotheism, are down to a small handful of true believers. Battle-scarred remnants of the time, such as National Socialist Harold Covington, struggle to adapt to new times with ideas like his idyllic Northwest migration initiative seeking a white homeland in America and really quite good apocalyptic literature in his Northwest Trilogy — “Hill of the Ravens“ (2003), “A Distant Thunder“ (2004), “A Mighty Fortress“ (2005) — as well as “The Brigade“ (2007).
What remains is more potent overseas than in the United States. White power music, pioneered in the late 1970s by Ian Stuart Donaldson’s Skrewdriver, flourishes throughout the world, including such decidedly non-Aryan redoubts as Jakarta. The skinhead movement is perhaps stronger than ever, especially where it benefits from a measure of government support and protection in places like Russia.
Evolutionary change is most dynamic outside the confines of white supremacy. In Europe a new generation of leaders has emerged to mainstream formerly explicitly National Socialist, racist or primitively nativist political parties. Groups like the Sweden Democrats, the True Finns or the French National Front have gone from the wilderness to contenders for power, just as the alt-right has emerged in the U.S. But none are explicitly white supremacist, even as they borrow heavily from traditional white supremacist ideas.
Like the leaders of the far right, the humble leaderless resistance idea has given way to a more dynamic successor in lone-wolf attacks. Leaderless resistance as posited originally by Texas Klansman Louis Beam was an expression of helplessness and despair. It was the equivalent of tilting at windmills, which succeeded primarily in the incarceration of a generation of skinheads, would-be Phineas Priests, bikers and simple sociopaths. While William L. Pierce could lionize serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin from the safe remove of a nom de guerre in his novel “Hunter,” the current generation of lone wolves serve terrorist groups who are more than the state of mind organizations of the white supremacist world, enjoying considerable material and other support in the process.
It is a new day in the world of self-propelled violence. There are successes on occasion abroad. Anders Breivik certainly comes to mind. But in America?
Michael: In my estimation, the most important leader is Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Youth Network. He first gained notoriety in 2012, when he founded a White Student Union at Towson University in Maryland. Although he is only in his mid-20s, he is already an accomplished orator. He is also a very effective interlocutor when he gives interviews to the media. He evinces the hallmarks of what Eric Hoffer once called “the True Believer.”
Heimbach does not flinch from street activism, despite the strident opposition he faces from various “antifa” counterprotesters. Furthermore, he advances a leftish white nationalist ideology which could potentially resonate with many disaffected young people. Finally, he has established ties with like-minded activists overseas — including Alexander Dugin from Russia — which gives his organization the semblance of an international movement. He reaches out to separatists from all racial and ethnic groups. At the present time, this might all seem inconsequential, but separatism seems to slowly be creeping into the national discourse, as evidenced by the push for Calexit.
Barkun: The first and even the second generation of white supremacist leadership has now virtually all died out, figures like William L. Pierce of the National Alliance and Richard Girnt Butler of the Aryan Nations. Not surprisingly, their organizations, small to begin with, collapsed shortly after their deaths. Neither they nor others in their cohort were succeeded by figures of comparable strength.
Only David Duke remains, a strange relic of the past. Even in white supremacy’s heyday, none of its leaders could command more than small followings. Like the extreme left, those at the other end of the ideological spectrum often spent as much time fighting one another as combating their supposed enemies. Small points of ideology and tactics counted heavily in these duels. Those who had dreams of uniting racialists under a single banner quickly learned that such ambitions were destined to founder.
At the moment, three figures seem of more than passing importance, although given the movement’s history, they may pass quickly into obscurity: Richard B. Spencer of the National Policy Institute, prominent on the alt-right; Matthew Heimbach of the Traditionalist Youth Network; and Andrew Anglin of the online Daily Stormer website. But there is no reason to believe that they will drive the white supremacist right over the longer term.
It is easy to concentrate on organizations, websites and the people associated with them, because they are visible and easy to identify. However, the danger of violence by individuals acting alone — so-called “lone wolf” attacks — remains and, in my view, is far more serious than the threat posed by organizations. The danger is high precisely because, absent unusually good intelligence, they normally become known only after the fact, as in the infamous 2011 attacks in Norway by Anders Breivik.
In that connection, attention needs to be paid to those known as “sovereign citizens,” who are potential lone wolves. Sovereign citizens do not constitute a movement. Rather, they represent a stream of anti-government thought and activity, built around the belief that traditional conceptions of American citizenship, law and institutions are invalid and that, consequently, no individual has any obligation to obey the law.
This idea is based on a radically variant reading of the Constitution and the common law that makes each person, in effect, a law unto him- or herself. While the sovereign citizen idea is not in itself based on white supremacy, the two overlap. Some sovereign citizens have also been white supremacists, and the very nature of sovereign citizen thought deprives civil rights protections of any legitimacy. It follows, too, that the failure of sovereign citizens to accept any legal obligations inevitably involves them in conflicts with the government and, not infrequently, in violent and sometimes deadly incidents.
Part one: here
(Anis Shivani’s books in the last year include Soraya: Sonnets and Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems. His book Assessing Literary Writing in the Twenty-First Century comes out in early 2017. This article has been made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet)
(Cover Photograph Salon)