“I am a nationalist,” Donald Trump declared to a roaring crowd in Houston on Monday after insisting his opponents want to hand the country over to “power-hungry globalists.”
Two days later a series of packages set off alarms. When security looked inside, they found bombs. The question hung in the air. What would have happened if they exploded in the faces of their targets?
In past days, explosives have been mailed to George Soros, the Obamas and Clintons, CNN, Joe Biden and Robert De Niro. Right-wing militants, seeing constant support from the White House, now openly attack liberal politicians, funders and protesters. They want to show white moderates that violence against high-ranking elites is legitimate.
The more America becomes diverse, the more whites turn Republican. Some go Nazi.
Although small in number, extremist groups are the visible tip of an immense racial resentment moving our politics. The more America becomes diverse, the more whites turn Republican and some go Nazi. Why is paranoia their reaction?
Whether moderate or extreme, racial dread is a guilt-projection by whites, scared that their ancestors’ violence will be visited upon them if they lose control. In reality, people of color are not hellbent on revenge. The right is ripping America apart over an enemy that does not exist.
“I felt abandoned. I felt lonely,” Christian Picciolini told his TED audience of his recruitment into a neo-Nazi organization in the 1980s. “When I was fourteen, I was smoking a joint when a man … snatched it from my lips and looked me in the eyes and said, ‘that’s what the Communists and the Jews want you to do to keep you docile.’”
The white power movement was a lifeline to people like him, he said, answering loneliness with ideology. They gave him “identity, community, purpose.” Walking slowly on stage, he said, “I felt self-hatred and wanted to project it onto others.”
White power culture frames personal failure within a larger theme of historical, white victimization. In its novels and films, white bodies and property are plundered by “mud races.”
A Black Union soldier tries to rape a white woman, in Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman. In Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race and Adolf Hitler’s 1925 Mein Kampf the theme is “race suicide.” Rightful citizens let foreigners pollute the nation or outright steal it. In William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, Black soldiers break into homes to confiscate guns from white Americans on the orders of Jewish politicians.
The reader’s fear and loathing is projected through the text to paint a monstrous image on the faces of strangers. One doesn’t see immigrants, one sees pests. One doesn’t see people of color, one sees animals. One doesn’t see Jews, one sees manipulative Elders of Zion.
White power readers see themselves as vessels of superior genes to be protected from the rising tide of racial pollution. It is a fear-driven narrative, which explains the fetishizing of guns, black combat boots, black clothes, Nazi tattoos, the Confederate flag and the swastika. The white power man is in a state of war.
“Although I saw no evidence,” Picciolini said, “I didn’t hesitate to blame every Jewish person for a white genocide being promoted by them through a multicultural agenda.” He committed acts of violence and saw friends die or go to jail or hurt people. He stockpiled weapons. He made hate music that decades later Dylan Roof listened to as inspiration to kill nine worshippers in a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.
White power teaches broken men and women to see the enemy everywhere, opening the door to sadism. It is the Ohio woman spraying slurs and swastikas on a Black neighbor’s house. It is James Alex Fields who rammed a car into counter-protesters at last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer. It is Christopher Cantwell, the neo-Nazi spokesmen who said, “Because our rivals are stupid animals […] they couldn’t just get out of the way of his car.”
In the Mirror Darkly
Why worry? Isn’t the white power movement outnumbered at every turn? In Boston, they tried to rally and were flooded by counter-protesters. Antifa routed them in Berkeley. In Portland, the far-right group, Patriot Prayer wrestled in the street with leftists.
How big is the “alt-right” anyway? Aren’t they just a small number of extremists? At most, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates and skinheads are a mosh pit of hate, spilling blood in protests but ultimately thrashing in isolation. Why worry?
The danger lies in their core myth of a “white genocide.” It triggers pre-existing fears in less extreme whites supporting Trump.
Republicans will sabotage democracy to keep it white until it no longer exists for anyone.
White America is divided. Roughly 40 percent vote for Democrats, while 60 percent go for Republican. Trump fired up that 60 percent by conjuring at his rallies a nightmare image of vulnerable citizens attacked by foreign “vermin,” aided by a shadowy elite. In doing so, he invokes very old imagery. Audiences who viewed the film adaptation of Dixon’s novel, Birth of a Nation, were enraged by the Black Union soldier’s attempt to rape a white woman. Now, Trump tells his people that undocumented Mexicans are “rapists.” In Hitler’s Mein Kampf it was Jews corrupting the nation, now Trump talks of a sinister “global power structure” and George Soros, a Jewish man is often portrayed as the face of it.
His rhetoric hits the latent fear in middle white America, stoking the second highpoint in a U-shape trajectory of racism. Social psychologists have tracked it for decades.
Four reports in the journal Scientific American, spanning from 1956 to ’78, show a break with public racism and the drop in anti-Black prejudice. They were written as Civil Rights movement activists wrapped themselves in the American flag to position their citizenship as the fulfillment of the American Dream and racists as the enemy. White opposition to mixed-race transportation, housing and marriage was mostly replaced by tolerance in theory if not practice. The last report saw a surge in integrationist sentiment in ’70 to ’72 then a plateau in ’78.
One can see why. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and in ’77 the nation was riveted by Roots, the mini-series that took America on the Black journey. Millions who saw King’s funeral now saw the history of slavery that led to his blood being spilled by a sniper’s bullet.
The integrationist myth won over vastly more Americans than the white nationalist myth of “white genocide” until diversity became real. Very real. In culture, demographics and politics we became a raucous, ethnic mix. Roots set a template for minority films in which protagonists of color triumph over white racism. Think every Latinx and Black bio-pic ever — 42, Ray, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, Lady Sings the Blues. America was (and still is) moving fast to a minority-majority nation. We elected the first black president.
All this change shot white fear up the other side of its racist, U-shaped trajectory. What is striking is that after prejudice plateaued in 1978, it rose alongside wage stagnation and income inequality that began in the mid-1970s. Corporate America, using new technology and Republican tax policies and enabled by neo-liberal Democrats, reaped huge windfalls while workers took home less and less.
This new financial stress stoked already existing racism. The result is that decades later whites saw themselves as the victim not of American finance capitalism but as the victims of diversity. On the Ezra Klein Show this summer, Klein interviewed Dr. Jennifer Richeson whose psychological experiments have measured the anxiety triggered when one’s group loses or is perceived to lose power. “This racial shift information […] engenders negative racial attitudes to a large swath of racial groups,” she said, basing her findings on “largely white American samples.”
But why fear? Why the assumption that people of color are eager to leap at white throats?
Richeson talked about research from Boston. “Everyone agrees that racial discrimination against Blacks was worse in the ’50s and ’60s but in the 2000’s people think that racial discrimination against whites is worse,” she said. “Whites on average, think racism is a zero-sum, if it’s not directed at you guys anymore, it going to be directed at us. I’m like that’s not how it works, we can create justice and equality for everybody.”
Your Enemy Does Not Exist
America is not being ripped apart by the “alt-right.” America is being ripped apart by frightened whites who elect politicians that promise to build walls between them and the world. They cannot fathom sharing the nation because the only history they know is the violence that created them. And so they project their guilt onto us, people of color. They can’t imagine racial harmony, they only imagine that they will pay for the sins of the past.
The evidence of this future race war seems to surround them. They are angry and scared at the new visibility of whiteness, how wherever they turn, a new podcast or film or show reflects the horrifying history behind their privilege. It could be 12 Years a Slave or Black Lives Matters or a college course in American history. When they look at politics, they see Latinas and Muslims, gays and Black women running for office. When they reach for their paycheck, it buys less and less in the store.
Fear is driving them into a corner. If Richeson is right and moderate whites go Republican to protect their status, they won’t stop people of color but they will destroy America. They will destroy whiteness itself as they drive away the other 40 percent of whites who look at the world changing and are confident they can have a place in it. Liberal whites may look at their fear-driven conservative friends, family or co-workers and realize Red State America is willing to forego the future for the past, risk war, abandon refugees and sacrifice the environment for a racial ideology of a failing, shrinking party. Republicans will sabotage democracy to keep it white until it no longer exists for anyone.
But their enemy does not exist. On the other side of ideology is a living, breathing, complex humanity. Picciolini told his TED audience about his white power record store in Chicago, where customers he was supposed to hate befriended him. He felt sympathy for a Black man whose mother had breast cancer, just like Picciolini’s mother. He recognized the love a gay couple had for their newborn son because he loved his son the same way.
He was so ashamed that he stopped selling white power music. He left neo-Nazism behind. What rescues lost souls from hate he says is “receiving compassion from the people they least deserve it from.”
Photo credit: Shealah Craighead/White House.