The spread of white nationalism is taking our nation into uncharted and dangerous territory
America’s culture wars are back. Only this time it’s white identity politics supplanting the religious right. This is a step beyond the GOP’s formula of turning elections into a battle over faith and family, with non-Christian non-traditional values under threat, and the enemy identified as anyone embracing diversity and tolerance.
Maybe culture war isn’t the right phrase. Maybe what we’re witnessing is a clash of American civilization, or the start of a national disintegration. But race-centric beliefs that have been kept under wraps by many whites for decades are breaking into the open.
This is seen in Charlottesville’s marchers, in President Trump’s false-equivalency defense of the “good” people on both sides, and in polls finding two-thirds of GOP voters were okay with his response. Somehow, racist, epithet-yelling white supremacists and neo-Nazi sympathizers didn’t upset Trump. These white power nationalist voices came from within his base—those who believe his “Make America Great Again” rants mean restoring their power and privilege.
It may be too soon to understand the scope or limits of the unraveling before us. But here are 10 concrete observations as we begin to take stock of this juncture. There surely are many more. But let’s mark this moment as a break from, as well as a continuation of, the past, even as we read the opening page of a chapter that’s still being written. (More marches are planned for this weekend.)
1. This is not yesterday’s culture wars. “Culture war” may be a media construct. Nonetheless, it’s shorthand for what Thomas Frank traced in his 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, in which the author answered why those on the economy’s losing side in middle America were voting against their own self-interest. A big part of the answer was that the GOP strategically pushed emotional litmus tests, like limiting reproductive rights (starting with abortion) and embracing traditional (biblically defined) family values. These cries diverted voters away from simmering class issues to hotter-button moral ones. Vice President Mike Pence is today’s lead messenger for this agenda. But what the right’s obsessions over sex, sin and subversion didn’t explicitly admit was that its core was angst over white identity, or its perceived disappearance. What’s new is that self-centered societal expectation has come out of the shadows.
2. The internet has emboldened political tribalism. This isn’t only true of white supremacists. This pertains to everybody with a specific point of view, as Fortune.com accurately noted in a piece about how the rise in tribal politics accelerated the spread of fake news. “Facebook’s pushing of our emotional buttons is part of the picture—since it is blamed for helping distribute a lot of fake news—but so is what some researchers say is an increase in political tribalism,” Fortune wrote. “How is this related to the rise of fake news? Because the researchers argue that this powerful desire to be seen as a member of a specific group or tribe influences the way we behave online in a variety of ways, including the news we share on social networks like Facebook. In many cases it’s a way to signify membership in a group, rather than a desire to share information.”
There’s no disputing that many Charlottesville white power marchers came from across the country, connected by grievances touted by websites and alt-right forums. These lines and connections in cyberspace are creating new political identities and fault lines, which, as we have seen, are hastening the return into the open of once closely held prejudices and racial animosity. Saturday’s planned “free speech” rally in federal parkland in San Francisco, where militias are saying they will attend to “keep the peace” by toting military-style weaponry, is another example of transitioning from chatroom whispers to public pronouncements.
3. Internet advertising is throwing gas on this fire. Anyone who has looked at far-right websites knows they often look a bit amateurish—such as publishing on the same templates. But below the surface are super-sophisticated user-tracking and behavior-predicting analytics set up by advertising networks to share and refer content to the like-minded (and hence targeted online ads). Since 2016’s election, there have been a handful of reports and analyses mapping how the far right acquired audiences and influence equal to mainstream media. Breitbart, as the New York Times Sunday Magazine just reported, supplanted Fox News in fall 2016. (It’s since lost 2,600 advertisers and audience share.) Nonetheless, deeper looks from academia revealed how online advertising networks fed and fortified the right’s echo chambers, which continues today. This infrastructure is not going away, even if far-right websites like the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer are kicked off web publishing platforms, as Go Daddy and Google did post-Charlottesville.
4. Communities nursing grievances now back each other. The white power umbrella means different things to different people, and its many groups are notoriously splintered and unruly, even if the unifying feature is whiteness. As the Guardian reported in one example, gun-carrying militias from six states, all with Facebook pages, went to Charlottesville seeking to “defend free speech” by marching in combat uniforms and carrying military-style rifles. Their stated aim was to keep the peace, the Guardian said, not carry Nazi and Ku Klux Klan flags. However, the notion that self-appointed white posses should supplement police as other militant whites march is jarring. This boldness reflects a stewing far-right rage, shared by those who believe society cannot take care of them or itself; that norms—like local police—are insufficient, and that new order, rules and displays of power are necessary.
As Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a Washington Post commentary this week, the threat of white nationalists has been underestimated and is growing. “The mere existence of so many heavily armed citizens filled with hate and anger toward various elements of American society is troubling enough in its own right,” he wrote. “They number in the hundreds of thousands. More troubling is the violent convergence now underway within right-wing extremist movements—sanitized with the label ‘alt-right.’ Largely under the media radar, disaffected extremist groups with long histories of squabbling have been independently pooling resources, some even infiltrating our government through the outreach efforts of right-wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed political violence erupt between right-wing extremist protesters and counterprotesters at pro-Trump rallies in Minnesota, Washington, California and now Virginia. This rebranded alt-right extremist movement has the ultimate goal to disrupt civil society, undermine government institutions and pick which laws—if any—they will abide by, and what supposed ‘justice’ they will administer on their own authority.”
5. White insecurity is the oldest issue in America. In many ways, the resurgence of white supremacy Daryl Johnson describes is anything but a new story. It’s among the oldest narratives in America. Ever since the European colonizers landed, whites have been scared of Native Americans and then rebellious slaves. The white fears of losing their lives and livelihoods (now fears of losing privilege and place) to non-whites date to the 1790s, when Haitian slaves overthrew the French. In 1807, the Congress responded by banning slave importation. That was a half-century before the Civil War, making Virginia the increasingly powerful center of a slave-breeding industry and decreasing the power of South Carolina, the major Atlantic port for slave importation.
The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment’s purpose, in part, was to allow southern slates to have slave-catching militias. After the Civil War, they became the Ku Klux Klan, whose goals were disarming blacks and sending a message of who was in charge. The history and examples go on and on, decade after decade, century after century, with white fear of non-whites a primal force. Trump’s 2016 campaign was another example, starting with demonizing Mexicans and Muslims. There’s nothing new here, as disturbing as that may be.
6. Like past culture wars, it’s a useful distraction. The takeaway from Frank’s book was the early 21st-century culture wars led by the religious right allowed the Republicans’ other major base—predatory capitalists—to exploit the electorate electing Republicans. The same can be said of the resurgent white supremacists, who are praising and being praised by a president whose policies seek to hollow out societal equalizers and social safety nets by privatizing education, environmental deregulation, dismantling health care, gutting labor law, defunding Planned Parenthood, and not enforcing civil rights. The Charlottesville marchers were united in their defiance and aggression, but didn’t have concrete agendas other than elevating their race and power above others.
7. The white supremacists aren’t anti-big government. This is a different twist than recent GOP dogma. If anything, leaders like David Duke said they liked that Trump is validating their grievances. Moreover, they are not explicitly anti-big government. They want Trump and government to put them at the front of the line again via pro-white affirmative action. That is what Trump’s administration is doing, by taking steps to stop enforcing civil rights laws in voting, education and discrimination. It’s a return to the 1950s and many eras before, when the political class was white, society was segregated and non-whites knew and kept their place.
8. These whites have always been there. There is a spectrum of conservative-to-right-wing households that fall under what linguist George Lakoff calls the “strict father” morality and worldview. Those on the left of this spectrum might be conservative Christians who oppose abortion and women’s rights and back gun ownership, but are not racist. Going further to the right, however, are those who believe in white power and racial superiority and feel an increasingly diverse America, demographically and culturally, threatens them and society. Lakoff has said strict-father households account for 35 percent of the country, which is just below Trump’s current national approval rating of 38 percent. In other words, the moral universe where male-led white supremacy thrives is rooted in a significant portion of the country, even if the Charlottesville marchers represent a small subset of that cohort.
9. Trump grew up in a strict-father, racist household. Trump has an affinity for white supremacy because he was raised by a strict father in a segregated New York City—the very paradigm Lakoff describes. Fred Trump prospered when New York was not a “melting pot,” as its school-age children were taught in the 1960s. As a native New Yorker with family going back a century there, I can tell you it was wall-to-wall ethnic ghettos, neighborhood silos where identity was a major factor in business and social circles. Bernie Sanders, who didn’t interact with blacks until he went to college in Chicago, was from this milieu. Trump’s father became rich building high-rise rental apartments for non-whites after World War II, when the government wouldn’t make home loans to returning black and brown veterans. As the suburbs grew and whites left the inner city, Trump entered a family business built on segregation. This is where his values come from, which are racist, hustling and in your face—echoing Charlottesville’s white power marchers.
10. The response? Empathize but don’t sympathize. That’s Lakoff’s prescription for dealing with this cohort of America, including its white supremacist elements. That sounds hard, but Lakoff says the white power marchers and the strict-father mindsets are due to the way their brains are wired. For progressives who want to challenge and change that, it means knowing your moral compass, trying to hear where their grievances are coming from, and then pushing back by stating what is true and what is not. That’s the only way to rewire unconscious thinking, Lakoff says. “Empathy is not necessarily being sympathetic to someone else, but it has to do with really putting yourself in their shoes so you know what they’re doing and what they could be doing to you.”
Where Are We?
What unfolded in Charlottesville and its aftermath is not a normal political or cultural moment—not since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is a stark watershed, suggesting in discouraging ways that the more things change, the more they stay the same—as the cliché goes. Lakoff’s assessment that one-third of America is predisposed to the kind of thinking that leads to racism and white supremacy like we saw in Charlottesville is sobering.
There’s a faint hope, he says, to change how people think. But most reactions to Charlottesville are disgust, not empathy. As new white power marches are planned for San Francisco this weekend, vehement counter-protests are being planned. It may take three or more decades for American demographics to change (when non-whites become a majority) to surmount this latest eruption of white supremacy. Between now and then, and especially with Trump as president, the country is entering uncharted and dangerous territory.