Last Wednesday, Donald Trump briefly interrupted his ongoing Twitter tirades denouncing various investigations into his shady behavior with a bizarre tweet about "the large scale killing of farmers" and "land and farm seizures and expropriations" in South Africa. It didn't take long for journalists to figure out what Trump was talking about. He was referencing a racist (and false) conspiracy theory that floats around white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites and had been elevated by Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who has grown increasingly bold about mainstreaming ideas picked up from the white supremacist fringe.
That Trump often expresses racist views is neither new nor surprising information, so while news sites dutifully published pieces debunking this conspiracy theory — which implies that the South Africa government is working with vigilantes to steal land from white farmers through violence — it seems likely that both the media and the public will rapidly move on, especially since there are so many other big stories vying for attention.
But this strange interlude deserves more consideration, even amid the constant drumbeat of Trump-is-a-racist stories. By embracing this particular false narrative, the president of the United States has moved beyond garden-variety racism and is now openly pushing a white nationalist myth that has been used for decades to justify a violent ideology, one that occasionally leads to terrorism.
“'White genocide' is probably the most popular theme in the white supremacist world," Heidi Beirich, head of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Salon. The South African narrative Trump referenced "is a subset of that,” she said.
"White genocide" -- the thesis that there is a grand conspiracy to wipe out as many white people as possible, and/or to destroy their collective power -- is an idea that's been kicking around white nationalist circles for decades now, Beirich explained. Its purpose, she said, is "to strike fear in the hearts of white people in countries that are diversifying."
Racist beliefs or impulses are sadly common, and arguably drive most of the support for Trump. But the concept of "white genocide" takes racism to another level, because it's used to justify a commitment to a white nationalist agenda. By floating this conspiracy theory, which white nationalists use as "evidence" that black and brown people are trying to wipe out white people, Trump and Carlson are attempting to turn ordinary bigots into paranoid white nationalists, people who believe, as Beirich explained, that "we can’t share politics and political spaces with people of other races, because their goal is to exterminate us."
Derek Black, the son of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Stormfront founder Don Black, told Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow in 2016 how white nationalists have long sought to push movement conservatives past their occasional use of racist stereotypes and into overt paranoia about the supposed danger black and brown people pose to the very survival of whites.
“If we say it a thousand times — ‘White genocide! We are losing control of our country!’ — politicians are going to start saying it, too," said Derek Black, who "rejected the white nationalist cause" several years ago, in his words, and has been speaking out against his father's movement since then.
What white nationalists believe, and with some reason, is that ordinary white conservatives may hold racist beliefs, but don't generally possess a concrete ideology to frame it. They may crack racist jokes or make personal choices — such as where they choose to live or whom they vote for — that reinforce racial inequality. But most of them will draw the line at openly supporting explicitly racist policies, like legal segregation or bans on interracial marriage.
So white nationalists crafted this "white genocide" line, Beirich says, to radicalize those people into supporting the concept of a "white ethno-state" by convincing them that their very survival depends on it.
Obviously, the real-world evidence that white people are in danger of being wiped out by genocide is nonexistent. So white nationalists rely on conspiracy theories, such as the one about South African farmers, to scare people. They also lean heavily on fiction, Beirich notes, especially science fiction, to create this fear that "the white apocalypse is coming."
Last month, playwright Ian Allen an article piece for the New York Times examining the small but robust world of "white genocide" dystopian sci-fi, books that "act as a kind of binding agent, a Bible-like codification of basic principles that underpin the various denominations" of white nationalism.
Allen writes about a number of these books, but the two most important are likely "The Turner Diaries" and "The Camp of the Saints." The former, written by the late white-supremacist leader William Luther Pierce (under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald), tells the story of Earl Turner, a fictional hero who wages an insurgent war against the government -- which is presented as a tool of Jews and black people -- and becomes a martyr in the process of creating a worldwide, all-white fascist regime. The latter is a 1973 novel by French author and explorer Jean Raspail, recounting the future history of Europe being overrun by Arabs, Africans and other dark-skinned people, who are characterized as violent, filthy and parasitic.
"The Turner Diaries," in particular, has been implicated in a great deal of violent crime, influencing a number of white supremacist and right-wing terrorists, including Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. "The Camp of the Saints," a marginally more respectable literary work, is a favorite not just of professed white nationalists and hardcore immigration foes, but also of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
All this paranoia about "white genocide" is perhaps best understood as an extreme form of projection, a way of taking the murderous history of European colonialism and reversing the roles of oppressors and victims. The obsession with South Africa's land policy — which is meant to reverse the damage caused by the widespread white dispossession of African land, and the denial of both economic justice and civil rights under apartheid — illustrates this clearly.
While racism continues to be a major problem in the United States, this notion of "white genocide" has mostly lingered on the fringes of American culture. But by actively championing this South African conspiracy theory and other white nationalist beliefs on his prime-time Fox News show, Carlson is clearly betting that many more conservatives can be radicalized in that direction. By tweeting his support Wednesday, Trump is directly helping to normalize these views.
That's dangerous. If millions of Americans start to believe that white people are literally under threat of genocide, that belief can be used to justify all sorts of atrocious policy and disgraceful or violent behavior. The Trump administration's family separation policy offers a good example of how ugly things can get if frightened people become convinced that brutal human rights violations are necessary for their own survival. In the worst case, that may be just the beginning.