On March 15, in an event that shocked the conscience of the world, an avowed neo-Nazi and white supremacist murdered 50 people (and injured more than 40 others) in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. His killing spree ended only because he was confronted by an unarmed man named Abdul Aziz, who forced him to flee.
This story first ran at Salon in April, 2019.
This incident is not an isolated one. Contrary to the “lone wolf” narrative about right-wing terrorism, the Christchurch massacre was the work of a global right-wing movement that exchanges information and resources, radicalizing and indoctrinating vulnerable white people in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This “white power” movement is extremely dangerous: In addition to the recent events in New Zealand, there have been deadly attacks in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Norway and Sweden, among other places.
The overt white supremacy of the white power movement does not remain isolated to that subculture. This hate metastasizes and infects “mainstream” conservative political discourse, leaders and the general public. There are many such examples.
The extreme hostility to nonwhite immigrants espoused by the broader white power movement has been massaged and repackaged into the policy positions of Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
On a near daily basis Fox News host Tucker Carlson summons talking points and narratives from white supremacist and other right-wing hate sites and spoon-feeds that poison to his eager audience. Derrick Black, a former white supremacist and the son of a Ku Klux Klan leader, told CNN last Saturday: “It’s really, really alarming that my family watches Tucker Carlson’s show once and then watches it on the replay because they feel that he is making the white nationalist talking points better than they have, and they’re trying to get some tips on how to advance it.”
Should we see white supremacy as a cultural, social and political problem rather than just the pathology of the relatively small white power movement? What does the white power movement want, in practical terms, and what are its activists and foot soldiers willing to do to achieve their goals? Can we explain the New Zealand terror attacks as part of a decades-long plan by the white power movement in America and around the world? How did white hate groups pioneer the use of the early internet and social media to radicalize, recruit and coordinate the actions of their members?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago. Her new book is “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.”
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, “The Chauncey DeVega Show” or through the embedded player below.
Donald Trump and his administration wallow in cruelty. In many ways it is their core unifying principle. That cruelty gives permission for and encourages violence. This has been seen from the lethal white right-wing violence in Charlottesville to the neo-Nazi terror attacks in New Zealand several weeks ago. How does the public become used to such cruelty and violence? Is right-wing violence being normalized in our society?
Those are two interconnected questions. One of them is about the way that political rhetoric and policies that enact racism and violence within our culture normalize those ideas within the mainstream.
A great deal of what is happening at present feels new, with Donald Trump. But this is also familiar, in that we have been struggling with this problem since the 1980s when the white power movement became radicalized and paramilitary.
The white power movement has done a very good job at disguising how it is really a social movement. Part of this subterfuge is done through the “lone gunman” narrative, where the crimes are then viewed as isolated events. Even after the horrible attacks in Charlottesville, there is still a tendency among journalists to divide these events up from one another. The result is that the Tree of Life synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh is reported as somehow being different than the Coast Guard officer’s assassination list and all the weapons he was hoarding to carry out his attacks, and those in turn are different from the New Zealand mosque attacks.
Acts of anti-Semitic political violence and anti-Muslim political violence are treated as being somehow discrete when in fact they are united by the same perpetrators, the same ideology and the same belief system.
There is a common understanding in America by many white Americans and some others that whiteness is inherently benign, which means that white racist violence is viewed as something other than systemic. But in many ways whiteness as a political and cultural force was created and enforced through acts of violence against nonwhites.
There is a very long history in the United States of the creation and maintenance of whiteness and other conjoined systems of power through violence. To really reckon with this kind of violence would require a response that does not just involve more FBI agents or an expansion of the surveillance society. It runs through many other elements of society. So what you see in the history of whiteness and violence is not only individual people but entire social and institutional systems in America and elsewhere.
Language is very important. Terms such as “white nationalism” are increasingly being mainstreamed in American public discourse. How do you define and conceptualize “white nationalism” and how is it different (or not different) from “white supremacy”?
White nationalism might technically be correct when viewed from a political science framework. It is a way that we can usefully analyze earlier moments — for example, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when its members are wearing the robe and the hood and marching down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with their faces uncovered by the many thousands. That is white nationalism as demonstrated by vigilantes who are, from their point of view, defending the nation and policing a status quo power structure through a violent strain of patriotism.
But when observers use the language of “white nationalism” now, I think it really obscures the radical nature of the white power movement. The reason I use the language “white power movement” is primarily because that is how members of the movement actually describe themselves.
They are not interested in protecting the United States. The nation they are interested in is the racial nation, what they see as countries they believe can be “salvaged” from an onslaught of “hyper-fertile” people of color. These countries can then be claimed as “white homelands,” from which the white power movement can launch a race war that will then create a white world. That is the endgame. The white power movement is fundamentally revolutionary, radical, transnational and violent.
Here is a common framework. White supremacists claim that black and brown people — especially black folks — are biologically defective. Whereas the white nationalists shift the rhetoric, borrowing from the New Right and others to say that it is not necessarily biology but “culture” that makes white people superior and by comparison black people and other nonwhites to varying degrees inferior. This shift is an effort to make their racism more palatable to a larger white public. Is that correct?
That formulation overlooks some complexity. I think there are people in the white power movement who are white supremacist in the way that you just described and who use culture in the way you just described. We could add to that list a large number of people who have theological bases for their racism and believe, for instance, that that all people of color are descended from Satan or from Cain and therefore nonwhites are not even human. So there are different strains of racism within the white power movement.
It is important to make a distinction that white supremacy is much broader and much more common than white power activism. The latter is a broad-based but limited social movement that is revolutionary in its nature. Whereas, I think “white supremacist” properly describes large sections of American society. For example America’s legal system and courts, the distribution of resources such as education, the way that urban spaces are racially segregated and individual belief systems, many of which are not explicitly or expressly violent. Many of these examples would quality as being white supremacist.
There is also a deep convergence between conservative politics and racism in post-civil rights America. Your expansive understanding of white supremacy — which other scholars generally agree with as a given — indicts a whole culture.
I think it does implicate large portions of our culture. White supremacy is simply a system that seeks to benefit white people above other people. White supremacists are people who believe that the political and social system should be made that way. There are people who do such things overtly and there are of course people who benefit from those systems of power without interrogating what that means. Both groups are participating in a system of white supremacy.
There was a version of an idea, on both the left and the right, that America was moving beyond race. So on the left, we talked about the “post-racial” moment and what the Obama presidency meant for our country. There were conservatives who also shared a version of that myth. People really were invested in the progress narrative about the color line in the United States. While there was this investment in post-racial America there was also a violent fringe movement where overt racism and racist violence was mobilizing people, ideas and resources. That is a through line which is often overlooked in terms of America’s present political moment.
Were you surprised by the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville in 2017?
Charlottesville was exactly what I would expect to see. The performance aspect, the way it was made for photo-ops, the clothing and the like show that it was a highly organized event. It was the public face of white power activity.
My research left me asking several questions, however. Where were the women? In Charlottesville we saw almost exclusively men. In every other moment of white power activism and even in Klan activism going back before the Vietnam War, women have done an incredibly important set of jobs that include the reproductive work of bearing white children that are required to avoid “racial annihilation,” the symbolic work of signaling purity and virtue, the real activism of disguising people and driving getaway cars, and the social networking of marriages and taking care of each other’s children.
My second question is [about the fact that] in the period I examine in my book, there is a complicated and very violent white power underground that is doing paramilitary camp training, amassing weapons and supplies from armories and military posts, assassinating enemies, robbing armored cars and distributing millions of dollars to other groups around the country and training people in how to use the early internet.
These spheres of activity, the public and the underground, are usually conducted — in the earlier period at least — by the same people. People are very flexible about circulating between legal and illegal activity. The underground, where the illegal activity takes place, is hardly ever visible at the time that it is happening. The wave of violence right now seems to confirm such a conclusion. Historians and others will be studying that aspect of Charlottesville and other white power actions in the future.
The New Zealand mosque attack is an example of a global crisis. What do we know about the international aspect of the white power movement?
In studying transnational movements, you want to think in terms of “both and.” So on the one hand, we can trace inflows to the United States from other places. In the earlier period, the most visible examples might be the way that British Israelism came into the United States through Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. This became the “Christian Identity” movement. Skinhead culture came to the United States from Great Britain.
Groups in the United States are also sending material overseas. The Aryan Nation did mailings to different countries. “The Turner Diaries” shows up in bookstores as far away as South Africa. World Church of the Creator has a presence in Australia. If you’re a white power activist in Australia you can access things on the internet, but you can also read reprinted American white power material like newspapers. You can send away for mail order sermons.
This movement sees violence as a step in an eventual global race war. It wants to start in the communities and countries that it thinks it can salvage from racial others. So this movement has, through this entire period, been focused on the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Southern Africa and Europe as places that are still “white enough” to be saved through the kind of warfare that they are planning.
An additional way that the global or transnational color line is important is that the horrible shootings in Christchurch are a spectacular moment of violence — but are not in themselves the end goal of that action. The neo-Nazi terrorist who allegedly committed that mass shooting is not done. What he wants is for that moment of action to “awaken” other white people, to create political rifts that spur government action, which will then “inspire” other white people. This is all part of a long game that is meant to “awaken” white people into seizing “white homelands,” seizing different “white nations” and then eventually annihilating people of color around the world.
How is the internet being used to radicalize this generation of racist activists and foot soldiers? Are they just taking old tactics and adapting it to new technology? Or is technology allowing them to do new things?
The use of such technology seems new to outsiders but actually it is not new to the white power movement. The white power movement went online with proto-internet computer message boards around 1983 and 1984 with Liberty Net. On those message boards, content including not only assassination lists but also things like personal ads and recipes. So the white power early internet was doing the work of Facebook before Facebook even existed. White power activists were effectively motivating social network activism before most people were familiar with that as an idea. The new dimension of white power activism in the digital space is the first-person shooter game aesthetic and also the use of memes.
The right-wing news media is mainstreaming and normalizing the talking points, logic and broader narratives of the white supremacist movement. For example, Media Matters and other watchdog groups have repeatedly documented how Tucker Carlson takes white supremacist talking points and then reframes them in an effort to make them sound more reasonable for his audience. Unfortunately, many in the American public do not have the critical tools to understand that they are being fed the ideology and values of overt white supremacy.
The white power movement operates best when there is no broader context for journalists, politicians and the general public to understand what is really happening. It helps to think about white power activism and the movement as a series of concentric circles. If you think about the movement in the earlier period, such as in the 1980s, the middle of the concentric circles would be the hardcore activists. That consists of 10,000 to 25,000 people. But these hardcore white power activists devote their lives and resources to the movement. They marry in the movement, they go to church in the movement, they give each other rides to the airport, they drive getaways for each other.
Outside of that group there are approximately 150,000 people. They subscribe to the newspapers, show up for rallies and are pretty serious about the white power movement. Outside of that group is another 450,000 who do not themselves buy the white power newspapers but who still regularly read them. This is a model of participation which is present in most social movements in the late 20th century. Different levels of commitment spur different forms of activism, motivated by the same ideology.
Outside of the 450,000 circle there is a much bigger and more diffuse circle of people who would never read something that’s identified as the “Klan newspaper.” However, these same people would definitely agree with the ideas presented in it. This is especially true if the ideas came up in a social setting or from a trusted journalist or news source, or from a friend or family member.
The thing that is very effective about this mode of social organizing is that it moves ideas in both directions. For example, when David Duke launches his presidential campaign in 1988, some of his platform gets into Pat Buchanan’s platform, and then some of Pat Buchanan’s platform gets into George Bush’s platform and becomes mainstream. The mainstreaming of these ideas also moves people inward. It grabs people who are casual receivers of the message and pulls them towards that radical center of the white power movement. Ultimately, and very worrisome, the presence of even a small number of these white power activists is a hugely impactful presence for American political culture and broader society.
What is the role of military veterans in the white power movement?
In the past we know that there was a small cohort of highly influential military veterans in the white power movement who could take their knowledge of tactics, weapons and combat from military spaces to civilian spaces. That was true of veterans and active duty troops. The American military took a very long time to respond to this problem.
How are young white people radicalized into joining the white power movement?
During the time period covered by my book “Bring the War Home,” the older generation of white power activists were deeply interested in recruiting people in any way possible. What the Ku Klux Klan did — and what was a prototypical model for this type of recruiting — was to be opportunistic. They figured out how to use prevailing cultural forms and local frustrations to recruit new members. The Ku Klux Klan and other white power groups do not cause the conflict. Instead they come into a conflict that is already going on and say, “We will give paramilitary training to you white men that want to oppose these immigrants.”
The idea that white power activists would pick up on the fissures and currents of the present moment is absolutely what they have done in the past.
The Oklahoma City bombing [in 1995] is central for understanding how these white supremacist terrorist groups mobilize and then engage in lethal violence. Two decades later, that event and its origins are still very much misunderstood.
The Oklahoma City bombing is the largest domestic mass casualty event in the United States between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. We spend an enormous amount of cultural energy and high school history curricula on Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
But there is still this incorrect understanding of the Oklahoma City bombing as the work of one person or a few people. This is the “lone wolf” narrative asserting itself again. That framework locates the Oklahoma City bombing as something outside of the organizing that shaped the attack. Timothy McVeigh was not going for a single mass casualty event. He wanted to awaken and inspire other activists. In our present moment we have this emergent hagiography of McVeigh that worships what he did. The Oklahoma City bombing is part of the white power movement and resonates with the white power members who are being radicalized today.
During a recent TV interview you explained how the New Zealand terror attacks fit within a “race war” strategy by the white power movement. The host seemed genuinely shocked that white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other white power activists are sincere in their goal of waging war against nonwhites. Why are these types of threats not taken more seriously by mainstream journalists and members of the general public? Why the denial?
First of all there is a great amount of dissembling by white power activists. This is why it is so important to properly understand “The Turner Diaries,” which answers the question of how a tiny fringe movement could possibly think they could win a race war? How did they think that they could face off against the most militarized state in the history of the world and win?
In the book the white power movement wages asymmetrical combat, guerrilla warfare, on a state. They do it through baiting the Soviet Union into a nuclear counter-strike. The white power guerrillas also seize nuclear weapons and then use them to take over the nation and then the world.
It is easier and simpler to just say these are only a few people, these are crazy people, these are despicable people. But one cannot understand the white power ideology without trying to understand what their behavior and plans mean within the worldview they are committed to making real.
Does the white power movement actually have an ideology as political scientists, historians, sociologists, philosophers and other experts would understand it?
It is very coherent. As an ideology, white power is flexible and opportunistic. Journalists, historians and other scholars tend to put people into different discrete groups. Therefore a lot of energy is spent trying to determine the number of people who are neo-Nazis or Klansmen or Christian Identity or skinheads. If you look at the actual people and trace the shapes of their lives, these white power members are moving around through these different belief systems. So one person, very likely, will go to a Klan meeting and then an Aryan Nations meeting, then a Skinhead gathering, then a neo-Nazi gathering. They recognize this as all being different parts of the same thing. We have to recognize it that way too.
How is Donald Trump located relative to this global increase in white supremacist and right-wing violence? Does Donald Trump have any responsibility for events such as those in New Zealand?
As a historian, I am inclined to imagine that part of what Donald Trump does is strictly performative. But there is a genuine dimension to Donald Trump’s behavior as well. Trump is a baffling character in some ways. I think we can look at what the gunman said Trump meant to him, which is that he doesn’t follow Trump politically — the gunman didn’t see himself as “conservative,” but he does see Trump as a symbol of “renewed white identity.”
I think that most people would agree — and Donald Trump would probably agree that he is a symbol of “renewed white identity.” Donald Trump’s policies are about renewed white identity through, for example, banning other kinds of people from the United States and reproductive health policies that are directed toward the propagation of more white children.
So whether or not Trump means to, he has unleashed something in America or at least condoned something quite ugly. As a historian, I am inclined to say that we need to wait for some future point in time to have the archives and other information to make sense of Donald Trump and this moment. I do think that it behooves us, though, to look at what the New Zealand gunman said and to take seriously the ideology that he laid out.