The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville did not unite the right.
The groups in attendance—from alt-light to straight-up Nazi—reacted with anything but unity to the death of Heather Heyer, the young woman mown down by a white supremacist in August 2017. Some groups condemned the killer, though without taking responsibility for Heyer’s death. Jason Kessler, one of the organizers, blamed the police: “Police stood down and refused to separate the counter-demonstrators, and now people are dead. They were not prepared. Their number one priority was shutting down the alt-right.” Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke blamed the “the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
Whether or not Trump’s infamous “good people on both sides” comment was meant to include the white power crowd or those who were protesting the removal of Confederate statues, the president did condemn the worst actors but, characteristically, with a degree of ambiguity.
The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer blamed Heyer herself, claiming that she died from a weight-related heart attack, while James Mason, something of an elder statesman among American Nazis, did not deny that his work over the years might have contributed to the thirty-two year old woman’s death. He regretted only that there “should have been more. I think somebody should have opened up on that crowd of communists down there and just laid waste.”
There is, however, one point of agreement among white nationalists, separatists, alt-righters, neo-Nazis and identitarians everywhere: we’re the victims here!
The terminology used to categorize these groups can be confusing. White separatists claim that they just want an ethnostate of their own because they are different from other races and because multiculturism has failed. Their rhetoric suggests that—despite their denials—they believe themselves to be superior to others or at least hope to be. The alt-right is the domain of Pepe the Frog and so-called ironic racism. It is a sad online phenomenon, almost entirely concerned with meme-making. If one were to make a Venn diagram of all these groups’ motives, the overlap would be self-defense. Of course, they all hate Jews, bash blacks, disparage women, ridicule homosexuals, despise the government, resent immigrants and loathe communists and globalists (whom they equate with Jews), but all this would be nothing without the limitless fuel of grievance. White people are—they somehow believe—barely surviving. This unites them like nothing else.
In fact, they’re not even all white.
Take the Proud Boys, whose brand received a boost after Trump’s bizarre comment that these self-styled western chauvinists—of whom the president claimed to know nothing—should “stand back and stand by.” Their current leader, Enrique Tarro, is a dark-skinned Miami-born man who identifies as Afro-Cuban. The Proud Boys claim to welcome anyone who believes west is best into their ranks. Even homosexuality is not an obstacle to membership. Or so they say.
Like many of these groups, they have recently splintered. Groups of this sort are constantly fracturing, closing shop, reopening and rebranding. Kyle Chapman, who earned the nickname Based Stickman after publicly beating an anti-fascist demonstrator with a stick, has formed a rival faction. Chapman is an explicit white supremacist, very concerned about white genocide. Chapman has called his sect The Proud Goys, making it the only known white power organization whose name contains Yiddish.
Why Can’t They All Get Along?
The lack of cohesion among these white supremacist gangs is in part the result of their having been successfully targeted by law enforcement. The Klan, the neo-Nazis and the skinheads have all been infiltrated and their members have turned on each other. Some are now serving long prison sentences.
In addition, groups of combative and paranoid young men cannot easily be molded into a smoothly run organization, especially when effective leadership is so rare. Not only are attempts to create an all-white ethnostate plainly ridiculous, but separatists won’t get so much as their own clubhouse without a charismatic leader. Fascism won’t work without one. Donald Trump has many of the necessary traits and the right sense of style for such a role, but he was born in a time and place that limited his ambitions so he has remained merely an authoritarian populist, a demagogue.
The task of assembling a group of like-minded bigots is further complicated by the fact that attitudes towards race, religion, sexuality, etc. have dramatically changed. Gone are the days when the KKK had upwards of six million members, many from the middle and professional classes. One can argue about the nature of contemporary bigotry, but there’s definitely less of it. The election and re-election of Barack Obama illustrate this, and those who counter that this is just a matter of some of my best presidents are black are reflexively unwilling to recognize progress.
A final obstacle to creating a robust far-right hate group of significant size and lasting power is that anyone with an axe to grind can now choose from a salad bar of grievances dressed up as ideologies. And here’s where lines get blurred and slopes get slippery. Just as the goals of violent anarchists are perversions of those of garden-variety liberals, the aims of white supremacists are warped versions of the policy prescriptions of many card-carrying congressional Republicans. Not every gang of angry, armed white males is motivated by racism or ethnic or religious hatred.
Take the Boogaloo movement, a study in taxonomic weirdness. These supremacists hope to put white Christian males—after so long in the wilderness!—back in charge where they supposedly belong. But not all of those who call themselves Boogaloo Boys are racist, and some have openly joined Black Lives Matter marches. All Boogaloos, however, are accelerationists, who wish to hasten a massive social upheaval leading to the violent overthrow of the federal government. The deadly confrontations at Waco and Ruby Ridge are proof—as they see it—of the villainy of an establishment that gladly uses lethal force against citizens who dare assert their constitutionally protected liberties (read: unfettered access to guns). This perspective—wildly oversimplified at best—lacks an ethnic element.
This does not make them harmless by any means. In fact, private anti-government militias of this sort could pose a much larger threat than any other kind of hate group, since the men who join militias are by definition locked and loaded. Dozens of Boogaloo members have been charged with crimes, including murder. The men who planned to kidnap Michigan’s governor and put her on “trial,” were affiliated with the movement.
No place is more militia-friendly than today’s Russia. Supremacists the world over view Vladimir Putin as a manly symbol of resistance to the spread of secularism, political correctness and jihadism. Russia’s tolerance—at the least—for the presence of paramilitary groups has lured young, adventurous men from all over the world to the fight against Ukrainian government forces in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Somewhat confoundingly, many have made the trip to fight against Russia. Why someone from Berlin or Kentucky would choose one side over the other is unclear—and perhaps it is even unclear and unimportant to them. What matters is that the Donbass is a place where white males who enjoy mixed martial arts and gunplay can indulge those preferences. Their violence is not necessarily motivated by ideology—a fact that should reassure no one.
The most influential of the local militias is the Azov Battalion, a regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard that counts self-confessed neo-Nazis among its ranks and has welcomed foreign fighters to join its cause. To give some sense of the Azov Battalion’s reach, one of its symbols was worn on the jacket of the man who massacred fifty-one Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand. The battalion numbers in only the hundreds, but it has an outreach program that solicits other Europeans to “save Europe from extinction.” Furthermore, Azov has established ties with the Atomwaffen, a particularly vicious neo-Nazi group that originated in the American South, but which now has affiliate organizations in Canada and several European countries. Members of Atomwaffen have been implicated in mass murder plots as well as plans to damage public water systems and power grids. They’ve also been accused of scheming to blow up nuclear power plants (their name translates to nuclear weapons)—all in order to overthrow the federal government. Once again, ethnic hatred is secondary to anti-government “resistance.”
But even among these dedicated hard cases, there is no universal agreement as to an ultimate goal and acceptable methods. It may seem perverse to distinguish between different shades of Nazi, but understanding these individuals is crucial to blocking their actions and stopping the spread of their ideology.
Behind the Hate
These people are not imbeciles. Some are nihilists—like the skinhead who busts heads just for the thrill of transgressive behavior. Others, however, require justification for their actions and a rationale for their grievances—and one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that societal forces have left many working class people feeling sucker-punched and swept aside. In the US, the near death of the coal industry, the outsourcing of jobs and the general decline of the manufacturing base have made it tough to find blue collar work that offers much in the way of pay or pride. Globalization has hurt these people. Even those who hold no racial animus are frustrated that their problems are never aired on cable news.
But railing against a faceless, impersonal process like globalization isn’t very satisfying. So instead George Soros becomes the enemy, the secret puppet master. Nancy Pelosi wants to take your guns. FEMA is building concentration camps to house opponents to the coming world government. It’s all predicted there in the Turner Diaries. Besides, Hillary Clinton is coming for your kids and … down the slope we slide. Sure, QAnon is crazy, but the people who subscribe to this fantasy are not themselves insane. They are—just maybe—understandable.
And even, for the most part, harmless. The vast majority of those at the sparsely attended barbecues where warm beer is consumed, tattoos are compared and threats are leveled at imaginary enemies will not kill, even if they refer to themselves as Odin’s Stormtroopers. Being a part of a group might not even be such a bad thing for these dissatisfied and distrustful individuals: the biggest threats posed by white supremacy or any other form of prejudice are not concerted acts of mass violence.
The most significant act of domestic terrorism in the United States was the murder of 168 people in Oklahoma City committed by Timothy McVeigh with the help of Terry Nichols. Others knew of their plot and may have aided them, but it was essentially a two-man operation.
In July 2011, one man, acting on his own, killed 77 people in Norway using a bomb, a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol. In August of that year, a gunman in El Paso, Texas killed 23 in an anti-Latino attack at a Walmart. Eleven people were slaughtered by a shooter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, and two years earlier 49 people lost their lives to a single shooter inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. None of the perpetrators were members of a hate group.
The term leaderless resistance is sometimes used in such cases, but the phrase obscures a simple reality: these men acted on their own not because they were devoted to the idea of non-hierarchical systems, but because they were exceptional. Others believed in the same doctrines, read the same books warning of the end of the white race, felt similarly threatened by the celebration of women’s and gay rights and were convinced that the feds wanted to disarm them—but lacked the mental and emotional pathologies that lead a person to believe that mass murder can be for the greater good—pathologies not to be confused with mental illness. The planning and execution of mass murder typically involves an individual crippled by emotional pain, feelings of humiliation and, often, substance abuse.
How Big, How Bad and What Should We Do?
The FBI publishes an annual Hate Crimes Statistics Report. In 2019, the total number of reported cases was 8,559. Of these, 51 were murders, and of the murders, 31 were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry, 12 by religion, 7 by sexual orientation and 1 by gender identity.
These numbers are compiled from police departments and agencies that voluntarily provide the data, so there is reason for skepticism regarding their completeness. But the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story: these hate crimes take a toll on all those of us whom they remind that someone might end our lives at any time just because of who we are. But these figures pale next to the heartbreaking number of deaths by suicide, drug overdose and car accidents, as well as the number of homicides in general. White supremacy is a blight on us all, but only rarely does it turn violent.
But it does, and it will. Conspiracy thinking and scapegoating will be with us for the foreseeable future. Which doesn’t mean that we should do nothing about them.
Law enforcement is crucial. Most planned acts of racist, ethnic or religious violence are stopped by police, who are themselves targets of anti-government assassins.
Private tech firms could continue to deplatform advocates of violence—a delicate but necessary task.
Instead of concentrating attention on the perpetrators, media outlets could focus on the lives of the victims. Capital punishment, which creates martyrs, should be abolished.
Individuals who have left hate groups should be given every opportunity to tell their stories and debunk the twisted myths of racial supremacy.
Intelligent laws could reduce the ease with which anyone can get their hands on massively deadly firearms.
People on the left could refrain from exaggerating the extent of societal racism and from minimizing the destruction and violence perpetrated by those who claim to be anti-racists.
Critical reasoning and source-checking could become an essential part of everyone’s education.
Over the past 100 years, we’ve made fantastic progress in combatting bigotry. Right now, however, knotty and divisive issues such as mass immigration, racial and economic unrest and jihadism, together with the free flow of (dis)information, threaten to derail that progress. In addition, the pandemic and government responses to the pandemic are meat and drink to individuals prone to seeing conspiracies everywhere. Every one of us—including our elected leaders—needs to unequivocally reject violence from whatever source, and try to locate, understand and even connect with those among us most likely to do us harm.