From the 1970s through the 1990s, the deeply held religious beliefs of an assortment of white nationalists were the scaffolding of a broad, and often violent, movement of racists and anti-Semites. With the election of America’s first African American president and the symbolism of Washington’s pre-inaugural "We Are One" concert, the political campaigns of former Ku Klux Klanner David Duke, the rise and fall of the Posse Comitatus, the string of bank robberies and murders committed by the Order and other Christian Identity-identified groups, the paramilitary survivalists, the Holocaust deniers, the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas all appear to have passed from the national consciousness. Even the horrendous bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 19, 1995 seems to be commemorated only by the families of the victims.
Nonetheless, during the 2008 presidential election, the nearly all-white conservative Christian audiences at rallies held by Senator John McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, were startlingly reminiscent of white citizens’ gatherings from days gone by. There has also been a rise in hate crimes against immigrants along with the birth of a number of anti-immigrant organizations. The Year in Hate, a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, has identified 926 hate groups active in 2008, a rise of 54 percent since the year 2000.
David Duke, commenting on the February election of Michael Steele, the first African American to head the Republican National Committee, said: "I am glad these traitorous leaders of the Republican Party appointed this Black racist, affirmative action advocate to the head of the Republican Party because this will lead to a huge revolt among the Republican base," he wrote on his website. "As a former Republican official, I can tell you that millions of rank-and-file Republicans are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. We will either take the Republican Party back over the next four years or we will say, ‘To Hell with the Republican Party.’ And we will take 90 percent of Republicans with us into a New Party that will take its current place."
Leonard Zeskind, in his book Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, details the growth of this "white nationalist" movement. As a long-time activist in the battle for civil and human rights, Zeskind understands that "for those of us who hope to protect and extend our multiracial democracy…we ignore this white nationalist movement at our own peril." I recently had the opportunity to talk with Zeskind about the role of certain beliefs in the development of a host of white nationalist organizations.
Berkowitz: How did you get started monitoring and investigating these movements?
ZESKIND: I came to the age of social consciousness when the black freedom movement was very strong and civil rights were high on the national agenda. I was taken by the notion, articulated during the mid-1960s, that white people should focus on organizing other white people to oppose racism. As a grass-roots activist that idea stayed with me. In 1970 I started doing anti-racist work with impoverished young working class white people who had previously been at odds with poor black people who lived virtually in the same neighborhood. For 13 years I worked as a welder, an iron worker, and on assembly lines. Around 1978, I noticed that Klan and neo-Nazi activity had picked up and this led me to research and write about the white supremacy movement. Between 1985 and 1994, I was the research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal (formerly the National Anti-Klan Network).
It became apparent to me that much of the received wisdom about white supremacists was wrong. These white-ists are not just a bunch of uneducated bumpkins down on their economic luck. Instead, they are demographically much like the rest of white Americans, working class and middle class, with a significant stratum of middle class professionals—professors, lawyers, chiropractors, etc.—as their leaders. These are not a string of disconnected organizations sharing only a common set of hatreds. This is a single movement, with a common set of leaders and interlocking memberships that hold a complete and sometimes sophisticated ideology.
Further, the white nationalist movement today is organized around the notion that the power of whites to control government and social policy has already been overthrown by people of color and Jews, rather unlike the Klan of the 1960s, which sought to defend a system of racial apartheid in the South.
How do the religious beliefs of the movement’s different constituencies manifest themselves?
For some, religion is simply a way of expressing group identity. That is most obviously true among the pagans and Odinists in the skinhead scene where the invocation of the old Norse gods is not about theology or even ethics, but about style and promoting their subculture. In a similar sense, there are neo-Confederates and white nationalists who believe that "Christian-ness" is one aspect of their western civilization—along with respect for tradition, authority, and whites-only citizenship rights. For this wing of the movement, opposition to abortion is less a theological imperative and more a program plank alongside support for gun rights and opposition to immigration.
Then there are the so-called Christian patriots and Posse Comitatus types for whom a specific theological strain known as "Christian Identity" defines their notions of themselves as white people and their ideas of national identity and governmental power. They hold bible camp retreats for families where they teach each other how to live and what to believe. They also promote their belief that the United States is a white Christian republic rather than a multi-racial democracy. In a number of cases they turn their conviction that white Christians have superior civil and political rights than those they deem Fourteenth Amendment citizens (everybody else) into fraudulent schemes with fake money. In other instances they establish "Christian" courts and militia groups that act as if they are legitimate arms of government.
In this belief system, whites from northern Europe—the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Teutonic, and Lombard peoples—are the real descendents of the Biblical people of Israel. As such, Jews are fakes and considered either Satanic by nature or Satan incarnate. Black people and other people of color are considered "pre-Adamic," that is before Adam—not fully human in the way white people are. In this telling, interracial marriage is a sin akin to bestiality and the presence of Jews in their Christian society is a crime against their God.
This sounds like the more well-known Christian right. What are the similarities and what are the differences?
Much like the Christian right types, Identity believers oppose abortion and homosexuality as violations of what they deem to be God’s Law. Similarly, they view women’s role in the family and society as subordinate to men. They also support prayer in school and oppose secularism in society. But Christian Identity is much more forthright in its anti-Semitism and racism. They are decidedly not "Christian Zionists," and do not have an eschatology or theory of the End Times with Israel at its center. In fact, they tend to call themselves "End Times Overcomers," and believe the final conflict is a race war that they will win.
Explain the Christian Identity theory of the devil.
Actually they have two competing theories of Satan and Jews. In one case, they believe that the snake in the Garden of Eden was Satan and that he impregnated Eve and that Cain was not only Satan’s offspring, but that Jews are descendants of Cain and Satan incarnate. In a second case, they believe that Satan worked through Esau and that the Jews are descendants of Esau (Edomites) and do the devils’ work here on Earth.
Why do you describe this movement as "white nationalist?"
Most obviously because the movement’s foremost aspect is its regard for white skin color as a badge of national identity. Many of the organizations and leaders look back to the constitutional order prior to the Civil War, when the national state was a whites-only republic. Others look forward to the creation of a new white nation-state carved out of the lands of North America. While these ideas were present in the movement from its re-inception in the mid-1970s, they only became dominant in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era. Across the globe, nationalism became a language of opposition to the New Global Order and racial and ethnic nationalism became more salient than its liberal civic opposition. Books such as Blood and Belonging and Jihad vs. McWorld explored these issues globally. In the U.S., racial nationalism meant white nationalism, and the old white supremacist movement was thus transformed into 21st century white nationalism.
You argue that white nationalists have successfully moved from the "margins to the mainstream." How did this happen?
Through a combination of factors. First, through the slow accretion of organizing weekly events such as Klan rallies, bible camps, survivalist and gun shows, white power music concerts, etc. Second, when David Duke won a majority of white votes while running in two Louisiana statewide elections in 1990 and 1991, he uncovered a Middle American constituency that supported at least a portion of his national socialist ideas. Third, a group of respected ultra-conservatives broke with the Bush-era Republican consensus during the first Persian Gulf War and headed in the white direction. These were the Buchananites [led by Pat Buchanan] and they helped create a realignment of forces.
How does that show itself today?
Primarily in the anti-immigrant movement and among the lobbyists, Minuteman vigilantes, and racist think tanks that support it. It is here that the idea that the United States is or should be a "white" country takes on the form of a policy issue. If you follow the discussion among anti-immigrant groups, the dominant discourse is about how the U.S. is becoming a Third World country because of all the brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people crossing the Rio Grande. From this perspective, one of the most interesting Republican pieces of legislation languishing in Congress is a proposal to end birthright citizenship for children born in the United States of parents without the proper documents. If such a measure was enacted, it would run smack dab into the Fourteenth Amendment which guarantees birthright citizenship and equality before the law. In this sense, the Republicans who signed onto this bill are proposing measures that the Christian patriots and Posse Comitatus types talked about 25 years ago.
Now that the economy is in a severe tailspin, what are the implications for the white nationalist movement?
Although I loathe predicting the future, I will say that in the past, hard economic times have not automatically translated into an expansion for white nationalists. There was a growth surge during the Clinton years, for example, which were generally considered better economic conditions for middle class people. In the past, the politics of race and nation mattered more than economic hard times. White nationalists will support protectionist measures and they oppose free trade in capital goods because they oppose free trade (or open borders) for labor. Whether or not they gain traction by claiming that the stock market and banks are controlled by Jews depends on whether people of good will are able to offer a more compelling vision of change.
With Obama in the White House, I think we can expect more of the same. Some white nationalists will focus on tending to their current base, which is considerable. They will continue to push for secessionist-style white enclaves and might engage in militia-style violence. Others will attempt to widen their base and carve out a larger niche among conservative Republicans. Without an electoral vehicle of their own, they will suffer from the vicissitudes of the Republican leadership. Their natural base, however, will be the 5 percent of white voters who told pollsters last summer that they would never vote for a black person for president.