I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Hey, it is Ezra Klein. While I’m on paternity leave, we’ve got an all-star team of guest hosts. This week, it is Nicole Hemmer. Nicole is the author of “Messengers of the Right, Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She’s an associate research scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University and one of the hosts of the “Past, Present” podcast. I have learned so much from Nicole about the intersection of conservatism and American politics and the media. So I’m really pretty excited to listen to these. Enjoy.
One of the most striking trends recently is how fringe right-wing ideas and theories have started to creep into mainstream politics. Here’s what I mean by that: Far-right groups like the Proud Boys and online conspiracy networks like QAnon have become household names. A crowd made up of both militant extremists and Trump supporters who believed the election had been stolen stormed the Capitol at the start of this year. Tucker Carlson recently name-checked the great replacement conspiracy theory on his popular cable news show. And a small number of elected officials has expressed support for the militant group, the Oath Keepers, or the QAnon conspiracy theory. The list goes on.
My guest today helps explain how ideas that once existed at the extremes of U.S. politics have made their way into highly visible media and campaigns. Kathleen Belew is a historian at the University of Chicago and the author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement in Paramilitary America.” Her book is a groundbreaking account of how groups like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and Aryan Nations coalesced into a broader white power movement after the Vietnam War. We’ll talk about what Kathleen means by that phrase “white power” and why it’s a better label for some forms of extremism than, say, white nationalism.
Kathleen is also the co-editor of the new book, “A Field Guide to White Supremacy,” which maps connections between past and present instances of racist violence and the political and social networks behind them. Kathleen’s research on the different strands of the white power movement across time has helped me understand more recent eruptions of radical far right violence: the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the Capitol insurrection and mass shootings in Charleston and El Paso. So I wanted to talk to Kathleen about how we got here.
As always, you can email the show with your thoughts and guest recommendations at [email protected] My conversation with Kathleen after the break.
Kathleen, I’m so excited to be having this conversation with you. Thank you so much for doing this.
Me, too, Niki. Thank you for inviting me.
One of the big ideas I’d like us to explore today is how certain extreme fringe ideas come to infiltrate mainstream politics. And I want to start with that by looking more closely at two pretty recent events that should be familiar to most of our listeners. One is the Unite the Right rally, which happened in Charlottesville, Virginia in Aug. 2017, and the other is the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally, when protesters stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. First off, I’m curious what you see as the similarities between those two, I’d say, pretty traumatic events for Americans over the past five years.
I think the big similarity between Unite the Right and the Jan. 6 action are that they are both big public-facing moments of organized white power and militant right action that have captivated public attention. There have been others that have not broken so thoroughly into our news cycle. But those two really stand as sort of bookends of this period that we’ve experienced as an enormous rise in white power activity.
The difference I think is that Unite the Right was largely focused on the fringe. People came to that action wearing symbols of neo-Nazi white power and other militant right groups. And I think that the bulk of that activity was white power and militant right activism. On Jan. 6, I think we’re dealing with something much more complex that raises a number of questions of how far this activity has seeped into our mainstream politics. Because I think on Jan. 6, we’re really thinking about a collision of three different strands of militant right organizing.
One is the organized white power and militia movement, which is probably relatively small among the crowd, but the people that were highly organized uniformed people who you saw moving through the crowd on that day in concert with radios. Then there’s the QAnon people, and I think QAnon is a new incarnation of a very old set of conspiracist ideas about the protection of white women and children from a supposed elite that might endanger them. But because QAnon is so hyper propelled by social media, I think it’s much faster and deeper than many of those previous iterations. And I think most of us don’t understand very well how it works yet.
And then, finally, is the third group, which is simply the Trump base, the Stop the Steal rally attendees. And that includes a sort of wide variety of levels of involvement that range from, sort of, people who just came to participate in a political protest about what they saw as a problematic election, all the way to people who are much more violent in their outcomes on that day, people who were instantly radicalized and people who did have crossover into extremist groups.
Yeah, that reminds me of something that really struck me about the difference between the appearance of the two rallies. I mean, on the one hand, you had the headliners. And in the case of the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally, these tended to be extreme people with often violent pasts who, at the time, an elected Republican wouldn’t share the stage with. And you also had really different iconography, right? You had Nazi flags flying next to Confederate flags. You had tiki torches and the chants of Jews will not replace us.
And when you get to Jan. 6, even among the more militant white power groups, they were often flying under flags that said things like Trump 2020 or America First, which doesn’t necessarily have the same visual impact as a Nazi flag. Do you think that that change in iconography was deliberate? Was that something that the people who were participating thought about?
Oh, absolutely. I think that white power activism over the long haul has been incredibly opportunistic. So if we think about some other examples, people in the 1980s switched their white robes and hoods, their Klan uniforms for camouflage fatigues. And that is partly because camouflage fatigues were cool in the ‘80s and not just because of tactical readiness, which is kind of their other rationale for doing that. We have to think about all of these public actions as being performative, which means that what we would think of as the costuming matters quite a lot.
So, in Charlottesville, the polo shirts and khakis had to do with presenting as clean cut and sort of public-facing in a way, although they did still at that action use Nazi symbols and other white power symbols. On Jan. 6, we saw something much more in line with what you would see at a typical Trump rally, with what you would see at a militia action that is, quote unquote, “non-racist,” although we can talk more about how I think that’s a big misunderstanding. But they didn’t use Nazi armbands. They used things like the Don’t Tread on Me symbol. All of these are deliberate choices.
And we might also think about something like Boogaloo as another important example of this. Those Hawaiian shirts that the Boogaloo activists were wearing were meant to sort of convey something playful and funny, when, in fact, that group was interested in fomenting civil war. So these performative acts are about calibrating what is publicly acceptable and what might generate interest in recruitment. And they sometimes overstep and make a mistake and then recalibrate their symbols.
The other part of this calculus is, of course, that the amount of lack of condemnation ranging to overt participation by the GOP has really changed since Charlottesville. Even after Charlottesville, we had a lot of people were really frustrated with then-president Trump’s response, saying there were fine people on both sides. I think that quote has a longer context than is typically reported, but he did want to draw a line between Nazis and Klansmen and people who he thought of as the rest of the August rally. But on Jan. 6, we had a much, much bigger embrace of what these activists were doing. And it’s partly because of the way that they publicly presented.
Yeah, I mean, the public presentation, if we could just stick with that for a moment longer, you talked about the Boogaloo Boys and how their Hawaiian shirts were supposed to be funny. And this was something that you saw with the alt right, too, that there’s often this joking tone or cartoon symbols that they use. Can you explain that? Because I think that most people when they think about white power, the last thing that they would think about is humor or something that’s laughable or ironic.
Well, here, I have to refer people to your excellent chapter in “The Field Guide to White Supremacy” that’s about the way that meme culture sort of acts as a wedge that lets people enter into this activity. But it might also help to think about some more historically distant examples, where we can more clearly see how this works. So in the 1920s Klan, which is the second era, that’s the one that was really big, talking about 4 million people, and also a Klan group that was very publicly acceptable that was sort of meant to convey a public message about simply being 100 percent American. And people were so confident in that Klan that they could parade down the National Mall in DC with robes and hoods on, but with their faces in plain view. So we’re talking about that one.
So if you look at what those robes and hoods looked like, the women’s robes are not just sort of a bedsheet thrown over the body. They are, as the historian Kathleen Blee has looked at, they’re very fashion forward for the time. They’re kind of slim cut. They show a little bit of ankle. They’re what would have been sort of cool and trendy by the aesthetics of the moment. So these groups have always used prevailing cultural forms, whether it is humor, the idea of what is cool, what is appealing, what is available, as a sort of wedge to bring people into this recruitment and radicalization.
And on the radicalization front, one of the other differences that strikes me between Charlottesville and Jan. 6 is what happened on Aug. 11, 2017, in advance of what was promoted as a free speech or Unite the Right rally. And that is all of these mostly men, but some women, in polo shirts and khaki pants, picked up tiki torches, shouted, Jews will not replace us, and actually attacked a number of counterprotesters on the grounds of the University of Virginia, which was this moment of planned violence and intimidation that was part of why they were in Charlottesville. Was that idea of planned violence — was that part of Jan. 6?
As a historian, I feel that it is, in some ways, too early to tell the full story of how much of Jan. 6 was planned and how much was a spontaneous action. But here are the things we know. We know that groups communicated ahead of the event. We know that they debated bringing in more weapons than they had, doing things like bringing weapons in by boat across the Potomac River. We know that somebody set pipe bombs outside the RNC and DNC headquarters, possibly to lure people and first responders away from the scene. That is the strategy, by the way, that has been used by the militant right before.
We know that people on the day moved in coordination at the building, that that happened before the conclusion of Trump’s speech. We know that people inside the building, as you can see from the amazing New York Times documentary projects that put together the video, were looking for legislators. And we know that this whole thing follows a scene that appears in a pivotal text of this movement called “The Turner Diaries,” in which that scene is not meant to be a mass casualty attack. It’s meant to be a coordinated show of force, a moment of performative activism that should awaken other white people to the cause and bring them in for recruitment and radicalization.
In other words, the reason that the body count was low, I think the historical record indicates, is that it was not meant as a mass casualty attack. It was not meant as a mass killing of legislators. I think it was meant as a targeted action in order to draw public attention to the cause.
So you mentioned the book “The Turner Diaries,” which I’ve also read, and it’s a pretty disturbing book, I think you’d say. Could you say just a little bit more about it and what it had to do with Jan. 6?
The Turner Diaries is a dystopian novel that came out — well, I suppose a utopian novel if you’re an activist in this movement — that came out in the late 1970s in serial and was then printed and circulated very widely in the white power movement and affinity groups. The reason that this novel was so important is not because it is a good book. It is because it answers a really key imaginative question for this movement. It solves the crucial problem, which is if you’re a fringe group, not very many people, how can you set out to overthrow the most powerful super state in the history of the world? They’re out to overthrow the United States government. How could they possibly accomplish a thing like that?
And what “The Turner Diaries” does is lay out a game plan for a incremental series of guerrilla warfare actions, cell style organizing, seizure of a white homeland, the use of nuclear weapons to provoke a détente with the United States and then the provocation of nuclear war in the aftermath of which a white power revolution could seize the United States and then carry out campaigns of genocide over the rest of the world to create a white planet. So this is, to be sure, a fictional work that represents sort of the most extreme distillation of white power ideology.
But this is not just a book. And the reason that we know it’s not just a book is that it showed up everywhere throughout the long run of this movement. So people kept stacks of it in the bunkhouse of one white terrorist group called the Order in the 1980s. And we’re talking about a bunkhouse that housed — I don’t know — maybe 15 to 20 people at a time. And there were 10 to 15 copies in the bunkhouse. They handed them out for free at the rallies of the White Patriot Party in North Carolina. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, sold this book and gave it to people while on the gun show circuit. And we have video footage of Proud Boys telling journalists today to go read “The Turner Diaries.”
So we know that this is still in play. And in “The Turner Diaries,” there’s a pivotal attack on the Capitol building that comes amid mass casualty events. And the idea is to simply kill a few legislators and breach the Capitol building in order to show that a small number of dedicated “white patriots,” quote unquote, can strike at the heart of power. That’s the model of an attack on the Capitol that’s in “The Turner Diaries,” and that’s what we saw unfold on Jan. 6.
“The Turner Diaries” also has a pivotal scene called the Day of the Rope, which is the ritualized hanging of racial enemies, including race traitors, legislators, politicians, professors, journalists, communists. It goes on like this. And that is also a key reference point for things like Jan. 6 protesters erecting a noose and gallows next to the Capitol building and taking selfies there.
A recent New York Times investigation looked into some of those everyday people who got drawn into the violence at the Capitol. And it showed how, as the Times put it, seemingly average citizens duped by a political lie goaded by their leaders and swept up in a frenzied throng can unite in breathtaking acts of brutality. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how Jan. 6 radicalized these seemingly ordinary people.
Yeah, so the sociological literature on this seems to indicate that part of what we saw on Jan. 6 was sort of an instant radicalization where people were swept up in the moment and then bound together by a shared experience, such that they have lasting affinities with other people who were there that day because of that shared experience of violence. There’s a sort of wide range of experiences that day, as happens in any major protest event or any major act of insurrection. But I do think that the events of the day create a very powerful sort of shared experience that really resonated with people.
And then the other thing we saw is targeted recruitment campaigns on social media where white power activists and militant right activists were reaching into the sort of Trump base groups in order to target them for recruitment because I think that people in the white power movement know very well that something like that is a huge boon for new membership.
You’ve mentioned in previous conversations this idea of a concentric circle model of extremism. And it sounds like that’s what you’re starting to get at here. Can you explain what that model is and how it operates?
Yes, so since the 1980s, at least, this movement has really operated in a sort of concentric circle model of organization, where we might think about the middle as being the deeply dedicated hard-core activists who are the ones who might take violent radical action if the opportunity arose or if they were called to do so. And that in the 1980s was a pretty small group of people, maybe 25,000 people. And then outside of that, there is a group of 100,000 to 125,000 more people. And those people do things like donate money, come to public-facing marches, participate in social activities, which are very important to this kind of activism, and things like that.
Outside of that is a more diffuse ring of 450,000 people. They don’t donate money. They don’t subscribe to newsletters. But they regularly read white power content secondhand. And so what we’re thinking about on Jan. 6 is an even bigger concentric circle outside of that, right? So bigger, more diffuse, but more people. And this is where the movement touches our political mainstream because outside of that 450,000 is a bigger group of people who would never read something called Official Newspaper of the Knights of the KKK, but they might well agree with some of the racist ideas that appear in that newsletter, especially if they come to them over the dinner table or from a friend.
And this mode of organizing both pushes ideas from that radical center out into our political mainstream. And it pulls people from that diffuse outer circle in towards intensifying levels of activity. And one of the interesting things about QAnon is they seem to go directly from the outside to the inside almost immediately, although, as I said, I think we don’t have good sort of data on this yet because it’s so new. One of the things we saw on Jan. 6 is that that outer circle is much larger and much more active than I think many of us had realized.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, you’ve talked about how Charlottesville represented what you called a coordinated movement that existed before the Unite the Right rally, but that came into public consciousness on Aug. 12. And you’ve indicated so far in our conversation that there is this longer movement that people weren’t paying a ton of attention to. And I’d like to move us now into the history behind that coordinated movement. And this is what your work uncovers. And it really helps to explain what we are seeing now. So just to start on an ideal level, what do you understand to be the core set of ideas animating the white power movement.
So maybe this is a good place, too, just to pause and talk about terms a little bit. The white power movement that I’m talking about is the broad social movement that brought together Klan, neo-Nazis, skinhead, militia, radical tax resistor and other sort of militant right activists beginning in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and pretty much steadily escalating all the way to the present moment. It’s the movement that is responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s the movement that had sort of high points and visibility around Ruby Ridge, around a big sedition trial in 1987, ‘88, and in a spate of acts of violence through the ‘80s. But it’s also the movement that was sort of the big engine of the militias in the early 1990s.
We’ve often treated a lot of these things as separate fragments of the same mentality, but actually, there are human connections that show us that this is a movement that was not just rural, but also was urban and suburban, that it was in every region of the United States, that it brought together people in incredibly diverse ways apart from race. But men, women, and children, people across class divisions, people across educational backgrounds, and radically different cultural presentations like survivalist, conservative Christians with urban skinheads who liked punk rock and heavy eyeliner.
All of these people came together because they shared a sense of impending emergency about racial apocalypse, which, for them, had to do with a decreasing white birthrate and a whole bunch of issues that attached to that concern, like anti-immigration, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-integration, anti-immigration. It goes on and on. But for them, it’s all about how whiteness is their race and their nation and how they felt that they needed to fight to protect it from extinction.
And since we’re talking about terms, in your book, “Bring the War Home,” and in this conversation, you’ve used the phrase “white power,” instead of phrases that might be more familiar to listeners, like white nationalism or white supremacy or even just racist. And I’m curious about your choice of that language of white power. Why is that the way to describe this?
So, first of all, when we say white nationalist, I think that people sort of think, oh, this is just sort of patriotism run amok. It’s an overexertion of nationalism. That’s not what this is. Since 1983, the nation in the white power movement has not been the United States. It has been the Aryan Nation. And these activists have worked not to boost patriotism or to augment the state in some way, but have directly attacked the American government over and over and over again. It is a profoundly anti-democratic, violent, revolutionary movement.
So I think white power, first of all, is what these activists called themselves, but also better conveys sort of the urgency of what we’re talking about. I think white nationalism today can commonly refer both to white power activity and to a sort of policymaking and cultural stance that argues that whiteness is intrinsic to the United States as formulated and must be preserved. So we might think about things like very strict anti-immigration laws or the way that school curricula have sought to disappear our history of racism or the way that our legal system often works as sort of examples of white nationalist policymaking.
Something else that your research uncovers is that if we look at the history, we can see connections between warfare abroad and political violence at home, particularly starting after the Vietnam War. And this link, in some ways, still makes it hard to address extremist violence at home in the United States because people, for good reason, want to be careful when talking about veterans who have served.
So we see this in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security did an investigation into right-wing extremism and the threat that it represented to the United States. And that warning was basically ignored after there was blowback from some Republicans in office over comments that the report made about veterans. Can you talk about the relationship between warfare abroad and violence at home that you’ve seen in this history?
I think it’s very important. And it might be worth it to just pause for a minute and talk about the rhetoric around the veteran involvement question particularly, because the historical record shows us that the best predictor for Klan and white power violence and membership recruitment is not poverty or populism or African-American civil rights gains or immigration. The most consistent factor is the aftermath of warfare.
And that’s partly because veterans and active duty troops have been incredibly important in leadership positions in these groups, as people who can consult on weapons, explosives, and technologies and strategies within these groups. But it’s also because all of us, all of American society becomes more violent in the aftermath of warfare. That sociological measure cuts across age, it cuts across gender, it cuts across who did and didn’t serve. It’s everyone who becomes more susceptible to this kind of activity. And again, these groups are opportunistically using that window for their own purposes.
But the thing that we see coming up over and over again when people point out that in the aftermath of warfare, as the 2009 report tried to point out, there might be a surge in this group activity because, in part, of returning veterans, the reaction was, how could anyone say that any veteran of our armed forces under any condition could ever commit an act of violence against the state? That is unpatriotic and treasonous to even say that any veteran could ever do such a thing.
And that assertion simply can’t stand. We have the example of Timothy McVeigh who was a decorated Gulf War veteran, who was part of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That’s the largest mass attack in the United States between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. We have examples like Louis Beam who was involved in the earlier movement, who was a decorated Vietnam veteran. Glenn Miller was involved as a veteran. I could go on and on here.
But to be totally clear, we’re not saying here that all veterans or even most veterans or even a statistically significant percentage of veterans become involved in these groups. But we do have to be accountable for the fact that when veterans and active duty troops do join this movement, they bring technologies and expertise that dramatically escalate its capacity for violence.
A little bit earlier, you mentioned 1983 as this big turning point, which is something you write about in your book, too, when the white power movement declares war on the federal government. And I just want to quote a passage from you because it really clarifies how significant this was. You write, unlike previous iterations of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist vigilantism, the White power movement did not claim to serve the state. Instead, white power made the state its target, declaring war against the federal government in 1983. Could you say a little bit more about that? And what did it actually mean in 1983 for this movement to declare war on the federal government?
So this happened at a yearly summit of white power groups and leaders called the Aryan Nations World Congress, which was sort of half political event and half social event. So this featured the Declaration of War and also things like volleyball and matchmaking in a big spaghetti dinner. And the reason that it’s super important is that it changes the power dynamic within the white power movement because before 1983, activists were really interested in sort of continuing projects of state violence.
So, for instance, they targeted Vietnamese refugee fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, but they said that what they were doing was just continuing the Vietnam War. Or they patrolled the border and they said we’re just doing the work of border enforcement. Of course, these acts were racial violence, but they said they were serving the state. What happened in 1983 is that they decided — and this is, of course, in the Reagan years, not under a leftist administration at all — they decided that it was so sure that they could never achieve what they wanted through political means that it was time to become revolutionary.
And what that meant for them was guerrilla warfare modeled on “The Turner Diaries.” So they adopted a strategy called leaderless resistance, which is effectively cell style terrorism. They decided that one or a few activists could work towards a commonly held set of goals and targets without communicating with each other and without communicating directly with leadership. Now they made that change because they were frustrated by being infiltrated by the F.B.I. back in the Civil Rights era and because court prosecutions, like the ones at Greensboro, were sapping resources from the movement. They wanted to make it more difficult to prosecute.
But the big long-term outcome of leaderless resistance has been that we, as a public, have lost sight of white power activism as a movement. And instead what we get coming out of the ‘80s is the idea of the lone wolf. And I argue to you that this is a very bad way to understand any of this because white power activism, although it may be cell-driven, is ideological and is supported by an interconnected social movement. The other huge thing that happened in 1983 is that the movement figured out how to go online — 1983, ‘84.
Way, way before most people think about this happening. And it’s not that they have just learned how to use social media. It’s that they built these social networks of activism way back even before Facebook. They’re early adapters. So in 1983, ‘84, they created this series of proto internet message boards that were code word accessed. And they called it Liberty Net. And they set it up all across the country. And Liberty Net had on it the things you would expect, like ideological writing, target lists, assassination lists. But it also had things like personal ads. So we know that this was already working as kind of social network activism.
So that shows us that today, we are decades, if not generations, into social network activism carried out by these groups. I personally think we can never really unring the bell of these groups using the internet. But I do think that deplatforming projects that slow things down are incredibly important tools in dealing with this problem.
So we can see those continuities that you’re talking about, but there does seem to be this big difference between 1983, declaring war on the federal government under the Reagan administration, and then on Jan. 6, storming the Capitol after a rally that they attended with the president of the United States and fomenting that attack under Trump banners and wearing Make America Great Again hats. How do you account for that difference? That seems almost polar opposite.
Yes, and here’s where I have to be a capital H Historian and just caution that, so I don’t have the kinds of archival materials that I have to really know the answer, and I wish I did. But I think what we have to remember is that there are a lot of reasons that people do something. And I know that sounds sort of basic, but one reason to put on a Trump hat and say that you’re at the ready after the president says, Proud Boys, stand back, stand by, one reason is genuine affinity and loyalty to the person.
Another reason is, here is something that I can use for my own purposes. Similarly, when we see Trump aides like Stephen Miller circulating white power materials like “Camp of the Saints,” I think it’s hard to know whether that is out of sincere belief or whether that is out of sort of opportunistic exploitation of a group of people that might be recruitable. So I think this goes both directions.
But the other thing I will say is this. In the 1980s and ‘90s, these activists almost uniformly talked about politics as a totally closed door. And yes, they mounted political campaigns from time to time, David Duke being the most prominent one. But those were usually seen by the movement as publicity stunts more than anything else. I don’t think that door is closed today.
You mentioned that the door to electoral politics closed around 1983 but has since become open. And that’s a useful visualization, I think. I want to talk now about how that door became open and the porousness of the boundary between extremist ideas and mainstream politics. I want to be really clear, though, that we’re talking about how ideas and beliefs have traveled into the mainstream. We’re not labeling specific people as white supremacists, unless they have claimed that identity, which some of the people who were arrested after Jan. 6 have done.
So with that, there are a couple strands of thinking that I think it’s fair to say have permeated mainstream conservatism over the past few decades, which is something that I’ve written about in my own work on conservative media. You said that an earlier draft of your book, “Bring the War Home,” included a chapter where you were trying to persuade readers that we need to pay attention to extremist groups, even though they existed on the fringe of politics. But by the time you publish the book in 2018, you realized that chapter was no longer needed. Can you tell me more about that realization?
Yeah, this is such an interesting — so I started writing this book in 2005, partly because I was interested in truth and reconciliation processes, which the United States is not alone in our history of white supremacy and inequality, but we are very unusual in how little we have had by way of big public conversations about that history. And at the time, there was this upstart Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro. It was a totally NGO project. And that’s how I sort of came to the book.
But along the way, there was a lot of convincing people that this was something that was important and was part of what we needed to know to understand 20th century U.S. history and to understand our current political moment. And so, as you say, there used to be a chapter in “Bring the War Home” that was sort of like a Foucauldian analysis of, what can the fringe teach us about the mainstream? Which, by the way, I do think is still a relevant set of questions.
But I think the book was in page proofs when Charlottesville happened. And we had a big conversation about, should we add an epilogue, because this was clearly a big event. And we ended up not doing it. And I’m happy that we didn’t because, first of all, it would have been so quick that as a historian, it makes my blood run cold to think about what version of that event I could have cobbled together at that point. But it’s also just this story is so rapidly unfolding, and things that were unimaginable keep happening.
I never thought when I was researching this book that I would see an F.B.I. and D.H.S. about-face that sought to correct the problem. I mean, that’s an example of some movement in a very possibly optimistic direction. I think that it’s really interesting to see how all of this is coming out into the public space and into people’s broad view as part of our political landscape. And I also think that what it shows us historically is that I think a lot of people on the left and the right had this very dearly held set of beliefs that the United States had moved beyond race and racism.
And I think this had to do with sort of the early optimism of the Obama years and the idea of the post-racial presidency, the idea of multiracialism and diversity, and on the right, the idea of colorblindness and the way that Latinos and Black Republicans were finding inclusion in the GOP. I think there’s a lot of ways that that belief was in play.
And I think that what these groups show is that overt racial violence was with us the whole time and was never really solved or pushed out of our politics, but was humming along as a subtext in ways that we were going to have to reckon with eventually. So I think it can tell us a lot about how we get to the Trump years. And I think it can also tell us a lot about the work that’s set out to do together if we would like to confront that problem.
I’m particularly interested in the accelerants that made it possible for the white power movement to become much more visible over the course of your writing this book. I mean, one of those is obviously the election of Barack Obama. For all of the talk of this post-racial moment, what we see in the immediate aftermath of his election is a spike in the number of militia groups in the United States, and something that happens over the course of his presidency, which is a polarization around the issue of racial resentment, that racial resentment scores for Democrats start to drop with the election of Barack Obama, and for Republicans, they start to rise.
And so there’s this widening gap when it comes to racial resentment. This is something that pollster Cornell Belcher writes about in his book, “A Black Man in the White House.” What are some other historical push factors, as I think you’ve called them, that helped this movement along over the past decade?
So I think the presence of social network activism is not new for these groups, but certainly, the exponential rise in how big and fast and central to our lives social media have become has just created huge opportunities for these groups. You’ve written beautifully about this in relation to meme culture and humor and kind of online organizing in the alt-right moment. I think that’s one strand. I think the global war on terror is another. And then, of course, we have this series of questions coming out of 2020, thinking about coronavirus and the George Floyd protests and BLM, thinking about climate change and all of these different things. I think that it is just a very insecure kind of moment.
And part of what you see in things like Boogaloo, which is less a group and more a sort of ideological phenomenon affinity, is that there’s a whole lot of people who just want to burn it all down. And I think you can see the burn it all down impulse a lot of places in our politics, and not just here. There’s a lot of kind of anti-system feeling going around on both sides. And that’s not to say that it is equally destructive on both sides. But I think that there is a lot of big thinking about pushing boundaries and changing rules and what the parameters ought to be.
And I’ll also say that just as a historian, we get asked a lot about like, OK, so is this like Watergate in our distrust of the presidency? Is this like the 1919 flu in our Covid epidemic? Is this like the 1973 stagflation crisis and the financialization moment in our economic insecurity? Is this like mass mobilization in the civil rights movement in terms of BLM? And it’s all of that at the same time. When we teach the 20th century, one of these things, maybe two, might overlap. But there’s never a 20th-century history lecture where we’re doing all of these at once. And so, just the density of huge events, I think, is incredibly noteworthy. And I’m sure we’ll all be talking about it for quite a long time.
And in addition to those big events, you also have these larger historical changes that are happening. One of those is this idea of demographic change and this fear of demographic change that gets played up or emphasized in right-wing circles and on conservative media. I mean, we saw that fear of demographic change sort of borne out in responses to the 2020 census, which found that the non-Hispanic white population declined for the first time on record. Now, that in and of itself is a neutral fact. But what have you observed about how the right has reacted to that news out of the 2020 census?
Yes, so this is news that’s usually conveyed as a very soft human interest story or a demographic story about, oh, we’re becoming more multiracial. People in this ideology experience that as casualties. So it’s really important to try to understand the sense of emergency that is attached to news like that if you believe in an ideology like this. And I’m not saying that everybody needs to do that emoting work, but a lot of the politics don’t make sense unless you can understand how urgent people feel about this. But if we think about, for instance, the many mass shootings carried out by white power activists over the last several years in Christchurch, in Pittsburgh, in Charleston, in El Paso and Norway, and we can go on, the thing that comes up over and over and over again is about the white birthrate. It’s the birthrate. We have to talk about the birthrate. And the reason is because if your race is your nation, as many of these actors believe, a massive reduction in the white birthrate is a strike against your nation.
And this is what operationalizes women as not just kind of symbols of white purity but as instruments of warfare in their production of additional white children. This is what sort of creates a performative politics around white motherhood and white womanhood that can be inflamed by stories like the death of Vicky Weaver at Ruby Ridge, the death of Ashli Babbitt on Jan. 6. And this is sort of like the thing that you have to understand to unlock how all of these stories come together.
Yeah, and it’s been critical to white power folks, as you’ve talked about, in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. But there’s been this mainstream fear of demographic change that has run through what we might call mainstream politics as well. I’m thinking, in particular, of in the 1990s. You have someone like Pat Buchanan, who is a presidential candidate who runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992. And he’d run for president again in 1996 and in 2000, who is sort of beginning to put this front and center, this idea that America’s racial composition is changing. And this is an existential threat for the United States.
And in 1995, you have this book that’s written called “Alien Nation.” And the author is Peter Brimelow. At the time, he was the senior editor of Forbes Magazine. He was also an editor for National Review, so a very mainstream journalist, whose book is a pretty racist tract against nonwhite immigration. He himself was an immigrant. I mean, what do you make of this history of fear of demographic change and how it gets mainstreamed in politics?
I mean, yes, what the white power movement is often doing is picking up on a trend and sort of distilling it to the most bold and overt part of itself. So taking those moments of fear of immigration, those questions about what will happen to the nation if it is no longer majority white, and weaponizing them.
And the one that comes to mind, too, about immigration and white minority nations, too, is Dylann Roof, who was the shooter of Bible study worshipers in Charleston. He posed on social media with a Rhodesian flag patch. Rhodesia is, of course, now Zimbabwe. And Rhodesia did not even exist during Roof’s lifetime. But it’s still held up in this movement as a historical example of a sort of demonized white minority government.
And so, we can see that this is still a live conversation about what would happen if we’re a white minority government. And they still talk about South African farmers and Rhodesian farmers. And these sort of strands are still alive in the political discussions as well.
Well, right, you could hear about white South African farmers and this fear of them being displaced on something like Tucker Carlson’s show. And Carlson is someone who has also started to explicitly talk about something called the great replacement theory on his show. Can you talk a little bit about what the great replacement theory is and why it matters that somebody like Tucker Carlson is talking about it?
Absolutely. So the great replacement theory is just a name for this demographic transformation where people are worried that white people will be systematically bred out of existence. So great replacement has to do with the idea that abortion is a problem not only for the usual set of reasons, but also because the abortion of white babies will reduce the white birthrate.
They worry about interracial marriage because it will reduce the white birthrate. They worry about immigration because supposedly hyper fertile women of color will come in and reduce the white birthrate. They worry about feminism because women will be at work and thus reduce the white birthrate. So all of these things come back together as being about the white birthrate.
But the fact that the great replacement is getting airtime in ways that are so totally uninterrogated and are allowed to stand as part of a major network is really a new sort of moment in incursion of white power ideas into the mainstream.
And looking at what Carlson said a little more closely, it’s not just the sense that there are changes that just happen to be happening, but rather that they’re part of a deliberate program. I mean, when Carlson was talking about it back in September, he talked about President Biden trying to, as he put it, quote, “change the racial mix of the country, reduce the political power of the people whose ancestors lived here, dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly arrived from the third world.” And the way that he talks about it, it’s that Democrats are doing this to you.
I think the they are doing it to you part is how it connects with things like QAnon, which posit a big global elite conspiracy. So you’ll see words like globalist, cabal, elites, et cetera. And this is a period in one way or another, at least since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — it’s been throughout the 20th century —
arguably, this is the oldest conspiracy theory in the history of the world in terms of blood libel. So the idea is that there is a secret “cabal,” quote unquote, of elite outsiders who are in control of all of this and are trying to put down the white race or make them into noncitizens or breed them out of existence or do other nefarious things to white women and children.
This is inherently an anti-Semitic theory because the outsiders are usually read as Jewish. And it’s also one with huge consequences for people of color. And it’s also worth thinking about. The way this is articulated is often about Republican-Democrat.
It’s really hard to make that case because the scholarship tells us very clearly that there is no certainty that incoming immigrants are going to be Democratic voters. In fact, President Trump did very, very well with Latino voters and Hispanic voters. And the Republican Party have been a consistent part of the electoral outcomes as new work by Gerry Cadava shows. So I mean, I think that it’s very disingenuous to say this is simply about politics. It’s clearly about race.
There does seem to be this level of panic — and maybe it is because this is about race on the right these days, a fear not just that the world is changing, but that the world is being stolen from them. And as you’ve been talking about, that can take extreme forms like the great replacement theory or these QAnon beliefs. But it also is present in right-wing politics. I was wondering if you could talk about how that sense of victimization shapes contemporary right-wing politics and how it opens a space for some of these more extreme ideas to come into the mainstream.
I mean, I want to turn that one around and ask you that one, Niki.
I think that it’s important to think about victimization as a position that is a core part of a political identity that helps to feed into increasingly extreme and increasingly apocalyptic politics, right? Because if you constantly feel like you’re being victimized, that something is being stolen from you, there is a level of emotion that comes along with that. This feeling of being a victim is really important, right, and feeding a rise in apocalypticism.
I think that’s absolutely right. But I think that the presence of apocalyptic imaginary in our nation is also not only on the right. I think that we as a people are deeply, deeply preoccupied with the end of the world. I think that that can take shape by thinking about climate change, by thinking about the rapture or the end of days, by thinking about different kinds of end time scenarios. But this is a huge part of our culture right now. And I think it is becoming a big part of our politics, too.
Why do you think it’s such a big part of our culture right now?
Well, we have a series of imminent threats to our way of life, ranging from global pandemics to huge economic transformations to climate change. And I think that we have intensely polarized conversations about what that is and what it means. Part of that is because we are not talking to each other about anything right to left anymore.
I mean, I think that what I increasingly hear from friends and family is that those divides are deepening and widening in ways that are really alarming to people. And I think as a result, we’re consuming different narratives about the end of the world and different imaginaries about what the future might look like. We have not had the big conversation collectively about our history.
And it’s not just the left that wants to do that. I think that even something like Make America Great Again is fundamentally an argument about our history. That’s about when was America great? Who was included? Was it great? Could it be great again? When would again be, right? That has actors and past claims and future claims. And I would love to engage some of that historical conversation on a broader public level. I think that that’s where we locate new possibilities for the future.
And it might explain why history has been so front and center in so many of these battles that we’ve been having over the past five or 10 years.
Absolutely. Elizabeth McRae’s fantastic work, “Mothers of Massive Resistance,” documents how important the teaching of history has been as a battleground for how we think about white supremacy and inequality in our country, not just recently, but since the aftermath of the Civil War.
I think you were right to point us to the way that apocalypticism ranges across the political spectrum. And I was wondering if you have thoughts on how it differs depending on your politics. I mean, is there a difference between the apocalypticism around demographic change and the apocalypticism around climate change?
I think one huge difference is where it directs our energy. A fear of climate change directs people to work together to solve common problems and creates an idea of global citizens who will have to face a crisis together or perish. At its most extreme, a fear of demographic change, as we see in the white power movement, causes people to encamp, to guard resources, to isolate, and to, at its most extreme, commit acts of violence against people they see as other.
Well, and the idea of having to deal with an apocalypse raises the stakes of politics. And I think it is related to violence in politics. That violence becomes a more legitimate political tactic when the stakes are so high. And we’ve talked about that so far in terms of the right and the white power movement. I mean, what do you make of the broader political violence that we have seen across the political spectrum? I mean, how does this right-wing violence that we’ve been talking about compared to something like Antifa, which you hear right-wing politicians and pundits talk about all the time?
So with Antifa, I think it’s just important to keep the comparatives in line, as you’ve written about so beautifully in your book. The sort of both sides ism of our media encourages us to think that if something is happening on the right, it must also be happening on the left and that an appropriate story would deliver both sides of that action. That sometimes leads to very irresponsible reporting. In the case of Antifa, we’re talking about a movement that has, I think, a casualty count of three people at the time of recording. It’s certainly less than 10.
And then on the other side, we’re talking about a movement that has perpetrated mass casualty attacks and further attempted mass casualty attacks, starting with 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing, but many other people over the years, and aborted attacks like the attempted cyanide poisoning of the Chicago water supply, which would have been another 400,000 people.
We’re talking about a movement on the right that had paramilitary bases that was obtaining stolen weapons from military posts and armories, and not just semiautomatics, but machine guns and anti-tank weapons. They were making napalm. They were making grenades. They were training their people in urban warfare. And I think that reasonable people can understand that there’s a difference between those two things, even if they decry the use of violence.
Yeah, and I think that that equivalence — you’re right to pin at least some of it on the media and on journalists who are looking to find some sort of balance. But also, it does a certain kind of political work for Republicans to point to Antifa or to make up whole cloth this idea of an alt-left in response to the alt-right because it does a couple of things. It suggests that there is an equivalent amount of violence coming from the left, but also that the violence that you’re seeing on the right isn’t actually that big of a deal.
Because it’s just a small thing that doesn’t matter.
Right, or if both sides are taking part in equal amounts of political violence, then the resources ought to be divided equally among them, whereas that’s clearly not what’s called for here, as our own D.H.S. and F.B.I. have indicated. The other part of it is this idea that the Black Lives Matter movement is also violent and disorderly and causing destruction to property. And certainly, destruction of property happened in some of the actions following the murder of George Floyd.
But we also see over and over again white power activists from a variety of groups using those demonstrations to deliberately provoke violence and trying to amplify violence. So we also have a situation where the white power movement is very aware of the benefit of fanning that broadly false narrative in its own favor. So, generally, I like to be on the side of whatever the white power movement would like us not to be doing. And I like to extend some kind of degree of difference between attacks on the government and people versus the frustrating looting of a building, although, of course, both are destructive, right? They’re not the same thing.
Even if we move away from Antifa, it does seem like there is an increasingly hostile, maybe even violent mood, in American politics. There’s this forthcoming book called “Radical American Partisanship” from Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe, where they did this study of partisans between November 2017 and February 2021. And one of the things they found was between 8 percent and 17 percent of respondents said it was justified for their own party to use violence to advance political goals. And 8 percent to 17 percent isn’t a huge number, but it’s also not nothing.
As someone who has studied the white power movement, I am unswayed by the sort of, like, it’s a fringe phenomenon argument for not paying attention to it, because it doesn’t take that many people to wage a violent attack, and because things like the Oklahoma City bombing are perpetrated not by thousands of people marching down Main Street, but by a cell of fewer people who is willing to make and detonate a bomb.
And furthermore, I mean, I’m persuaded by things like my colleague, Robert Pape, who’s in political science at the University of Chicago, did some polling after Jan. 6. And his numbers are terrifying. He found that 47 million Americans agree with the statement that Biden was falsely elected. And of those 21 million would support restoring Donald Trump to the presidency by violent force.
Yeah, and it brings us back to Jan. 6. And one of the enduring images of Jan. 6 was something you talked about earlier, the erection of a gallows with a noose on the grounds of the Capitol and those chants of, “Hang Mike Pence.” How much of that was symbolic and rhetorical? And how much of it was a real interest in harming or killing people?
Oh, I have absolutely no doubt that if people had been able to find legislators on that day, I think people would have come to harm. I also think that the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, where they were talking about removing her for trial, in militia movement language, that is for trial by hanging. I think that these are fatal plots against our lawmakers.
And in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6, it seemed like a good chunk of Americans were willing to hold Donald Trump and his most devout followers responsible for going too far, but actually, if you look at recent polling, Trump is by far the favorite among people who may run for president in 2024. You have even positive defenses from Republican lawmakers of what happened on Jan. 6. Why do you think it didn’t have a lasting, sobering effect, given how dramatic and how awful and how momentous what happened on that day was?
I’m not sure I have a magic answer for that, except to say that I think we’re all exhausted by the constant fire hose of impossible information that comes at us every morning when we open our computers. I think that people are just so totally overwhelmed that it’s very difficult to keep any one of these crises in view long enough to really demand a resolution. And with white power movement violence, we have had deep distortions of this history over and over and over again, basically every time we’ve tried to do something about it. The thing that’s different is how fast it happened this time.
You have the speed, and there does seem to be both a deliberateness to misinterpreting or reinterpreting those events or diminishing those events. But to have the knowledge that something like the Oklahoma City bombing was a white power attack, even though it’s almost never talked about that way, to see people try to reclaim Charlottesville by talking about the Charlottesville lie and trying to pin some of the violence on Antifa or Black Lives Matter, the same thing that we saw happen on Jan. 6, it has, again, real political consequences to memory hole, in some ways, even as we’re still investigating, but to erase the trauma of those days so quickly.
All right, well, I’m going to try to turn towards something slightly more uplifting. We’ll see if we can get there, because I’m curious what you’ve learned, if anything, about how white power folks have been able to de-radicalize and whether there is a broader lesson to pull from that about de-radicalizing a country or a party.
Yes, so what I have heard from folks who work in de-radicalization is that the demand for people who want to leave the movement and need their support far exceeds the work that they can do. So that’s good news, people wanting to leave. I think we have to scale up the resources to help people out of this ideology. I think that for me, the piece of hopeful information here is that this is the first time that people have turned their attention to this problem in a coherent way.
And even though it is fleeting and combated, keeping this in view is very, very hard for the white power movement. So I think ordinary people listening, you can do a lot by simply continuing to pay attention to these stories. And this means the broad groundswell. I think you can’t just read everything about the Proud Boys, right?
You have to remember that we’re talking about the mass shooters. We’re talking about the more terroristic groups. We’re talking about the Underground. We’re talking about the public facing part. That whole thing has to stay in public view in order to create the resources that we will need to change our surveillance and legal mechanisms to prosecute.
I think journalists can do more by thinking about the language we use, the way we tell these stories, who we give voice to when we give a microphone. I think that there’s a ton people can do in their local communities by way of creating resources. One thing that a colleague pointed out to me is that if you’re a school librarian or if you’re a parent and you notice that a student is becoming radicalized, your first call is usually punitive. It’s to a criminal person, like F.B.I. or a principal or a disciplinarian. Nobody wants to call the police on their kid. We could create other ways of doing that. We can create community resources to support people who are not going down this path.
And then the other thing I’d say is that there is, for me, a huge degree of hope in doing this work and bringing these stories together because I think that when we tell stories about lone wolves in the white power movement, we get ideas about the Tree of Life shooting as anti-Semitic violence and the Charleston shooting as anti-Black violence and El Paso as anti-Latino violence and Christchurch as anti-Islamic violence.
And we forget that all of those communities have endured white power attacks, which means that they all have something in common to mobilize around. And those communities don’t have equal voice and equal resources. That coalition building and sharing resources and reaching out to each other, I think can have profound political gain.
Well, and one other thing that people can do to better understand this movement is to read your book, “Bring the War Home.” That is my book recommendation. But we always end the podcast by asking for your book recommendations. So what are three books that you would recommend to our audience?
For thinking about what we’ve been talking about today, I really like Elaine Tyler May’s history, “Fortress America,” which talks about the way that fear and violence have been not only built into our politics, but built into our daily lives. It’s an excellent history of the late 20th century. And then because we’re talking about the apocalypse, I am thinking about the novel, “Future Home of the Living God” by Louise Erdrich, which is excellent. And I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, thinking about the apocalypse. So I will recommend that one.
And then, finally, just a new history book that’s excellent that connects things that were not connected before, I really like “Tiny You” by Jennifer Holland, which is the history of the anti-abortion movement in the four corners states, but actually has implications that go far beyond that reach. And it has a lot to say about the way that politics has entered homes and churches and schools in ways that I think we will all have to grapple with in the near future.
Kathleen, thank you so much for sharing all of your insights and your time today. This was really wonderful.
Thank you very much, Niki. It’s always wonderful to talk to you.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma, and Annie Galvin. It is fact-checked by Michelle Harris and original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Jeff Geld.
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