In 2009 I reviewed Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, an ambitious overview of American white nationalist movements for The Boston Globe. It’s behind a paywall these days, but I’m posting the copy I submitted – the pros at the Globe cut around 150 words and likely helped it to in other ways. Anyway, this may be helpful for folks who haven’t spent much time thinking about what American white nationalism means. I also wrote this piece for The Guardian about the rise of white nationalism after President Obama’s election. There’s at least one turn of phrase that appears on both pieces – that language was cut from the published Globe piece and I re-purposed. Just being clear.
Humans have tremendous capacity for ignoring failure. If we can envision something, we struggle to engender it, even if generations fail in the attempt. Science fiction often furnishes inspiration for such dreaming – Jules Verne’s submarine, for instance. Then there are the race-science fictions, misbegotten fantasies of racial purity that have inspired nightmares from the Third Reich to southern bigotry to anti-immigration panic. Hitler and Jim Crow may be dead, but their deaths merely signify the end of eras, not the end of the ambitious ignorance they represent.
Recent weeks have borne witness to the persistence of these dolorous fantasies. Throughout April, reports of hate group activity were alarmingly frequent, culminating with the Office of Homeland Security and the FBI releasing a report on increased recruitment levels for these groups – the numbers of enlistees as well as number of groups in existences have reached levels unseen since the early 1990s. This is not a provincial matter: on April 11 a South Boston VFW nearly hosted a major “POW” rally (a fundraiser for individuals incarcerated for crimes against minorities) co-organized by the relatively young groups, Volksfront and East Coast White Unity. As The Globe reported, after the VFW cancelled the event, the groups relocated to New Hampshire.
Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Leonard Zeskind’s staggering, painstakingly researched report on the last three decades of American bigotry, dramatizes the back story to the recent upsurge in this septic politics.
According to Zeskind, white nationalism inspires a hard-core following of roughly 30,000, with 200,000 casual fans. That said, his subtitle misleads somewhat. Zeskind employs the blanket term “white nationalist” to denote any group that uses “their skin color [as] a badge of a distinct national identity,” but as he amply demonstrates, there isn’t a movement so much as a loathsome mishmash of corrosive pseudo-science, feckless theology and cynical opportunism. That the Church of the Creator, Aryan Nations, and other like-mindless groups remain riven by sectarianism would be reassuring if not for the fact that, as Zeskind shows, concerted action has rarely been a goal. Chillingly, in its successes and stupidities, the chaos of American hate is the stunted, through-the-looking-glass perversion of American pluralism.
The ballot or the bullet provides Blood and Politics with its major taxonomic categories. Zeskind terms these groups, respectively, “mainstreamers” and “vanguardists.”
“Mainstreamers,” Zeskind writes in a passage of typical clarity, “ believe that a majority (or near majority) of white people can be won over to support their cause, and they try to influence the existing structures of American Life. Vanguardists think that they will never find more than a slim majority of white people to support their aims voluntarily, and they build smaller organizations of highly dedicated cadres with the intention of forcefully dragging the rest of society with them.”
One can often find mainstreamers on talk shows asking, “What is wrong with being proud to be white ?” Their next sentence inevitably opens the door to white “separatism”, a euphemism for “supremacy” which is a synonym for hate. Notable mainstreamers, according to Zeskind, include former KKK Grand Wizard and perennial candidate David Duke, political pundit Patrick Buchanan, and any number of lesser knowns that have attained recognition through local or national elections (Blood and Politics recounts several successful intolerance-fueled campaigns, efficiently disposing of the hope that bigotry is the province of the uneducated or unsophisticated.) With few extreme exceptions, such as Timothy McVeigh, vanguardists remain obscure, speaking through actions – bombings, lynchings – and shrill websites, and organized in Al-Quada-like cells.
There are hundreds of names, dates, and incidents in Blood and Politics. The book sometimes reads as if Zeskind attended every koffee klatch since the Nixon administration and met every one-act clown that donned a robe or published a pamphlet. This rich embroidery of specifics falls, to some extent, beside the point. When it comes to white nationalism, the devil is most decidedly not in the details.
Blood and Politics’ genius resides in analysis of the resilient ideas that have informed white nationalist paranoia. “White dispossession” is the specter haunting their America, and most any development testifies to white power’s deterioration. The fall of the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stagnant economy? Yes. Immigration reform? Yes. All events conspire against white cultural and political hegemony, and from this siege mentality Zeskind locates a unity amidst the factionalism. Despite tactical differences, Zeskind writes, “For both mainstreamers and vanguardists alike, the cultural war [is] not for control of a single culture. Rather, it [is] a war between cultures for dominance over a single piece of North American real estate.” White nationalists have, in effect, formulated and applied a home-grown, domestic version of Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis.
Blood and Politics concludes its narrative in 2004. Things have since changed. As the FBI report mentioned above illustrates, Barack Obama “verifies” nationalists’ terror of dispossession – and the President has become an un-witting co-conspirator in the current resurgence of American hate. Histories that so closely abut the present often feel incomplete, but that Obama’s name only appears once in Blood and Politics does not diminish the book’s relevance. It’s a given that without studying the historical antecedents of Obama’s election one can’t fully understand the current state of race relations in the United States. Likewise, Zeskind’s encyclopedic book reveals the shadow history contemporaneous with the march of civil rights and is essential to the understanding of our present moment. Obama’s presidency heralds a new stage in America’s engagement with the color-line, but as both Blood and Politics and the recent enlistment in the armies of racial purity attest, nothing in the world is single.