Charlottesville, far-right rallies, racism and relating to power

The term 'alt-right' is appropriate for a loose movement able to mainstream white nationalism and fascism and make them part of popular culture, the media landscape and the national dialogue.

Aaron Winter
17 August 2017

Demonstrators Rally in Chicago, IL in Solidarity with Charlottesville, VA after White Nationalist Attacks, August 13, 2017. Christopher Dilts/SIPA USA/Press Association. All rights reserved.‘This song’s just a reminder to remind your fellow man that this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan’,

Bob Dylan, The Death Of Emmett Till (1963)

As someone who has spent my academic career working on the American far-right, I was shocked, but not surprised by the Unite the Right rally and scenes of (tiki) torch wielding, swastika bearing and sieg heiling ‘alt-right’ ‘activists’, white nationalists and fascists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August 2017. The rally, ‘protest’ or ‘riot’ as it has been described, was organized by alt-right white nationalist figurehead Jason Kessler in defense of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee located in Emancipation Park. This followed a Klan rally about the statue in the same city on 8 July.

The battle over confederate monuments was reignited following Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on 17 June 2015. Images of Roof with the flag sparked calls for the removal of such symbols, which led to opposition from the far-right. Unite the Right was also, as the name indicates, an attempt to unite diverse and disparate far-right groups and movements to build upon their already established unity around President Trump and present a show of force. Those attending ranged from neo-confederates, neo-Nazis and Identitarians to militias, and included Ku Klux Klan groups and former Grand Dragon David Duke, the neo-Confederate League of the South, Daily Stormer clubs, the National Socialist Movement, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Traditionalist Youth Network and Traditionalist Worker Party with leader Matthew Heimbach, Vanguard America, American Guard and leader Augustus Invictus, the Nationalist Front, Identity Evropa, Anti-Communist Action, the 3 Percenters, and Oath Keepers, as well as various state militias.

Unite the Right was branded an alt-right rally, but three things were made clear by those present: 1. It was not limited to young men in suits attempting to look respectable or social media savvy activists and trolls; 2. The term alt-right is problematic for how it conceals the white nationalism and fascism of those within it and fellow travellers; and 3. The term is, despite this concealment and the fact that it is the language of the far-right, to a certain degree appropriate for a (loose) movement that was able to mainstream white nationalism and fascism and make them part of popular culture, the media landscape and the national dialogue.

Taking our country back

There were a number of violent incidents at the rally, including attacks on anti-racist and anti-fascist counter protestors. In one horrific incident, a car, driven by a rally participant, ploughed into counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The accused attacker, who has been arrested and charged, is known white supremacist affiliated with Vanguard America, James A. Fields. Heyer has since been attacked and her funeral threatened by far-right activists on social media and in The Daily Stormer. In another case, Deandre Harris was also chased by a group of white men and beaten up. The Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and the FBI ordered a civil rights investigation. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security had previously warned of the threat of white supremacist extremism and violence, something President Trump ignored. Trump did make a statement almost immediately following Heyer’s death, but not only failed to denounce the far-right, but distracted from them and spread the blame with a false equivalence: ‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides … It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It's been going on for a long, long time’. In addition to repeating ‘many sides’ twice, the reference to Obama and history was an implicit response to criticisms that not only was Trump a factor in this rally, but responsible for the wider resurgence of the far-right and mainstreaming and normalization of racism. Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said:

‘Look at the campaign he ran. Look at the intentional courting, both on the one hand all of these white supremacist, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups, and then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up and condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed, all of those different efforts just like we saw yesterday, and this is not hard’.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had also said that ‘Trump's run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man's country’. Former Grand Dragon of the KKK David Duke asserted this at the rally itself: ‘We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back’.

The link between Trump and such movements, and his responsibility for the rally and its violence, can be seen in his campaign rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, Mexicans, Muslims and Black Lives Matter, his appeal to white socio-economic and cultural alienation and victimization, as well as courting of racists and organized far-right white nationalists. It is worth mentioning that this wave of reaction started earlier, building on Trump’s promotion of anti-Obama ‘Birtherism’ and capitalizing on the rise in racism and far-right activism and violence that occurred in response to Obama’s election, as Homeland Security and the SPLC both reported in 2009.

In terms of courting the far-right that united in Charlottesville, during the campaign Trump received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, the Klan and former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as alt-right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and ‘alt-right’ gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (who now works in the White House) and Milo Yiannopoulos. When challenged on the Duke endorsement, Trump failed to reject it and denounce the man and wider far-right: ‘I don't know – did he endorse me, or what's going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.

Following the election, the SPLC reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory. They also reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents. This rose to 1,094 by mid-December. The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ (a play on his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’) and ‘Vote Trump’.

While many criticized Trump’s response to Charlottesville, the far-right was generally happy. According to Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi The Daily Stormer:

‘Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him’.

David Duke had issues with the wide distribution of blame, saying: ‘I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists’. After a great deal of pressure and two days, Trump finally condemned the rally participants and wider far-right: ‘Racism is evil, … And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans’.

Telling the truth like it is

Trump, however, soon reverted to his original position and doubled down, criticizing so-called ‘alt-left’ groups who he claimed were ‘very, very violent’, arguing that there is ‘blame on both sides’. He also claimed that there are, ‘some very fine people on both sides’, denying many on the right were Nazis and white nationalists: ‘Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee … This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?’. This made Duke happier, ‘Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth’.

Trump’s second statement, declaring that racism and the far-right have been around long before him and Obama was true though (although not in a way that removes responsibility from him). Racism has been around since the founding and building of the country through white settler colonialism, manifest destiny and slavery, and continues in its structures, institutions and policies despite claims about a post-racial America that accompanied Obama’s election.

The far-right arrived in the form of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s, and has returned, been revived or resurgent at many times throughout American history, so neither racism nor white nationalists, supremacists and wider far-right are as un-American as Trump, who used racism to ‘Make America Great Again’, claimed.

His third statement reference to George Washington as a slaveowner acknowledges the place of racism at the very core of American history, although he only did it to defend the far-right. Although the far-right have risen, declined and risen again throughout American history, it has changed in form and discourse, as well as relation to power, but rarely has it been in or represented by those in the White House, whether it be Trump, Bannon or Sebastian Gorka. It is for this reason, that it is worthwhile looking back at the history of the far-right and organized white supremacy and nationalism to see where both the militant violent fascists and legitimized, electoral and policy-oriented racist far-right that converge with Trump, come from and what they relate to.

Five eras of far right

The ‘Unite the Right’ rally reminds me of developments in the 1980s, when former Klansman and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler opened his compound in Hayden Lake, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to the wider far-right for his Annual Aryan National Congress (ANC). After a history where the Ku Klux Klan dominated the racist far-right, Aryan Nations not only attempted to steal the crown, but unite and lead the racist right. Although not every group wanted to join, the ANCs played host to a diverse group of white supremacists, white separatists, neo-Nazis, Klan paramilitaries, posses, Christian Patriots, survivalists, neo-confederates and more.[1] It was at one of these meetings in 1983 that Bob Mathews and Bruce Pierce formed The Order, which went on a murder and crime spree that took the life of Denver talk radio DJ Alan Berg in 1984,[2] a case made famous by Oliver Stone in Talk Radio and Costa-Gavras in Betrayed.

The latter also included a scene at one of the congresses. A real ANC can be seen in the documentary Blood in the Face, by James Ridgeway, assisted amongst others by Michael Moore. Louis Theroux also visited on one of his Weird Weekends. Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending. Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending.

I was also reminded of the Greensboro massacre, which did impact a community and involved targets and victims. This occurred on 3 November 1979, when members of the Communist Workers' Party (CWP) and Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) participated in a textile workers’ march defending Black workers in Greensboro, North Carolina. The CWP had opposed the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis Party and other groups, who confronted them and killed five CWP and civil rights activists, as well as wounding others.[3] According to James Ridgeway, this was one of the first incidents of what has been termed the ‘fifth era’ or post-civil rights era.[4]

It was this era that provides the template for the current diversity and attempted unification of the far-right (from white supremacist to neo-confederate to neo-Nazi), the organization around perceived white victimization and loss of America and militant violence. What is significantly different about these two periods is their relation to state power. The history of the far-right was, until the 1970s, dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, its traditional white supremacy, system-supportive ideology and close connections to governmental and institutional power (local, state and sometimes federal), defending racist laws and practices such as segregation. This was probably the last time as indicated by Trump and his racist and far-right followers that America was deemed ‘great’ by them.

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Trump’s support and success  ‘clearly represented a backlash against the progress black people have made since 1965’. The success of civil rights and voting rights have been a source of material for post-racial claims and narratives since Obama’s election (how far ‘we’ve’ come),[5] as well as resentment on the part of the far-right and a wider racist backlash which occurred in and challenged the ‘post-racial’ claim. This also represented a crisis point, fuelling anger and resentment for the Klan at the time, known as the third or civil rights era Klan, which in turn fuelled the fifth era.

Un-American activities

After a decade defending segregation, enforcing legal white supremacy and opposing civil and voting rights in league with the local and state government, law enforcement and white society, the tide turned for the Klan following the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by Klansmen and including Neshoba Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price in Mississippi. President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy pressured FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to launch the FBI’s Internal Security Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) ‘White Hate Groups’ program.[6] Following the 1965 murder of voting rights activist Viola Liuzzo, the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings on the Activities Of Ku Klux Klan Organizations In The United States, which produced the report The Present-day Ku Klux Klan Movement in 1967 and condemned the Klan as un-American. 

While these were responses to violence and political pressure, it also allowed the federal government to remove an obstacle to the enforcement of legislation and disentangle the Klan from legitimate, mainstream southern society such that this could be redeemed and reconstructed. The same occurred in the first era when the Klan first emerged in response to emancipation and reconstruction in 1867-8, preoccupied with the threat to whites particularly white women, from free former slaves, and were defeated by anti-Klan legislation and Ulysses S Grant in 1871.[7] While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level. While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level.

For the Klan, civil rights, voting rights, COINTELPRO and HUAC represented not only their failure to ‘maintain white supremacy’, their stated objective, but also their persecution by the federal government. It is here that the contemporary far-right’s discourse of white victimization has its modern origins, although it can also be seen in the post-civil war first era, which is now being played out in the defense of confederate monuments.

In response, a split has occurred in the Klan about how to respond to a country that has allegedly abandoned whites, and reversed the racial order of things. David Duke pursued a mainstreaming strategy, leaving the Klan but largely following his predecessors’ non-violent, legitimate path, establishing the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) and running unsuccessfully for President in 1988 and successfully for Louisiana State Legislature in 1989.[8]

This is sometimes referred to as the fourth era. Yet, most followed the more radical path expressed by Texas Klansman Louis Beam Jr. in his call-to-arms ‘where ballots fail, bullets will prevail’.[9]  This was a rejection of the Klan’s mainstream tactics in favour of more violent and insurgent ones, which defined the fifth era in the late 1970s to the 1990s. 

This era saw the paramilitarization of the Klan in the form of Beam’s Texas Emergency Reserve and Frazier Glenn Miller’s White Patriot Party. Like Duke, Miller spans the eras. It was his followers who were involved in the Greensboro Massacre and he was convicted for the April 2015 shootings at a Jewish Community Centre and retirement home in Kansas. The traditional Klan was also replaced in significance by Aryan Nations and other groups such as National Alliance, White Aryan Resistance, Posse Comitatus and The Order. In addition to which, traditional white supremacy was pushed to the side by the growth of anti-government patriotism, Nazism and white separatism. It is here that the extreme politics of post-civil rights white victimization, fascism and violence we see today manifested themselves and mobilized, but against the federal government as opposed to in league with and emboldened by it. What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era.

This era saw violent attacks not only on left-wing activists, by IRS officers and local law enforcement, particularly during the farm crisis of the 1980s. The mobilization of the far-right during the farm crisis and deindustrialization of the 1980s played on the theme of white alienation and victimization that we see perpetuated by Trump. The 1990s saw increasing anti-government radicalization with the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, emergence of the Militia movement and bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995. All of these were mentioned as precedents and threats in the Homeland Security and SPLC reports following Obama’s election.

It was rare for fifth era activists to run for elected office. One exception was Posse Comitatus member James Wickstrom, who ran unsuccessfully for Wisconsin State Senate in 1980 while also (ironically) serving as the Posse’s National Director of Counter Insurgency and founder of the sovereign township of Tigerton Dell.[10] The fifth era did not have a Trump or anyone in office to look to or legitimise them.

If we want to see what it looks like for the far-right to have national power and influence, we have to go back further to the second era in 1915, when the Klan re-formed after being whitewashed and rehabilitated by DW Griffith in Birth of a Nation.

Although re-formed in Georgia, the second era Klan capitalized on the 100 per cent American white nationalist nativism of the day, something Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and anti-immigrant politics reference and share common traits with. The Klan of the era saw themselves defending the nation from within against immigrant ‘aliens,’ Jews, Catholics and communists, as well as black people, and it was mainstream, popular and influential on a state and federal level.

At the peak of the era in 1925, the Klan had up to five million members.[11] On 8 August 1925, more than 50,000 members of the Klan marched on Washington, D.C. and Texas Klansman Earl Mayfield was elected to the U.S. Senate. Most significantly, Congress passed the Klan-supported 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was intended to end the ‘indiscriminate acceptance of all races’, limiting immigration and introduced permanent restrictions designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews, Africans and those from the Middle East, as well as barring Asian immigration.[12]

It was this act that Jeff Sessions, who has previously expressed admiration for the Klan, referenced when he expressed support and admiration regarding the contemporary concern about immigration in a 2015 interview with Stephen Bannon. It was also in this era that Trump’s father Fred was a member and arrested at a riot in 1927.

Dangerous convergence

America is a haunted house of hate. What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era. It is this convergence which is so dangerous and we must not let one distract from the other, but address them both, as well as the racism that runs through American society even when there is not a revival or resurgence of the far-right in whatever form it may take. 

[1] Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: The Chilling Inside Story of America’s Violent, Anti-Government Militia Movement, New York: Signet, 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990, p. 79.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] C. Dickey, ‘Journey Through a Troubled South’, Newsweek, 11 Aug. 2008, pp. 22-32; Chicago Herald Tribune, ‘Election 2008’, 5 Nov. 2008, pp. 6-7; USA Today, ‘Reflections on Living History’, 21 Jan. 2009, pp. 14a-15a; Newsweek, ‘Commemorative Inaugural Issue’, 20 Jan. 2009; A. Fetini, et al., ‘One Dream Realized’, Time: Special Inauguration Preview, 26 Jan. 2009, pp. 28-31.

[6] C. Hewitt, Understanding Terrorism in America: From the Klan to Al Qaeda (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 97-98; D. Cunningham, Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights Era Ku Klux Klan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 197.

[7] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990, p. 34.

[8] S. Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, pp. 264-265. 

[9] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p. 87.

[10] Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p.117.

[11] D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan 1865-196., Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 31; D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 33.

[12] M. Cox and M. Durham, ‘The Politics of Anger: The Extreme Right in the United States’, The Politics of the Extreme Right: From the Margins to the Mainstream, London: Pinter, 2000, pp. 290-291,  

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