Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream
By Leonard Zeskind
(Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2009)
In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, the deeply-held religious beliefs of an assortment of white nationalists became the scaffolding for a broad, and often violent, movement of racists and anti-Semites.
Fifteen years in the making, Leonard Zeskind’s new book Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (Farrar Straus & Giroux) is more than a history of the white supremacist movement. While the movement’s Christian roots, anti-Semitism and racist beliefs have been dissected over the years, the core religious beliefs of a number of white nationalist movement leaders has received far less attention. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Zeskind, a friend and colleague, about his new book, the role these religious beliefs played in the development of a host of organizations, and where things stand as we inhabit the Age of Obama.
Zeskind is an internationally recognized expert on white nationalist movements and a longtime activist in the battle for civil and human rights. He has testified at a British parliamentary subcommittee hearing, crisscrossed Germany speaking to anti-fascist activists, and received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He argues that “for those of us who hope to protect and extend our multiracial democracy… we ignore this white nationalist movement at our own peril.”
How did you get started monitoring and investigating these movements?
LZ: I came to the age of social consciousness when the black freedom movement was very strong and civil rights were high on the national agenda. I was taken by the notion, articulated during the mid-1960s, that white people should focus on organizing other white people to oppose racism. As a grassroots activist that idea stayed with me. In 1970, I started doing anti-racist work with impoverished working class young white people who had previously been at odds with poor black people living virtually in the same neighborhood. For thirteen years I worked as a welder, an iron worker, and on assembly lines. Around 1978, I noticed that Klan and neo-Nazi activity had picked up, and so it was my interest in racism in general that led me to research and write about the white supremacy movement. Between 1985 and 1994, I was the research director at the Center for Democratic Renewal (formerly the National Anti-Klan Network).
Why did you decide to write Blood and Politics?
It became apparent to me that much of the received wisdom about white supremacists was simply wrong. And I wanted to write a book that did not just say what I thought was correct, but I wanted to show it through specific characters, scenes of action and analysis. These white-ists are not just a bunch of uneducated bumpkins down on their economic luck. Instead, they are demographically much like the rest of white Americans, working class and middle class with a significant stratum of middle class professionals—professors, lawyers, chiropractors, etc.—as their leaders.
And, these are not a string of disconnected organizations sharing only a common set of hatreds. Rather, this is a single movement, with a common set of leaders and interlocking memberships that hold a complete and sometimes sophisticated ideology. Further, the white nationalist movement today is organized around the notion that the power of whites to control government and social policy has already been overthrown by people of color and Jews, rather unlike the Klan of the 1960s which sought to defend a system of racial apartheid in the South.
How do the religious beliefs of the movement’s different constituencies—the Christian patriots, neo-Confederates, survivalists, white power skinheads, Holocaust deniers, scientific racists, and others—manifest themselves?
For some, religion is simply a way of expressing group identity. That is most obviously true among the pagans and Odinists in the skinhead scene, where the invocation of the old Norse gods is not about theology or even ethics, but about style and promoting their subculture. In a similar sense, there are neo-Confederates and white nationalists who believe that “Christian-ness” is one aspect of their Western civilization—along with respect for tradition, authority, and whites-only citizenship rights. For this wing of the movement, best exemplified in my book by a now-deceased Washington Times columnist Sam Francis, opposition to abortion is less a theological imperative and more a program plank alongside support for gun rights and opposition to immigration.
Then there are the so-called Christian patriots and Posse Comitatus-types for whom a specific theological strain known as “Christian Identity” defines their notions of themselves as white people, and their ideas of national identity and governmental power. They hold Bible camp retreats for families where they teach each other how to live and what to believe. They also promote their belief that the United States is a white Christian republic rather than a multiracial democracy. And in a number of cases they turn their conviction that white Christians have superior civil and political rights—over those they deem “Fourteenth Amendment” citizens (everybody else)—into fraudulent schemes with fake money. In other instances, they establish “Christian” courts and militia groups that act as if they are legitimate arms of “lawful” government.
In this belief system, whites from northern Europe—the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Teutonic and Lombard peoples—are the real descendents of the biblical people of Israel. As such, Jews are fakes and considered either satanic by nature or Satan himself incarnate. In this schema, black people and other people of color are considered “pre-Adamic,” that is before Adam: not fully human in the way white people are. In this telling, interracial marriage is a sin akin to bestiality, and the presence of Jews in their Christian society is a crime against their God. While such ideas may seem ridiculous on their face, Christian Identity followers derive their entire belief system from their Bible.
What are the differences between the beliefs of these groups and those of the Christian Right?
Much like the Christian right types, Identity believers oppose abortion and homosexuality as violations of what they deem to be God’s Law. Similarly, they view women’s role in the family and society as subordinate to men. They also support prayer in school and oppose secularism in society. But Christian Identity is much more forthright in its anti-Semitism and racism. They are decidedly not “Christian Zionists,” and do not have an eschatology, or theory of the End Times, with Israel at its center. In fact, they tend to call themselves “End Times Overcomers,” and believe the final conflict is a race war that they win. And Christian Identity has a much more highly defined theory of Satan.
Explain the Christian Identity theory of the Devil.
Actually they have two competing theories of Satan and Jews. In one case, they believe that the snake in the Garden of Eden was Satan, and that he impregnated Eve, and that Cain was not only Satan’s offspring, but that Jews are descendants of Cain, and Satan incarnate. In a second case, they believe that Satan worked through Esau, and that the Jews are descendants of Esau (Edomites) and do the Devil’s work here on Earth. Blood and Politics details this belief system and its implications, and even readers already vaguely familiar with the ideas of Christian Identity will find this discussion helpful. Indeed, it is my argument that without a proper understanding of these devil theories, the average person can not actually understand what Christian Identity is about.
Why do you describe this movement as “white nationalist”?
Most obviously because the movement’s foremost aspect is its regard for white skin color as a badge of national identity. Many of the organizations and leaders look back to the Cnstitutional order prior to the Civil War, when the national-state was a whites-only republic. Others look forward to the creation of a new white nation-state carved out of the lands of North America. While these ideas were present in the movement from its re-inception in the mid-1970s, they only became dominant in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era. Across the globe, nationalism became a language of opposition to the New Global Order, and racial and ethnic nationalism became more salient than its liberal civic opposition. Books such as Blood and Belonging and Jihad vs. McWorld explored these issues globally. In the United States, racial nationalism meant white nationalism, and the old white supremacist movement was thus transformed into 21st-century white nationalism.
You argue in the book (and the title references it) that white nationalists have successfully moved from the “margins to the mainstream.” How did this happen?
Through a combination of factors. First, through the slow accretion of organizing week-in, week-out events: Klan rallies, Bible camps, survivalist and gun shows, white-power music concerts, etc., many of which are described in my book. Second, when David Duke won a majority of white votes while running in two Louisiana statewide elections in 1990 and 1991, he uncovered a middle-American constituency that supported at least a portion of his national socialist ideas. Third, a group of respected (if not respectable) ultra-conservatives broke with the Bush 41-era Republican consensus during the first Persian Gulf War and headed in the white direction. These were the Buchananites [led by current television commentator and author Pat Buchanan] and they helped create a realignment of forces that continues to plague us today.
How does that show itself today?
Primarily in the anti-immigrant movement—the lobbyists, Minuteman vigilantes, and racist think tanks that support them. It is here that the idea that the United States is or should be a “white” country takes on the form of a policy issue. If you follow the discussion among anti-immigrant groups, the dominant discourse is about how the United States is becoming a “Third World” country because of all the brown-skinned Spanish-speaking people crossing the Rio Grande—never mind the fact that these same people have been on this side of the border ever since 1845.
From this perspective, one of the most interesting Republican pieces of legislation languishing in Congress is a proposal to end birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to parents lacking the proper documents. If such a measure was enacted, it would run smack dab into the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees birthright citizenship and equality before the law. In this sense, the Republicans who signed onto this bill are proposing measures that the Christian patriots and Posse Comitatus-types talked about twenty-five years ago. It is important for us to be able to connect these dots.
Now that the economy is in a severe tailspin, what are the implications for the white nationalist movement?
Although I loathe predicting the future, I will say that in the past, hard economic times have not automatically translated into an expansion for white nationalists. There was a growth surge during the Clinton years, for example, which were generally considered better economic conditions for middle class people. In the past, the politics of race and nation mattered more than economic hard times. White nationalists will support protectionist measures, and they oppose free trade in capital goods because they oppose free trade (or open borders) for labor. Whether or not they gain traction by claiming that the stock market and banks are controlled by Jews depends on whether people of goodwill are able to offer a more compelling vision of change.
With Obama in the White House, I think we can expect more of the same, plus some. Some white nationalists will focus on tending to their current base—which is not inconsiderable. They will continue to push for secessionist-style white enclaves and might engage in militia-style violence. Others will attempt to widen their base, and carve out a larger niche among conservative Republicans. Without an electoral vehicle of their own, they will suffer from the vicissitudes of the Republican leadership. Their natural base, however, will be the five percent of white voters who told pollsters last summer that they would never vote for a black person for president. More than Rush Limbaugh will get ugly.