“Below’s book helps explain how we got to the alt-right.”
Folks, every Christmas, I ask for books. And every year, I do not get any. It’s not that my family doesn’t support my passion, but one year, buying the book on my wishlist, my sister was pinned down by an overeager bookseller, trying to start a discussion about medieval medical history. My sister did not appreciate it. At all. And therefore, no more books for me.
But this year, we managed a break through – in the form of a gift card. Now I can get all the books I want, my sister doesn’t have to face in-depth conversations with booksellers, and everyone is happy.
So a couple of weeks ago, I stepped into my favourite bookstore, equipped with my giftcard and the list of books I want to read. First item on the list: Kate Belew’s ‘Bring the War Home’.
I’m not going to lie – this book is not a feel-good read. It explains the rise of the Alt-Right of the United States by describing how the Vietnam War brought a paramilitary stream into the White Power Movement, which then drafted further and further into the political mainstream, adopted by the Republican Party, and didn’t attract any attention until Donald Trump’s election and the riots in Charlottesville.
It’s weird how everything in US politics seems to harp back to Vietnam, isn’t it? But in this case, the author makes a compelling case. The book was a great read – I have said it before, but what great books do is they open your eyes and make you realize things that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. I’m going to say more about this later, but this week’s news that a officer in the US Coastguard was planning to go on a murder spree didn’t necessarily surprise me very much after reading this book. It’s all laid out in there, after all.
But let’s start at the beginning.
In a nutshell, returning veterans of the Vietnam War brought two things to the extreme right (which, of course, had always existed throughout the history of the United States.): warfare tactics and weapons. Those two acted as a catalyst to the movement.
The idea back in those days was “we fought communists over there, and we will continue the fight at home.” In Vietnam, the enemy wasn’t part of an organized army, he was part of the civilian population – and Vietnam Vets, who joined the White Power movement, saw the same infiltration of communists in the US society.
They constructed this narrative that drives the movement until today – and some part of it will sound vaguely familiar if you have ever listened to a Trump rally. The central idea is that the white race is under attack and at danger of dying out. Hordes of foreigners, illegal aliens and socialists are killing everything that is good about America. The white race is the victim of an onslaught of attacks against their lifestyle and values. Whites, according to this idea, are the victims of ‘white genocide’.
But, fear not. An apocalyptic war between the races is coming, and the white race will emerge victorious.
It is important to mention that the White Power movement sees the state as the enemy. They do not want to work within the system – or return to an idealized version of the state, as you might suspect. They do not want to cleanse the institutions, they want to burn it down. The entire political system needs to be dismantled and destroyed.
To do this, the movement went underground in the 1980s – there is no overarching organization that coordinates attacks. Instead, they adopted a cell-like structure, much like Al Quaeda did. Attacks are therefore ascribed to ‘lone wolves’. Which, in a way, makes it easier for the state to explain them away – instead of going after the system itself, they prosecute the individual attackers, and call it a day.
And, the author shows, it is frightening to realize how many far-right terrorists had connections to the military. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma State building in the most violent attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor (a sad record not broken until 9/11, by the way), used to serve in the Marine Corps. And of course, the officer arrested just this week was planning the attacks from his work computer at the Coast Guard.
But these ideas of ‘white genocide’ aren’t limited to the fringes of the political movement. With Donald Trump’s election, they have moved right into the very heart of the political debate in America today.
The conversation around the wall? Right out of the white power movement, which portrays all non-white immigrants as sub-human. ICE arresting American Citizens just because of the colour of their skin? Well, if you’re not white, you’re not American. Roll-back of abortion rights? If the white race is at danger of dying out, every child counts. Home schooling? Well, you don’t want your white kids to go to school with non-whites, right? Confederate statues? You must know by now where this is going.
It all fits in, and it is all very scary.
In case you are not freaked out enough (and you should be by now), the author then turns to gun rights.
As you would suspect, the movement is a strong supporter of the 2nd amendment – the right to bear arms, especially to form a militia. They think they need to arm themselves to fight the oppressive State. So it’s militia as in ‘against the state’, not in ‘for the state’. They see themselves as true heirs of the original Revolutionaries, who fought an oppressive state and won their freedom. The US, in their mind, has simply evolved into a new oppressor, much like the English empire back then.
I will not argue this idea, because I have better things to do, but I think it’s important to understand how these groups see their world and those in it.
But they don’t just rely on guns that they can buy on the legal market. Nohooo, remember when I said that there are plenty of connections between white supremacy groups and the military? Well, turns out the military is not exactly great at keeping track of their weapons. You see where this is going? Yup. A shitton of military-grade weapons were stolen and smuggled to various white power movements. Which means we now don’t just have to deal with Nazis, it’s Nazis who had military training or training in paramilitary boot camps, and are now armed with military weapons. Great.
I cannot stress about how serious this is. The biggest threat, no matter what the orange fucknit is saying, is not coming from outside. It is coming from within the United States. It’s scary, it’s threatening to all of us, and it should freak everyone out.
So, you might ask, what is the State doing about all of this?
The answer is – not very much, and not very successful. (Sorry. I wish I had better news.)
If the state prosecutes far-right groups or movements (and that is a big if), juries tend to let them go. There’s a variety of reasons for this, as the author shows – some has to do with the fact that prosecution work is sometimes done sloppy. But most of it has to do with the juries and judges themselves. There seems to be a baseline approval or at least acceptance in American society when it comes to far right ideas. White juries and judges let members of the white power movement go unpunished (or lightly punished).
The prime example for this is the Greensboro shootings – in a nutshell, in 1979, Klansmen killed five Communist Worker’s Party members at a CWP rally. Television footage of the actions was shown nation-wide. In November 1980, six KKK defendants were each acquitted in a state criminal trial by an all-white jury after a week of deliberations. So yes. KKK members can kill people in the street, in broad daylight, in front of cameras, and not face any consequences for it.
To me, this shows just how important diversity in the justice system is. We need more non-whites judges, prosecutors and jury members if we want to stand a chance against white power terrorism.
(Side note – I just checked and the prosecutor in the Coast Guard officer’s case is Asian-American. So at least there’s that.)
If you want to know more about the rise of the paramilitary far-right, there’s a couple of excellent resources: Firstly, an NPR podcast in which Belew discusses her book. Secondly, there’s a slate podcast called Standoff which discusses the events at Ruby Ridge, which galvanized the White Power Movement. Really good, and you should give it a listen.
But what frightens me the most after having read this book is the realization that the current political climate creates the perfect conditions for the far-right. They have now been given (however implicit) support from the President of the United States – and there is no reason to believe they didn’t hear it.
The forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a generation’s worth of disillusioned, highly-trained veterans. Obviously, not all of them will join the white power movement, but with the lack of after-care and support stateside, there are now more veterans than ever at risk of falling into the grips of one of those hate groups.
The future’s not looking to good on this side, y’all. But there’s some hope. The increasing diversification of the justice system! That’s good. And, most importantly, the growing realization in US Society that something here isn’t right.
That’s not a lot. But it makes me a bit more optimistic.