BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
Anyone attempting to understand the roots of what is now being called the “alt-right” should run out to your favorite independent bookstore and grab hold of a copy of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream. Published in 2009, and written by Leonard Zeskind, it remains a seminal history of the white supremacist movement, now being reimagined as the “alt-right.”
"While the white nationalist movement has splintered organizationally over the last few years, it is best to think of this phenomenon as something akin to a broken thermometer, where the mercury continually reconfigures itself into silver beads smaller and larger," Zeskind has written.
Drew S. Days III, Professor of Law, Yale University, and former U.S. Solicitor General called Blood and Politics “not only a brilliant account of the origins, modes of operation, collaborations, and internecine disputes of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denier, and anti-Semitic groups in America, but alerts us to the fact that despite—or perhaps because of—significant improvements in race relations and changing demographic patterns, we are likely to witness a resurgence of their activities.”
Zeskind, a longtime friend and colleague, 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, a Petra Foundation Fellowship, the Paul H. Tobenkin Prize, and the Bayard Rustin Award. He understands that "for those of us who hope to protect and extend our multiracial democracy ... we ignore this white nationalist movement at our own peril."
A few years back, in an interview with Religion Dispatches, Zeskind told me that while he was uncomfortable "predicting the future," he recognized that "hard economic times have not automatically translated into an expansion for white nationalists." However,
Zeskind added, "With Obama in the White House, I think we can expect [that] ... 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."
In light of our current reality – a presidency which brings with it Steve Bannon, a white nationalist who is Trump’s chief strategist and senior counselor, longtime racist Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions being nominated as Attorney General, and neo-Nazis openly celebrating “their” victory -- here are a few excerpts from my interview with Zeskind that is well worth considering.
Bill Berkowitz: Why did you decide to write Blood and Politics?
Leonard Zeskind: 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.
BB: Why do you describe this movement as “white nationalist”?
LZ: 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 Constitutional 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.
BB: 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?
LZ: 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 Pat Buchanan, the paleoconservative columnist, and author] and they helped create a realignment of forces that continues to plague us today.
BB: How does that show itself today?
LZ: 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 were 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.