Bob Bates —
The topic of Kathleen Belew’s recent book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2018), addresses a disturbing thread of the American fabric. She begins her book with a succinct account of the long history of violence at the hands of colonists and American citizenry and government, mainly white initiated, from the 17th to mid-20th centuries. But the focus of her research is from the Vietnam War era to the present. Belew’s central assertion is that domestic adjustments stemming from wartime effects have always featured actions precipitating turbulence.
The catch-all term “white power” refers to the social movement that brought together members of the Ku Klux Klan, militias, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, varied proponents of white exclusionist theologies, and radical tax resisters since the 1970s. Though such groups differ in various specifics, they share overall common elements of ideology. Every one of these groups, through their forms of activism and advocacy of resistance or overt violent rhetoric and tactics, ultimately seeks dominant power. A sampling of group names exemplify this: White Patriot Party; Confederate Knights of the KKK; Aryan Republican Army; National Socialist Party of America; United Racist Front; Christian Identity; The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord; and The World Church of the Creator.
Belew documents the emergence of an array of white power groups developing after the Vietnam War. Many veterans and disgruntled citizens felt betrayed by their government and sought ways to forcefully express their anger. Weaponry—often brought home from the war or stolen from military bases or depots—escalated actions beyond vigilantism to paramilitary organization, training, and practice. The common enemy was everywhere, seeming to be proliferating out of a government gone rogue in its favoritism of non-white, non-traditional people. This attracted a legion of Anti-Isms: anti-communism, anti-internationalism, anti-immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-welfare, anti-gay and lesbian rights, anti-unions, anti-journalism, anti-academics, anti-feminism, anti-abortion, and anti-religions other than righteous Christianity. Basically, anti-change vis-a-vis anything challenging traditional white privilege and power.
A fundamental captivation for white power paramilitarism has been the 1978 apocalyptic white racist novel called The Turner Diaries, which sold more than half-a-million copies during the next two decades, and continues to have a movement draw. This fictional-but-lifelike book was written by William Luther Pierce (1933-2002) under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. ( Pierce was the leader of the National Alliance, one of the most organized and well-financed neo-Nazi groups in the United States.) The Turner Diaries has served as a foundational “how-to manual” for the white power movement, graphically depicting violent war on the US government and other establishment institutions, and dedicated to eliminating peoples of color and undesirable religions, and installing a righteous white Order in power. Its strategies rely upon secrecy, loyalty, and sustained violence to implement a common set of white power movement worldviews. This was/is seen as necessarily being a protracted revolutionary process, with gradual but relentless territorial gains, eventually winning over the sympathies of the majority of Americans.
During the close of the 1970s and into the 1980s numerous intimidating and violent incidents occurred, made even more alarming because they were most frequently committed by uniformed paramilitary groups possessing advanced armaments. By 1986 the US Congress and the Department of Defense had raised concerns over “hundreds of millions of dollars in military arms, ammunition, and explosives disappearing” from the vast US military supply system. The Pentagon’s own assessment of missing material approached a billion dollars.
As law enforcement units at federal and state levels geared up to confront active elements of white power, movement leaders declared war, openly citing the duty to fight for a white homeland by attacking institutions, waging revolutionary race war, and committing actions to contribute to destabilizing the state. Two new strategies took root that were intended to reduce public visibility and scrutiny, yet facilitate broader connections between various white power organizations: (1) using computer networking to coordinate and mobilize actions, and (2) reorganizing into “leaderless resistance” cells (typically of 5 or 6 individuals) to work in common purpose without direct communication from movement leaders. To this day, these strategies remain operational, making it difficult for law enforcement to tie together perpetrators and leadership, and thus hindering prosecution of broader white power organizations. As a movement leader expressed in a white power publication widely circulated, “Participants in a program of Leaderless Resistance through phantom cell or individual action must acquire the necessary skills and information as to what needs to be done. … Those idealists truly committed to the cause of freedom will act when the time is ripe, or will take their cue from others who precede them” (my emphasis).
In the 1990s, in less than a three year span, three events took place that riveted the attention of the nation and, as a consequence, permanently locked in the white power movement’s determination to persevere at all costs. In 1992, Randy Weaver, a follower of the Christian Identity movement, fled law enforcement authorities after selling illegal firearms to undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. He held up with his family at his mountain cabin near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where a federal marshal and Weaver’s teenage son were killed in a shootout. In 1993, David Koresh and his Branch Davidian religious cult, which was stockpiling illegal weapons in its compound in Waco, Texas, engaged in a three-month standoff with federal authorities. When the FBI finally stormed the compound, Koresh and his followers set a suicide-fire that killed more than 70 people. And in 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a rented truck filled with 4,800 pounds of explosives, killing more than 190 people at the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh planned the bombing to coincide two years to the day with the Branch Davidian raid.
These events confirmed to the white power movement what it saw as inevitably unfolding: the biblically-foretold apocalypse on American soil, with brutal oppression from the state and the unavoidable need for white people to fight back to save their God-intended pure race and righteous causes. Insofar as broader Evangelical denominations had been in anticipation of assaults by a New World Order evil superstate attacking them through religious, political, and social conspiracies, many found common cause with white power fears.
At this point, following a brief flare-up of localized white power incidents, none of major destructive consequence, the movement largely withdrew underground. In the years since, the media has tended to characterize scattered violent actions not as motivated by firm ideology, but rather due to “lone wolf” mental instability or grudge motivations. Belew maintains that this is a mistaken perspective, that enduringly active white power ingredients over decades have produced a toxic stew, simmering prior to periodic eruptions, such as what “broke into mainstream politics in the 2016 presidential campaign and election,” and subsequently in Charleston, Charlottesville, and Pittsburgh.
In her epilogue, Belew expresses concern for what lies behind white power’s “diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations.” For generations “violent outright racism and anti-Semitism” have continued to thrive, and white power movements have shown persistent recruiting power. This active presence also undergirds “political issues that extend well beyond the fringe.” As a concluding caution, Belew writes, “Understanding white power as a social movement [is of] vital public importance.” If public opinion and state actions and prosecutions are to be “integral to preventing future acts of violence and to providing vital context to current political developments,” we must be vigilant in prioritizing our attention and prevention efforts.