White nationalism often leverages the language of patriotism and love — “protecting” the U.S., “reclaiming” the U.S. — as a vehicle for racial bigotry.
And the dangers of the ideology show no signs of shrinking this year: the throngs of “patriots” marching through cities, the gunman who turned a mall into a slaughterhouse, the plots to sow chaos by attacking power grids. In fact, echoing the Department of Homeland Security, President Joe Biden has called white nationalism “the most dangerous terrorist threat” facing the U.S.
Recent surveys shine a light on the psychological toll the ideology takes on people of color — 73% of Black respondents to the 2022 Midterm Voter Election Poll are “worried about extreme Republicans and white nationalists promoting hate toward immigrants and minorities,” according to a Brookings Institution analysis released earlier this year.
As the U.S. observes the Fourth of July, it’s crucial to examine white nationalism: what it looks like today, why it remains an influential political force, and how its adherents use it to promote a love of country bound up with hatred not only of Black Americans but also of a whole host of other vulnerable groups.
“One of the ways a term such as ‘white nationalism’ fails us is that it puts race at the forefront at the expense of thinking about anti-LGBTQ politics. It puts race at the forefront at the expense of thinking about patriarchal politics. It puts race at the forefront at the expense of thinking about anti-immigrant politics. And of course, they’re all interrelated,” explained Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Capital B spoke with Wasow, whose work focuses on race, politics, and social movements. He’s the author of a widely read paper on how Black protests in the 1960s and ’70s shaped public opinion and voting.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: White nationalism is hardly a new force in U.S. politics. But how does it manifest today?
There’s a white nationalist tradition going back to the founding of the country, and we can look at Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” as a kind of rebuke of that tradition in the U.S. But that tradition, and resistance to it, continue to the present day.
We could look at several different strands of white nationalism relevant to contemporary politics. One is the more extreme form: militant, in some cases underground groups seeking to overthrow the government. These groups are less visible but pose real threats. An example is the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. We also could look at Timothy McVeigh as the product of an underground, violent militia tradition.
Then slightly less extreme, but still prone to violence and a destabilizing force, are groups such as the Proud Boys. They’re also more coded — “Western nationalists,” is what some say. They’re very much in a white nationalist tradition but remixing it in ways that are kind of complicated. It’s a far-right politics that’s partly white nationalist, partly anti-feminist, partly anti-LGBTQ rights, and partly focused on a return to a traditional social order.
And then there’s a third strand, which is in some ways the most mainstream, and in that way the most influential. It’s an ethno-nationalist politics espoused by people including former President Donald Trump. He doesn’t say, “I want the U.S. to be a two-tiered society where white people have more privileges than non-white people.” But he does talk about Mexicans as rapists and refer to some countries as “shithole countries.” And so there’s a politics that’s become much more mainstream that, at its core, is built on the idea that there really are two classes of U.S. citizens, and white Christians should be the first-class citizens of the country.
What does Republican leaders’ nostalgia for an imaginary “pre-race” or “pre-politics” time tell us about the GOP today?
That’s a really important insight. Nostalgia is pervasive in the rhetoric of the contemporary right. In “Make America Great Again,” for example, is a hearkening back to some utopian imaginary of the past. And I think that partly reflects the fact that the GOP base is just older. It’s not that older people are inherently nostalgic — but rather that society has changed.
In the same way people get their musical tastes baked in at a certain age and then listen to the same music, for the most part, until they die, there’s a sense of how the world should be ordered that gets baked in during the earlier part of your life, and then you expect things to continue that way.
When people say that they want to challenge ideas about sexual orientation or gender identity or racial hierarchy, those things are reordering society in ways that might challenge an older white person’s sense of what’s normal. So it’s about nostalgia, but more specifically, I think that it’s about a desire to not live in a society where there’s a lot of change going on, and in particular change that challenges established orders.
Why shouldn’t we be too surprised that white nationalism attracts many different kinds of people?
A simple way to make sense of this is that while race has always been a central organizing force in U.S. politics — and continues to be a central organizing force — there are now other cleavages and antipathies that are creating new coalitions.
In the past, it might’ve been that someone was anti-Black, anti-Catholic, and antisemitic. And that formed a cluster of far-right politics. Now, it might be that someone believes in a patriarchal politics, is anti-gay and a Christian nationalist, and takes up very strong anti-immigrant attitudes, even someone who’s Latino. Race is in there. But maybe you’re hitting four or five of these ideological touchpoints of this politics — and that allows people such as Enrique Tarrio [a former Proud Boys leader] and other far-right figures of color to find a home there.
I think that’s what we’re seeing — a kind of far-right politics that’s still centrally about race but not exclusively about race, and in an increasingly diverse country, which means that the far right is becoming more multiethnic, too.
One thing people miss in looking at far-right vigilantes of color is that there’s long been a pattern of people of color embracing far-right politics, even as they might dehumanize themselves in the process. That shouldn’t surprise us, because these are people who are coming of age here and who are being exposed to an enormous amount of far-right ideology about white over Black, about the primacy of some groups over others.
Followers of white nationalist ideology often cloak their racial bigotry in the language of patriotism and love. Could you tell me about this tension?
There’s work in political science that invites us to think about two traditions in U.S. politics: a white nationalist or white supremacist tradition, and an egalitarian or a reform tradition.
Sometimes people will say that Jan. 6 was un-American. But mob violence, as Black people know well from being the targets of it, is deeply rooted in U.S. politics. There’s also the tradition, again, of Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” and of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” To return to your question: I think that you can think about this tension as a contest between these two ideas or traditions.
[The Northwestern University associate professor of history] Kathleen Belew talks about this in her 2018 book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. A way to frame what’s going on in the post-Vietnam era and the post-Civil Rights era is: There’s a set of Americans who’ve historically thought of the federal government as being, essentially, the government of white Americans. And in the post-Vietnam era and post-Civil Rights era, suddenly the federal government is championing the rights of Black people and reforming its immigration policies and welcoming Vietnamese refugees.
For a certain class of white Americans, the federal government is no longer their government. They see it almost like an occupying force representing the interests of these other groups. And for these white Americans, the anti-government rhetoric isn’t that they don’t want a president or a Congress. It’s that they want a government that will advocate first and foremost for white people.
I think that a lot of U.S. politics today is a contest over whether we’re going to be a multiethnic democracy or not. And white nationalist groups that are fighting that idea aren’t only advocating for some kind of return to an earlier, more traditional set of ideas. They’re arguing for a return to a monoethnic democracy in which some people — white over black, Christian over non-Christian — are this country’s first-class citizens.