As long as the United States has existed, there’s been some version of white supremacy. But over the centuries, the way white supremacy manifests has changed with the times. This includes multiple iterations of the infamous Ku Klux Klan.
According to the sociologist Kathleen Blee, the Klan first surfaced in large numbers in the 1860s in the aftermath of the Civil War, then again in the 1920s, and yet again during the civil rights era.
Blee is a professor and dean at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, as well as Understanding Racist Activism: Theory, Methods and Research. She says the anonymity allowed by the internet makes it difficult to track just how much white supremacist activity we’re seeing today.
But despite this difficulty, she and other experts say there’s been an indisputable uptick in hate crimes — and an overall rise in white supremacist violence: Earlier this fall, a gunman shot and killed 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In 2017, a clash with protesters at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., left one woman dead. In 2015, the shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., killed nine black churchgoers. And in 2012, a rampage at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisc., killed six people.
As we consider this spate of racist attacks, we thought it’d be helpful to talk to Blee about the ebbs and flows of white supremacy in the United States — and what, exactly, those past waves say about today’s political climate.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
First, can we talk about the various phases of white supremacy in the U.S. throughout history — and what caused those ebbs and flows?
The 20th to 21st century Klan actually formed after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period. Then it was entirely contained within the South, mostly in the rural South. It [was] all men. There were violent attacks on people who were engaged, or [wanted] to be engaged, in the Reconstruction state, [including] freed blacks, southern reconstructionists, politicians and northerners who move to the South. That collapses for a variety of reasons in the 1870s.
Then, the Klan is reborn in the teens, but becomes really big in the early 1920s. And that is the second Klan. That is probably the biggest organized outburst of white supremacy in American history, encompassing millions of members or more. … And that’s not in the South, [it’s] primarily in the North. It’s not marginal. It runs people for office. It has a middle class base. They have an electoral campaign. They are very active in the communities. And they have women’s Klans, who are very active and very effective in some of the communities. That dissolves into mostly scandals around the late ’20s.
Then there’s some fascist activity around the wars — pro-German, some Nazi activity in the United States — not sizable, but obviously extremely troubling.
The Klan and white supremacy reemerge in a bigger and more organized way around the desegregation and civil rights movement — again, mostly in the South, and back to that Southern model: vicious, violent, defensive, Jim Crow and white rights in the South.
And then it kind of ebbs. After a while, it kind of comes back again in the late ’80s and the early 21st Century as another era. And then there’s kind of a network of white supremacism that encompasses the Klan, which is more peripheral by this time. Also Neo-Nazi influence is coming as white power skinheads, racist music, and also neo-Nazi groups. The Klans tend to be super nationalist, but these neo-Nazi groups have a big international agenda.
Then the last wave is where we are now, which is the Internet appears. The movement has been in every other era as movement of people in physical space like in meetings, rallies, protests and demonstrations and so forth. It becomes primarily a virtual world, and as you can see, has its own consequences — many consequences. It’s much harder to track. And then there are these blurred lines between all these various groups that get jumbled together as the alt-right and people who come from the more traditional neo-Nazi world. We’re in a very different world now.
That’s a long history. You mentioned that, for a variety of reasons, the Klan in the Reconstruction era collapsed. What are some of the factors that contributed to that?
I would say two things that mostly contributed to that ebb over time.
One is the white supremacist world, writ large, is very prone to very serious infighting. Internal schisms are quite profound in collapsing white supremacists, even as an entire movement, over time.
What’s that infighting look like? How racist to be?
No, no. It’s almost always power and money. So, for example, the ’20s Klan — I say “Klan” but in every era there were multiple Klans, they all have different names, they all have different leaders — they are trying to extract money from their groups, and they are all fighting about money …. and then over power, and who controls the power, because white supremacy groups don’t elect their leaders right away. To be a leader just means to grab power and control. So there’s a lot of contention in these groups of control.
It’s not ideas. Ideas aren’t that central. They have these certain key ideas that they promulgated — race and anti-Semitic ideas — but the fine points of ideological discussion don’t really occur that much in white supremacist groups, nor do they get people that agitated. It’s not like in other kinds of groups, where people might have various versions of ideas, versions of ideologies. [The Klan] just have kind of core beliefs. But they do tend to fight over ideas for money, power and access to the media.
So that’s the fighting. The other thing is, in different waves of history, there are prosecutions, either by the police or civil prosecutions that collapse groups and movements. Sometimes, there’s kind of a blind eye to white supremacist organizing, but at other times there is really successful either civil or state prosecutions of these groups that do debilitate them.
How does the longevity of white supremacy or these [hate] groups coincide with who has political power?
It’s very hard to create a generalization here. Certain groups, like the Klan, tend to rise and fall based on the threats to who is in power. The 1870s Klan [was] based on the Southern racial state formed during slavery being threatened by Reconstruction. In the 1920s, the idea was that political power [was] being threatened by this wave of immigrants. The 1920s Klan [was] very anti-Catholic, as well as racist and anti-Semitic. Part of this anti-Catholicism [was] based on the idea that Catholics were going to start controlling politics as well as the police.
There’s some really good analysis by some sociologists that showed that the Klan appeared in counties where there was the least racist enforcement of the law. Because in counties where the sheriff and the county government was enforcing racist laws, there was no need for the Klan.
How does this apply to this more recent wave of white supremacy?
Right now, we have an extremely heterogeneous group that we might call white supremacists. So some of them, probably the smallest group, are nationalistic. And probably the larger group are not particularly nationalistic. This is why it’s hard to make generalizations. It’s not the case that nationalist fervor just finds itself in the white supremacist movement. The person accused of the shooting in Pittsburgh is an example. If you look at [his] writings, they’re not nationalistic, they’re in fact anti-nationalistic. And that’s pretty common with white supremacy today — some of them have this sense that their mission is this pan-Aryan mission. They’re fighting global threats to whites and creating a white international defense. So that’s not a nationalist project, that’s an internationalist project.
And the other reason is there’s this idea among white supremacists in the United States that the national government is ZOG — Zionist Occupation Government — and that’s a shorthand way of saying that the national government is secretly controlled by an invisible Jewish cabal. So some of them will be amenable to very local government … they’ll embrace, and work with, and even try to seize control of the government at the county level. But generally, national politics are quite anametha for those two general reasons.
In the 1920s, synagogues were targeted by the KKK. Can you run through other examples of violence like this?
People will say the ’20s Klan was not as violent as other Klans. But that’s really because its violence took a different form. So there, the threat that the Klan manufactured was the threat of being swapped — all the positions of society being taken by the others — so immigrants, Catholics, Jews and so forth. So the violence was things like, for example, I studied deeply the state of Indiana where the Klan was very strong — pushing Catholics school teachers out of their jobs in public schools and getting them fired, running Jewish merchants out of town, creating boycott campaigns, whispering campaigns about somebody’s business that would cause it to collapse. So it’s a different kind of violence but it’s really targeted as expelling from the communities those who are different than the white, native-born Protestants who were the members of the Klan. So it takes different forms in different times. It’s not always the violence that we think about now, like shootings.
When did we start seeing the violence that we see today?
Well, the violence that we see today is not that dissimilar from the violence of the Klan in the ’50s and ’60s, where there was, kind of, the violence of terrorism. So there’s two kinds of violence in white supremacy.
- There’s the “go out and beat up people on the street” violence — that’s kind of the skinhead violence. And then there’s the sort of
- strategic violence. You know, the violence that’s really meant to send a message to a big audience, so that the message is dispersed and the victims are way beyond the people who are actually injured.
You see that in the ’50s, ’60s in the South, and you see it now.
I was wondering if we could kind of talk a little bit about the language we use when we talk about mass killings that are related to race, religion or ethnicity — especially about the second type of violence, “strategic violence,” that you describe. I’ve seen people use the phrase “domestic terrorism.” What do you make of that phrase?
Terrorism means violence that’s committed to further a political or ideological or social goal. By that definition, almost all white supremacist violence is domestic terrorism, because it’s trying to send a message, right? Then there’s that political issue about what should be legally considered domestic terrorism, and what should be considered terrorism. And that’s just an argument of politics, that’s not really an argument about definitions right now.
How these things get coded by states and federal governments is quite variable depending on who’s defining categories. But from the researcher point of view, these are terrorist acts because they are meant to send a message. That is the definition of terrorism. So it’s not just, you don’t bomb a synagogue or shoot people in a black church just because you’re trying to send a message to those victims or even to those victims and their immediate family. It’s meant to be a much broader message, and really that’s the definition of terrorism.
I think what we don’t want is for all acts of white supremacist violence to be thought of as just the product of somebody who has a troubled psyche. Because that just leaves out the whole picture of why they focus on certain social groups for one thing. [And] why they take this kind of mass horrific feature … so I think to really understand the tie between white supremacism and the acts of violence that come out of white supremacism, it’s important to think about that bigger message that was intended to be sent.
What are the most effective strategies to combat these ideas of white supremacy, or this violence?
I’d say the most effective strategy is to educate people about it, because it really thrives on being hidden and appearing to be something other than it is. I mean, millions of white supremacist groups have often targeted young people, and they do so often in a way that’s not clear to the young person that these are white supremacists, they appear to be just your friends and your new social life, like people on the edges who seem exciting. … And so helping people understand how white supremacists operate in high schools, and the military, and all kinds of sectors of society gives people the resources the understanding to not be pulled into those kinds of worlds.
But that argument can’t be applied to other countries targeted by Mr. Trump. Aaron Tornell, a Mexican-born economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that since the 1980s, Mexico has turned away from left-wing isolationism toward liberalized markets and closer cooperation with the U.S. on trade and security issues such as narcotics. Advocates in Mexico of this integration argued American presidents and big business would prevent the U.S. from using its enhanced leverage to punish Mexico.
Mr. Trump’s policies could “destroy the political foundations of a country that has been following liberal economic policies for the last 30 years and give more power to those who want to be like Venezuela,” Mr. Tornell said.
Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.
He’s crisscrossing Europe because he believes it’s a bellwether for the United States. The scary thing is he could be right.
MILAN — Italy is a political laboratory. During the Cold War, the question was whether the United States could keep the Communists from power. Then Italy produced Silvio Berlusconi and scandal-ridden showman politics long before the United States elected Donald Trump. Now, on the eve of European Parliament elections likely to result in a rightist lurch, it has an anti-immigrant, populist government whose strongman, Matteo Salvini, known to his followers as “the Captain,” is the Continent’s most seductive exponent of the new illiberalism.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, has been close to Salvini for a while. That’s no surprise. Bannon is the foremost theorist and propagator of the global nationalist, anti-establishment backlash. He’s Trotsky to the Populist International. He sensed the disease eating at Western democracies — a globalized elite’s abandonment of the working class and the hinterland — before anyone. He spurred a revolt to make the invisible citizen visible and to save Western manufacturing jobs from what he calls the Chinese “totalitarian economic hegemon.”
Now Bannon is crisscrossing Europe ahead of the elections, held Thursday through next Sunday. He’s in Berlin one day, Paris the next. As he explained during several recent conversations and a meeting in New York, he believes that “Europe is six months to a year ahead of the United States on everything.” As with Brexit’s foreshadowing of Trump’s election, a victory for the right in Europe “will energize our base for 2020.” The notion of Wisconsin galvanized by Brussels may seem far-fetched, but then so did a President Trump.
Polls indicate that Salvini’s League party, transformed from a northern secessionist movement into the national face of the xenophobic right, will get over 30 percent of the Italian vote, up from 6.2 percent in 2014. Anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic parties look set to make the greatest gains, taking as many as 35 percent of the seats in Parliament, which influences European Union policy for more than a half-billion people. In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalists are running neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-Europe party. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party has leapt ahead of the center-right and center-left.
Salvini, whose party formed a government a year ago with the out-with-the-old-order Five Star Movement, is a central figure in this shift. The coalition buried mainstream parties. He is, Bannon told me, “the most important guy on the stage right now — he’s charismatic, plain-spoken, and he understands the machinery of government. His rallies are as intense as Trump’s. Italy is the center of politics — a country that has embraced nationalism against globalism, shattered the stereotypes, blown past the old paradigm of left and right.”
For all the upheaval, I found Italy intact, still tempering transactional modernity with humanity, still finding in beauty consolation for dysfunction. The new right has learned from the past. It does not disappear people. It does not do mass militarization. It’s subtler.
- It scapegoats migrants,
- instills fear,
- glorifies an illusory past (what the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “retrotopia”),
- exalts machismo,
- mocks do-gooder liberalism and
- turns the angry drumbeat of social media into its hypnotic minute-by-minute mass rally.
Salvini, the suave savior, is everywhere other than in his interior minister’s office at Rome’s Viminale Palace. He’s out at rallies or at the local cafe in his trademark blue “Italia” sweatshirt. He’s at village fairs and conventions. He’s posting on Facebook up to 30 times a day to his 3.7 million followers, more than any other European politician. (Macron has 2.6 million followers.) He’s burnishing the profile of the tough young pol (he’s 46) who
- keeps migrants out,
- loosens gun laws,
- brandishes a sniper rifle and
- winks at Fascism —
all leavened with Mr.-Nice-Guy images of him sipping espresso or a Barolo.
His domination of the headlines is relentless. When, during my visit, a woman was gang raped near Viterbo, his call for “chemical castration” of the perpetrators led the news cycle for 24 hours. Like Trump, he’s a master of saying the unsayable to drown out the rest.
“I find Salvini repugnant, but he seems to have an incredible grip on society,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, told me. No wonder then that the European far-right has chosen Milan for its big pre-election rally, bringing together Salvini, Le Pen, Jörg Meuthen of the Alternative for Germany party and many other rightist figures.
A nationalist tide is still rising. “We need to mobilize,” Bannon told me. “This is not an era of persuasion, it’s an era of mobilization. People now move in tribes. Persuasion is highly overrated.”
Bannon gives the impression of a man trying vainly to keep up with the intergalactic speed of his thoughts. Ideas cascade. He offered me a snap dissection of American politics: blue-collar families were suckers: their sons and daughters went off to die in unwon wars; their equity evaporated with the 2008 meltdown, destroyed by “financial weapons of mass destruction”; their jobs migrated to China. All that was needed was somebody to adopt a new vernacular, say to heck with all that, and promise to stop “unlimited illegal immigration” and restore American greatness. His name was Trump. The rest is history.
In Europe, Bannon said, the backlash brew included several of these same factors. The “centralized government of Europe” and its austerity measures, uncontrolled immigration and the sense of people in the provinces that they were “disposable” produced the Salvini phenomenon and its look-alikes across the Continent.
“In Macron’s vision of a United States of Europe, Italy is South Carolina to France’s North Carolina,” Bannon told me. “But Italy wants to be Italy. It does not want to be South Carolina. The European Union has to be a union of nations.”
The fact is Italy is Italy, unmistakably so, with its high unemployment, stagnation, archaic public administration and chasm between the prosperous north (which Salvini’s League once wanted to turn into a secessionist state called Padania) and the southern Mezzogiorno. Salvini’s coalition has done nothing to solve these problems even as it has
- demonized immigrants,
- attacked an independent judiciary and
- extolled an “Italians first” nation.
A federal Europe remains a chimera, even if the euro crisis revealed the need for budgetary integration. Bannon’s vision of Brussels bureaucrats devouring national identity for breakfast is largely a straw-man argument, useful for making the European Union the focus of all 21st-century angst.
The union has delivered peace and stability. It’s the great miracle of the second half of the 20th century; no miracle ever marketed itself so badly. It has also suffered from ideological exhaustion, remoteness, division and the failure to agree on an effective shared immigration policy — opening the way for Salvini’s salvos to hit home in a country that is the first stop for many African migrants.
Salvini grew up in Milan in a middle-class family, dropped out of university, joined the League in its early days in the 1990s and was shaped by years working at Radio Padania where he would listen to Italians’ gripes. “What he heard was complaints about immigrants, Europe, the rich,” Emanuele Fiano, a center-left parliamentarian, told me. “He’s run with that and is now borderline dangerous.”
The danger is not exit from the European Union — the government has come to its senses over that — or some Fascist reincarnation. It’s what Fabrizio Barca, a former minister for territorial cohesion, called the “Orbanization of the country,” in a reference to Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader. In other words, insidious domination through the evisceration of independent checks and balances, leading Salvini to the kind of stranglehold on power enjoyed by Orban (with a pat on the back from Trump) or by Vladimir Putin. “The European Union has been ineffective against Orban,” Barca noted. Worse, it has been feckless.
Another threat, as in Trump’s United States, is of moral collapse. “I am not a Fascist but. …” is a phrase increasingly heard in Italy, with some positive judgment on Mussolini to round off the sentence. Salvini, in the judgment of Claudio Gatti, whose book “The Demons of Salvini” was just published in Italian, is “post-Fascist” — he refines many of its methods for a 21st-century audience.
Barca told me the abandonment of rural areas — the closing of small hospitals, marginal train lines, high schools — lay behind Salvini’s rise. Almost 65 percent of Italian land and perhaps 25 percent of its population have been affected by these cuts. “Rural areas and the peripheries, the places where people feel like nobody, are home to the League and Five Star,” he said. To the people there, Salvini declares: I will defend you. He does not offer a dream. He offers protection — mainly against the concocted threat of migrants, whose numbers were in fact plummeting before he took office because of an agreement reached with Libya.
The great task before the parties of the center-left and center-right that will most likely be battered in this election is to reconnect. They must restore a sense of recognition to the forgotten of globalization. Pedro Sánchez, the socialist Spanish prime minister, just won an important electoral victory after pushing through a 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, the largest in Spain in 40 years. There’s a lesson there. The nationalist backlash is powerful, but pro-European liberal sentiment is still stronger. If European elections feel more important, it’s also because European identity is growing.
As for the curiously prescient Italian political laboratory, Bannon is investing in it. He’s established an “Academy for the Judeo-Christian West” in a 13th-century monastery outside Rome. Its courses, he told me, will include “history, aesthetics and just plain instruction in how to get stuff done, including facing up to pressure, mock TV interviews with someone from CNN or The Guardian ripping your face off.”
Bannon described himself as an admirer of George Soros — “his methods, not his ideology” — and the way Soros had built up “cadres” throughout Europe. The monastery is the nationalist response to Soros’s liberalism. There’s a war of ideas going on in Italy and the United States. To shun the fight is to lose it. I am firmly in the liberal camp, but to win it helps to know and strive to understand one’s adversary.