That Donald Trump has been repeatedly pressed to condemn white supremacy should be indicative enough of where his sympathies lie. Following the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi murdered protester Heather Heyer with his car and six men brutally beat a Black man, Trump infamously argued there were “very fine people on both sides” of the violent rally. Last fall, one of the Trump administration’s top officials was caught espousing white-supremacist ideologies in a trove of leaked emails. Though the white-power movement long predates the Trump administration, the far-right has latched onto the president’s xenophobic, racist rhetoric, and experts say these groups are more emboldened than ever to incite violence.
Most recently, Trump once again refused to disavow white supremacy at the last presidential debate — instead telling the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group that the FBI categorizes as “extremist,” to “stand back and stand by.” The Proud Boys responded enthusiastically, triumphantly sharing the president’s command on social media, adding to fears that far-right and militia groups will patrol polling sites to intimidate voters and grow increasingly violent leading up to — and even after — the election.
When Kathleen Belew, an assistant history professor at the University of Chicago, heard the remark, she found it “catastrophic” — even if the president did, as he and some others have argued, misspeak. For years, she has combed through government surveillance and right-wing ephemera in her study of the white-power movement’s history, which she outlined in her 2018 book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. “It would be a mistake to think that just the Proud Boys have been emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric — an alliance of armed groups heard his message,” she told the Cut. When asked if white supremacists have ever received such a dangerous green light to incite violence, without missing a beat, she replied, “No.”
While Belew doesn’t want to be an alarmist, she thinks it would be dangerous to downplay the serious threat the far-right poses to U.S. society. In our interview, we covered everything you probably want to know right now: why there’s still so much public misunderstanding around the white-power movement, what to expect around the election, and how we can gear up for the long fight.
Let’s start by defining the terms. People often use “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” interchangeably — is there a meaningful difference? And where does the white-power movement fit in all of this?
The distinctions are important. White supremacy is a big and complex web of different things, which includes things like individual racist beliefs. But it also touches things like the legal system, the incarceration system, and the health-care systems — all of the systems that return unequal outcomes based on race. So, for instance, if you look at incarceration or maternal health care or infant mortality — any place where we have significant racial disparity — that is due to the effects of white supremacy. White supremacy isn’t necessarily just about people who identify as overt racists.
Now within this big group of white supremacy, there is a much smaller subsection of people who are openly white supremacist, meaning they identify as racist. And then, there’s an even smaller fringe of people who believe that they have to do violence to protect the white race. That little sliver is the white-power movement. When we say the white-power movement, we’re talking specifically about a social movement that emerged in the late 1970s and includes a whole bunch of different kinds of activists: the Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads, some parts of the militia movement, and violent actors who have been misunderstood as “lone wolves,” but who are actually connected to this movement.
What about “white nationalist”?
I actually don’t like the phrase white nationalist because when people hear it, they think of overzealous patriotism. But actually, since the 1980s, the “nation” in white nationalism has not referred to the United States, but instead the “Aryan nation.” So white nationalism refers to part of the white-power movement that is interested in creating a white ethnostate. But it is a fundamentally anti-democratic kind of activism that disagrees with the idea that the United States is a democracy that should include everyone, and instead posits that only white people are citizens.
The white-power movement may have been invigorated under Trump, but it’s not anything new — in your book, you trace the movement’s loose conception to the period following the Vietnam War. Yet there’s still so much public misunderstanding around it. How has domestic terrorism successfully flown under the radar of so many Americans for so long?
Since 1983, the white-power movement has been using a strategy called “leaderless resistance.” The idea is that one or a few activists can attack without orders from movement leadership.
The legacy of that strategy is that the whole movement has disappeared from our collective understanding. Instead of stories about a white-power shooting, we mostly hear about “lone wolf” shootings; we think of the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand as a work of anti-Muslim violence, the El Paso shooting as a work of anti-immigrant violence, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting as a work of anti-Semitic violence. Now those shootings are all those things — but they’re also all perpetrated by white-power activists who are affiliated with the same ideology. Now, we have another way of thinking about those events, which I think calls for a different kind of public response. We cannot think of them as unconnected tragic events, but as part of a rising tide of activity.
How does this moment compare to others in history of the white-power movement?
What we see over the long arc of American history is that this kind of activity ebbs and flows. One of the really interesting surprises I’ve found in my work is that those ebbs and flows align more coherently with the aftermath of warfare than they do with any other big historical factors — more than rising immigration or moments of civil-rights gains. One big logical question is whether veterans are having this huge impact on the movement. But the bigger thing is that all of us become more violent in the aftermath of warfare. That phenomenon has been documented across gender, ages, and whether or not you served.
Right now, we’re in a completely novel kind of aftermath of warfare. I mean, my undergraduates don’t remember a time when we were not at war. The aftermath has been prolonged, and is also very segmented into particular parts of society, such that many of us can go about our lives and not even think about the wars. But the aftermath is still here.
Let’s go back to Trump’s “stand back and stand by” remark, which you called “catastrophic” on Twitter. Could you elaborate on why that was so alarming?
I don’t want to be alarmist, but I think this is an appropriate moment to sound the alarm. These groups don’t need a big signal to get emboldened to commit violence. In the past, something as simple as a decisive court victory or a coded piece of rhetoric have set off waves of violence. And this was not that — this was a loud, loud statement. Even if Trump misspoke or didn’t intend it the way it’s been interpreted, there will be people who heard it that way. The net result is that there’s been a call to arms.
Has the white-power movement ever been given a green light of this nature?
No. We’re in a moment of unprecedented historical context, in all different ways. There’s also more stressors on these people who are interested in violent action — they’re also impacted by stress about the pandemic, the economy, the election. It doesn’t take that much to tip radicalized people into violent actions. A call that loud from Trump is just deeply, deeply concerning. There will be people who are looking at this as a convenient opportunity to create the most chaos they can because they heard Trump’s remark as an indication that they will not be prosecuted fully if they are to carry out violence right now. People that monitor these groups are sounding the alarm.
What kind of violence do you predict we’ll see? And will it differ under a Trump versus Biden win?
Historians notoriously don’t like to predict anything, but I will say that I don’t see any outcome of the election in which these activists will quietly put away their weapons and go home. I think that if Trump wins, they will increasingly see themselves as an unofficial arm of the state, which is very concerning for the well-being of civilian protesters everywhere. I think that if Biden wins, they are likely to resist, which is dangerous in a different way.
Fears have arisen that white supremacists will try to intimidate people at polling sites in the coming election. Is there anything we can do?
First of all, let me just say, please vote. Vote right now. But regarding intimidation, I think it’s worth asking yourself, Do I know someone who’s afraid to vote because of this? If so, you could walk that person to the polls. Maybe think about people on your block who might want you to accompany them to the polling place to ensure they’re safe. And once you’re at the polls, if you see intimidation, report it. If you see white-power activity in your area, take pictures — especially of insignia — and send it to the FBI and/or the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But one of the most important things you can do — and I know it sounds simple — is to pay attention. Keep following this story. Don’t let this go. Then, the work is to connect these stories. So you have to read Trump’s Proud Boy remark as attached to the stories about Boogaloos, and about the militia groups, and then the incidents of violence carried out by “lone wolves.” For readers to understand that these stories are connected would be a huge, huge instrument that people could then use against the movement.
Clearly, this is not a movement that’s going to disband easily or overnight. What do you think is the most effective way to fight back in the long term?
We need a revision of what we think of as domestic terrorism. We need changes in how we report this kind of violence. We need changes about how we think it, talk about it. We need resources for teachers and librarians who are seeing their students radicalized. We need places parents can call if they think their kid is on these right-wing forums, because for most parents, their first call is going to be to the FBI — that’s not a tenable solution.
So much of this falls into the realm of education. Is there anything more immediate that people can do?
You can make known to your elected officials that you want them to care about domestic terrorism. When you hear the phrase “lone wolf” in conversations about the right wing, push back. We need legislative change; for instance, classifying right-wing violence as terrorism would make a difference in how it gets prosecuted. But honestly, I think the big thing is about just reading and paying attention. This movement doesn’t want us to understand what it is. And I believe that going out of your way to understand — and then continuing to pay attention — will make a difference.