False flag”, one user raged on the neo-Nazi online forum Stormfront, as Malik Faisal Akram began his assault on a synagogue in Texas, “so Jews can get 6 million of anti-hate laws passed”. Another disagreed: “I’m disappointed”, he posted, that the attacker “was not a Christian”. “Attacks on houses of worship”, another added, “are not nearly as effective as attacks on ‘holocaust’ [sic.] museums, monuments, and memorials”.
“It only makes the enemy exponentially more powerful when a White Nationalist cracks”, a user pushed back. “It’s coming”, someone responded.
Last week, the United States House of Representatives committee investigating the January 2021 bid to storm the Capitol in Washington issued summons to white nationalist leaders Nicholas Fuentes and Patrick Casey. The questioning of the two leaders, the committee hopes, will shed light on the role of far-Right groups in planning and funding the bid to overthrow the election of President Joseph Biden.
The investigation has underlined growing concern over the influence—and lethality—of American white nationalist groups, energised by President Donald Trump’s campaign to retake the White House.
Growing numbers of experts have been thinking the unthinkable: could American democracy unravel?
Growing white-nationalist violence
For years now, experts have been warning that the principal terrorist threat to the United States comes from white nationalists. From 2009—the year Barack Obama became president—attacks by white nationalists began escalating, data compiled by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies show. Fifty-seven per cent of all attacks from 1994 to 2020, the CSIS figures show, were perpetrated by the white Right-wing; 15 per cent by jihadists.
Last year, the United States’ defence department warned that white nationalist groups were actively infiltrating the military, “for the purpose of acquiring combat and tactical experience”. In 2020 alone, the Federal Bureau of Investigations opened 68 criminal investigations related to terrorism involving current or former service personnel.
Ever since the violent Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, organisations like The Base, National Socialist Order and the Feuerkrieg Division have engaged in violent street battles. Black churches, mosques, synagogues, abortion clinics, and government offices have been bombed; individual targets have included the ethnic and religious minorities. In some cases, these far-Right formations have even plotted the assassination plots of high officials.
In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security warned it was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks.”
The storming of the Capitol last year was, thus, part of an escalating trend of violence that has run for years—and gained strength from President Trump’s unconcealed endorsement of white nationalist causes. For the United States’ security services, white nationalism is emerging as the top concern.
The story of American Fascism
Fascism is almost as American as apple pie. Nazism, scholar William Bernard noted in a 1938 paper, was “not a European monopoly”. Its American variants had repeatedly reemerged at times of crisis like high unemployment or rapid cultural change, Bernard pointed out, targeting “the Jew, the alien, the Negro, the Oriental, the foreign radical”. “Lurking in the background”, he concluded, “it is a real and present threat”.
Trump’s own ‘America First’ slogan was invented by the millionaire aviator Charles Lindbergh. In a 1939 essay, Lindbergh had argued against United States involvement in the Second World War, claiming it “will destroy the treasures of the White Race”. He called on Americans to “guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies, and dilution by foreign races”.
Like the self-proclaimed insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol, white nationalists have long sought to replace the country’s constitutional order with a theocratic regime.
Pro-segregation politician George Wallace argued, in 1961, that the United States was ruled by “a basically ungodly government and its appeal to the pseudo-intellectual and the political is to change their status from servant of the people to master of the people, to play at being God”.
America’s messianic impulses
Like Islamism, Hindutva and other kinds of religious nationalism, scholars Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead have argued, America’s Right is driven by messianic impulses. Largely forgotten—unless we look back at countless photos and footage of the violence—are the Christian banners and flags, the wooden crosses, the impromptu praise and worship sessions, the “Jesus Saves” signs, the Christian t-shirts”.
To participants in white nationalist causes—including those involved in the Capitol Hill storming—evangelical Christianity appears to provide a moral compass, legitimising their violence as service of god.
Ideologies like these, historians know, flourish in time of social crisis. Economists Christopher Kurz, Geng Li, and Daniel Vine have shown that millennials, the generation born between 1981–1996, have “lower incomes than members of earlier generations at comparable ages”. Their levels of debt are also higher. These are the first generation of Americans in a century who may not be more prosperous than their parents.
In addition, the United States is in the throes of a complex demographic transition. Inside a generation, white Americans will be merely the largest of a complex mosaic of ethnic minorities, a shift which will challenge entrenched racial privilege in some regions.
The good news for America, as multiple opinion polls have established, is that bigoted views on race and religion are in long-term decline. The country is more plural, culturally, than at any time in its history. The events of 6 January 2021 could well lead more Americans to carefully think about the need to insulate politics from religious extremism, marginalise divisive voices, and resist seduction by politicians stoking ethnic tensions.
Yet, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be good. The shock of Covid 19—both economic and cultural—has strengthened the maniacal conspiracy culture with which the American Right is suffused. Polls suggest white nationalist Americans are entrenching themselves in closed ideological communities, which could become epicentres for future violence.
As Trump prepares the ground for his reelection bid, he understands that the hard Right-wing is critical to his prospects. “Pro-Trump Republicans”, the Southern Poverty Law Centre recently noted, now “appear more willing to ally themselves with hateful ideologues or give voice to bigoted views”.
“The extreme far-Right margins of the political spectrum broke into the mainstream of the Republican Party when Trump first ran for president, and January 6 appears to have pushed that trend further along”.
“America was lucky that its first modern autocratic president was neither smart nor politically experienced,” scholar Barbara Walter has noted in a new book on the origins of civil wars. “Other ambitious, more effective Republicans–Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley–have taken note and will seek to do better.”
Is it conceivable, then, that American democracy comes apart? The existence of a powerful opposition, and strong institutions, make that profoundly unlikely. The prospect of a long, violent struggle for America’s soul, though, appears inevitable.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)