C. Richard King — an expert on white power movements — answered questions from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the wake of the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
What can you tell us about the far-right extremism we all witnessed in Charlottesville this August?
The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of extremism on the far right, intensified by political and economic shifts, growing anxieties around immigration and terrorism, the election of our country’s first black president, a changing media landscape, rising racial tensions, and worries in some quarters about the decline of “white America.”
The far-right movement is increasingly diverse. Of course, the Ku Klux Klan remains an active force, as do Neo-Nazi and racist skinhead organizations. Equally important in this moment are neo-Confederate, Christian identity, white nationalist, and anti-Muslim groups. These groups espouse divergent and even competing visions of the world. Some are openly racist and antisemitic, while others speak in more coded ways. Some cast themselves as patriotic, while others oppose the government. One can find anti-capitalist, anti-communist, fascist, nostalgic, anti-globalist, utopian, libertarian, identitarian, and dystopian sentiments in the positions taken by these groups.
Despite their diversity, these groups do share certain core values and ideas. They are generally uneasy about and resistant to change. They picture themselves as victims in a hostile world intent to destroy them, with some speaking of an ongoing genocide or an impending race war. Many see conspiracies (typically associated with Jews) directed against them. Although hatred is central to everything they do, particularly when they address immigration, multiculturalism, and race mixing, they anchor their political projects around whites and whiteness. Increasingly, they articulate their positions in ethno-nationalist terms, including some calls for a separate white nation. That said, while the key to their worldviews, race is not their only concern. They regularly connect their goals to gender, sexuality, and religion.
Did you see anything new in the actions taken by extremist groups in Charlottesville?
One trend that we have seen over the past 12–18 months that may have reached a new high in Charlottesville was the boldness and openness of the various far-right elements. Instead of masking themselves in hoods and robes, they proudly paraded in a manner unthinkable certainly since World War II in the United States, and unseen really since the 1920s. Moreover, the pleasure and pride with which they voiced their racial intolerance, raged against Jews and others, and called for an ethno-state was really quite remarkable. Only a few years ago, much of this would have occurred in the shadows or online, under the cover of anonymity. Finally, explicit expressions of hate joined and even replaced the more common code words that have been used to make the movement more approachable and acceptable.
What are the links between today’s neo-Nazis and Germany’s Nazis of the 1920s–40s?
While racism is very much at the core of the American experience and white supremacist ideas played a role in social and economic life in the United States long before the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the existence and expression of white supremacy today owes much to the German example. Many of those who are involved with current forms of white power in the United States study Nazism, talking often and openly about it in online spaces. They normalize Nazism, alternately taking pleasure in or denying the effects it had.
American neo-Nazis take ideas, imagery, and, in some cases, even an organizational structure from the original German movement. Other racist extremists have borrowed symbols and language, perhaps most infamously the swastika, from the Nazis. Still others share the Nazis’ goal of a white ethno-state mirroring the model pursued in Germany at the time. The introduction of Nazism re-energized white supremacy movements, providing them with language, stories, and targets not always at the forefront of homegrown hate. In particular, the antisemitism so common among extremists today bears a striking resemblance to that expressed in Nazism.
In some ways, the link to the Nazis of the past is a major burden, not a benefit, to white supremacists and far-right activists. They have had their greatest recent successes when they have broken in appearance and name from the Nazis.
Can Holocaust education play a role in countering these groups?
Yes. Education is key to efforts to combat extremism and nurture tolerance. On the one hand, learning more about these movements, their ideologies, and their goals exposes them to be dangerous not only to those they target but to our shared values and communities. On the other hand, as we learn more about the history of intolerance and extremism, we learn about the roots of ethnic conflict and genocide, the motivations of perpetrators, and the ways individuals have refused to let these forces prevail.
The Holocaust has some of the most important lessons to teach about xenophobia, intolerance and extremism: how they become normalized, how they talk about and target groups identified as threats, how they use populism to grab power, how they plan and implement campaigns of violence, how they justify and pursue genocide, and how humanity survives, resists, and overcomes such terrifying dehumanization.
The Holocaust reminds us that everyone makes a difference — that everyday people make choices to participate in extremist movements and to execute their racist and often violent agendas, and that everyday people make choices to stand for justice, inclusion, and humanity. Indeed, this is a moment when the actions of everyday people will make a real difference, which is why it especially important for everyone to educate themselves, get involved in their communities, and take actions to promote inclusion, understanding, and equality.
C. Richard King, a professor at Washington State University, has attended the Curt C. and Else Silberman Seminar for Faculty at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He also has conducted research at Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies for his book Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture (2014, with David J. Leonard). His course on antisemitism will be offered for the first time in Spring 2018. In October, King will present “Misusing the Suffering of Others: The Politics of Remembering the Holocaust and the American Indian Experience” at symposium organized by the Mandel Center and Humboldt State University in California.