In 1868, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast published a cartoon satirizing popular political claims that “This is a White Man’s Government.” That year, Horatio Seymour and Francis Blair ignored Nast’s biting humor and headed the Democratic Party ticket for the presidency and vice presidency with the slogan: “This is a white Man’s Country; Let White Men Rule.”
In 1868, white supremacy was mainstream. Most Americans like to think we’ve made progress since then. Surely the racism that informed late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century white supremacy is a relic of a dark and preferably forgotten chapter in American history.
But is it? In the wake of the Electoral College conforming Donald Trump’s victory in November’s general election, are we about to see a White House sympathetic to the cause of white nationalism? Are we in the midst of a white nationalist counterrevolution that’s once again going mainstream?
In the month after Donald J. Trump’s election victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported over 1,000 cases of hate crimes. Such data seems shocking. However, racially motivated hate crimes have been on the rise since Obama was first elected to the Oval Office. In the two-weeks after Obama’s 2008 election victory, an estimated 200 hate crimes were committed throughout the country. They’ve continued to increase ever since.
The warning signs of an upward trajectory in hate crimes became clear less than a year after Obama entered the White House. In June 2009, for example, anti-Semitism attracted news coverage after an 88 year-old gunman with a long history of anti-government sentiment opened fire on patrons at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic hate crimes are not new to American history. In fact they have a long and sordid history. But in the post-9/11 world in which Islamaphobia joined anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitism as common features of America’s racial landscape, Obama’s 2008 election victory appears to have given the modern white nationalist counterrevolution renewed clarity and focus.
The brand of white nationalism currently gripping American political and popular culture builds on a long tradition of bigotry, intolerance, and a hatred of “leftist” politics. With conservative media outlets and internet-hate groups fanning the flames of bigotry and intolerance, old hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and Council of Conservative Citizens have received a new lease on life. Newer, decentralized political movements, such as the “Tea Party,” have also been energized by the current white nationalist counterrevolution, as have a panoply of racist groups on the so-called alt-right.
This disparate collection of bigots, racist, and conspiracy theorists have found common cause in opposing Obama’s presidency and leveling racist barbs at First Lady Michelle Obama – referred to by one West Virginia official as an “ape in heels.”
Racial prejudice is not a relic of American history; it’s alive and thriving in twenty-first century America. Amid the smokescreens of anti-government, anti-tax, and pro-gun rights America, the racial animus that fuels the current white nationalist counterrevolution gains strength from the white supremacist traditions of the past as it is re-encoded in American political culture in new and subtle ways.
Obama’s presidency, initially celebrated as a victory for post-racialism and a colorblind future, has therefore exposed the racial fault lines that continue to shape American society. Still, if we think back to 2007 and 2008 it’s easy to see why so many Americans were optimistic about a post-racial future. In the year prior to Obama’s 2008 victory, racially motivated hate crimes were reportedly declining.
So what accounts for the reemergence of white nationalism?
For those who monitored such issues between 2008 and 2016 the answer to that question seemed pretty clear. A growing number of white Americans felt that they were losing their country. As black Americans appeared to advance politically, socially, and economically, millions of whites felt they were being forced to give up the socioeconomic privileges that they and their forebears took for granted.
The belief that white Americans lose when black Americans advance is as old as the republic. In the early nineteenth century, the recurring nightmare of Southern slaveholders was that enslaved people would rise up and impose “black rule” over whites. This is something that millions of white Southerners felt actually happened during the era of Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1877).
As Congress debated the nature of Reconstruction policy in 1865 and 1866, President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor in the White House, opposed any legislative effort to aid African Americans at the expense of white farmers and the working class. In opposing legislation that ultimately led to the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency designed to assist African Americans transition from slavery to freedom, Johnson criticized the law as creating “an immense patronage” – a nineteenth-century phrase that roughly correlates to modern complaints about affirmative action programs that benefits racial minorities and amount to “reverse discrimination” against whites.
In other words, at moments when Americans have had an opportunity to adopt progressive reforms that will make the republic more democratic, racial animus has reared its ugly head. A California voter captured this sentiment in 1862 when he complained, “It is ‘nigger’ in the Hall of Congress, ‘nigger’ in the camps of our armies, ‘nigger’ in the legislature of California, ‘nigger’ everywhere. The everlasting nigger permeates the whole atmosphere of the entire country.”
This type of crude racist language can be found all over the internet today. While some on the alt-right insist that “race is real,” most Americans who harbor such sentiments find subtler, more coded ways to expresses feelings of racial animus or racialized anxieties.
Take, for example, a 46 year-old white man from Georgia, who in November 2008 told a reporter from the Associated Press that “I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change.”
This sense of loss is galling to Americans who share this gentleman’s perspective. What makes this sense of loss all the more difficult to stomach is the belief that a generation of intellectual and political elites have force-fed “political correctness” to unwilling citizens. Such Americans have had enough. Indeed, Obama’s presidency did not usher in an era of post-racialism as millions hoped; it provided the hateful platform from which Donald Trump could rise to the presidency.
Trump’s victory in November’s general election was forged on the back of anti-immigrant, racially charged, and misogynistic rhetoric that tapped into a rich vein of white racial resentment. Too often I’ve listened to, and the news media has reported on, white Americans complaining about immigrants taking “our” jobs, Native Americans getting “free money” to attend college and African Americans being the undeserving beneficiaries of affirmative action programs – something millions of whites lambast as “reverse discrimination”.
These perceptions are not new. But what’s important to note is that the stagnation in wages that has characterized the US economy since the 1970s has coincided with the rise of modern forms of globalization. With structural changes in the global economy undermining the quality of life for millions of white Americans, many began to take their frustrations out not only on the neo-liberal architects of globalization, but on public officials foisting an un-American, politically correct cultural agenda on unsympathetic citizens.
No longer shall these neglected and abused white Americans remain silent. 2016 was their year; it was a year that bore witness to a right-wing populist tidal wave that shows no signs of receding.
Social media and fake news has rebooted white nationalism, providing a language and online visibility to ideas about race, gender, and sexuality that help millions of Americans articulate their grievances. So-called news organizations such as The Daily Stormer and Brietbart News have used the internet to move white nationalist populism far to the right of Fox News by peddling a hodge-podge of sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic propaganda. All of this has been given the veneer of professionalism by the rise of groups like the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist “think tank” led by Richard Spencer, the man who takes credit for coining the term alt-right
While the means of communication are more insidiously immediate, the content driving this current rebooting of white nationalism is not particularly new. Examples of white nationalism can be found in the early decades of the American republic, during the era of Civil War and Reconstruction, and throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The last time white nationalists organized a large-scale misinformation war in response to perceived challenges to their socioeconomic and cultural privileges was during the height of the Cold War during the 1950s and 1960s.
During those decades, the civil rights movement was gathering momentum as African Americans challenged Jim Crow segregation in every facet of life. No threat was as grave and as personally felt to millions of Americas as school desegregation. In this issue, opponents of school desegregation saw an example of an authoritarian federal government telling individuals what to do, and, more disturbingly, a slippery slope to a one-world government that policed vast populations of mixed-race “mongrels.”
The Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), sparked a vicious racial backlash in many parts of America. In the South, the Association of Citizens Council in Mississippi, a white supremacist organization, viewed the Brown decision as an example of an activist court sacrificing the white race “to appease the black minority and left-wing groups.”
Supreme Court activism – coded language designed to mask the racism behind opposition to school desegregation – galvanized white supremacists. According to the author of a 1954 pamphlet entitled Reds Promote Racial War, the growing assault on innocent, law-abiding white Americans was the work of “Communist and liberals.” In league with black civil rights leaders, the pamphleteer claimed that communists and liberals were playing “the race card,” with their ultimate goal being the destruction of the white race.
During the late twentieth century, invoking “the race card” became a type of shorthand that white Americans used to express their suspicion about how “political correctness” inhibited their ability to make a living based on their merits, while also suppressing both their speech and their ability to take pride in their white heritage.
In its modern form, this rhetoric began to crystalize in the 1950s. Take the example of the white supremacist R.W. Reeve. In a speech entitled “Aryan Youth: What Will You Do With Our Future?” Reeve insisted that a cabal of political and intellectual elites worked to oppress white people. While this elite claimed to act on “humanitarian” intentions, Reeve cautioned that their true intention was to “make a superior people out” inferior races.
Reeve was not alone in expressing such views. A cadre of white nationalist propagandist insisted that “communist, liberals, Jews, foreigners, and homosexuals” worked secretively to undermine American freedom and liberty.
This is a message that the alt-right peddles today; and just as the propagandists of the alt-right insist they’re not racist, so too did their intellectual forebears of the 1950s and 1960s insist they were merely freedom loving Americans. Henry Sweet, a writer of white nationalist propaganda, wrote in his 1954 book, Where is America Headed, “I am no bigot,” but “I am so tired of seeing out people, and especially the young, being brain-washed by those who distort great social issues in the name of brotherhood.”
In the context of the Cold War, white nationalists interpreted the language of “brotherhood” and “equality” as code for a communistic program of socioeconomic redistribution and assault on their racial prerogative whites to define America on their terms. They also viewed these terms as a sinister attempt to overthrow the individual freedoms that defined the United States. Such conspiracy theories found their clearest expression in opposition to international organizations and alliances. The United Nations and transnational alliances like NATO were perceived as threat to a white nationalist understanding of the American republic. One clever pamphleteer referred to this international conspiracy as “CommUNism.”
In this context, a nostalgic undercurrent punctuated the rhetoric of white supremacists in the 1950s and 1960s, just as it shapes the political rhetoric of millions on the right today. During the Cold War, some, such as the author of The Negro… Animal or Human, longed for a simpler time and urged people to question progressive politicians and intellectuals who foisted racial equality and the “false theory” of evolution on unsuspecting Americans.
Others, such as the businessman and segregationist Carleton Putnam, argued for a return to the traditions enshrined in the Constitution. In 1964 Putnam responded to civil rights legislation by declaring that “never before has the Constitution of the United States been thought to require integration.” To argue otherwise was to allow those obsessed with “left-wing philosophies” to hijack the republic.
In 2016, the president-elect, himself a businessman, campaigned on a slogan of “Make America Great Again,” a slogan that evoked in many of his supporters a longing for the simpler times of the 1950s. When those simpler times didn’t come back, and the civil rights movement and the urban violence of the late 1960s and early 1970s seemed to be changing America in ways white Americans felt uncomfortable with, millions fled the urban centers in preference for gated communities in the suburbs and ex-burbs.
But just as millions of Americans celebrated the possibility of a post-racial future, just as many Americans felt they were choking on a form of political correctness that distorted the founding father’s vision for the republic.
Perhaps this is why the president-elect, not unlike his populist forebears, sometimes reaches farther back into historical mythology. In continually complaining about the United States being “too politically correct” Mr. Trump echoes the racial conspiracy theories that have long existed in American society. His insistence on interpreting the Constitution “the way the founders wanted it interpreted”, therefore has echoes of the white nationalism of the 1950s that gives an overtly racist message the imprimatur of the founding fathers.
In this moment of intense anti-intellectualism in which “common sense” acts as a foil for the expression of all forms of bigotry and hatred for “liberal ideas“, the United States stands at a crossroads. If this country’s history of racism and misogyny is to be shrugged off as merely an example of the political correctness of intellectuals and political elites then the republic’s future looks very grim indeed.
Gregory D. Smithers is a professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Cherokee Diaspora: an Indigenous History of Identity and Migration.