Description

The prompt is: How are white nationalist and right-wing populist organizations influencing and influenced by right wing politics, public discourse and media? 
These are the readings that must be incorporated and cited:
1) White Nationalism and Publicness in the United States by Hector Amaya 
2) Engendering White Nationalism by Jeff Maskovsky
3) Conspiracies, Ideological Entrepreneurs, and Digitial Popular Culture by Aaron Hyzen and Hilde Van den Bulck 
4) Red Pills, White Genocide, and “The Great Replacement”: Rewriting History, and Constructing White Victimhood in/through Far-Right Extremist Manifestos and Texts ( I wasn’t able to upload this article because the file is too big)
5) The film: “United States of Conspiracy” directed by Michael Kirk must be incorporated and cited as well. 

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1zLazPoGnnzNVG_rg3vbJyPBdIlKz-qmd/view?usp=sharingJavnost – The Public
Journal of the European Institute for Communication and Culture
ISSN: 1318-3222 (Print) 1854-8377 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjav20
White Nationalism and Publicness in the United
States
Hector Amaya
To cite this article: Hector Amaya (2018) White Nationalism and Publicness in the United States,
Javnost – The Public, 25:4, 365-378, DOI: 10.1080/13183222.2018.1463348
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2018.1463348
Published online: 26 Oct 2018.
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Javnost: The Public, 2018
Vol. 25, No. 4, 365–378, https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2018.1463348
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
IN THE UNITED STATES
Hector Amaya
This is an analysis of the mainstreaming of white nationalism in the USA and its connection
to nativism, publicity theory and colonialism. The analysis is set against the backdrop of
white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, my hometown, and the public
persona of Stephen Bannon, the influential adviser to President Trump’s campaign and an
intellectual leader of white nationalists in the United States. Using the public debate on
speech rights and the right to bear arms in the United States, and the way in which
Bannon’s media career has relied on the spectre of violence, the article proposes the need
to re-theorise publicity for contemporary life in the USA. I argue that traditional notions of
publicness are rooted and depend on troubling fantasies of peaceful communication that
hide the violent means by which the state construct the rules of public participation. In
the US context, these fantasies are exploited by white nationalists like Bannon, who
engage in public dialogue while threatening with armed violence. The fantasies politically
sanitise what is coercive, racist and fascist.
KEYWORDS
US Latinas/os; nativism; white nationalism; publicity; violence
Introduction
The evening of 11 August 2017, hundreds of white nationalists gathered outside University of Virginia (UVa), my home institution, to start a weekend of protests against the City
of Charlottesville’s decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in downtown.
In the current political climate in the United States, white nationalists are a small but vocal
minority of voices concerned about the present and future of the white race in US society.
They espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focused on the
alleged inferiority of non-whites. Lee, a general who fought for the Confederacy in the
US Civil War, had come to represent, with other southern military figures, a hero to contemporary white nationalists.1 Contrariwise, because the Confederate side defended slavery,
Lee’s statue is also perceived as representing the worst of US history, the nation’s dehumanising racism at the base of the slave economy. Besides espousing white supremacy, white
nationalists also embrace “nativism,” which in the United States refers to the belief that the
nation should remain racially white and that foreigners, such as immigrants from Latin
America and Asia, contaminate the nation. The composition and actions of those protesting
the statue’s removal confirmed these assumptions. Under the banner of “Unite the Right,”
the organisers brought together the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—an organisation that for more than
150 years has terrorised African Americans — US-based neo-Nazi groups, neo-Confederate
groups and other white supremacists and nativist organisations. They came to defend what
stood out to them as a symbol of southern history and racial pride. Heavily armed and ready
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for a fight, they came to the public sphere protected by their rights of assembly and their
rights to speech.
The contradiction inherent in embracing the right of assembly and speech while
armed and ready for violence exposed a significant disjuncture in US notions of publicity,
which tend to rely on liberal and normative visions of non-violent communication and
debate. This article uses this disjuncture to query the normative roots of publicity in the
United States and its reliance on idealised visions of non-violence. Using a genealogical
method of inquiry, the article shows that in the United States’ context, normative theories
of publicness cannot exist without suppression of the nation’s colonial past and present,
and a view of the nation that naively accepts the premise that violence has been effectively
monopolised by the state. I argue this hypothesis by reference to the way normative expectations of publicity are used by leaders of the white supremacist movement in the United
States, which is now often referred to as the “alt-right.” These leaders include Richard
Spencer, Charles Murray, John de Nugent, Paul R. Ramsey and Stephen Bannon, and I am
particularly interested in the latter for his important role in Donald Trump’s presidential
campaign, and his early role in the presidency as Chief Strategist to President Trump. As
importantly, I concentrate on Bannon because his public persona was first as a media
maker and thus as an influential character in the shaping of the conservative and ultraright public sphere.
That night of August in Charlottesville, the white nationalists marched through UVa
chanting “You will not replace us,” a strange protest cry meant to challenge what they
believe is the state of siege endured by the white race in the USA. With lit torches meant
to connect them back to KKK rallies, they marched in front of the church where a group
of us had gathered to listen to Reverend Traci Blackmon and Prof. Cornel West, and
finally gathered around the statue of Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the university. Jefferson is cherished as a Founding Father of the nation and the Enlightenment thinker
who fashioned some of the best US liberal democratic thought. That night of August, as
white supremacists were brandishing their torches around the central quad, a few dozen
students gathered around Jefferson’s statue, as if to protect it. The aggressive white nationalists pushed for a fight. This began 36 hours of violence in my city. By the time they left on
Sunday, August 13, one woman had been murdered, dozens were in the hospital, and the
United States was coming to terms with the realisation that the alt-right was a new force in
US American politics. Perhaps as traumatic, US Americans had also learned that president
Donald Trump had more sympathies for the violent white supremacists than for the
leftist, moderate, religious and student groups trying to protest against the alt-right’s
ideologies.
Connecting Trump to the alt-right was Bannon, and although he resigned from, or
was fired by, the White House a week after the events in Charlottesville, Bannon’s influence
in the administration had been significant and his role amongst white nationalists and the
extreme right would continue.2 Bannon had become a public figure, a celebrity. News and
magazine pieces about his life, ideology and political views have appeared, often repeatedly, in liberal/leftist publications including Time, The New Yorker, The New Republic and
The New York Times, as well as in the elite conservative/right wing media including The
American Conservative, The Weekly Standard and The National Review.
Bannon is a complex character with a complex biography, but my interests are not at
the level of the biographical. I am interested by Bannon’s standing as a public figure, and I
am interested too in the way his professional life as a media person has granted him a
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
leading role among white supremacists. In the United States, this leading role is closely
attached to Bannon’s ability to represent, publicise and align his media work with racial
supremacy, which in the case of Bannon is the embracing and publicising of nativism. I
use him here as a metonymic figure for my genealogical argument about publicness, violence, and, the erasure of the US colonial past.
Publicness and the Siege
White nationalism in the United States is as old as the nation. Today, white nationalism is an amorphous social and grassroots movement that at times seems leaderless, particularly as some of the key figures of the organisations that fall under the umbrella of white
nationalism prefer discretion and even relative anonymity. For instance, the National Equality for All (NEA) has small memberships in different regions, including Virginia, and they try
to keep a low profile, hence foreclosing a quick recognition of NEA leadership (Hughey
2012, 37). Recently, however, US white nationalism has morphed to include deeper connections to the political establishment, as in the case of the Tea Party, an extreme-right movement initiated after President Obama’s election, and members of the state such as Bannon.
The type of leadership that Bannon represents is not traditional. More than the one
who says “follow me,” Bannon is a leader because he is a person whose stories and
interpretations of the world white nationalists tend to trust and believe. Bannon is a
media maker and through his documentaries and a digital magazine (Breitbart News), he
has acquired a reputation as a cleaner, a denouncer, and an instigator. He represents a category of public figures in US politics who claim to be rescuing the political system from the
influence of advanced capitalism, welfare ideology in institutions and the demographic
remaking due to mass migrations. He wants to clean “the swamp,” the metaphor of
water, darkness, dirt, illness and unpredictable creatures that describe Washington, DC politics. This is a metaphor of a diagnostic that requires intervention and interventionists:
Bannon is one of them. The swamp needs to be cleaned, given light, transparency. It
needs to be made hygienic and safe for human habitation. The cleaning cannot be done
by one single individual; it is a political, social and community process that calls for the
tools of democracy, the constitution of a people, a public and an electoral sector. For
decades now, Bannon has imagined himself to be a cleaner and an organiser who uses
mediation tools—narration, aesthetics and political rhetoric—to enlighten the minds and
hearts of US Americans.
Bannon was born in Richmond, VA, 60 miles from Charlottesville, in a democratic and
catholic household. He began his professional life first as a naval officer, moving after his
MBA to finances (Goldman Sacks and Bannon & Co) to later land on the media and entertainment business. With Julia Jones, starting in the 1990s, Bannon was involved in a few film
projects including The Indian Runner (1991) and Titus (1999), a strong adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. His involvement with film became more ambitious and culminated in a series
of political documentaries that he co-wrote, directed and/or produced. These include In the
Face of Evil Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004), an elegy to Reagan; Cochise County USA:
Cries from the Border (2006) and Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration (2006), two
films about undocumented immigration; and Generation Zero (2010), Fire from the Heartland
(2010), Battle for America (2010) and The Undefeated (2011), films that became central to the
narrative of the Tea Party (Bruck 2017; Reichert 2017). Although his involvement with film
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has not stopped, with six documentaries to his credit since 2011, his media role shifted yet
again when in 2012 he took reins of Breitbart News to continue the digital magazine’s farright conservative agenda. If in the past, US conservatism was associated with fiscal responsibility by the state, today’s far-right is about identity and harnesses the power of nativism,
misogyny, anti-immigration and racism to illustrate their alienation from government and a
deep sense of racially defined power deflation. Breitbart News is part of the far-right’s public
sphere.
Under Bannon’s guidance, Breitbart has been a voice of traditional conservative ideas,
such as those scrutinising the size of the federal government (“Big Business Hearts Big Government,” Dec 11, 2015), but Breitbart has also delved deep into racist, ethnocentric, nativist
and misogynist ideologies. The digital magazine’s notorious headlines include “Would You
Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?” (February 19, 2016), “Does Feminism Make
Women Ugly?” (July 2016, 2015), “Desperate for Racial Narrative, CNN Labels Zimmerman
‘White Hispanic’” (July 11, 2013), “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture”
(January 2, 2016), “Racist, Pro-Nazi Roots of Planned Parethood Revealed” (July 14, 2015)
and “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew” (May 15, 2016).
Bannon’s white nationalism that made him useful to Trump as an adviser first and
later as his campaign manager. Bannon’s documentarian profile began with Reagan’s
biopic (In the Face of Evil), but it was his nativist and ultra-nationalist worldview portrayed
in Cochise County USA and Border War that clarified his voice and gave him high standing in
the ultra-right wing of the republican party (McBain 2017, 24; Reichert 2017). Cochise County
USA, directed by Mercedes Maharis, depicted life in a small Arizona town and the damaging
effects of undocumented immigration. Those vignettes were ideologically simple. Maharis
entered denser territory when she portrayed, interviewed and gave narrative prominence to
Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, the founders of the Minuteman Project, a nativist and hatefuelled citizen militia organised in 2004 to patrol the border with Mexico. Border War continued Bannon’s engagement with this anti-Latino brand of ultra-nationalism. The film,
directed by Kevin Knoblock, is a narrative based on five subjects and their struggles
about and with undocumented migration in the Mexico/USA border: an Arizona congressman (Rep. J.D. Hayworth) who is obsessed with immigration; a Latino border agent (Jose
Maheda); the widow (Teri March) of a sheriff’s deputy killed while on duty by an undocumented immigrant; an activist pushing for immigration reform (Enrique Morones), and
Lupe Moreno, a female Latina and a member of the Minuteman Project. Except for
Morones, the other four stories paint a highly dramatic, negative and particular picture of
undocumented immigration. The film weaves the stories of these subjects to depict undocumented immigration as a law and crime issue that threatens US citizens with violence and
that is led by drug smugglers and human traffickers.
Joshua Green (2017) argues that Bannon’s white nationalism and deep influence on
Trump are to blame when on 16 June 2015, Trump declared his presidential candidacy with
the most anti-Mexican and anti-Latino position:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you.
They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re
bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.
They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people … They’re sending us not the
right people. It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and
Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East.
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
Although widely criticised by mainstream media and other Republican hopefuls,
Bannon’s influence had worked. The Republican electorate was hungry for Trump’s straightforward nativist white nationalist rhetoric. Thanks to his ability to paint a nation in siege by a
Global South represented here by Mexico and the Middle East, he quickly climbed the ranks
of Republican primary candidates and took the lead. Bannon’s political seal, his influence,
his ideas and his unabashed nativist white nationalism won voters first during the presidential primaries and, later, enough mainstream republicans and moderates to overcome Clinton’s challenge.
Bannon’s were not new ideas, nor was his influence on Trump an unusual approach to
victory on US politics in the new millennium. Nativism and xenophobia against Latinos in
general and undocumented immigrants in particular had become mainstream during
George W. Bush’s presidency. The attack on the Twin Tower on 11 September 2001,
began a massive shift in the political culture of the right and of the Republican party, authorising the increasing mainstreaming of anti-Islam xenophobia first and, later, as a testament
to US colonial history, morphed into a broad claim, widely accepted on the right, that terrorism came through the southern border. Trump’s mention of the unsupported postulate
that enemies of state originating in the Middle East were using the border with Mexico to
enter US territory was a common idea repeated over and over again during the first decade
of the century by the likes of Lou Dobbs (CNN), Rush Limbaugh (radio), Glenn Beck (Fox) and
Bill O’Reilly, not to mention political elected officials like Tom Tancredo (R-Representative,
Colorado) and Jan Brewer (Republican Governor of Arizona) (Amaya 2013).
White nationalist and nativist concerns have taken the popular forms of commonsense economics that are the basis of Bannon’s populism. Under the veneer of prolabour discourse, these ideologies have been used repeatedly to lobby against immigration,
especially from Latin America. In these arguments, immigrants are said to use economic and
social resources designed for and funded by citizens. These arguments, as Otto Santa Ana
(2002) and Lisa Flores (2003) show, have energised an ethnicised political base that traditionally has sought violence and/or legal remedies to appease their fears. This tradition
of hate is a century old. Flores shows how discourses that criminalised Mexican immigration
in the late 1920s and 1930s were closely connected to arguments about economics and to
the passing of the first immigration law that made undocumented border crossing a felony
in 1929 (376). Santa Ana (2002) shows nativist reliance on discourses of economics to draft
and get support for Proposition 187 in California in 1993. These policies echo new millennium political proposals and legislations such as the Sensenbrenner Act (2005), Arizona SB
1070 (2010), and many others across the nation. All these had in common that they used
undocumented immigrants as scapegoats for different economic challenges endured by
the white majority. To these political constituencies, who existed before Bannon but
were further energised by his documentaries and rhetoric, undocumented immigrants
took jobs and resources meant to serve (white) citizens.
The sustained success of common-sense economics to further marginalise colonial
subjects has a long history. In these arguments, economics is more than a modality of thinking. By using economic arguments, white nationalists and nativist present their views as
rational, even enlightened, and hence foreclose criticisms over the ideological nature of
their demands, and the deeply xenophobic, neocolonial and racist outcomes they wish
to attain. Moreover, economic arguments housed on ideas of progress and justice reconstitute a Western identity that, Patrick Chabal (2012) reminds us, uses economic progress and
individual rights to claim Western superiority.
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The particular ideological force of this common-sense economics in the US context
cannot be fully explained without reference to the US colonising history and Mexico and
Mexicans as the target of US colonialism and neocolonialism. The vitriol against this particular immigrant class can be interpreted as a compensating schema that covers over the fact
that the United States is what it is because it engaged in colonising wars against Mexico,
ultimately forcing the Mexican government to cede to the US half of its territory in 1848.
With that war, the US took possession of all the land that today makes the states of
Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. To understand the size of the colonial bounty one may consider the fact that California and Texas
are the two top state economies in the United States, and they alone account for
roughly 23 per cent of the nation’s GDP. The United States was transformed by the
results of this colonising war and the annexation rights acquired through violence.
The contemporary standing of Mexican-Americans is an extension of the status of
early Mexicans colonised by a white population set on nullifying the rights of these early
residents and citizens of the southwest (see Amaya 2013). Since, Mexican-Americans
have been mostly imagined as economic cogs, not political beings and they have been
used by the US economy to sustain and maintain agriculture, manufacturing and construction industries. The tradition has also ensured the mistreatment of new immigrants from
Latin American, particularly those without documents, who must endure harsh labour conditions, social marginalisation, and an unsympathetic legal and security system (Border
Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that routinely breaks these immigrants’
human rights.
Under the spectre of colonialism, white nationalists including Bannon have little difficulty reducing immigration to common-sense economics, which is the discursive tactic of
a diverse set of nativist organisations including the Federation for American Immigration
Reform (FAIR), the Minuteman Project and others. It is also at the centre of white nationalist
concerns about their future, which is registered in the chant “you will not replace us” used in
the violent alt-right protests in Charlottesville. The chant’s polysemic value, uttered almost
exclusively by angry young white males, summarised white, male, working class, citizen and
heterosexual resentment in an era of free trade, massive migration from the Global South,
erosion of white privilege, the mainstreaming of feminism and the rise of LGBTQ concerns in
the political mainstream.
Although the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in the United States has
been caused almost exclusively by neoliberal policies and state deregulation, the economic
challenges that the gap creates are routinely explained by white nationalists and other conservative voices as the outcome of the erosion of white privilege caused by the success of
leftist social movements and immigration. The evidence to them is precisely those highly
visible social markets, in particular, the university system, Hollywood and the news
media. These social markets have become emblematic of their ethno-racial replacement.
While the field of power, which includes the economic and political fields, remain staunchly
white and male, white nationalists go to elite universities like the University of Virginia to be
taught by a professor like me, a Mexican-American, immigrant and an intellectual whose
history lessons may sound to them as affronts, as challenges, and as accusations, even if
I give them in care and empathy. These young white heterosexual men turn on their
screens and see the televisual empire of Shonda Rhymes, the sports and popular
stardom of basketball player LeBron James, the success of Ellen DeGeneres or the celebration of other Mexican voices like directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñarritu
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
as further evidence of their disenfranchisement. Right-wing media—e.g. Fox News—and
fringe media—e.g. Breitbart—do the narrative and theoretical work of connecting these disparate dots and making the case that these young white men are indeed being replaced.
People like Bannon, the media producers seeking the projects that inflame the
nationalists’ passions, are the cultural puppeteers of white nationalism, and they rely on
common-sense economics to present arguments that seem rooted in reason, not racism,
xenophobia or neocolonialism. These arguments do not have to be very sophisticated.
They are simple variations of the postulate that immigrants take away the jobs of whites
and lower wages for everybody by supplying unregulated cheap labour to industries,
businesses and households. As importantly, these economic arguments pave the way to
calls for justice, law and rights, which give white nationalist a stand from which to utter
the chant “blood and soil,” a notorious borrowing from Nazi Germany that US white nationalists have also embraced and chanted in my city alongside the “you will not replace us.” In
his own way, Bannon too chants “blood and soil.” He does it through his ethno-nationalist
agenda. He means “blood and soil” when he calls for an abandonment of globalisation, or
when he argues that the United States is being invaded from the south by Mexicans and
Middle Easterners. In Bannon’s media projects, as in the mouths of white nationalists marching in anger, the chant “blood and soil” means that the invaders will not succeed at uprooting them from the precious land that they have cultivated with their blood.
The fears of replacement and displacement go deep. Sociologist Matthew Hughey
(2012) captured this fear when interviewing a member of the NEA who stated after
moving to a racially diverse community in the East of the United States: “I never saw so
many black people before … so many immigrants that don’t speak English … they all
expect a job … It’s divisive … I don’t hate black people or Latinos … I just want a space
for me and my future children” (30). Explained in terms of space, as to remind us of the
notion of displacement and replacement, the subject ties together economics with fear
and seeks our sympathy by reminding us his views don’t come from hate, but from care
for his future children. Richard Spencer, a vocal leader of the Alt-Right, routinely takes on
similar ideas, as when he declares in speeches that his concern is about the “erasure of
white people,” or the “invasion of Europe” and “the United States by the third world” (transcript of his speech at Texas A&M on December 13, 2016). Bannon himself publicly declares
this sense of invasion and siege, and has illustrated his views on the matter by reference to
the novel The Camp of the Saints (Jean Raspail, 1994), which portraits a France invaded and
destroyed by a horde of Indian people wishing to reach the land of plenty that is Europe.
The novel, in Bannon’s views, echoes current circumstances in the United States, which,
he believes, is in the process of being invaded and likely destroyed by the hordes from
Latin America (Blumenthal and Rieger 2017).
The threat of displacement (“blood and soil”) and replacement evident in the chants
and worldviews expressed by white nationalists are indicative of a siege mentality that is
key to their claims, aspirations and justifications. This mentality takes different discursive
and mediatic forms depending on context (Abramsky 2016). Last June, while Trump was
campaigning, he began attacking California Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a Mexican-American jurisprudent in charge of ruling over a lawsuit against Trump University, a scandalous and fraudulent institution of learning. Because Trump had made anti-Mexicanism a central part of
his campaign platform, Trump declared that Curiel could not possibly be impartial. A presidential hopeful calling into question the justice system was scandalous, but not to
white nationalists. Bannon’s Breitbart supported Trump’s position by running a fake story
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with the headline (June 9, 2016): “Founder of Judge Curiel’s Group: Whites Should Go Back
To Europe, California To Be A ‘Hispanic State’.” From Bannon’s discursive world comes a lie
that informs, reproduces and maintains the fantasy of “replacement” at the centre of white
nationalists. The siege is on. One lie at the time, one exaggeration over another have accumulated and have had the discursive effect on the far-right of normalising what European
fascism had found effective. Economic fears could quickly be turned into ethno-racial paranoia. Trump’s success is often attributed to his ability to catalyse the white working class; in
reality, he is simply harvesting what others planted. Bannon’s unoriginal but effective messages connecting xenophobia, anti-Latino sentiment, immigration, free trade and whiteness
were ripening for decades, waiting for gravity to do its job.
My goal here is not simply to argue against Bannon’s ideologies, his troubling style of
populism or his unabashed support of white nationalism. I am also interested in analysing
his style of being public as one dependent on a set of choices that peg his civics to contemporary structures of publicity: his reliance on media, new technologies and his commitment
to supporting the infrastructures of white nationalist rhetoric. I argue that his biographical
choices show us a willingness to use other people’s voices and to work for maintaining
radical media platforms so that others can use the rhetoric of care, fear and hate that
characterise the alt-right.
Retheorising Publicness
In 1962, at the apex of the structuralist paradigm, Jürgen Habermas published his first
large research project on the structures of publicity and their transformation (1989). He used
the term “structure” to bring together a loosely defined amalgam of economic factors, political practices, spatial transformations and rhetorical styles that, starting with early modernity, had shaped the prevalent way of enacting politics and embodying civics among the
citizenry. In so doing, Habermas placed this style of citizenship at the birth of the nation
in modernity and foregrounded an argument imputing that a change in the structures of
publicity was equal to a change in the meaning of politics and civics. Although he has
been widely criticised, his work has remained influential perhaps because his nostalgic
and idealised vision of publicness has stood the test of time as a normative ideal. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is, in more ways than one, a call for civility, reason,
and the values of deliberative democracy, each an endearing element of liberal democratic
politics in Western nations. However inspiring, the book also does a disservice to scholars. It
obfuscates the reality it is meant to describe and burdens the concept of publicness with
unreasonable expectations that cannot be met by most reality in most nations at most
times. Thanks to this book and his influence, the gap between “what publicness is” and
“what publicness should be” is abysmal. I am with those wishing to do without the
abyss, and Bannon’s structural choices will help me reposition publicness as an object of
history and of theory, a necessary move if the hope is to slowly bring closer publicness
to its ideal.
Theories of publicity start with an opposition. Typically, publicity is the opposite of
privacy or the opposite of the market or the opposite of the particular. The most
common strands of scholarship about publicity contrast publicity to privacy, as in the
work of Habermas. But the other two oppositions are also quite popular for they go to
what theorists define as seminal characteristics of public culture, criticism and public
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
debate. The opposition of publicity to the market is a fundamental argument about the
civic, as supposed to economic, character of the deliberations that characterise publicity.
The opposition of publicity to the particular foregrounds the relevance of the political
and social nature of public discourse as supposed to an individual or particular goals.
Each of these oppositions is rich in metaphoric and theoretical outcomes, and these are
epistemologically generative. They constitute the basis of our ability to identify, observe,
analyse and criticise “public” phenomena. For instance, starting from the root opposition
of publicity to privacy will likely mean that we engage phenomena that are open to the
many as supposed to phenomena that are restricted. The public/private opposition also privileges phenomena that happen in public spaces (e.g. plazas), such as the Unite the Right
rallies, as supposed to things that happen in private homes or secret locations, such as gay
encounters in public places (Michael Warner 1993). This particular opposition also invites
particular contradictions, which themselves are epistemologically generative, such as the
artificial separation between private and public in current Internet cultures or, which Zizi
Papacharissi calls “private publicity.” As a reminder of the importance of this “private publicity” to the concerns of white nationalists, after the violence in Charlottesville, Internet providers like GoDaddy.com and Google “booted” off The Daily Stormer, a neo-nazi digital
magazine. The magazine resurfaced a couple of days later thanks to a Russian Internet provider (Romano 2017). The primary opposition, public and private, thus becomes the foundation on which complex uses of publicness can be built. The same can be argued about
the opposition between publicity and markets, and publicity and the particular.
These primary oppositions, including the public/private, the public/market and the
public/particular oppositions, depend on a deception. They are historical and theoretical
postscripts of the older opposition of publicity versus violence, a relatively marginalised
opposition that must remain out of sight for the other oppositions to work as grounds
for idealisation. In Habermas (1989), this move to hide the connection of violence to publicity is evident when he starts his historiography by reference to secret societies during
Absolutism, and quickly moves away arguing that these societies fell prey to their own
secrecy (35). That secrecy was due to the spectre of violence is left unattended and in
the rest of the book. Habermas does not touch on the histories of publicity and violence
which were common to those writing about more marginalised populations than the bourgeoisie. Habermas notwithstanding, I find much to learn from the opposition of publicity
versus violence which, in my view, has the potential to generate knowledges more
suited to explain the publicity style of Bannon and the white nationalists.
The advantages of this opposition do not end there. Contrasting publicity to violence
offers the advantage of showing clearly publicity’s core idealism, its particularism, its
reliance on historically specific ideas about order and intersubjectivity, and its dependency
on ethnic politics. I draw on the opposition of publicity to violence inspired by Hannah
Arendt who, in The Human Condition (1998), writes powerfully about it in the context of
Greek life. In her analysis, Arendt details the pre-modern roots of publicity in terms of publicity’s relationship to violence, and the inextricable connection between publicity and
ethnic politics:
To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and
persuasion and not through force and violence. In Greek self-understanding, to force
people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal
with people characteristic of life outside the polls. (26)
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I read these as a description of a past that is not very different from today’s, a world
of walls tactically separating the citizen from non-citizens, US Americans from Latin
America and the Middle East. I read them too as a most succinct theory of politics and
liberalism, one in tension not with monarchies and feuds, but with violence and outsiders.
This liberalism imagines itself through the eradication of violence (as Hobbes would have
it), even if the eradication has meant simply its rather imperfect monopoly. These words
are also a glimpse into a theory of citizenship constructed in alterity to a prepolitical other
or, if you prefer an embodied descriptor, a theory that defines the citizen ethnically as the
opposite of those brutes living outside the walls, the immigrants, the refugees and the
invaders, who are to Breitbart and to Bannon often one and the same. Implied is also
a theory of intersubjectivity based on space, mediation and materiality (the agora and
the walls), and a lesson on the proper historiography to publicity, one less concerned
with salons and coffee houses, and more concerned with security and order. Arendt
described a walled city, a world in the siege. Through her eyes, the Athens of the past
is a clear precursor to today’s US America, at least as imagined by Bannon and Trump.
Bannon’s border and Tea Party documentaries and Breitbart have in common the spirit
of the siege, the fear of invasion, even though the political classes that compose the
US government have more destructive power at their disposal than any other class of
people in the history of humanity. Such destructive power is equal to the tallest wall
ever built and yet not enough for the likes of Bannon. His influence on Trump is this
feeling of siege, the sense of impending doom that justifies radical and even violent
measures.
There are more lessons in Arendt’s sentences. Her words allude also to two types of
ethics or ways of treating each other. One style of ethics is reserved for citizens, those
inside the walls who deserve to be treated without coercion. Citizens use words, ideas
and arguments to persuade and bridge differences. But the siege legitimises extreme
measures and authorises the abandonment of the principles of publicness and the
embracement of violence towards others. Publicness can thus be understood as an exclusionary ethical system that justifies the exercise of prepolitical ways of being over others.
This is why I also read Arendt’s words in sadness, as a Mexican immigrant, as someone
who identifies with those outside the polls, in a time of hate towards my people, and
one who finds publicity less virtuous, normative politics more condemnable and citizenship less inspiring.
While Arendt’s work is widely respected in contemporary academic circles, her arguments on the connections of publicity to violence are far from hegemonic. In fact, they are
quite marginalised. Those interested in exploring contemporary public spheres mostly
ignore her work or treat it as a precursor to other more pertinent arguments, in particular,
those by Habermas, who rejects Arendt’s insights. In his 1962 classic, Habermas repeatedly
notes that Greek publicity, the site of inquiry in Arendt’s work, and modern liberal publicity
were starkly different. He argues that in the Greek context, the connection between publicity and the state was robust and the participation of citizens in the agora was reliant on
oppression, not equality. Public life depended on patrimonial slavery and a patriarchal structure that precluded women, slaves and the landless poor from ever participating in the
business of the polis. In this context, Habermas argues, civil society did not properly exist.
The household, ruled by male citizens, and the agora were in relative harmony. By contrast,
the bourgeois public sphere was the space for the regulation of a transforming civil society
independent from the state, a space constituted around criticism. Implied in Habermas is
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
the argument that Arendt’s writing does not address the new formation of the public
sphere after European feudalism and thus her work should not be the basis of modern theories of publicity. Yet, modernity is a multi-headed beast and Habermas’ best ideas fall short
when tested against the messy modernity experienced by most around the world, and,
painfully, in my city of Charlottesville last week. By contrast, Arendt’s antiquarian theorisations promise no answers but a new beginning to those who like me wish to stare
deeply into today’s unravelling.
The Structures of Bannon’s Publicity
The publicity operations of Bannon have two different targets. One target is the state
and its evolution into a bureaucratic machine incapable of attending to the political needs
of its people, what he has publically called “the administrative state” (Rucker and Costa
2017). The second target is the populations that undermine the status of the class of
people, white men, traditionally associated with political and economic power. On the
first, Bannon positions his style of civics as an old-fashioned critique of the state, the
type of public role pertinent to early liberal publicity. With the second target, Bannon
embraces a style of civics belonging to an era of mass mediation, one in which the
public realm is transformed to function also as a place in which conflict between
private interests is resolved. Such structure of publicity functions as a structure of arbitration. Habermas (1989) noted this troubling evolution of the public sphere when he wrote
the following:
the elimination of coercive state arbitration can create an autonomous domain for a quasipolitical exercise of power on the part of conflicting social groups. On the one hand the
two sides involved in collective bargaining then no longer act in the exercise of private
autonomy; they act within the framework of the public sphere as an element in the political realm and hence are officially subject to the democratic demand for publicity. (199)
In the era of mass mediation, the public sphere is also a sphere of arbitration in which
groups rhetorically clash. In this era, instead of formal arbitration (as in collective bargaining), the state ideally and minimally functions to structure a public realm with egalitarian
access. The emphasis on the state’s structural role is predicated on a story we tell ourselves
about publicness. The public realm is the market of ideas and all wares should have the right
to trade. The better ones will win. At least that is the belief of those who unthinkingly
defend this style of state arbitration.
On the ground, arbitration looks as follows. The City of Charlottesville granted a
permit to the organisers of Unite the Right. Later, for safety reasons, the City moved the
location of the rally to McIntire Park. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the
Rutherford Institute sued the City of Charlottesville on First Amendment grounds and
won back the permission to have the rally at Emancipation Park, a space in the city downtown (Graff 2017). The ACLU and the Rutherford Institute are two non-governmental institutions dedicated to the defense of civil liberties that often blindly embrace the idealised
story of the public sphere as the free market of ideas. In this August, these NGOs were
defending the white nationalists’ rights of assembly, for they understood these rights,
here represented as the right to rally in a centrally located space, as essential to the
Unite the Right political rights. Although the City of Charlottesville had been sued, the
City also embraced this idealistic narrative. The City had granted two permits to counter-
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protesters, hence apparently assuring equal access to the public realm. The state, here represented by the City of Charlottesville and the judge that ruled in favour of the Unite the
Right lawsuit, carried out these decisions at least partly in the spirit of arbitration.
The decisions carried on by the ACLU, the Rutherford Institute, the City of Charlottesville and the judge ruling in favour of the Unite the Right group, were based on an
idealised notion of publicness, on a theory of non-violent rhetorical exchange. However,
the deception behind most theories of publicity including those used by these groups,
is that publicity is, first, the opposite of violence, and that only when violence is off the
table can publicity exist. The expectation that rhetorical exchange, debate and disagreement will not end in an altercation or harm is the a priori of normative theorisations of
publicness, including those found in the work of Arendt and Habermas. Yet, scholars,
public officials and civil society leaders are invested in this idealised vision of publicness
and forget that the expectation of non-violence is a privilege embedded in context. In
many social settings, in many nations, and among particular ethno-racial communities,
engaging in criticism of the state happens without the expectation that the criticism
will not be met with violence or coercion. If this was not enough, in most places in the
world, conflicts between social groups happen without the expectation of state arbitration
or mediation. Tactics of publicity reflect this reality, and individuals and groups use whatever means are necessary to protect themselves including, as I have shown elsewhere,
anonymity and mobility (Amaya 2017).
Western developed nation-states, particularly those that also have advanced democracies, tend to ignore these realities and treat them as anomalous cases, or as evidence of
the political underdevelopment of other societies. The normative ideal of publicness operates in such hegemonic fashion that practices of public expression are evaluated with the
assumption of safety. This is a theoretical miscalculation that white nationalists use, with
impunity, to introduce the spectre of violence without state intervention. When Bannon’s
Cochise County USA gave significant space to members of the Minuteman Project to
express their views as if they were standing in the centre of the Greek agora, Bannon authorised the introduction of violent means as just means. The Minuteman project is a heavily
armed citizen militia that the border states let run amok inflicting harm to immigrants crossing the border. That was Bannon’s white nationalist ideas succeeding at understanding the
rules of publicness in US political culture. He knew the deception on which normative ideas
of publicity are built, and knew how to exploit it. When the ACLU represented a group of
people that had previously marched while wielding automatic rifles, with pistols in their
belts, with clubs, shields and helmets, and convinced themselves that they were representing these groups because the organisation espoused the principles of equality and freedom
central to the First Amendment, the ACLU, like the City of Charlottesville, were duped by
their own fantasies of development. Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed when a
white nationalist drove a car against a crowd of counter-protesters, and the dozens that
ended up in hospitals due to the violence, were the victims of the abyss, the daunting
gap that exists in the United States political and intellectual culture between “what publicity
is” and “what publicity should be.”
DISCLOSURE STATEMENT
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
WHITE NATIONALISM AND PUBLICNESS
NOTES
1.
2.
See for instance the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) digital resource center, which
lists these organisations, their beliefs, and their tactics. SPLC is one of the most trusted
think tanks in the United States (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/
ideology/white-nationalist).
Breitbart was run but Bannon, but it is Alex Marlow, the magazine’s editor in chief, who
makes the day-to-day editorial decisions (Hylton 2017).
REFERENCES
Abramsky, Sasha. 2016. “Make America Hate Again.” New Statesman, Oct 28–Nov 3.
Amaya, Hector. 2013. Citizenship Excess: Latinas/os, Media, and the Nation. New York: New York
University Press.
Amaya, Hector. 2017. “The Cultures of Anonymity and Violence in the Mexican Blogosphere.”
International Journal of Communication 11: 3815–3831.
Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Blumenthal, Paul, and J. M. Rieger. 2017. “This Stunningly Racist French Novel is How Steve
Bannon Explains the World.” Huffpost, March 14. Accessed June 15, 2017. https://www.
huffingtonpost.com/entry/steve-bannon-camp-of-the-saints-immigration_us_
58b75206e4b0284854b3dc03.
Bruck, Connie. 2017. “A Hollywood Story.” New Yorker 93 (11): 34–45.
Chabal, P. 2012. The End of the Conceit: Western Rationality After Colonialism. London: Zed Books.
Flores, Lisa. 2003. “Constructing Rhetorical Borders: Peons, Illegal Aliens, and Competing Narratives of Immigration.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 20 (4): 362–387.
Graff, Henry. 2017. “Judge Grants Injunction, Jason Kessler can have Unite the Right Rally at
Emancipation Park.” NBC29 August 11. http://www.nbc29.com/story/36115819/judgegrants-injunction-jason-kessler-can-have-unite-the-right-rally-at-emancipation-park.
Green, Joshua. 2017. Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. New York: Penguin.
Habermas, Jurgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.
Hughey, Matthew. 2012. White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meaning of Race.
Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hylton, Wil. 2017. “Down the Breitbart Hole.” The New York Times Magazine. August 16.
McBain, Sophie. 2017. “The Alt-right Leninist.” New Statesman (3/24/2017) 146 (5359): 20–25.
Raspail, Jean. 1994. The Camp of the Saints. 4th ed. Petoskey, MI: Social Contract Press.
Reichert, Jeff. 2017. “Big Plans: Small Minds.” Film Comment 53 (1): 78–81.
Romano, Aja. 2017. “Neo-Nazi Site Daily Stormer Resurfaces with Russian Domain Following
Google and GoDaddy Bans.” Vox, August 16.
Rucker, Philip, and Robert Costa. 2017. “Bannon Vows a Daily Fight for ‘Deconstruction of the
Administrative State’.” The Washington Post, February 23.
Santa Ana, Otto. 2002. Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public
Discourse. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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Warner, Michael. 1993. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis, MN:
University of Minnesota Press.
Hector Amaya (corresponding author) is a Professor of Media Studies at University of Virginia. He is currently finishing a project on the transformations to public culture in
Mexico due to drug violence. His last book is Citizenship Excess: Latinos/as, Media,
and the Nation (2013: New York University Press). Email: amaya@virginia.edu
7
ENGENDERING WHITE
NATIONALISM
Jeff Maskovsky
When, in September 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, professor of psychology
at Palo Alto University, testified in front of the US Senate Judiciary Committee,
she stood as a witness against the Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she remembered had sexually assaulted her in the summer of 1982,
when she was 15 years old. As live updates (Lee 2018) on the hearings were
posted on the Breitbart.com homepage, comments and responses to the testimony were also recorded on the site. On September 27, Breitbart poster KYRifles
offered the following remarks:
Ford lies with ease.
And why shouldn’t she? No one ever calls her on it.
Remembering is hard!
She’s just a girl! Giggle!!
In a way, we are seeing before us the pivot point of our civilization, Kavanaugh representing the past, Ford the future.
Kavanaugh is our past: brilliant, logical, and emphatic. Ford is our (possible) future: ditzy, whiny, and phony.
God help us.
A like-minded commentator ( just me saying) replied:
Yep and for all the women to ponder or think about. If you have brothers
male cousins sons fathers uncles they may one day be at the end of these
idiots WRATH now as you can see all it takes is I remember so good luck
to you all with male family members and to all of those #metool people
because if it’s your father they can take away your inheritance house and his
good name so as they used to say THINK BEFORE YOU LEAP.
DOI: 10.4324/9781003034810-7
156 Jeff Maskovsky
In response, KYRifles wrote:
I was just amazed at the comfort she had with the fact that she had of course
earlier used the excuse of fear of flying as a reason to delay her testimony
while admitting she flew all over the place all the time.
She just laughed it off, as if the inconsistency was nothing—a joke. Oh
sometimes I feel fear, sometimes I don’t, but it’s OK when I’m doing something fun!
Who lies like that in a situation of such consequences? What kind of
sociopath?
The answer?
She, like most women in her social circle, is a practiced liar. She regards
lying as a socially approved way for a woman of her class to get what she
wants.
Say she gets pulled over by the cops for speeding. She is not going to make
a scene like some ghetto Serena Williams or the black woman who ended
up getting arrested and hung herself in her cell. Instead she is going to tell
the cop that she just received a phone call that her child has been injured
and she is rushing home and she never speeds. Sometimes it works, sometimes the cop calls you on your BS—no harm no foul.
Or say that you are invited to her house for dinner but she does not feel like
cooking. She doesn’t tell you that—that would be rude. Instead she says
that she is not “feeling well” or that the “stove broke” or something and
can we do this some other time. She doesn’t expect you to come over and
check to see if the stove really works or not.
It’s just that this time the stakes were much higher and she got called on
her little white lie. That’s why her previously anonymous deceit had to be
made public. But it wasn’t a disaster for her. She was tossed softball after
softball by a female prosecutor who, for some reason, did not use the immunity (from accusations of male chauvinism) her gender offered her to
crucify Ford.
These posts on the conservative new media site Breitbart open up a discussion about the gender, race, and class politics of white nationalism in the Trump
era. What we see on display in these snide comments are the patriarchal values,
end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it misogyny, class- and race-inflected policing
of gender norms, and the devaluation of all sorts of unruly women that are commonplace among white nationalist digital posters. These are only 3 of the more
than 65,000 comments posted to that site within 72 hours of the September 27
Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Ninety-nine percent of the content was
supportive of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. Many posters exclaimed the untrustworthiness of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. Others expressed outrage at
the #MeToo Movement (a movement in which women acknowledged that they
had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted), claiming, as Donald Trump did
Engendering white nationalism
157
days later, that it was a difficult time for young men in America (Diamond 2018).
Some posted expressions of outrage at a vast Democratic Party-led conspiracy
against Kavanaugh. California Senator Dianne Feinstein (who is frequently referred to as Difi in the alt-right blogosphere), her husband, investment banker
Richard Blum, former US President Bill Clinton, and former Secretary of State
Hillary Rodman Clinton were, many posters agreed, agents of the Chinese state.
They were attempting to use Blasey Ford to thwart Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court
appointment on behalf of China, so the story goes. In contrast to the viewpoint
of mainstream liberals, many Breitbart posters saw China, not Russia, as the malevolent foreign power attempting to meddle in US politics and elections.
Gun rights also surfaced, unsurprisingly, as a major concern in the Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nomination conflagration. Posters staged a sarcastic debate over
who was a better shot, conservative men or women. This tongue-in-cheek debate reinforced the widely held view that conservative men and women needed
to arm themselves in defense against the threat posed by the “liberal hate mongers and trolls” who supported Blasey Ford. And many cheered in response to
Donald Trump’s public support of Kavanaugh, which he expressed in this tweet:
Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him. His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting. Democrats’ search and destroy
strategy is disgraceful and this process has been a total sham and effort to
delay, obstruct, and resist. The Senate must vote!
(@realdonaldtrump, September 27, 2018)
My goal in this chapter is to use examples such as these to shed some light on
the interpretive processes of white nationalists as they confront political challenges and seek to consolidate and expand the influence of their movement. In
particular, I am interested in how gender matters politically to rank-and-file
white nationalists. In my main argument, I suggest that for white nationalists,
gender equality, nonconformity, and fluidity tend to be viewed as existential
threats to the white race, and further that maintaining sex and gender hierarchies is
essential to the white supremacist racial order that they seek to reproduce. Accordingly,
gender is not just a site of difference or inequality that white nationalists use
descriptively in their politics. It is also an essential category of difference that
informs their worldview, and it is invoked repeatedly to elaborate and refine their
political viewpoints. My argument here builds on an important strain of feminist scholarship in anthropology and American Studies that has demonstrated
the importance of the coconstitution of race, class, and gender politics, and the
maintenance of a racial-gendered order, in the making of the United States as a
concrete social formation (see Brodkin 2007; Collins 2017; Davis 2004; Di Leonardo 1998; Morgen 2002; Mullings 2005, 2020). The work of Sarah Haley (2016)
has been especially inspiring, as her book, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and
the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, tells the history of imprisoned black women’s
brutalization in convict labor systems and the role that this brutalization played
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Jeff Maskovsky
in the making of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US political
economy. Haley directs our attention to the historical institutionalization of specific forms of gendered racial terror, organized to devalue and dehumanize Black
life more broadly, and enacted in part via the exclusion of racialized subjects from
the protected category of “woman” (2). This is precisely what is at stake today
in the political ascent of white nationalist movements in the United States and
around the world, and understanding the ways these groups innovate politically
is part of a broader effort to understand the way that white nationalist gendered
racial terror is currently institutionalized and how it can be abolished.
My work on white nationalist political culture is based on a deep ethnographic plunge into the white nationalist digital world. This entailed reading all
kinds of online media content including YouTube testimonials, news articles,
blogs, opinion pieces, and message board postings on forum websites such as
4chan and 8chan/8kun. The websites I visited most regularly (Breitbart, Reddit,
4chan, Stormfront.org, Gab, and Voat, among others) have maintained digital
communities associated with the alt-right, a white nationalist movement that
has coalesced in large measure through the use of social media and online platforms (Bjork-James and Maskovsky 2017; Hawley 2017). By the beginning of the
Trump presidency, the alt-right constituted the more “mainstream” movement
in comparison to other white supremacist groups, about which I will say more
below. My ethnographic approach is inspired by scholarship on online political
cultures that looks at the proliferation of digital communities and the ways that
computer-mediated communication shapes political thought and action (BjorkJames 2015; Coleman 2014; Juris 2008). The rise of new forms of US-based
white supremacy online has received a great deal of scholarly attention of late
(Bjork-James and Maskovsky 2017; Daniels 2009; Feagan 2013; Hawley 2017). I
explore online talk and sentiments about gender to help us to understand political reasoning and improvisation by alt-right proponents and to locate this within
the broader US right-wing political culture of the Trump era.
What’s new in the new white nationalism?
White nationalism is not a unified movement. It consists of a diverse set of political, social and cultural projects, communities, programs, organizations, and
activities. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that approximately 100
white nationalist groups were operating in the United States in 2018 (and the
number of groups had fluctuated between 95 and 146 since 2003) (SPLC n.d.).
Under the banner of white nationalism are what the Southern Poverty Law
Center would call “extremist” groups that elaborate explicit racist ideologies
rooted in long-standing ideas about white biological or cultural superiority and
that seek to transform the United States into a white ethno-state through violent means. Groups that make explicit claims about white superiority remain on
the fringe politically, but other groups have moved to the mainstream, mostly
through the work of the media-savvy alt-right leaders, who have been careful to
Engendering white nationalism
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emphasize white racial grievances and resentments and the need for white community restoration over overt arguments for racial superiority. With this tactic
they have found new audiences for their xenophobic and racist political projects
(Bjork-James and Maskovsky 2017).
The alt-right’s rising popularity cannot be attributed exclusively to the messaging of its leaders such as Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon, however. Significant shifts in US political culture and political economy have also facilitated its
newfound popularity. The freighting of national identity to white ethnic identity
has had a long inglorious history in the United States (Saxton 2003). There are,
however, several significant developments that make white nationalism in the
Trump era different from that of past eras.
A major contributing factor has been the prolonged crisis in political economy in the United States and across the globe and its attendant crisis in political legitimacy. At the economic level, neoliberal capitalism has been prone to
crisis since its inception in the late 1970s, and it has failed to guarantee freedom
or equality for most people. After the 2007–2008 financial crisis, finance-led
neoliberal capitalism has remained in place, but it has taken on an even more
dispossessive and hyper-exploitative form. It has become clear that in the eyes
of the global financial elites, the solution to the volatility and long-term crisis of
the political economy is the severe constraint on popular sovereignty, separating
it from capitalist decision-making, and giving almost dictatorial authority to the
central banks. But a full-fledged political crisis emerged after 2007–2008, when
neoliberals and neoconservatives alike were exposed as corrupt, ineffectual, and
beholden exclusively to economic elites. Political elites thus lost legitimacy long
before Trump was elected president—and his election is best understood as an
effect of this crisis, not its cause. The alt-right rose to prominence and expanded
its popular appeal precisely as this legitimacy crisis deepened.
Another factor contributing to the rise of the alt-right is the collapse of the
two competing forms of liberal centrist cosmopolitanism, which elaborate different and antagonistic racial projects even as they share a commitment to many
classic liberal values and to globalist dreams of one sort or another. The racial
projects of neoconservative and neoliberal variety—colorblindness and multiculturalism, respectively—eschew white supremacist ideologies, at least explicitly.
On the one hand, neoconservatives have made a political art form out of the selective appropriation of Civil-Rights-era political discourses about enfranchisement and equality to justify the rollback of Civil Rights legislation and policies
and to advance color-blind policy and post-racial ideology (Mullings 2005). For
their part, neoliberals have countered neoconservatism’s post-racialism with a
multiculturalist framework that recognizes and celebrates racial and ethnic differences, though the extent to which this recognition is linked substantively to
a robust vision of equal proprietorship of public institutions or to redress and
eradicate racial inequalities is hotly debated. If there was one similarity between
these two positions and one line that was not crossed in the culture wars from the
1980s to the 2000s, however, it was that whiteness was off the table as a project
160 Jeff Maskovsky
of national unification—or so it seemed. What is now clear in hindsight is the
extent to which both neoconservatives and neoliberals failed to address racially
inflected grievances expressed across the political spectrum.
The roots of this failure, at least with respect to the rise of a new white racial politics on the right, lies in the extent to which colorblindness was always
a stealth political strategy for advancing white nationalist political priorities in
the post-Civil Rights era, when explicit claims about white racial superiority
became politically unrespectable even as they remained rather popular among
the Republican base. Crypto race-baiting has been a hallmark of Republican
politics since the 1960s, when, in the context of the Civil Rights movement,
Republicans put concerted effort into appealing to white Southerners’ racial resentments to gain their support. The politics of white community grievances
found new adherents in the 1970s and beyond as white ethnicity became politically legitimate and even fashionable as a white ethnic identity politics formed
in direct reaction to Black Power and other militant protest movements of the
1960s and 1970s and as an alternative as well to elite WASP culture (Di Leonardo 1989; Steinberg 1981). During the Reagan era, the racialized and gendered
attack on the “welfare queen” was crucial to New Right anti-big-government
policy advances, the rise of supply-side economics, the breaking of the Fordist
social compact, the rollback on the social wage, the attack on affirmative action, and the rise of nonunionized postindustrialism (Di Leonardo 1989, 79–144;
Goode and Maskovsky 2001). The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s and the
neoconservative condemnation of “illiberal” causes such as affirmative action,
multiculturalism, “political correctness,” and liberal immigration policy helped
to further shift white ethnic politics to the right by linking the politics of white
ethnic pride to white racial resentments (Steinberg 2001).
The ideological assault against welfare dependency, multiculturalism, affirmative action, and big government widened considerably in the Bush era, especially
after 9/11. In this period, the basis for popular compassion and political support
for the poor, immigrants, and people of color diminished while new fractions of
the middle classes (especially lower- and middle-class white suburbanites) came
under fire and financial duress as the libertarian attack against government— any
government, not just big government—gained traction. “Welfare queens,” already vanquished in the 1990s by the Clinton-era welfare “reform,” were joined
by teachers and pensioned government employees as the new Republican targets:
“government-dependent” profligates living life too large off the government dime
(Angelo 2019, 153–176). Finally, during the Obama era, the attack on dependency
from the right intensified and was once again elaborated in explicitly racist terms.
The Obama administrative was effective in enforcing civil rights laws, reforming
immigration, expanding access to healthcare (though on terms set by the right in
the 1980s), and reviving the economy after the 2007–2008 financial crisis. But
the right was outraged by his soaring rhetoric about the audacity of hope, and his
ascent to the presidency itself was viewed by many as an affirmation of neoliberal
triumph (Esposito 2011). Importantly, #BlackLivesMatter and the Movement for
Engendering white nationalism
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Black Lives, with their critique of racialized state violence, also surfaced during
the Obama era, posing an overt challenge to some of the institutions where white
nationalism had festered and grown in recent decades, such as the criminal justice
system (Mullings 2020). Throughout all of this, neoliberal and neoconservative
governance struggled to manage “race relations” or to substantively address racial
inequalities or white grievances (Steinberg 2007).
A final element fueling the rise of the alt-right has been the rise of the politics
of sentiment. In a situation in which the reigning capitalist and racial ideologies
are unpopular, and in which neoliberal guarantees of prosperity for all and neoconservative moralizing can no longer persuade people, the politics of sentiment
is filling people’s hearts (Grossberg 2018; Maskovsky and Bjork-James 2020).
This combines with the fragmentation of the public sphere (Di Leonardo 1998)
such that facts, authority, expertise, and rationality have been frequently associated with flawed, ineffectual, elitist, and punishing forms of liberal governance
such as neoliberalism. Importantly, this critique has been leveled by groups across
the political spectrum. The denunciation of the “fake news” of the mainstream
media by Trump, his white nationalist supporters, and pundits on Fox News is
but one example of popular suspicion of elite forms of expertise and knowledge.
Other examples abound, from Black Lives Matter’s condemnation of CompStat
and other crime statistics as racist (Taylor 2016) to the revolt against vaccinations
in some quarters (Kata 2012). Overall, passion has not replaced rationality in
politics today, but in the current conjuncture, the politics of resentment, the rise
of angry publics, and the crisis over authority and knowledge culminate in a situation in which rage and resentment have been taken to new levels of intensity
in liberal democratic politics, bringing these politics to the breaking point. Moral
panics around sex and gender were pervasive during this period. Indeed, as we
shall see, the restoration of conventional white family “norms” around gender
hierarchies, proper gender comportment, public/private dichotomies, and the
exercise of authority in work and home have become an urgent set of political
preoccupations popularly, and are of central concern in particular to white nationalists in this situation.
Stop fighting nature: “traditional gender roles”
as white nationalist common sense
At the core of alt-right thought and action is a visceral, affective sense of masculinity in crisis and in need of restoration, and a celebration of masculine authority. In White Lies: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse,
Jessie Daniels (2016) documents the existence of a hegemonically white, heterosexual, masculine culture in the online communication associated with the
white supremacist group, Stormfront.org. My findings resonate strongly with
hers in many ways: the overt use of a white racial frame in nearly every alt-right
online post; the commonplace use of the Internet as a tool for harassment and intimidation; frequent comments against the LGBTQ community and in support
162 Jeff Maskovsky
of efforts to control sexuality in patriarchal and heterosexist ways; a global view
on white masculinity’s sources; a deep suspicion of democratic rules and norms,
which, many alt-right enthusiasts worry, work against the white community;
and a coercive, toxic use of irony and jocularity that brings the community together around the ridicule of its political opponents. Humor also works to deflect
accountability for the authors of seriously objectionable posts, the content of
which can be disavowed as a joke if necessary (Daniels 2009, 61–90).
Yet misogynistic elaborations of white racial identity have proliferated in the
decade since Daniels conducted her groundbreaking research. The alt-right community in 2020 seems even more deeply concerned about the demise of “traditional gender roles” and the need for their restoration than it was a decade ago.
This position is now frequently justified and legitimated by the use of universalistic claims about a natural order, discoverable by science, of relations between
men and women. According to many posts and comments to alt-right.com,
the academic and behaviorist flank of the liberal establishment marginalizes daring scientists who are purported to have proof of the existence of universal gender and racial differences, and the liberal establishment, so the story goes, fights
against human nature and against the truth of universal gender difference by insisting on universal gender equality. It should come as no surprise that this natural
order of things ideology makes women naturally submissive to male authority;
prioritizes women’s reproductive and child-rearing capacities to which all other
behaviors and sensibilities are tied; and views men as naturally more aggressive,
more public, and more capable of leadership and effective decision-making than
women. These sentiments correspond closely with those expressed by the online
men’s movement in the lead-up to Donald Trump’s election in 2016 (Dignam
and Rohlinger 2019).
Central to the alt-right’s politics is thus the effort to denigrate, shame, devalue, and pathologize people who violate the norms of the purported natural
order. The cast of characters who have waged war on human nature is long, and
the rationale for condemning various violators is as nuanced and impressive as
they are dangerous and sexist. As such, among the alt-right, a great deal of ire has
been directed at feminists, Hillary Clinton, “sluts,” “welfare queens,” women
with too many tattoos, and other wayward woman who are viewed as threats
to the white race. I found that transgender people, feminists, and “the liberal
establishment” were at the top of the alt-right hate list. Transgender people are
often described as violators of a natural order rooted in universal gender differences. Alt-right enthusiasts also describe “the liberal establishment,” especially
feminists, as suppressors of knowledge of this natural order. Here is how Russell James, a Stormfront.org frequent poster, explained the problem of feminism
from a white nationalist perspective, in 2019:
“Feminism” was never about equality between the sexes. (I use quotes
around the word “feminism” because let’s face it, there’s nothing feminine
about it.)…. Men and women are not the same, they have very different
Engendering white nationalism
163
musculoskeletal systems, reproductive systems, and brains. Which translates into profoundly different abilities and capabilities. In turn, this means
they have profoundly different roles and profoundly different sets of responsibilities. Traditionally the role of women was to have babies, breast
feed them (the two things that not only do women do better than men,
but men can’t do at all), and take care of the home. Men were responsible
for provisioning and protecting the family. Modernity abstracts the role
of men, making it look as if anyone can do it. But the truth is, men still
do those things much better than women. This is borne-out by all the
evidence. For example, it is well known that single mother households
are far less prosperous than family environments in which the father is
present. And that prosperity isn’t just financial. Not only do two-parent
and single-father households make more money, but the children do better
in life in every category. They’re more educated, less prone to criminality, less likely to have children out of wedlock, and more likely to feel
more “fulfilled” in every way. “Feminism” encourages women to pursue
meaningless “careers” in place of doing what comes natural, i.e. have and
raise children.… It’s clear that men and women can never be “equal.” If
we were the same, then there would be no point in having two sexes, we
would have only one sex…. The funders and organizers of “feminism”
understand that the sexes are complementary rather than “equal,” so why
do they promote the contrived concept of “equality between the sexes.”
What is their real aim? The answer is clear to anyone who has spent any
time pondering the question. They’re trying to destroy Western Civilization and “feminism” is one of a handful of Cultural-Marxist “movements”
(along with multi-culturalism, queerism, socialism, hyper-consumerism,
etc.) they using to do it. “Feminism’s” purpose is to weaponize women
against men and children.
Posts like this are not atypical. Of equal importance are the time and attention
given to shaming emasculated men—men who are too weak to assume the properly aggressive posture needed to defend their race, restore their culture, and
honor their heritage. Perhaps the critique of weak men is best exemplified by
the condemnation of “cuckservatives,” or cuckolded white conservatives, who
surrender their honor, masculinity, and their womenfolk by supporting policies
such as criminal justice and immigration reform and who exhibit an unhealthy
dependency on the liberal establishment.
Underlying these themes is an old story about biology, sex, and gender. Altright protagonists seek to use just-so stories about “universal gender difference”
and human nature to justify and legitimate a hyper-masculinist authoritarianism
counterpoint to liberal multiculturalism and feminist orthodoxy. The alt-right
critique of liberalism is rooted in a Romantic view (Löwy and Sayre 2001) that
seeks to replace liberal modernity’s excesses, especially, so their argument goes,
its purported aspiration for racial and gender equality, with an anti-globalist
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nationalism. Frequent alt-right.com poster Vincent Law wrote a think piece
called “Women are Nature’s Greatest Nationalists” in 2017 that was later reposted
on Stormfront.org. Noting that women are more “hardcore and patriotic” than
men in Russia but that this is not the case in the “West,” he pondered how race,
nationalism, and gender work together in nature. “Women are sub-rationally
pursuing their own biological imperative at all times,” he wrote, followed by a
complicated argument about the way that women respond to “evolutionary pressures” that make them both more tied to their ethnic communities but also more
likely to leave them if those communities are threatened by a more powerful outside group. Implicitly, in his view, it is women’s reproductive capacity and their
essential child-rearing capacities and obligations that have created a situation in
which they either demand protection from men of their ethnic group or leave the
group to seek the protection of other ethnic nationals. For their part, men can
sometimes appear more passive than women in their defense of the tribe/nation,
because the threat of violence is more real for men than it is for women because
men are inherently active while women are passive. He wrote:
The men feel a reluctance to go as hardcore as the women because that
would necessitate action. I’ve heard Russian girls say that muds are subhumans with a casual breeziness that blew me away. They say these things
though and then go back to being cute and being feminine girls. They
aren’t going to pick up the AKs anytime soon, no matter how much they
hate the hachis. But if a man starts thinking like this … there’s a chance he
might have to act on his conclusions. And so men are more careful in what
they allow themselves to believe, or openly say. Because it has the potential
to have actual consequences. Only after women sniff the air and see which
way the wind is blowing, and when the situation becomes dire do they
start hedging their bets, or engaging in open treachery to their own tribe.
This is arguably the state of Scandinavia and much of the Anglo-Sphere as
things stand now. But beyond the Hajnal line, there’s still some fight left …
which is why I lay off the woman hate while I’m there.
Accompanying the idea of women as the handmaidens to their ethnic brothers
in arms is thus the heterosexist idea that they are biologically programmed also
to be disloyal to the tribe/nation. For Law, this disloyalty has already reached
epic proportions in the “Anglo-Sphere,” making women-hating a reasonable
response there. In contrast, women have not yet reached this stage of treachery
in Russia, Law seems to think, presumably because of its more deeply entrenched
and less-contested gender hierarchies. I am as interested in teasing out the elegant, if deeply troubling, gendered racial heterosexist nationalistic logic at work
in his thinking as I am in invalidating his ethnographic claims. Indeed, this logic,
let us call it an alt-right political rationality, prevails across the white nationalist
media world. We can see it, for example, in the certainty with which Breitbart
posters dismissed the credibility of Christine Blasey Ford, a woman they see as
Engendering white nationalism
165
disloyal not just because her testimony threatened Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme
Court nomination. She lacked credibility also because she was a white woman
whose actions, professional status, and assertiveness challenged the foundations
of the white nationalist gendered racial order and as such she posed a threat to
white community restoration. Law’s piece further gives us some clues about the
ideological source of Donald Trump’s love of Russia and Vladimir Putin (cf.,
Ashwin and Utrata 2020). Every pro-Russia, pro-Putin comment that Donald
Trump would make worked like a dog whistle for alt-right members whose blog
posts are frequently praising strong and masculine Russia in contrast to a weak
and feminized West.
This leads me to my final point about the people who make up the alt-right’s
rank and file. Women in the white nationalist media world are famously invisible
and underrepresented (Daniels 2009). There is an obvious reason for this: even
cursory attention to alt-right blog posts reveals visceral expressions of misogyny. Women-hating is an alt-right national pastime. My perusal of the alt-right
mediascape gives me the impression of a space comprised of aging men who are
fed up by what they see as a lifetime of disrespect, elaborated mostly in terms of
their wounded whiteness and imperiled masculinity, and of young men (some of
whom openly identify as Incels [involuntary celibates]), whose embrace of white
racial identification and pride is inseparable from their expression of hatred of
women. Given the extent of misogyny in the posts, it would seem that hating
women is an essential feature of alt-right white identity.
Yet, woman-hating also undermines alt-right movement building. Indeed,
many alt-right leaders see women as important to the cause because their presence softens the movement’s reputation, helping it to gain mainstream acceptance. Indeed, many alt-right leaders see women as crucial for their ability to help
to recruit men. In a comment that resonates with Law’s claims about women,
race, and nationalism, an alt-right pundit told a writer from Harper’s Magazine
that women are the “lionesses and shield maidens and Valkyries” that inspire
men to fight for the future of white civilization. “What really drives men is
women,” she explained, “and, let’s be honest, sex with women” (quoted in Darby
2017). And there are women posters to alt-right websites. Here is one example:
Anti-PC pundit and University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson made a
series of comments and tweets about “the pathologies of racial pride,” as part of
his long-term crusade against liberal and left “identity politics” (Bartlett 2018).
But this perspective ran afoul of white nationalist sensibilities as well, as one
woman on alt-right.com pointed out in a lengthy post from 2018:
As the daughter of an (M.D.) psychoanalyst, I have witnessed Jew/shabbos
goy [sic] pseudo-intellectual fraudulence in the psych field for my entire
life…. Red flags are everywhere with this guy. One thing that really stood
out to me was the ‘recommended reading list’ on his website, because it
looks like it was created by social workers in the employ of the World Zionist Union. Peterson is now raking in tens of thousands of Patreon shekels
166 Jeff Maskovsky
from mislead individuals simply because he didn’t toe the Party Line on
pronouns. But he’s the biggest intellectual fraud of this entire movement.
Boycott, divest and sanction from Jordan Peterson—now.
The anti-Semitism expressed here is further confirmation that what is at stake
on the alt-right is not just an end to the attack on an imperiled white minority,
as its main protagonists frame it for popular consumption. The threat extends as
well to nature itself and to a set of racial and gender hierarchies that are closely
sutured together by passionate devotion to the just-so stories about science and
nature that have circulated popularly and in some academic circles for decades, if
not longer (Gutmann 2019; Lancaster 2003).
And there is a class story here as well. The alt-right is generally disdainful
of economic and political elites and suspicious of finance and monopoly capital.
This disdain is, of course, frequently expressed in explicitly anti-Semitic terms,
as it was during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August
2017 (Green 2017). The alt-right leadership seeks to inspire particular fractions of
the white middle and working classes with its rhetoric of pseudoscientific stories
about gender, and with its promises of economic prosperity for white men, their
womenfolk, and their families, frequently elaborated in precisely these terms.
And it is these groups who are contrasted to purportedly uppity feminists whose
presumed deceitfulness is rooted in part in their elite class position, as the quotes
at the start of this chapter indicate.
To call the racist, misogynistic, heterosexist, and authoritarian logics that inspire belonging in the alt-right digital world politically dangerous would be a
gross understatement. But an analytical point also needs to be made about the
nature of the alt-right’s misogyny. There is a contradiction at the heart of it:
women are desirable but inherently distrusted. They are politically necessary for
the movement and the white race’s survival, because only they have the power
to spur wimpy, emasculated men into action, yet they are politically unreliable.
Managing this contradiction is a major preoccupation for the movement. Exposing the alt-right’s deep-seated misogyny, and its contradictions, is an essential
task for those who would seek to undermine its popularity and neutralize its
influence.
Towards the abolition of white nationalism
I have argued in this chapter that gender is more than just a marker of difference in alt-right thought. It is a set of essential ideological precepts that sutures
together and helps to legitimate a worldview that links condemnation of the
liberal establishment with an infinite number of existential threats to the white
race, from transgender people, to ineffectual and ideologically compromised
conservatives, to immigrants and Black Americans—all groups whose rejection of racial and gender differences has caused the white race to suffer (see
also Hochschild 2016). In this formulation, tolerance and the celebration of
Engendering white nationalism
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difference as an intrinsic social good is dangerous, and Donald Trump’s xenophobic nativism, racist attack on Black America, and his public misogyny
have been music to many a white nationalist’s ears. Yet I think Trump was
more a follower in the movement than a leader, insofar as he drew upon the
interpretive frameworks of the alt-right to make sense of politics and current
events. Abolishing white nationalism thus requires more than just the electoral
defeat of Donald Trump. What is also needed is an anti-racist political program.
There is a long history on the academic left to disregard or underestimate racism’s entrenched capacities to shape political, social, and economic life in the
United States. As I have written elsewhere (Maskovsky 2020), this was particularly acute during the Trump presidency, when calls could be heard from
the social democratic left to use a program of economic populism to overcome
Trump-era ethnonationalism. Yet it is my view that only an explicitly antiracist politics can hope to diminish white nationalism’s popular and political
influence, as the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements demonstrated against
similar foes in past eras and as we saw occurring in June 2020 in the protests
against police violence and the reinvigoration of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I will add here the importance of the fight for gender equality as well,
which cannot be deferred while other political battles are waged, particularly
since the alt-right has coupled gender and race in its vision of a white nation.
The work of building, aligning with, supporting, and acting in solidarity with
anti-racist and anti-sexist political projects should continue as a priority that
shapes our scholarly agendas.
Coda: an ethnographic refusal
This chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the ethical predicaments that we
encounter when studying white nationalism. Such considerations of the ethical
dilemmas that emerge in studies of political groups that we see as threats and
whose ideologies we ultimately seek to abolish are important. I want to elaborate
here, tentatively and without any sort of sanctimony, a brief sketch for what an
abolitionist anthropology of white nationalism might look like. For many of
these ideas, I am indebted to people of color scholarship, especially that of Black
feminists and Indigenous scholars who have written against the plantation system and its afterlife and against settler-colonialism (Haley 2016; Shange 2019;
Simpson 2014).
How should we write about the people with whom we are not aligned, people we oppose politically, and groups we seek to defeat, whose ideologies we
have an urgent need to abolish? This has been a long-standing issue of concern
in feminist and decolonial scholarship (e.g., Abu-Lughod 2002; Mbembe 2015;
Simpson 2014), which has pointed out the insufficiencies of using the idea of
cultural relativism to justify or legitimate anthropological inquiries into groups
we oppose and see as dangerous. In a critique of a recent article by Jon Anderson
(2017) that describes the ethical systems of gun enthusiasts in the United States,
168 Jeff Maskovsky
and the ways they justify gun ownership and use in the aftermath of mass shootings, Hugh Gusterson wrote:
Anderson bends over backward to see the gun debate from his natives’
point of view … My point [is] that we risk naturalizing the ideology of
gun owners if our explication of their worldview is not balanced either by
critique or by the juxtaposition of a contrary community’s viewpoint….
While it is surely bad ethnographic form, lazily indulging our ideological
reflexes, to simply condemn our human subjects, it is also problematic to
just recite their worldview without pushing the conversation deeper, probing for friction between belief and reality.
(2017, 59)
I could not agree more with Gusterson.
But pushing the conversation deeper also requires the explicit unsettling of
the liberal logics that tend to inform ethnographic writing and that establishes
the foundational anthropological premise that knowledge of the other is an intrinsic scholarly good. Audra Simpson has written about refusal at some length,
to mark a difference in her way of writing about Indigenous peoples in North
America (McGranahan 2016; Simpson 2014, 2017). Simpson has refused to represent Indigenous people in her analyses as people who “had all things been
equal would have consented to have things taken, things stolen from them”
(2017, 12). This requires a refusal to represent Indigenous groups as living in
cultural worlds defined by settler-colonial logics, the refusal, in short, to represent Indigenous groups as locked singularly in battles with states that overpower
them, and instead to consider the ways that they never accepted the power of
those states in the first place.
I want to take Simpson’s idea of ethnographic refusal here and see if it can
be applied usefully to the study not just of those who themselves refuse the
settler-colonial logics that frequently set the terms of their depiction but also of
those who are the political proponents of those logics. Let me explain further.
As I suggest above, I am leery of applying a conventional “explaining the other”
ethnographic approach to the question of gender politics in the alt-right and its
allied groups. Take the example of J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy (2016), as
a cautionary tale that reveals the limits and limitations of this strategy. This book
provides a portrait of multigenerational poverty in Appalachia, and the challenges poor whites face in maintaining middle-class positions in the face of drug
addiction, workforce precarity, and their alienation from middle-class standards
and values. In popular and some academic circles, it became an inappropriate
stand-in for an ethnographically informed account of the white nationalist rank
and file (e.g. Senior 2016). One reason for why this is inappropriate is that a vastly
different, and more affluent, segment of the white working and middle classes
would be the proper ethnographic subjects for such an account. In fact, the author himself, a Yale law school graduate and potential US senate candidate, has
Engendering white nationalism
169
more in common with white nationalist supporters of Trump than did the many
less affluent relatives he wrote about in his book.
A somewhat more successful attempt to explain the rank and file of the right
in the United States has been Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land
(2016). This book locates the widely held convictions that Black and Brown
people are “cutting in line” ahead of more deserving white people, liberals are
elitists, and the federal government is to blame for undermining the basis of
honor and dignity of the Louisiana residents (Hochschild’s ethnographic subjects) in a moral economy that recognizes the harsh realities of capitalism and the
sacrificial citizenship that success in the United States now requires. Yet I worry
about what kind of political project emerges from Hochschild’s ethnographic
account. In the book’s afterword, she tells us. People on the right felt affirmed by
her depictions of people similar to themselves while liberals were outraged that
she gave voice to their political opponents. Hochschild understands the difficulties of drawing easy political lessons from her ethnographic material. In the end,
she suggests programs that enable young people to cross the partisan divide, to
learn about the lives of others, and to gain a sense of the other’s alienation. I am
sure that this would do some good. But it puts those who are heavily invested
in gendered and racialized political violence and those who are targeted by that
violence on far too even a playing field. Hochschild imagines some inherent
progress from mutual experiences of shared vulnerability. She does not provide a
way for us to address the harm that white community grievances routinely cause
those who are cast out of the category of the human by them.
What if we refuse to use ethnography to get to know white nationalists on
these kinds of intimate ethnographic terms and insist instead on recognizing
them as the central protagonists in the project of producing and reproducing
hierarchies of human differences (Weheliye 2014)? What if we refuse to use ethnography in the attempt to find the hidden cultural mechanism for convincing
white nationalists to “switch sides”? What if we instead put ethnography to use
in identifying the political repertoires of white nationalist groups so that they
can be defeated? I am not suggesting stripping the humanity of the oppressors.
However, they deserve to be taken seriously as political subjects who act of their
own volition in ways that are fundamentally invested in the oppression and subjugation of others. We need to understand the political capacities of the groups
they form, the extent of the popularity of their ideas, and the dilemmas they face
in putting together a coherent political program.
I want to embrace the idea of ethnographic refusal in another sense as well.
In addition to refusing to make white nationalists’ cultural worlds known so
that their secret anguish can be placated, à la Hochschild, I also want to refuse to condone the liberal sanctimony and outrage that might follow from my
analysis above. As outrageous and dangerous as their worldview is, liberal outrage is precisely what white nationalists expect from their political opponents.
And they use its expression very effectively to score political points about liberal
cosmopolitans’ elitism and hypocrisy. Indeed, the widespread condemnation of
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Jeff Maskovsky
Trump’s racism actually worked politically to reinforce the sense of grievance felt
by many who held white nationalist sensibilities, because those who harbored
white community resentments frequently felt unfairly characterized as racists by
the anti-Trump commentary. Overcoming the long-standing political maneuver
of treating the accusation of racism as worse than racism itself is an essential part
of the effort to abolish white nationalism.
What we need to think through together is what kind of ethnographic practice can help to abolish white nationalism. What kind of analyses do we need to
advance a political victory against illiberal forms of racism that does not settle for
reviving the neoliberal governing programs that created the conditions for the
white nationalist recent upsurge in the first place? What kind of anthropology
do we need that helps us to think of other political possibilities, those that take
gender, sex, race, and class seriously and that imagine the new political possibilities that might surface in the defeat of Trump-era white nationalism? In other
words, what we need as anthropologists and as people is more than just the defeat of white supremacy in all of its permutations. We also need to develop new
forms of political thought and action that go beyond both white nationalism and
neoliberal rule to create something that actually looks like justice, freedom, and
equality.
Acknowledgments
This chapter has benefited from the insights from those who gave comments
when I presented an earlier version at the annual meetings of the American
Anthropological Association on a session honoring the work of Sandra Morgen
and in an invited talk at the University of Colorado-Bolder. An earlier version
of a part of the first subsection of this chapter was published in: Maskovsky, Jeff.
2020. “Other People’s Race Problem: Trumpism and the Collapse of the Liberal
Racial Con…
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