White supremacy is everywhere: How do we fight a concept that has so thoroughly permeated our politics and culture?

Second in a series: Forget the KKK — white supremacy's effects go well beyond the alt-right and the Republicans

Published May 14, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

Members of the Ku Klux Klan participate in cross burnings in rural Paulding County, Ga, April 23, 2016.   (AP/John Bazemore)
Members of the Ku Klux Klan participate in cross burnings in rural Paulding County, Ga, April 23, 2016. (AP/John Bazemore)

Mr. [David] Duke pledges to oppose any new tax increase. He wants to toss the able-bodied off welfare, stop payments to drug users and freeze benefits to welfare mothers who keep having children. He favors tougher penalties for crime and an end to "unjust affirmative action," i.e., all reverse discrimination, whether quotas or racial set-asides. … He opposes gun control, wants the United States to halt illegal immigration, and would slash foreign aid.
— Patrick J. Buchanan, 1991

In the first part of this series, I focused on some of the history of white supremacy, particularly its late 20th-century versions, which continue to have so much influence today upon the current alt-right movement. It’s important to understand this history — some of which enters into truly exotic terrain — to understand the continuity of ideas, and to realize that we are not facing anything really new in the current manifestation of white supremacy.

But there’s a more mundane side to white supremacy, which deserves to be studied with as much attention: the way in which white supremacy works in and through institutions that we otherwise think of as legitimate to the core, and even essential to the workings of liberal democracy. If we explore how this has occurred recently, then we can no longer push white supremacy aside as an ideology that can be prevented from infecting so-called “mainstream” institutions. I’m thinking primarily of political parties, but once we admit that white supremacy is a fundamental influence on how parties reinvent and calibrate themselves, then this necessarily sweeps the social organism as a whole into the indictment.

White supremacy implies a certain logic that is inimical to that of the Enlightenment (the foundation of modern democracy). It is no coincidence that much of contemporary white supremacy continues to focus on the Illuminati and Freemasons as the disseminators of “secular humanism” (i.e., the core values of the Enlightenment), or that conspiracy theory mines the same territory when it takes on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (attacked as a worldwide conspiracy to bring about godless materialism) or such obsessions as the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the rest of the institutions associated with the New World Order (largely meaning the forces of globalization). Against the Enlightenment, which is said to lead to the weakening of the nation as an embodiment of the pure idea of race, the white supremacist insists on separation of races as his natural right. Against mongrelization, the white supremacist desires purity.

[jwplayer file="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/438ce4e7a1853ab201271a22bd727763.mp4" image="http://media.salon.com/2017/05/f37c4e37269fdc4b6a93c719f7dd31aa-1280x720.png][/jwplayer]

This would not be so worrisome if it were a fringe notion, but has the logic of white supremacy become the predominant American value system? If this is the case, then to identify and persecute secret fringe groups is not only a waste of time but counterproductive, since it ignores the larger problem of the thought process that has taken over the way we conduct business publicly.

Can the alt-left’s irrationality fight the alt-right’s irrationality?

The critique of the conspiracists — with their usual aforementioned targets of the Bilderbergers, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, etc., all passing under the rubric of the NWO, orchestrated by the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) — has merged too much with the mainstream populist critique of the globalist elites for us to treat conspiracy theory as a separate entity.

Michael Barkun, one of the leading scholars of religion and the far right, calls the kinds of knowledge that conspiracy theory traffics in “stigmatized knowledge.” Among the kinds of stigmatized knowledge, he includes “forgotten, superseded, ignored, rejected and suppressed knowledge.” Much of the time conspiracy theorists are trying to bring to the fore these kinds of knowledge, which, for Trump supporters, the peddlers of “fake news” are said not to be interested in treating seriously.

Yet I would argue that the broader culture has become so invested in its own conspiracy theories that the knowledge the extreme right owns and disseminates as stigmatized knowledge is easily assimilated in regular channels. In a culture of general irrationality, there cannot be an oppositional culture of irrationality.

Is the left any less immune to paranoia or hysteria than the right? The mania for physical perfection, the aversion to the reality of aging and death, the belief in a kind of identity politics that hinges on deliberate avoidance of the structural foundations of empire, the prevalence of narcissist/confessionalist expression in all the arts and creative endeavors, the constant self-justification in the form of demonizing various deplorables -- all these urges seem to me typical of the irrational, anti-Enlightenment, conspiratorial mindset of what we might call the contemporary alternative left, or alt-left. I will elaborate on my concept of the alt-left in a future essay, but to the extent that the underlying structures of white supremacy (which actually benefit the “meritocratic” neoliberal elites) are not part of the alt-left’s critique, these structures are left alone to fester, to thrive, to become more important than they need to be.

The difference from the alt-right is that the alt-left can claim cultural legitimacy for its forms of conspiracy, one of whose main targets is, ironically, white supremacy. Some scholars think that conspiracy theory inevitably leads to racism. The link between conspiracy and white supremacy is predictable, they believe. But if this is true, then why shouldn’t it apply to conspiracy theory on the left? Under neoliberalism, which separates the personal from the political, the alt-left has operated along the same basic philosophical continuum as the alt-right. The last election, in my view, was contested between two forms of irrationality, the alt-right and the alt-left.

The two Pats (Robertson and Buchanan) show the way to normalize white supremacy

But perhaps not in the way you might think. Let’s take Pat Robertson first. In September 1991 he published the book “New World Order,” propagating his fears of a “one-world government under a centralized authority.” Writing a new foreword to his book, Robertson noted that the coup that had attempted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia was a stage-managed affair, a harbinger of great turmoil in the coming decades because of the excessive power of the elites this coup revealed: “There must be world government, a world police force, world courts, world banking and currency, and a world elite in charge.” This probably meant the end of Christianity as well. Robertson, with such views, competed in the 1988 Republican primaries and remained a mainstream political force all through the 1990s.

The question that arises is why those with similar (though more radical) views, such as Francis Parker Yockey (author of the fascist tract “Imperium”) or George Lincoln Rockwell (founder of the American Nazi Party), could not dream of contending for the leadership of a major political party in the 1950s and '60s. Robertson did get in trouble for relying on anti-Semitic sources such as Nesta Webster, and sought to preserve his innocence against such charges. But much of his critique, if removed from racism, turns into something the conventional left of the time could have bought into. Whereas Robertson believed that the first Gulf War was orchestrated in order for “the nations of the world to forget for a time their own claims of sovereignty in order to submerge their interests into that of a worldwide authority such as the United Nations,” the left need only replace the word “United Nations” with the “United States” for the conspiracy to fuse.

Here is someone we would think of as an archetypal (Christian) white supremacist uttering such thoughts as “during colonialism the wealth of the colonies was used for the benefit of the mother country, the white plantation owners, and the white traders and business men.” Updating this to modern times, Robertson observes that “the United States [is not] anxious to have Zaire become a net exporter of agricultural products in competition with … [its] own farmers.” When Robertson expresses his concern that “At the central core is a belief in the superiority of … [the Establishment’s] own skill to form a world system in which enlightened monopolistic capitalism can bring all of the diverse currencies, banking systems, credit, manufacturing, and raw materials into one government-supervised whole, policed of course by their world army,” would Occupy-style activists take much issue with this worry about what is, in essence, the 1 percent?

For Pat Buchanan too, the idea of the forgotten middle class has been a convenient receptacle for aspects of white supremacy that seemed palatable enough for electoral politics. In various stages of philosophical development, the extinction of the middle class has become seen as equivalent to extinction of the white race.

The lines between supremacy and populism have become (mostly) indiscernible

A central bank — for Robertson, for Buchanan, for Ron Paul — is an instrument of tyranny by which the traditional freedoms of the people are gradually taken away. The late 20th- and early 21st-century white supremacists seem to have been articulating a vision of the world that is obsessively money-centric. Power is always hidden, but it has gone behind more impenetrable screens in its postmodern manifestations, so that science, academia and government — authority in all its forms — are suspect. If there are false messiahs to be exposed, then logic suggests that a real messiah must be discovered. Both right and left share in this form of spirituality, where the “grand design” of the elites is defeated by forms of anarchism, recognizing our organic interdependencies. To the alt-right, this recognition entails racial separation; to the alt-left, identity politics (another form of racial separation).

Buchanan’s detailed intellectual foray, “The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy” (1998), is his explanation of the two Americas: Second Wave America (“a land of middle-class anxiety, down-sized hopes, and vanished dreams, where economic insecurity is a preexisting condition of life, and company towns become ghost towns overnight”) versus Third Wave America (the “bankers, lawyers, diplomats, investors, lobbyists, academics, journalists, executives, professionals, high-tech entrepreneurs…. [who are] buoyant and optimistic”).

White supremacy enters the picture for Buchanan because he thinks we did it to ourselves: Our elites destroyed our standard of living by committing to a globalist agenda, bringing about the division between Second and Third Wave America, and opening up our borders to immigrants and unfair trade (thus ending white supremacy, which in paleoconservative circles can go by the designation “Western civilization”). Again, the connection between the central bank’s illegitimate power and the destruction of our way of life, by way of the age-old master plan working its way from the Illuminati to the Trilateral Commission, is manifest. The most charitable explanation for Buchanan (as a crucial forerunner of Trump) we can come up with is that he deploys white supremacy as a subsidiary appeal in his fight against the plot to undermine American national sovereignty.

Let’s bring Ann Coulter and Michael Savage into the picture

Ann Coulter is probably fixed in the left-liberal imagination as an unabashed white supremacist, since she has openly expressed support for genocidal strategies and tactics. Exhibiting an extreme form of Islamophobia, she has argued that “we should invade their [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Yet I would argue that Coulter can be seen as more of a populist, who has admittedly used forms of white supremacy when necessary to buttress her argument, which betrays the same concerns about the hidden sources of power that more conventional white supremacists — such as Yockey, Rockwell, Willis Carto, and others — exhibited throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Coulter’s 2011 book “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America," for instance, demonizes liberals more than any other group. If nonwhites come under fire it is mostly because they support liberals or because liberals support them, not for their existential condition per se — or so it seems for the most part. The self-presentation of Coulter, like recent white supremacists who have preceded her, is as the voice of reason, resolutely opposed to the liberty-destroying “mob,” namely modern Constitution-hating liberals. Interestingly, she presents conservatives as skeptical interrogators of their own leaders, compared to the messianic quest of liberals (manifested through figures like Obama and the Clintons). Her primary argument seems to be that it is liberals who unfairly demonize conservatives, and she even takes on, repeatedly and obsessively, liberals’ preoccupation with conspiracy theories.

I suggest that a figure like Coulter is able to turn liberal rationality on its head because there is no such thing as liberal rationality to contend with anymore; otherwise, she would be a universal figure of fun, defeated and discredited in a moment. She blames liberals for dehumanizing white working-class voters and suggests that conservatives retain skepticism toward what the government tells them; if they fell, for example, for the weapons of mass destruction claim about Iraq, well, liberals did too, and conservatives eventually came out of their stupor. And she expresses the familiar (white supremacist) concern about the elites' undertaking to reshape the mass mentality (as with Hillary Clinton’s famous “politics of meaning” speech during her husband’s first term), the fatal illness bequeathed by the French Revolution that all supremacists seem to worry about.

In essence, Coulter is attacking the character of liberals as demented, mob-like, conspiratorial elitists — the ultimately un-American temperament. One would think that she was upholding some kind of anarchic standard as a way forward, but for someone whose main job is character assassination the path forward is not a big consideration.

So far, at least on the record of a text like "Demonic," there is nothing overtly white supremacist about Coulter, and the same is true of Michael Savage’s 2014 bestseller “Stop the Coming Civil War: My Savage Truth." Here too, demonic liberals are making war on the culture (by opening up borders), on the U.S. military (by emasculating it), on the middle class (by favoring the rich), on medicine (by supporting Obamacare), on civil rights (by taking away guns), on science (by believing in climate control) and on schools (by affirmative action). But where is white supremacy in all this? Is this the form white supremacy has assumed lately, becoming so implicated in “conservative” policy that it can barely be detected?

Has white supremacy expanded beyond strictly drawn boundaries?

“Hate” is said to be crucial to white supremacy because it is the impulse whereby the detested other is expelled from the pure constitution of society. This means that for white supremacy to function, the in-group would have to be clearly defined, as would various others in need of expulsion for their own good and for the good of the host society. Hatred can be incited in the form of hate speech, and ultimately hate crimes, whose final manifestation is the state embarking on ethnic cleansing. The protection of the nation-state comes into the picture (as with the two Pats, and as with Coulter, Savage and other talk show propagandists) as the locus for the protection of the race; the nation must be protected to keep America for Americans. The purpose of violence is to demonstrate, from time to time, the power of the purist elements.

This is the standard explanation of white supremacy, and it rests on the existence of the mass politics that came into being at the beginning of the 20th century. The problem of homogeneity, of fighting against conformity, suddenly became the paramount spiritual issue with the victory of industrial civilization. Propaganda is the tool whereby the conformity imposed by the conspiracist cabal can be defeated by the embattled in-group. Hence, modern explanations of forms of supremacy rely on a separation between the normal personality and the authoritarian one (susceptible to propaganda). Such explanations as Theodor Adorno’s in “The Authoritarian Personality” (1950) — which have found a lot of traction with American intellectuals in the wake of Trump’s triumph — offer sociopolitical justifications that abound in questionable definitions of abnormality.

On the other hand, the socioeconomic explanation — whose major American exponents were Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab in “The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970” (1970) — relies on the “losers” from modernization constructing defense mechanisms, such as racism, to protect their lost cultural authority. This would apply to the vast demographic and social changes taking place in America in the 1960s and '70s, and the even more significant changes due to globalization from the 1990s onward. This “politics of backlash” explanation would apply to the Trump phenomenon as well, but note that ultimately this explanation also relies on personality as the hinge. Economic changes are important only insofar as they trigger personality changes leading to racial prejudice, particularly among the white lower middle class. These are not theories of causality, nor do they have much predictive value. How in earth do we — as in the case of the Trump victory — separate expressions of frustration from expressions of ideological support?

But more importantly, to the extent that the standard explanation is utterly confounded in contemporary times, the whole structure falls apart. Here we get into the mistaken identification of Coulter, et al., as designated white supremacists, when they are merely part of a structure of psychological exchanges that spares no one. Is hatred exclusive to the right? How is it even possible to define hatred? If liberals want to deprive white supremacists of certain rights necessary to the continuation of their propaganda, does that also classify as hatred? Have white supremacists succeeded in defining and closing off their in-group, or is it susceptible to penetration by outsiders? Is the nation-state a sacred precinct for white supremacists in general, or are some or all of them moving past the nation-state ideal?

Who excels at demonstrations of violence as power, of propaganda as bludgeon — the state or race supremacists? We think we understand Timothy McVeigh’s frustrations, but what is the (intended) demonstration effect of all the recent violence committed against African-Americans, particularly in the concluding years of the Obama administration? What was the power of establishment propaganda (and to what ends?) in the 2016 election, compared to the power of the propaganda of Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon, Alex Jones and similar provocateurs? When Barack Obama’s anti-immigrant machinery was ramped up to the tune of millions of deportations, was that white supremacy in practice? What happens to explanations of the authoritarian personality, or even socioeconomic triggering changes, in such a setup? Is there more than a touch of the authoritarian personality in the modern liberal, whether or not we care to admit it?

If we traced all the manifestations of the modern American liberal authoritarian personality, what threads would unravel in the story about white supremacy we are trying to tell ourselves? Does the preservation of empire (not the nation-state, as is said to be the case for petty-minded lower-middle-class whites) compel forms of authoritarianism among upper-middle-class whites that constitute a form of supremacy we are not ready to come to terms with? Moreover, in a spiritual sense, do educated white liberals — those we think of as the winners — feel themselves “losers” in the global economy in ways that we haven’t understood?

Certainly, “secular humanism” is the adversary for the religious right, but I would argue that the alt-left betrays equal concern about the anarchic (and certainly individualistic) manifestations humanism compels; both alt-right and alt-left are united today in fighting forms of depravity, only their definitions differ. Most revealingly, both alt-right and alt-left share equally horrifying apocalyptic visions, only their manifestations being different.

The American party system is a dual transmission belt for white supremacy

To give credence to the contemporary popular image of white supremacists, one would have to accept that they are in some sort of Herculean contest with the political party structure. One would have to grant that the grassroots white supremacist movement has mostly been a failure, for the movement to still feel so embattled and on the fringes. But if we look at the policy level, for both Republicans and Democrats, on nearly everything white supremacists support — from their exaggerated belief in the “free market” to conspiratorial scapegoating of others, from their support of the patriarchy to orthodox religion — the country has shifted dramatically toward their camp.

Anti-Communists, racists, Christians and neoconservatives — the division Sara Diamond famously came up with for right-wingers between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War — no longer function as separate categories. Each of these manifestations of the right has merged and blurred to such an extent that to pose a classification such as white supremacy, standing somehow apart from the others, is no longer tenable. Of course these groups still contest each other — the neoconservatives would not like to be thought of as racists, while the Cato Institute thinks of itself as libertarian rather than social traditionalist — but what has happened is the transmutation and reformation of white supremacy as an ideology that has absorbed elements of libertarianism, neoconservatism, social traditionalism, anti-Communism and anti-immigration to become something that defines the progress of both the parties.

This is one way to understand how the Christian right — which seemed to be the major bugbear of liberals at one time — does not seem to have risen to dominance in the way we would have expected in the 1990s; the Christian right too became absorbed in an intellectualized version of white supremacy. This also puts paleoconservatives in their true context, as having been absorbed into the irrational narrative of white supremacy. The Reagan coalition was doomed to be assimilated into the grand narrative originating in white supremacy, and this has already happened.

Perhaps we have been looking for the enemy in all the wrong places. Is there a transcendent dimension where the John Birch Society and neoliberalism come together? Which elements of George Wallace’s platform have already been absorbed in the dual party apparatus? From "law and order" (code for the state’s demonstration effect of violence) to the defense of forgotten “real” Americans against welfare mothers “breeding children as a cash crop,” which of the arch-racist Wallace’s prognoses and prophecies have not already come true?

If you’re thinking that I will point to Trump as the culprit, I was actually thinking of Bill Clinton, our own democratic savior, for enacting so much of the white supremacist agenda we associate with Wallace. Though there was no practical need to revive anti-alienism in the 1990s, it was done, and with a flourish. The patriotic outburst we associate with the extreme right has in fact been completely absorbed — repackaged and modernized — by neoliberalism, which is forever seeking out new aliens to bring into disrepute and hunt down. If we are looking at any imminent revival of the Ku Klux Klan — which long ago ceased to be a major factor in our politics — as an indicator of white supremacy, we are looking in the wrong place.

While watchdog groups and law enforcement vigorously demonized and contested elements on the far right, from The Order to The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), from Posse Comitatus to White Aryan Resistance (WAR), the ideas propelling white supremacy were being enacted into official policy by both parties, piece by piece. Anti-alienism is rampant again across the land — though for a quarter-century we are supposed to have lived through a neoliberal ascendancy of transnational elites, with little love for the nation-state and its obsolete forms and rituals — because the spirit of the Klan and McCarthyism, of the American Party and Father Coughlin, is utterly compatible with neoliberalism.

It’s not white supremacy but the cultic mindset that has absorbed liberal democracy

The alt-right dominates in its own social realm, while the alt-left flourishes in its own. We live in two often non-intersecting countries. What unites the two spheres is a similar paranoid mindset, so that each group sees itself as the defender against social conformity. Ironically, the only way either group can seem to fight conformity is by taking conformity within its own group to the highest possible level; whatever does not fit into the conformity of one’s own group is defined as “hate,” which compels bringing into action all the mechanisms the group can muster to fight it and save the sanctity of the group.

Colin Campbell came up with the idea of the cultic milieu in the early 1970s, defining it as “the cultural underground of society.” Has globalization pushed so much knowledge out of its purview that it has actually expanded, quite radically, the scope of what falls under the cultural underground (including new forms of white supremacy)?

Globalization would almost seem to desire an occult or magical oppositional terrain in contrast to its construction of homo economicus (the marginal utility maximizer), pushing the “seekers” in cultic milieus to count on “revelatory experiences” to salvage their spiritual losses. The main contest in this battle would be over the definition of truth (as indeed we see in Trumpism); deviant science (IQ studies, such as Herrnstein and Murray’s “The Bell Curve”), deviant religion (Christian Identity and other theologies separating the Adamic and pre-Adamic races), and every other form of deviant knowledge is supposed to seize the truth from monopolist elites and make it known again.

To think of white supremacy as being conventionally theological in nature is to overlook its mainsprings; this misunderstood psychic energy has been so strong in America over the last five decades that, in Campbell’s terms, it has succeeded in being a “major agency of cultural ‘diffusion’” of its ideas into the “host culture” (established institutions), and has also been a “major agency of cultural innovation.” Most of the resonant ideas have come in this time period from this movement, and continue to do so, even if discrete white supremacist “cults” like the Aryan Nations or Posse Comitatus seem long past their heyday. Cults need underground media; no matter how powerful a cult’s media becomes, it must present itself as embattled and surreptitious: hence, Fox News’ or right-wing talk radio’s self-image as underground fighters.

White supremacy is a form of pursuit of exotic or forbidden knowledge (stigmatized knowledge, as Michael Barkun would have it). We think of globalization as rational, calculating, efficient, anti-state and anti-religion — in short, anti-cultic. One way to think of the current dominance of white supremacy (like other forms of irrationality) is to see it as rising in opposition to globalization. The other, more interesting, way is to see it as embodied in globalization itself; that is to say, white supremacy is a form whereby globalization manifests and strengthens itself, just as it deploys all other forms of irrationality (from Hollywood’s apocalyptic scenarios to campus identity politics to consumerist remolding of the body).

Again, is globalization really an open process, or does it create vast new openings for stigmatized knowledge, by repressing so much of it that doesn’t fit into its parameters? Is the modern alt-right just a creation of neoliberal globalization, in other words, just as the impoverished dreams and visions of modern alt-left protest movements, such as Occupy, are yet another creation of globalization?

Constitutionalism is for white patriots only

The nexus between constitutionalism and whiteness has become interesting. All of our resonant constitutional debates — from abortion to taxation, from welfare to affirmative action — can be interpreted through the prism of the normalization of white supremacy. The Constitution has become the primal test for separating the pure and the impure, those who belong to the organic (puritan, neoliberal, white) order versus those who do not. Patriotism is shifted to legalistic terrain, where daily the defense is mounted against the (liberal) mob who want to annihilate the Constitution and therefore whiteness itself. The modern civil rights movement prompted this crisis of identity, which shows no sign of abating on right or left. On both sides we can view every recent national election as a referendum on race, contested on mystical “constitutional” terrain.

The rhetoric of white supremacy keeps apart neo-Nazis and hardcore environmentalists, though they share many points of agreement (particularly on survivalism), which is a fantastic accomplishment of neoliberalism. Likewise, natural alliances between Middle Eastern and Islamic nations and the American far right, or separatist black groups within the U.S. and separatist white groups, are possible, and have occurred to some small extent, but neoliberal inequality prevents their potential realization. The tedious constitutionalism — for example, the Second Amendment defense of the individual right to bear arms — prevents natural political alliances. The orthodoxy of neoliberal globalization is so extreme that it has compelled a worldwide resurgence of mystical thinking, shared by both the alt-right and the alt-left, as well as various fundamentalisms. And the more that government reacts against mystical thinking, the more it provokes it. Neoliberal governments are only able to act in ways that fuel paranoia.

To think of white supremacy without regard to the total cultural environment is to fail to come to grips with it. Contemporary white supremacy can be viewed as simply another manifestation of technological utopianism, an area where it predictably merges with the alt-left. The alt-right is seeking purity by means of technology (which will realize the Constitution’s hidden virtues), whereas the alt-left is also looking for purity by means of technology (which will similarly achieve the Constitution’s hidden virtues). Between technology and social life, however, is the intervening factor of inequality, which prevents the promise of technology from ever coming true.

White supremacy, a form of anti-globalization, gets its impetus from power discrepancies. To harp on white supremacy as if it were an isolated phenomenon is to avoid the problem of income (and therefore political) inequality. Political inequality disempowers, among others, rural whites and poor whites, who then articulate white supremacy, which renders them even more powerless. The greater the increase in inequality, the more the disempowered groups disempower themselves. In 1992, when Pat Buchanan announced a war for the soul of America, it didn’t catch fire; now it does. How would candidate David Duke (who had mixed success in Louisiana politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s) fare on the national stage today as a fresh face? Even at that time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted during the welfare debates that “all this originates with David Duke. He started talking about the ‘threat’ of people on welfare, and it struck a nerve.”

Concluding thoughts on white supremacy’s normalization

White supremacy has never operated outside the political system; it is not the philosophy of radicals on the fringes. The soft-pedaling of racism and anti-Semitism by the paleoconservatives as well as the New Right — for instance, William F. Buckley’s distancing from such open expressions — has been removed since the end of the Cold War. During the civil rights movement, the Citizens’ Councils took over from the KKK, the George Wallace candidacy transformed both parties for good, and the success of the Southern strategy was eventually realized during the post-Cold War years (when we would have least expected it). Anti-Communism had allowed the lid to be kept on overt racism, but since then various post-World War II conservative factions have fused. Trump, for one, has greatly accelerated the transformation of white supremacy into mere populism, not for the first time in American history.

Are actual power relations radically different than their appearance? To the extent that neoliberalism is responsible for this divergence, resistance in the form of conspiratorial narratives of the right or left cannot be ascribed independence. American nationalism, racial purity and middle-class interests have become too closely connected. I’m aware of the irony of describing white supremacy as a form of populism, which is the term Carto — one of the movement’s late-20th-century intellectual leaders — chose for his influential 1982 book “Profiles in Populism,” which lionized such figures as Robert M. LaFollette, Burton K. Wheeler, Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Watson and William Randolph Hearst. In the late 1980s and early 1990s (that is, around the time the communist enemy was unraveling, and the future direction for white supremacy in America wasn’t clear), the banner of the Populist Party, with which Carto was affiliated, attracted such figures as David Duke.

It is true of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and now Trump that the avowed white supremacists — from Carto’s Liberty Lobby to the Aryan Nations — have simultaneously been attracted to and repelled by the idea of someone close to their ideology gaining ultimate power. Yet the more interesting reality is not white supremacy’s effects on the Republican Party but on the Democratic Party; the party’s transformation in the 1990s, in response to white supremacy, was far more interesting than the Republican Party’s mutation. At times people on the respectable right like Buckley and his affiliates have protested against anti-Semitism, but they haven’t always protested all forms of racism. The groundwork for “middle-class populism” (or cultural nationalism), operating through both major parties and through all of our political institutions, was laid 50 years ago, and is only now bearing fruit.

By Anis Shivani