Six things we learned from the New Zealand massacre: Tim Wise on the crisis of whiteness

Anti-racism activist Tim Wise on New Zealand, Donald Trump and the "collective nervous breakdown" of white people

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published March 20, 2019 12:40PM (EDT)

Tim Wise; Mourners arrive for a burial of a victim of Friday March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. (AP/Mark Baker/City Lights Publishers)
Tim Wise; Mourners arrive for a burial of a victim of Friday March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. (AP/Mark Baker/City Lights Publishers)

Last Friday, a professed white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing at least 50 people and injuring dozens of others. This right-wing mass murderer's online "manifesto" specifically cited President Trump as an inspiration for his evil acts, describing Trump as "a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose."

It is mistaken to consider the Christchurch mass murderer as a "lone wolf." He may not have formally identified with a specific group, but he is part of a global right-wing terror network and social-political movement that shares many similarities with ISIS and other radical Islamic terror organizations.

These include, but are not limited to:

  1. A yearning to return to a mythical past where their group would be dominant over all others for all of time.
  2. A desire and willingness to use violence to achieve their goals.
  3. A belief that they are an embattled and oppressed minority that must fight for survival, with the ultimate goal of creating an international "homeland" -- be it a "caliphate" or a white "ethno-state" -- from which to dominate the world.
  4. Radicalizing its members online, especially young men who feel dislocated in or alienated by dominant society -- through the use of social media and other technologies.
  5. Using these new technologies to circulate images of spectacular violence to gain approval from their subgroup as well as personal gratification. This also creates a type of "digital martyrdom" or "online immortality."
  6. Envisioning and working towards a global apocalypse or other titanic crisis, which the movement believes it can exploit to seize power when the existing social and political order collapses.

Ultimately, the Christchurch terrorist and other members of the global far right who use political violence to advance their goals are only the enforcers and most extreme agents of a larger and broader movement.

In the United States, this social and political movement is most visible among the "alt-right." But at this point it also encompasses much of the Republican Party and its supporters, Christian nationalists and "dominionists," and most of the right-wing news media, including Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones' Infowars and other, more marginal outlets. Donald Trump is the movement's figurehead, whether he consciously intends to be or not.

In Europe and elsewhere, this movement is represented by right-wing political parties, street gangs and authoritarian leaders in numerous nations, including Hungary, Poland, Italy, France, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines and of course Vladimir Putin's Russia. As in the United States, these right-wing leaders and supporters have their own news media and other means of disseminating talking points and winning new converts.

As always, the global class of plutocrats and kleptocrats is strategizing how best to profit from this moment of fake right-wing populism.

This most recent configuration of right-wing politics represents what might be called a global "crisis of whiteness," a collective emotional breakdown caused by new technologies, anxieties about migration and demographic changes, and anger at the neoliberal order and the social and economic injustice it has both spawned and enforced.

What is the role of Trump and other right-wing leaders in inspiring and encouraging political violence? How does the Christchurch terror attack illustrate the intersection of white privilege and spectacular violence? Why is this apparent mass murderer and self-proclaimed fascist being humanized by some voices in the mass media? How does white privilege prevent a frank discussion of the true origins of right-wing violence and mass shootings? Are there any viable strategies for winning back Donald Trump's voters and others who have been swept up in this global tide of authoritarian white identity politics? How does the struggle for racial justice central to the fight to win and protect global democracy?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of the nation's leading anti-racism activists and a frequent guest on MSNBC and other news outlets. Wise is the author of numerous books, including “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority” and “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

Last Friday's terrorist attack in New Zealand is part of a much larger pattern of violence by white right-wing terrorists in the United States and around the world. Given the forces that swept Trump into office, and the global movement he is part of, why are people still surprised by this kind of right-wing violence? It has been escalating for several years.

I think we're surprised or at least shocked every time such a horrible event takes place because it is natural for human beings to seek out normalcy and decency when confronted by tragedy. Most people are good and would never do something horrible like what happened in New Zealand last Friday.

But perhaps even more terrifying is that there are people who are good and nice on most days -- they appear to be pretty normal -- but under certain circumstances, they can be driven to the kinds of horrific actions that we see in places like New Zealand, Charleston, Quebec, Pittsburgh -- or in Wisconsin with the Sikh temple shooting. I don't think that the white supremacist in the New Zealand mosque attack was a natural born killer or terrorist. These people are made.

Donald Trump explicitly encourages violence by his supporters and other allies against their perceived enemies. Through his deeds, words and policies has repeatedly shown that he is a racist and an authoritarian. The alleged New Zealand shooter explicitly praised Trump as a hero and symbol of white racism. Yet Trump is rarely, if ever, held responsible for his bad behavior. 

They never want him to be responsible for anything. If Barack Obama or any other president had done half the things that Trump has done, such as repeatedly encouraging violence by his supporters, it would be talked about forever.  The alleged New Zealand neo-Nazi terrorist mentions Donald Trump by name. Donald Trump's defenders keep saying that he has repeatedly condemned hatred and terrorism of all kinds. Of course this is not true.

Donald Trump has never called out white racist terrorism by name. He has never condemned right-wing terrorism. Trump will not use that language or phrasing. And this is a man who insisted, as did all conservatives, that Barack Obama say the words "radical Islamic terrorism." They won't do it when it's white people. They won't do it when it's putative Christians. They won't do when it's people on their side.

The Christchurch neo-Nazi explicitly says in his manifesto that Trump is a symbol of "renewed white identity and common purpose." He and other white supremacists have a common identity with Trump. As this manifesto says, they may not like Donald Trump as a leader because he is inept. A lot of white supremacists have turned on Trump as a leader because he hasn't gotten the wall built and he has not stopped nonwhite immigration. Trump is likely also too solicitous of Israel for their tastes.

There are many things that neo-Nazis and other white supremacists do not like about Trump's particular ability to get things that they want fully done. But not one of these white supremacists that I know of has actually come out and said that Donald Trump does not stand for the right things. They just say, "He's not very good at getting stuff done." In other words, Trump is a placeholder. We need someone who is better at this than him, not someone who's different than Trump. That doesn't sound like criticism to me. That is instead the kind of praise which should frighten us.

Conservatism and racism are now fully the same thing in the United States. But there is a tension and schism within this social and political moment. On one hand, Trumpism is not new. Racism is America's native form of fascism. But on the other hand, Trumpism feels like something relatively unprecedented in America. How do you make sense of this?

The Republican Party and the conservative movement more broadly have been grafting white racial resentment politics onto their entire narrative for five or six decades now. When you do that for five or six decades via dog whistles and other means, you slowly but surely build momentum to the point where all your other traditional conservative narratives about "small government," taxes and deregulation do not resonate as much with your public. Or if such claims do resonate, they only work to the degree that they overlap with white racial politics.

In other words, white Republicans and conservatives say they want less government because they think it helps "those people" and that's the problem. They have no problem with "big government" itself. They just don't want it to go to the "wrong people," or they don't mind taxation as long as they don't think that the benefits of such programs go to the "wrong people" and the burdens fall on the "good people."

I wrote about this dynamic in my book "Dear White America," which was a response to the Tea Party movement. I basically said, listen, we are at this moment of white racial anxiety, this perfect storm. It has been created by four things, all of which happened at once, any one of which might have been sufficient enough to create the problem but all four of which certainly did.

One was the economic meltdown, of course, which created a certain level of anxiety and insecurity for white people that we hadn't faced in 85 years or so, since the Depression.

Number two was the election of a man of color as president. This upset the apple cart of expectations for what many white people thought leadership looks like. A black man as president certainly signified a political shift of some degree in the United States. This was too much for many white Americans.  The third element was a shift in popular culture.

And finally the demographic shifts, where half the country will be nonwhite within the next several decades. There is a real fear among many white Americans about how white folks, their group, are not going to be the total majority in the country.

The New Zealand neo-Nazi's manifesto was titled "The Great Replacement." Republican Congressman Steve King talks about this as well. He quotes European neo-Nazis, and  says things like, "We can't replace our civilization with other people's babies." The white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and other alt-right rioters in Charlottesville were chanting, "You will not replace us," or "Jews will not replace us."

The "white genocide" narrative is built around this notion that white people are going to be either literally killed off or that the "great civilization" that white people and white people alone are capable of sustaining, is all going away. It is absurd but very dangerous.

All these shifts have created a type of psychological meltdown, a nervous breakdown among certain segments of the white population. I am not sure that many of those folks can ever be reeled back in. I think some can, but it's going to be very difficult. The others are going to have to be defeated without sentimentality. The press should not continue to do these human interest stories where they go to a diner and find out what makes them tick. We know the answers.

This does not mean that we do not care about the lives of these white folks. They are human beings who are worthy of our compassion. But here is the real compassion: Defeat them and then govern on behalf of everybody rather than pandering to these people whereby we get government led by plutocrats and others who do not want to help the American people. These same elites are also not helping to substantively improve the lives of these aggrieved white people.

As we have seen with other white mass shooters, the neo-Nazi in New Zealand who killed 50 Muslims is already being humanized. In this cultural script, the white person who does horrific things will now be presented as "the boy next door." There will be few if any conversations in the mainstream media about how this person was radicalized. Such language is only used for black and brown folks and Muslims.

Correct. How many of the 9/11 hijackers do we have backgrounds on? A real understanding of their lives and childhoods? There are now stories and pictures of the neo-Nazi attacker in New Zealand where they show him as a little boy in his daddy's arms and there's a picture of him on a backpacking trip. The narrative is this vague passive story about how "something happened" to make this man into a terrorist and we have no idea what it could be.

Of course that's not the reality. He was radicalized online. He was radicalized by the rhetoric of international leaders such as Donald Trump, but many others as well. But there is really no mystery. This is the public script that is followed by the mainstream news media and many others when white people do things that are outside some common frame of reference for how white people are supposed to behave.

There are rarely any discussions of the specific things that are culturally dysfunctional in white middle-class and upper-middle-class communities that could lead to nihilism and violence. Of course, if it's a black shooter or it's a brown shooter, or if it's a Muslim person of any color there won't be a mystery or a search for explanations. There will only be one or two.

One, the violence was caused by "radical Islam" if it's a Muslim. If it is a black or brown person, the violence is caused by "single parent homes" or "cultural pathology." If the black or brown person is young, then rap music will be blamed. Even when white folks do something horrible there will of course be an effort to somehow ultimately blame black and brown people for what happened..

One of the ways fascism legitimates itself is by making the victim somehow responsible for their own victimhood and by making the victimizer into the real victim. In response to the New Zealand mosque massacres there is a narrative being circulated where we are supposed to understand that this neo-Nazi killed 50 people because of his anger about nonwhite immigration. In this logic, ultimately we are supposed to understand that maybe stopping immigration into "white countries" is a way of preventing white right-wing terrorism. 

If we just give them what they want, they'll stop wanting it. Yes, that's true. If you shut down immigration, which is what the right wing and the likes of this New Zealand mass murderer want you to do in the name of white nationalism, then, yes, it's true, they probably won't do these horrible things anymore.

If you expelled all the brown folks, Jews and black people and gave these alt-right white supremacist types their own white "ethno-state," they'll probably stop too. So what? It's bizarre that we take that argument seriously. So apparently what we should do in order to stop Nazis from killing people is let them just run everything.

Let them get their way. And if they get their way, they'll stop killing people. How about just stopping them? If you gave ISIS a caliphate, they'd probably stop cutting people's heads off, but that's not the answer. If you give a criminal everything in your house then he probably won't come back because he's already got everything. But that is not the point.

This backward logic is an extension of the twisted racist mind that reasons, "OK, well, some Muslims in Sweden did something so I'm going to kill totally unrelated Muslims in New Zealand because that makes sense." It makes sense to the fascist, racist mind because such a way of understanding the world sees Muslims -- and nonwhites more generally -- as being indistinguishable from one another.

Again, what this really exemplifies is the collective nervous breakdown of whiteness around the world in this moment.

Another narrative we have seen in response to these terrorist attacks is that "racism has no home in New Zealand." That is horribly myopic and overlooks how racism is central to the history of New Zealand and Australia, which are both racial settler colonial states. What about the aborigines? What about the black Tasmanians?

I'm pretty sure that the Maori people would disagree with that assessment too. I am fairly confident that the indigenous peoples of Australia would disagree. White racial settler colonial states like the United States, New Zealand and Australia have conveniently decided to ignore some of their history.

I will say this, however. Those nations actually do confront their history better than we do. Germany actually does talk about what was done in the name of Hitlerism and of "German national greatness" to Jews, the Roma people, gays and lesbians, and so many others during the World War II era. Germany makes sure that their young people learn that ugly history

I guarantee you that there are more lessons being taught in American schools today about what Germans did to Jews and others in the Holocaust than there are about what white people did to indigenous folks and black folks in this country. America would rather focus on the crimes of others than to focus on our own crimes.

These right-wing terror attacks take years to plan. What happened in New Zealand last week was not an impulsive act. There are likely going to be waves of right-wing terror attacks against Muslims and other nonwhites in the United States and around the world. What should we tell the general public about right-wing political violence in the age of Trump?

Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.

If you are a liberal or a progressive, and let's say the issue that you've always worked on is the environment or health care or getting better schools in your community, that is great. Keep doing that work. I'm not asking you to drop all of that and just talk about race all the time. But make sure that as you talk about those issues that you've cared about for so long, that you also bring an anti-racism lens to it. In this political and social moment, everything is ultimately about race.

Folks often ask me, "Why do you make everything about race?" I didn't make it all about race. People a long time ago made it all about race and it still is. Everything that happens in this country -- political, social and cultural -- has a racial component to it. The quicker that people recognize this fact and integrate it into their politics and their activism, and just even the conversations they have with friends and family, the better off we are going to be as a country and a global community.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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