Could genocide really happen here? Leading scholar says America is on "high alert"

Alexander Laban Hinton on his new book, Trump's snake metaphor and the rising danger of white-power movements

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published July 11, 2021 12:06PM (EDT)

Members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) wave American Flags and NSM flags as they march from the Washington Monument to the grounds of the United States Capitol Building on April 19, 2008 in Washington, DC. Between 30-40 members of the group marched to bring attention to their views on illegal immigration and the city had about 1200 police officers on duty. (David S. Holloway/Reportage by Getty Images)
Members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) wave American Flags and NSM flags as they march from the Washington Monument to the grounds of the United States Capitol Building on April 19, 2008 in Washington, DC. Between 30-40 members of the group marched to bring attention to their views on illegal immigration and the city had about 1200 police officers on duty. (David S. Holloway/Reportage by Getty Images)

Even the title of Alexander Laban Hinton's new book provides a chilling summary of the current danger facing this nation: "It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the U.S."

Hinton is one of the world's leading authorities on genocide and atrocity crimes. He is the author of 12 books on the subject and directs the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. He testified as an expert witness, at the trial of Nuon Chea, who was prime minister of Cambodia during the genocidal tyranny of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

With sober analysis and in assiduous detail, Hinton explores the ways the United States is "simmering at a low boil," and evinces every risk indicator for widespread mass atrocity crimes. White supremacist organizations and armed militias are mobilized for political action, the Republican Party has declared war on multiracial democracy and right-wing voters have become increasingly radical and hostile, falling into the personality cult of Donald Trump and the apocalyptic cult of QAnon.

As historian Timothy Snyder, philosopher Jason Stanley and former Republican insider Mike Lofgren have also warned, the U.S. is teetering at the edge of fascism. With "It Can Happen Here," Hinton brings his knowledge and experience to bear on a dynamic history of the Trump administration — taking his readers inside his classroom, to white power rallies and to his own testimony at the Chea trial. One of the book's strengths is its accessibility. Written with literary style rather than in dry academic prose, it makes for fascinating, albeit deeply disturbing, reading. 

Alarming but never alarmist, Hinton provides a chilling introduction to genocide studies through a chronicle of his travails during the Trump years. The echoes of historical genocide are impossible to miss in contemporary American politics.

Most Americans undoubtedly prefer to think of the United States as immune to the forces of history, and above the various forms of political violence and societal collapse that have affected every populated continent on the planet at one time or another. Hinton is here to tell us that kind of passivity and apathy is all too likely to create the conditions for historic catastrophe.

I recently interviewed Hinton by phone. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You gave your book the title, "It Can Happen Here." You are, of course, playing off Sinclair Lewis' classic novel, "It Can't Happen Here." Like Lewis, you are combating the illusion of American exceptionalism, the idea that freedom, democracy and progress toward equality are almost like laws of nature. In fact, you make the argument that "it" has already happened here. Can you explain how the belief that "it can't happen here" is historically wrong?

I think of two contextual blockages that prevent us from grappling with our past, and the present that is informed by it. One is what you just named, "American exceptionalism," the "not us" idea. You know, "this is America and it can't happen here." We get this over and over again. The corollary to that is "not me." That's the idea, "Oh, it's a bunch of crazy racists over there. I have nothing to do with that." From "not me," we get the "bad apples" idea. I spend a lot of time in the book addressing the fallacy of "bad apples" and "the hater" — the isolated villain. The danger of these concepts is that if we allow people to believe that "not us" and "not me," they will soon think, "Well, then it's not my problem."

To the second part of your question, that was how the project began. I was testifying in the trial of Nuon Chea right as Trump was riding into power. Many people were making analogies between Trump and genocidal leaders. As someone who studies these things, I am always wary of direct historical analogies. I think of them more as echoes, or patterns that take place, and we can look for a manifestation. For example, if we look at the history of fascist ultra-nationalism, there are many echoes with the Trump administration. I started noting the echoes, and then we got to Charlottesville. That was when I felt it was necessary to take it on, and bring to bear an analysis of the risk and danger of mass violence. 

That begins with a long journey through the specific lens of genocide studies, and a genocide-driven revisionist look at the United States, which leads us through settler colonialism and the connection between the need for land and need for labor, which sets everything in motion. I also teach about atrocity crimes. We're talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Indian Exclusion Act, what happens when we push Native Americans further and further west and, of course, systemic white supremacy. Oddly, now the latter is being pushed through the frame of "critical race theory." I don't use that language, but I'm certainly familiar with the literature. When I began writing the book, few people were having these conversations, and now they are commonplace. The speed with which the discourse has changed is remarkable. 

When it comes to the writing itself, you made an interesting choice. Rather than writing this book as an academic treatise, you use literary techniques to establish a chronicle, taking us inside your classroom as your students react to events such as Charlottesville. You take us to your testimony, and even attend a white power rally, reporting on it almost as a journalist. Why did you decide to approach the book that way? 

I was trained to do academic writing, but over time, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with that form of writing. With this particular book, however, it wasn't so much a pre-planned strategy as much as it emerged out of the context of what I was writing about. I wanted to directly confront the issues, in one sense. The classroom was an effective setting, because what is teaching about, if not critical thinking and searching for the truth? Here we are in the midst of a time when the very basis of truth is called into question, which is another echo of genocide studies, especially if you think about Holocaust denial. Also, with the students I am teaching at Rutgers, this is their lived reality. Most of them are Black and brown, and the events of the Trump years were having a powerful effect on them. That was another aspect that made me think I should take the readers into the classroom.

I also wanted to write a ground-level history of the Trump administration, while we were facing the risk of atrocity crimes. Little did I know that it would get even worse, because I finished the book before Jan. 6. So I wanted to capture what it was like to live in the middle of this heightened crisis, and not from the White House or another institution of power, as most history is told, but at the ground level. Through reporting on the classroom and my students, I could also write an accessible history of white power mass atrocities in the United States, and that became the narrative thread.

My goal was to write a book that could actually be used by high school students in genocide education. To write with narrative engagement and clarity makes it more accessible to that audience. Many states, including mine, which is New Jersey, mandate some Holocaust or genocide studies. The chapter I write on the Charlottesville teach-in, for example, could be pulled out and used in a high school classroom.

Yes, and you consistently make excellent use of Theodor Adorno's admonition: "The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again." You're attempting to rise to that challenge, bringing your analytical apparatus to bear on the Trump administration and the radical right-wing movement within the United States, offering your expertise as a genocide scholar and anthropologist. The ultimate question, then, is about the current threat of the United States descending into mass atrocity crimes. How do you assess that, and on what do you base that assessment?

The United Nations has a good means of risk assessment, using a few key clusters of risk indicators. One factor is a history of mass atrocities. Well, that hasn't gone away. That's always there. If you think about it as a kettle on a stove, there's always a little bit of heat with that risk factor.

Another risk factor is "upheaval," and before I get into that, because it is really important, you have these other things that the UN calls "buffers." Well, Trump eroded the buffers throughout his administration. You can read about what he did to the Justice Department, and how he marginalized anyone who tried to push back on him. Many democratic practices and norms, which we thought were really strong in the United States, were quickly eroded.

Then, you have "catalyst." OK, guns. The U.S. is awash in guns, and we have armed groups becoming more active throughout the country. 

Now, back to "upheaval." We had a pandemic. Then you bring in economic collapse. Then you bring in presidential incitement of militias and armed groups. Then you bring in increasing polarization. We have this incredible mix of factors.

The book finishes in July 2020, and to return to the kettle on the stove, we were at a high boil at that point. I wrote an op-ed around that time, headlined, "Trump's Helter Skelter," warning that we were in a really high-risk situation. Other experts began issuing the same warning.

If we look at Jan. 6, it is almost remarkable that there wasn't a lot more violence. If there had been, it would have sparked more violence across the country. Also, if we didn't have Jan. 6, and Trump was still on Twitter and social media platforms — he's a master at using these mediums — we would have gone right up to the inauguration with Trump potentially inciting mobs and hate groups, and who knows what would have happened? Trump losing Twitter was a defusing of the situation.

So, moving forward, Biden comes in. We have a strengthening of the buffers, the pandemic is improving and the economy is improving. That takes things down from the rapid simmer, but what is worse is the lingering polarization and the belief that Biden is illegitimate. This overlaps with the GOP now having white grievance as its default issue.

We have the high-alert danger posed by extremist groups — white power groups, militias. Now, let's imagine that Trump gets access to Twitter, or another dynamic social media platform and things can move in a very dangerous direction, very quickly.

On the subject of buffers, the Republican Party, along with its propagandists in right-wing media, are waging a war on electoral politics.

Of course. That's incredibly dangerous, and you have the potential for counterprotesters directly confronting white power extremists. We have gone from Charlottesville, which was a collection of small extremist organizations gathering together, with the militias claiming they were there only to keep order, and then we move to Trump announcing, "Stand by, Proud Boys." With that comment, the militias are highly agitated and mobilized, and move from "keeping order," or so they claimed, to becoming directly active. 

You also have white Christian fundamentalists, which we saw clearly during the January insurrection, agitated and mobilized. You also have the "Stop the Steal" people very upset and feeling increasingly desperate. Then, we have QAnon, which went from barely existent at the time of Charlottesville to a movement of millions strong. To add one more piece, we have this long documentary record showing that, among the general public, 10 to 15 percent have white supremacist sympathies. That's a lot of people. Then, we have Fox News increasingly taking the white nationalist line in their broadcast. Even today, CNN and MSNBC are talking about COVID-19, and Fox is talking about Black and brown crime in the inner cities, and the "invasion" of immigrants that everyone should fear.

In January 2021, the risk was really high. It has subsided with the Biden administration, but we are still at a low boil. It's not a good place to be. 

How crucial was it that Trump, using the bully pulpit of the presidency and with the full support of the Republican Party, provided encouragement to these hate groups? It seems to have functioned in two ways. It strengthened them. But also it ushered them into the mainstream of right-wing politics, and allowed average Republican voters to excuse or even embrace them. Robert Pape, one of the country's leading researchers on terrorism, found that most of the participants in the insurrection of Jan. 6 were not connected to hate groups.

That's exactly what I'm talking about. At the time of Charlottesville, it is a small group of extremists. They are savvy on social media, but appear as if they are on the fringe. By the time we get to January of 2021, the white nationalist movement is millions and millions strong. So what was a shock to some people, when you look at Pape's study, was not a surprise, because it had been a trend for a long time. The swelling of support for Trump has not gone away. Perhaps it has dissipated at the edges, but it is still tens of millions of people who are enraged, and that includes far-right extremists, but also QAnon, which is a lot of things, but a key piece is "Deep State," globalists, antisemitic tropes. So QAnon can have synergy with far-right movements, and it is massive.

Think back to Sinclair Lewis. He looked around in the 1930s, and he saw that millions of people were listening to Father Charles Coughlin. There were the Silver Shirts, which were the U.S. equivalent of Brownshirts. If we look around now, it is very similar to what Lewis saw.

We are in a different cycle, but one that is highly volatile. If Trump can return to a dynamic social media platform, or if his former campaign strategist, Jason Miller, can succeed with the social media platform that he has created, that is the ingredient that can escalate the crisis. 

Returning for a moment to Trump, Fox News and the "white nationalist line," you make Trump's appropriation of the snake parable central to "It Can Happen Here," even placing that image on the cover of the book. It tells the story of a woman who accepts a wounded snake with "colored skin" into her home, nurtures it to health, only to have it kill her with a venomous bite. As she is dying, the snake mocks her: "You knew I was a snake when you took me in." Trump recites this story to audiences at nearly every rally. Why do you view this story as pivotal to understanding Trump, the white power movement and right-wing politics more broadly?

It embodies the idea of "white genocide." It embodies the idea of Black and brown invaders. Before Trump would recite it, he would frame it as saying, "I'm talking about immigration." In the 2016 cycle through his presidency, this is a clear metaphor of "white genocide" invasion. The snake traverses the domestic boundary of the home, manipulates the innocent woman, who symbolizes white purity. There is a big trope in white-power discourse that is very patriarchal, with white women in need of protection by white men from the dangers of other races. So, in the story, the woman is bitten and dies. The Black and brown invaders kill whiteness, according to the metaphor.

Trump recited the snake parable the same day that I testified in the Nuon Chea trial, and this is the exact same language that he used, and that authoritarian leaders, demagogues and hate leaders use, about external enemies threatening the body politic. There are notions of contamination, and that the body politic will be destroyed if they don't take extreme action. 

I was stunned to learn that the Khmer Rouge discussed nearly the same story, about a crocodile.

Yes, the crocodile, which was the metaphor for the Vietnamese. Also linked to Trump, and common in these regimes, is language of "enemies lurking within." If you remember, former Sen. Jeff Flake, Republican from Arizona, to his credit, took to the Senate floor to point out that Hitler, Stalin and Mao all derided journalists and critics as "enemies of the people." Donald Trump, as president of the United States, did the exact same thing.

There is also an antisemitic thread that runs through all this, because Jewish allies of Black and brown people are often the "enemies of the people." In terms of the snake, there are many depictions in white power literature of the Jewish people as snakes. A big part of Trump's constituency is Christian fundamentalists, and of course in the Bible the snake is representative of Satan. So the snake has many different valences. 

This is why the book begins with the snake, but ends with Toni Morrison's bird. Morrison tells the story in her Nobel Prize address of an old, blind woman confronted by young men. One of them taunts her by saying, "I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead." The woman takes a long pause, and then answers, "It is in your hands." Morrison explains that the blind woman "shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised." 

Rather than distilling everything down to the snake point of view, which is overwhelming, hegemonic terms of power, we have to listen to multiple voices, and consider multiple possibilities.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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