Terrorism expert Sara Kamali on Jan. 6, white nationalism and the rise of "Vanilla ISIS"

The author of "Homegrown Hate" on the nightmarish fantasies shared by white nationalists and Islamic extremists

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Armed supporters of President Trump chant during a protest on January 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Armed supporters of President Trump chant during a protest on January 6, 2021 in Salem, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Contrary to what many observers have suggested, Donald Trump's attack force that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was not really a "mob." At its core was a group of terrorists who wanted to kill members of Congress they deemed to be Trump's enemies, with the goal of nullifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. They may have come close to achieving that objective.

Likewise, as new "revelations" have shown, Trump and his allies came closer to overthrowing democracy than many among the country's political class (and the public at large) would like to accept. The danger has not ended; the Republican coup attempt is ongoing.   

To describe Trump's attack force as "terrorists" is better and more accurate language, but still lacks precision. What kind of terrorists were they? As Robert P. Jones, one of America's foremost experts on religion and politics, recently told Salon, a significant number of the attackers on Jan. 6 were Christian nationalists and white supremacists:

It was remarkable to me. There were Bibles, there were crosses, there were Bible verses on signs. There were flags that said things such as, "Trump is my president, Jesus is my savior." There were shofars being blown, not by Jews but by Christians, who were convinced they were fulfilling some prophecy by bringing Trump into office.

Perhaps the image that stuck with me the most is that there was a fair amount of attention being paid to the Confederate battle flag being marched through the Capitol building. But what did not get enough attention is that there was also the Christian flag. Many people may not be familiar with it. That flag was being marched right into the House chamber along with the Confederate flag. They were all there. There was also a big white cross being carried up the steps along with all those other banners.

I am not quite sure that the American people as a whole really understand what the coexistence of all those symbols really means. The insurrectionists are telling us who they are. They very deliberately chose those symbols. They wore them on their clothes. These were white supremacists. These were Christians. Those two groups were not fighting each other. They were marching side by side.

In an important new essay for Vanity Fair on Christian nationalism and its links to the events of Jan. 6, Jeff Sharlet describes the Christian symbols noted by constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, author of "The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American":

He notes the "Jericho Marchers" who blew shofars (a ram's horn of symbolic meaning in Judaism, appropriated by Christian nationalists) around the Capitol on January 5 in a reenactment of the holy conquest depicted in the Book of Joshua; the "openly militant prayer" by evangelist and Trump official Paula White that preceded Trump's speech the next morning, in which she called for "holy boldness" in "overturning" the enemies of Trump; the writings on that gallows erected outside the Capitol: "In God We Trust," "God Bless the USA," and "amen"; Michael Sparks, the first man to breach the Capitol, who did so "in JESUS NAME," by his own account; the dozens of insurrectionists, several of them armed, who sought to sanctify the Senate chamber with a prayer to Jesus that included thanks "for allowing us to get rid of the communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government." 

In his testimony last Tuesday before the House select committee on the events of Jan. 6, Washington, D.C., police officer Daniel Hodges shared his personal experience with Trump's attack force and their extremism, violence and zealotry.

"I saw the Christian flag directly to my front," Hodges said. "Another read, 'Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president.' … Another, 'Jesus is king' …. "Even during this intense contest of wills, they sought to convert us to their cult. One man shouted, 'We all just want to make our voices heard, and I think you feel the same. I really think you feel the same.'"

Hodges also told the committee, "It was clear the terrorists perceive themselves to be Christians, … One of them came up to me and said, 'Are you my brother?'" Hodges also described the battle at the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a "white nationalist insurrection."

Ultimately, the attack on the Capitol, like Trump's neofascist movement more generally, was part of a white supremacist, Christian nationalist holy war against America's multiracial democracy, secular society, pluralism, the Constitution and the rule of law. Trumpists truly believe themselves to be a on a mission for God.

Many observers have described white right-wing militant Christian extremists and other Trump-led and inspired neofascist terrorists as "Vanilla ISIS" or "White ISIS," a mirror version of Islamic extremism. 

That's a striking turn of phrase, but is the description accurate? Does it obscure more than it reveals? What specifically do white supremacist and other right-wing terror movements have in common with the most militant forms of Islam? How are they different?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Sara Kamali, a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and author of the new book "Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States."

In this conversation Kamali explains how the events of Jan. 6 must be understood within a broader context of the history of white nationalism and white supremacist violence in the United States. She explains that white supremacists and other right-wing terrorists share a common fantasy and motivation with militant Islamists, such as a desire to overthrow the existing social order and to return to a fictive "golden age" when people like them ruled uncontested.

Kamali also highlights how white supremacists and Christian nationalists (two groups with significant overlap) as well as militant Islamists create and then elevate "martyrs" as a means of justifying further violence in service to their cause. She concludes by warning that white nationalism is a grave threat to the future of American democracy and the country's stability, prosperity and society more broadly.

Given all that is happening — with the aftermath of Jan. 6, ascendant neofascism, right-wing terrorism and violence and the assault on the democracy and pluralistic society — how are you feeling?

It is through conversations such as this that we will be able to bring more attention to problems that we as a country have struggled with since its founding. Jan. 6 must be understood within the larger context of white nationalism and systemic racism. For example, the continual struggles with voting rights are all part of this larger context as well.

Why were so many people who should have known better — the "professional smart people" and other public voices — shocked by the events of Jan. 6? That day was a celebration of a particular type of "white freedom" which is a running theme in American history.

I am not frustrated per se, but more disheartened. It is unfortunate that matters had to get so bad as seen on Jan. 6 in order to have these types of public conversations. We have been struggling with white supremacy, specifically, and white nationalism broadly — and, indeed, struggling for human rights — for decades and centuries in this country.

Given your expertise, what did you see in the events of Jan. 6?

I said to myself, "So this is when it happens." A year or so ago I warned on Twitter that the 2020 would involve political violence. It was all a matter of when, not if. I was actually surprised that the violence on Jan. 6 was not worse. For example, there were bombs found in the vicinity of the Capitol building, but there was no mass shooting involved in the insurrection attack. On Jan. 6, I saw a manifestation and culmination of not only four years of Donald Trump's presidency, but of centuries of minimizing white nationalist violence in the United States. It was also an example of what happens when the full context of white privilege is not addressed in our society, and when the respect and dignity that should be afforded to people of color are also consistently denied.

Why do so many reporters continue to describe Trump's attack force as a "mob"? The events that day were premeditated. "Mob" implies something spontaneous. It is another example of these dangerous assumptions about white racial innocence.

If someone understands American history, then your use of "attack force" makes sense as a way of describing the insurrectionists on Jan. 6. However, if a person is denying the realities of systemic racism itself, let alone the interlocking systems that reproduce and reify racism, then they will not understand why the differences between "insurrection," "attack force," "mob" and "riot" will be important to understanding the full scope of what happened on Jan. 6.

I see Jan. 6 as a victory for the white supremacist movement in this country and the global right more generally. On that day the deranged fantasies of "The Turner Diaries" became real. The white supremacist movement also dreamed of a president like Donald Trump and the likes of Stephen Miller making public policy. On Jan. 6, neo-Confederates and other white supremacists, including Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, overran the Capitol — and for the most part did it without suffering serious consequences or even substantial physical risk that day.

Certainly, Jan. 6 was a battle in the war to establish a white ethnostate in America. Donald Trump's presidency was blatantly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan's newspaper, The Crusader. The events of Jan. 6th and Donald Trump's presidency, more generally, were not just a backlash against President Barack Obama's skin color. They were also part of a larger pronouncement of just how deeply entrenched white nationalism is in this country.

In simple terms, how do you explain the difference between "white supremacy" and "white nationalism"?

White supremacy is the belief that there is a white race specifically. It is also the belief in the biological, cultural and/or divine superiority of the white race. White nationalism is the political goal of white supremacy, which calls for the establishment of a white ethnostate. In accordance with this goal, people of color would be subject to genocide, extermination or segregation and subjugation.

What kinds of stories that white supremacists tell themselves about the world? How does their imaginary world cohere?

Their narrative of victimhood is based on the understanding that people of color are perpetrating violence against the white race and are a threat to the biological, cultural and religious superiority of the white race. It is also because of this notion of white supremacy, because white people believe themselves to be superior, that violence against people of color is warranted to protect the sanctity of the white race.

The same narrative of victimhood also upholds the notion that women, Jews, Muslims and, in many instances, queer Americans are also viewed as threats to the white race. "Traditional" hierarchies of gender and sexuality are often upheld within the white nationalist worldview.

Donald Trump and other leaders of the neofascist movement are now encouraging more terrorism by creating a narrative that those who "sacrifice" themselves for "the cause" are martyrs and heroes. Isn't this similar to how militant Islamists recruit terrorists and suicide bombers?

Within both ideologies, martyrs are not only lauded but their perceived sacrifices are understood as legitimating violence, because it strengthens the narrative of needing to "defend" their respective perspectives and communities.

The martyr is thus a hero and a target from the respective points of view of both white nationalists and militant Islamists. For example, Timothy McVeigh, the co-conspirator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack to date by an American on U.S. soil, has long been portrayed and perceived as a martyr by many white nationalists specifically and by those within the political far right, more broadly. So too are David Lane, LaVoy Finicum and Ashli Babbitt, all of whom represent different facets and time periods of white nationalism in the U.S.

Martyrdom is often most associated with militant Islamism. While that's true, in the American context, martyrdom is also aligned with the many religions that directly support or that are expressed as supporting white nationalism, including Wotanism, militant Mormonism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There is also the overlap of fighting to recreate some type of "glorious" past.

For white nationalists, there is a desire to return to the glory days of an imagined past of White America where the founders were divinely inspired to establish the United States. For areas of the world where there is a similar belief in the inherent right for the white race to establish a white ethnostate, like in parts of Europe and Australasia, there is a similar looking back to the past.

Militant Islamists desire the glorious past as they interpret it to have existed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. What is complicated about this is that many Muslims around the world — the majority of the 2 billion Muslims around the world who are not militant — similarly look back to the same period of history with the desire to emulate it. The difference lies in their understanding of the history itself and how to implement it in the present-day context.

To draw direct parallels between white nationalists and militant Islamists, the white nationalists draw on that imagined past as inspiration for a white ethnostate. The militant Islamists want to create a global caliphate. Both ideologies, which on the surface are seemingly quite disparate from one another, essentially utilize similar imagery from the "past."

What about the overlap between militant Islamists and many white supremacists and other members of the far right who share fantasies of an apocalypse, after which comes the rebirth of a new society?

Essentially, even though militant Islamists and white nationalists see themselves as enemies, they both support respective visions of ultimate and/or divine triumph. Imagining a final, favorable outcome is the driver and end point for many religions and beliefs within the complex constellation of white nationalism and also within militant Islamism. As pointed to earlier when discussing martyrs and martyrdom, the "end times" also play a prominent role within both ideologies. For example, not just in white nationalist evangelicalism or militant Mormonism, but also Christian Identity, Creativity, Wotanism and Odinism. And even for those on the far right who identify as agnostic or atheist, or with the label "nones," the final triumph of the white race is similarly motivating.

Because of the post-9/11 security paradigm, militant Islamism is most associated with apocalypticism, as with the black flags of Islamic State, for example, and end-times prophecies of great battles and a showdown between good and evil within Islam. That is understood by militant Islamism to result in triumph for an exclusive set of the righteous.

As I detail in "Homegrown Hate," not only does an understanding of the apocalypse play a large role within white nationalism, so, too, does Jesus. There are many parallels and points of overlap between white nationalism and militant Islamism that are important to understand in order to address them as worldviews, rather than dismiss them.  

What are the lessons of Jan 6. and white nationalism in the larger context of American history?

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and on democracy itself, was not a surprise. It must be a lesson in acknowledging, confronting and redressing the systemic and systematic denials of white nationalism and racism, and injustice to Americans of color. Since the founding of the United States, certain human beings have been marginalized and denied the rights afforded to them as human beings. "We the People" has been applied to a select group of people.

White nationalism was minimized, even though it was always present. It is more than a security threat — it is a threat to the social stability, economic prosperity and democracy of the United States. It is a threat to equal rights, to equity, to human rights and to environmental justice.

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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