Different stripe, same skunk — the radical right

Part 2 of 2

What we now call “radical right” groups and political parties have existed for at least 160 years. Founded in the 1850s, the American Party (members were called Know Nothings because they refused to answer specific questions about their politics) was comprised of working and middle-class, native-born Protestants. Party members opposed the influx of German and Irish Catholic immigrants, fearing these individuals would challenge their economic and political power.

The radical right is an umbrella term that encompasses numerous groups including the alternative right or alt-right, a term that came into usage during the 2016 presidential campaign. According to Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, the alt-right implicitly or explicitly promotes white supremacy and denounces traditional conservatism for not putting white America at the center of its political agenda. The alt-right rejects egalitarianism and democracy and loathes the country’s move toward “multi-culturalism.”

In “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” University of Alabama political scientist George Hawley states the typical alt-right enthusiast does not fit the stereotypical radical-right KKK or neo-Nazi profile. Alt-right members are young, have some college education and are not necessarily religious. Hawley argues the alt-right is unlike any far-right movement we have seen: “It’s atomized, amorphous, predominantly online and mostly anonymous. And it was energized by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.”

Hawley notes the characterization of alt-right as a rebranding of radical conservatism is inaccurate as alt-right websites have little if anything to say about the constitution, make no demands that everyone “support the troops,” and evangelical Christians “are more likely to be mocked than defended.” Many in the alt-right do not oppose abortion, noting this procedure is a form of “inferior race” birth control as more black and Hispanic women have abortions than white women. The alt-right despises gender equality, and many of its adherents argue that women should be denied the right to vote. For Hawley, the alt-right is “a distinct brand of conservatism as we know it” and a destabilizing force in American politics. The alt-right is benefitting from the decline of traditional conservatism and is “working to expedite its final collapse.”

According to Hawley, the alt-right cannot be considered a “mass movement” in the sense that Eric Hoffer used the term in “The True Believers.” Existing largely online, the alt-right has no formal organization and no leadership hierarchy. The goal of some alt-right members is the creation of one or more “white ethno-states” in North America. Less ambitious alt-right supporters want to end mass immigration and make a white-identity, social, cultural and political agenda the centerpiece of political discourse. While the alt-right has eschewed white robes and swastikas for suits and ties (“button-down racism”), the agenda of a bigot is the same, no matter how attired.

While the alt-right is lurking on the internet, long-standing hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-Nazi organizations have become emboldened since Trump became president. Members of these groups often refer to him as “GEOTUS”“God Emperor of the United States.”

Begun by former Confederate army officers after the Civil War, the anti-black (later anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant) KKK claimed as many as 4 million members in the 1920s (total U.S. population was 107 million), with Klan groups found across the country. New York historian Lawrence Gooley states that during this period, the North Country was a “hotbed of KKK activity.” A 2017 study concluded that between 1877 and 1950, almost 4,100 African-Americans were the victims of “racial terror lynchings” in 11 Southern states. No doubt a significant number of these murders were carried out by the KKK.

Neo-Nazi groups share a passionate hatred for Jews and a fanatic love of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. For these extremists, most of the world’s problems are the result of a vast international Jewish conspiracy that controls national governments, global financial institutions and the media.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 99 neo-Nazi and 130 active KKK groups in 22 states in 2016, including six (three KKK and three neo-Nazi) in New York state. Two neo-Nazi groups are in the New York City area and one in Long Island. One KKK group is in the extreme southwest corner of the state, and two are in Long Island.

It’s difficult to know with any degree of certainty how many people are involved in radical right groups. Sociologists examine the composition of social movements in terms of three categories: 1) members, 2) active supporters and 3) passive supporters. Regarding the KKK, estimates of the number of members nationwide ranges from 3,000 to 8,000. The number of “active supporters” — individuals who contribute money, consume Klan literature and/or speak enthusiastically about the KKK — is unknown, but likely greater than the number of members. The number of “passive supporters” who often remain silent about their politics is little more than a “guestimate.” When former KKK leader David Duke ran for the Senate last year he received 58,606 votes in Louisiana’s primary election. An ABC-Washington Post poll conducted after the Charlottesville,Virginia, incident found that 9 percent of respondents (equivalent to 22 million people over 19 years of age) said it was acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.

From its inception, the KKK has engaged in and glorified violence. Speaking of the Charlottesville confrontation, a North Carolina Klansman stated, “Nothing makes us more proud of the KKK than when we see white patriots such as James Fields Jr., age 20, taking his car and running over nine communist anti-fascists, killing one.” Noting the death of Heather Heyer, the woman killed, another Klansman said, “I’m glad that girl died.”

Domestic terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people (including 19 children) and wounded 500 more when he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, have become heroes of the radical right. A blogger on the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website stated he wanted to raise money to a build a gigantic bronze statue of McVeigh, the most infamous homegrown terrorist in U.S. history.

The United States is undergoing a profound ethnic and racial transformation. In 1960, approximately 85 percent of the U.S. population was comprised of non-Hispanic white people. By 2015, that number had fallen to 62 percent, and demographers project that in 2043, non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the total population.

Can white America accept the political, social and cultural implications of this demographic transition, and how will the nation respond to those who violently oppose it?

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. Read part 1 of this commentary by clicking here.


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