File image: Donald Trump at a campaign rally
First came the knife, then the fire, the performance watched by a crowd of some 2,000 children, women and men one warm summer evening. “The negro was deprived of his ears, fingers and genital parts of his body” The Springfield Republican recorded of a lynching on April 2, 1899. “He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on, but stood the ordeal of fire with surprising fortitude”, the newspaper remarked. Like at every show, there were souvenirs on sale: “small pieces of bones went for 25¢, and a bit of liver crisply cooked sold for 10¢”.
This weekend, as President Donald Trump rages against—imaginary—conspiracies which have denied him re-election, the United States has appeared to be a country on the edge. From Arizona to Michigan and Nevada, Trump supporters—some armed with handguns and assault rifles—have gathered in response to their leaders’ claims a shadowy élite is hijacking American democracy. To many, it appears the country is marching towards the abyss.
Facing seismic strains because of demographic change, the hierarchies of race on which America’s political and social life are built have become untenable. A defining confrontation involving the state and the White Nationalist movement has become all but inevitable.
Law-enforcement preempted a succession of lethal White Nationalist operations in the build-up to America’s General Elections: The plot to kidnap
Governor Gretchen Whitmer; Elizabeth Lecron’s plans
to bomb a Toledo bar popular with Black customers; militia assaults on protestors demonstrating against racial basis in policing.
These though, are mere symptoms of far larger crisis—one it is far from clear the post-Trump American political order has either the imagination, or the will, to engage.
Ever since the mid-1980s, America’s far-Right has been driven by one inexorable demographic fact: In the middle of this century, the United States will transition from being a White-majority country, to one where Whites are the largest single ethnic group. For the age group 18-29, the younger part of the labour force and key segments of the voting age populations, the tipping point will come sooner, perhaps even before the end of this decade. The precise contours of the new multi-racial politics are impossible to predict, but this is clear: White privilege is at unprecedented risk.
From the 1850s to the 1870s; from 1915 to the 1920s; from 1950 through the course of the Civil Rights movement: America’s White Nationalists used large-scale violence to repress Black claims to equality. From 1880 to 1930, when organised White Nationalist power waned, the mob acted in its stead: 3,000 people, at least, are estimated to have died in lynchings like the one in 1899.
The work of scholars like Arlie Perlinger teaches us that today’s violent White Nationalist movement is made up of many elements—elements which have organically formed, dissolved, re-emerged. The Klu Klux Klan—resourced with the organisational infrastructure needed for large-scale terrorism, and the demonstrated will to use it—is merely the largest of a constellation of neo-Nazis, armed militia hostile to the central government, Christian zealots and skinheads.
Perlinger notes that these groups have, in recent years, created an ecosystem that is “more vibrant and more ideologically and structurally diverse than ever before”. Leadership is loose, and affiliations opaque—but the intensity and focus of the movement itself are startling.
Evidence of the scale of the threat is well known to national-security experts, even if it hasn’t yet informed public discussion. Last year, a study by scholars Seth Jones, Catrina Doxsee and Nicholas Harrington showed that terrorists of the right were responsible for 57 percent of the 893 terrorist attacks in the United States from 1994 and 2020. Although Islamist terrorism far exceeded White Nationalism in its lethality, this was largely due to the impact of a single event, 9/11, which claimed 2,977 lives.
“In 14 of the of the 21 years between 1994 and 2019 in which fatal terrorist attacks occurred”, Jones and his colleagues note, “the majority of deaths resulted from right-wing attacks. In eight of these years, right-wing attackers caused all of the fatalities, and in three more—including 2018 and 2019—they were responsible for more than 90 percent of annual fatalities”.
The second-largest terrorist attack in the United States, significantly, was carried out by a White Nationalist—the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which claimed the lives of 168 people, by Timothy McVeigh.
President Trump, the scholars Roger Smith and Desmond King have argued, succeeded building a political coalition out of the racial rage represented by McVeigh: the working-class in the so-called rust-belt, elderly threatened by cultural change, Evangelicals. These groups coalesced around what King and Smith call White Protectionism: “policies designed directly to protect whites, including unconstrained policing, weakened civil rights enforcement, and franchise and immigration restrictions”.
For many White Nationalists, this weekend will mark the end of hopes these policies could be secured, and made enduring, through the party political system. Large numbers of their ranks, inexorably, will explore means to operate more openly outside the norms of democratic politics.
To Indians, this might seem a minor problem: economic and social life in this country has, after all, survived violent challenges to do with religion, ethnicity and class, many of which are still unresolved. Yet, history teaches us that even affluent, well-organised societies can tear themselves when their political leadership cannot agree on the foundational principles which must govern their polity.
White nationalists are right: the status-quo on which their social status rests cannot survive America’s new racial realities. Every third Black family has zero or negative wealth; one in three Black children lives in poverty. Everything from healthcare to educational outcomes is defined by race. Even as the country has become more diverse, neighbourhoods and cities are still segregated. Every 11th Black American is either incarcerated or on some form of parole; law-enforcement, incredibly, is a leading cause of Black male mortality.
This situation cannot endure—and yet, it lies at the heart of what it is to be American. American apartheid is unmissable: at Dupont Circle Metro, in the heart of Washington, DC, the platforms for trains headed north-west and south-east are dyed deep in the colours of the country’s two major racial groups.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the scholar Curtis Stokes has noted, saw how deeply embedded these impulses of race were at the dawn of the American republic. In contrast to Europe’s class culture, built around deference, servants in America “know nothing of vices or virtues peculiar to their status but share the education, opinion, feelings, virtues and vices of their contemporaries”. America’s founding ideology, democracy, made it possible for master and servant to trade places: “servants are not only equal among themselves but one can say that in some fashion they are equal to their masters”.
Except, Tocqueville saw, this new culture of equality existed only in a walled-off garden, with a sign at the gate reading Whites Only. “In almost all the state where slavery has been abolished”, he wrote, “the Negroes have been given electoral rights, but they would come forward to vote at the risk of their lives”. “He is allowed to worship the same God as the white man, but he must not pray at the same altars”.
America has confronted racist impulses that lie at the heart of its public culture before—and backed away. Following the Civil War, the United States sought to heal its relationship with the southern states’ Whites, by allowing institutionalised disenfranchisement and brutality. From late in the nineteenth century to until after World War I, Black efforts to freedom were met with savagery; the Civil Rights movement saw important legal and social gains won—but change stopped well short of the kinds of deep-reaching action needed to redress racial inequity.
To dismantle them, though, will risk a brutal confrontation within American society. Like so many of his predecessors, Joe Biden will seek to walk a middle path—but he may well discover none exists.