In this photo shot October 1987 in Jackson County, Ohio. Farmer William Donta holds a gun, he had a KKK rally, and a cross burning on his private property in Jackson County, Ohio
From a podium draped in the flag of the southern armies which had fought to save American slavery, newly-elected Alabama Governor George Wallace declared war on the course of history. “The ‘changing world’ of which we are told”, he raged, each inflection and pause carefully marked by his speechwriter, “it is called ‘new’ and ‘liberal’”. In fact, he went on, this new world was “degenerate and decadent”. “The international racism of the liberals seeks to persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international coloured majority”.
Not in Alabama, Wallace asserted in his infamous 1961 speech: “segregation now”, he thundered, “segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. The streets were packed with Wallace supporters, many wearing white flowers, the symbol of segregation. “It was open to the public, anyone in the public”, the African-American civil rights activist James Poe Jr. later recalled. “But we were not the public”.
For many in the United States, the fall of President Donald Trump holds out hope that the conflicts of race which opened up through his time in office may be healed. Even as the former President’s impeachment grind on, though, elements of the White Nationalist movement have begun to regroup. The loose alliance calling itself the Patriots’ Party hopes to displace the traditional Republican Party structure—and ride back to power in 2024.
There is no way to predict if this effort will succeed. It is, however, reason to fear that what has been hailed to be a new dawn might just turn out to be part of a long, grim sunset.
Led by groups like the Proud Boys, which was declared a terrorist organisation by Canada this week, the emerging White Nationalist coalition is made up of a welter of organisations committed to racism and antisemitism. Ever since the violence-scarred Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, groups like The Base, National Socialist Order and the Feuerkrieg Division have engaged in street violence, battling Left-wing and anti-racist demonstrators on the streets. In some cases, these far-Right formations have even plotted the assassinations of high officials.
Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted last year.
Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.
In 2020, the United States’ Department of Homeland Security warned it was “particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years”.
For students of America’s political history, this White Nationalist tide will be no surprise. Fascism, the scholar William Bernard noted in 1938 paper, amidst the rise of Nazi Germany, “is not a European monopoly”. Like European Fascism, Bernard suggested, its American variation had repeatedly reemerged at times of social crisis, blaming “the Jew, the alien, the Negro, the Oriental, the foreign radical”. “Lurking in the background”, he concluded, “it is a real and present threat”.
Bernard pointed to five organic Fascism-coloured risings in the century before he wrote: the Anti-Immigration League from 1834; the Know Nothing Movement of 1849, which sought race-qualification for citizenship; the American Protective Association of 1887; the Ku Klux Klan; the white working class-focussed Share The Wealth movement led by Huey Long, a kind of Trump figure of the Left.
Charles Lindbergh, the millionaire aviator who authored the ‘America First’ slogan around which Trump founded his order, also drew on these White Nationalist tendencies. In a 1939 essay arguing for the United States to stay out of the Second World War, Lindbergh wrote: “We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and which will destroy the treasures of the White Race”. He called on Americans to “guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies, and dilution by foreign races”.
White Nationalist ideology seeks not just racial domination, but to overthrow the American Constitutional system with a theocratic order. “Government has become our God”, Wallace lamented in his 1961 speech , almost perfectly mirroring those of the Islamist movement’s ideological patriarch, Syed Ibrahim Qutb . “It is, therefore, a basically ungodly government and its appeal to the pseudo-intellectual and the political is to change their status from servant of the people to master of the people, to play at being God”.
From polling data, this much is clear: the United States is divided as never before. The United States’ political landscape now contains the foundations of four political parties: some 17 percent of voters each say the support the Trump-led Republicans, the Republican Party establishment, President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, and the Left-wing of the Democratic Party. A third of registered voters didn’t support any of these blocs, which could conceivably mean there’s room for a fifth political entity. These divisions suggest the existence of deep social fractures, which could take decades—if not generations—to heal.
The United States, though, has a first-past-the-post electoral system, which - unlike Europe’s proportional representation structure - provides strong incentives for these blocs to tactically coalesce. “Given the way our elections work”, analyst Geoffrey Skelley has observed, “this means it would be self-defeating for the parties to not unite under a relatively ‘big tent’. After all, a failure to bring together like-minded groups could just hand victory to the other side”.
In 1912, ideological divisions split the Republicans between then-President William Taft and Progressive Party nominee—later to the President—Theodore Roosevelt. Even though Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson won just 42 percent of the electoral vote, he swept all but eight states.
Trump’s election campaign has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been at pains to distance itself from the Patriot Party: cold political logic makes clear there’s no payoff in splitting the Republican party. The forces unleashed during his four years in office, though, won’t be easily contained.
Is this, then, the road to a future civil war? The string of killings and assassination attempts White Nationalist terrorists in the last several months show the threat is real. The violence seen in 2020-2021 isn’t historically exceptional; indeed, the United States saw higher levels of terrorist activity in the 1960s and 1970s. The country’s institutions, though, proved capable of both containing the violence, and addressing the social conditions which fed it.
Now, though, America could well struggle to replicate that success. The gargantuan economic dislocation caused by COVID-19—a dislocation which comes on the back of high indebtedness and shrinking economic opportunity for youth—coincides with a demographic transition which will see White Americans become merely the largest minority. These transitions have placed huge strains American society’s rift lines: class, culture, religion, ethnic ethnicity, and race.
Irrespective of whether Trump stands in 2024, Trumpianism has established itself as a force in American politics. A long, complex struggle lies ahead, which will have profound consequences both for America’s society, and its place in the world.