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Leonard Zeskind gave this talk at a MacArthur Foundation Fellows Forum in October 2023. It is reproduced here so Fellows and others can read and think about it. Zeskind became a MacArthur Fellow in 1998.


Fighting the White Supremacist Movement Now and in the Future

Communications from the MacArthur Foundation note that it is on land once inhabited by the Pottawatomi Tribe, the “people of the place of fire.” The Prairie Band Pottawatomi are now mostly located in Northeast Kansas, on an Eight-mile by Ten-mile reservation, over which they claim sovereignty. One Pottawatomi, Virgil Shopteese, was a good friend to me when I was 19, and he was 42 years old, and we both worked in a cannery. We were both forklift drivers in the warehouse and spent time together at work and off the job. I dedicate my talk in his honor.

The white supremacist and the white nationalist movements are social and political movements in the ordinary sense of the term. Their memberships drift from one organization to the other. They have organizational and movement-wide leaders. And they are largely self-funded. These are ideological phenomena, not emotional “hate” groups. I used to refer to them as “hate groups.”  But I think we fool ourselves with those kinds of descriptors, so I don’t use them anymore.

The white supremacist wants to re-establish the supremacy of those they deem white. They are a bit vague on this point nowadays. The white nationalist wants to break up the United States and create a whites-only nation-state. They want white people to pick up their own garbage. Whereas in the 1920s and 1950s-60s, they saw themselves as defenders of the status quo, today they want to turn over the status quo. In short, they are revolutionary. They also make a claim on the 1776 Funding Fathers and their “original intent.” And they have an impact on the society around them.

Anti-DEI Vanguard

Now, the “impact on society” we usually associate with white supremacists is violence. And there has been and will continue to be plenty of violence. White supremacy requires violence. But what I want to talk to you today is not the impact of violence.

It is my contention that the white supremacist movement acts as an avant-garde for retrograde practices and ideas that undermine diversity, equality, and inclusion. Not every bad idea starts with the white supremacists. But enough do that it requires our attention.

Let me give you a few examples so that we can see how this works.

In Florida, Gov. DeSantis has made a name for himself pushing against racial equality and books that promote black equality. You might remember that at the beginning of this effort, he said he wanted to ensure that no white child should be embarrassed or ashamed of the deeds of their ancestors. Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that bans educators from teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 classrooms—even though CRT isn’t part of the state’s public school curriculum. The anti-CRT legislation, also known as the “Stop W.O.K.E” Act, was passed by lawmakers last month with a section that prohibits teachers from giving lessons that would make students, quote, “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex,” unquote.

This idea of white victimhood in race relations circulates widely in our culture.

It actually began with the 1972 publication of a book called The Dispossessed Majority by a man using the pseudonym Wilmot Robertson. He was a survivor of the 1930s far right. His book was circulated widely by every white supremacist organization. David Duke sold it off his Klan list. They put these ideas into the air. I wrote about this process in my own book.

Now, I am not arguing that DeSantis read this book or any other book. I am arguing that the notion of “dispossession” of white people began in the white supremacist movement and spread out from there—to include DeSantis and many others.

The ideas around “white replacement” and opposition to non-European immigrants began with the white supremacist movement. I can remember a graphic map that Aryan Nations used in the early 1980s before the Reagan Administration passed immigration reform in 1986.

According to America’s Voice ad tracking project, it has identified 546 pieces of political messaging that employ lies around ‘white replacement’ and a ‘migrant invasion’ in the 2022 cycle, including 334 tweets for the first six months of this year, 121 different paid political ads in this cycle, and 91 campaign emails. They note that Republican candidates are also regularly peddling these dangerous lies on cable appearances, Congressional hearings, on other social media platforms, and in podcasts and radio interviews, but we have not quantified those here. The scale of what we have gathered, however, should dismiss any notion that this language is coincidental or only a problem limited to a few outliers in the Republican Party:

  • Of the 334 tweets, they have identified 81 different Republican candidates, elected, or party officials across 24 states who have used this language.
  • The 121 unique ads were from 44 different campaigns across 16 states.
  • The 91 campaign emails are from 21 different campaigns across 12 states.

Note added in edit: The section above is necessarily incomplete. Its purpose was to alert the MacArthur Foundation and others, such as the NAACP, whose agenda is focused on winning claims for inclusion, equity, and diversity, to the need to put some energy into defeating the white supremacists in order to win their DEI goals. IREHR plans to continue this discussion and hopes that others will contribute to it.

Middle American Nationalists & Infiltrating the Mainstream

As the white supremacists have recently drawn closer to the mainstream, they have rubbed up against and mingled with the Make America Great Again or MAGA group. The MAGAs are America First nationalists. They are racist, and sometimes they are explicitly white supremacists—but sometimes not. They are descended, sometimes literally, from the 1968 voters for George Wallace. More recently, they were Tea Partiers.

Donald I Warren, an American political scientist, studied these Wallace-ites back then and wrote a book about them.   They regard themselves as opposed to those they viewed as “elites” in American society, as well as opposed to those they view as beneath them on the social scale: black people and people of color. They believe that the elites bow to the demands of poor black people and make THEM pay the price. They feel squeezed between the two other forces in society.

They are nationalist, not populist. Unlike conservatives of the Reagan era, they are not afraid of a strong state—as long as it benefits them. Unlike in years past, they are now more self-contained phenomena, with their own news sources, internet sites, and think tanks. While the Reagan—era conservatives still have the ability to limit their growth, and they can be outvoted, there is no readily available social bloc to break them up. And they are getting more radical by the day.

Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, and Parents Rights in Education are some of the MAGA groups involved in removing anti-racism from school curriculum. Moms for Liberty has 60 different local groups on Facebook with a combined membership of 38,000. No Left Turn has 42 groups with a membership of 34,000. Parents Rights has 58 groups with 26,000 members.

The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights (IREHR) has been monitoring about 300 anti-vaccine groups on Facebook. They have a combined membership of 326,774.

How many of these MAGA are there? We don’t know, and it will take some money to find out. But I can tell you this: A recent NORC opinion poll found 12 million people who agreed that force was justified to restore Trump to the White House. I want to close with a discussion of how to oppose them.

But first, let us talk about opposing the white supremacists.

Building Opposition

During the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Black Freedom Movement, the Klan and the White Citizens Councils-types were fighting a defensive battle to oppose the end of white supremacy. The Freedom Movements opposed the Klan by exposing their violent night-riding to the light of day. Since the end of the Black Freedom Movement, the white-ists have taken an offensive stance towards society as a whole, attempting to revolutionize it along white supremacist or white nationalist lines. Among people of goodwill, there have been three main strategies to oppose these white-ists.

  1. The most effective strategy is to mobilize social strata surrounding them and mobilize them to oppose white-ist politics. During the agriculture and farm crisis of the early 1980s, there was a sharp rise in the anti-Semitic and racist far right in the Farm Belt. We worked with liberal and progressive farm and church groups across the Midwest. Alongside Prairiefire Rural Action and the Center for Democratic Renewal, we trained 1,500 community activists on the ground—two-day trainings—on what to do in their local communities. And we worked with farmer groups—from the North Dakota Farmers Union to the newly formed American Agricultural Movement to others—to stand up in their local communities to say “No” to bigotry. It worked. The farm belt far right—including the Posse Comitatus type groups—faded and fell.

In the early 1980s, in North Georgia, a national socialist Klan group organized a trade union among white chicken factory workers to drive out Mexican-Americans from the community. The National Anti-Klan Network, which became the Center for Democratic Renewal, brought in a legitimate poultry workers union. Soon, the Klan’s leading worker-organizer quit them and joined with the real union to drive the Kluxers away.

When white power skinheads first appeared in the mid-1980s, we went to young white rock n rollers and explained the problem. They already saw the Nazis trying to take over their music gigs. So they went into battle to defend their music and dance halls. While this action did not break up many white power skinhead groups, it eventually drove them off and dried up some of their recruiting ground. Devin Burghart, who is now the president and executive director of the IREHR, also went directly after the recording centers and CD-making business for the racists, and this did have more success.

  1. Which brings me to the second strategy—direct attack. Now, I do not mean that we should violently attack them. We most certainly should not. But we should stand in opposition where that is appropriate, we should sue them where necessary, and we should be a smart opposition.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, the national socialists and the white nationalists held a “Unite the Right” rally to defend a Robert E. Lee statue that was FINALLY going to be removed. It was organized by a man who had once been a member of the Proud Boys. They held a torchlight parade of about 600-700. They also held a daytime protest at the statue, during which anti-racists held their own protests. One of the white nationalists deliberately drove his car into the anti-racists—killing one woman. A group sued the white-ists under an old anti-Klan statute from the Reconstruction era, and they won a $26 million judgment against 14 neo-Nazi individuals and ten white nationalist organizations.

They included two men who were leaders of the League of the South as well as the League of the South organization itself. Two different Klan organizations were named. The National Socialist Movement and the Traditionalist Workers Party were also defendants who lost. As well as Richard Spencer, the one-time leader of the National Policy Institute. There were other defendants.

The reason I have gone into so much detail on this point is because the Charlottesville lawsuit was a very important measure. It caused part of the shift by white nationalists off the edge and onto a mainstreaming strategy.

In Boise, Idaho, this past summer, St. Luke’s Hospital sued paramilitarist Ammon Bundy for defamation after he led an armed protest that shut down the hospital. In 2020, Bundy assembled the People’s Rights Network. It grew to more than 40,000 members in a well-defined, well-structured national organization. It has seized on COVID-19 anxiety and cultivated a new network of militia members, preppers, anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers.

My organization, the IREHR, has monitored and reported on the Peoples Rights Network many times. St. Luke’s Hospital used our president and executive director, Devin Burghart, as an expert witness. And they won over a $50 million verdict.

  1. Third strategy: Relying on government intervention (or on somebody else, anybody else, to do it.) This is the most common form of opposition. Most people sit at home and call the bigots names. They claim to be too busy doing something other than mobilizing their friends or attending a meeting or event. They blame all of it on “the media.” Etc. However, the federal government has actively gone after some of these groups.

There have been more than 1,100 arrests of the January 6 rioters. Most are going to jail; some have been going for a long time.

The federal government’s Justice Department also prosecuted the Oath Keepers militia for seditious conspiracy. They won a guilty verdict. The verdict decapitated the organization and essentially put them out of business. This was the First Time the federal government won a seditious conspiracy verdict against a far-right group. They did not do it during WWII. And they lost again in 1988 when they went after the Aryan Nations wing of movement leaders. But this time they won.

They also won against the Proud Boys. Now, the Proud Boys organization decentralized itself before their trial. As a result, their organization continues to exist. Some state chapters have been moving towards the white nationalists—adopting their form of anti-Semitism and racism. Other chapters have moved closer to the Republican Party. Both are problems.

Despite these Justice Department victories, much remains to be done.

MARs and Opposition to MARs

Now, nobody that I know of has talked about how to oppose the MAGA nationalists. They have talked much about how to beat them at the polls. That is, how to get more votes than they do. But no one has talked about how to stop the MAGA from growing, how to stop it from becoming further radicalized to the right, and how to keep from sinking all hope for democracy, equality, and common decency in all life.

However, the danger of the MAGA movement has grown over time, particularly as it has been radicalized and shaped by ideological white supremacists. And we need a strategy to go after their movement.

We need to develop better numbers for the MAGAites. We need to know all of the locations where the MAGAs are interacting with the white supremacists. We need to specifically break those up. Then, go on to break up the MAGAs. That is a lot of work. And we need more.

This country is headed towards a cataclysmic challenge on race. In 20 years, white people will no longer be the majority and will no longer be able to enforce white supremacy by majority rule. Many of the MARs-MAGAs will mistakenly fight against this change.

The stakes could not be higher!

Thank you.

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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