Monday, May 14, 2018

Dangerous clowns

Vegas Tenold, born in Norway, now living in Brooklyn, responded to Anders Behring Breivik's white-nationalist-inspired 2011 massacre of seventy-seven Norwegians, mostly young people, by wanting to understand the hard right in his new country. He describes himself as a balding white European, the perfect appearance for hanging out among our white nationalist fringe, despite always having voted socialist in Norway. A graduate of Columbia School of Journalism, he went about his project responsibly: "The reporting for this book always took place with the full knowledge and consent of my subjects. I never concealed who I was or presented myself as anything but a journalist." For five years, he embedded himself among Nazis, violent skin heads, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, and white pride nationalists. He spent election night in November 2016 drinking with several guys from a white nationalist mini-formation that called itself the Traditionalist Workers Party.

The ominous title for his resulting book, Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America repeats the tweet the TWP's leader sent him at 3 AM that morning.

The far right had their president, and all I had was a splitting hangover and five years worth of notes I hoped would help me figure out how they'd managed to pull it off.

Tenold's story leads through scenes that are scary and repulsive. But though I found it gripping, it inspired in me more curiosity than terror. These men (Tenold's subjects are nearly all men) are clowns, sad ones at that. The narrative follows around an inept aspiring Fuhrer, Matthew Heimbach of the TWP, as he visited rallies and encampments of all the varieties of the white extremist fringe. Pre-Trump (and pre-Richard Spencer of alt-right notoriety who Heimbach thought a lightweight), the TWP hoped to unify the hard right into a serious political movement. But however dangerous they might be to a person of color who unwarily encountered them, most of them couldn't organize themselves out of a paper bag. These were radicals who might have forgotten to bring matches to a cross-burning. Most preferred drinking and fighting among themselves to any political project. Fortunately.

Tenold has concluded

if six years spent with the radical right taught me anything about the underlying reason for white nationalism, it is this: 'We are not them, and they are not us.'

The Trump election glow among the hard right faded quite quickly. Establishment Republicans didn't need these angry, unsophisticated men; they had power now and the poor slobs should crawl back in their holes. And the violent Charlottesville marches and rally proved the hard right's undoing. Heimbach received some laudatory "Heil Heimbach" salutes from the Nazis in attendance, but most of the country recoiled from visible hatred and bigotry, from the beating of DeAndre Harris and the murder of Heather Heyer. Under pressure from civil society if not their President, all the old splits and jealousies reappeared.

The bickering, disavowals, and counter-disavowals in the wake of Charlottesville are a reminder that, for all the attention it received and hysteria it created, the far right movement in America still had no idea what it was doing. That isn't to say that the groups and their members, on their own and together, aren't capable of violence, harassment, and even acts of terror, merely that corralling their efforts into a focused political movement would be akin to herding a flock of particularly hateful and racist cats.

... Ultimately, I believe the far right in America, at least in the incarnation I spent years covering, is destined to fail. Not because America is inherently good and that the forces of justice and progress are always stronger than those of intolerance and hatred, but because white supremacy is doing just fine without the far right.

The country has spent decades perfecting an ostensibly nonracial form of white supremacy, and it is serving with remarkable efficiency. Private prisons, mandatory sentencing, seemingly unchecked police power, gerrymandering, increasingly limited access to healthcare and abortion -- these are all tendrils in an ingenious web designed to keep people poor and powerless. ... I believe Matthew [Heimbach] was right when he said that the elites and politicians hate his people, but they don't hate them because they are white; they hate them because they are poor.

Aspiring Fuhrer Heimbach is last seen launching a miserable sort of back-to-the-land commune for worn out bigots.
I'd describe this book as a workman-like effort, not for everyone, but if you want or need a glimpse into the world of the US hard right, an approachable introduction. This bunch hasn't produced a Timothy McVeigh, but it certainly could.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

"These men (Tenold's subjects are nearly all men) are clowns, sad ones at that."

Bigots tend to be schmoes. The last time Heimbach was in the news.

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