Expert Leonard Zeskind Reflects on the White Nationalist Movement
An Expert on White Nationalism Reflects
Story by Mark Potok
Photography by Stefan Hester
For almost 30 years, Leonard Zeskind has been researching and writing about the white nationalist movement in America. After years of working in heavy industry and simultaneously organizing white workers and youths against racism, Zeskind in 1985 became the research director of the Anti-Klan Network, an Atlanta-based organization that was later renamed the Center for Democratic Renewal, where he worked to battle a resurgence of the Klan and white nationalism generally. In the years since then, he has continued researching as an independent scholar whose work has been recognized with a 1998 "genius" fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and other awards. Sixteen years ago, Zeskind began work on what became an authoritative book on the last 30 years of the white nationalist movement. This May, the book — Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream — was published and received a series of good reviews. Not long before publication, Zeskind sat down with the Intelligence Report to discuss some of the views he has developed over the course of a lifetime observing the American radical right.
You've spent decades doing anti-racist work and tracking the white nationalist movement. How did you get started in this, Lenny?
While I was studying in a bar mitzvah class, we read Black Like Me [a 1961 book by John Howard Griffin detailing his harrowing experiences as a white man disguised as a black man], and the local NAACP president spoke at the synagogue the Friday before my bar mitzvah. So it was part of my life in the Jewish community.
Eventually, I came to understand that white people needed to address the problem of racism in other white people. So I got involved in trying to organize the younger white people in the working-class neighborhood I was living in. I spent 13 years in heavy industry, working as a grassroots organizer.
I started paying attention to the resurgence of white supremacist activity in the 1970s, around '77, '78. I started reading racist publications and helped put out a little magazine with a small group in Kansas City starting in 1982. But the real moment of transformation for me was in 1984 when I found a picture of Bob Weems as chairman of the Populist Party [a far-right party started by anti-Semite Willis Carto and others that year]; at the same time, I was looking at another picture of Weems leading a meeting of the Klan. The following year, I became a paid professional in the field [at the Anti-Klan Network], rather than an unpaid volunteer.
Before we get into some of the details, how is your book different than others that have traced much of the same history?
I tried to write about the white nationalist world as a movement in which the organizations meant less as individual organizations and more as springboards for the interaction of all these groups' different tendencies and ideologies. I tried to describe how the movement developed a political identity and self-consciousness. To the extent that it does that, it grows.
One of the things that became evident to me is that much of the language and many of the concepts we tend to use have lost whatever analytical power they once had. One idea that isn't helpful is the untested assumption that economic distress, direct and unmediated, drives the tendency towards racism and white supremacist organizing. If you look at the votes [former Klan leader] David Duke got in 1990 and 1991, they came from ordinary middle-class white people — not just those who were the most poverty-stricken. More, the concepts of left and right have lost a lot of their explanatory power. Who's on the left, who's on the right, in Russia and Eastern Europe today? I can't tell.
You suggest the white nationalist movement started to develop the political self-consciousness you just mentioned in the 1970s, and that two major tendencies, "mainstreamers" and revolutionary "vanguardists," emerged from that.
Almost from the moment it became a resurgent movement in the late 1970s, white nationalism started to define itself. Wilmot Robertson's book, The Dispossessed Majority, is important in this. People in the movement saw themselves as dispossessed — they had to explain to themselves how they had lost the battle over civil rights in the 1960s.
After years of anti-racism activism, Leonard Zeskind started work on Blood and Politics 16 years ago. It was published in May.
That's an important piece. White nationalists were no longer defending the status quo, because the status quo had changed. They saw themselves as an oppressed group, and they began to develop a movement with characteristics of that type. They saw themselves at odds with society and, to varying degrees, with the majority of white people who were supposedly their constituency. The "vanguardists" looked at white people and saw a bunch of cowards with their brains lost to "Jewish" TV. But the "mainstreamers" still thought there was a possibility of winning a majority following.
Here's the trick about spotting the transformation into a white revolutionary movement: The piece that makes them the most revolutionary is anti-Semitism, because it creates for them a ruling class. The invention of a fake ruling class transformed a reform-oriented conservative movement into a revolutionary movement.
Jared Taylor [editor of the white nationalist journal American Renaissance], for example, does not embrace the anti-Semitic theories that William Pierce [late leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance] did. Taylor apparently worked in international finance at one point, and he doesn't see himself as separate from that, despite the people railing at the banks and the Federal Reserve.
It would be a mistake to call vanguardists and mainstreamers factions; they're ideological tendencies, and they can both exist within a single organization.
How did those two tendencies play out?
In the early 1980s, the vanguardist wing of the movement started to develop an organizational face and a cohesive argument. [Hard-line leaders] Bob Miles and Louis Beam were crucial to that development, through their jointly produced Inter-Klan Newsletter and Survival Alert and with Beam's Essays of a Klansman. Then came the formation of The Order [a racist terrorist group that assassinated a Jewish talk show host and robbed more than $4 million in armored car heists] in the fall of 1983. The Order was built upon the notion that the majority of white people are inept and won't make a revolution without being dragged along kicking and screaming. They wanted to push the entire society into a ditch and start a race war, with the result that black people and white people would be forced to choose sides based upon their skin color.
After the sedition trial [the unsuccessful 1987 federal prosecution in Arkansas of 14 major white supremacist leaders, including Beam and Miles], however, the vanguardist wing started to lose steam. Multiple arrests and trials simply took their toll on them.
How did the mainstreamers become ascendant?
I think that the January 1987 events in Forsyth County [Ga.] marked a turning point, along with Howard Beach. [Editor's note: In December 1986, a large group of white teens attacked three black men in Howard Beach, a neighborhood of New York City, leaving one of them dead. Authorities compared the attack to a lynching.] In Georgia, 400 white people threw rocks at a small, interracial group of so-called brotherhood marchers. There were some Klansmen there, maybe 40, but they weren't the 400. So it had a mass character to it; it was a mainstream event. I can remember the difficulty we had in North Georgia getting Methodist ministers to speak out against the white mob without condemning the interracial brotherhood marchers [as provocateurs] in the same breath.
David Duke, who had been laying low for some six years after leaving the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, actually understood the significance of the events in Forsyth and Howard Beach. He understood that something was happening among white people, that there was a growing insurgency among a sector of white people that would carry him into his Louisiana campaigns. [Editor's note: Although Duke had run for office before, and was elected to the Louisiana House in 1989, he astonished the nation by winning more than 600,000 votes in both 1990 and 1991 during unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. senator and governor.] Now, everybody in the movement wanted to run for public office. A half dozen characters associated themselves with the Duke phenomenon, because it looked like the going thing.
What happened, as I write in the book, was that Duke opened the door and, in 1992, [long-time television commentator and white nationalist] Pat Buchanan walked through it. People remember Buchanan as running [for president on the GOP ticket] because he was mad about [the first President] Bush breaking his "No New Taxes" pledge. But Buchanan ran on a platform of America-first nationalism, anti-war isolationism, and nativism. It wasn't exactly a David Duke platform — Buchanan's not a national socialist like Duke — but his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns did carry Duke's banner.
But the 1990s, when the militia movement appeared, experienced a real resurgence of the violent vanguardists, didn't they?
After 1992, you have the development of vanguardists and mainstreamers both at the same time. The militias, for example, had within them the bombers and bank robbers, the vanguardists; but they also had people who were mainstreamers, interested in pursuing gun disobedience without robbing banks. The militia movement as a whole was primarily a revolt against what they believed was an erosion of national sovereignty. So it was basically a nationalist, a white nationalist, movement.
The vanguardists were busy creating their little enclaves — the Republic of Texas, the Militia of Montana, the Montana Freemen and so forth. They separated themselves from most white people and started to create their own little white, Christian enclaves. It looked like the vanguardists were the biggest things on the block, but that wasn't true. You also had the Buchanan candidacy, all this stuff going on inside the Republican Party. And, after the  Oklahoma City bombing, the government did an intensive roundup that hurt the most violent vanguardists.
In the years since the 1990s, I think the biggest failure of the mainstreamers was in 2000, when Buchanan [making his third bid for the presidency, this time on the Reform Party ticket] failed to make good use of the federal money [almost $13 million] the Reform Party got for his campaign. White nationalists put a lot of energy into that campaign, and they came out of it with very little. Buchanan gave them Ezola Foster [a black woman with extreme-right views who ran for vice president on the Buchanan ticket] and people like Jared Taylor were saying, "Why is this? Why are we going to support this?"
At that point, the mainstreamers were in trouble, and the National Alliance looked like the biggest kid on the block. It was growing like topsy.
Wasn't a key part of National Alliance leader William Pierce's importance at the time his intellectual leadership?
Ideas explain the world to people. They pull people together in a collective fashion around a common view of the way the world works. Pierce created a whole white ethic. By the time he died [in 2002], he had created a more or less complete ideology in terms of explaining the world. It's important to remember that this movement doesn't exist in a vacuum. These ideas explain the world to people where other explanations don't work for them, or aren't available.
Of course, after Pierce dies, the National Alliance crashes on the rocks. And then you have a series of other events that amount to political defeats. The Liberty Lobby [long America's leading anti-Semitic organization] finally does itself in [after losing an extended court battle with former colleagues]. There's the David Irving trial [in which the world's leading Holocaust denier was labeled "pro-Nazi" by a British judge in a major libel battle], and then, after 9/11, comes the outbreak of the "War on Terror." (By the way, I do not think that the events of 2001 changed the dynamic of nationalism seeing itself in opposition to globalism.)
At least for that moment, the vanguardist wing was essentially put out of business by the war on terror. In a world in which the dominant discourse is a war on terror, robbing a bank or blowing up a building probably isn't going to get you many friends.
In the last 10 years or so, both mainstreamers and vanguardists have focused on non-white immigration as their key issue, with some real success. But now we're in a changing situation, with the election of a black president and the crash of the economy. How do you see the coming years?
I'm skittish about making predictions. A part of the reason is that it doesn't only depend on what white nationalists do — there are larger social forces out there and there are significant numbers of white people who have signed onto multiracialism and the Obama vision of American life. The white nationalist vision of an exclusively white, Christian country has not disappeared, but it's made much more tenuous by the fact that we have a black president who a lot of white people voted for. That's not easily explained as just the Jews brainwashing everybody.
I think the future depends on whether or not the economic crisis that we're in becomes a political crisis, a crisis in confidence in the government. It's at that point that the white nationalists will have their greatest chance. And that, in part, depends on whether the core inside the southern, white section of the Republican Party manages to mount any kind of successful opposition. If that happens, I think you'll see fast growth in the movement. But if they want to take advantage of the economy, they also need to find their own programmatic plank — sort of like in Europe, where some of the organizations created their own councils of the unemployed.
I do not believe that the economic crisis alone, or the Obama campaign, or the demographic process [which is expected to lead to a loss of a national white majority by about 2042], is driving a fast-growth movement. If you look at actual events and compare them to the past, the violence this year is not as great as the violence was in 1987, for example. The Obama presidency might prove to be an organizing opportunity for white nationalists. But it's not just a raw opportunity. It's mediated through political frames.
What can we examine to get a fuller sense of the future?
I think it's best to look at indicators such as housing segregation. If housing segregation remains at the high levels that it is now, then the possibilities for white enclaves to emerge politically increase. We have a long-term tendency where the natural constituency of white nationalists will, over time, separate themselves from the multiracialists among white people, and tend to lock themselves into politically and territorially gated communities. And these gated communities may try to assume more and more civic powers. Remember that 5% of the white voting public last year told a pollster they would not vote for a black president. That's millions of people. That's white nationalists' natural constituency.
It's also useful to look at opinion poll data on young people's attitude toward the separate-but-equal doctrine, which has some support among the young. That's a place to look. Another is particular bellwether political races, whether they're anti-immigrant referenda or candidacies. If a defined group of white voters seems to stay intact, that's another indicator. What white nationalists will do as the political terrain changes is look for a base. And it will be in these kinds of places.
As the demographics change at a national level [with whites dipping as a proportion of the population], the chance for a white nationalist revival obviously becomes more problematic as long as voting rights remain intact. So another of the things we should also look for is an assault on those rights. If violence becomes an expression of a piece of the political movement, rather than just an expression of an individual's disenchantment, that's important, too.
What about the role of political parties in the near term?
I've had conversations with people who think the Republican Party is going to have to develop more [non-white] leaders like [Republican National Committee chief] Michael Steele and [Louisiana Gov.] Bobby Jindal. But so far, that hasn't worked out too well. I would bet even money that the hard core of the Republican Party will start to congeal itself and that we'll see a resurgence of anti-immigrant activity when comprehensive immigration reform gets introduced this fall. Unlike in other years, they're geared up. So that may be their opening bid.
The problem for white nationalists right now is they don't have an independent third party [like, for example, the Populist Party of the 1980s and 1990s]. They don't have a [far-right party like the] British National Party, or a Front National [in France], or an NDP [in Germany]. They're totally dependent electorally on the Republicans. And the Republicans are fickle friends.
The question before us, then, is, "What proportion of the population are the ones for whom Obama's election is an abomination, rather than a plus? Are they cohesive? Do they learn to think and act together?" If they don't, they'll lose traction and history will move forward without them. But as we know from our own terrible history with the collapse of [post-Civil War] Reconstruction, we've always taken a step forward and then fallen back again.