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Analyst Leonard Zeskind Discusses Extremism in America

A leading analyst of the far right warns of the rising tide of white nationalism.

Leonard Zeskind, president of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, has been an anti-racist activist and a leading analyst of white supremacist movements for more than 20 years. He has written widely about the radical right for publications including the Intelligence Report, Rolling Stone magazine, The Nation and the British antifascist magazine Searchlight.

Last year, Zeskind was the recipient of one of the prestigious "genius awards" of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He is currently at work on a forthcoming book, Barbarism With a Human Face: White Nationalism Against the New World Order. The Intelligence Report interviewed Zeskind about the state of the far right in this country, its relationship to more mainstream politics and institutions, and the development of white nationalism.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: How would you assess white supremacist movements in the United States at this stage in our history?

ZESKIND: I think it's important for those of us who have been concerned about this movement to try to put it in a larger box, a larger frame, so that we can understand the relationship it has to other currents in our society and the world.

Once you begin to think about it that way, to put it in the context of what's happening in the United States and the world, you begin to see what this movement is doing in its entirety — both the immediate lawbreakers and those who are trying to set up a more mainstream project.

IR: So what do you see as the major currents shaping this movement?

ZESKIND: Two of the most important are the end of the Cold War and structural changes in the global economy. These changes raise in a new way the question of who we are as a nation, how we define ourselves as a people.

IR: Let's talk first about the Cold War.

ZESKIND: For 40 years, the division of the world into Soviet and Western spheres of influence really defined politics for the world, and it defined American life as well. Now, the end of the Cold War has changed everything.

Shortly after the end of the Cold War, an important piece appeared in Foreign Affairs [a leading academic journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations] called "The End of History." What it argued was that with the end of the Cold War, the world would now be dominated, essentially, by liberal democracy.

To some extent, you could say that that was partly true. But it certainly wasn't the end of history. You could even say that it really marked the beginning of a new history.

What actually happened with the unfreezing of the icebergs of the Soviet and Western spheres was the breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic camps, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, nationalist conflicts like Chechnya trying to win its independence from Russia. What we saw was the reemergence of nationalism, ethnic nationalism — not only a global spread of liberal democracy as "The End of History" had argued.

IR: You mentioned several European conflicts. How did these changes affect America?

ZESKIND: The end of the Cold War shook up Americans' collective sense of who we were as Americans. Certainly, we saw ourselves as a democracy, as freedom-loving. But in the past, we had largely defined ourselves by who we were not. We were the people who were not the communists.

So once the Berlin wall was breached, once you took away the communist bogeyman, the question of who we were as a people was no longer answered clearly.

Now, in a way that had not been true for decades, you have different sets of ideals contending to define what America is. Everything is open to debate.

IR: Okay. And what role have global economic changes had?

ZESKIND: These questions of identity aren't all purely in the realm of ideas. There's a structural basis for these changes dating back to the mid-1970s. The American economy became part of the transnational economy in a different way than it had been before. It didn't happen all at once.

But what has occurred over the last 25 years is that we've developed a freer and freer global market in capital. Money that might come from Detroit sets up shop in Spain or Mexico. Daimler-Benz, a German company, winds up owning Chrysler in the United States.

Today, the allegiance of these corporate bodies is to their transnational, corporate selves. It's not like the old British empire, where people colonized these countries and sent money back to London, or the Spanish colonization of the Americas, with gold being shipped from the New World back to Madrid.

Now, with capital flowing freely all over the world, the nation-state as a definer of the market has gone the way of all flesh.

At the same time, there may be a free market in capital, but there is not a free market in labor. Indonesian workers, for example, can't emigrate to the United States freely the way Chase Manhattan can send dollars to Indonesia.

You can see this most clearly in Europe, where the European Currency Unit, the ECU, is taking over for the deutschemark and the franc and so forth. It won't be long before northern Italy, which is very industrialized, has much closer allegiances to neighboring industrial parts of Switzerland and France than it does to southern Italy, which is still largely poor and agrarian.

These kinds of historical currents have provoked opposition movements of the kind you see now in Italy, with the regional nationalism of the Northern League. Now, you're seeing a similar nationalist movement, an ethnically based nationalism, moving into the American mainstream as well.

IR: How is that appearing here?

ZESKIND: Nationalists in the United States are asserting a form of racial nationalism, a white nationalism, in opposition to this transnational economy, to what they call the "New World Order." To the question of who we as Americans are, if we're not the anti-communists, the white nationalist says, "We are white people." They define who you are from the family on out.

It's all racially, biologically, genetically derived. Culture is seen as the expression of the family, this organic, primordial thing. This is similar to the answer being given by the Serbians, the Croatians, the Bosnian Muslims.

This is a broad, broad movement in the United States. It's no longer confined to the [neo-Nazi] Aryan Nations. It was kept alive in the '70s and '80s by the Liberty Lobby [the nation's leading anti-Semitic organization], Aryan Nations and [former Klansman] David Duke, making it available to be picked up by larger elements in society.

But now it has been picked up by the mainstream, by people who see America as a European civilization that is under threat of racial swamping by non-European peoples.

Of course, America is not simply an extension of European civilization. It never was. But these people, these racial nationalists, see it that way. You have a widespread anti-immigration movement today, but you don't see too many people trying to stop illegal Irish immigration. They are trying to keep Latin Americans and Mexicans out, because they are the people who are seen as culturally and racially threatening.

What we're seeing now is not the politics of national socialism, of Nazism, but the re-emerging notion of this country as Anglo-American, a white country.

That idea is being put forward in a very mainstream way, and that has not happened successfully since at least before World War II. It was offered by the Ku Klux Klan in trying to fight the civil rights movement during the '60s, but it was defeated then.

IR: When did this latest mainstreaming of white nationalism begin?

ZESKIND: For me, the most noticeable moment was when Pat Buchanan, a sort of loyal Nixon Republican, decided that the war against Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf wasn't supportable. There wasn't a communist foe of the type Buchanan had supported [fighting] before. That marked a re-emergence of a kind of American isolationism.

IR: Does the diminishing white majority in America play into this?

ZESKIND: Yes, absolutely. People are constructing this white nationalism today for the day when it will have real currency, which is not too long from now. Twenty years from now, white people will not be able to control with their votes the politics of this country as whites. Between 2025 and 2050, whites will lose their majority in a large number of states.

Unless the white nationalists win out, whites will have to be part of larger pluralities of people. They will have to learn to live together with other groups in a multicultural, multiracial democracy.

IR: Despite low unemployment and low inflation through most of the '90s, hundreds of thousands of well-paying American union jobs have disappeared or gone overseas in the last 20 years. Many people who once made $30,000 or $40,000 in heavy industry are working for a fraction of that in the service sector, if they're working at all. The economic future for kids with only high school degrees is pretty bleak.

Do you think there's an economic anger out there that white supremacists are tapping into?

ZESKIND: Actually, the people who are hurt the worst by changes in the economy are people of color, and it's not black people who are making this movement. What white people are losing in this "New World Order" economy in comparison to other people is very little. White privilege remains.

Ultimately, the white nationalist movement is a movement to defend and extend what is seen as whites' birthright, their natural privileges.

White supremacist organizers do try to capitalize on the perception that whites are in economic pain. They're like Marxists sometimes, sitting around waiting for the economic cataclysm, the final demise of capitalism, the point of no return.

But I don't think there's a one-to-one correspondence between losing your job and joining this movement. When a steel plant closes, the workers don't necessarily go out and join a white supremacist group. The steel plant closing is more of a social and political indicator of what's seen as the loss of American sovereignty. Are you still a people if you can't build your own battleships with your own steel?

IR: There seems to be an enlarging neo-Confederate movement agitating for some kind of reborn Old South in this country. The Council of Conservative Citizens, with 15,000 members, is fixated on symbols like the Confederate battle flag.

And in groups like the [Alabama-based] League of the South, which is led by a university professor who specifically glorifies Italy's Northern League, there's an explicit interest in the kinds of ethnic nationalism you've discussed. What do you make of this?

ZESKIND: There certainly has been a resurgence of these kinds of groups. I would argue that the movement for southern nationalism is a form of this white nationalism; what gives it currency is that same thing that gives white nationalism as a whole currency. Southern nationalism has gained a hearing and resiliency precisely because it begins to answer this question of who we are.

"We're the Confederates, the defenders of a great civilization that perished under the Yankee troops."

The old Confederacy, the old southern nationalism, was built around states rights and white racism, but it also included an element of a certain kind of agrarianism. That doesn't hold true of the current formulation, which is built entirely on the politics of states' rights and white racism.

IR: What about the rising currency of scientists interested in race and alleged racial differences? Why do you think they seem to be doing so well?

ZESKIND: The potency of scientific racism comes from the failure of American race relations, the failure to bring about real social and economic equality. In large sections of white America you have "compassion fatigue," the idea that we did the welfare thing and it didn't work. "We coddled them with affirmative action and it didn't work."

Now comes the scientific racist and says, "With the best of intentions, we tried all these things that didn't work. Why didn't they work? I'll tell you why. Now we have the biological data that shows these [non-white] folks can't make it no matter what."

By the way, that's clearly wrong. The social measures to end discrimination have been dismantled one by one over the last 20 years, long before the job was done. There's lots of data to show that there are still high levels of discrimination.

Lots of whites think of affirmative action as a payback for slavery, reparations for wrongs they had no part of. But affirmative action is the answer to current, ongoing discrimination.

Anyway, it's the failure to end discrimination that makes it possible for scientific racists to make these arguments. If black people were doing better economically within this society, it would be very hard for scientific racists to hold any sway.

IR: We've discussed the mainstreaming of white nationalism. How have more clearly radical right-wing groups progressed, and what's their relationship to the broader right?

ZESKIND: In the '70s and '80s, you had a movement that was maturing, generating its own institutions and culture. In the 1990s, these institutions — various kinds of Patriot groups, common-law courts, racist religions like Christian Identity — have coalesced into established counterinstitutions, a kind of nation within the larger multicultural state.

Now, some of these counterinstitutions have hit the mainstream in some ways.

[Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott and [Georgia Congressman] Bob Barr embrace some of their ideals. There's bleedover into the Christian Right. And right now, with the failure of the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton, there's an important move by part of the Christian Right to back away from the Republican Party.

They are talking about setting up their own counterinstitutions, purer institutions that won't be diluted by engagement with the Republican mainstream. That puts them on a trajectory that will send at least some of the Christian Right constituency into the arms of the white nationalists.

I think white nationalism is going to win itself blocs from other social movements on the right — folks who might otherwise have gone into the Christian Coalition, people who are unhappy with making compromises with the Bob Doles of the world.

Ultimately, I think this means you'll see a withering away of some older hard-line organizations like Liberty Lobby. These older institutions, which carried the germ of white nationalism forward in years past, will become less important and I think that you'll see broader-based white nationalist organizations in their place.

IR: Are there some concrete examples of that kind of development already?

ZESKIND: One indicator is that the circulation of Spotlight [Liberty Lobby's conspiracist publication and probably the best read periodical on the far right] has dropped 25 percent in the last couple of years.

Another is that Sam Francis, the philosopher-general of middle American white nationalism [and a former Washington Times columnist who was fired for racially inflammatory columns], has come out and said we've got to lose this conspiracy-mongering and paramilitarism and congeal into a more sophisticated movement.

You're seeing a merger of Christian nationalism with white nationalism.

IR: So what is the future Americans face?

ZESKIND: I'm not an alarmist, or I'm trying not to be, but I do think that unless we come forward with an enlarged, multiracial internationalism as an alternative, we're heading down the road to a larger conflict. We have to recognize that we live together in this country, and we have a common culture, and this "white" thing is a mere invention.

The hope is in things like all these white teenagers who wear baggy pants and skateboard and live and work and play with their black neighbors. We've got to amplify that.

We are facing a very serious challenge in the form of a rapidly coalescing white nationalism. We have to confront that, or we face becoming another Yugoslavia.