The near-universal repudiation of Sen. Trent Lott — after statements amounting to an endorsement of institutionalized segregation in December 2002 — belies the spread of radical right ideology into the American mainstream.
When Sen. Trent Lott blurted out what amounted to an endorsement of institutionalized segregation last December — only the latest in a series of such remarks offered up by the Mississippi senator over the last three decades — the tut-tutting of the politicians, the national press and the talking heads that populate our television screens could be heard from sea to shining sea.
Suddenly, almost all commentators seemed to have simultaneously realized the obvious: The "Southern strategy" used by the Republican Party since the days of Richard Nixon to win white votes in the South was fundamentally racist. The Dixiecrats whom Lott had been cheering were now, in the eyes of the press that had long given them an easy pass, transparent champions of white supremacy. The White House and the GOP, after some hesitation, joined in the almost universal criticism of Lott, casting their heretofore Senate leader into the political wilderness.
Implicit in the chorus of condemnation was the idea that public endorsements of white supremacy by public figures like Lott were a thing of the past. Many commentators sounded positively gleeful as they suggested that Lott was a political dinosaur whose evolutionary line had been extinguished at long last. Even The Nation, a center-left periodical not given to putting a pretty face on political reality, implied that leaders like Lott belonged to a past now finally behind us.
In reality, that is hardly the case. When Lott said the country would have been better off had Strom Thurmond been elected president as a Dixiecrat in 1948, he was stating the view of a large and growing constituency — the neo-Confederates who have sprung up since the mid-1990s.
Led in large part by intellectuals and Southern academics, these white nationalists and neo-segregationists have been working to bring back the idea of a South created by and for whites, and they have not been shy about saying so publicly. Their critique of multicultural ideology and racial and ethnic integration is finding more listeners every day.
As was the case with Lott's segregationist statements, it is tempting to conclude that the American white supremacist scene is headed for oblivion, its back broken by the passage of time and a recent series of setbacks. As documented in this issue of the Intelligence Report, the radical right has in fact suffered a remarkable series of disasters over the last year. Deaths, deportations, arrests and internal splits have left many of the nation's leading hate groups staggering.
But the radical right is not fading away.
In fact, the ideas of the radical right are thriving in a number of venues. On hugely popular talk shows like "The O'Reilly Factor," conspiracy theories about non-white immigration that originated on the extreme right are now bandied about as fact. A number of major foundations are pushing the notion that a tiny group of German Jews are behind the destruction of "American culture." In much of the South, the idea of Abraham Lincoln as a racial emancipator is under attack by right-wing academics. Extremists have seized control of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a purportedly mainstream Southern heritage group with 32,000 members, a $5 million bank account, and an increasingly far-right political agenda.
"A lot of the white supremacist impulse has found its way into much more mainstream organizational and political life," says Leonard Zeskind, a long-time analyst of the radical right. Just as the early Klan withered away once Jim Crow laws had effectively rolled back Reconstruction, Zeskind argues, this movement of ideas into the mainstream has had the effect of weakening organized hate groups.
"You don't need the Aryan Nations," explains Zeskind, referring to an Idaho-based neo-Nazi group, "if you can run the Sons of Confederate Veterans."
Sam Francis, perhaps the leading intellectual of the radical right, recently wrote that the future of the movement lies with the softer-line hate groups like American Renaissance, a journal and allied foundation focusing on the "science" of race, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which sees non-white immigration as a threat to the nation.
"Both have succeeded in learning how to discuss ... the scientific, social, and political realities of race without reliance on the old rhetoric of what was called 'white supremacy' and 'hate,'" Francis wrote.
The sad reality is that Francis is mostly right. Trent Lott is no longer Senate majority leader and white supremacist groups across the board have taken a serious body blow. But the ideas they represent are alive and doing surprisingly well.