The presence of white power militants at the storming of the U.S. Capitol this month is the latest sign of how a violent fringe group committed to race war is exploiting the nation’s polarized politics, according to a University of Chicago historian who studies paramilitary groups.
Despite their relatively small numbers, white power groups have been systematically seizing every opportunity to destabilize U.S. democracy, wrote Kathleen Belew in a research and policy brief published by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.
“By looking at the whole of the white power and militia movement landscape, it is immediately clear that we are in the midst of a rising tide of activity―one likely to result in further violence, and perhaps even in mass casualty violence,” she argued.
Belew, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Chicago, drew on her research for a book on American paramilitaries to place the Jan. 6 events in Washington, D.C. in a larger context.
Many commentators have described the groups and individuals who participated in the mob attack on the Capitol as representing a broad variety of ideologies, from fervent populists supporting former President Donald Trump to QAnon conspiracy theorists and extreme right-wing nationalists.
But Belew warned it was dangerous to overlook the participation of white power militants, who are more likely to use such events as springboards for their wider “war on democracy.”
“White power and militia movement activists now constitute the greatest threat of domestic terrorism in the United States, outstripping not only the relatively small casualty counts of leftist violence, but also Islamist extremist violence,” she wrote.
She cited research showing violence by white supremacist and nationalist groups had killed 117 people since 2010, compared to 21 fatalities caused by leftwing activists during the same period―a sixfold difference. Islamic militants were responsible for 95 deaths, more than half of which occurred during the Orlando, Fl., nightclub attack in 2016.
More pointedly, Belew said those who claimed that white power zealots and antifa militants posed an equal danger were making a false equivalence.
“Some politicians would have us consider white power and antifa as two sides of the same coin,” the brief said. “But one of these, white power, has an organizational structure, cell-style violence, armament, and generations of activity behind it.
“One of them, white power, has a casualty count. The other does not.”
Her analysis has been reflected in similar warnings by the FBI, and by President Joe Biden, who has said the violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 was what propelled him into running for the presidency again.
But Belew cautioned that white power violence was often mistakenly perceived to be the result of “lone wolf” attacks by disgruntled or alienated individuals.
In fact, she noted, these individuals—while indeed acting alone—were adherents of an ideology with deep roots in the contemporary American landscape “that has joined people together in common purpose, social relationships, and political ideology.”
She said white-power followers included supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white separatists, proponents of white supremacist religious theologies and, more recently, racist skinheads. Members of the largely prison-based Aryan movement also fit into the same rubric.
What links all of them is opportunism―the ability to adjust their rhetoric to the deep-seated frustrations and anger of the communities they are trying to radicalize, wrote Belew.
Whether it is the widespread fear of Black political power or job competition in the South during the 1920s—which revived the moribund Klan—or the outrage fueled by the false claims that Trump’s victory in the 2020 elections was “stolen” from him, the movement has skillfully inserted itself as a player in the politics of protest.
However, Belew added, it was important to draw a line between white power militants and others with whom they are frequently associated, such as White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and right-wing nationalists.
Although these fringe groups often shared the same rhetoric and propensity for violence, the white power movement stands apart for its commitment to provoke race war with mass casualties, Belew argued.
”The future envisioned by the white power movement is profoundly radical,” she wrote. “Indeed, the casualties wrought by this movement are not, in themselves, the movement’s goal.
“They are means to an end, a way to awaken a broader white public to what these activists see as obvious: the threats posed to the white race by immigration and racial others. The violence is meant to mobilize white people around the world to wage race war.”
The groups draw their inspiration from a few basic tracts, such as The Turner Diaries, a 1970s novel that explicitly provides a blueprint for how a fringe movement can overthrow a modern state―through targeted assassinations, attacks on infrastructure or guerilla warfare that can provoke a nuclear exchange.
According to Belew, the shared commitment to overthrow democracies links groups and incidents in a way that has transcended national boundaries over the past decades, from mass casualty attacks in Oklahoma City and Christchurch, New Zealand to Norway.
White-power thinking has also been further radicalized by the Christian Identity movement which calls on its adherents to prepare themselves for an apocalyptic clash that will destroy nonbelievers, defined as nonwhites.
Belew said it was important for both policymakers and researchers to understand how the wider belief system has motivated these groups, and serves to recruit growing numbers of angry, violent and impressionable individuals to their ranks.
“There are no lone wolves,” she wrote. “We need look no further than the manifestos to see that even…people who have never actually met another white power activist can become radicalized by a social network, imbricated in an ideology, and preceded in their beliefs and actions by decades of history.”
Kathleen Belew is the author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.
The full H.F. Guggenheim policy brief can be accessed here.
Editor’s note: The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation is a supporter of The Crime Report.