A startling analysis of how modern white supremacists have co-opted the mythology and environment of the American West to position their cause among historically American ideals.
During the last third of the twentieth century, white supremacists moved, both literally and in the collective imagination, from midnight rides through Mississippi to broadband-wired cabins in Montana. But while rural Montana may be on the geographical fringe of the country, white supremacist groups were not pushed there, and they are far from "fringe elements" of society, as many Americans would like to believe. Evelyn Schlatter's startling analysis describes how many of the new white supremacist groups in the West have co-opted the region's mythology and environment based on longstanding beliefs about American character and Manifest Destiny to shape an organic, home-grown movement.
Dissatisfied with the urbanized, culturally progressive coasts, disenfranchised by affirmative action and immigration, white supremacists have found new hope in the old ideal of the West as a land of opportunity waiting to be settled by self-reliant traditional families. Some even envision the region as a potential white homeland. Groups such as Aryan Nations, The Order, and Posse Comitatus use controversial issues such as affirmative action, anti-Semitism, immigration, and religion to create sympathy for their extremist views among mainstream whites—while offering a "solution" in the popular conception of the West as a place of freedom, opportunity, and escape from modern society. Aryan Cowboys exposes the exclusionist message of this "American" ideal, while documenting its dangerous appeal.
- Preface: Fishing in the Abyss
- 1. Introduction: The Ties That Bind
- 2. Missions, Millennia, and Manifest Destiny
- 3. Armageddon Ranch: Homesteading on the Aryan Frontier
- 4. From Farms to Arms: Populists, Plowshares, and Posses
- 5. Patriots and Protests: Showdowns at the Not-So-OK Corral
- 6. Conclusion: From Sheets to Shirts: New Frontiers for Right-Wing Extremism
My expedition into the extremist right-wing corners of the white American mind began in November 1992, when Amendment 2 passed in my home state of Colorado. I had just moved to New Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in history at the University of New Mexico, but I deliberately maintained my voting status in Colorado for a couple of extra months specifically so that I could vote against that legislation. Blatantly homophobic and overtly discriminatory, Amendment 2 ensured that gays, lesbians, and bisexual peoples had no recourse if they were fired or denied housing on the basis of their sexual orientation and stripped them of any basis on which to claim discrimination. Orchestrated by Colorado for Family Values (CFV), a right-wing Christian fundamentalist group based in Colorado Springs, Amendment 2 shocked pundits and progressives everywhere because it had passed (52 percent to 48 percent) in what people thought was a "liberal" Western state.
I knew how the amendment had passed. I had been watching CFV's grassroots campaign for at least six months. It was a masterpiece of spin and organization, employing such catch phrases as "family values," "fairness," and "no special rights" to downplay its exclusionist message. CFV's foot soldiers also knew their target audience. They didn't expend much effort in the heavily populated Denver/Boulder area, considered urban and socially progressive. Instead, they concentrated on smaller rural communities that tended to be more conservative, especially where God and sodomy are concerned.
When the returns rolled in, I felt as though I and my progressive views had been ridden out of town on a rail, like an outlaw whose worldview of her home state was completely transformed for the worst. Barely settled in New Mexico, I had no ties yet to my new home and those I felt to my old had been cut—without my consent, without my participation, without a chance to really draw battle lines. I felt as if the earth had been ripped from under my feet. I had grown up in rural Colorado and graduated from high school in a town of 3,000. The people who had voted "yes" included people with who I had gone to school, people who had been neighbors. I felt an almost overwhelming sense of sadness that spin had trumped logic and that many of my friends no longer felt welcome in Colorado. The passing of Amendment 2 was thus intensely personal for me. Perhaps not the best reason to pursue a topic of research, but it was the one that initiated my first analyses.
Six months later, I was poring over CFV campaign literature and comparing it to the rhetoric espoused by the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. This was when I discovered that, although the targets had changed, the underlying ideological message had not: White America is under attack from outside forces that must be stopped if the greatness of this country were to be maintained. My research became a paper that I presented in 1994, a month after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that Amendment 2 was unconstitutional. I still hadn't figured out what I hoped to discover during the course of my work, but I realized something about the American public. CFV had gotten a reputation as a group of hate-filled "fascist," obsessive, mean-spirited religious fanatics lurking on the fringes of American society. I wasn't ready to make that declaration yet, since I felt that CFV and the 1920s Klan knew exactly what they were doing and that they were tapping into extant American historical and social currents.
By early 1995, I was well on my way to researching my dissertation, which dealt with white supremacist groups in the American West. The Randy Weaver and Waco standoffs were adding fuel to a burgeoning militia movement in rural America, and I felt a pressing need to figure out why this was occurring and where the strands of white supremacist ideology in this country came from. Following the horrific bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I began to realize that there was something uniquely American about the white supremacist movement I was studying, that there were links to mainstream conservative rhetoric and ideology, and that there was something about sacred American myths regarding character and identity that indicated to me that the right-wing lunatic fringe really wasn't lunatic or on the fringe. Although I still took a personal interest in the movement because of the elections of 1992, I had come to see that the project was bigger than me and that it resonated across centuries.
Consequently, this journey through the American white supremacist movement has been at once intensely disturbing but also gratifying, if such can be said. I have suffered bouts of depression from reading pages of vile racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic rhetoric. I have physically blanched at white supremacist websites that espouse horrific violence against people of color and people of Jewish descent. I have taken showers after archival research, feeling the need to wash imaginary grime from my skin, hoping to erase the effects of hysterical, conspiracy-laden discourse and its stifling bitterness.
But I have also learned deeper lessons. I examine and question the privileges my skin color conveys in American society and culture. I have learned to question many sides of an issue, think about what it means to be white, and understand that painting an opposing viewpoint with an extremist brush can serve to detract attention from mainstream rhetoric that conveys the same messages. I have come to understand, too, that there are very real consequences for the people white supremacists target in their rhetoric. To dismiss their beliefs as "fringe" or "extremist" does not guarantee a cessation of potential violence directed at people of color, Jews, or those among us who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered.
And in spite of my own leftist and progressive politics, I have been able to humanize many of the members of white supremacist groups. It's an uncomfortable balance and one I perhaps have not been able to maintain all the time, a dilemma other researchers no doubt have faced. I am completely opposed to everything white supremacists advocate and represent, but I have tried to understand what drives individuals to the organizations and the movement and what larger forces were and still are at play in American culture.
That said, I think the most important thing I have learned during the course of my travels through the topography of white supremacist ideology and history is that I did as much unpacking as packing of my baggage. All Americans are faced with shifting cultural and social situations, economic anxieties, and increased globalization. We need to remember that we are all part of this American community and that solutions to our problems, whether real or perceived, do not lie in conspiracy theories, scapegoating, or rage. After the work I have been doing, though, I can understand why some of us turn to these approaches for answers. However, all of us have a greater responsibility to one another as fellow Americans and, ultimately, global citizens, to address real inequalities in our social and cultural institutions and hierarchies and find workable, community-based solutions. It will require that we look at ourselves, at our core beliefs, and put our history under a microscope. It will also require us to look at the beliefs and stereotypes many mainstream Americans hold and how they can be used in an extremist context. It will be an uncomfortable and, most likely, painful process in some respects. But to ignore the extreme right—to ignore the parts of this country's history that have encouraged this ideology—is to allow it to grow and spread unchecked. The consequences of that, I'm afraid, do not bode well for a united America.
April 19, 1995, dawned gray and cold in Albuquerque. I caught the first reports from Oklahoma City around 10:30 A.M. Mountain Standard Time. The news about the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was confused. A gas line explosion. A possible bombing. A structural collapse. By noon, the news had confirmed that a bomb had exploded in front of the building, causing a massive collapse and untold deaths. The media voiced suppositions about Middle Eastern terrorists. I disagreed. By 10:00 P.M. that night, no Middle Eastern terrorist organization had claimed responsibility and, based on information I had been collecting for three years, I suspected that the terrorist was right here at home, probably a white man in his twenties or thirties.
The clues piled up. April 19 is the anniversary of the Branch Davidian immolation in Waco (1993). The Murrah Building housed various U.S. government agencies, including a few Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents. And I did not think Oklahoma City was a likely target for foreign terrorist groups. I had been tracking and researching the American extremist right since 1992 and had a feeling that the terrible tragedy unfolding in Oklahoma City was the product of this movement and its venomous rhetoric that often includes antigoverment sentiment. The nightmare suspicions proved true.
How could this happen? How could an American citizen and soldier kill 168 American men, women, and children? We would like to think that Timothy McVeigh, the man arrested and executed for the bombing, was an aberration, unstable, so we may explain away the horrific occurrence and try to make sense of a senseless situation. On some level, we are correct in these conclusions. McVeigh, however, did not emerge from the background fringes of American society and culture as an anomaly. He is part of an American political and social tradition at least two centuries old. We can locate right-wing (whether extreme or not) sentiment, demonstrations, and organizations throughout modern American history since the eighteenth century. The underlying tenets and ideological expressions of rightist extremism have proven remarkably resilient over time. What have changed are the trappings, packaging, and available technology for extremist recruitment and terrorist acts.
In this book, I will trace and analyze the growth and development since 1970 of certain extreme right-wing groups that are sympathetic to white supremacist doctrine. I have chosen groups that have operated generally in the western United States that envision the region as the eventual site of a white American homeland. I will address how these groups construct "manhood" and "masculinity" and how these constructions reflect popular historical conceptions about "the West" as a symbol of freedom, an opportunity for conquest, and an escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society. These constructions of masculinity and the West are connected to people's desires to change their situations, desires that reflect their need for self-transformation.
I will also bring into the discussion other strands of American history that have played roles in white supremacist groups and have managed to find expression since the period of this country's founding, which involved westward expansion and the creation of a national identity. These include vigilantism, fraternalism, and political and social extremism (specifically rightist). Historically, these "-isms" have enabled men to group together and attempt to enact local and federal policies that maintain male (generally white) power, whether political, social, or economic.
I am not suggesting that white supremacy derives from these historical currents. Rather, I am arguing that these historical traditions have, in some cases, encouraged some white men to enact white supremacist goals. My point is that the foundations of American nationalism, which are based on ideas about "divine mission" and westward expansion, have lent themselves quite handily to exclusionist rhetoric and policies toward nonwhite people. Again, a majority of white Americans neither subscribe to racist beliefs nor run out and join white supremacist groups. However, the very nature of what it means to be "American" can itself provide justification and ideological groundwork for those who do.
I want to make very clear that the personal reasons people have for joining white supremacist groups are myriad. Those who have participated and who still are participating in groups or the movement as a whole come from a variety of backgrounds and households. Most, however, join because they feel somehow "displaced" or "disenfranchised" from society at large. It's a subjective perspective and depends on the person involved. What is apparent, however, is that the movement is largely male.
"Gender is unquestionably an important organizing principle for racist groups," Kathleen Blee states. "Aryan masculinity," she continues, "is venerated as the bedrock of the white race, racist politics as the litmus test of masculine prowess." Assumptions about what it means to be a man are critical in the movement's methods of appealing to white men. Blee noted that throughout American history, "racist groups have trumpeted the idea that white men are in imminent danger of losing their proper economic, political, and social place to undeserving white women and to nonwhite men and women."
The white supremacist movement in the United States is thus all about manhood. More specifically, white manhood and what it means to be a white man in America, whether historically, in the present, or the future. My purpose here is to look at why that might be and what underpinnings in the essence of what it means to be American lend themselves to the existence of white supremacy in this country. I have focused on the West, not just because it's where I'm from personally, but also because I'm interested in how ideas about the West and manhood have historically infused American nationalism and notions about "character," which in turn have found expression in white supremacist rhetoric.
The iconography of "the West" promises a translation of the self into something purer and more authentic. White supremacist groups and their rhetoric are also tied to older patterns of American expansion and nationalism and to recurring patterns of what I have dubbed "frontierism"—the attempt to resurrect an imagined, romanticized past inhabited by white archetypes triumphing over land and human others, often eking out a living by the sweat of their white male Protestant brows.
Primary among popular constructions of "the West" are symbols such as "cowboy," "six-shooter" (guns), and "vigilante." Other constructions include ideas about "frontier" as place, process, and proving ground. Characterizations of westerners (particularly men) include "rugged individualism," "courageous," "strong," and "independent." The list goes on, because we all know and contribute to it. We have seen "Western" films. We are familiar with "Western" novels. From the 1920s through the 1970s, hundreds of nationally distributed feature Western films provided the general American population with a steady dose of big sky country. In 1959 alone, no fewer than thirty-five Westerns ran concurrently on television and eight of the top ten shows had Western themes. John Wayne, as Western hero, became a leading symbol of American masculinity from World War II to Vietnam.
Even during the 1980s and on into the 1990s, "Western"-themed films graced theaters nationwide. Included in those offerings were Rhinestone (1984), Pale Rider (1985), Silverado (1985), Young Guns (1988), Young Guns II (1990), Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp (1994), Legends of the Fall (1995), and Maverick (1995). After 1995, Westerns did not seem as popular at the box office; instead, somewhat edgy "neo-Westerns" and comedies graced the screen including Dean Man (1996), starring Johnny Depp as a man in search of himself; Wild Wild West, with Will Smith (1999); Woody Harrelson, in Cowboy Way (1994) and Hi Lo Country (1998). And Kevin Costner once again returned to the classic good guys versus bad guys Western with his Open Range (2003). An intrinsic theme of typical "Western" films and television programs, movies, comic books, and novels such as these is an implicit understanding about gender. That is, the West is no place for a lady.
This is a part of Western mythology that continues to resurrect itself from the graveyards of cultural expectations. The "cowboy code," outlined by Gene Autry (ironically never a working cowboy himself), provided ten points by which a cowboy is supposed to live. Those included specifications about conduct, integrity, and even hygiene. A cowboy, Autry stated, should never break his word. He should demonstrate gentleness with animals, children, and the elderly. He should never shoot first, never hit a "smaller man," and never take unfair advantage. He must respect women and the laws of his nation. He must be a good worker, help people in distress, and keep clean in thought, action, speech, and body. Cowboys are patriots, Autry enjoined. And they do not harbor racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
Members of right-wing extremist groups, whether they realize it or not, subscribe to most of Autry's rules. That is, they consider themselves the purest of patriots—they are "true" Americans whose government has run amuck. However, all subscribe to racially and religiously intolerant ideas, though most will attempt to justify their position by claiming that they harbor no ill will toward nonwhite people. They simply want a whites-only land and white women to bear the next generations of Aryans.
I will explore here how the "West" is a gendered state of mind and how the men who join right-wing extremist groups—especially groups in the western part of the United States—encode and enact popular notions about the "West" such as individualism, masculinity, and escapism. In particular, I am interested in how the rhetoric of white supremacy has historically enabled what I designate a "culture of masculinity" that has existed throughout the twentieth century and reflected "cowboy" mythology in association with right-wing groups.
The "culture of masculinity" within white supremacist groups tends to be Protestant (if there is a religious preference espoused), patriarchal, and very involved in displays of physical strength and endurance. Many group members are liquor-, cigarette-, and drug-free. They are expected to marry white women, protect them, and propagate with them. White supremacist men believe that, although white women are "help-mates" and should be trained in the use of weapons in case of emergencies, women's primary responsibility is to home, children, and husband.
Ironically, within white supremacist masculine culture is a paradox: though expected to mimic "cowboy" imagery (rugged and independent), the men involved in the movement are also expected to build communities and families. Abby Ferber notes that women have become more of a presence in the movement, and I would argue that it is precisely because of a stronger emphasis on family. "Women," Ferber states, "also make the movement more accessible and less threatening to the mainstream by creating Aryan coloring books for kids and women's Web sites, and home-schooling their children. They contribute to the seeming ordinariness of life in the movement." Ferber notes, however, that women are rarely in positions of leadership in the movement.
The role of women in the white supremacist right is one fraught with contradictions. Most members of white supremacist groups throughout American history have been and continue to be male. This is not to suggest that women have not been welcomed into the movement or that they are barred from membership. Blee and Ferber have examined the complex interplay of gender and racism, demonstrating that women who join white supremacist groups will act independently, stand up for themselves, but will defend the "natural" role of women—the domestic sphere—in relation to men.
In her work with women who join racist organizations, Blee (2002) argues that nearly all of the women she spoke with did not talk about finally finding an outlet for long-held beliefs. Rather, many seemed to have joined almost serendipitously, and the reasons tended to be aligned more with ideas about "social life" than ideology. Blee also discovered that many women she interviewed did not come from what could be described as racist or intolerant household. In fact, racist beliefs were learned after the women joined the groups. Fewer than one-fourth of her interviewees, Blee found, actively sought out white supremacist groups for membership.
Furthermore, those women who are involved seem to experience a wealth of self-doubt about the movement and conditions in the world around them. Many do not seem to "burn with ideological passion" for the cause. Rather, they feel hopeless about societal conditions and the possibility for changing it. Men in the movement talk about their "empowerment," but women give the overall mission of the white supremacist right little chance of success.
Ferber's work has examined the overarching role of men in the movement and how white supremacist groups emphasize the "natural" place of men and women. That is, men are to be the active agents in change and women the domestic support system. However, as she has noted, the advent of the Web has allowed white supremacist groups to appeal to more women and for those women, in turn, to perhaps "soften" the image of racism for a larger mainstream audience.
Blee has argued elsewhere that the Indiana Klan created a women's auxiliary in the 1920s that served as a way to "safeguard" women and "help expand women's legal rights" while at the same time working to preserve white Protestant supremacy. The women Blee interviewed in her study remembered their Klan days as "a time of friendship and solidarity among like-minded women." Women in the organization were expected to conduct themselves in a "respectful" manner, and they were not allowed to hold positions of authority in the Klan. This was something Klan leaders wrestled with: how to define political roles for women while at the same time maintaining male supremacy.
Women here also helped "soften" the Klan's image and, they hoped, make it appealing to a more mainstream following. The overall tenet of the Klan, however, and the white supremacist movement as a whole did not and still has not included women on a level playing field. In other words, though women in recent years (since the late 1990s and early 2000s) have been more involved in the movement and organized white supremacist groups, membership, affiliation, and leadership remain overwhelmingly male. In light of the history of white supremacy in this country and the older mythologies into which it taps, this comes as no surprise.
Although I do not discount the growing membership of women in the current manifestations of white supremacist organizations, or the participation of women historically in these groups, my emphasis here is on men and masculinity and how the movement defines and is defined by ideas about manhood. Women have never held positions of official leadership among white supremacists, and the relationship between men and women in the movement continues to get stuck in this inherent conflict: how to allow women access to political activism while at the same time relegating them to a largely domestic role. The white supremacist right has continually wrestled with this paradox and as long as it does, I would argue, women will never hold positions equal to men in the movement nor will the movement move beyond its primary emphasis on masculinity. Let us turn now to the groups.
Since the late 1970s, this country has witnessed a plethora of home-grown so-called white supremacist groups whose members seek to restore the power of white men, segregate races into specific geographic regions of this country, and bring about the downfall of the federal government, which, they believe, is controlled by a secret, powerful cabal of Jewish families and white race traitors. According to these groups, the ultimate goal of "ZOG" (Zionist Occupied Government) is to bring the United States to its knees economically, integrate it with a "New World Order," and place its opponents in concentration camps.
The white race, proponents believe, is the last line of defense against this conspiracy, and they contend that the day of reckoning—the "showdown"—in which ZOG begins its final campaign against them, is upon us. To prepare for this penultimate battle, members of white supremacist groups run secret paramilitary camps, build secluded compounds, conduct survival skills seminars, stockpile food, collect impressive arsenals that include some of the latest military hardware, and spread the word via publications, gun shows, fax machines, phone lines, shortwave radio, and the Internet.
This study focuses on groups based primarily in the western United States that either came west in search of privacy or were founded in western states. Specifically, I examine the neo-Nazi northern Idaho-based Aryan Nations and western-based chapters of the Posse Comitatus. I will also discuss the rise of militias and like-minded so-called Patriot groups since 1992, including Montana's Freemen and the Republic of Texas. I will also address a few smaller groups and several individuals. They include The Order, a paramilitary appendage of Aryan Nations; Gordon Kahl, a Posse sympathizer with ties to North Dakota, Texas, and California; and Randy Weaver, Idaho's best-known white separatist.
Aryan Nations, founded in 1979, was a white supremacist separatist compound whose members advocated self-sufficiency, self-government, and a white homeland that encompasses Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Aryan Nations and like-minded groups also espouse a religious doctrine known as "Christian Identity," a modern incarnation of nineteenth-century British-Israelism, alternately known as Anglo-Israelism. Because Christian Identity is integral in understanding white supremacist doctrine since 1960, I will provide a brief history of it here.
In the most general terms, British-Israelism refers to the belief that the British are lineal descendants of the "ten lost tribes" of Israel. It did not become a basis for an organized movement until the second half of the nineteenth century, with two related but distinguishable tendencies at work: either Britain as a nation was specially chosen by God to help realize a divine design in human history, or some spiritually purified portion of it would take on this role—namely, the United States. British-Israelism, therefore, discounted the role of Jews in scripture as God's chosen people. This belief system made its way to the United States in the latter years of the nineteenth century in the hands of a few male preachers.
Between the world wars, British-Israelism in America began to take on decidedly anti-Semitic and white supremacist overtones as its believers began to conflate the idea of America as the promised land for the true lost tribesmen of Israel (the British) with the notion that Jews had deceived not only people of British descent, but also those of Teutonic descent into believing that Jews are the chosen people. This twentieth-century incarnation of British-Israelism is known as Christian Identity because it fuses biblical fundamentalism (hence the use of "Christian") with the belief that the true "identity" of the chosen people is not Jewish, but Caucasian. This virulently racist interpretation of British-Israelism is, therefore, barely fifty years old, its doctrinal basis established after World War II by a network of independent preachers and writers from whose hands it passed into a variety of extreme right-wing political movements preoccupied with fears of racial mixing and Jewish conspiracy.
Through groups such as Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity had by the 1970s become the most important religious vehicle for white supremacist orthodoxy. It preaches the supremacy of whites—especially white men. It is virulently anti-Semitic and millenarian in outlook and wholly Eurocentric. Identity has served as a binding force for disparate right-wing groups with white supremacist leanings since the late 1970s. Identity has adherents throughout American white supremacist networks. From modern Klan to Posses, it is common ground between groups, enabling the spread of extremist doctrine across party lines.
The Posse Comitatus (literally, "power of the county"), founded in 1969, "is composed of loosely affiliated bands of armed vigilantes and survivalists." Chapters exist all over the country, and its members devote themselves primarily to tax-protest and an anti-federal government stance. The groups' members also believe that an international Zionist conspiracy is behind such government organizations as the Federal Reserve System and Jewish bankers that seek also to undermine American farmers. Posse groups, like Aryan Nations, infuse their rhetoric with Identity theology, calling for white Christians to defend their homes and families against what they believe is an imminent government takeover orchestrated by Jews. Gordon Kahl, a staunch Posse member during the 1970s and early 1980s, died in a 1983 shootout with federal marshals, subsequently attaining martyr status among Posse members and other right-wing extremists.
The militia movement and its larger umbrella, the Patriot movement, formed as a response to the FBI-Randy Weaver standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992), and the FBI-Branch Davidian showdown in Waco, Texas (1993). Some groups include Christian Identity rhetoric in their conspiracy claims. In organization, these groups are most similar to a Posse chapter in that leaders advocate the formation of small paramilitary cells cloaked in secrecy and trained as guerrillas for what they anticipate will be the final showdown with the federal government.
Another aspect of the Patriot movement is the so-called common-law courts movement, which advocates using extant court systems to file bogus liens and claims and thereby wreak havoc in local communities. All deny the legal authority of federal and state governments and seek to create a new system of which they will be the leaders. Traveling teams of instructors hold meetings around the country to show others how to use common-law court tactics to subvert the American legal system. The Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas used common-law methods against local, state, and federal governments. Many common-law advocates also file bogus claims against their fellow community residents, which creates localized tensions that have the potential to erupt into violence.
In June of 1984, a small cell of the extreme rightist group The Order shot Jewish talk show host Alan Berg to death outside his Denver, Colorado home. The man ultimately responsible for Berg's death, Robert Mathews, died later that year in a shootout with FBI officials on Whidbey Island, Washington. Mathews had spent most of his life affiliated with right-wing groups, and his beliefs became more extreme as he aged. He began his career as a white supremacist with the John Birch Society during the 1960s and learned survivalism from Arizona's Sons of Liberty. He experimented with tax-evasion societies, and finally came to embrace virulent white supremacist doctrine as a member of the West Virginia-headquartered National Alliance. His last affiliation was with Aryan Nations and The Order, which he founded and recruited from the Aryan Nations compound to fight for a territorial imperative that defined the northwestern United States as a homeland for the white race. When The Order targeted Alan Berg for assassination, they were, they believed, striking a blow for white freedom against an international Jewish conspiracy.
The Aryan warriors of modern paramilitary rightist groups are, they believe, engaged in a monumental Manichean struggle for the very soul of this nation. They seek to prepare—in remote, often rural, areas—for a final battle between the forces of good and evil. Intertwined with biblical prophecies about the return of Christ and the final showdown with Satan, the ideological foundations of many right-wing extremist groups emphasize a millenarian view of history, in which preparation for an impending "end-time" before a thousand years of peace is crucial. Hence the stockpiling, arsenal-building, and compound construction. The nostalgic quest for a mythical and idyllic agrarian past, the search for cultural homogeneity, and preparations for Armageddon are traits of the latest incarnations of rightist groups.
White supremacist warriors believe themselves to be the "last defense" for the white race, the cultural commandos who will lead the country successfully into the twenty-first century following their preordained triumphant battle against the evil forces of the apocalypse. Not unlike some nineteenth-century utopians, these groups' members and their sympathizers search for a new homeland to improve their own lives and initiate a new era. Their aspirations, however, go beyond constructing a personal utopia. In other words, they purport to know what's best for this country and for this world, though the only way to achieve a thousand years of relative peace is by segregating people according to race and ethnicity and minimizing contact among groups.
Defining "extremism" is a tricky matter, because it is a term that can apply to opposite ends of the political spectrum. John George and Laird Wilcox suggest that concepts of a "left wing" and a "right wing" became more clearly defined by the early twentieth century. Popular perceptions associated "right wing" with conservatism, patriotism, racism, nationalism, and religiosity. "Left wing" often implied liberalism, internationalism, collectivism, secularism, and egalitarianism.
"Left" and "right" extremist movements in America have often shared a political focus such as a working impatience with the normal channels for dissent that exist in democratic societies. They have often moved in similar directions, proposing isolationism or perhaps opposition to banking. One constant in attempting to tease out differences between extreme right and extreme left has been the perception of extreme rightist movements as those that rise primarily in reaction to the perceived displacement of power and status that can accompany social and political change, whereas leftist extremism has been perceived as something that impels social transformation by overthrowing old power and status groups.
George and Wilcox's definitions encompass broad tendencies that describe ideological differences between rightist and leftist extremists. We cannot measure to what degree a right-wing extremist subscribes to each of the tendencies, or which are more important than others in the rhetoric because different tendencies take precedence over others in response to national and local events, but most, if not all, of the tendencies exist in the groups' ideological packaging.
Sara Diamond further defines the "preoccupations of right-wing movements" as protecting free market or "libertarian" capitalism, promoting anticommunism, and preserving "traditional morality and supreme status for native-born white male Americans and for the nuclear family." Followers of rightist ideology, according to Diamond, wish to maintain race, class, and gender hierarchies in this country and, specifically, ensure the ultimate supremacy of white, Protestant men over women and men of color.
I should point out here that this study deals with the extreme right. Diamond, George, and Wilcox have tended to use "right-wing" more broadly than I do. As Lisa McGirr notes, terms like "radical right" and "extreme" have been applied incorrectly to conservative movements since the 1960s. To do so implies that all conservatives are "extremists" and thus makes it easy to dismiss anyone who claims conservative political or social leanings if one does not share those beliefs.
Conservatives, like liberals and the extreme wings of both ideological milieus, encompass people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Myriad movements exist in the broader context of "conservative and liberal" and extreme right or left. Therefore, I have chosen to use the terms "extreme right" or "extremist right" throughout this discussion in reference to the groups and individuals under analysis. Like McGirr, I have concluded that "extreme" is a word best left to "white supremacist, paramilitary, and fascist fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan" whose members opt to work outside the democratic political process and who advocate violence to achieve their goals. Some of the groups I examine, like the Republic of Texas, are not overtly racist. Nonetheless, they are antigovernment and at least one chapter has resorted to violence in response to outside stimuli. Consequently, I will use "extreme" in reference to them as well.
I have defined extreme rightist ideology as a belief system that incorporates organized and/or violent reaction (which may or may not involve vigilantism) to an individual or group of individuals whose race, ethnicity, or religious, social, or political beliefs and practices differ from the perceived status quo in the place and time where rightist agitation occurs. I have also included one group—a chapter of the Republic of Texas—in this definition because its members advocated an extreme antigovernment stance that resulted in actual physical violence. As McGirr has also noted, reactions include working outside the normal political democratic process to achieve specific goals. It is a reaction against something that is perceived as "different" and hence a threat to general safety and morality.
Often, that targeted individual or group of individuals is in a numerical minority or a position of lesser social and political power and the rightist reaction develops because of a perceived threat to "how things are" or perhaps as a response to historic beliefs, as in the case of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Rightist and extreme rightist ideology can operate on political levels, as in the form of political parties during the nineteenth century (and the so-called Populist Party of the 1980s and the current incarnation of neoconservatives in the Republican Party), or it can be expressed in secret societies that may or may not practice vigilantism.
It is also difficult to ascertain degrees of extremism within the boundaries of right-wing ideology. Some extreme rightist groups might support other extreme rightists in some situations but not in others. Some extreme rightist groups might believe that another extreme rightist group simply is not extreme enough or is a tool of the government. Still other extreme rightist groups splinter into separate factions that then mutate into either more or less extreme versions of the parent organization. I do not believe it is useful to develop a scale of "rightism" because, especially since the early 1990s, new groups have appeared and disappeared with remarkable speed on the American landscape that fills all corners of right-wing extremism. Indeed, many people have felt passionately about some social or political issue and espoused an opinion that others could construe as "extremist." But not everyone joins a group or encourages violence as a solution to national problems.
Therefore, in terms of my analysis and for ease of the reader's comprehension, I have chosen groups and individuals whose public rhetoric and literature clearly support white supremacy and/or violence against government officials, people of color, Jews, and gay men and lesbians. In addition, these groups and individuals clearly define themselves as locked in a struggle for control of America, and they choose to demonstrate their cause by joining or associating themselves with organized extreme right-wing groups or touting secessionist antigovernment rhetoric and stockpiling supplies for an impending "showdown" with the federal government and/or other murky antiwhite forces of the apocalypse.
These are groups and individuals who often live and work outside the mainstream and who always look over their shoulders for the long arm of the government they are certain will snatch them and herd them into secret concentration camps. Ruled by conspiracy theories, often paranoid, America's latest incarnation of the extreme right has tapped an old vein in this country's history.
The most extreme rightists advocate injuring and killing government officials, call for a whites-only homeland within the United States (usually somewhere in the West—particularly the Northwest), and support the banishment or deaths of people of color and Jews. In my analysis, the most extreme rightists preach and support violence and perpetrate violent acts to further their cause. The less extreme do not overtly support violence but might subscribe to it as an abstract concept—especially in terms of "Armageddon" or "Apocalypse," in which thousands of people are going to die violently in events that are beyond the control of mere humans.
To justify their views, white supremacists rely on biblical interpretations, racist tracts by members of both early and more recent rightist groups and individuals, and Christian Identity. Further entangled in the rightist web—whether extreme or not—are notions about "Americanism" and what it means to be "American." As I will argue throughout, also intertwined in American nationalism and broader extreme rightist sentiment and organization are ideas about what it means to be an American man and how American nationalism is not only gendered, but also racialized. In this country, white men overwhelmingly populate the images of manhood and masculinity that convey ideas about American character. Broad rightist sentiment and organization has quite a bit to do with a reaction to "difference." But it also has a lot to do with maintaining and expressing Protestant white male authority throughout this country's history in its more extreme manifestations.
Past Tense: Extremism, Vigilantism, and Fraternalism
The best-known right-wing extremist group—indeed, the longest-running—is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, however, is not the first demonstration of right-wing sentiment nor are the ideas it has espoused since its first manifestation after the Civil War completely new. Perhaps the earliest documented rightist sentiment is anti-Catholicism, which emerged in Puritan America. Rampant in England before the first Pilgrims took leave of the Netherlands and the British Isles, anti-Catholicism sailed west with its hosts and took root in the burgeoning nationalism of a fledgling America threatened by rival Spanish and French imperial ambitions, both Catholic nations.
Although not necessarily a "crime" to be Catholic in Puritan America, proscription did occur, primarily through legislative action. Most established colonies were not unwilling to restrict church freedoms; limited sanctuary existed for those who subscribed to a so-called secretive and conspiratorial religion. For Puritans in the new Zion of Massachusetts Bay, life in the proverbial garden enjoyed favorable contrasts with the Roman Catholic "cesspool" of Europe. These Puritans sought to build a city upon a hill and fill it with the redeemed who chose to throw off the chains of Old World sinfulness. Catholicism provided images of hell, and these first Puritan settlers despised the Anglican Church because to them, it mirrored the Church of Rome.
By 1740 with the advent of the Great Awakening, Protestant fundamentalist fervor encouraged hatred of Rome and warned Americans of the deadly Catholic threat. Wars against France and Spain fanned rumors of a Catholic conspiracy and painted ominous pictures of Catholic forces amassing in Canada and Florida. During these years, nativism had firmly rooted itself in both religious and conventional wisdom.
The Revolutionary War proved a unifier for "true" Americans and the real test of liberty was whether someone supported the new government or the crown, not whether he or she practiced Catholicism. George Washington went so far as to quash so-called Pope Day festivals in 1775 because he needed Catholic men in the revolutionary army. Catholic France also proved a useful ally in the field against the British. In fact, if not for France's aid, England might have won the war. Even though hostility flared in Pennsylvania and upstate New York in response to Catholics still loyal to the English crown, the provocation was more in terms of loyalism than Catholicism.
Following the war, a greater spirit of tolerance infused the new republic. By 1790, President Washington told clerical and lay leaders of Maryland Catholicism that he expected America to become one of the foremost nations in advancing justice and freedom. He also called for American citizens to remember the patriotism of many Catholics during the fight against England.
His words, unfortunately, did not remove the strain of rightism that leaned toward the extreme that had arrived from the Old World. Three strands of extreme right-leaning ideology found expression by the mid-nineteenth century: anti-Catholicism, anti-radicalism (expressed as a fear of foreign radicals), and finally, what historian John Higham calls "racial nativism." This is what Higham terms "the concept that the United States belongs in some special sense to the Anglo Saxon 'race,'" which offered an interpretation of the source of national greatness. These ideas helped to form the foundations of modern extreme right organization and ideology, one of the loudest expressions exhibited in nineteenth-century "manifest destiny" and violent campaigns against Native Americans.
Organizations dedicated to eradicating certain groups and beliefs from America developed in force during the nineteenth century. These included the anti-Masonic movement, perhaps the first example in the United States of a preservationist antielitist mass movement; it evolved into a political party—one of several new parties offering to cleanse and protect the land from what its members perceived as "evil influences." They wished to "preserve" American values (that they themselves dictated) and were suspicious of elite groups such as the Masons because of their secretive nature.
The anti-Masonic party was active in national politics until 1832, a reaction to "secret" societies and the mysterious disappearance of a stonemason, William Morgan, who was allegedly murdered by Masons. He had been a Mason himself but was in the process of writing an exposé of the group. The anti-Masonic movement first formed as committees in response to Morgan's disappearance. Members of the anti-Masonic party declared that not only was Freemasonry a terrible evil in the country, but so, too, was Catholicism, a similar "secret society."
Another extreme right-leaning political party, the Native American Democratic Association, organized in 1835 after the anti-Masonic movement fizzled. The group argued about whether to focus on Catholics or immigrants as the evil threatening America and instead included both in its platform. They failed in their 1836 election bid, but several other groups formed in response to the rhetoric they espoused. The American Republican Party organized with the image of nativism as the tool to bring about reform on the political and social front. Founded in 1841 in New Orleans, the organization sported a network that stretched to New York by late 1843. Its platform was simple: office holding restricted to native-born white men, Bible-reading in public schools, an extended waiting period for naturalization, the abolishment of corruption from political offices, and the diminishment of foreign influences in the country. The party changed its name to Native American in 1845 but collapsed in 1847.
The next major nativist political force in the mid-nineteenth century was the Know Nothing Party, called thus because when questioned about it, members would say they "knew nothing"; newspaperman Horace Greeley coined the term in 1853. The group had begun as a secret society of white men called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, but, as soon as the "Know Nothing" name gained widespread use, the society evolved into a political party whose members agreed to attack those who threatened American political liberty and principles.
Eventually capitalizing on Whig support, Know Nothing appeal swept over the elections of 1854. Manufacturers marketed Know Nothing candy, tea, and toothpicks and some buses and stagecoaches sported the coveted name. The elections of 1856, however, brought the defeat of the Know Nothings because of divisions among anti- and proslavery factions within its ranks, a reflection of sectional differences that stretched far beyond the boundaries of the party.
Nativism, racism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism (more popular among twentieth-century extreme rightists) are unfortunately as old as white settlement in this country. Organized groups such as the Ku Klux Klan had plenty of vitriolic rhetoric and ideology upon which to build their own foundations; it was simply a matter of men stepping forward to organize more groups.
Extreme right-wing groups in this country share not only certain ideological penchants, but also other critical characteristics. Until the early twentieth century, the primary organizers and members of right-wing extremist groups and networks have been white Protestant men. The Ku Klux Klan formed a women's auxiliary during its 1920s incarnation, and some white women are active in Klan, neo-Nazi, and constitutionalist groups today, but their numbers are much lower than those of their male counterparts. Often, they join because of their associative relationships with male members. Most often, they are wives or girlfriends of active right-wing extremist men, and, as we shall see, the right has very rigid ideas about how women are to conduct themselves in the fight against the global conspiracy that threatens the white race.
The Ku Klux Klan and Vigilantism
The Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) first appeared in American history immediately after the Civil War. Formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865, it consisted of six well-educated but unemployed Confederate veterans. They chose the name based on the Greek word for circle: kuklos. Its organizing principles rested on retaining and defending white supremacy from Northern interference and free African Americans. Beginning as a club of sorts for defeated Confederate soldiers, it quickly developed into a loosely knit, secret terrorist network in the Southern states.
By the late 1860s, the Klan had spread a reign of terror throughout Southern and former Confederate border states. Gangs of Klansmen threatened, tortured, and murdered countless people: black and white, women and men. The most common targets were black men and women and individuals involved in contesting or dismantling the foundations of white Southern supremacy. The Klan was particularly expert in using sexual violence and brutality. Klansmen routinely raped and sexually tortured women—especially black women—during household raids. They also tortured, lynched, and sexually mutilated black men and other opponents.
In her study of the the 1920s women's KKK (WKKK), Blee notes that "gender and sexuality were compelling symbols in the two largest waves of the [KKK], those of the 1860s and the 1920s." Each Klan called white Protestant men to protect white womanhood and white female purity. Both the 1860s and the 1920s Klan "dissolved a myriad of social, economic, and racial issues into powerful symbols of womanhood and sexual virtue." Klansmen of the 1860s insisted that white women benefited from the Southern racial state, without which they would be raped and brutalized by black men, who were considered no better than primitive animals.
White women became highly visible symbols through which the Klan could rouse public fears that blacks' retaliation against their former white masters would be exacted upon white mothers, daughters, and wives. The Klan spread the belief that white men were powerless to aid white women who faced frightful sexual violations by black men. Klan propaganda played on not only the fears of women, but also unspoken fears of men. To a Klansman, the abolition of slavery ended white men's sexual access to black women, and it also potentially ended white men's exclusive sexual access to white women.
Blee notes that the Klan's call to defend white women against rape by black men signified a relation of power not only between white men and women, but also between white men and black men. The Klan's emphasis on the threat of black men raping white women served as a warning to both black men and white women about interracial relationships, but underlying the obvious references to potential sexual violation was a deeper threat to white men's sexual privileges. When mobs of Klansmen sexually tortured and emasculated black men, they were, in a sense, validating their claim that masculinity ("real manhood") remained white men's exclusive prerogative. Blee argued that "southern women, white and black, occupied a symbolic terrain on which white men defended their racial privileges." Symbols of white female vulnerability and white masculine potency, Blee notes, "took power equally from beliefs in masculine and in white supremacy."
The 1920s Klan continued to rely on images of white Klansmen protecting white women, but its propaganda also emphasized white men as heads of households and families. Nancy MacLean points out that "rule over one's women was mandated by another staple of the Klan's conception of masculinity: 'honor'; or, as it was sometimes called, 'chivalry.'" MacLean's research demonstrates that "honor" dictated a commitment to protect the virtue of 'American' women. Historically, she states, "honor in fact rested on a man's ability to control the sexuality of his female relations. Their 'purity' was the complement of his 'honor'; hence the Klansmen's insistence on 'the chastity of woman.'"
Expressions of Klan masculinity in the 1920s, MacLean continues, relied more on images of benevolent protectorship than vigilante violence, though the latter was not uncommon. She linked this shift in portrayals to the changing social and political contexts in which the Klan operated. Increasing urbanization and, notably, women's involvement in social and political activism generated a change in how Klansmen attempted to maintain the surroundings they preferred, which encouraged women to stay at home, out of the workforce and politics, and also to keep white men as the pinnacle of an American social and political hierarchy.
Ironically, many 1920s Klansmen were not completely antagonistic to women's suffrage or the idea of women working outside the home. They recognized that white Protestant women must work with their men to achieve shared political and social goals. Nonetheless, "recognition of women by Klansmen was always shot through with ambivalence. . . . However much Klansmen might try to cooperate with women who shared their social goals, female initiative set them on edge; the undertow of patriarchal prerogative impeded full solidarity." This male ambivalence toward women's roles in social and political circles, as we shall see, remained with rightist groups throughout the twentieth century.
Marauding and violent gangs of nineteenth-century Klansmen conjure images of their contemporary western vigilante groups. Indeed, Klansmen operated as vigilantes in that they were citizens who banded together to combat a perceived threat to their social well-being. They justified their actions to themselves and to their supporters, but as Catherine McNicol Stock notes, "vigilantism in rural America was more often than not a brutal act of violence which, in its broadest manifestation, sought out men and women who threatened the safety and economic stability of their communities."
Throughout American history, Stock argues, vigilantes did pursue criminals, but they also "brought to justice" people whose beliefs and behaviors did not match those of the vigilantes. In the colonial era, vigilantes targeted people whose poverty or perceived laziness threatened the productivity of more established families. In the early nineteenth century, vigilantes targeted such groups as Mormons, who challenged the emerging doctrine of liberal individualism. During the industrial era, Chinese and Mexican people were the victims of vigilante "justice" and miners and lumberjacks were targets of violence when they attempted to unionize. More often than not, people of color, those of the working classes, or people perceived as "deviant" (e.g., Communist) have faced the wrath of vigilante mobs.
The earliest recorded instance of an organized vigilante group occurred in eighteenth-century South Carolina. In 1767, several men banded together to stave off groups of armed bandits who were terrorizing and robbing settlers in the unregulated frontier conditions. The vigilantes, known in the backcountry as the Regulators, employed various strategies to stamp out banditry. Their methods included burning cabins of known gang members and whipping suspected outlaws and their family members. The Regulators often opened fire without warning and killed runaway slaves if it was too much trouble to return them. After their zealous law enforcement, when most of the actual criminals had been rounded up, killed, or had fled, the Regulators continued preying on people who lived on the margins of communities but had never committed a crime. These poorer folk endured Regulator wrath because the latter saw poverty as a result of immorality and a potential threat to the entire community.
Eventually, a full-scale vigilante war developed because another group of citizens, tired of the Regulators, organized and called themselves Moderators. Fortunately, a battle of greater proportions was averted and the two groups called a truce in 1768. Vigilantism as a response to frontier destabilization, however, had only just begun. Between 1767 and 1902, Richard Maxwell Brown notes, more than 326 identifiable vigilante organizations perpetrated at least 729 murders.
In Western myth and also in actual western communities, Richard White points out that it was not uncommon for personal violence and crime to rise to levels that communities refused to tolerate and that appointed authorities could not control. In such instances, groups of citizens (usually male) would band together and "take the law into their own hands"; they claimed to operate outside the law in order to enforce the law itself. According to White, between 1849 and 1902, at least 210 vigilante movements occurred in the American West. In all, they killed 527 people, usually by hanging. The most lethal of these movements occurred in eastern and northern Montana in 1884. It claimed thirty-five victims.
Vigilantes often contended that the breakdown of constituted authority and the rising threat of criminals meant that an armed citizenry had to take control to preserve order. Certainly, some situations existed that justified such an account, but others straddled a far more ambiguous line. Invoking the doctrine of self-preservation and asserting that they were simply observing the right of the people to assume sovereignty when the government proved incapable of doing so (a fundamental doctrine of American republicanism), vigilantes set about overriding legal officials. Ironically, they would imitate said officials when they captured criminals, conducted formal (though illegal) trials of the accused, and meted out justice at the end of a noose. Some vigilante groups merely conducted raids and victimized their targets, without even the faÁade of a staged trial.
This was the sort of vigilantism in which Klansmen engaged, expressing their ideological leanings through white supremacist violence and self-righteous proclamations. It evolved from a small club into a network of chapters whose members participated in secret, elaborate rituals that required special terminology and costumes that served also to lure new recruits into the fold and impress onlookers. In these respects, the Klan operated as a fraternal order that men who desired to uphold white supremacy in the South could join.
Such male secret societies were common in the last third of the nineteenth century. In a total adult male population of roughly nineteen million in 1896, five-and-a-half million belonged to fraternal groups such as the Odd Fellows, the Freemasons, and the Knights of Pythias. Indeed, the framework of fraternal organizations has informed American extreme right-wing groups since the Know Nothings. A fraternity allows men to feel "part of something," offers support and resources to its members, and encourages a culture of manhood and rituals that further solidify the group. Nothing new in American history, the idea of "fraternity" provides another ingredient in the current white supremacist movement.
“Evelyn Schlatter takes the reader on a dark journey through one of the most disturbing features of the nation’s historical and contemporary cultural landscape.”
David Wrobel, University of Nevada–Las Vegas, author of Promised Lands and The End of American Exceptionalism