False flag,” raged one user on the neo-Nazi online forum Stormfront, as Malik Faisal Akram began his assault on a synagogue in Texas, “so Jews can pass 6 million anti-hate laws.” Another disagreed: “I’m disappointed,” he posted, that the attacker “wasn’t a Christian.” “Attacks on places of worship,” added another, “are not as effective as attacks on ‘the Holocaust’ [sic.] museums, monuments and memorials”.
“It only makes the enemy exponentially more powerful when a white nationalist cracks,” one netizen rebuffed. “It’s coming,” someone replied.
Last week, the United States House of Representatives committee investigating the January 2021 bid to storm the Capitol in Washington released summons to white nationalist leaders Nicholas Fuentes and Patrick Casey. The questioning of the two leaders, the committee hopes, will shed light on the role of far-right groups in planning and financing the attempt to overturn the election of President Joseph Biden.
The survey underscored growing concern over the influence – and lethality – of American white nationalist groups, energized by President Donald Trump’s campaign to retake the White House.
More and more pundits are thinking the unthinkable: Could American democracy be collapsing?
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Increase in white nationalist violence
For years, experts have warned that the main terrorist threat to the United States comes from white nationalists. Since 2009, the year Barack Obama became president,white nationalist attacks began to intensify, according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Fifty-seven percent of all attacks from 1994 to 2020, according to CSIS figures, were perpetrated by the white right; 15% by jihadists.
Last year, the US Department of Defense warned that white nationalist groups were actively infiltrating the military, “in an effort to gain tactical and combat experience”. In 2020 alone, the Federal Bureau of Investigations opened 68 terrorism-related criminal investigations involving current or former military personnel.
Since the violent Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, organizations like The Base, the National Socialist Order and the Feuerkrieg Division have fought violent street battles. Black churches, mosques, synagogues, abortion clinics and government offices were bombed; individual targets have included ethnic and religious minorities. In some cases, these far-right formations have even plotted assassination plots senior officials.
In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security warned he was “particularly concerned about violent white supremacist extremists who have been exceptionally deadly in their heinous and targeted attacks.”
The storming of the Capitol last year was therefore part of a trend of escalating violence that has been going on for years – and gained strength thanks to President Trump’s undisguised endorsement of white nationalist causes. . For the United States security services, white nationalism emerges as the primary concern.
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The History of American Fascism
Fascism is almost as American as apple pie. Nazism, the scholar William Bernard noted in a 1938 article, was “not a European monopoly”. Its American variants had repeatedly reappeared in times of crisis such as high unemployment or rapid cultural change, Bernard pointed out, targeting “the Jew, the foreigner, the Negro, the Oriental, the radical foreigner.” “Hidden in the background,” he concluded, “is a real and present threat.”
Trump’s own slogan “America First” was coined by millionaire aviator Charles Lindbergh. In a 1939 essay, Lindbergh had opposed US involvement in World War II, saying it would “destroy the treasures of the white race”. He called on Americans to “guard against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.”
Like the self-proclaimed insurgents who stormed the Capitol, white nationalists have long sought to replace the country’s constitutional order with theocratic rule.
The pro-segregation politician George Wallace argued, in 1961, that the United States was ruled by “a fundamentally godless government and its appeal to pseudo-intellectuals and politicians is to change their status from servant of the people to master of the people, playing at being God.
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America’s Messianic Impulses
Like Islamism, Hindutva and other types of religious nationalism, scholars Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead had a falling out, the American right is driven by messianic impulses. Christian banners and flags, wooden crosses, impromptu praise and worship sessions, “Jesus saves” signs, Christian t-shirts are largely forgotten – unless we look at countless photos and images of violence.
For participants in white nationalist causes — including those involved in the Capitol Hill storming — evangelical Christianity seems to provide a moral compass, legitimizing their violence as service to God.
Ideologies like these, historians know, flourish in times of social crisis. Economists Christopher Kurz, Geng Li and Daniel Vine showed that millennials, the generation born between 1981 and 1996, have “lower incomes than members of previous generations at comparable ages.” Their debt levels are also higher. This is the first generation of Americans in a century who may not be more prosperous than their parents.
Moreover, the United States is in the throes of a complex demographic transition. Within a generation, white Americans will be just the largest in a complex mosaic of ethnic minorities, a shift that will challenge entrenched racial privilege in some regions.
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The good news for America, as several opinion polls have established, is that bigoted views on race and religion are in long-term decline. The country is more plural, culturally, than at any time in its history. The events of January 6, 2021 may well cause more Americans to think carefully about the need to insulate politics from religious extremism, marginalize divisive voices, and resist the seduction of politicians who stoke ethnic tensions.
However, there is no guarantee that the result will be good. The shock of Covid 19 – both economic and cultural – has reinforced the manic conspiratorial culture that the American right is steeped in. Polls suggest white American nationalists entrench themselves in closed ideological communities, which could become epicenters of future violence.
As Trump sets the stage for his re-election bid, he understands the hard right is critical to his prospects. “Pro-Trump Republicans,” the Southern Poverty Law Center noted recently, now “seem more willing to ally themselves with hateful ideologues or give voice to sectarian views”.
“Far-right fringes of the political spectrum burst into the mainstream of the Republican Party when Trump first ran for president, and January 6 seems to have pushed that trend further.”
“America was lucky that its first modern autocratic president was neither intelligent nor politically experienced,” said one scholar. Barbara Walter noted in a new book on the origins of the civil wars. “Other ambitious and more effective Republicans – Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley – have taken notice and will seek to do better.”
Is it conceivable, then, that American democracy is collapsing? The existence of a powerful opposition and strong institutions makes this deeply unlikely. The prospect of a long and violent struggle for America’s soul, however, seems inevitable.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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