When White Extremism Seeps Into The Mainstream

Historians in the News
tags: far right, White Supremacy, Capitol Riots

During the chaos of the Capitol on January 6, it was impossible to miss the flags and symbols. Taken together, they allowed for a kind of brisk vexillology of the American right. There were the Trump 2020 flags, of course — and, as has been widely noted, one rioter brandished a Confederate flag in the Capitol building, a historical first. Some people waved "thin blue line" flags, meant to express support for the police and people who worked in law enforcement, even as they squared off with police officers.

But there were symbols and signs that branded many of the rioters as part of more fringe cohorts: the orange hats of the "Western chauvinist" Proud Boys; the banner of the Three Percenter Movement, a far-right militia group that sprouted up in response to Barack Obama's presidency; the Kek flag, popular among alt-right types on sites like 4chan and meant to invoke the Nazi war flag; the Gadsden flag, which has been repurposed by a slew of different neo-Nazi and militia groups.

Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, studied the rise of the modern far right for her book, Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. She finds a surprising genesis for the movement in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, when disaffected white veterans returned home to little celebration and a country being transformed by the civil rights movement. Belew spoke to us about the rise of the white power movement and the ways they affect the politics of the mainstream right. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How should we be thinking about the relationship between Trump supporters who are not white power types, but who were nonetheless at the Capitol alongside people who self-identify as such?

What the relationship is between the people who were there simply to protest and exercise their First Amendment rights and the people who were to cause violence is going to be a matter of very, very critical work over the next weeks and months. That interchange between fringe and mainstream is something that is not very well understood, and it's something that will be really important to what happens next.

If you think about membership in the white power movement, it's helpful to think about a set of concentric circles. In the center are people who are violent, radical actors and people whose lives are entirely contained within this movement. Those are the people who educate their children at home using curricula written by white power activists. They go to white power churches. They marry other people in the movement. They have extended family and marital relationships within the movement, et cetera.

And then outside of that is a bigger circle of people who are still very active but less politicized. So those are people who might go to a Klan rally or regularly read Klan newspapers and who make financial contributions. Outside of that is a more diffuse circle of people who don't themselves give money and might not go to a rally, but who regularly consume ideas and materials. And that circle, I would guess, is even more populous, because it's very easy to consume this content online now without being directly tied into the movement.

And then outside of that is the circle that we really have to pay attention to: where somebody might not read something that's marked as a conspiracy theory, or content brought to you by your local Ku Klux Klan chapter. But they might agree with some of the ideas that are in those texts — especially if those texts are not presented in a straightforward way, or if they come to them through family relationships or social relationships. I'm thinking about Facebook forwards or things people say in a group chat or things that are circulating without citation or facts. That outer circle is really important because these ideas can very easily move into the mainstream, and those people in that outer circle can be located and pulled toward that radical center of action.

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