The non-surprising surprise of white nationalism’s global appeal

Earlier in the month (September), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that white supremacy is indeed a serious domestic terrorism threat. After the El Paso and similar white-supremacist shootings, the DHS has stated that combating white nationalism is a top priority for its work. Kevin McLeenan, the acting director of the DHS, said that the spate of white nationalist killings in the US has galvanised the department into taking action against this homegrown violent racist extremist ideology.

This change in focus from an exclusive preoccupation with Islamic extremism to one which examines the menace of white nationalism was welcomed by anti-extremism campaigners and groups. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is one of the organisations that has approvingly cited this refocus. Sharon Nazarian, the ADL’s senior vice president for international affairs, stated that white nationalism is not only a domestic threat, but has forged links with similarly-minded parties and groups across the Atlantic.

The ADL issued a wide-ranging report called Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalization of White Supremacy. In its report, the ADL explains that white nationalism has not stayed put in the United States, but has connected with far-right parties in Europe, creating social media communities of hate and exchanging views and information about tactics to be deployed in their respective countries. This internationalisation has enabled white supremacists to rationalise their actions as part of a ‘struggle to save the white race’.

The ADL report’s authors express shock and dismay that white nationalist parties and groups have formed international connections. However, the cross-Atlantic sharing of ideas and strategies between white nationalist politicians and groups, while disturbing, is hardly new or surprising. Indeed, it is the non-surprising ‘surprise’ of our times. The ultranationalist and neo-fascistic parties, while fiercely racist, have a long history of supporting racist parties in other countries.

The globalisation of white supremacy is nothing new

A cursory glance at the history of the United States reveals that white nationalism, far from being an isolated product unique to American history, is a globalised ideology that has accompanied the rise of imperialist powers in Europe. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the codified racism of the United States was an inspiration for racist parties around the world, and in particular in Germany.

When the Nazi party hierarchy wanted to implement a series of racial laws in their own country, they looked around the world for a template they could study and follow. The practical example of a successful racially-stratified society they examined for inspiration was the United States. From the early part of the twentieth century, Nazi ideologues and party functionaries, including Hitler himself, sought to emulate the laws and regulations of legalised racial discrimination they found in the United States.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange observation to make – how could the United States, the exemplar of constitutionally guaranteed liberty and democratic governance provide a political model for Nazi Germany, the epitome of tyranny and racially-driven genocide? With the defeat of fascism at the end of World War Two, we have come to regard Nazi rule as the prime example of racial barbarism, and the Holocaust as the supreme example of unspeakable evil.

This perspective, while understandable, has made us blind to the precursors of Nazi racism. We have tried to distance ourselves from the savagery of Nazi white supremacy, while overlooking the ideological and political connections that the West made with Nazism prior to the outbreak of open hostilities. From the 1910s onwards, the global leader in legalised race-based segregation was the United States.

It was not only in the area of eugenics laws where the Nazis learned from the United States. Laws aimed at preventing the ‘racial pollution’ of the white race by intermixing with ‘African blood’ were pioneered in America. Madison Grant, author of the influential book The Passing of the Great Race, warned against racially mixed marriages and couples. This book was described as a ‘bible’ by Hitler himself. In the 1920s, Hitler expressed his admiration for the United States as the one place where the white race was making its best efforts in preventing racial mixing and thus promoting its advancement.

The Nazi party hierarchy admired the fact that the American immigration system placed race, and white racial ‘purity’, at the front and centre of its entry and application criteria. When the Nazis passed the Nuremberg laws in 1935 preventing marriage and sexual relations between ‘Aryans’ and Jews, they did so by following the direct examples of American anti-racial mixing statutes.

James Q. Whitman, a lawyer and professor at Yale Law School, wrote an extensive study of how and why the Nazis examined, and were inspired by, American racial laws. In his book, Hitler’s American Model, he elaborates how the United States was in its time, the place where legalised racism was most advanced anywhere in the world. It was in the United States, the Nazis noted, where efforts to stop the ‘mongrelisation of the white race’ were most developed. Whitman makes the astute observation that America, known for its innovation in corporate law today, was famous for its innovative race-laws in the decades prior to World War Two.

None of this is to suggest that the Americans are responsible for the crimes of the Nazi party and German military. Of course the lawyers and officials in Germany did not simply imitate American laws – they did not ‘copy and paste’. The German ruling class enacted its own bit of imperialism by joining the scramble for Africa in the late 19th century. However, the conquest of African nations, while welcomed by the Nazi party, did not interest them as much as acquiring lebensraum – living space – in the East of Europe.

Indeed, it was the white American conquest of the indigenous nations – the misnamed American Indians and their near-annihilation – which inspired the empire-builders of the Nazi white supremacists. If white colonisation could achieve a white-dominated society on the American continent, surely the same economic and political reordering could be achieved in Europe? When Hitler made his statement “Our Mississippi must be the Volga and not the Niger”, he was expressing a reorientation of German imperialism from Africa – the conquest of which he nevertheless approved as the Lord’s Judgement in enslaving an ‘inferior’ race – towards the annihilation of Jews, Slavs and other ‘inferior’ races.

White nationalism, and associated notions of ‘preserving its purity’, are neither uniquely Nazi in origin, nor confined to Germany. If the DHS wants to confront the ideology of white nationalism, it could begin by examining their own commander-in-chief, who has done his utmost to turn the Oval Office into a white nationalist pipeline. US President Trump has recycled and normalised the main ideas of white supremacy, whether he is talking to a domestic audience, or speaking on the international level.

Trump, standing in a long tradition of white supremacy, is providing a pole of attraction for ultra-rightist parties and corresponding ideology across the Atlantic. If the ADL understood this, and took steps to combat this ideology in the United States, they would not be so surprised.

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