Racist violence is ever-present in our history, but the self-expressed motivations for current racist violence are changing. White terrorists are abandoning white supremacy, and embracing a narrative of global white victimhood and inferiority, but “white” can never be a nation in the way its proponents, from intellectuals to mass shooters, imagine.
White Nationalism without Supremacy: Why It Motivates Violence
Let’s start with the term “white nationalist”. Until recently I was against using it, seeing it as a dangerous rebranding that legitimized white supremacists, making them sound more mainstream and less taboo.
While there’s something to this argument, the recent white terrorism, as shown in the “manifestos” of the Christchuch and El Paso shooters, lacks any inherent belief in white superiority. In fact, they are laced with victimhood, self-loathing, and inferiority. William Saletan, writing in Slate days after the El Paso shooting, read the shooter’s manifesto, as well as having read the manifestos of the Christchurch mosque shooter and the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who murdered 69 (mostly white) youths in 2011 in the name of white nationalism. Breivik left behind a 1500 page manifesto. No one wants to read a 1500 page manifesto — not even most committed white terrorists — but Saletan did it, and found something fascinating. In his article titled “White Nationalists Are Debunking White Supremacy” Saletan found that “many of the killers, in the course of their rants, acknowledge that the groups they’ve targeted have virtues or accomplishments that make them formidable — and in some cases superior — competitors.”
Anyone who has studied the history of racism knows that playing the victim card is a classic tactic of white power, from the KKK to South African Boers. But traditionally the arguments were still couched in superiority — the problem was whites being outbred by inferior beings who have more kids, for instance. Or white women preyed upon by men of inferior races. But according to Saletan’s reading of the manifestos, such arguments have “been overtaken by more complicated theories. The ‘invaders’ … have found new ways to outperform the ‘master race’.”
Breivik’s manifesto fretted about a “Muslim superiority syndrome”, which he saw as a self-confidence Muslims have under even the worst conditions. Breivik worried about this as much as genetic factors. He wrote: “blue eyes and blond hair (and possibly psychological traits) almost never survive race-mixing because Nordic genotypes are recessive.” For Breivik, “African, Arab or Oriental genotypes” are “genetically dominant.” Saletan points out how Breivik was wrong: “Blond hair isn’t recessive, psychological traits are multifactorial, and many mixed-race people look white. But he was grappling with an inconvenient truth: There’s nothing magical about Nordic genes.”
The Christchurch shooter said Muslim culture is “so much healthier than white culture that assimilation is absurd.” He wrote “expecting immigrants to assimilate to a dying, decadent culture is laughable. Who would willingly leave their own strong, dominant and rising culture to join an elderly, decaying, degenerate culture?” Not only do immigrants keep their culture, “our people are beginning to join them, looking outside their own watered down and deteriorating culture.”
And finally, Saletan reveals echoes of this from the El Paso shooter, who understood that the power of immigrants was their ambition and achievements. “Even though migrants do the dirty work, their kids typically don’t. They want to live the American Dream which is why they get college degrees and fill higher-paying skilled jobs.” Saletan concludes that the shooter believed immigrants beating “natives for the best jobs refut[es] white overconfidence in the most painful way.”
Just words perhaps, but words that will motivate more shootings if not exposed and refuted. White nationalism today uses a new communication strategy, effective precisely because it plays to progressive notions of cultural pluralism, victimization, and diversity. Saletan reveals this chilling turn in the manifestos. Breivik explicitly rejected white supremacy, seeing whites as an oppressed native tribe like Native Americans or Australian Aborigines. He even said: “rhetoric related to ‘indigenous rights’ is an untapped goldmine. Playing the victim card is the most potent strategy of our times.” The Christchurch shooter also used the idea of diversity, as Saletan recounts. His murder of Muslims “was not an attack on diversity, but an attack in the name of diversity.” Saletan quotes him as wanting “diverse peoples [to] remain diverse, separate, unique, undiluted.” In the shooter’s words, “A rainbow is only beautiful due to its variety of colors. Mix the colors together and you destroy them all.”
“White” Is Not, and Will Never Be, a Nation
If white terrorists no longer stand for alleged superiority, then the label “white nationalist” is accurate. The goal now seems to be getting white people to see themselves as a “nation”, through both racist violence and online discourse. But this project is doomed to fail because, like any extremist movement untethered to an actual defined community of people (e.g. ISIS), the easy part is agreeing on who to hate and attack. It is easy for ISIS to identify enemies to be killed, but in the areas where they took control, it quickly became clear they had no coherent program that appealed to actual Muslims’ lives. By the same token, white nationalists don’t know what they’re for, or who it is they actually want to include in their “nation”. And this goes for shooters and intellectuals alike. While they often agree on who they hate (which seems to be most people, including many white ones), their attempts to define what they protect or stand for fail miserably, in part because they use the socially constructed idea of race as code for things unrelated to how race is traditionally defined. Thus, to the degree white terrorism is a coordinated movement, its foot soldiers and intellectuals alike offer no coherent rules about who exactly is included in or excluded from this “nation”.
Of course, “white” is not a scientific term, not only because the definition is never consistent, but because race has no biological basis. It is a socially constructed concept that variously does or does not include Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Arabs or Jews, among others. The pseudo-science used to construct whiteness relies on mystical labels like “Aryan” or “Caucasian”. These supposedly refer to linguistic or ethnic origins of “white” people, but both use places outside Europe (e.g. “Aryan” is from the belief that whites descend from India, as in this definition: “people speaking an Indo-European language who invaded northern India in the 2nd millennium BC.”).
So what “nation” do white nationalists think they’re defending? First, we should define “nation”. Wikipedia says that “a nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines a nation as “a large group of people having a common origin, language, and tradition.” So, can all white people constitute one single nation? If we use the Black’s definition, people socially defined as “white” can arguably be given a common “origin” in an anthropological sense (although human migrations over millennia and historically shifting definitions of whiteness arguably kill off that idea). But beyond the origin story, and more importantly for now, the global “white” population has no common language, nor does it even approach one “common tradition”. White nationalists carelessly avoid agreeing on what they protect, what they stand for, or who they see as white. They imagine everyone knows what they mean when they cite and conflate concepts like Christendom, Western Civilization, or European culture, which never fully overlap or equate, and often contradict each other in history.
As the age of Kings waned, and nation-states grew out of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Protestant-Catholic 30 Years’ War, we began to see political forces using the concept of the nation to construct the modern “nation-state” (the fusion of a people with a set of political institutions in a defined territory). From this, we get flags, armies, official languages, public schools, national anthems, etc. This “nation” is also a social construction, but unlike race, it is at least based in part on the tangible things listed in the dictionary definitions (bonds of territory, language or values). Even if a nation is an “imagined community” as defined by Benedict Anderson (since you will never personally know most members of your nation), that only exists in the mind, the mind understands a flag, a piece of territory, a language. Nationalism has bound people together effectively for centuries, and allowed them to endure terrible sacrifices for a common goal. Hence its appeal to white nationalists. But they cannot ever get there, because their hypothetical nation of “white” relies on a false imagined future and an incoherent history.
Obviously the main goal of white nationalists is not proving their ideology’s historical accuracy, but rather seizing power through a political entity (state, empire, or other institution). The fact that this entity does not currently exist is the whole point of white terrorists. Not content with de facto dominating political institutions that are race-neutral on paper, they want to go further and violently create the consciousness of being a nation (a global white nation across states, from South Africa to Australia to Norway — a white diaspora, or white Zionism as espoused by Richard Spencer). The idea of a global white diaspora seems absurd, but scholars of nationalism have shown that nationhood indeed can be reverse-engineered by political action (sometimes an army by force can make a language and a flag, not vice-versa). However, when it worked (Napoleon, Ataturk, etc.) it worked in the territorially-defined, limited confines of a Westphalian nation-state. Pretending it will work across a global collection of people who are defined by nothing more than a “color”, living in different nation-states with different values, traditions, and languages, shows the impossible leap involved.
The current “identitarian” approach to white nationalism that inspires these shooters relies on references to European culture, Western civilization and/or “Christendom”. These are taken as synonymous with “white”, and with each other, which is false. The diagram below is just a tiny glimpse of the massive problem for white nationalists: that their traditions are often non-Christian, non-Western and/or non-European. There are also the supposed Asian origins of white people (Aryans, Caucasians), or the inspiration that violent white racist groups often draw from Viking paganism, which are just a couple things on the long list of inconsistent flaws in this supposed nation.
The infamous Steve Bannon recently launched a European “Movement”, based in an Italian castle, to unite the European far right around a common program. From the start, it had problems because of its founders’ links to Roman Catholicism — just one example of how the European far right is a hodgepodge of wildly conflicting platforms on most issues, including the usefulness of Steve Bannon. To the extent this “Movement” had any historical ideology, it was the legacy of European Christian resistance to Muslim invaders from the East (never mind that Muslims were also in the West around the same time, ruling over Jews and Christians in Spain in relative peace and prosperity).
Bannon successfully stoked a cauldron of resentment in the 2016 US elections, inspired by and in turn inspiring a renaissance in what is called the “identitarian” movement, a European transplant using the language of the global new left — identity politics — to attack the left. Early identitarian thinkers like the French author Renaud Camus have been taken up by Americans like Richard Spencer, who attempt to construct a white nationalism capable of attracting political support (whether through votes or violence) in today’s political climate.
Thomas C. Williams profiled Camus in The New Yorker, in a 2017 piece called “The French Origins of ‘You Will Not Replace Us’,” which shows how the infamous chant at Charlottesville developed out of the musings of a 72-year old cosmopolitan gay Frenchman writing from a castle in the Gascony region of Southern France. An admirer of his earlier racy writing, Allen Ginsberg once said that “Camus’s world is completely that of a new urban homosexual; at ease in half a dozen countries.”
However, Williams shows how in recent years “Camus’s name has been associated less with erotica than with a single poignant phrase, le grand remplacement,” the title of his 2012 book. In Camus’ mind, white Europeans are being “reverse-colonized” in “an extinction-level event”. Camus writes that “the great replacement is very simple. You have one people and in the space of a generation you have a different people. Peoples, civilizations, religions — especially when these religions are themselves civilizations, types of society, almost states — cannot . . . blend into other peoples, other civilizations.”
According to Williams, Camus believes all Western countries are faced with “ethnic and civilizational substitution. [Camus] points to the increasing prevalence of Spanish, and other foreign languages, in the United States as evidence of the same phenomenon.” Williams shows how Camus’ “replacement” idea spread to white nationalists globally. The website great-replacement.com announces of replacement: “the term can be applied to many other European peoples both in Europe and abroad . . . where the policy of mass immigration of non-European people poses a demographic threat.” The text closes with the victim card: “of all the different races of people on this planet, only the European races are facing the possibility of extinction in a relatively near future.”
Leaving aside the irony of Camus’ cosmopolitanism and homosexuality defying the misogyny of most white nationalists, who want to revert to traditional gender roles for breeding, notice how he lazily conflates the terms native, white, ethnic, European, people, civilization, religion, society, language and state. At one point he implies there are many European “races”. Then he implies one white “race”. He sees the Spanish language as a threat, even though it was Spanish soldiers and priests who Christianized the New World and expelled Muslims and Jews from Western Europe. But their language is a threat now, and terrorists decide to kill speakers of that language (even if most Latin Americans have at least some white ancestry). One problem for Camus’ white nationalism is France’s secular republicanism, which undermines the things his followers defend (traditional gender roles, Christianity). He is thus outside the “nation” he wants to build. This is not new (Napoleon was Corsican). But Napoleon built a single, territorial nation-state, not a global “nation” based on a color.
Camus told Williams of visiting medieval villages and passing “a fountain, 6 or 7 centuries old, and there were all these North African women with veils!” His problem with this was not about the French tradition of secularism. “It was that the veil wearers were permanent interlopers in his homeland.” Camus told Williams he became “obsessed with the diminishing ethnic purity of Western Europe.” Notice the leap Camus makes from religious clothing choice to racist idea of “purity”. Millions of Arabs are actually Christians. The US Census defines Arabs as White. Arabs are only 20% of the world’s Muslims. In other words, Muslims are not a race or ethnic group or nation (however much ISIS wishes otherwise). The American concept of race, as unscientific it is, runs into even more problems when applied to a global religion spanning genotypes and colors. To name just one flaw, European nations like Albania or Bosnia have a majority population of white Muslims.
Williams quotes Camus: “People are not just things. They come with their history, their culture, their language, with their looks, with their preferences. The very essence of modernity is the fact that everything can be replaced by something else, which is absolutely monstrous.” But “modernity” is not to blame. The culprit is human nature. French history, culture, language, looks, and preferences were shaped for centuries by people coming in from elsewhere, and by French people going elsewhere (and often returning). The zero-sum notion of “replacement” is laughably inaccurate not least because it is totally ahistorical. France as we know it would not exist without the Roman Empire or Catholic Church, to name a few things “from somewhere else”.
Like the shooter manifestos, Camus turns “diversity” on its head in a ploy to make ethnonationalism seem more palatable. The alt-right and white nationalists gain strength and motivate shooters in part by using language to mystify, not to clarify — instead of defining terms, they deconstruct or reappropriate them. This makes them postmodernists (of a right-wing sort), since they are against things more than they are for anything. To them, “diversity” means opposing multiculturalism by stopping “replacement” and ensuring “white survival”, so that the world’s “diversity” of various peoples (in the plural) is preserved.
White nationalists do stand for one thing, which is the system of power based on skin color that has been with us for centuries. As tempting as it is to believe in an inevitable post-racial world of mixed babies solving the problem, today’s white nationalists show an impressive ability (however ideologically incoherent) to “update” racism. They do this by racializing things having nothing to do with color, such as religion (Islam) or language (Spanish). If we want to stop future shootings, white people must understand these ideas in our midst, and confront them. White nationalists think they act in our name, and on our behalf. We cannot write off the future terrorism they seek to inspire as a mental health issue or a gun control issue alone.