The Racist Right: Theory and Motivations

This essay attempts to address three issues concerning the American racist right. First,what are the basic tenets of its belief system? How do the members of this subculture view the world around them, and how do they see themselves in relation to it? Second, what causes a person to choose to become a part of this subculture? What was its initial appeal? And what causes a person to remain attached to the movement after they have joined? And finally, what causes a person to leave this subculture? Some members remain true to their cause until their deaths. Others eventually drift (or are pushed) out of the group. Why does this happen? By examining these issues, we will come to have a deeper understanding of the racist right as a whole, and be better prepared to counter its opposition to democratic institutions.
All extremist movements, whether right or left in orientation, share a central belief in a distain for pluralism. This core ideology is referred to by Lipset and Raab as monism:
…the operational heart of extremism is the repression of difference and dissent, the closing down of the market place of ideas. More precisely, the operational essence of extremism, of monism, is the tendency to treat cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate. (Lipset and Rabb p.6)

The thinking behind this outlook is simple enough. Unlike many modern intellectuals who work under the assumption that all value systems are man made and therefore relative, monists hold that there is in fact a clearly discernable “higher truth” to the universe, a truth that can be plainly seen by any intelligent person who examines the world around them. If this simple truth were to be applied to our society, virtually all of the social discord and want we see in our current culture would disappear. The nature of this ultimate solution, of course, varies greatly from one extremist group to another. For one, it may be the establishment of a worker-controlled economy. For another, the formation of a stateless society. And for some, the complete separation of the races is seen as the key to our final happiness. Extremist movements are marked by a political simplism, a failure to grasp the complex problems of the modern world. 62% of right-wing letter writers surveyed by Lipset and Rabb agreed with the statement “the answers to our country’s problems are much simpler than the experts would have us believe.” (Ibid p. 8) This central truth is unchanging and eternal, making the ideologies of extremists inflexible and unresponsive to an evolving environment. This helps to explain the decline of Marxism, as it found itself ideologically incapable of adjusting itself to a post-industrial economic structure. Whether the American far right can adjust itself to a rapidly changing America remains to be seen.
In the monist mindset, there can be few if any gray areas in moral decision-making. As the extremist believes that their vision of the new order is flawless, anything that works against their program must be seen as wrong. The world can be viewed as being divided into two camps: those who are working for the new order and those who are working against it. In this we can easily see the source of the monist’s hostility towards an open marketplace of ideas. All other ideologies are objectively incorrect, so why should we allow them to be expressed? Dissent from the monist’s position will be viewed in two ways. Either the critic will be dismissed as hopelessly ignorant as to the reality of the situation, or they will be accused of possessing a deliberately evil intent, usually involving self-gain. The monist perspective also tends to create a siege mentality among those in the group, as almost the entire outside world will be viewed as being persecutors of those who possess the scared truth.
If for a moment we grant the utopian vision of the extremist as fact, a basic question emerges. Why has humanity not adopted this ideology, if it will clearly end the majority of our social problems overnight? The answer given is one that forms another central plank of extremist thought: the existence of a worldwide conspiracy. It is this evil conspiracy that has held back the progress of the human race. The conspiracy is comprehensive:
The typical conspiracy theory extends in space: it is international in scope: it extends in time: it stretches back in history and promises to stretch ahead interminably…William Guy Carr, a modern conspiracy theorist, writes: “History repeats itself because there has been perfect continuity of purpose in the struggle which has been going on since the beginning of time between the forces of Good and Evil to decide whether the Rule of Almighty God shall prevail, or whether the world shall literally go to the Devil. The issue is just as simple as that.” (Lipset and Raab p. 14)

If we go further and assume that this is an accurate representation of human history, them we must ask why the conspirators have been so successful in hiding the truth from the masses. For we must assume that the majority of persons are ignorant of this truth, or else we would give up all hope that they could be “saved”. The answer lies in the control of popular culture and government by the conspiracy. This control allows the conspirators to use the media to spread their deceitful messages to the general public. Media reports will be controlled to extol the system while dismissing extremists as “crackpots”. In some cases, the conspiracy will use its power to bring baseless criminal charges against those active in the movement. This leads many extremists to see themselves as heroic figures, deifying the powers of the all-encompassing conspiracy in an effort to spread the truth to the unenlightened masses.
To lend credence to their theories, extremists will sometimes quote scientific publications they feel support their positions. But many groups, such as white supremacists, are very selective in regards to which research they choose to make use of:
The reliance on science is spotty…The only science deemed legitimate is that which supports their racist assumptions; all other science is dismissed as biased propaganda, the work of a liberal, Jewish elite. White supremacists assure themselves they know the Truth when they see it. According to this circular logic, whether or not research is valid depends on its conclusions-if it supports the white supremacist message, it is good, “objective” science (Ferber p.74).

So when attempting to scientifically promote their beliefs, racists will quote extensively from The Bell Curve, while ignoring the vast majority of sociological research which finds no linkage between race and biological intelligence. And the academic ostracizing suffered by The Bell Curve’s authors can be seen as further proof of the conspiracy’s desire to silence anyone who challenges the system’s version of reality.
Extremists present their ideology as being not just another way to view the world, but as the objective truth. As such, their beliefs, according to them, are based in the natural order of the universe. For instance, those in the racist right maintain that
…any attempt to integrate the races runs counter to the natural course of evolution and is bound to fail. Genetic difference and evolution, as the path of increasing differentiation, are constructed as rooted in nature, reifying inequality as a natural, permanent fact of life (Ferber p.71).

This gives the extremist hope even when the situation looks bleak for the movement. For even if race-mixing appears to be the norm, in the end it will lead to chaos, as racial separation is the “natural” order of the universe. This chaos will lead to the eventual acceptance of the separatist position. By the same token, those who struggle against a perceived satanic conspiracy can take heart in even the darkest hour. For what conspiracy, no matter how entrenched, can withstand the wrath of the Lord?
We now turn our attention to the racist right, the group with which we are primarily concerned. Persons within this subculture believe the white race is the most biologically fit in humankind. Some maintain God has selected the Aryan race as his “chosen people”. Others believe that whites are the most evolutionarily advanced form of humankind. Irregardless of the details of their ideologies, the racist right is unified in its desire for the maintaining of separation between the races.
White supremacists see themselves as warriors fighting for the formation of an all-white nation. And, it logically follows,
The warrior needs an enemy. Without one there is nothing against which to fight, nothing from which to save the world, nothing to give his life meaning. What this means, of course, is that if an enemy is not ontologically present in the nature of things, one must be manufactured (Ferber p.26).

But it is not enough to know that there is a vague, evil force operating in the world. Thus defined, the hero has no concrete target to project his righteous anger against. One of the problems experienced by Senator Joseph McCarthy in rallying long-term support for his anti-Communist campaign was the faceless, secret nature of the conspiracy he described (Lipset and Rabb p.490). An enemy must be given corporate form if it is to be accepted as a legitimate threat. To serve the role of the puppet masters of the conspiracy, white supremacists have chosen the Jews. This anti-Semitism, of course, has its roots in ancient European history. The Jews have historically kept themselves separated both religiously and sexually from the greater population. Being the “outsiders” in Europe (along with the gypsies, who have faced similar persecution), it is easy to see how they became targets for the suspicions of their neighbors. Legends of Christian babies being sacrificed in Jewish rituals, along with the accusation that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ were commonplace. Current white supremacist theory holds that all Jews have a strong, clannish loyalty to their race, and seek to forward its interests at the expense of all other races. The Jews are, depending on the racist in question, described as a mongrel race that originated in the Caucuses, or as literally the spawn of Satan himself. It is interesting to note that the qualities ascribed to the Jewish race by those on the racist right are the same ones they champion for whites: a strong commitment to their ethnic group, discouragement of inter-racial marriages, etc. One would think this would lead to some level of respect among racists for the Jews. Apparently, it has not.
By what means do the Jews hope to defeat the white race? Their main weapon, according to those in the racist right, is race-mixing:
In white supremacist discourse, mongrelization is depicted as leading to the genocide of the white race. A typical article describes it as “the genocide of the White race by irreversible downbreeding with a hopelessly inferior race.” Mongrelization, the result of interracial sexuality, is synonymous with genocide…because it means the loss of the illusion of purity upon which whiteness is predicated (Ferber p. 115).

So by causing interbreeding among the races, the Jewish conspiracy will destroy the purity of the white race, which will de facto destroy the race itself. A mongrelized population will lack the intelligence and strength of character of the white race, and will be more easily manipulated by the conspiracy. According to white supremacists, the conspiracy will accomplish this end by using their control of the media to encourage interracial relationships, most particularly relationships between white women and black men. In fact, racist writers seem obsessed with the idea of a white woman being “defiled” in this way. This reveals both a morbid fear of the sexual potency of African-American men, and a condescending protectionist attitude towards white women, who must be defended against the ravages of black males. As Ferber puts it, “Interracial sexuality between white women and black men symbolizes the ultimate threat and insult to white masculinity.” (p.105)
If a person believed that his or her own race was superior to all others, and strove to spread that viewpoint while separating themselves from other racial groups as much as possible, we might dismiss them as an annoying feature of our pluralistic nation. But what is disturbing about the racist right, and why law enforcement should be vigilant in monitoring its activities, is the moral justification for violence it provides to its adherents. Actions such as cross-burnings and assaults may be rationalized by the need to keep the neighborhood “all white”. Bank robberies, drug distribution, and counterfeiting may be morally acceptable to white supremacists if the acquired funds are used to support racist organizations. And even acts of terrorism may be excused if it is thought they will hasten the downfall of the system. When an organization crosses the line from dissent into the avocation of violence, it becomes criminal in nature, and should be looked at as such by the civil authorities.
At this point, we move on to another question concerning the racist right. Why would any American, having been raised in a democratic society that emphasizes diversity, allow themselves to be drawn into such an anti-democratic, monist movement? We can begin to come to an answer by noting that Linset and Raab’s research found that only about one American in ten has what could be described as a comprehensive set of political beliefs (p.429). Although this research was carried out more than thirty years ago, there is little reason to think the situation has improved much. If the large majority of Americans have no strong political viewpoints, we might expect that it would be easier for an extremist group to step in and fill the void.
There are also social factors in an individual’s background which may make him or her more likely to embrace monist thought. Lipset and Raab found that “The lower the education, income, and occupational status of persons interviewed in diverse studies, the more likely they are to oppose integration and to harbor prejudices of various sorts against Negroes.” (p.433) They also discovered a strong correlation between racist thought and a conspiratal worldview. (p.291) I would seem to be rational to assume that those persons who hold racist and conspiratal beliefs to begin with would be more likely to join white supremacist organizations. One might therefore be tempted to think of education as a “magic bullet” with which to counter the threat of racism and extremism in American society. But as we shall see, the factors which cause a person to join a monist group are complex, and education alone is unlikely to make a an individual impervious to extremist thinking.
An extremist group can organize itself in two ways. The first is to portray itself as a broad-based, populist movement, which seeks only to express the true will of the “silent majority”. It will attempt to recruit as many members as possible, and directly affect the political process. The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920’s is a good example. Most contemporary extremist groups in the U.S. have taken the approach of the vanguard party. In this model, the organization does not seek a broad membership, nor does it hold any illusions of coming to power through political means. It seeks to recruit the “exceptional” individuals of society, and form them into a tightly knit, well-disciplined group. Their program is one of education and indoctrination of the masses. Once the common man and woman have been properly educated as to the truth of the current situation, these groups see themselves as the leaders of a revolution which will usher in the new order.
As might be expected, these two methods of organization will attract two different sorts of recruits. The broader based populist movements will draw some true extremists, but the majority of its membership will be made up of persons who could be described as “fellow travelers”. These persons may agree with some of the anti-system rhetoric of the group, but will distance themselves from the more extreme points of the party platform. A survey taken of the supporters of Father Charles Coughlin (an anti-Semitic, pro-fascist priest popular in the 1930’s) found that only 20% could be described as overtly hostile towards Jews (Lipset and Rabb p.495). Vanguard groups, in comparison, will demand ideological loyalty to all the basic tenets of the group’s belief system as a prerequisite for membership. As most organizations of the current racist right can be described as vanguard parties, we should expect to find a high level of ideological commitment among its members.
If we accept that many Americans are raised in environments that foster racist attitudes, we are still left with a question: why would they join an extremist vanguard organization that isolates them from mainstream society? We can begin to understand their choice by considering the atomized nature of our current post-industrial society. In previous eras, institutions such as the churches, the unions, and ethnic organizations provided a sense of community to the population as a whole. Today, mass media delivers entertainment to the people in the privacy of their own homes. Our highly mobile society inhibits the formation of close ties with one’s neighbors or co-workers. What the vanguard party gives to its members is something they do not receive from the mainstream culture: a sense of belonging.
Along with providing a sense of community, the extremist subculture sometimes portrays itself as being a good place to meet members of the opposite sex. As bizarre as this statement may initially seem, one can find evidence that some far right groups use sex appeal in an attempt to recruit new membership, particularly lonely males. Resistance Magazine, a neo-nazi publication aimed at a skinhead audience, features a “Proud Aryan Women” section. It contains pictures of attractive young skinhead women, often sporting racist t-shirts and giving seig hail salutes. Ferber quotes a Klan leader as saying: “In order to bring in the men, the men will follow the women.” (p.60) As we have seen, extremist ideologies appeal most to those who feel alienated from the mainstream. It is perhaps not surprising then that some racists would use the suggestion of meeting women as a tool of enticement.
Most persons involved with the racist right, however, were not brought in as a result of sexual desire. And, contrary to popular belief, exposing a person to extremist propaganda is an ineffective way to recruit new membership. Aho found that “It is not uncommon to meet dedicated neo-Nazis who when they first read or heard of the group’s doctrines were shocked, morally revolted, incredulous, or simply amused by what they took to be patent absurdities.” (p.126-127) Instead, most monists were brought into the organization through a close friendship: “The prototypical candidate for neo-Nazism first ‘joins with’ an agent and then begins subtly altering his beliefs so as to maintain this relationship: in some cases a love bond, in others a valued friendship, and in still others a work partnership, a school tie, a marriage, or a family relationship.” (Ibid p.126) This is not to say that persons never join extremist groups of their own accord. Numerous examples can be found of individuals who sought out racist groups after reading their materials. I would hypothesize that these rare persons are the “true believers”, the most likely to remain lifelong members of the group and to attain leadership positions. But the large majority of extremists initially came into the movement through a personal relationship that preceded their interest in the racist right.
If we accept that membership in extremist groups almost always comes about through social connections, then it should not be surprising to discover that those groups which lack strong ties to the community will have a difficult time attracting new members from the local population. In his study of the racist right in northern Idaho, James Aho described the failure of the Aryan Nations to effectively recruit in Coeur d’Alene, the location of their headquarters. At the same time, the Kootenai County Human Relations Task Force (KCHRTF), a Coeur d’Alene based civil rights organization, enjoyed notable success:
…we can now grasp sociologically why the KCHRFT enjoyed the success it did in Coeur d’Alene while the hate groups did not. In short, it was because the KCHRFT was inspired and organized by the institutionally pivotal opinion leaders of the city. Most of these individuals were either northern Idaho natives or in some way deeply invested occupationally, religiously, and familially in Coeur d’Alene. By contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian (Aryan Nations)…were…just recently imported from out of state, mostly in the person of retirees from southern California. Having few community connections, their efforts to solicit support from the local citizenry were repeatedly frustrated. (p.172)

Once again, we should note that most people would not join an extremist group unless someone they trust brings them into it. Newcomers to the community are unlikely to have this bond with their new neighbors.
The implications of these conclusions are of monumental importance to those who study the racist right. If in fact most persons join the movement out of a need for social interaction rather than an initial attraction to its ideology, then the act of conversion becomes a sociological rather than political phenomenon. Many civil rights organizations expressed fears in the early 1990’s that the internet would open new doors for extremist recruitment. Whereas before white supremacists could only spread their message by means of low-circulation publications and word of mouth, now any curious person could log onto an extremist group’s website and find a plethora of information on the organization. The expected increase in hate group membership, however, failed to materialize. Given what we have learned here, this is not surprising. Exposure to extremist ideas, without an accompanying social contact, is unlikely to entice a person to join a monist group.
Now that we have examined the mechanism by which an individual joins an extremist group, we will turn our attention to what motivates a person to leave. While some extremists spend their whole adult lives in the service of the cause, many will drift away from (and sometimes dramatically flee from) the monist group they are attached to. How does this happen? Aho is of the opinion that the abandonment of the extremist group by the individual can be explained using a simple rational choice model:
Seeking to enhance their sense of worth in the world, as well as other public and private goods, hate-group members weigh social relationships both inside and outside hate groups in terms of their reward potential…Apostates have come to believe that social relationships outside the hate group have more promissory value at the moment, than do relationships inside the group. (p.128)

Given the perceived social rewards that motivate most persons to join a monist group, it is logical to expect they will hope to attain the same rewards when they leave. But what forms the first seed of doubt in an extremist’s mind? What initially causes him or her to question their organization’s value? Often times, the extremist comes into contact with an individual of a racial minority who does not fit into the stereotype propagated by the group. For instance, Aho describes the experiences of a young neo-nazi named John who, while working a summer job for the city parks department, came into contact with an intelligent girl of Japanese ethnicity and her white friend who used drugs. Both befriended him: “Faced with glaring inconstancies between his racially pure, morally puritanical fantasy society and two real human beings who displayed a fondness for him, ‘I realized I would have to make exceptions…’” (p.132). Once an extremist discovers that not all persons of other races can be fit so neatly into negative caricatures, he or she may begin to realize that some of them might be able to provide the emotional support previously found only within the extremist community. After that realization occurs, the monist’s commitment to their organization will be much less powerful.
The extremist’s realization that they must make “exceptions” to their rigid racial belief system also has the effect of undermining monism in general. Once they accept that there might be a few “good” Jews, blacks, Asians, or homosexuals, they must question the dualistic prism through which they view the world. If not all Jews are bad, then it stands to reason that not all whites are good. The clear line of demarcation between evil (minorities) and righteousness (Aryans) must be questioned. And if these minority groups contain individuals of some worth, than those individuals should be allowed to express their views. Monism, we recall, is the negation of plurality; the belief that there can be only one truth, and that only that truth should be expressed. Once the extremist acknowledges that other versions of the truth might hold some validity, he or she may find it hard to remain in the intellectually stiffening environment of the racist right.
Once a white supremacist has begun to waiver in their commitment to the cause, two forces can strongly influence the final outcome of their defection. The first is the reaction of the community to the repentant extremist. In a touching story related by Aho, a local Jewish man befriended a former Klansman by the name of Larry Trapp. Trapp was invited to dinner at the home of his new friend:
The occasion of the engagement was to provide Trapp the opportunity to carry out his promise to formally apologize to those individuals and groups in Lincoln who had suffered firsthand his demeaning epithets. Included among those present were representatives of the NAACP, CARP, and the Interfaith Coalition. At first the situation was tense. Once the apology was offered, however, words of forgiveness were expressed. Larry Trapp was readmitted into the community, acknowledged as a member in good standing. The enemies on both sides had been deconstructed. (p.145)

If the monist discovers that the community is willing to forgive past transgressions and offer them an open hand of friendship, the process of defection from the racist subculture will be accelerated.
Another strong influence on a potential extremist defector is the reaction of the hate group itself to the monist’s wavering loyalty. In this respect, monist organizations often unwittingly finalize a member’s decision to quit. Rather than counseling the disillusioned person and offering them logical arguments in favor of remaining with the group, monists often turn on any member who publicly expresses doubts as to the validity of the group’s ideology as a “traitor” or a “sellout”. The offending person is usually shunned by their former friends and vilified in the party organ. Seeing that they no longer have any social reason to stay in the movement, the former extremist will move even more quickly into the outside world, in the hopes of establishing new friendships.
It would appear to be very difficult to formulate a program to discourage persons from joining white supremacist groups. The exclusion of racist materials from mainstream culture may be desirable for reasons of taste, but is unlikely to negatively impact extremist recruitment. Increased childhood education in the value of plurality might be helpful, but what really needs to be attacked is the prevalence of racism in modern society, as these subtle prejudices often make it easier to accept the teachings of the racist right. More modestly, we can see some ways to encourage persons involved with racist organizations to leave the movement. Taking a confrontational attitude towards monists only seems to harden their negative view of mainstream culture. If it is at all possible, someone in the local community must attempt to make personal contact with the racist in question, and convince them that a more rewarding social life awaits them in the outside world. This strategy requires bravery and patience; more, I admit, than I may have myself. But if we are serious about disarming the extremist threat, we may have search for the moral courage within ourselves.

Works Cited

Aho, James A. This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.
Ferber, Abby L. White Man Falling: Race, Gender, and White Supremacy. Lanham:
Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.
Lipset, Seymour Martin and Rabb, Earl. The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing
Extremism in America, 1790-1970. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.


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