The Divided Nation
White Nationalism in America's History and Society
by Stephen E. Bronner
[This article published in the fall of 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.lettre.de/beitrag/bronner-stephen-e_die-gespaltene-nation
White nationalists have always been suspicious of civil rights, the rules governing citizenship and the federal government that sanctions it. Sworn to defend their privileges and their exclusive understanding of politics, they set their vision of a xenophobic and imaginary white "national community" against the modern state. Traditions, myths, historical experience, certainty of faith, and prejudices stood in opposition to rights of freedom, tolerance, secularism, cosmopolitanism, and science. It is therefore consistent that white nationalists have nothing but contempt for professional politicians, bureaucrats, experts, intellectuals and "strangers". In their world gays live hidden, women belong at the stove, and people of color know their place - and all are content with their fate.
This was the America Donald Trump had in mind when he called on voters in 2016: "Make America Great Again!” No matter how great the dissatisfaction of subaltern groups, their complaints were not authentic because their protests were supposedly alienated, namely by long-haired radicals, people of color, Marxists, communists, anarchists, liberal idealists, Jews and other "homeless cosmopolitans. It is obvious that white nationalists are ardent supporters of Trump. They have their traditions. For example, in the 1960s the advocates of racial segregation in the Southern states condemned the "freedom fighters" from the North who collaborated with the civil rights movement as arrogant "carpetbaggers," political adventurers who had no idea about "our Negroes” in the South. "They" were not able to understand "us" and what it means to belong to "our" white Christian community. The juxtaposition of state and community goes back a long way, explaining the fundamental tensions and contradictions that drive America's history. It is said to marginalize extremism. In fact, Americans have always valued their liberal heritage and their political system, which tends toward the vital center, the all-decisive center.
And it is true: The United States has never seen a clearly fascist or communist party that had a realistic chance of taking power in the country. At the same time, its existence as a divided nation has lasted much longer than anything else that would come close to a democracy and a constitutional state. The political electoral system with its winner-take-all agreement privileges unideological parties that are willing to compromise, which in turn is supported by a power split between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the powers of the federal government over those of the states, and an independent judiciary. In terms of civil society, however, the daily lives of many American citizens are marked by extremism. Especially in the South and the Midwest, racist organizations representing the "community" have repeatedly carried out guerrilla attacks against the liberal welfare state, whose programs benefit all poor and working people equally and oppose an intolerant racist reality.
Two souls dwell in the American breast to speak to Goethe, and the struggle between the two goes back to the birth of the nation. The vital center, the crucial center, has long been thwarted by the conflicting views of the founding fathers who advocated and profited from slavery, Patrick Henry, Richard Lee and Thomas Jefferson, and others, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel and John Adams and Thomas Paine, who spoke out against it. Even then, the dividing line ran between "federalists," who favored a modern, centralized national government, and "anti-federalists," who represented the economically more backward, agrarian, small-town electorate. Soon white nationalist elements associated with such figures as John Calhoun, who served as vice president from 1825 to 1832, and Andrew Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, whose term was marked by the genocide and the expulsion of Native Americans to reservations in the West, along the trail of tears.
This was followed by the founding of various white nationalist organizations: the anti-Catholic and anti-migrant Know-Nothings of the 1840s, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1870s, the Temperance movement of the 1920s, the Southern populists around Senator Huey Long, the very influential supporters of the America First movement, which favored Hitler over Franklin D. Roosevelt and spoke out against U.S. entry into World War II, and finally the supporters of the heinous Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In addition to these mass movements and white evangelicals, there were several smaller reactionary groups. The tradition did not break off. The 1960s brought forth the anti-civil rights white councils in the South, followed by the silent majority, the moral majority, the militias in the Midwest and the neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville in 2017. The persistent white nationalism in these movements has become a kind of second nature to their followers, always on call, always flammable when circumstances require it. Their partisans still refer to the American Civil War of 1861-1865 as the War of Secession or the "War Between States", denying its purpose, the perpetuation of slavery.
The Confederacy remains the main point of reference for the fanatics. They identify themselves with the Confederate flag and the thousands of monuments and statues commemorating the "lost cause". They don't care that most of these monuments were erected after the Second World War. White nationalists have never been particularly concerned with facts or more complex issues like constitutional law or "race". White nationalists feel entitled to take their stand wherever it suits them. They have consistently held against those they consider inferior that they are not "mature" for citizenship. Therefore it would be left to white men to equate their needs with those of the nation: "white nationalism" was the result. It justified institutional racism, inequality in all areas of public life, and also confirmed the feeling of helplessness among people of color that nothing could be done about their plight. Economic exploitation was the logical consequence. Native Americans were driven off their land and crammed into reservations, black slaves worked without pay, and the lives of Mexicans and Chinese were not much better. All of them experienced exclusion in everyday life, denial of educational opportunities and were afraid of being maltreated or lynched.
White nationalism was inflamed by the idea of the egalitarianism of "reconstruction," which was perceived as a threat. The memory of the Antebellum southern states inspired the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and the political movement to introduce the Jim Crow Laws in the aftermath of the civil war. Thus racial segregation with all its consequences was enshrined in law. The reaction to the civil rights movement did not occur in a vacuum. Its legacy produced the Dixiecrats in the 1940s, the white councils of the 1950s and 1960s, and the white militias. They fight with all means against any social and economic policy from which people of color could benefit. The conflict in the "house divided" is probably best reflected in the so-called great debate of 1850, which was fought between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on the question of equality on the one hand and white superiority on the other. In retrospect, it can hardly be called a serious debate.
White nationalists have played a large part in the so-called war of cultures. The conflict over the understanding of America's history is basically a dispute over the self-image of white nationalists. This is because, whatever their narratives contain, they exclude more than they include. That they ignore the genocide of Native Americans and American slavery is only logical. Repressive attitudes toward gays and women are justified with the Bible. Whether consciously or unconsciously, these fanatics are thus assuring their own masculinity, which in turn is enough to disqualify the struggles for inclusion waged by the "immoral" and "abnormal. White nationalists "know" what they love, just as their critics know what they hate. Tradition counts: The dispute over civil war memorials is about respect, not only for the "lost cause" but for them. These statues and plaques are the only visible recognition that white nationalists receive for their positions. They represent a public justification of their personal values as well as the narratives they believe in.
This projection is nevertheless remarkable, since white nationalists define themselves through symbols of betrayal, while at the same time they consider their critics as traitors. White nationalists still use the slogan: "America. Love it or Leave it!"
White nationalists still regard American history as that of white Americans. And so it was taught for the most part, until the publication of Howard Zinn's million-selling book A People's History of the United States.
White nationalists have little respect for a revision of historiography. They question recognized narratives and emphasize the (mostly extinguished) underground traditions of American radicalism. Recognized narratives faltered during the Kulturkämpfe of the 1980s and 1990s. Even though this area has shifted to the Internet, the struggles have not abated. They may even have intensified since Holocaust deniers, reactionaries and white racists like the American Nazi Party and the KKK have sought to protect the United States from racial mixing, Jewish capital, immigrants and "mud people.”
White nationalists believe their understanding of their country's history has come under fire, and given their intellectual emptiness, their need for reassurance is understandable. They see American history as a history of freedom, as "the city on a mountain" where all wars were just, where all its "real" citizens are hardworking, Christian and God-fearing. The need for prejudice is taken for granted. Insofar as their self-image is based on the (undeserved) superiority of the whites, it is obvious that "real" history was written only by white men (such as themselves), with the best intentions and with the best results. Claims to the contrary are not worth taking seriously. Projection is mixed up with paranoia here.
White privilege - the white privilege - is a defining factor in American history, society and its institutions. There is hardly a facet of public life in which African Americans are not disadvantaged. Differences include wealth and salary, loans and credits, employment and education, housing and exclusionary zoning, illness and life expectancy, nutrition and obesity, child mortality and air pollution, unemployment and prison sentences, garbage collection and drug abuse, everyday violence and racial profiling - the list is endless. These are the problems of our time, and solving them may prove extremely difficult. Even Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. warned that while white America is willing (though often reluctant) to support voting and integration programs that cost nothing, programs for more housing, jobs and education that require billions of dollars would be different.
For white nationalists, anything that somehow reeks of progress is the enemy. Their prejudices are also class-based, but none can be reduced to economic interests. Social policy would not eliminate their hatred. Such "socialist" or "communist" policies not only arouse the white nationalists' distrust of the state and threaten their anachronistic idea of community, but they also favor the lower races and the "lazy" among them. Opposition to social policy also opens up the possibility of allying oneself with more conservative organizations of the establishment, such as the Republicans. An anti-government stance, mixed with the ideal image of the small town and barely concealed racism, was the Tea Party's strategy in 2008, and it has worked. The unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election made the deal perfect.(...)