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NBCC Featured Review: Art Winslow on Leonard Zeskind

By Eric Banks

Critical Mass regularly features an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member critic. Here, from the Los Angeles Times, Art Winslow reviews Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream

This April, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” the media world was briefly ablaze debating whether it was true.

“Rightwing extremists,” the report maintained, “have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda.”

Citing the economic downturn, it drew parallels to the 1990s, a fertile time in the development of militia-style factions. In a footnote, “rightwing extremism” is defined broadly as applying to groups, movements and adherents that are “primarily hate-oriented” toward particular religious, racial or ethnic groups, or “are mainly anti-government, rejecting federal authority,” or may be dedicated to single issues such as opposition to abortion.

What favorable timing, then, for Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream (FSG), which addresses all of these issues, provides a context in which to assess them and offers an extended look inside a little-understood cultural zone that is really a panoply of small groups.

Unless you too resent ZOG (the Zionist Occupation Government), Zeskind’s decades-long perspective will help explain why, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 926 hate groups active in the United States last year—a 4% increase from the previous year but representing a 50% increase since 2000. Demographically speaking, this involves a tiny slice of the populace: Zeskind estimates that 30,000 men and women constitute the white nationalist hard core, with an additional 250,000-plus forming a periphery of supporters. In a country of more than 300 million people, that is one-tenth of 1%.

Zeskind tracks the white supremacist impulse, as embodied in various groups since the mid-1970s, in chronological fashion. He analyzes every twist, turn and rivalry—historically, the groups hardly yielded a harmonious or even coherent “movement,” although there is more of one today than in the past. (In a prequel section of the book, Zeskind also traces roots stretching back into the mid-1950s.) Much of his narrative is cast around the schism between “mainstreamers” who seek to temper their message in return for broadened public support and potential electoral success, and more militant “vanguardists” who have not and often take a separatist approach.

“Mainstreamers believe that a majority (or near majority) of white people can be won over to support their cause . . . [while] vanguardists think that they will never find more than a slim minority of white people to support their aims voluntarily,” Zeskind writes.

The common thread, despite a difference in orientation, is a sense of cultural dispossession: He writes that the Christian right sees 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to ban prayer in public schools, as a prominent marker of that dispossession. White nationalists see the court’s decision to desegregate public education, in Brown vs. Board of Education, to have “stolen their national birthright.” For others, a hot point was the 1993 passage of the gun-control Brady Bill, just months after the incineration of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, following which, in Idaho, Montana, Michigan and the South, “militiamen popped up like cardboard targets on a rapid-fire shooting range,” Zeskind says.

Zeskind takes a kitchen-sink approach to this multifaceted phenomenon, which is not exclusively race-based, despite the book’s subtitle. So readers will be exposed to groups including skinheads, Christian Identity adherents and Ku Kluxers; individuals such as David Duke, Patrick Buchanan and Pat Robertson; and also to “cadres” (a word employed with a little too much abandon throughout) driven by racism, anti-Semitism, opposition to abortion, antipathy toward homosexuality, hatred of the federal government (and especially the Internal Revenue Service), gun-rights activism, millennial beliefs, anti-immigrant fervor and a taste for Holocaust denial.

Given such diversity, if Zeskind had not provided connective tissue showing significant contacts between groups and cross-pollination over time, Blood and Politics would seem merely a compendium of relatively fringe groups and their leaders. Part of the challenge he faced was inherent in the terrain: “The problem of organizational succession has remained unsolved for white nationalists,” he notes. “Most organizations are basically sole entrepreneurships…dependent on the energy and vision of their founders. Those that avoid repression by law enforcement agencies or survive the vagaries of insurgency rarely turn into self-sustaining institutions.”

And yet there is continuity too among the figures Zeskind follows. Willis Carto, creator of the group Liberty Lobby, which appealed to both anti-communists and arch-segregationists, was an anti-Semite whose influence spanned decades. His magazine the Spotlight helped forge the white supremacist movement from disparate parts into something “self-conscious of its unique identity.”

The same can be said of Carto’s longtime rival William Pierce, an acolyte of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell. Pierce’s novel The Turner Diaries glorified race war and influenced a generation of younger Aryan militants, including Timothy McVeigh, who sold copies of it at gun shows and whose bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killed 168 people. Aryan Nations head Richard Butler was another pivotal figure—and yet, though Butler was an advocate of Christian Identity, Pierce saw Christianity as “an impediment to the liberation of white people” and was motivated by beliefs about racial genetics.

Tom Metzger, a California Klan leader who became a guru to skinheads (a central figure in Elinor Langer’s 2003 book A Hundred Little Hitlers), also figures prominently in Zeskind’s narrative, as does the Christian Identity minister Pete Peters. Peters, in contrast with many of his peers, decided that “both swastikas and Confederate flags symbolized a form of nationalism he didn’t share,” although he did see nationality as race-based, and organized a 1992 meeting that Zeskind credits as being “the foundational moment” for the militia movement that followed.

Zeskind’s account is fine-grained, which is both its strength and its weakness. Late in the book, long sections detailing Carto’s machinations and lawsuits during infighting over the organizations he created, for example, do not contribute to the ideological portrait that is the main attraction of Blood and Politics.

Along with the 51 politically or racially motivated murders that one watchdog group attributes to white power skinheads in 1987-2001 and the potential of another Timothy McVeigh, the most frightening aspect of what Zeskind documents is the sustainability of the ideas: The vanguardists, as he calls them, “survived police crackdowns, multiple criminal prosecutions, civic opposition and legal challenges” and managed to keep the tenets of national socialism alive, “a usable past for any similar movement in the future.”