The resurgence of neo-Nazism
Before they gathered in Charlottesville, they met online. In private web forums, on sites such as Stormfront, America’s aggrieved patriots finalised logistics for their rally. It was called “Unite the Right”, and its focal point was to oppose the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the university town. The previous month, the same statue had become the rallying point for 50 Klansmen. “We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration,” the rally’s young organiser, Jason Kessler, told a local radio station. “We’re trying to show that folks can stand up for white people. The political correctness has gotten way out of control, and the only way to fight back against it has been to stand up for our own interests.”
“Unite the Right” was conceived as an act of defiance against globalism and political correctness, twin horrors that were erasing jobs, history and white custom. “What is happening in the States with the tearing down of the Confederate monuments is much like ISIS and Islam destroying a nation’s history,” a member of the Aussie Nationalists, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. The Aussie Nationalists was a group that sprouted last month, and began plastering Sydney with racist posters opposing immigration and foreign investment. “It’s good that people are standing up to this. As for the president’s comments: it’s good he has taken a stance against the instigators of the trouble, being that of the far left and antifa [anti-fascist].”
The Aussie Nationalists member is referring to Donald Trump’s equivocation on the matter of responsibility after an anti-racism protester was killed in Charlottesville. It took more than 48 hours before he addressed hate groups by name. By the following day, he had reverted to the equivocation that white supremacists had found so pleasing. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group,” the president said. “You had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
Charlottesville, like many American college towns, is liberal. It is a pretty and verdant place. Its heart is the University of Virginia, founded by the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, in 1819. It is also a site of renewed and ardent debate about the appropriateness of Confederacy monuments. “Most of the white supremacists who converged on Charlottesville came from out of town,” Dr Henry Skerritt tells me. Skerritt is the curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the university. “They converged here precisely because college towns like Charlottesville or Berkeley are seen as bastions of progressive values.”
“Unite the Right” was comprised of angry nativists, Klansmen, neo-Nazis and at least one killer. It was both intimidating and instantly emblematic, and the media rushed to get pictures. What the participants lacked in numbers, they made up for with a willingness to re-create the darkest scenes of American history. The night before the major rally, bearing torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us”, they marched towards the symbolic heart of the campus – the statue of its founder. They found there a group of students protectively encircling Jefferson.
Jefferson had been both president and polymath, but he was also a slaveholder, and it’s doubtful his legacy was evenly celebrated by those linking arms around his bronze replica. Jefferson was an atheist who invoked God, a revolutionary who strengthened federal government, and a slave owner who proclaimed equality. This was the Jefferson who had helped write the United States constitution, and designed the UNESCO-protected architecture that stood around the white supremacists. He had also written one of the most famous, and influential, lines in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The words are resonant even now, but the formidable Abigail Adams, wife of Jefferson’s presidential predecessor, would have occasion to write: “I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs.”
It was presumably the Enlightenment man that white supremacists sought to assail, and the students to protect. “I cannot help thinking that the menaced people standing around the statue, no doubt holding many different views about Jefferson the man,” the historian Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in The New York Review of Books, “symbolise the fragility of the idea of progress and aspirations for the improvement of humankind: the ideals that animated Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, his insistence on the separation of church and state, his belief in public education, religious tolerance, and science.”
The next day, “Unite the Right” descended on Emancipation Park. They were met by counter-protesters. By day’s end, one of them – Heather Heyer – would be dead after a white supremacist drove his car through the crowds. Just hours before, a helicopter piloted by state troopers who were monitoring the protests crashed, killing both on board.
“It has left our progressive and very diverse community shaken,” Skerritt tells me. “Our community is aware of the deep-seated institutional racism that impacts African Americans and immigrants. The negative events have highlighted the need for more action on these fronts, and while they have certainly opened old wounds, hopefully they will encourage the community to make real progress in resolving these deep-seated problems.”
On Wednesday night, I received a second email from the Aussie Nationalists. They were responding to follow-up questions of mine. Initially I had asked them about Nazism, and its recorded presence in Charlottesville and at various nationalist rallies in Australia. It seemed obvious. There were photos from the US. Here in Melbourne, I had personally seen members of the neo-Nazi groups Blood and Honour and Combat 18 at marches. I saw men with swastika tattoos, and others inked with more subtle references to the Third Reich. I have followed Australian forums on neo-Nazi site Stormfront and watched fascists celebrate their participation in rallies. But typically, when various nationalist groups have responded to me, they have dismissed the word “Nazi” as a lazy defamation. Rarely is it admitted to. “It seems any group that is not politically correct, anti-Zionist or against mass immigration or [that] even simply advocate white rights and oppose the anti-white agenda would be branded as racist or neo-Nazi,” the Aussie Nationalists told me.
This evasiveness is helped by Trump’s now ubiquitous “fake news” – a phrase used to dismiss disagreeable facts, not false ones. And so it was Wednesday night that I received a response to my question. “Neo-Nazism is a completely different ideology to nationalism, unless someone was wearing insignia or waving swastika flags it would not be possible to tell as well as people’s ideologies may change over time someone from the left may see they have been brainwashed through the education system or someone with neo-Nazi ideologies may see things differently and change their views, but I see no point in bringing such ideologies to nationalist events.”
As I read this, Trump was giving a strange and improvised speech in Phoenix, Arizona. Both were disagreeably jumbled. “Now, you know, I was a good student,” Trump told the crowd. “I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite. They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
At a moment of profound division – at a moment when white supremacy seems to be enthusiastically revived – the president of the United States has attempted no healing. His Phoenix speech was vulgar, rambling, self-obsessed. It was a depressing spectacle. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told CNN: “You know, I’ve toiled in one capacity or another for every president since, and including, John F. Kennedy through President Obama, and I don’t know when I’ve listened and watched something like this from a president that I’ve found more disturbing.”
Elsewhere, neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer published a vile denunciation of murder victim Heather Heyer. It met difficulty finding a web server to carry it. The site migrated to the dark web, where its founder, Andrew Anglin, a man who described Trump as the “ultimate savior”, wrote: “As I type, the total eclipse of the sun is preparing to cross these United States. This is a Black Sun. It is an omen signaling the dawn of a new age. Everything that you know is changing. The universe is realigning itself. The order of nature is to be restored … It is no coincidence that this is happening just as the greatest shutdown the internet has ever seen is happening … We are entering now a new reality. If you sit quietly, you will be able to feel this in your spine. The energies shifting. The forces of good did not die with the Third Reich. They simply went underground. The return of this force of good and its triumph over the forces of evil and darkness was prophesied. I don’t know what is going to happen next. But it is going to be vicious and beautiful.”
The United States is having a nervous breakdown.
In Australia, white nationalist groups were buoyed by Trump’s election. The Aussie Nationalists tell me they were “inspired” by him. Spend some time in online forums, and you’ll see they’re inspired by Charlottesville, too. But the constellation of neo-Nazi and nationalist groups is still a messy and disparate one. There is little unity. “Fascism comes from the word ‘fasces’ which referred to the bundle of sticks carried by lictors in ancient Rome to symbolise the magistrates’ authority,” wrote one neo-Nazi on an Australian forum. “As sticks are unbreakable when bound together, so the white race collectively is stronger than as individuals. Both liberals and cuckservatives fear white unity and so that’s why they have turned ‘fascist’ into a slur when it should be a mark of honour.”
This proud fascist is correct about the etymology of the word. Unhappily for him, there’s precious little unity among his brethren. But there are disturbing signs. Last week, a group calling itself the Antipodean Resistance plastered schools across Melbourne with racist and anti-Semitic posters. The group was praised by The Daily Stormer. Such poster attacks have become common. Last month, alt-right fascists The Dingoes held a conference in Sydney. Previous guests on their podcast have included Nationals MP George Christensen – who later disavowed the group – and former Labor leader Mark Latham. “White supremacy is not simply the crude affirmation of white superiority but the determination to organise society so that power is racially distributed and the deep connection between whiteness and ‘social, industrial and political’ power remains undisturbed,” the Australian historian Joanna Cruickshank wrote for the ABC earlier this year. “The crude form of this white supremacy, championed by the UPF [United Patriots Front], is easy to recognise and so unbearable to most white Australians. Yet consider the elaborate efforts made to ensure that Australia Day commemorations do not trouble white Australian consciences, regardless of how this silences other Australians’ experience of what it means to live in this nation.”
White supremacy has long existed in the US. Economic uncertainty, heralded by technological transformation and globalism, feeds nativism and stokes a sense of lost entitlement. These grievances were powerfully channelled by Trump last year, who seemed to represent the country’s profane id. Alarmingly, as white supremacists were repelled by Obama, they were magnetised to Trump. Nervously following the US election last November, an Australian neo-Nazi posted his disappointment about the presumed Clinton victory. But elation followed: “America is a great place,” he shared with his fellows. “Now it’s only going to get better. Can’t wait to holiday there next August. Wish I could wake up tomorrow and be there.” Our pilgrim was in for a shock. “Currently in Los Angeles. Wow, what a sewer. Everywhere I go is Mexicans. It’s depressing. Can’t wait to get back to white Australia.”
Australia is not easily comparable. Our racial history is different, and inequality is not felt so keenly. But there are, of course, racial anxieties. The political party that best expresses them, One Nation, has for its base a nostalgic people. In his Quarterly Essay on Pauline Hanson, David Marr wrote of their romantic backward glance to a time of tariffs and factories. A simpler, poorer, whiter country.
Marr spoke with social researcher Rebecca Huntley, who told him: “Simply addressing economic inequality – which is what the left has tried to do – is not enough. Prosperity is important, but what worries this group is the cultural, social slippage they feel in their life. They imagine their fathers’ and grandfathers’ lives were better, more certain, easier to navigate. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t, but it’s the loss of that that is worrying for them.”
There’s no easy diagnosis here. White supremacy has a long history in the US. It is comprised of the mentally ill, the nostalgic and fearful. Comprising angry nativists and “Hollywood Nazis” and those who delight in provocation. It is not entirely without sophistication. In Charlottesville, the frightened entitlement became murderous. And above all this is a president historically unwilling and incapable of offering moral leadership.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "The resurgence of neo-Nazism". Subscribe here.