The white supremacists who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend were in one sense a manifestation of the ghosts of the Confederacy, but they also borrowed heavily from another, more recent philosophy of racial superiority: national socialism. In its blending of neo-Confederate and Nazi rhetoric and ideology, our contemporary white-nationalist movement is both distinctly American and part of a frightening international phenomenon.
In its neo-Confederate garb, the alt-right reflects the specific history of racism in the U.S., steeped in the history of slavery, the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement and the reaction thereto. In other words, it is a direct consequence of long-simmering tensions in American race relations and our national unwillingness to state unequivocally that the Confederacy was the villain of the Civil War, enabling revisionist histories that cast it as the victim. For all our protestations that this is not the America we know, this brand of racism and white supremacism is in our country’s very DNA.
The alt-right’s Nazi imagery, rhetoric, and ideology, by comparison, are anything but American (though Hitler drew inspiration for his model of race-based lawmaking from Jim Crow). Indeed, Nazism is so un-American that, as Senator Orrin Hatch and others pointedly recalled, hundreds of thousands of young American lives were sacrificed within living memory in a war to eradicate it. To understand the neo-Nazi tendency in alt-right politics, one must look beyond the U.S. It turns out that the nationalism of the alt-right has an unmistakably international flavor.
Currently, Europe is also seeing an uptick in right-wing extremist activity, driven mainly by a backlash against the influx of migrants from Syria and other Middle Eastern conflict zones. Some of this activity ranges from the pointless to the silly: In July, thousands of literal Nazi punks descended on the tiny German town of Themar for a concert called “Rock Against Foreign Domination,” and this month, a group calling itself Defend Europe, made up of young right-wingers from Austria, France, Germany, and Italy, took to the Mediterranean Sea on a mission to block refugees and migrants from “invading” Europe with the help of humanitarian organizations that rescue them when their rickety crafts sink or they are set adrift by smugglers. In the end, the immigration vigilantes’ boat had engine trouble and they had to be rescued by one of those very same organizations.
Right-wing violence, however, is also on the rise. Germany recorded 3,500 attacks on asylum seekers and the places that house them last year, while in the U.K., the number of far-right and neo-Nazi extremists arrested for plotting acts of domestic terrorism doubled from 2015 to 2016. In Sweden, three members of that country’s neo-Nazi movement were recently jailed for a series of bombings targeting a left-wing bookstore and two asylum centers. Two of the perpetrators had previously traveled to Russia for paramilitary training with an ultranationalist organization that prepares civilians to fight in the all-consuming civilizational conflict they believe may be just around the corner.
The Russia connection is salient for the American far right as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin — who styles himself as a defender of Christendom and traditional values against globalism, secularism, feminism, gay rights, and Islam — has won as many fans among the alt-right as he has among their European counterparts. Steve Bannon, the chief ideologue of the Trump administration and a hero of the alt-right, has expressed sympathy for Putin’s national-hegemonic ideology of “Eurasianism,” and Alexander Dugin, the intellectual godfather of that philosophy, says the feeling is mutual. Alt-righters have also become fans of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom they see as a nationalist icon defending his country to the death against Islamism and Zionism.
This new wave of right-wing nationalism is definitely gaining strength, but so far, Western Europe has proven reassuringly resistant to backsliding into racism and xenophobia. Far-right candidates were defeated this year in national elections in France and the Netherlands, and the Euroskeptic, anti-refugee Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is pulling just 8 percent in the latest polls for Germany’s upcoming vote on September 24.
A vivid memory of the original catastrophe of Nazism helps keep its 21st-century imitators at bay, particularly in Germany, where every schoolchild is required to visit a concentration camp, Nazi symbols are outlawed, and even vague, implicit valorization of the Third Reich or Holocaust revisionism is met with swift and universal condemnation. The AfD’s inability to gain traction in national politics has much to do with it stepping too close to the red lines Germany has drawn around ideologies it never wishes to see in its political mainstream again.
In the U.S., however, we have no such red lines. As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out at The Atlantic earlier this month, whereas the ringleaders of Nazi Germany were put on trial, their crimes documented and adjudged in a public hearing, and most were jailed or executed, “not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason.” This weekend’s atrocious gathering in Charlottesville was billed as a coming-together not of the fringes of the American right, but of a movement so mainstream that its intellectual leaders work in the White House, where they have not only the ear of the president, but also the ability to put words in his mouth. Little wonder, then, that Donald Trump has had so much trouble uttering the words “radical white-supremacist terrorism.”