When Michael Fanone, the former Trump supporter and D.C. cop who nearly died at the hands of the January 6 mob at the U.S. Capitol, comes to the Chicago Humanities Festival next week to join We Are Proud Boys: How a Right-Wing Street Gang Ushered in a New Era of American Extremism author Andy Campbell on a panel about “Extremism in America,” their moderator will be a Northwestern University history professor as obsessed with the subject as they are.
“Extremism in America: Pushing Back on Radicalism and Saving Our Democracy”Sat 10/22 4:30 PM, Northwestern University Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Dr., Evanston, chicagohumanities.org, $20 ($15 CHF members, $10 students and teachers)
Kathleen Belew’s first book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, was published in 2018, when she was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. (She moved to Northwestern this year.) She co-edited an anthology, A Field Guide to White Supremacy, published in 2021 as a manual for journalists and anyone else seeking to understand this phenomenon. She says her focus is “history of the present.”
Here’s an edited version of a conversation we had this week.
Deanna Isaacs: You’ve written that the white power movement has been largely invisible because it operates as “leaderless” resistance? What’s that?
Kathleen Belew: Leaderless resistance is cell-style terrorism. It was implemented around 1983 to make it more difficult to prosecute people and to make it more difficult for informants to infiltrate. But the bigger consequence has been that this whole movement has been able to disappear. We tend to consume news about white power activism and militant-right activity as single incidents instead of part of a groundswell. We get stories about Charleston as anti-Black violence, El Paso as anti-Latino violence, Tree of Life shooting as antisemitic violence, when all of those are carried out by white power gunmen. All of this and January 6 are part of the same movement. There’s an enormous amount of circulation of ideas, people, weapons, and strategy between all of these different groups.
The current white power movement came together at the end of the Vietnam war?
Bring the War Home is a history focused on the late 1970s through the Oklahoma City bombing . The white power movement brought together Klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis, and militiamen. Prior to 1983, these groups were interested in violent action, but they described what they were doing as in defense of the state. So, for instance, they carried out a coordinated campaign of violent harassment against Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico around Galveston Bay and talked about that as a continuation of the Vietnam war. When they did border patrol actions, they talked about it as doing what the state couldn’t do itself.
What happened in 1983?
We see the rhetoric really change. They make a verbal declaration of war on the federal government in 1983. And we also see that the kind of violence they pursue changes. They become much more interested in major infrastructure attacks, major acts of domestic terrorism. It was no longer a vigilante movement that was trying to protect the government. It was a revolutionary movement, interested in overthrowing the United States and creating either a white ethnostate or a white nation or even an all-white world.
In testimony before a congressional committee in 2019, you had an exchange with another witness who argued that white supremacist extremism isn’t a major issue. Did the events of January 6 answer that claim?
There have been numerous moments where people on the right have tried to throw a bunch of dust at the scholarship around this and to direct people away from the problem. It’s not just one person. There was, for instance, a GOP talking points memo that came out after the El Paso shooting that said direct the conversation to mental illness and away from the problem of white nationalism. And that is before we get to the present moment, where we’re talking about January 6 insurrectionists successfully running for office, we’re talking about open GOP support not only for what happened on January 6 but, in many cases, for Great Replacement Theory and other far-right ideas. The bleed of these ideas into our mainstream has continued.
So where do things stand now?
In the last few years we’ve had a lot of public and institutional movement toward understanding how big this problem is, but I also think white power activity in our society has gained huge footholds. Activists in the period that I’ve studied [1970s-1990s] were interested in mounting mass casualty and infrastructure attacks, selective assassinations, and other kinds of political violence. Now there’s a second course of action, because mainstream politics is now available to these groups. That means that we don’t only have to be worried about mass attacks, terrorism, and assassination—we also have to be worried about authoritarianism as a threat to our democracy itself.