As has been reported recently in the press, a conference of ‘white nationalists’ that met in the wake of the recent presidential election witnessed some members using the Hitler salute and one of the speakers openly using Nazi rhetoric. Video excerpts are available via The Atlantic, and certain of the expressions used (such as the German term Lügenpresse) have been rightly identified as having a much longer history––indeed, it was already used by Alfred Rosenberg in 1923 in the first major published explanation of the Nazi Party Programme.
The event is disturbing, to say the least, but it illustrates the continuing necessity of understanding that concepts of ‘race’ have become resurgent in the modern world. What was startling in this instance is that the speaker (Richard Spencer) is both significant in the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement, having coined the term in the first place, and that he was so open in the use of Nazi rhetoric. In fact, he essentially translated German slogans from the Nazi era into English. The most obvious is the ubiquitous Nazi cry of ‘Heil Hitler,’ which became instead ‘Hail Trump.’ The other phrases are also translated from the Nazi period. It was not uncommon for crowds in Nazi Germany, as at the Nuremberg Party rallies, to not only ‘hail’ Hitler, but also the ‘Volk’ (the people or nation), and to cry ‘Sieg Heil!’ (Hail Victory). For that matter, the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ or the ‘community of the people’ formed a central racial concept in Nazi ideology. In one sentence, we have all three slogans: ‘Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!’
But the comparisons go further than this. Other authors have identified the problematic nature of Spencer’s attack on those he saw as his enemies in the mass media: ‘one wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem animated by some dark power to repeat whatever talking point John Oliver stated the night before.’ The idea of ‘soulless golem,’ and whether those opposing Trump ‘are even people at all’ is certainly an issue, given the Nazi obsession with ‘life unworthy of life’ and the Nazi conception of Jews as a ‘dark power’ (in an essentially conspiracist view of the world).
Even the technique used by Spencer mirrors that identified by Jeffrey Herf with respect to the Nazis’ depiction of ‘the Jewish enemy,’ namely that ‘the propaganda of the Nazi Party and Nazi regime presented Hitler and Germany as merely responding to the initiatives, injustices, and threats of others.’ In his speech, Spencer constantly argued a view that ‘whites’ were under attack, that ‘resettlement’ of refugees might ‘break apart functional white communities,’ that supporters of Hillary Clinton consisted of ‘mutually hostile tribes only united out of a hatred of whitey,’ and that there was a kind of ‘war’ against ‘the continued existence of white America.’ While arguing there was a ‘remarkably crude and simplistic anti-white hatred,’ his statements on a supposed subjugation were also quite crude, and he spoke at one point of what he perceived of as a ‘boot’ on ‘the neck of white America.’
There is an interesting parallel in Herf’s analysis of Nazi propaganda, in that the Nazis ‘were able to entertain completely contradictory versions of events simultaneously, one rooted in the grandiose idea of a master race and world domination, the other in the self-pitying paranoia of the innocent, beleaguered victim.’
When we look at Spencer’s speech, we find some comparable contradictions. Having described ‘whites’ as essentially victims, Spencer also went on to argue notions of superiority: ‘Whites do and other groups don’t….To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward…As Europeans we are uniquely at the center of history.’ In the Nazi period, Hitler infamously stated in Mein Kampf that only ‘Aryans’ were capable of being the ‘culture-creators’ in the world, and that therefore all ‘culture-bearing’ peoples (citing the Japanese) required them in order to advance, referring to Aryans as ‘the race which has been and is the bearer of human cultural development.’ In Spencer’s speech this was also deterministic; he went on to draw on the same kind of ‘myth of blood’ that appeared in Nazi ideology and rhetoric: ‘Within us, within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun lies the potential for greatness. That is the great struggle we are called to.’
The reference to ‘children of the sun’ actually links back to ideas that were circulating in the German völkisch movement (from which the Nazi Party arose). The ‘völkisch movement’ refers to a particular German sub-culture that focused on a racial notion of the ‘Volk’ (people or nation) and was generally very strongly antisemitic. Both völkisch groups and the Nazis used the swastika, and openly acknowledged this as being a ‘sun-wheel’ or sign of the sun.
One of the major writers in this movement was Guido (von) List. He was obsessed with research into runes and in finding the ‘origins’ of the ‘Aryan race.’ By 1906 List argued that the ‘Ar’ rune meant ‘the sun’ and that therefore ‘Aryans’ were children of the sun, based on a notion that all great civilisations supposedly arose from ‘Aryans.’ A comparable argument was made in racist works published in the nineteenth century by authors like Arthur de Gobineau (The Inequality of Human Races) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), both of whom believed that the ‘white race’ was the decisive factor in the rise of ancient civilisations. These are views that were also repeated by leading Nazis like Hitler and Rosenberg, and Hitler claimed that the swastika as the ’sign of the sun’ was common to all ‘Aryans.’
Granted, Spencer did draw on a diverse range of material––quoting figures ranging from T.S. Eliot to Theodor Herzl––but his speech needs to be placed in the wider context of his own previous statements regarding a kind of ‘racial determinism’ and in the immediate context of the NPI event. Certainly the notion of racial determinism has been a part of the past publications of the NPI (such as supposed ‘racial differences in intelligence, personality, and behavior’) and in the online Radix magazine, where Spencer has previously compared Trump to Napoleon. As I am unwilling to give further publicity to these articles I have elected not to link to them, but they can be readily found online.
In a co-authored article Spencer has previously argued in favour of ‘race’ as an interpretive framework, that ‘[r]ace is an indispensable source of identity’ and ‘that efforts to eliminate “racial discrimination” are fighting against a deeply rooted fact of our human nature, even of our biological nature.’ In comparing Trump to Napoleon, he also argued that ‘the Trump phenomenon derives from what could be the called The Great Erasure: former White countries being transformed, humiliated, and ultimately invaded and raped.’ This was an article which concluded with the statement ‘Tomorrow belongs to us!’ and given the alt-right interest in memes I think it is appropriate to point out that this sounds oddly familiar.
For that matter, Spencer’s speech should also be placed in the context of the event itself. His speech at the NPI was preceded by a speech (from Sam Dickson) that included notions of ‘racial redemption,’ of a ‘war of alien conquest’ against ‘whites’, and that ‘this country [the USA] is darkening down, it is being colonised by aliens, half of all the children under age 6 are non-white.’ Dickson actually spoke out against using the name ‘alt-right,’ because he believed those involved stood ‘neither left nor right, we are racial, we are a family, we are not divided by ideology.’ He also called for the creation of an ‘ethnostate,’ although perhaps there is also another term for that kind of approach to statehood.
Spencer gave his own speech directly after Dickson, and appears (on the full video) to call him a ‘God-Emperor.’ In this larger context, there can be little doubt about the language and meaning of Spencer’s speech.
Yet there is a larger question: what is the continuing fascination with this form of hatred and with concepts of race? Many of these notions and even these specific statements have their roots in the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, and I have previously traced the origins of ’Sieg Heil’ as far back as 1906. Why, in the twenty-first century, are we hearing the same rallying cries?
In my own view, I fear that much of this may be linked to a kind of ‘consolation’ that racism can provide to people experiencing massive change, because it offers the possibility that they are ‘superior’ not by any actual achievement of their own but simply because of their ‘race.’ This seems to be one of the underlying messages in the recent white nationalist meeting, where concepts of ‘striving’ and ‘achieving’ were linked to ‘blood’ and to being ‘white.’ It is a mythology of race, and it appears to be on the rise across the world.