Who are the White supremacists? There has been no formal survey, for obvious reasons, but there are several noticeable patterns. Geographically, they come from America’s heartland—small towns, rural cities, swelling suburban sprawl outside larger Sunbelt cities. These aren’t the prosperous towns, but the single-story working-class exurbs that stretch for what feels like forever in the corridor between Long Beach and San Diego (not the San Fernando Valley), or along the southern tier of Pennsylvania, or spread all through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, across the vast high plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho and Montana. There are plenty in the declining cities of the Rust Belt, in Dearborn and Flint, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in the bars that remain in the shadows of the hulking deserted factories that once were America’s manufacturing centers. And that doesn’t even touch the former states of the Confederacy, where flying the Confederate flag is a culturally approved symbol of “southern pride”—in the same way that wearing a swastika would be a symbol of German “heritage” (except it’s illegal in Germany to wear a swastika).
There’s a large rural component. Although “the spread of far-right groups over the last decade has not been limited to rural areas alone,” writes Osha Gray Davidson, “the social and economic unraveling of rural communities—especially in the midwest—has provided far-right groups with new audiences for their messages of hate. Some of these groups have enjoyed considerable success in their rural campaign.” For many farmers facing foreclosures, the Far Right promises to help them save their land have been appealing, offering farmers various schemes and legal maneuvers to help prevent foreclosures, blaming the farmers’ troubles on Jewish bankers and the one-world government. “As rural communities started to collapse,” Davidson writes, the Far Right “could be seen at farm auctions comforting families . . . confirming what rural people knew to be true: that their livelihoods, their families, their communities—their very lives—were falling apart.” In stark contrast to the government indifference encountered by rural Americans, a range of Far Right groups, most recently the militias, have seemingly provided support, community, and answers.
In that sense, the contemporary militias and other White supremacist groups are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, and other Far Right patriot groups who recruited members in rural America throughout the 1980s. They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’” which may, in part, “be responsible for rural people’s easy acceptance of the far right’s agenda of hate,” writes Matthew Snipp. “The far right didn’t create bigotry in the Midwest; it didn’t need to,” Davidson concludes. “It merely had to tap into the existing undercurrent of prejudice once this had been inflamed by widespread economic failure and social discontent.”
And many have moved from their deindustrializing cities, foreclosed suburban tracts, and wasted farmlands to smaller rural areas because they seek the companionship of like-minded fellows, in relatively remote areas far from large numbers of nonwhites and Jews and where they can organize, train, and build protective fortresses. Many groups have established refuge in rural communities, where they can practice military tactics, stockpile food and weapons, hone their survivalist skills, and become self-sufficient in preparation for Armageddon, the final race war, or whatever cataclysm they envision. Think of it as the twenty-first-century version of postwar suburban “White flight”—but on steroids.
They’re certainly Christian, but not just any Christian—they’re evangelical Protestant, Pentacostalist, and members of radical sects that preach racial purity as the Word of Jesus. (Catholicism is certainly stocked with conservatives on social issues, but White supremacists tap into such a long and ignoble tradition of anti-Catholicism that they tend to have their own right-wing organizations, mostly fighting against women’s rights and gay rights.) Some belong to churches like the Christian Identity Church, which gained a foothold on the Far Right in the early 1980s. Christian Identity’s focus on racism and anti-Semitism provides the theological underpinnings to the shift from a more “traditional agrarian protest” to paramilitarism. It is from the Christian Identity movement that the Far Right gets its theological claims that Adam is the ancestor of the Caucasian race, whereas non-Whites are pre-Adamic “mud people,” without souls, and Jews are the children of Satan. According to this doctrine, Jesus was not Jewish and not from the Middle East; actually, he was northern European, his Second Coming is close at hand, and followers can hasten the apocalypse. It is the birthright of Anglo-Saxons to establish God’s kingdom on earth; America’s and Britain’s “birthright is to be the wealthiest, most powerful nations on earth . . . able, by divine right, to dominate and colonize the world.”
A large proportion of the extreme right wing are military veterans. Several leaders served in Vietnam and were shocked at the national disgust that greeted them as they returned home after that debacle. “America’s failure to win that war was a truly profound blow,” writes William J. Gibson. “If Americans were no longer winners, then who were they?” Some veterans believed they were sold out by the government, caving in to effeminate cowardly protesters; they can no longer trust the government to fight for what is right. Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, returned to Southeast Asia several times in clandestine missions to search for prisoners of war and was the real-life basis for the film Rambo. He uses his military heroism to increase his credibility among potential recruits; one brochure describes him as “this country’s most decorated Vietnam veteran” who “killed some 400 Communists in his illustrious military career.” In 1993 Gritz began a traveling SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) training program, a rigorous survival course in paramilitary techniques.