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Dr. Kathleen Belew: The State of the White Power Movement

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Dr. Kathleen Belew: The State of the White Power Movement

Dr. Belew describes the growth, strategies, and consequences of the White Power movement in America.

Dr. Kathleen Belew, a professor at Northwestern University and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.


You can find Kathleen on Twitter at @Kathleen_Belew, and learn more about her at kathleenbelew.com

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Kathleen Belew:

One of the people I write about in Bring the War Home explicitly used his experience in the Vietnam War to call to other veterans to do violence in the homeland, so that others could receive some of that trauma, could understand what they'd been through, could suffer as they'd suffered. That's a human call. We're not meeting that need as a society. If these groups are prepared to, it's an effective recruitment tool for them.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Dr. Kathleen Belew, a professor at Northwestern University and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. We had Kathleen on the show a little over a year ago to talk about that book and we've brought her back to give us an update on the current state of extremism in the US.

Kathleen, a year ago, did you ever imagine we would be where we are today in terms of the ascendancy of the white power movement and all this talk of civil war?

Kathleen Belew:

Certainly not, but I also never thought I would see such a wide variety of responses from institutions and communities as we begin to deal with this problem together. We certainly are in a difficult place and I think the country is in a crucible moment, but I'm hoping that our better angels would prevail.

Ken Harbaugh:

We have been through crucible moments before as a country. We tend to emerge wiser and ultimately stronger, but they are incredibly painful at the time. Can you think of historical analogs? I hope you don't go for the big one.

Kathleen Belew:

I think I will. Well, first we should find out what you think is the big one, but I think the closest historical analog to what we're seeing with extremism is the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. That might be the one that you studied in high school, people listening and watching, or it may not be, but the Klan in the twenties was enormous. We're talking about four million people in a much smaller country. We might think of things like it had 10% of the entire state of Indiana was in the Klan, and it was a Klan that was public facing. It was very interested in politics. It had a lot of elected officials participating, and it was also structured such that people could march down the National Mall in Washington DC, but with their Klan uniform on, but with no mask. It was publicly acceptable to be a member. That Klan was certainly anti-Black and certainly anti-Semitic, but it was also incredibly opportunistic. It was interested in figuring out what was bothering each local community and using that for its own purposes. We saw the Klan in the twenties as being anti-Mexican on the US Mexico border, anti-labor in the Pacific Northwest where there were big union drives in the timber mills. It was anti-immigrant in the Northeast where there were a lot of recent immigrants coming from Eastern and southern Europe, and it was anti-Catholic in the state of Indiana where we saw the presence of Notre Dame University creating a sense of resentment around campus. In all of these ways, I think we're dealing with a pretty close historical parable. It's important to remember that the twenties was not a great time to be a person of color in the United States, to be an immigrant in the United States, or even to be a woman or a child, or another disenfranchised population in the United States.

Ken Harbaugh:

The thing about the Klan that strikes me as most instructive of this moment is that it, almost alone among terror movements in America's history, had real political cover. I mean, let's not mince words. It was a terror campaign. It ran the south for the better part of a century after reconstruction, but it had the nearly full buy-in of a major political party, at least regionally. Correct me if I'm wrong there, but then I'd love your application of that observation to the moment.

Kathleen Belew:

Sure. I think when we think about political buy-in and the Klan, there are a couple of very tricky things that we want to be clear about. One is that, so the first Klan started in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and was founded by Confederate veterans who were interested in resisting the federal government. The federal government at that time was the Republicans, the party of Lincoln. Many in the original Klan were Democrats and it was Democratic movement. Over the course of time, by the time we arrive at the mid-20th century, the parties have flipped. What we see as arising in the Democratic South in the post-Civil War moment is not a Democratic thing over the course of the 20th century, and certainly by the time we get into the 1970s and eighties in the white power movement, which is what we're dealing with today, it is neither a Democratic nor a Republican extremist movement. It is interested in a full-out attack on America and arguably everything it stands for. It's interested in overthrowing the United States. It's interested in assassinating members of the federal government. It is not about one party or another by the time we get into the eighties. Now, that's no longer the case today where we see members of this movement have sought office and been elected in the GOP. We've seen the GOP directing opposition away from this problem, and we've even seen actions that range from a wink and a nod, to circulating materials, to outright embrace of these activists by people in the GOP. I would never want to paint with the same brush people who are voting Republicans and extremist activists, but certainly these extremists have found a home in the party.

Ken Harbaugh:

I understand your reluctance to paint with a broad brush, but one of the things that separates this moment from other periods is that the leader of the GOP himself has made common cause with these extremist groups. I mean, at a presidential debate on live TV, he told the Proud Boys, designated a terror group by Canada, if I'm not mistaken, he told them to stand by. That, I don't think, has any modern parallels. You probably have to go back to the twenties to find something similar. Right?

Kathleen Belew:

You really do. We're talking about things like there was a rumor that President Harding was in the Klan. I've never seen that substantiated, but certainly we have things like Woodrow Wilson screening the film Birth of a Nation, which is such a Klan film that it is still today used as a Klan recruitment video, screening that film in the White House when it came out in the 19-teens. Yes, that is indeed the corollary we're talking about. Now, yes, President Trump called the Proud Boys up. They understood that as a call to action. I think one of the questions we have to grapple with now is that, although he seems to have called up that movement, there are two things I think we don't know. One is whether Trump and the Trump Administration have taken actions like that out of sincere common cause, or out of their own use of these groups for their own purposes.

As a historian, I'm very cautious about drawing conclusions about belief and intent because even when people say they believe things, sometimes their actions speak about something else. When we hear about things like Trump's remarks to the Proud Boys, last week Trump was re-posting large amounts of QAnon content on his platform, Truth Social, or things like Steven Miller while in the Trump administration circulating Camp of the Saints, which is a white power novel that is an anti-immigration novel, these are designed to appeal to white power activists, but I don't know whether they come from a place of genuine belief, or simply from the wish to use those activists as paramilitary strike forces, or as voters that can simply be genned up for their own purposes. I don't know.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm wondering how much it ultimately matters, though, if the outcome is violence and the undermining of faith in our democratic process. Maybe their alignment is cynical, but they're still unleashing incredibly destructive forces.

Kathleen Belew:

Absolutely. This brings me to the second thing we don't know, which is it may be that Trump is right now in command of some of this surge. It may be. I mean, it certainly was the case after that debate that the Proud Boys saw themselves as working in common cause with Trump. But we would be very mistaken to jump to the conclusion that Trump is commanding this army of people, and it is a gorilla army of people stretching across the country and even beyond. I don't think anybody's in command. I don't think Trump or anyone else has the power to call them off. It's one thing to unleash the momentum. Being in control of it is something else, and we've never seen that in the history of these groups.

Ken Harbaugh:

You have your finger on the pulse of these groups probably better than anyone else I talk to. What is their feeling about the moment we're in right now? I mean, from the outside looking in, I think a lot of people would see the prosecutions after January 6th, the momentum of the FBI to investigate other domestic terrorist acts, I mean, they got two of the people who targeted Governor Whitmer. Within the movement, though, I have to believe that they still feel a sense of purpose and momentum and the historical tide in their favor.

Kathleen Belew:

Oh, certainly. I don't think that prosecutions here and there have ever derailed momentum for this kind of activism. I think what it does is create the sense that they're under attack, which is one of the things that fuels this kind of ideology and radicalization. The idea of being under attack, that people are out to get them, that there is an apocalyptic project of racial extinction underway and that there's a conspiracy trying to make that happen, that's the fuel of this whole thing. I think that where we are now ... I should say I'm a historian. I don't have an archive for the present day movement because we don't have one yet. It'll be 10, or 20, or 30 years before we really can see the wide view of what's happening, but I think the earlier history is instructive here because we know a lot about how this works, how it has worked over time, and how people's actions have matched their rhetoric. In other words, not just what they say but what they actually do to follow up those slogans and ideas.

I think that what I would expect to find right now is in the period that I studied, which is from 1979 to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the reason that these activists got so violent and turned to war on the government was that they thought the door to politics was completely closed. They talked about the ‘time for the ballot has passed, now is time for the bullet.’ They thought that they could never achieve what they wanted through the political process.

I think that the Trump Administration, the Trump moment, Trump himself, however we'd like to slice it, that door has been opened. My guess is that what we're seeing is some tension in this quite broad, and diverse in every way but race, group of activists about whether they're going to stay the course towards gorilla warfare, or whether they would like to now divert their attention towards political mechanisms. These are both a threat to the United States.

One of them, the gorilla warfare threat, leads us towards mass casualty actions, radicalizations, cell-style terrorism, infrastructure attacks, targeted assassination of enemies, this whole set of things that we're quite familiar with.

The other way leads us towards a bunch of the other things we've been seeing in the news, like Proud Boys jockeying to get into control positions in the GOP process in Florida, like attacks on school curricula and attempts to flood local school boards with people like people in the Oath Keepers holding office, these moves towards legitimate political operation that we're seeing finding a home in the GOP. These are a threat for a whole different reason, because these are the things that threaten our capacity to hold free elections, our ability to remain a democratic country. I mean, capital de-democracy, not the Democratic party, but whether we want to be ruled by the people, or whether we want to be ruled by an authoritarian subgroup of largely white right-fringe actors. These are the two outcomes that I think the movement might be able to see right now, and both of them are a threat.

Ken Harbaugh:

That first outcome you described is terrifying, the threats to life and property, but our democracy has weathered those kinds of threats before. If you had to evaluate the severity of one versus the other, I would guess that the second one is existential. I mean, it threatens our conception of what America is. I don't know if we've ever been tested in that way before.

Kathleen Belew:

I don't think so. I think to find cognates and historical corollaries for that example, we're really looking to other nations where there have been successful coups where right-wing groups like this have become either defacto or legal strike forces and death squads for authoritarian regimes. There's a whole host of examples of this. I find all of them starkly un-American and at odds with all of the things that we think of when we think of the nature of our country's project.

Ken Harbaugh:

How important are individuals to this movement? There was a senate candidate on the Republican side in Pennsylvania who made this keen observation that MAGA existed before Trump and MAGA will long outlive him, and basically cast him as an avatar for a much more powerful, enduring movement. It begs the question, are individual leaders that instrumental in guiding this thing, or does it have a life beyond the characters who are pushing it along right now?

Kathleen Belew:

I think individual leaders can be incredibly powerful in sort of creating space for the legitimacy, or perceived legitimacy of this movement. If people are listening on the podcast, I'm using big air quotes around legitimacy. I think that Trump really moved the window on what we, air quotes again, but what we as a nation think of as acceptable discourse to include groups like this. I think they're probably as surprised as anybody to find themselves in the room. But once they're in the room, they don't need someone to let them in again. I think that the way that Trump Administration opened the floodgate to this kind of thing coming into our mainstream politics is going to be one of the lasting legacies of the Trump years, whether or not he remains a public figure in other ways.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about some of those individuals carrying the torch now? I hope you'll focus on the veterans among them, because that's a core piece of your thesis as well.

Kathleen Belew:

Yes. Part of what I talk about in Bring the War Home is how we can look at the legacies of American warfare in fueling the activity of these groups. By that, I mean not that all veterans are predisposed or anything like that, but that veterans have been targeted for recruitment by these groups, both because of the tactical expertise that they can bring that can dramatically escalate the violent capacity of extremism, and because all of us across American society are more available for violent action after warfare. If you look at the rises and falls of Klan membership, it correlates more closely with the aftermath of warfare than it does with poverty, or waves of immigration, or civil rights gains, or populism, or any number of explanations that have been commonly bantered about as why people might join a group like the Klan. The thing that pushes violent action is the aftermath of war.

We're now living through this incredibly prolonged aftermath of warfare where ... I taught a class on 9/11 last year, because my undergraduates don't remember, they were tiny children, or babies, or not even born yet, for 9/11. We were at war basically their whole lives. We've fought that war largely out of view and out of conversation of much of our society until ... Well, anyhow, it's come in and out of view. But veterans have been targeted for recruitment by groups like Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. They appear in large numbers in things like the arrest lists for January 6th, the charging documents for January 6th. We know that veterans expand the violent capacity of these groups. It's not clear to me where we are in of the membership peak cycle. I don't know what that long warfare model does to those ebbs and flows. I don't know if we're looking at a longer steady peak, if it's going to be a spike in retreat, or an escalating line, I don't know, but certainly we're living through one of these peaks now and that should inform our public response.

Ken Harbaugh:

That, I think, was the most striking finding of the research that you wrote about in Bring the War Home. You distilled it for me in an earlier conversation when you said ‘what we don't know is what happens after a 20-year war.’ I mean, the peaks in KKK membership that you've been able to map were after, relatively speaking, very brief wars, World War I and World War II. But when a country's been at war over the span of literally two generations now, I mean, I know people who have had two generations of their family in Afghanistan or Iraq, what does that do to the tolerance of violence and the proclivity towards violence of a society?

Kathleen Belew:

Absolutely. I mean, there's a number of other ways that the war on terror has been different than something like Vietnam. We could think of the ways that military service has become an incredibly segregated part of our society. I mean that not only literally in the sense that more and more servicemen and women live on posts and bases where their primary social webs are also servicemen and women, but that also we have largely diverted the problems of fighting the war from our public attention. Before the fall of Afghanistan, when we look at the campaign stops and the debates, the ongoing wars were hardly even featured. We don't really see the big signs, like coffins coming home. We don't do our grieving together as a nation. All of that work has to go somewhere. These groups are incredibly receptive to those stories, to thinking about the wrongness of warfare. One of the people I write about in Bring the War Home explicitly used his experience in the Vietnam War to call to other veterans to do violence in the homeland, so that others could receive some of that trauma, could understand what they'd been through, could suffer as they'd suffered. That's a human call. We're not meeting that need as a society. If these groups are prepared to, it's an effective recruitment tool for them.

Ken Harbaugh:

This is something I hear all the time in my conversations with fellow vets. I'm wondering if there is research yet to bear it out, though. Does the nature of our retreat from Afghanistan, the ignominious end to our occupation there, does that fuel this trend, this diversion of disenchanted vets into extremist groups like you saw after the Vietnam War, which ended similarly?

Kathleen Belew:

It's hard to know that now, but I can't imagine it wouldn't. I mean, I think that if you're watching the footage of the fall of Kabul and not thinking about Saigon, it has to be just that you don't know. I mean, the helicopters, the civilians trying to flee, the way that the Americans were so frustrated by their inability to keep safe the people who had been their on-the-ground informants and contacts, the rapid exit. I mean, to me, all of these things were incredibly evocative of our exit from Saigon. We know that these are still live wires for people in the white power movement, even for people who didn't serve and people who weren't there for this.

I mean, the example I always think of is Dylan Roof, the Charleston shooter, posing with flag patches from Rhodesia, Zimbabwe. I mean, he wasn't even alive when there was a country called Rhodesia, but that has remained a live symbol of ideology and of the history of this movement. Vietnam is alive in that same way. Another example is the Proud Boys going around wearing "Pinochet was right" t-shirts, talking about the Southern Cone. All of that stuff from the seventies, we might think of it as settled, but it's still very much a live wire in our politics.

Ken Harbaugh:

I really appreciate your observations about the isolation of military communities and the segregation of veterans as a warrior class, because we had Sebastian Junger on not too long ago, who made the observation about what it takes to truly reintegrate. He invoked the experience of Native American tribes who had a very, very different approach to welcoming the warrior home. Are you familiar at all with his work? It's not research, it's more anecdotal, but it's really powerful.

Kathleen Belew:

Only a bit, but the thing that strikes me is that the symbolic role of a lot of the white power activism after the Vietnam War, I think, mattered to a lot of people. The White Patriot Party, which began as a Klan group in North Carolina and then tried to expand a little bit more by saying White Patriot Party rather than having Klan in the title, but they outfitted their members in camo fatigues and did big marches in paramilitary formation. One of the things that they thought was really important was allowing people to wear their military decorations. They thought it was really important that all of those had to be duly earned decorations, which is…

There were a lot of people after the Vietnam War going around just playing dress up, but that was not what they were doing. They were trying to do something much more substantive about recognizing the service that had happened. Now, I don't think there's anything noble about what the White Patriot Party was doing, but it does show that there is this need for that reintegration that they were able to cannibalize for their own nefarious purposes. It seems to me that all of us as a society have to think about the long consequences of warfare, both broadly, but also within the people who are coming home who have done that work for the country.

Ken Harbaugh:

There are a number of GOP politicians with military backgrounds who have masterfully reimagined their service or channeled that angst and, in some cases, rage that you're talking about coming from fellow veterans to propel their own political careers. I mean, this is very personal for me because I see them as an even greater political threat than someone like Trump. But have you observed that same phenomenon from people like Doug Mastriano, or JD Vance, or even Ron DeSantis dressing up as soldier to lead their new army for political gain?

Kathleen Belew:

Sure, absolutely. I mean, I think that kind of thing has been an incredibly effective political strategy since the 1980s. Part of that lives in how we remember and how we tell the story about the Vietnam War. We have a story about the conflict, as well as the conflict. In many cases, I think that our story of that war is much more powerful and encompassing than what happened on the ground and, for some people, rings true. We could think about the Tim O'Brien idea of story truth here, about trying to get at the thing that happened rather than the specifics. Actually, that's something that appears in all kinds of trauma stories, not just in warfare, but other kinds of trauma as well.

One of the interesting and surprising things that I think comes out of the history of the army and other parts of DOD after Vietnam is that the military, when it wants to, has been incredibly good at infrastructure and taking care of its own people. There's recent work by David Kieran about how if you adjust for exposure, which is, of course, much higher among service members, the military is much better at mental healthcare than our country as a whole. The military has been incredibly good at things like benefits, like post and base exchanges, like childcare, like housing supplement, and the things we might think of as a welfare safety net for its people. I think a lot about how incredibly powerful the military could be at dealing with some of these problems at the level of in infrastructure. If the military were interested in doing some civics education, perhaps people would not be so confused and frustrated about our electoral process. I think the military could do some history education. I think the military could do much more in the way of connecting people together after service. We could think about integration into community after homecoming in a totally different way. I think the reason we don't have these conversations is precisely because of that social segregation that we have seen become so entrenched over the last short term of our history.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't hold out a lot of hope that the DOD is going to pick up that ball and run with it. It just doesn't care for those who have left the military as it's its mandate. Assuming you agree, who else can carry that? Is it up to the VA? Are there civic organizations that can step into the gap? How do we address this gaping hole in the reintegration of veterans?

Kathleen Belew:

Well, I got to say that the DOD can be moved by veterans asking for things and by veterans organizing. I think that over time when we've seen the Army, particularly, decide to provide more benefits, it's partly because people, and here it's not just service members, but also families, like the wives organizing and saying, "We need to be able to shop, we need to be able to get childcare," has made a real difference. I think that within military communities there's a huge capacity for this kind of organizing work.

I also think that the DOD is starting to take some steps towards this. The policy changes that came out last December around trying to do more information, or more teaching about misinformation that's circulating online about conspiracy theory about things like this, I think is a step in the right direction. We could imagine that we could do quite a bit more. But, I mean, I always hate to say that the VA should do anything because it seems that they have their hands so full at all times.

But it seems that this, and I'm talking now about not only the problem of reintegration of veterans, but the problem of white power activism more broadly and the many threats that poses to our society, maybe we could think of the special threat that it poses to veterans in terms of lives getting co-opted into this in ways that people can't control always. It seems that this is a big social problem. I don't want it only to rest in the hands of the DOD, or the VA, or veterans communities because this is all of our problem. As somebody who is in a ... Let's see. I wouldn't say social circle, but I don't get students who are on their way to the armed forces. I don't get much integration in my own life with veteran communities. I'm not prepared to say I don't have a responsibility for them. I think that this is a problem for all of our society. The aftermath of warfare should be part of how we think about the cost of war.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think President Biden was right to call out the anti-democratic tendencies and the outright extremism of a significant fraction of the Republican party?

Kathleen Belew:

I think so. I think that ... Well, let me say this. I'm not a policymaker, I'm not a politician. Of course, we'll have to see how that all goes. I think that what is really, really important is to figure out how to say there is a threat to our democracy, this is an anti-American form of political participation, this is anti-American violence, because I think reasonable people... There is a reasonable center that cares about that apart from politics, but we've become so incredibly polarized that even being able to say that to anyone, being able to say anything to anybody on the other side has become incredibly loaded. I don't know. We're living through some very precarious times in terms of the stakes of any one of these pieces of speaking out.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you ever worry that just doing your job, finding the truth and sharing it, makes some of the most horrific outcomes more likely? Do you know what I mean, like giving voice to these fears might actually fuel them?

Kathleen Belew:

I think that's a reasonable concern. I have had this ethical question one way or another throughout my research. I started looking at these groups in 2005. The concern back then was like, "Well, if we talk about them, are we giving them notoriety? Are we creating a capacity for copycat attacks? Is it likely that simply by talking about it there will be more?" I have always felt that, on balance, the ethics say that we should speak about it. We've tried ignoring it and what happened was a long death toll that was primarily focused on communities of color, on people who could not fight back, who could not face this down on their own. We have largely played directly into the hands of this movement by letting it go unopposed. I think that the ethical call is on the side of confrontation and fighting for what we think our country should be. I believe that there should be fair elections that reflect the people who live here and that is what our nation is. I believe that that was the radical promise enmeshed in life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I'm somebody who believes that that promise has been expanding over time, not through magnanimity, but through people fighting for their own inclusion. I mean, that promise, when it was written, wasn't for me, but I want to fight to make it include me. I want to fight to make it include all of us.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think you're getting at something I have thought a lot about since my time in uniform and we've done a couple episodes on, which are the very different kinds of patriotism that keep this country going. There was my very naive version, in which I joined the military because I was grateful for all I had been given, and then there was the patriotism of my Black co-pilot, who joined because he wanted to fight for the country he deserved and his family deserved, and all the promises that hadn't been kept. When you talk about that radical promise, it has not been delivered equally, but still needs to be fought for by everyone.

Kathleen Belew:

I think so. It's a hard road. I think history has a lot of examples of people fighting that fight, and I think there's a lot there to teach us.

Ken Harbaugh:

I appreciate your commitment to confronting hard truths, even at the expense of being criticized for maybe lending them notoriety. But in that same spirit, I wanted to ask you about the American Redoubt. This is coming up more and more these days. This supposed enclave started in Idaho that some of the extremists now identify as the locus of their Civil War preparations.

Kathleen Belew:

Well, we have had such communities before, many of them in Idaho. I think that is some evidence that the old strategies are still in play, the idea that they might be looking at an incremental conflict where they seize a white homeland and then expand into an ethnostate and then into a nation. Then the Turner Diaries, which is a dystopian novel that has been the playbook for a lot of these groups, says that the next step after that is genocide and the provision of an all white world. That is certainly the most violent and extreme distillation of the idea, but I think the move to seize is a white homeland, whether it is a small compound or something bigger, has been a point of return over and over and over again in the writings of this movement. That's of keeping with the old strategies.

Ken Harbaugh:

Last question, and I know this isn't a focus of your research, but I'd be really interested in your answer, about the really twisted notions of masculinity that power this movement that draw people in. I mean, you even have leading intellectuals on the right talking about the crisis of masculinity and how the answer is for groups like The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers to be real men, again, in air quotes. Where does that come from? Do you think that is real fodder for this movement, or is it just a laughable sideshow?

Kathleen Belew:

Well, I don't think any of it is a laughable sideshow because I think all of it has very un-laughable outcomes, but let me think of... I think that we see these resurgent calls for hyper-masculinity at historical moments when men, usually white men, are feeling like they are not getting their due because of gains by other populations. For instance, we see that kind of language come up opposing the feminist movement in the seventies and eighties. We see it come up in very loud volume in the early 1990s during the culture wars, and we see it again today. I mean, as we have this big cultural conversation about how we want to think about gender and how we want to think about bodies and reproductive rights, I think it makes sense to me that one of the reactions to that discussion is to reassert masculinity. Not for nothing, but there has been a steady output of writings and ideology by white power women who want to reclaim femininity for the same reason.

We can think about trad homemaking channels, and the trad housewife thing just came across my TikTok again, which is here comes the new thing, same as the old thing. But the idea that women need to take on this role in order to be totally fulfilled is also part of this ideology, and not for nothing. All of this, at bottom, is about white reproduction. The idea that what the white race is under siege by outside forces, that it's going to disappear because of intermixing and assault, and the only way to face all of this down is to have a whole bunch of white babies is the engine that fuels anti-immigration, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-integration. What am I missing? All of this is of the same engine of ideology. Those gender roles are really important for that project of white reproduction, which makes them easy to come back to in times when they're culturally valuable.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you talk about the resurgence of these anxieties as a response to the growing power of what are seen as competitive groups, I just want to clarify, we're not really talking about the group with the grievance in this case losing rights, or losing economic opportunities, or in any way having its overall sense of opportunity diminished. We're talking about a relative thing. The conflict is about appearances.

Kathleen Belew:

I think we're talking about a feeling. A feeling of having lost out on what someone was entitled to. The caricature of this online is the incel activist who is angry because he is not entitled to sex with a certain number of women or something, or someone who loses their job and blames it on a person of color and says, "Therefore, I want no people of color in my town because all of these jobs are supposed to be mine," or something like this. This is attached to real feelings. It is a real phenomenon, but this is not ... Somebody was showing me a shirt that was like, "More rights for others doesn't mean less rights for you. It's not pie." I think it's a good way to think about it, right? It's not like we don't have a limited pool of stuff in that way, in any real sense. This is a sense of aggrievement.

What I want to clarify too, is it doesn't make it any less real. It is real to the people who are acting from that place. I suppose it's real in certain ways. They think about things like the demographic change of the country, the moment when the country will no longer be majority white, and what that will mean for them. That's not an important benchmark if you care about multiculturalism, or if you think about America as a melting pot, but it is an important benchmark if you believe that at the time when you are minority white, then that is the racial apocalypse. It's all about worldview and where things fit together.

Ken Harbaugh:

With all of this catastrophizing and with what seems like an all out assault on fundamental rights, a radicalized Supreme Court, are there still things, looking to the future, that give you hope?

Kathleen Belew:

Absolutely. I think it's good not to be down in the ditch when we're confronting this, but the fact that we can have this conversation about the threat of these groups to veterans and the fact that there are veterans joining these groups, although maybe not in a statistically significant way, but in an instrumental way, represents a huge step forward in the way that we are publicly thinking about this conversation. Things like the DOD saying they're going to get a head count about how big the problem is within the armed forces. We don't have the count yet that I've seen, but maybe we're going to have one. These are all huge steps forward. We're late to this project, but we are beginning to take steps. I think the big question is whether we can gather the public pressure and work needed to push it along fast enough to really face down the problem. But I really think that there are so many people who care about that radical promise, who care about the idea of ‘We're going to rule ourselves through elections’, who care about the idea of protecting the constitution. I think that there are enough people that if we get it together, we can solve the problem. I really believe. I hope.

Ken Harbaugh:

I do, too. Thank you for sharing that with us, Kathleen. It's been great having you on.

Kathleen Belew:

Thank you for having me back.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Kathleen for joining me. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. The link is in the show description.

You can find Kathleen on Twitter at @Kathleen_Belew.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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