Republicanizing the Race Card
It would have been like any ordinary Saturday afternoon at the Dulles Hyatt. Inside the lobby of the sterile suburban Northern Virginia hotel, a gray-haired man busied himself at a baby grand piano, filling the room with the sound of schmaltzy jazz standards. Traveling businessmen sat around chatting, puffing cigars, drinking cocktails and chortling at one another's quips. In the corner a woman cradled a sleeping baby. It would have been like any Saturday at the Hyatt, except for the obvious plainclothes cops guarding the hotel's entrances, the employees forbidden by management from speaking to lurking reporters and the presence, in a hallway, of the beaming white supremacist David Duke, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers.
"The Jewish supremacists not only want to control Israel, they want to control America, Europe and the whole world," Duke announced to a dozen men who crowded around to hear his every word. "The best thing we can do is expose Jewish influence. Then one day the world will rise up, people will fill the streets and call general strikes--just like in Europe."
Duke had arrived at the American Renaissance conference spry and apparently untouched by the ravages of age. After several rounds of plastic surgery and with enough rouge on his cheeks to make Tammy Faye Bakker blush, he is the neo-Nazi answer to Dorian Gray. Though Duke's vanity distinguished him from his fellow "white nationalists" who converged for the two-day conference, he was not alone in his struggle to remain relevant and distinctive in a complex political climate where most of the ultra-right's signature issues have been co-opted by pseudo-populist media personalities and Republican politicians.
In 2003 Duke was sentenced to fifteen months in a Texas prison for tax and mail fraud--bilking his supporters out of thousands of dollars, much of which he is rumored to have spent on liquor-sodden nights at casinos and strip clubs. With most of his credibility (such as it was) destroyed by the time of his release, Duke has repositioned himself as a crusader against the "Jewish supremacist" money-power. While explicit anti-Semitism did little to restore his audience in the United States, it has proved to be a hit overseas.
Duke's book, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question, is selling like cheap vodka on the streets of Moscow. In 2005 Ukraine's largest private university, the Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP), awarded Duke an honorary doctorate for his thesis, "Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism." Today, he claims to teach an international relations and history course at the 50,000-student school, which, until recently, included President Viktor Yuschenko on its board of directors. Duke has also been airlifted by a Muslim charity to lecture in Bahrain and appeared in Damascus, Syria, to deliver a public address blaming the "Zionist media" for hyping the war in Iraq. While even many American white nationalists remain suspicious of Duke's motives, he is an international sensation.
Relaxing in the Hyatt lobby, Duke reminisced about his glory days. "I was the first candidate who ran against affirmative action. And I predated Clinton on welfare reform," Duke told me. He rehashed his controversial term as a Louisiana state representative and his losing 1990 Republican gubernatorial candidacy, in which he captured more than 60 percent of the white vote. He happily recalled his 1977 Klan Border Watch, when he and seven other Klansmen drove a few sedans in circles along the California-Mexico border, waving a shotgun in the moonlight while dozens of reporters in tow tried not to crash their cars into one another.
Back in those good old times, in 1982, explaining the Klan's anti-immigrant advocacy, Duke said, "Every new immigrant adds to our crime problems, our welfare rolls and unemployment of American citizens.... We are being invaded in the southwest as if a foreign army were coming over the border.... They're going to take more and more hard-earned money from the productive middle class in the form of taxes and social programs." And Duke called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants and harsh penalties for businesses that employ them. "I'd make the Mexican-American border almost like a Maginot line," he said, referring to the militarized barrier France constructed between itself, Italy and Germany after World War I.
At the time, Duke was widely dismissed as little more than a turbo-charged version of the paranoid style--"the Klan's answer to Robert Redford," as reporter Patty Sims described him in 1978. But today his anti-immigration rhetoric sounds not so remote from one of top-rated CNN host Lou Dobbs's fulminations during his daily "Broken Borders" segment. Duke's Klan Border Watch, meanwhile, served as the forerunner and inspiration of the Dobbs-touted Minutemen groups that have proliferated from the Mexico border to Herndon, Virginia, the city that hosted the American Renaissance conference, where disgruntled locals hold regular protests outside a day-labor center. Under pressure from Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, chair of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, and with sponsorship from House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner (tough-talking heir to the Kotex fortune), the Republican-dominated House has approved a bill that makes it a felony to be in the United States illegally, mandates punishment for providing aid or shelter to undocumented immigrants and allocates millions for the construction of an iron wall between the United States and Mexico. Duke may have fallen short on the national stage, but his old notions have gained a new life through new political figures.
"Tancredo, he's pretty good. I would probably vote for him for President," Duke told me.
For self-proclaimed white nationalists, however, the mainstreaming of some of their ideas has created new challenges. "Immigration was the white nationalist movement's hot issue, but it's really left beyond them," said Devin Burghart, director of the Building Democracy Initiative at the Center for New Community, a Chicago-based civil rights group. "They've gone through this before, where they've had to reinvent themselves. Now, they're searching for a new issue to take them forward."
Duke, for his part, hammers on the so-called Jewish question in countries where anti-Semitism is commonplace, and he is treated as intellectually respectable. For white nationalists seeking a wider audience in the United States, like American Renaissance Magazine founder Jared Taylor, mainstream co-optation by the right wing seems an inescapable quandary. Taylor is a courtly Ivy League graduate and self-described former liberal who has spent the past decade working to lend an air of respectability to the white nationalist cause. He requires all attendees of his conferences to wear jackets and ties--even those neo-Nazi worshipers of the ancient Teutonic sky god Wotan who inevitably turn up every year. And he stresses left-right alliances as a means of movement building, wishfully thinking aloud that "at least some liberals are going to have to join us."
According to Taylor's strategy, advancing the cause of "white self-preservation" necessitates collaboration with Jews. "Jews are now realizing they are going to have a much more precarious existence in a black mish-mash kind of place than in a white Christian nation. For one, because whites are more fair-minded," Taylor told me. (He spoke seated at the front of the Hyatt's conference hall while a dozen black and Latino hotel employees rolled out tables for the evening banquet to be addressed by Canadian eugenicist J. Phillippe Rushton.) Taylor insisted that at least half of the conference's attendees were Jewish.
But how did he know that? "Well, have you looked at everyone's faces?" he replied.
There were, in fact, a handful of self-identified Jews at the conference at Taylor's invitation. Robert Weissberg, a former political science professor from the University of Illinois-Champaign (subsidized by the conservative Earhart Foundation while there), delivered a speech at the 2000 American Renaissance gathering titled "Jews and Blacks: Everything the Goyim Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask." In it he argued that Jews and whites should unite against racial minorities and sort out their own differences later. Taylor told me Weissberg was invited to speak again this year but that he declined, fearing the inevitably Judeophobic crowd would receive him at least as negatively as it did the first time he spoke.
Though Taylor scrubbed all traces of explicit anti-Semitism from the conference's official program, there were signs of it elsewhere. Besides the ubiquitous Duke, whom Taylor permitted to register for the first time in his conference's history ("Jesse Jackson can come if he pays his fee," Taylor grumbled), anti-Semitic literature was in ample supply at the display tables in the back. As I passed them, a goateed twentysomething named Matt Buehl handed me a recent edition of the pseudo-academic journal Occidental Quarterly. (William Regnery III, the nephew of conservative publishing mogul Henry Regnery, is the publisher of OQ.) The journal contained Long Beach State University evolutionary psychology professor Kevin MacDonald's article "Understanding Jewish Influence: A Study in Ethnic Activism", which contends that Jews have special psychological traits that allow them to out-compete white Gentiles for resources and power. The 2004 tract has turned MacDonald into a celebrity within white nationalist and neo-Nazi circles. Buehl eagerly volunteered his opinion of MacDonald's thesis: "It is absolutely irrefutable and astronomical in its implications."
Many attendees of the American Renaissance conference were so fixated on the "Jewish question," they seemed deaf to the latest tactics promoted by the conference's European speakers. Nick Griffin, recently acquitted by a British court on two counts of "inciting racial hatred," has revitalized the marginal British National Party by adopting an explicitly Islamophobic "Euro-nationalism" in place of his party's traditional anti-Semitism. The BNP will contest more than 100 seats in Britain's upcoming general election. In February Griffin organized the distribution of leaflets in targeted working-class districts featuring the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked violent worldwide protests. Ian McCartney, chair of the British Labour Party, denounced Griffin's ploy as "straight out of the Nazi textbook."
Speaking on the conference's first day, Griffin suggested his move away from anti-Semitism was purely tactical. "The proper enemy to any political movement isn't necessarily the most evil and the worst," he advised. "The proper enemy is the one we can most easily defeat."
In France, far-right writer Guillaume Faye's predictions of impending race war between white Europeans and Muslim immigrants are gaining currency beyond his far-right intellectual hothouse--especially in the wake of last year's youth riots in poor, Muslim-dominated suburbs. But Faye proved a poor judge of his audience at American Renaissance. During a speech larded with his usual invocations of barbarian hordes bearing down on the gates of the West, Faye digressed to warn, "Israel might not survive to see its 100th birthday." To his apparent surprise, sustained applause immediately burst from the crowd.
The inability (and possible unwillingness) of leading American white nationalists to purge anti-Semites from their ranks is not the only reason they seem permanently shunted to the margins. They must also contend with well-financed, incendiary conservative elements that make Europe's far-right look like a tailgate party at the Lilith Fair. Ann Coulter's declaration in January at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington before 2,000 cheering college Republicans that "post-9/11, our philosophy should be, 'Raghead talks tough? Raghead faces consequences,' " was arguably more inflammatory than the comments that landed Griffin in a London courtroom: "Islam is a vicious, wicked faith." An accusation a month later by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Washington's largest Christian-right interest group, that the failure of US newspapers to reprint the Danish anti-Muslim cartoon was "a form of negotiating with terrorists," was hardly less provocative than Griffin's promotion of those cartoons.
Yet there are no laws in the US forbidding Coulter from spouting what can fairly be deemed incitement of racial hatred. And no Democratic Party spokesperson felt compelled to denounce Perkins--let alone compare him to a Nazi--as the Labour Party did in the case of Griffin. Instead, Coulter remains the ringer in Fox News's stable of pundits, while Perkins juggles his schedule to accommodate cable face-time in between lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill. In a political climate where the reactionary has become routine, white nationalism has lost the shock effect it commanded during David Duke's Bayou days. As Taylor acknowledged, "To the extent that white racial consciousness has an impact today, it is masked."
Taylor pointed to the anti-immigration movement as the best example of white nationalism operating under the guise of mainstream conservatism. "If you want to control immigration," he explained, "a racial argument would not be as effective as one about carrying capacity and resources." Anti-immigration interest groups in Washington, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, a self-proclaimed "Pro-immigrant, low immigration" think tank, Taylor continued, "are doing an excellent job of this by arguing that poor people with exotic diseases are not people we should welcome. Their work tends to assist the survival of the white man."
Taylor reserved his highest praise for the Congressman from Columbine, Colorado: "Tom Tancredo is wonderful. If I was a politician, I would want to be him."
Tancredo, of course, has claimed that his anti-immigration stances have "nothing to do with ethnicity or race." Yet his proximity to his white nationalist admirers is closer than he publicly concedes. Perched in the rear of the Dulles Hyatt conference hall sipping a Diet Coke, Gordon Lee Baum, the leader of America's largest white nationalist organization, the Council of Conservative Citizens, told me, "Tancredo's pretty good. We've had him down a few times to meet with us." Though Baum didn't elaborate, another CCC member, California-based anti-immigrant doyenne Barbara Coe, spoke alongside Tancredo at a February 8 rally at the US Capitol in support of the Minutemen.
(To the chagrin of its planners, the rally was attended by two brown-shirted neo-Nazis from the National Socialist Movement who distributed fliers declaring, "Immigration is a race issue" until they were removed by Capitol Police.)
In the midterm election year of 2006 and looking forward to the presidential election of 2008, Tancredo has laid down his marker. If establishment GOP candidates stray from his line, he has threatened to enter the Republican presidential race himself to "force [illegal immigration] into the debate." Just last month, Tancredo tested the waters (or made clear his threat) with a series of stump speeches in New Hampshire.
Already, a surprising array of Republican presidential contenders are emulating Tancredo. Senator George Allen of Virginia met privately with Tancredo in September to seek his blessing and advice. Tancredo said he came away mildly encouraged. In February, Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist called for "physical or electronic barriers covering every inch of our 1,951-mile-long border with Mexico--a virtual fence." And Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, who infamously called decorated Vietnam vet Representative John Murtha a "coward" on the House floor, recently removed a claim from her campaign website that Tancredo had endorsed her after Tancredo's office said it was false.
While the virulent but minuscule white nationalist movement struggles to find its bearings, certain conservative Republicans are adapting a nativist appeal to gain a broader following. They are applying Nick Griffin's advice to attack "the enemy we can most easily defeat," leaving overt anti-Semitism to the likes of David Duke. Meanwhile, they stoke fears of nonwhite immigrants, who Tancredo has said are "coming here to kill you and kill me and our families." The far right has figured out its post-9/11, post-Bush strategy, and the Republican hopefuls of 2008 are already gravitating toward it.