Is the War on Christmas Really a Proxy War for White Supremacy?

Sociologist Randall Blazak explains how Christmas became a battlefield, and how white men lost the American Dream.


The War on Christmas is a myth. Yet so many Republicans, Donald Trump voters and other conservatives are apparently obsessed with it. Why is this?

Today’s conservative movement is masterful in its ability to use emotional appeals to manipulate its public with the goal of achieving and maintaining political power. As Richard Hofstadter observed more than five decades ago, American conservatives are also anti-intellectual and especially prone to believing in conspiracy theories.

Movement conservatism also has a deep disdain for facts. Empirical reality is an obstacle and inconvenience that stands in the way of advancing a political worldview that operates more like a religion than an ideology based in reason and fact.

Republicans and the conservative movement also command Fox News and a right-wing echo chamber that function as one of the most effective propaganda operations in modern history. Republican voters have literally been conditioned and trained by their news media and other trusted voices to believe things that are not true.

There is the power of weaponized religion in the form of right-wing Christianity, whose adherents believe that they are oppressed in America by liberals, gays, Muslims, atheists, “secularists” and any other group identified as an enemy other. Of course this is not true: white Christians are the most powerful and dominant group in American society. But again, the allure of Christian fascism — and contemporary American conservatism — is rooted not in reason but rather in fantasy.

There is another dimension to the “War on Christmas” and the broader right-wing obsession with the culture wars. Both are examples of white identity politics and a deep desire (and effort) to maintain the cultural and political power of white right-wing Christians over all other groups. In many ways, the War on Christmas is actually a proxy war for white supremacy.

How is white supremacy advanced by the right-wing “culture war” narrative? How are Donald Trump and the Republican Party using the “War on Christmas” to advance their goals? Why are so many white Americans attracted to such fictions? Is Donald Trump a white supremacist, or are his views best described in some other way? How are young white men and others being radicalized into violence by white supremacists and other right-wing groups? Is it possible for white people to divest themselves from white privilege, or whiteness more generally?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with University of Oregon sociologist Randall Blazak. He is one of the country’s leading experts on the neo-Nazi and white supremacist movement. Blazak also spent several years infiltrating and studying neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacist hate groups. He is the author of several books and is also the chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

How do you think Donald Trump was able to win the presidency?

America has experienced huge demographic changes in the last 50 years.

For a lot of people, it’s great. There are more opportunities, especially if you’re a woman or a person of color or you’re a gay or transgender person. These are exciting developments.

But there are a lot of people who feel left out by all those changes. This is especially true of straight, white, working-class men who feel that their picture of the American Dream is gone. They are right. It is gone. There is a much more even playing field in America and those men feel a loss of status. When I started studying skinheads in the late 1980s, they were responding to the first wave of Reaganomics — people being laid off from the factory as well as policies such as affirmative action and gay rights. White men, especially the “white working class,” were seeing this assault on their status.

I believe it was CNN that asked candidate Trump, “When is the ‘again’ in your slogan: Make America Great Again”? He said it was the early 1950s. Of course, for a lot of Americans, it wasn’t great in the early 1950s. Gays and lesbians were forced into the closet and women were forced into drudgery. Jim Crow ruled the land. America in 1952 was not a great country. But if you were a straight, white working-class male, you had the American Dream unchallenged. That is the nerve that Trump touched and it explains both his popularity and the public resurgence of white supremacists.

What are the white men who voted for Donald Trump and support the Republican Party and the “alt-right” upset about? White men are the most powerful group in the country, if not the world. Why the rage?

It’s largely about perception. If you think about the concept of white privilege, it is largely invisible to those who benefit from it. When the realities of white privilege are pointed out and the bubble of “meritocracy” and “hard work”  is punctured it feels uncomfortable. The privileged like the bubble. One of the beautiful things about privilege is not having to confront the fact that you have an unfair advantage. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; it is just a reality that has to be acknowledged. A lot of white people get very defensive because they think it’s about their character and that somehow they’ve done something bad.

Are you surprised by the ways the language and beliefs of neo-Nazis and white supremacists have been mainstreamed by Trump, the Republicansandthe right-wing media?                

Several years ago I tried to sound the public alarm about the Tea Party movement and how its narratives and logic were similar to that of white supremacists. For example, their focus on Obama as the Muslim outsider, or images of him with a bone through his nose. The conspiracy theories and “fake news” narratives being circulated by the right wing into the mainstream media are especially concerning. I just reread Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and it is eerily similar to what we hear in Trump’s attacks on the free press.

You spent many years studying white supremacist organizations. How are their members radicalized? The mainstream news media loves to talk about the “radicalization” of Muslims, but not much about that same dynamic as it applies to white men. 

This happens in at least two ways. The first is, someone who is in need of a way of looking at the world is given a paradigm. For example: “This is how the world works. This is how the world is being taken away from you.” Dylann Roof was told that he couldn’t get a date because black men were taking away all the white women. The next step is an action plan. It’s one thing to have an analysis. The next is: “What do you do about it, now you know how the world really works?”

For the skinheads that I studied, their action plan was race war: We’re going to take America back. We’re going to intimidate “those people” out of “our” neighborhoods. We’re going to purge the country from the global Jewish conspiracy that’s depriving us of our natural-born power. This logic speaks to a lot of young people, especially young males who have a simplistic way of thinking about the world. It speaks to their simplistic, dichotomous understanding of the world as a zero-sum game: “Somebody is gaining so I must be losing. Here is the action plan.” The simple way to do that is through violence.

Where does the racist ideology comein?

It is almost secondary. Racism is a tool. It is not like they join these groups because they’re racist. They join this world and racism becomes a way of empowering themselves. It is primarily about gender, and white males feeling that their world is being taken away from them. The thing about the alt-right is that during the Obama years they existed online. They complained and trolled and promoted rape culture. But what they did was not effective in the outside world. Sitting at their computers, they could create this alternative universe where they felt empowered. Then Trump comes along and opens the metaphorical door, and they spill out into the streets.

Do you think Donald Trump is a white supremacist?

It is easy to talk about Nazis and KKK members and not look at how white supremacy is one of the primary ways through which American society is organized.

On the day of the Charlottesville murder, I was asked on CNN what I would say if I were Donald Trump’s speechwriter. Although I gave another answer, what I wanted to say was that I don’t think he gets it. I don’t think he’s smart enough. I don’t think he understands the reality of the persistence of racism in 2017 America. To be clear, I do not think that Donald Trump organizes his life as a white supremacist. But I do think that Donald Trump is a white supremacist, because he does not challenge his own racism. That is an observation that I would apply to all white people who do not take a look in the mirror and reflect about how they benefit from white supremacy. If you participate and benefit from that system, you are in fact a white supremacist.

How does the right-wing obsession with the nonexistent “War on Christmas” relate to white supremacy?

With Trump there is a normalization of white supremacist rhetoric. “Merry Christmas,” in the right-wing context of the supposed War on Christmas, is a push-back against multiculturalism. Trump voters and other conservatives who respond to that language believe it is a political statement to say “Merry Christmas” because they feel their country, and everything sacred about it, is being taken away. The people who cling to the War on Christmas talking point do not have the skills to manage social change in a way that would actually make their lives better.

How do you communicate with people who are so drunk on white identity politics and the psychological wages of whiteness? Is it possible to get them to divest from whiteness and invest in a sense of shared humanity with others?

There are those people who are stuck in the extreme. But if you think of it as a continuum, there are a lot of people between us and them who can be won over. That even applies to neo-Nazis I have met, who are now on the other side. There are ways of breaking through. Part of breaking through is asking where the vision of the world embraced by a neo-Nazi radical, or even the people who want to “Make America Great Again,” really go? What does it mean in practice?  If you can have that conversation, all of a sudden their worldview starts to crack a little bit.

There is another dimension to this conversation as well. There is a concept known as “performative allyship” which applies to any issue where you are not the one who benefits from the liberation that you care about. I could show up, as a straight person, in support of gay rights and then I go home and pat myself on the back and I hope somebody says, “Thank you for being there because I don’t have to be there.” Right? There is this performance of being an ally that doesn’t really involve risk, it doesn’t really involve challenging, it doesn’t really involve reflection.

The next piece of the puzzle is that we need to get white people who are showing up for anti-racism activities, for example, to look in the mirror and ask, “Why am I doing this? Do I really want to upset the apple cart of white privilege and white supremacy? Or do I want a pat on the back for being down and showing up at the Black Lives Matter rally?”

 

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Close Encounters of the Racist Kind: A Guide to Modern Far Right

Pseudo-scientific research, lost Aryan super-civilizations, biblical giants, ancient astronauts and the occasional inter-dimensional alien.


On December 6, 1830, Andrew Jackson used his second State of the Union address to defend the Indian Removal Act, the administration’s sole legislative victory. He described the law promulgating the expulsion and resettlement of southeastern Native American tribes as the “happy consummation” of U.S. Indian policy. To his critics who “wept over the fate of the aborigines” — and who, it turned out, accurately predicted the horrors of the forced migrations known collectively to history as the Trail of Tears — Jackson offered an archeology lesson. Any “melancholy reflections” were ahistorical, he said, because the Indians were neither innocent victims nor first peoples, but perpetrators of what Jackson’s modern admirers might call “white genocide.”

Jackson knew this because the evidence was everywhere in plain sight.

“In the monuments and fortifications of an unknown people, we behold the memorials of a once-powerful race,” said Jackson, “exterminated to make room for the existing savage tribes.”

This reference to a “once-powerful race” was not lost on the American public of 1830. Every schoolboy and girl knew it to be the Lost Race of the Mound Builders, believed to be the continent’s original Caucasian inhabitants. From the colonial era into the twentieth century, it was widely accepted that certain earthen structures and burial grounds proved the existence of “white” or Indo-European peoples who settled North America only to be wiped out by the arrival of Jackson’s “savage (Asiatic) tribes.”

As the country expanded west, the “Moundbuilders” myth had obvious utility: If the Indians destroyed earlier waves of (white) settlers, their own extermination was just another turn of history’s wheel.

In the early 1890s, the U.S. ethnologist Cyrus Vance discredited the theory in a series published by the Smithsonian Institution. But the idea of a pre-Colombian “white genocide” never disappeared. It survived in subcultures, influenced by the occult and Atlantis legends, which clung to theories of lost ancient super-civilizations that, curiously, always seemed to be racially “white.”

In recent decades, as evidence of a richer paleoamerican record than previously realized has come to light, Jackson’s “once-powerful race” has found a new generation of boosters on the far right, where fantasies of “white genocide” distantly past and currently unfolding are an animating obsession.

In the fractured and constantly cross-fertilizing galaxy of extremist conspiracy culture, the white Moundbuilders — now known on the far right as “the Solutreans” — share a stage with other characters from an ancient and racially glorious but “suppressed” past: ancient Nordic-looking astronauts, biblical Aryan giants, Nazi scientists under the South Pole, and the occasional inter-dimensional alien in league with the Jews.

Alt-History Goes Prime Time

Over the last decade, the History Channel has exploited and fueled the popularization of alternative archeology, or alt-history. Numerous programs on the network showcase ideas that, while not explicitly racist or anti-Semitic, have origins in colonial projects and have been championed (for a reason) by modern extremists.

Take “America Unearthed,” which aired between 2012 and 2015 on H2, a defunct History Channel network. That show’s host, a geologist named Scott Wolter, promoted theories that ancient Celts and Scots settled North America and hybridized Native Americans centuries before Columbus. The details can be found in Wolter’s contributions to Lost Worlds of Ancient America, a 2012 anthology edited by Frank Joseph, born Frank Collin, founder of the National Socialist Party of America. (In 1993, following his expulsion from the party for “impure blood”, Collin became editor of Ancient American magazine and has authored dozens of books dealing with ancient “suppressed” history.) In another episode, when a guest professes admiration for the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group of wealthy Southerners who sought to create a hemispheric slave empire, Wolter just nods. (Wolter has denied that he or his ideas are racist, and claims to be politically liberal.)

Whatever the personal politics of the host, these shows serve as vectors for racist ideas and scholarship, argues the independent scholar Jason Colavito, who has been tracking this cultural crossover and amplification of fringe history for years. In books like Foundations of Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts, and Other Alternative Pasts, Colavito explores and debunks many of the ideas promoted on the History Channel and far right websites alike.

“These shows serve as entry points for discredited nineteenth-century ideas and point viewers toward the sources of extremist pseudo-scholarship and politics,” says Colavito. “The idea that aliens built the pyramids isn’t so funny when it draws young people to websites that quickly switch out aliens for Jews and start talking about gas chambers.”

Shows like “America Unearthed” are heavily discussed on white nationalist alt-history forums, as well as general far right political sites like Stormfront. They are routinely praised for introducing viewers to variations on the Solutrean Hypothesis (see below) and raising the profile of racist pseudo-scholarship.

Consider the H2 series “In Search of Aliens,” which, before its demise, promoted the work of Jan Udo Holey, a German writer whose antisemitic books have been banned across Europe. (Holey’s pen name, Jan Van Helsig, is a blunt Dracula reference, i.e. Jews are bloodsuckers.) The History Channel’s long-running series “Ancient Aliens,” meanwhile, features David Childress, whose books cite and build on the work of James Churchward, who promoted an ancient empire called the “lost continent of Mu,” whose “dominant race” was an “exceedingly handsome people, with clear white or olive skin.”

While the appeal of these theories has roots in Jacksonian justification for Manifest Destiny, their current manifestations are closely intertwined with the venomous persecution complexes that motivate the modern far right .

“Pseudo-histories feed the self-importance and aggrievement of neo-Nazis and alt-right folk,” says Benjamin Radford, a fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry who has written widely on pseudo-history and claims of paranormal activity. “They feel their rightful place in the world has been denied them — by ‘Big Archeology’, by Jews, by an oppressive government.” 

There is another source of the far right’s far-out ideas about ancient history, one that requires no psychologizing.

The Nazi Connection  

The basic tenets of alt-archeology and alt-history were foundational to the ideology and program of National Socialism, but the Nazis did not invent them. The Nazi belief in a pure Aryan race with a glorious ancient past and distinct genetic history was central to a transatlantic nineteenth-century occult scene (that featured a heavy German influence.) After Hitler assumed power, this belief was institutionalized in the form of the Ancestral Heritage and Teaching Society, or the Ahnenerbe, an alt-archeology research outfit founded by Heinrich Himmler and the Atlantis theorist Herman Wirth.

Under the banner of the Ahnerbe, Nazi explorers fanned out across Europe and the globe in search of relics holding (possibly supernatural) hints of ancient Aryan glory. In 1938, a team was dispatched to Iceland in search of the lost Aryan civilization of Thule, which Nazi leaders discovered in an Icelandic epic poem. Among the Nazis’ interests in Thule was the legend of a race of ancient Aryan giants. (Versions of this myth remain common among biblically focused alt-historians like Steve Quayle and L.A. Marzulli.)

Belief in these legends was possible because of the Nazis’ sharp rejection of the Enlightenment. Dismissing the science of racial diversification and the archeological record, they reveled in symbology, myths and legends of “pure” ancient kingdoms that conquered the world under its symbol, the swastika. (This, the Nazis believed, explained the symbol’s presence in both Native American and Indian art.)

The Solutreans and the Original “White Genocide”

In the U.S., the average member of the far right is likely more familiar with the modern version of Jackson’s Race of the Moundbuilders, known as the Solutreans.

The name is taken from a hypothesis first promoted in the 1930s by the American archeologist Frank Hibben, who discovered arrowheads in North America that pre-dated the earliest Native American culture known at the time, the Clovis. The arrowheads, argued Hibben, resembled those of the Solutreans, a Stone Age people who inhabited southwestern Europe. Most of the field quickly dismissed the similarity as meaningless, but Hibben found adherents among those yearning for a new and more scientifically respectable version of Jackson’s “once-powerful race.” For them, the arrowheads (and other contested findings) prove that “European” Solutreans migrated to America across the northern ice-shelf millennia before “the Mongoloids” (as Solutrean adherents are apt to describe Native Americans.)

There is a second punchline to white nationalists continuing to hold up the Solutreans as victims of a prehistoric white persecution drama: Most scholars believe the Solutreans preceded racial diversification, and their arrowheads are artifacts of a dark-skinned people not long out of North Africa.

Atlantis, Aliens & Ancient Astronauts

In 1882, a decade before the Smithsonian debunked the Race of the Moundbuilders, a Minnesota Congressman and writer named Ignatius Loyola Donnelly published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. The book provided another and more elaborate theory of an Aryan-looking super civilization that diffused technology to the rest of the world. Donnell’s book, based on mentions of Atlantis by Plato, cut the template for the sci-fi-tinged lost white civilization theories now experiencing a revival on cable television and beyond. 

But just as Atlantis theory gained traction following the debunking of the Moundbuilders, so have theories of ancient Aryan astronauts superseded Atlantis with the mapping of the oceans and their floors.

“When there was nowhere left to explore, a group of thinkers started to project these ideas into the sky,” says Colavito, the historian. “Today, ancient astronauts are one of the more elaborate theories in pseudo-history with a racist component.”

In the 1960s and 70s, Erich von Daniken and Zecharia Sitchin put a twist on myths about Aryan visitors from a lost civilization predating the last Ice Age. These visitors to Mesoamerica didn’t come from Atlantis but from the sky. Bestsellers like von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods (seven million sold and counting) popularized the idea that Aryan-looking aliens brought science and technology to primitive peoples around the world. In recent years, Graham Hancock has repackaged Ancient Astronaut Theory for a new generation in his bestselling Fingerprints of the Gods, and through steady work as a History Channel talking head.

Today’s far right is divided on Ancient Astronaut theory. On the one hand, it denies agency to brown-skinned peoples, and features Aryan-looking heroes, which they consider good things; but it also deprives ancient (human) Aryans of the accomplishments credited to them so lavishly in Atlantis and other theories.

Consider the case of Patrick Chouinard, a prolific writer who operates the alt-history sites RenegadeTribune.com and ancientaryans.com. (The latter site’s symbol, the Norse rune, was also the logo of the Nazi Ahnenerbe.) Like the Nazis, the sites are dedicated to recapturing a lost, pure Aryan civilization — one respectful of, but not dependent on alien life. In September, Chouinard cast a critical eye on the upcoming tenth season of the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens, in an article titled “Are Ancient Aliens Theorists Selling Our People Short?”

Chouinard believes they are. He cites an old episode of the H2’s In Search of Aliens in which the hosts, Giorgio Tsoukalos and David Childress (see above), explore the alleged mystery of some “elongated skulls” discovered in Peru. Chouinard scoffs at the hosts’ conclusion that the skulls belonged to aliens. Rather, he argued, reconstructions “show a very Nordic facial structure with [a] huge cranium.” This could be proof, furthermore, of “a separate branch of the White race the went along its own evolutionary path over 5,000 years ago.”

And who, you might wonder, does Chouinard believe is behind the Ancient Alien Theory that is “selling his people short”?

“The Jews,” writes Chouinard, “are using … the ancient alien camp to confound our race to the point that we deny our own accomplishments. The White race did not need ancient aliens to build our ancient civilizations, or to found other civilizations in remote corners of the Earth. Our race is capable of so much more.”

In 2018, it is dangerous in alt-ancient history circles to completely discount Ancient Aliens. Chouinard knows this. Rather than risk alienating his readers, he concedes, “It is very possible that visitations from extraterrestrials did happen in ancient times, [but] I will not conclude that the majority of our accomplishments as a race can be attributed to extraterrestrials.”

UFOs & “Refracted” Anti-Semitism

Massive and hopelessly intricate cover-ups. Nefarious alien races with gnomish physical features. Tales of secret Nazi super-technologies. It was always inevitable that the UFO and far right scenes would end up in bed together. UFO culture cast a shadow over everything in the postwar years, and as noted above, the far right has never been a stranger to the supernatural.

In Culture of Conspiracy, the historian Michael Barkun locates the early 1990s as the decade this convergence accelerated. Books like William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horseand journals published by Gyeorgos Ceres Hatonn described UFO conspiracies that fit snugly into the New World Order conspiracy template, heavily influencing that decade’s militia movement. (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was reportedly a fan of Cooper’s radio show.)  

But the seeds of this union are much deeper in the postwar record. One of the most important early UFO writers in the early 1950s, William Dudley Pelly, was an American occultist and fascist; his most important disciple, George Hunt Williamson, produced Byzantine UFO theories that incorporated anti-Semitic themes. Williamson’s 1958 book, UFOs Confidential, claimed every government on earth was under the control of a handful of (mostly Jewish) “international bankers,” which for some reason the author believed included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.   

Pelley and Williamson’s successors are not always or even often so blatantly anti-Semitic. But the fingerprints of anti-Semites are visible in the works of influential modern UFO writers like Jim Marrs and Jim Keith. These fingerprints appear in what Barkun calls “refracted racism and anti-Semitism,” in which old tropes are repackaged as an episode of the X-Files. This repackaging often includes not very subtle distinctions between “benevolent” aliens (tall, Aryan-looking) and “malevolent” aliens (short, grotesque, often in league with “international bankers”).

More than anyone else, the British conspiracist David Icke has popularized the Alien version of New World Order conspiracy. The former sportscaster’s elaborate theory is the Sgt. Peppers album-cover of the genre, featuring the Masons, the Vatican, the Illuminati, the House of Windsor — everyone is there. At the center of the theory is an alien race of lizard people from the fifth-dimension. Though Icke has always denied trafficking in anti-Semitism, he has endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — the famous forgery and foundational text of modern anti-Semitism — choosing to call it “The Illuminati Protocols.”  

This is Barkun’s “refraction,” in action, and Icke’s shadow is long indeed, visible across the far right media spectrum.

Hollow Earth, Secret Nazi Labs & the South Pole

Another inevitable development in postwar conspiracy subculture was the rise of a belief in secret Nazi bases underneath Antarctica. The idea of a “hollow” or “inner” earth was a key tenet of nineteenth-century occultism, and in the postwar years it reemerged as a setting for escaped Nazi scientists working in secret technology and weapons labs.

The legend took root during the mid-1970s, nurtured by the Canadian neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, who argued that Nazis invented flying saucers and had taken their breakthrough technology to bases deep under the South Pole.

The Third Reich was interested in a possible base at the South Pole, and a few high-level Nazis did escape to Argentina, whose national territory includes a slice of Antarctica extending to the South Pole. Zundel and his successors have infused these facts with Victorian inner-earth legends, and then marinated them over multiple viewings of the 1968 B-flick, They Saved Hitler’s Brain. Versions of the theory remain popular on neo-Nazi alt-history sites, and in recent years British tabloids like the Mirrorand Daily Star have found click-bait gold in spreading them.

The story’s persistence led Colin Summerhayes of Cambridge University’s Polar Research Institute to look into the matter. In a 2006 edition of The Polar Record, Summerhayes presented his heavily footnoted and researched conclusion that secret Nazi bases do not exist, and have never existed, on or below Antarctica.

As exhaustive as it was, it is unlikely Summerhayes’ study had much impact among the theory’s adherents. It was, after all, competing with an ever expanding glut of “hidden history” books, podcasts and websites. One of many such titles to appear that year was SS Brotherhood of the Bell: The Nazi’s Incredible Secret Technology, penned by Joseph P. Farrell, a prolific alt-historian and regular on Red Ice Radio.

 

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