It’s America, 2017, and white supremacy is all the rage once again. But it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. When a certain boorish Manhattan tycoon announced his run for the presidency back in June 2015 on a platform of pure white resentment, the internet’s copious population of pasty, man-child nematodes crawled out of their literal and digital basements to voice their support for a candidate who vowed to give a voice to America’s most oppressed group: white males.
From the dankest bowels of the internet, on sites such as 4chan, Occidental Dissent, and the Daily Stormer, white supremacists celebrated Donald Trump’s unlikely presidential victory. Now, well into the first year of his presidency, they continue to stand behind their orange führer. This support was on full display on August 11 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when various gobs of reactionary slime — including neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederates, and gun-toting militia members — oozed together for a “Unite the Right” rally. While these various groups ostensibly gathered to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park, this event was actually a “coming out” party for a resurgent form of white-identity politics in America emboldened by Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency.
Plenty of historians have already written about the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces throughout the United States. But I’m going to emphasize another key element that fuels the white nationalist agenda: patriarchal gender oppression. Underlying all of the “pro-white” bluster and neo-Confederate ideology of the new crop of white supremacists is a deep contempt for female empowerment. The trifecta of patriarchy, misogyny, and gendered paternalism has been central to American whiteness for hundreds of years. Gender oppression is baked into the crust of white supremacy.
Brandishing tiki torches, a grab bag of white-male mediocrity descended upon Charlottesville and marched in unison, chanting slogans like “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” A self-described “pro-white” activist named Jason Kessler organized the multi-day gathering, and beyond all the Nazi posturing, the fact that every single one of the pro-white demonstrators was a male is no coincidence. Victimhood is the central ingredient that ties together the reactionary stew of modern pro-white and “men’s right’s” movements.
Whether it’s neo-Confederates complaining about white “southern heritage” being destroyed, white nationalists whining about how multiculturalism entails an impending “white genocide,” or men’s rights activists griping about how feminism is trying to obliterate “masculinity,” the general theme remains consistent: white men are victims of everything but their own crippling insecurities. The “Unite the Right” rally ended in violence and death on August 12, when a white supremacist named James Alex Fields Jr. rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year old Heather D. Heyer. This was a horrifying, but predicable, end: a woman protesting injustice was sacrificed on the altar of white male insecurity.
The narrative of white supremacy requires a vast class of people who act as “others” over which white males seek to exercise dominance. Over the course of American history, these “others’ have included blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, and women. The latter group are essential to white supremacists’ plan to maintain the “purity” of the white race and white culture.
As Abby Ferber writes in her book White Man Falling: Race, Gender, and White Supremacy, controlling women’s bodies is key to maintaining the boundaries of whiteness. “For white supremacists,” Ferber writes, “the construction of racial purity requires a policing of the racial boundaries; interracial sexuality is the greatest threat to this border maintenance.”* Maintaining racial control, however, goes far beyond controlling women’s bodies. At a broader level, white supremacy is about white males’ control over women’s very agency as free and independent human beings. In the white supremacist mindset, it’s one thing to prevent a black man from raping a white women. Such an act can be stopped via brutish vigilantism. But it’s another thing entirely when a white woman actively desires a black man, a Hispanic man, a Jewish man, or even another woman. And it’s another thing entirely for women of all colors to demand equality with white males. For white supremacy to succeed, it must control women’s agency. This cruel patriarchy has always been the lifeblood of white supremacist identity.
The desire to dominate and control women animated the various historical precursors to the Charlottesville white nationalist demonstrators. A deeply patriarchal form of paternalism defined the culture of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) American South, a culture constructed around power realtions that placed white males at the top of a hierarchical social structure over women and enslaved black people. In the unwritten code of slaveholding paternalism, white women were to accept a deeply gendered inequality that relegated them to a kind of homebound, second-class citizenship in exchange for consistent white-male protection from outside threats, especially threats from black slaves. This slaveholding paternalism came to define life in the Confederacy for which General Robert E. Lee fought.
One of the predominant fears on the Confederate home front was that the loss of so many white men to the armies placed white women at the mercy of black slaves. Through four years of Civil War, citizens flooded the mailboxes of Confederate leaders imploring them to send more white men back to the home front to protect women from slaves. In 1863, for example, Claiborne County, Mississippi resident Letitia Adams begged the state’s Confederate governor to “consider also the helpless women and children…deprived of their natural protector, and left wholly at the mercy of the blacks.” The stakes on the Confederate home front went beyond the basic corporeal safety of women. White supremacy rested on the ability of white men to protect white racial purity from black “contamination,” and the Confederacy stood to uphold this principle social arrangement upon which it was founded.
After the Civil War, the rise of the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan further cemented the symbiotic relationship between white supremacy and rigidly enforced patriarchy. The Klan terrorized Republicans — white and black — who dared try and enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, but they reserved special ire for black men suspected of assaulting white women. Although the Reconstruction Klan played a key role in helping to “redeem” the South for the Democratic Party, the demise of slavery coupled with the war’s economic ravaging of the South left millions of economically anxious and socially insecure white men seeking new forms of racial control. The subsequent explosion of lynching in America reflected the continued connection between white supremacy and patriarchal paternalism.
Historian Joshua Rothman observes that, “the unmistakable link between fears of black power and fears of the sexual violation of white women…not only outlasted Reconstruction but became an increasingly prominent element of white southern racial pathology as the nineteenth century progressed.” By the turn of the century, the brutal lynching of black men became an epidemic in the South under the justification that black men’s alleged desire to rape white women could only be prevented with swift vigilante justice.
The connection between rape and lynching became so common that southern politicians like Mississippi representative Thomas Upton Sisson asserted that white men “are going to protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of the women of the South then lynching will stop.” Patriarchy was essential to maintaining white supremacy during the era of Jim Crow because it wrapped racial violence in the veneer of chivalry. In 1909, anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells ruthlessly mocked the white supremacists’ supposed protection of womanhood. “Why is mob murder permitted by a Christian nation?” she asked, “this question is answered almost daily— always the same shameless falsehood that ‘Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.’ This is the never-varying answer of lynchers and their apologists. All know that it is untrue. The cowardly lyncher revels in murder, then seeks to shield himself from public execration by claiming devotion to woman.”
The veneer of white male chivalry that justified Jim Crow-era mob murder emerged again in the first decades of the 20th century as a guiding principle of the Second Ku Klux Klan. Georgia fraternal organizer William J. Simmons founded the Second Klan in 1915 after viewing D.W. Griffith’s pro-Reconstruction Klan propaganda masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. Like all popular right-wing movements, the Klan reemerged in reaction to changes in American society that appeared to threaten white male social hegemony. In the 1910s and 1920s, large numbers of Eastern European Catholic and Jewish immigrants immigrated to American shores, a phenomenon that coincided with agitation from Progressive Era reformers and suffragettes, as well as the migration of black people from the South. In response to these movements, the Klan sought to uphold “traditional” white Protestant American values through exclusion, intimidation, and violence. By 1922, the Klan claimed to be one million strong.
Like previous white supremacist movements, the Second Klan was also deeply patriarchal. It viewed the control of women as essential to the restoration of “traditional” values. Historian Nancy MacLean, author of the classic Second Klan study Behind the Mask of Chivalry, notes that “the Klan’s conservative ideology was a deeply gendered phenomenon. Klansmen could not discuss issues of race, class, or state power apart from their understanding of manhood, womanhood, and sexual decorum.”* A 1925 Klan manual reveals the extent to which the group’s white supremacist ideology relied on the patriarchal control of women. As stated in the manual, the Klan’s stated raison d’etre was “to organize the patriotic sentiment of native-born white, Protestant Americans for the defense of distinctively American institutions.” Key to this defense of “American institutions” was white womanhood. “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan declare that it is committed to ‘the sacred duty of protecting womanhood,'” the manual boasted, “the degradation of women is violation of the sacredness of human personality, [and] a sin against the race.” The protection of white womanhood remained a key justification for the violence perpetrated by the various fractured Klan groups that dotted the American landscape well into the 20th century.
While the Klan is still around, and arguably seeing an uptick in membership in the age of Trump, the real energy among hardcore reactionary movements is emanating from the so-called Alt-Right. Control over women also plays a central role in Alt-Right ideology, but unlike its many white supremacist for-bearers, the Alt-Right makes no pretense towards chivalrous patriarchy. In fact, its animating core is a deep-rooted and vicious misogyny. Today’s Alt-Right is the fork where the roads of white supremacy and “men’s rights activism” meet.
Political Research Associates (PRA), a think tank that studies right-wing movements, defines the Alt-Right as “a loosely organized far right movement that emphasizes internet activism (especially memes) and is hostile to both multicultural liberalism and mainstream conservatism.” The movement’s ideology is a toxic mixture of white nationalism, misogyny, antisemitism, and old-fashioned authoritarianism. The vile ideological sludge that came to define the Alt-Right had been collecting for years in the internet’s digital sewers. But as PRA’s Alex DiBranco details in his piece “Mobilizing Misogyny,” the Alt-Right truly coalesced as a cultural movement in 2014 following an online incident known as “Gamergate,” a controversy over sexism and a lack of racial diversity in the video game industry that quickly evolved into a general attack on feminism. Gamergate attracted notorious misogynistic assholes like Milo Yiannopoulos, a British-born writer for Breitbart, as well as “pick-up artist” associate Mike Cernovich. Their involvement spurred a noxious troll assault on feminists via death and rape threats that eventually got the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In a profile for the New Yorker, Andrew Marantz writes that Cernovich “developed a theory of white-male identity politics: men were oppressed by feminism, and political correctness prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.” This is the essence of Alt-Right ideology, the idea that the most privileged and powerful group in society is actually the most victimized group in society. This notion is standard within all streams of conservatism, which seeks to protect the privilege of the ruling social classes from the threats posed by democracy and equality.
Like all white supremacists, the Alt-Right views social status as a zero-sum game in which advancements towards social equality for “minority” groups like women and blacks necessarily comes at the expense of white males’ divine right to rule. Thus, the Alt-Right combines old-style white supremacy with a pathetically infantile view of masculinity. They paradoxically praise the power of so-called “Alpha Males” while simultaneously quivering in fear over the threat feminists and minorities pose to said males. Vox’s Aja Romano writes that “sexism: extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire,” is the “gateway drug” that draws disaffected white man-children into the Alt-Right. As the folks at We Hunted the Mammoth note, it’s no coincidence that self-described “pickup artists” — a subculture of Alt-Right filth who view women as mindless vessels for sexual assault — see Donald Trump as “the ultimate alpha male,” i.e., “an arrogant, deliberately obnoxious asshole who treats women like shit but has a former model more than twenty years his junior as a wife.” So crucial is misogyny to Alt-Right thinking that the movement’s majority male base views female Alt-Righters like Lana Lokteff with confused suspicion.
In the years to come, historians will write volumes on the significance of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally within the broader stream of early-21st century American culture. But above all else, this gathering of entitled white guys was the logical fruition of the new, reactionary wave that exploded during the Obama years and finally made its inglorious entrance on the mainstream American stage via the election of Donald Trump. When the concurrently running streams of white supremacy, patriarchy, and misogyny met in the heart of the old Confederacy, they formed a putrid pool of resentment with which America will have to contend for the foreseeable future.
It’s no coincidence that many of the Alt-Right demonstrators in Charlottesville sported “Make America Great Again” red hats. It’s no coincidence that the event attracted representatives of every faction of far-right goons — from neo-Nazis, to white supremacists, to white nationalists, to the Klan, to militia members, to anti-Semites, to pick-up artists, to every imaginable type of internet troll. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the patriarchal white supremacy of old, a legacy that reaches back to the antebellum South, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and 1960s backlash politics, combined with the new misogynistic white nationalism to reveal just how much crud has collected underneath America’s neatly kept front porch. The “Unite the Right” rally wasn’t about protesting a statue, it was a Woodstock for white-male shitheads, and like the original Woodstock, it’s cultural reverberations will be long-lasting.
* See Abby L. Ferber, White Man Falling: Race, Gender, and White Supremacy (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littelefield, 1998), 24.
* See Nancy K. MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xii.