Notes on White Nationalism

People are very upset about white nationalism just now, so much so that concern has turned into moral panic. Respectable people condone, connive at, or openly call for extra-legal violence to suppress it.

So far as I can tell, there are very few people who propose establishing a white national state, and far fewer who hold the more extreme positions the tendency is often identified with. It’s hard to find white supremacists, for example. There are separatists—that’s what white nationalists are—but no one seems to want a multiracial society with an enforced racial hierarchy. And the FBI has been tracking Nazis and KKK groups, but the numbers are minuscule, even though someone was photographed with a Nazi flag at the Charlottesville rally.

Numbers can of course be expanded through fluid classifications. Attachment to symbols of the Old South is thought to imply white supremacism, but for the most part it seems a matter of attachment to place, people, and memory supplemented by blue-collar rebelliousness. A desire to restrict immigration is also considered white supremacist, even though Cesar Chavez and Barbara Jordan shared the desire, and the New York Times editorialized against amnesty for illegal immigrants as recently as 2000.

White nationalism is also identified with tendencies that have no clear principles at all, like the “alt right” that Mrs. Clinton pushed into prominence during her presidential campaign. So far as I can tell, the label has mostly been applied recently to an assortment of online trolls angered by the effort to unify a disparate leftist coalition by demonizing ordinary white men as the source of everyone else’s problems. As Charlottesville showed, the trolls have now been supplemented by in-the-flesh provocateurs who have responded to leftist violence during and after the election by getting ready for violence themselves.

None of the groups now publicized seem likely to get much traction. Nazis, KKK members, and white supremacists, to the extent they exist, are obvious losers. How much of a future can there be for a movement whose slogan was “hail victory” and got utterly crushed? As for trolls and provocateurs, they come out of the same depleted culture as today’s left, and suffer from the same internal incoherence, lack of positive vision, and dependence on enmity to define who they are. Trolls and others undoubtedly have a future replying in kind to the identity politics of the left, but that’s not going to build anything. And marchers with shields and weapons would disappear if the authorities would enforce the ordinary laws against violence in political settings.

For the future, the likely appeal of white nationalism as a political position is limited because it makes no sense. The idea is to create an ethnic nationalism for Americans of European descent. But that won’t work, since American whites are not an ethnic people.

Until the Civil Rights revolution there seems to have been some sense of white Americans as a quasi-ethnic people known simply as “Americans,” but that was a somewhat artificial construction that depended on an ideological supplement, “Americanism,” that couldn’t possibly leave out blacks forever. And American whites do have some degree of common history and ancestry, since their ancestors came from Europe, and the European peoples and their history are distinct from (say) the East Asian or Sub-Saharan peoples and history. But the resulting connections among European Americans are much weaker than with traditionally recognized ethnic groups like the Poles, Kurds, and Japanese.

How much common heritage and culture, apart from influences from American life in general, is shared by a New England Yankee and a descendant of Sicilians who came here in 1910? Or how likely is it that hipsters, rural people, rustbelt ethnics, and middle American soccer moms will discover a deep spiritual affinity based on people and place? So if a white separatist republic were set up, it’s not clear what its point would be. What would its cultural ethos or public philosophy look like?

To add to the problem, modern life dissolves history, heritage, and inherited ways. People get processed through an increasingly centralized and bureaucratized school system. They work for large bureaucratic organizations, or for smaller concerns that are increasingly integrated with global markets. They amuse themselves with commercial pop culture and connect through electronic communications networks that ignore geography. And they’ve been subjected for years to propaganda and social policies that weaken informal connections like family, religion, and common culture.

Under such circumstances, how is a white nation going to pull itself together? The project is an obvious non-starter. How many sane and functional people are going to sign on to it?

But all this doesn’t mean that people tempted by white nationalism aren’t responding to actual problems. Man is a social animal, and if the ties that join him in community are dissolved they will somehow reconstitute themselves. When the Protestant Reformation, rise of national monarchies, and growth of industry broke up local and international community in Europe, the answer was the nation state as the most authoritative human community. Peoples would have the right of self-determination—the French would have France, Italians Italy, Poles Poland, and so on.

The arrangement had its flaws but it worked because people were attached to it, and the Church among others came to accept it as normal. It is now disappearing, and there is nothing visible to replace it. That is the situation to which identity politics on the left and nationalist movements on the right, including American white nationalism, are the response. The belief that such tendencies are evil if white people are involved but OK otherwise is absurd. It is also dangerous, because it multiplies resentments and obfuscates the problems so they can’t be understood and dealt with.

With that in mind, people—me, Hillary Clinton, the USCCB—who are concerned about public affairs and don’t view ethnic nationalism as the way forward for Americans owe those tempted by it not abuse but an alternative that is more realistic and humanly satisfying.

So far one response among respectable people has been to double down on the left-wing identity politics that has done so much to provoke today’s white nationalism. Another has been to strengthen initiatives—inclusiveness, transgenderism, mass immigration from everywhere—that disrupt informal social ties such as family, cultural community, and religion. These responses obviously exacerbate the problem.

What then should be done? First, we should stop trying to mitigate social ills by making them worse. If our rulers want a unified society they shouldn’t import the whole world. Nor should they try to make people feel at home by creating a society equally receptive to every imaginable identity, real or invented. In such a society no one would feel at home because there would be no connection between how people understand themselves and their connections to others. Why is that a good thing?

But abandoning insane policies would be only a palliative. More basically, a society in which people have lost connection to each other and to common goods needs a new integrating principle. Here though we leave the realm of politics and enter that of the prepolitical. Catholicism could provide answers if enough people became Catholic. That’s not in our control, and it doesn’t look probable, but it would become more likely if we were better Catholics.

Most likely, disintegration of the informal particular connections that constitute community will continue. Neither Americanism, the heritage of Western Civilization, celebration of diversity, nor white nationalism have the substance needed to replace them. Instead, our society will fragment into networks and groupings that are small and coherent enough to be functional. So the future is likely to tend toward mafia-ridden tribalism overseen by corrupt public authorities shot through with cronyism. It is that future that the panic regarding white nationalism as a pervasive demonic force hides and makes more likely.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).