Charlottesville, far-right rallies, racism and relating to power

This was originally published in openDemocracy on 17 Aug. 2017.


‘This song’s just a reminder to remind your fellow man that this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan’,

Bob Dylan, The Death Of Emmett Till (1963)

As someone who has spent my academic career working on the American far-right, I was shocked, but not surprised by the Unite the Right rally and scenes of (tiki) torch wielding, swastika bearing and sieg heiling ‘alt-right’ ‘activists’, white nationalists and fascists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August 2017. The rally, ‘protest’ or ‘riot’ as it has been described, was organized by alt-right white nationalist figurehead Jason Kessler in defense of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee located in Emancipation Park. This followed a Klan rally about the statue in the same city on 8 July.

The battle over confederate monuments was reignited following Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on 17 June 2015. Images of Roof with the flag sparked calls for the removal of such symbols, which led to opposition from the far-right. Unite the Right was also, as the name indicates, an attempt to unite diverse and disparate far-right groups and movements to build upon their already established unity around President Trump and present a show of force. Those attending ranged from neo-confederates, neo-Nazis and Identitarians to militias, and included Ku Klux Klan groups and former Grand Dragon David Duke, the neo-Confederate League of the South, Daily Stormer clubs, the National Socialist Movement, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer, the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, Traditionalist Youth Network and Traditionalist Worker Party with leader Matthew Heimbach, Vanguard America, American Guard and leader Augustus Invictus, the Nationalist Front, Identity Evropa, Anti-Communist Action, the 3 Percenters, and Oath Keepers, as well as various state militias.

Unite the Right was branded an alt-right rally, but three things were made clear by those present: 1. It was not limited to young men in suits attempting to look respectable or social media savvy activists and trolls; 2. The term alt-right is problematic for how it conceals the white nationalism and fascism of those within it and fellow travellers; and 3. The term is, despite this concealment and the fact that it is the language of the far-right, to a certain degree appropriate for a (loose) movement that was able to mainstream white nationalism and fascism and make them part of popular culture, the media landscape and the national dialogue.

Taking our country back

There were a number of violent incidents at the rally, including attacks on anti-racist and anti-fascist counter protestors. In one horrific incident, a car, driven by a rally participant, ploughed into counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The accused attacker, who has been arrested and charged, is known white supremacist affiliated with Vanguard America, James A. Fields. Heyer has since been attacked and her funeral threatened by far-right activists on social media and in The Daily Stormer. In another case, Deandre Harris was also chased by a group of white men and beaten up. The Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and the FBI ordered a civil rights investigation. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security had previously warned of the threat of white supremacist extremism and violence, something President Trump ignored. Trump did make a statement almost immediately following Heyer’s death, but not only failed to denounce the far-right, but distracted from them and spread the blame with a false equivalence: ‘We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides … It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time’. In addition to repeating ‘many sides’ twice, the reference to Obama and history was an implicit response to criticisms that not only was Trump a factor in this rally, but responsible for the wider resurgence of the far-right and mainstreaming and normalization of racism. Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer said:

‘Look at the campaign he ran. Look at the intentional courting, both on the one hand all of these white supremacist, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups, and then look on the other hand the repeated failure to step up and condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed, all of those different efforts just like we saw yesterday, and this is not hard’.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had also said that ‘Trump’s run for office electrified the radical right, which saw in him a champion of the idea that America is fundamentally a white man’s country’. Former Grand Dragon of the KKK David Duke asserted this at the rally itself: ‘We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back’.

The link between Trump and such movements, and his responsibility for the rally and its violence, can be seen in his campaign rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, Mexicans, Muslims and Black Lives Matter, his appeal to white socio-economic and cultural alienation and victimization, as well as courting of racists and organized far-right white nationalists. It is worth mentioning that this wave of reaction started earlier, building on Trump’s promotion of anti-Obama ‘Birtherism’ and capitalizing on the rise in racism and far-right activism and violence that occurred in response to Obama’s election, as Homeland Securityand the SPLC both reported in 2009.

In terms of courting the far-right that united in Charlottesville, during the campaign Trump received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, the Klan and former Grand Dragon David Duke, as well as alt-right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and ‘alt-right’ gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (who now works in the White House) and Milo Yiannopoulos. When challenged on the Duke endorsement, Trump failed to reject it and denounce the man and wider far-right: ‘I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.

Following the election, the SPLC reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory. They also reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents. This rose to 1,094 by mid-December. The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ (a play on his slogan ‘Make America Great Again’) and ‘Vote Trump’.

While many criticized Trump’s response to Charlottesville, the far-right was generally happy. According to Andrew Anglin of the neo-Nazi The Daily Stormer:

‘Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him’.

David Duke had issues with the wide distribution of blame, saying: ‘I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror and remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists’. After a great deal of pressure and two days, Trump finally condemned the rally participants and wider far-right: ‘Racism is evil, … And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans’.

Telling the truth like it is

Trump, however, soon reverted to his original position and doubled down, criticizing so-called ‘alt-left’ groups who he claimed were ‘very, very violent’, arguing that there is ‘blame on both sides’. He also claimed that there are, ‘some very fine people on both sides’, denying many on the right were Nazis and white nationalists: ‘Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee … This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?’. This made Duke happier, ‘Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth’.

Trump’s second statement, declaring that racism and the far-right have been around long before him and Obama was true though (although not in a way that removes responsibility from him). Racism has been around since the founding and building of the country through white settler colonialism, manifest destiny and slavery, and continues in its structures, institutions and policies despite claims about a post-racial America that accompanied Obama’s election.

The far-right arrived in the form of the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s, and has returned, been revived or resurgent at many times throughout American history, so neither racism nor white nationalists, supremacists and wider far-right are as un-American as Trump, who used racism to ‘Make America Great Again’, claimed.

His third statement reference to George Washington as a slaveowner acknowledges the place of racism at the very core of American history, although he only did it to defend the far-right. Although the far-right have risen, declined and risen again throughout American history, it has changed in form and discourse, as well as relation to power, but rarely has it been in or represented by those in the White House, whether it be Trump, Bannon or Sebastian Gorka. It is for this reason, that it is worthwhile looking back at the history of the far-right and organized white supremacy and nationalism to see where both the militant violent fascists and legitimized, electoral and policy-oriented racist far-right that converge with Trump, come from and what they relate to.

Five eras of far right

The ‘Unite the Right’ rally reminds me of developments in the 1980s, when former Klansman and Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler opened his compound in Hayden Lake, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to the wider far-right for his Annual Aryan National Congress (ANC). After a history where the Ku Klux Klan dominated the racist far-right, Aryan Nations not only attempted to steal the crown, but unite and lead the racist right. Although not every group wanted to join, the ANCs played host to a diverse group of white supremacists, white separatists, neo-Nazis, Klan paramilitaries, posses, Christian Patriots, survivalists, neo-confederates and more.[1] It was at one of these meetings in 1983 that Bob Mathews and Bruce Pierce formed The Order, which went on a murder and crime spree that took the life of Denver talk radio DJ Alan Berg in 1984,[2] a case made famous by Oliver Stone in Talk Radio and Costa-Gavras in Betrayed.

The latter also included a scene at one of the congresses. A real ANC can be seen in the documentary Blood in the Face, by James Ridgeway, assisted amongst others by Michael Moore. Louis Theroux also visited on one of his Weird Weekends. Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending.Where this differs is that none of the participants felt emboldened by the president and it took place within the confines of a secure compound with only racists, right-wing extremists and fellow travellers attending.

I was also reminded of the Greensboro massacre, which did impact a community and involved targets and victims. This occurred on 3 November 1979, when members of the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP) and Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) participated in a textile workers’ march defending Black workers in Greensboro, North Carolina. The CWP had opposed the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis Party and other groups, who confronted them and killed five CWP and civil rights activists, as well as wounding others.[3] According to James Ridgeway, this was one of the first incidents of what has been termed the ‘fifth era’ or post-civil rights era.[4]

It was this era that provides the template for the current diversity and attempted unification of the far-right (from white supremacist to neo-confederate to neo-Nazi), the organization around perceived white victimization and loss of America and militant violence. What is significantly different about these two periods is their relation to state power. The history of the far-right was, until the 1970s, dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, its traditional white supremacy, system-supportive ideology and close connections to governmental and institutional power (local, state and sometimes federal), defending racist laws and practices such as segregation. This was probably the last time as indicated by Trump and his racist and far-right followers that America was deemed ‘great’ by them.

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Trump’s support and success  ‘clearly represented a backlash against the progress black people have made since 1965’. The success of civil rights and voting rights have been a source of material for post-racial claims and narratives since Obama’s election (how far ‘we’ve’ come),[5] as well as resentment on the part of the far-right and a wider racist backlash which occurred in and challenged the ‘post-racial’ claim. This also represented a crisis point, fuelling anger and resentment for the Klan at the time, known as the third or civil rights era Klan, which in turn fuelled the fifth era.

Un-American activities

After a decade defending segregation, enforcing legal white supremacy and opposing civil and voting rights in league with the local and state government, law enforcement and white society, the tide turned for the Klan following the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by Klansmen and including Neshoba Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price in Mississippi. President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy pressured FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to launch the FBI’s Internal Security Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) ‘White Hate Groups’ program.[6] Following the 1965 murder of voting rights activist Viola Liuzzo, the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) held hearings on the Activities Of Ku Klux Klan Organizations In The United States, which produced the report The Present-day Ku Klux Klan Movement in 1967 and condemned the Klan as un-American.

While these were responses to violence and political pressure, it also allowed the federal government to remove an obstacle to the enforcement of legislation and disentangle the Klan from legitimate, mainstream southern society such that this could be redeemed and reconstructed. The same occurred in the first era when the Klan first emerged in response to emancipation and reconstruction in 1867-8, preoccupied with the threat to whites particularly white women, from free former slaves, and were defeated by anti-Klan legislation and Ulysses S Grant in 1871.[7] While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level.While the third era shows what a far-right with political power and influence can look like, unlike the current manifestation of the far-right, it had no power and influence on a federal or national level.

For the Klan, civil rights, voting rights, COINTELPRO and HUAC represented not only their failure to ‘maintain white supremacy’, their stated objective, but also their persecution by the federal government. It is here that the contemporary far-right’s discourse of white victimization has its modern origins, although it can also be seen in the post-civil war first era, which is now being played out in the defense of confederate monuments.

In response, a split has occurred in the Klan about how to respond to a country that has allegedly abandoned whites, and reversed the racial order of things. David Duke pursued a mainstreaming strategy, leaving the Klan but largely following his predecessors’ non-violent, legitimate path, establishing the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP) and running unsuccessfully for President in 1988 and successfully for Louisiana State Legislature in 1989.[8]

This is sometimes referred to as the fourth era. Yet, most followed the more radical path expressed by Texas Klansman Louis Beam Jr. in his call-to-arms ‘where ballots fail, bullets will prevail’.[9]  This was a rejection of the Klan’s mainstream tactics in favour of more violent and insurgent ones, which defined the fifth era in the late 1970s to the 1990s.

This era saw the paramilitarization of the Klan in the form of Beam’s Texas Emergency Reserve and Frazier Glenn Miller’s White Patriot Party. Like Duke, Miller spans the eras. It was his followers who were involved in the Greensboro Massacre and he was convicted for the April 2015 shootings at a Jewish Community Centre and retirement home in Kansas. The traditional Klan was also replaced in significance by Aryan Nations and other groups such as National Alliance, White Aryan Resistance, Posse Comitatus and The Order. In addition to which, traditional white supremacy was pushed to the side by the growth of anti-government patriotism, Nazism and white separatism. It is here that the extreme politics of post-civil rights white victimization, fascism and violence we see today manifested themselves and mobilized, but against the federal government as opposed to in league with and emboldened by it.What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era.

This era saw violent attacks not only on left-wing activists, by IRS officers and local law enforcement, particularly during the farm crisis of the 1980s. The mobilization of the far-right during the farm crisis and deindustrialization of the 1980s played on the theme of white alienation and victimization that we see perpetuated by Trump. The 1990s saw increasing anti-government radicalization with the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge, emergence of the Militia movement and bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April 1995. All of these were mentioned as precedents and threats in the Homeland Security and SPLC reports following Obama’s election.

It was rare for fifth era activists to run for elected office. One exception was Posse Comitatus member James Wickstrom, who ran unsuccessfully for Wisconsin State Senate in 1980 while also (ironically) serving as the Posse’s National Director of Counter Insurgency and founder of the sovereign township of Tigerton Dell.[10] The fifth era did not have a Trump or anyone in office to look to or legitimise them.

If we want to see what it looks like for the far-right to have national power and influence, we have to go back further to the second era in 1915, when the Klan re-formed after being whitewashed and rehabilitated by DW Griffith in Birth of a Nation.

Although re-formed in Georgia, the second era Klan capitalized on the 100 per cent American white nationalist nativism of the day, something Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and anti-immigrant politics reference and share common traits with. The Klan of the era saw themselves defending the nation from within against immigrant ‘aliens,’ Jews, Catholics and communists, as well as black people, and it was mainstream, popular and influential on a state and federal level.

At the peak of the era in 1925, the Klan had up to five million members.[11] On 8 August 1925, more than 50,000 members of the Klan marched on Washington, D.C. and Texas Klansman Earl Mayfield was elected to the U.S. Senate. Most significantly, Congress passed the Klan-supported 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which was intended to end the ‘indiscriminate acceptance of all races’, limiting immigration and introduced permanent restrictions designed to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews, Africans and those from the Middle East, as well as barring Asian immigration.[12]

It was this act that Jeff Sessions, who has previously expressed admiration for the Klan, referenced when he expressed support and admiration regarding the contemporary concern about immigration in a 2015 interview with Stephen Bannon. It was also in this era that Trump’s father Fred was a member and arrested at a riot in 1927.

Dangerous convergence

America is a haunted house of hate. What we are seeing today is the extremism of the fifth era and national institutional legitimacy of the second era. It is this convergence which is so dangerous and we must not let one distract from the other, but address them both, as well as the racism that runs through American society even when there is not a revival or resurgence of the far-right in whatever form it may take.

[1] Kevin Flynn and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: The Chilling Inside Story of America’s Violent, Anti-Government Militia Movement, New York: Signet, 1990.

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1990, p. 79.

[4] Ibid.

[5] C. Dickey, ‘Journey Through a Troubled South’, Newsweek, 11 Aug. 2008, pp. 22-32; Chicago Herald Tribune, ‘Election 2008’, 5 Nov. 2008, pp. 6-7; USA Today, ‘Reflections on Living History’, 21 Jan. 2009, pp. 14a-15a; Newsweek, ‘Commemorative Inaugural Issue’, 20 Jan. 2009; A. Fetini, et al., ‘One Dream Realized’, Time: Special Inauguration Preview, 26 Jan. 2009, pp. 28-31.

[6] C. Hewitt, Understanding Terrorism in America: From the Klan to Al Qaeda(London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 97-98; D. Cunningham, Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights Era Ku Klux Klan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 197.

[7] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p. 34.

[8] S. Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, New York: Guilford Press, 1995, pp. 264-265.

[9] J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face, p. 87.

[10] Ibid. p.117.

[11] D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan 1865-1965, Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 31; D. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 33.

[12] M. Cox and M. Durham, ‘The Politics of Anger: The Extreme Right in the United States’, The Politics of the Extreme Right: From the Margins to the Mainstream, London: Pinter, 2000, pp. 290-291.



Brexit and Trump: On Racism, the Far Right and Violence

This was originally published on the IPR (Bath Institute for Policy Research) Blog: Racism and Far Right Series on 4 March 2017:

When Labour MP for Batley and Spen Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair in Birstall, West Yorkshire on 16 June 2016, I thought it could be seen as a symbolic culmination of all the hateful, polarised, scapegoating rhetoric of the EU referendum, and a watershed moment when a nation and electorate divided, and particularly the Leave or ‘Brexit’ campaigns, reflected on themselves. The context of the killing, and the fact that Mair allegedly shouted ‘Britain first, this is for Britain, Britain will always come first’[1] as he confronted, stabbed and shot Cox – a Remain campaigner and champion of refugees – seemed to confirm the link to the Referendum, and particularly Brexit rhetoric. The use of ‘Britain First’ led the far-right group of the same name to deny links,[2] yet an image of Mair campaigning for the organisation soon emerged.[3] He was also found to have a range of white supremacist and neo-Nazi materials in his home,[4] and is alleged to have purchased material from the US-based white nationalist group National Alliance.[5] This is an organisation that was led by the late William Pierce, who wrote TheTurner Diaries, a novel which influenced the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The book has returned to the spotlight in the wake of the Trump campaign and revival of the far right in the US. This revival has been linked to wider right-wing populism, racialised nationalism, mobilisation of white (allegedly working-class) anger, normalisation of racism and xenophobia, and convergence of the mainstream and far right in the country, which were also features of Brexit in the UK. Trump would link the two, calling Brexit ‘great’ and attributing it to the British people’s desire for their own identity and opposition to refugees.[6] Farage would also make the link from an inauguration party in Washington DC, stating ‘Trump becoming President of the USA is Brexit plus plus plus’.[7] They also both thought Farage would make a good ambassador to the US.[8]

Yet little or nothing was reflected on or changed following the murder of Jo Cox. As is often the case, the link to the far right was used to confirm political, ideological and discursive preconceptions and fulfil corresponding functions. When far-right violence occurs, many are quick to paint a picture of an individual (or fringe movement) that has stepped outside the boundaries of reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice to espouse extremist views and use violence, and who is thus definitely not linked to any particular campaign, political party or popular sentiment. Often the perpetrator is described as a mentally unstable loner, as Mair was by UKIP and Leave.EU leader Nigel Farage (‘one man with serious mental health issues’[9]); Spiked!’s Brendan O’Neill (‘warped killer’[10]); The Daily Mail (‘loner’ seeking counselling[11]); and others. This depoliticises the actor and act, distancing them from the far right and mainstream, as well as from wider social-political forces and structures. Yet, Mair had far-right beliefs and identified as a ‘political activist’.[12] He was deemed mentally competent for the trial, where he articulated his political views, and was convicted and sentenced on 23 November 2016 to a whole-life term. Even though the political superseded the psychological, however, the focus was on Mair’s individual beliefs, as opposed to his links to a movement, organisation or social group. This individualisation and exceptionalism, whether through mental illness or its political parallel the ‘lone wolf’, also deracialises the actor and act, allowing those like him to not have to identify, nor provide a collective alibi and even apologise – as Muslims are asked to do after a terrorist attack. As Mair’s act was committed in the name of Britain – in the context of a campaign where Muslims have been targeted as refugees for an alleged failure to integrate and, ironically, as extremists and terrorists – and he had an association with Britain First, the racist double standard is obvious. In an unironic and confused example of the double standard, when Britain First distanced themselves from the Mair shooting (as if they think collective guilt by association with terrorism is a bad thing) leader Paul Golding actually linked his statement, but not the group, to the wider Brexit campaign and context: ‘Was he referring to an organisation? Was he referring to a slogan? Was he just shouting out in the middle of an EU debate: ‘Putting Britain first’? You know, I’ve heard this almost every day’.[13] Unlike in Britain, neither Trump nor his supporters thought it important to strongly deny links or distance his campaign when he received endorsements from Rocky Suhayda of the American Nazi Party, Don Black of Stormfront, ‘alt right’ figurehead Richard Spencer and former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke,[14] as well as gateway figures from Breitbart such as Steve Bannon (now Trump’s chief strategist) and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump’s response to the Duke endorsement was: ‘I don’t know – did he endorse me, or what’s going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists’.[15]

In Britain, the response from some Brexiter commentators was not only to disavow Mair, but also those making links. One example of this was Polly Toynbee, who argued that ‘this campaign has stirred up anti-migrant sentiment that used to be confined to outbursts from the far fringes of British politics’.[16] Daniel Trilling similarly contended that ‘Far-right politics cannot be as easily cordoned off from the mainstream as people would like to believe. Fascists attach themselves to popular causes and drag the debate in their direction. Populists and parties of the centre take note and then try to appeal to voters susceptible to the far right’s messages by taking xenophobic positions of their own’.[17] In response to such arguments, Brendan O’Neill argued that ‘The spirit of democracy was dealt two blows yesterday.’ The first, he said, ‘came from a warped killer, Thomas Mair’ – and the second was ‘from ghouls in the media and political classes’, who ‘swiftly blamed the murder on the Brexit lobby’ and ‘marshalled Cox’s death to the cause of sanitising political speech and insisting that certain views no longer be openly expressed’.[18]

This argument seems to at once displace hate, and justify its expression. In fact, the argument that free speech and thus democracy are being repressed echoes those arguments that say that it was political correctness and the repression of free speech about immigration that led to Brexit. Moreover, in some circles it seems free speech is defined by hate speech. Five days prior to the vote, Spiked! claimed that ‘Hate Speech is Free Speech’,[19] and post-referendum O’Neill asserted that ‘hate speech must be free speech’.[20] I would argue that the tone of the campaign, far-right violence, and links between them can also be seen in the context of the wider normalisation of racism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and racialised nationalism in ‘mainstream’ politics, media and public discourse that fed into the referendum and has been intensified by it. What we have seen is the mainstreaming of the extreme, informing an emboldening and radicalisation of the mainstream, and further emboldening and radicalisation of the far right. Britain has produced an American-style paramilitary far right – and someone, even if only inspired by it, has taken a life. Just prior to the murder, Britain First ran a paramilitary survival training camp in Wales,[21] and a day after the murder, they issued a threat against London Mayor Sadiq Khan (whom Jobling lost to) and ‘all Muslim elected officials’.[22] So they were not overly concerned with the stigma of violence.

While Farage tweeted his condolences for Cox, there was no hint of the apology, condemnation or disassociation that is expected of Muslims following a terror attack. Farage probably cannot see the racial or national identities he and his targeted constituency share with Mair in negative terms, does not consider the consequences of his own fear and hate mongering, and appears to consider far-right groups either a potential support base or representative of one. He definitely appealed to fascism and fascists; his Leave.EU campaign targeted the far right on social media,[23] and he posed with English Defence League members under a pro-Brexit banner and tweeted the image.[24] For a campaign poster, Leave.EU used a Nazi-esque image of refugees crossing from Croatia to Slovenia in 2015 with a banner reading ‘Breaking Point: the EU has failed us all’.[25] In a May 2016 BBC interview, Farage said: ‘It’s legitimate to say that if people feel they’ve lost control completely, and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the EU, and if people feel voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step’.[26] Returning to the opposition painted earlier between the individual extremist who commits violence and reasonable, rational democratic discourse and practice, what is clear here is that not only is the line blurred, but a democratic election or referendum is presented as a way of preventing or just delaying violence – which will occur should democracy not find in favour of one side. Farage would later claim that Brexit victory was achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired’.[27] There was no mention of Jo Cox. Yet violence is not the only harm; the campaign harmed the targets and social relations. This scapegoating and dehumanisation of refugees and others has also already costs lives, as supporting refugees fleeing danger has become seen as an electoral liability and opposition to refugees a necessity or currency. Labour even sold control immigration mugs to raise money in the 2015 election,[28] and now has a leader who supports Brexit.[29]

Despite some openness to immigration and multiculturalism in the early years of New Labour, since 7/7 the Labour Party has attempted to appeal to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and voters being targeted by the BNP and later UKIP. The country has become less welcoming, inclusive, egalitarian and progressive, and it isn’t only immigrants and refugees – Tory austerity policies have demonstrated that the poor and vulnerable in general are unworthy and disposable. Yet we were told during the campaign that even that is the fault of the EU, immigrants and refugees. Racism, xenophobia and scapegoating, as well as a ‘divide and rule’ approach (as if austerity only affected working-class whites), have become acceptable and normalised. Toynbee highlights ‘how recklessly the decades of careful work and anti-racist laws to make those sentiments unacceptable have been overturned’.[30] It is a retreat back to the small-island nationalism, racism and post-colonial melancholia of Powellism for some, and nostalgia for the age of Empire itself for others – as evidenced by appeals to commonwealth relations, trade and immigration and Liam Fox’s call for ‘Empire 2.0’.[31] For Toynbee, writing prior to Cox’s murder, ‘this is the sound of Britain breaking. Here ends our “moderate, tolerant” self-image’.[32] But it is not all about the ‘self’ (the liberal-left version of ‘the people’ that excludes foreigners). The referendum debate has focused largely on the ‘self’. It is something that many of us, our friends, colleagues and family members who are not from here, who are racialised, or who are otherwise excluded, are forced to listen to and endure from politicians, media and public as they speak to each other (including about us, in terms of borders, ‘Britishness’ and tolerance). The message throughout, from Brexiters specifically, has been that democracy does not include us, except as a barrier to self-realisation, and we are no longer welcome here; our fate is theirs to decide, and it matters no more than a power struggle on the right (and left).

On the eve of the vote I worried that, if we stayed, the immigrants, refugees and Muslims scapegoated already would find themselves in the firing line – and if we left, those thinking that these groups are to blame for all the problems (including Tory-led austerity, cuts to public services and unemployment – or neoliberalism in general) would be disappointed, and blame the scapegoats that had already been established. We didn’t have to wait that long; people were emboldened, their hate legitimised. In the wake of the Leave vote of 52% to 48% (with 72% turnout) on 23 June 2016,[33] we have seen a rise in hate crimes against not only Europeans, but Muslims and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, in the 38 days following the referendum there were more than 2,300 recorded race-hate offences in London, compared with 1,400 in the 38 days before. He connected this increase to the referendum campaign and vote.[34] According to the National Police Chiefs’ Council, hate crime increased 49% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the month after the referendum compared with same month the previous year.[35] These figures were used in the Institute of Race Relations report Racial Violence and the Brexit State by Jon Burnett, which examined the role of the campaign and media in whipping up hate and even showed that racist language used during attacks echoed or repeated government rhetoric and policies.[36] In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported a spike in hate-based harassment and attacks against various groups post-election. Between 9 November, the day after the presidential election, and 14 November, they collected 437 reports of hate incidents[37] – and this rose to 1,094 by mid-December.[38] The SPLC linked the rise in such incidents to Trump’s campaign and victory, and noted graffiti on targets reading ‘Make America White Again’ and ‘Vote Trump’.[39]

There seems to be growing evidence of a link between the racism the campaigns legitimised and normalised, the emboldening of racists, and violence. This cannot be dismissed, as Mair was, with the assertion that it comes from an individual or far-right extremist, but was dismissed nonetheless; the response from some Brexiters has been threefold.

Firstly, deny and denigrate: The Daily Mail reported the same statistics, but rejected them because they claim that Britain is tolerant (citing Sadiq Khan’s election), and hate crime is a ‘cynical industry’ where ‘dishonesty and hysteria reign’[40] – while Brenden O’Neill referred to it as ‘hate crime hysteria’, arguing that it is based on ‘officialdom’s active trawling for such crimes … To the explicitly political end of demonising the choice made by voters in the referendum’.[41]

Secondly, sophistry and selective time travel: if you claim these attacks are post-Brexit, it means you deny hate existed previously – as  Spiked!’s Luke Gittos argued in ‘Britain has not become racist overnight’.[42] In The SpectatorJoanna Williams claimed – as if exposing a lie – that ‘the EU referendum hadn’t even happened before it was linked to an increase in hate crime’.[43] Yet, scapegoating and hate were factors in pressure for the referendum in the first place, and racists have become emboldened to express it more freely and intimately. You would think Gittos was highlighting pre-existing and ongoing structural and institutional racism. For years Spiked! has been arguing that anti-racism is not needed like it was in the 1980s, ignoring all forms of racism unless it wears a swastika. As O’Neill argued in The Spectator: ‘there is a great disparity between the handwringing over hate crime and what Britain is actually like. The open racism even I can remember in the 1980s has all but vanished … The likes of the BNP and EDL have withered due to lack of interest’.[44] Farage denied any responsibility for hate crime and argued without a hint of irony: ‘I destroyed the British National Party – we had a far-right party in this country who genuinely were anti-Jew, anti-Black, all of those things, and I came along, and said to their voters, if you’re holding your nose and voting for this party as a protest, don’t. Come and vote for me – I’m not against anybody, I just want us to start putting British people first, and I, almost single-handedly, destroyed the far right in British politics’.[45] In 2014, BNP leader Nick Griffin stated ‘I will hold nose & vote UKIP because it will help break up the Westminster system & hold Cameron’s feet to referendum fire’.[46] Neither Farage nor O’Neill seem to recognise that Brexit was aided by the far right – including UKIP, and the normalisation and mainstreaming of their ideas – as well as playing a role in the resurgence of such groups. In addition to an increase in hate incidents and attacks, the UK also saw far-right terror threats and arrests double in 2016.[47] In the US, the SPLC has reported a rise in hate groups, which they attribute to Trump’s campaign and victory.[48]

Thirdly, racialise the working class and reverse the racism: Gittos claimed that ‘the onset of panic has revealed how the very publications and commentators who once claimed to stand up for the working class in fact view working-class people as a violent, racist horde’.[49] It seems that every time someone claims racism or the far right is on the rise (and/or evokes them when criticising Brexit), commentators assume that it is the working class being accused, that the working class is white, that a racist and xenophobic campaign speaks to them (because they have been ‘left behind’ by capitalism, repressed by anti-racism and political correctness and/or abandoned by establishment parties and democracy), attribute the success of such campaigns to them, and then attack others for allegedly making the links they constructed. This argument or narrative follows from, accepts the terms of, or even draws upon the racialised and populist construction of the working class as white and the rightful inhabitants of the nation (if not embodiment of the nation) and, like it, under siege by foreigners and the forces of political correctness, perpetuated and mobilised by Leave.EU and UKIP (as the BNP had before them) and tied to the wider racialised nationalism that underpinned much Brexit racism. We see this narrative in criminologist Steve Hall’s analysis of how UKIP and the wider far right have made inroads into the working class, where Labour and the left used to be. He argues that UKIP ‘publically dismissed the political correctness that the liberal middle class uses to censor the working class’ and ‘echoes the working class fear that immigrants are taking their jobs and undercutting their wages’. He goes on to say ‘the “anti-fascist” left hurls abuse at them in the street, and the liberal press hasn’t stopped calling them racists, misogynists, homophobes and knuckle-dragging Neanderthals for three decades. Some of the commentary after Brexit was positively eugenicist—calling for the white working class to be bred out’.[50] In terms of Brexit specifically, O’Neill claims that the bigotry is from the elites against the demos[51] and argues that ‘Brexit Voters are not thick, not racist: just poor’, and that ‘Britain’s poor and workless have risen up’.[52] He fails, like others, to consider the racial and political heterogeneity of the working class, poor and workless, or the class heterogeneity of Brexiters. According to research by Danny Dorling, 52% of people who voted Leave lived in the southern half of England, and 59% were middle class, while the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes was 24%.[53] The argument about a populist working class insurgency represented not only Brexit but UKIP is also challenged by the latter’s electoral loss to Labour in the solidly 70% ‘Leave’ Stoke-on-Trent in the February 2017 byelection[54] (followed by losing their only MP, when Douglas Carswell left the party the next month, but kept the Clacton seat he had held previously as a Tory before defecting to UKIP)[55]. In the US, it has been shown that Clinton actually lost more ‘white working class’ votes on Obama than Trump gained on Romney in 2012.[56] Milo Yiannopoulos claimed that ‘Liberals have lots of theories for why working class whites abandoned them. The most obvious of which is their old standby, “they are racist”’.[57] Yet, Trump got the majority of white professional males with a college education and over 40% of white professional females with a college education,[58] which points to race over class as a factor. Moreover, while Trump won the electoral college, he lost the popular vote 46.4% to 48.5%,[59] and the voter turnout was only 55.4% with Trump at 26.3%.[60]

In addition to hate-crimes, in post-referendum Britain the government has been embracing or rewarding such politics with measures that resemble or signal fascism – including the proposal that employers hand over lists of foreigners[61] and child refugees be subjected to medical tests.[62] In the US, it is a border wall,[63] deportations,[64] and an attempted Muslim travel ban.[65] There is also the ever-increasing list of those not considered ‘people’ based on a Brexit and Trump-only democracy test. The Daily Mailran the headline: ‘Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people’.[66] Following the ruling that brought the triggering of Article 50 to that sovereign and democratic body Parliament, The Daily Mail’s headline was ‘Enemies of the People’ and The Sun’s ‘Loaded foreign elite defy will of British people’. The ruling followed a court case pursued by Gina Miller who was, as Rod Liddle noted in The Sunday Times, ‘not born in Britain’ but ‘British Guyana’, adding ‘although I suppose as “leavers” this is something we should gloss over in case we get called racist’.[67] In the US, Trump labelled the media the ‘enemy of the people’ for criticising his administration.[68] In post-referendum Britain and Trump-era America, the category of ‘people’ is being narrowed further: not foreigners, Muslims, those deemed not British or American enough, those who did not vote for Brexit or Trump, critics, the media nor the judiciary.

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs. This piece is based on an earlier article by Dr Aaron Winter, published June 2016 on Open Democracy.


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