A whiter shade of hate: the long history of the American far right

How Donald Trump combined the polar opposites of Aryan nationalism and the American Dream.

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The high summer of 1986 was hot and humid in northern Idaho, and the forests around the small village of Hayden Lake were heavy with the smells of barbecue, suntan oil, pine needles – and cordite. The lake was generally little known, except maybe by tourists who came to gawp at Bing Crosby’s holiday home. Yet in the Eighties and Nineties it enjoyed two decades of notoriety as the official HQ for what the FBI later called the country’s first true terrorist organisation – the Congress of Aryan Nations, led by a former tyre repairman and gun-toting Christian pastor named Richard Girnt Butler.

That summer, the Sunday Times flew me to meet and write about the Rev Butler and his squadrons of heavily armed followers. Along with the photographer, the late Mary Ellen Mark, I observed with alarming intimacy a week-long orgy of cross-burnings and machine-gun firings and Klan-themed fashion shows that seemed to occupy most of the waking hours of the few hundred Aryan faithful gathered there. Mary Ellen forever afterwards thought it among the most frightening stories she had covered – not least because in the middle of one especially gruesome ceremony involving animal sacrifice, she found herself jostled by a group of drunken and khaki-clad men with Mausers who said they suspected she (being somewhat dusky and exotic in her clothing choices) might be Jewish, and thus deserving of prompt immolation. I pleaded, with as imperious an English accent as I could muster, and they eventually backed off and went away to their beer hall, muttering.

Although tangential, it is perhaps worth noting that the Rev Butler’s eventual downfall was a satisfyingly hard one: at the age of 85 he was caught boarding a plane to Las Vegas with a Latina stripper, porn star and convicted forger who had made it her career signature to have public intimacy with well-endowed and decidedly non-Aryan men. Her stage name was Bianca Trump. The pastor, shamed and shunned, died in 2004; Ms Trump, now 45 and still currently plying her trade in Brooklyn, has recently reverted to her previous name, Iwanow, saying she finds the Trump surname a little lacking in class.

Anyway, 25 years after my Hayden Lake visit, almost to the day, and in an equally hot and humid Boston, I took an oath to become an American citizen. Twenty of us, teenagers to old-timers, gathered for the ceremony on the after-deck of the wooden three-masted sailing frigate the USS Constitution. If the induction itself was not moving enough the welcoming speech was memorably so: the judge brought many to tears by reminding all that “while we here on the dais were born Americans, and so had no option, the 20 of you before me chose to become Americans, and so are marked out as different: Americans by choice, because you wanted to become part of what we have all become.”

So many have since asked me why, why on Earth? And I can well see the point. One might reasonably argue that the America as represented by the gathering in Idaho in 1986 was fast entering into one of her particularly brutish eras, an ugly period of demagoguery and violence that continues to this day. Just 11 years after Hayden Lake came the Oklahoma City bombing, and thereafter a peppering of supremacist horrors that are ably chronicled by Vegas Tenold in his absorbing history of the country’s white nationalist movements. So it is reasonable to suppose that anyone with an ounce of sense would choose anything but today’s America, preferring rather to keep a distance and gaze at the place with a stunned and wary repugnance. But I didn’t: I bought into the American ideal then, and now, after six years of passport-holding, Obama-and-Hillary voting, newspaper-editing, local-town-office-holding citizenship, I still do.

These two instances – the gathering of white deplorables in Idaho and a judge’s elegant peroration in Boston a quarter century later – offer, anecdotally at least, a distillate of the two narratives described in Sarah Churchwell’s fascinating history of the two intersecting tropes of modern America. On the one hand you have the century-old notion of America First, born as an isolationist pull-up-the-drawbridge movement, now adopted by Donald Trump, and of which the eternal supremacy of the white and preferably Nordic races is a central tenet. And on the other there is the more fugitive idea that so many have envied and admired down the years, and which is presented in shorthand as the American Dream. In summary, this holds that one might make common cause with – or even join, as the 20 of us on the warship did – this young and experimental nation, and be bound together by a common Jeffersonian wish for tolerance, freedom, social justice and equal opportunity, hoping in time to enjoy its consequent fruits of happiness and spiritual fulfilment.

The complex history of these two ideas, and the personalities of their various champions – the Nazi admirer Charles Lindbergh among the Firsters and the “cranks and zealots” who followed him through the eugenic undergrowth, and then writers like Dorothy Thompson and James Truslow Adams who more steadfastly championed the Jefferson ideal – is admirably told in Professor Churchwell’s book. And, whether it was her intention or not, it is a book that should be read to help, in some small measure, our understanding of the sheer weirdness of Donald Trump, and his curious admixing of two concepts hitherto thought antithetical to one another.

For here is a man who professed while on the campaign trail that the American Dream was dead, then promised at his inauguration to revive and restore it, and now, to do so, seems to wish to employ all the unseemly nativist policies of America First. In what some might regard as a heresy, he is binding the tropes together. The thought that the racist legions who supported him – the goatee’d NRA activists, the ardently blinkered creationists, the star-struck white women for whom his “locker-room talk” never posed a problem, the rural ill-educated, the urban resentful – are now going to be employed somehow to restore the nobility of hope that long underpinned this once-optimistic nation, is very hard to accept or to explain. Understanding by way of this book the subtleties of America First’s history helps to some degree. But in the case of Trump, it serves mainly to confirm the sheer bizarreness of his presidency.

I live in a small and very remote village in the hills of western Massachusetts. Summer is coming, and soon the woods will be heavy with the scent of barbecue, suntan oil and warm pine needles. But unlike in Idaho, the woods will not smell of cordite. Not here. This is a peaceful place, and there are almost no guns. The idea of America First – for whom powerful armaments are an essential – is pretty near alien to most who live in the village. The current regime inside the Beltway won very little support among the farmers, carpenters, teachers, social workers, nurses and freelance writers who live up here. We keep ourselves somewhat apart, curmudgeonly and independent, like the clichéd reality of all New Englanders.

We will shortly gather for our annual town meeting, and after a lively but courteous debate we’ll doubtless approve the budget for the coming year, and then vote for a new raft of selectmen and animal control officers and members of the boards of health and finance, and the town will move on for another 12 months of settled calm.

Democracy is practised at the grass roots in these parts, and though money is generally short, most people have a pretty optimistic view of their lives, are proud to be Americans, and have a firm hope that the scoundrels will soon leave Washington and we can resume our usual passing of the seasons. Most of us are white – a fact that cannot be ignored – and so we are somewhat chromatically akin to those who gathered up in Idaho in 1986, back when we began this malevolent period of such racism, such violence, such social ugliness. Probably all of us here suffer from the unconscious racism said to pervade us all. But if it helps, the majority of us didn’t vote for Trump, nor ever would. Our firm belief, rather, is that America’s quieter and more reasonable views will eventually prevail – they always have done, no matter the insanity that occasionally grips this young and still-evolving society, and is gripping it now – and that this country, dreaming of ever improving times, will before long haul itself back on to the rails again. If not, I’m coming home, and America First can get on without me. 

Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream
Sarah Churchwell
Bloomsbury, 360pp, £20

Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America
Vegas Tenold
Nation Books, 272pp, £20

Simon Winchester’s books include “The Men Who United the States” (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right