Rewatching American History X shows how far-right ideas have entered the mainstream

The rhetoric of the 1998 film’s neo-Nazis is today chillingly echoed by Donald Trump. 

 

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“We need to open our eyes,” the leader declared to his rapt far-right audience. “There are over two million illegal immigrants bedding down in this state tonight! This state spent $3bn last year on services for those people who have no right to be here in the first place. Three billion dollars!” He continued: “Our border policy’s a joke! So is anybody surprised that south of the border, they’re laughing at us? Laughing at our laws?”

These are not the words, as one might assume, of Donald Trump but of Derek Vinyard, the neo-Nazi protagonist of the film American History X (which was recently made available on Netflix). In 1998, when the acclaimed picture was first released, it stunned viewers with its depiction of a white supremacist gang in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. In 2019, the film continues to shock – not because of its brutal fiction, but because of its eerie resemblance to fact.

Trump’s language is indistinguishable from that of Vinyard (played by Edward Norton) — and in some cases still more demagogic. “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity,” Trump declared when he launched his campaign in 2015. “They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists,” he later remarked of Mexican immigrants. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump asked US senators during a 2018 meeting on immigration. More recently, in July, the president tweeted of four ethnic minority Democratic congresswomen: “Why don't they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came?”

Two decades after American History X’s release, fringe far-right rhetoric has infiltrated the mainstream. The gang depicted in the film, the Disciples of Christ, is daunting but politically marooned. Its skinhead, swastika-sporting members are presented as unacceptable to polite society. Rather than standing for office, as some fascists now do, they ransack Korean-owned grocery stores and attend white power concerts. “Save the rhetorical bullshit Hillary Rodham Clinton cause it ain’t gonna fuckin’ work,” Vinyard’s younger brother, Danny, remarks of the then First Lady, in another haunting premonition. But there is no political saviour at hand. 

When Vinyard is imprisoned for murdering two black men (shooting one and, in the film’s most disturbing scene, “kerb-stomping” another), he is gradually deradicalised. During his sentence, he befriends a black inmate and is raped in the prison shower by Aryan Brotherhood members for fraternising with the enemy. While recovering, Vinyard is visited by Dr Sweeney, his former school’s black principal, who brings him some books, which he keenly devours. The implicit message is not only that individuals are capable of rehabilitation but also that Vinyard was on the wrong side of history. 

After returning home he rebukes his brother for embracing the far right and the pair later remove Nazi paraphernalia from the walls of their shared bedroom. In the film’s final scene, Danny (who is shot dead by a black student he targeted) reads from a paper he has prepared for Dr Sweeney, who has made it his personal mission to reform the teenager. 

“So I guess this is where I tell you what I learned – my conclusion, right? Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all the time. It's just not worth it.”

He then quotes Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” 

No such ending would be written today, or at least not in so neat a manner. Back in 1998, the film’s conclusion was criticised by some as implausible (an earlier ending shows Vinyard reshaving his hand and gleefully grasping a pistol to avenge his brother’s death). In 2019, when racism has found a haven in the White House, it would appear all too convenient. When white supremacists marched through Charlottesville in 2017, and a driver fatally rammed a counter-protester with his car (a scene that could have been taken from American History X), Trump praised “very fine people on both sides”. 

Vinyard’s transformation is presented as one of substance as well as style. He doesn’t simply grow his hair and don a suit and tie — he disowns his activist past. But for members of today’s “alt-right”, the change has merely been of style. The skinheads, bomber jackets, Nazi insignia and combat boots sported in American History X have been discarded by gangs in favour of undercuts, Fred Perry polo shirts, khaki chinos and sneakers. The views, however, are unchanged. 

This more outwardly respectable right has appropriated new vehicles for its message. In the most chillingly prophetic line of American History X, Cameron Alexander, the gang’s ideological overlord, tells Vinyard upon his release: “Wait till you see what we’ve done with the internet”. The creation of YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) was far in the future, but the potential for the nationalist right to exploit a more anonymous medium, brawling online rather than in the streets, was already clear. 

American History X’s narrative is ultimately a consoling one. Even society’s most disreputable elements, it suggests, are not immune to the arc of progress. What the film did not account for was the possibility of regression: that rather than American racists being socialised, American society would only become more racist.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.