Toward a Global History of White Supremacy
The simultaneous success of Trump and Brexit was no coincidence: white supremacist politics are international in scope and often share entwined histories.
October 16, 2020
Oct 16, 2020
18 Min read time
The simultaneous success of Trump and Brexit was no coincidence: white supremacist politics are international in scope and often share entwined histories.
Editor’s Note: Adapted from Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump edited by Daniel Geary, Camilla Schofield, and Jennifer Sutton.
From promulgating the racist birther conspiracy theory to exhorting vigilante Proud Boys to “stand by,” Donald Trump has amplified white nationalist ideas in the United States. But neither Trump’s emergence nor his impact can be understood fully by looking at the United States in isolation. Rather, Trump must be understood for his place in a long line of Anglophone leaders who claimed to speak for besieged whites, with precedents including Ian Smith, the leader of the white minoritarian regime of Rhodesia, and Enoch Powell, the British MP who infamously warned of “rivers of blood” if Britain did not halt non-white immigration. Moreover, white nationalism is global not only in its history but in its present manifestations: white nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.
White nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.
While his authoritarian response to a season of Black Lives Matter protests has brought renewed attention to Trump’s racist politics, his investment in global white supremacy is long-standing and was instrumental to his election. Indeed, Nigel Farage, a leader of the UK’s far right, was an important international ally while Trump was campaigning. The morning after the June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Donald Trump landed at his Scottish golf resort and tweeted that Britons “took their country back, just like we will take America back.” During his campaign that summer, Trump forged a close alliance with Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and the most prominent advocate of British withdrawal from the European Union. Farage already knew Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who hailed the rise of right-wing European nationalism as executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News. In November, Farage was the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect; pleased with their successes on both sides of the Atlantic, they posed for a celebratory photograph before a glimmering set of golden elevator doors in Trump Tower. Trump and Farage’s image marked a victory in a struggle by linked resurgent white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic to “take back” their countries from non-white immigrants and internationalist liberal elites.
Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics. Likewise, many have been baffled by the international spread of white supremacist violence, with authorities and the mass media wrongly depicting such attacks as the work of isolated loners rather than emanating from a dispersed political movement. Such bonds link not only Trump’s and Farage’s successes, but also the 2016 assassination of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire by a neo-Nazi proclaiming “Britain First”; the 2018 killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist who believed that Jews were orchestrating white genocide by abetting immigration from Latin America; and the 2019 murder of Muslims in Christchuch, New Zealand, by an Australian white supremacist. Both the rise of ethnonationalism in electoral politics and of white supremacist violence in the English-speaking world need to be understood as related developments in a longer history of exchange among white nationalists globally.
Because white nationalists are primarily concerned with the racial integrity of states, they have wrongly been assumed to be parochial in their politics, focused solely on domestic issues. In fact, transnational ties and transnational flows of culture and capital have long undergirded the pursuit of white racial nationalism. The success of Brexit, for example, emboldened Trump’s nativist supporters to see themselves as part of a global movement that could achieve power in the United States. Trump’s victory in turn inspired the Christchurch killer, who praised the U.S. president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” We need to understand the history of these connections if we are to grasp what has sustained white nationalism despite global trends toward liberation and equality.
White nationalism is an ideology that asserts national identity and belonging in terms of European descent. Accordingly, white nationalists see their countries as threatened by immigration and social advancement by non-whites. They contend that national identity and belonging must be built around racial whiteness—rather than culture, language, or place—and that it is the whiteness of the nation’s past, present, and future that ensures its continued historical development and survival. The fundamental ideas of white nationalists are hardly new, yet they have taken on new formulations since the mid-twentieth century as a politics of reaction to the promise of racial equality and decolonization. Though the numbers of self-identified white nationalists remain small, their ideas resonate broadly, impacting contemporary debates about global demographic change, national identity, and mass migration.
The shift of white nationalist politics from center to ostensible periphery is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the British Empire’s zenith, its apologists claimed that the rule of law, free trade, and parliamentary sovereignty were natural virtues of the “English race.” At the turn of the twentieth century, U.S. elites shared with British imperialists a discourse of English racial heritage termed Anglo-Saxonism that was used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans, the subordination of African Americans, and the possession of the United States’ own overseas empire. According to Anglo-Saxonism, white, Protestant, English-speaking men naturally made modern nations. This racialized modernity is based on the presumption that only whites can govern and that the empowerment of non-whites is therefore an existential threat to white self-government.
Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics.
Anglo-Saxonism’s cherished ideal of a white man’s country reserving self-government and economic opportunity to whites may no longer be as dominant as it was a century ago, but neither has it disappeared. Popular historian Niall Ferguson still maintains that British colonial settler culture brought “modernity” to the world. Today some Brexiteers look to trade within an “Anglosphere” to reanimate this historical political tradition and harness racialized notions of kith and kin in the English-speaking world. Indeed, nostalgia for a past period of national glory in which white rule was unchallenged is a signature feature of today’s right-wing populists who seek to make their nations great again.
Any account of white nationalism’s influence today must take account of this longer history and also recognize that profound and persistent structures of white supremacy remain deeply rooted in the English-speaking world. To understand the politics of racism in the present requires locating and examining the histories of modern white nationalism in global terms: as a response to decolonization, struggles for equal rights, mass migration, and postwar international institutions. As Western political and social elites professed a commitment to color-blind ideals, assumptions of white supremacy were challenged and reformulated.
In particular, the declining legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced new international alliances and new populist claims among white supremacists. As they saw themselves losing power locally, they looked abroad for allies. Countering liberal internationalist organizations such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches, white nationalists increasingly adopted a rhetoric of ethnic populism, casting themselves as representatives of forgotten whites betrayed by globalist liberal elites. Even as they shifted their focus from opposing civil rights and preserving white rule in settler colonies to Islamophobia and opposing non-white immigration, they articulated a consistent mindset stressing the need to preserve the ethno-racial character of their nations.
• • •
In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes.
At the turn of the twentieth century, English-speaking whites throughout the world drew a global color line that marked out their own nations as white men’s countries. Their policies restricted immigration to “desirable” Europeans and limited non-whites’ right to vote to ensure whites’ ability to govern themselves. Though their aims were ethnonationalist, they developed ideas and policies in coordination with international networks. As historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write: “The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identification but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, but nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty.”
In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes, even as it provoked tension between aggressive white settlers and cautious metropolitan elites. Nonetheless, the global color line was slowly erased over the twentieth century. The industrialized slaughter of World War I undermined notions of European civilization’s superiority. After the war, the colonized increasingly demanded self-determination and a new generation of intellectuals discredited the precepts of scientific racism. World War II, which pitted the Allies against a fascist enemy, also did much to discredit notions of racial hierarchy and subordination. The most important developments accelerated after World War II: the rise of national liberation movements and of movements for racial equality in existing nations. It was, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan put it to Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, “the revolt of the yellows and blacks from the automatic leadership of the whites.”
Many liberal elites, over the course of the twentieth century, evolved from a white nationalist perspective toward color-blind or multicultural conceptions of their nations. For instance, in the 1920s, the Carnegie Corporation funded studies to justify white minority rule in South Africa. But by 1944, it was publishing Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, an influential text calling for the gradual extension of equal rights to African Americans. Rejection of explicit white supremacy became one of the components of a new liberal internationalism, embodied in the United Nations. While the violence of apartheid and Jim Crow continued unabated, in 1950 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the first of its influential statements on race, drafted by an international team of prominent scholars and rejecting any notions of racial superiority. Many metropolitan elites also came to embrace decolonization, and thereby contain it, envisioning it as a historical step forward into modernity. Those who adhered to explicit white supremacy, however, experienced this new racial liberalism as a betrayal. Postwar white nationalism thus shifted toward a populist perspective, arrayed against white elites—the racial enemy within—as well as racial minorities.
The decades after the end of World War II saw the breakup of the British Empire as nations across the Global South won independence. As European empires dismantled, the United States extended its influence among newly independent nations. Despite losing its own major colony of the Philippines in 1946, the United States emerged from World War II as the preeminent world power, in many ways continuing the European imperial project of making the world safe for global capitalism. The need to maintain good relations with new nations and win their support in the Cold War put considerable pressure on the United States, UK, and British dominions to dismantle domestic racial discrimination. As Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, one of the principal author of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”
E. Franklin Frazier, one of the authors of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”
Black activists and intellectuals in both the civil rights and anticolonial nationalist movements saw themselves as fighting in a shared international struggle to dismantle white supremacy. By the 1960s, though civil rights movements were unable to achieve their goal of full racial equality, they forced recognition of the formal legal equality of all citizens regardless of race. Landmark legislation prohibited racial discrimination. In 1963 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination on All Forms of Racial Discrimination; two years later, Ghanaian ambassador George Lamptey led the campaign to introduce a UN convention against racial discrimination. Steeped in the language of human rights, this convention condemned colonialism and apartheid, affirmed equality before the law, and required its signatories to criminalize hate speech and institute national procedures to combat racial discrimination. The UN helped propel the extension of antidiscrimination laws globally. The United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the death knell to the southern system of Jim Crow, and followed that with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The UK passed the Race Relations Act in 1965, Canada its Canadian Multiculturalism Policy in 1971, and Australia its Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.
White supremacy was on the defensive. Yet ideas about whiteness and natural ability for self-government continued to shape understandings of global demography, anticolonial violence, and uneven economic development. Racial anxieties ran through analyses of population growth in the Global South, for instance, echoing early twentieth-century panics about white “race suicide.” Anticolonial violence was routinely depoliticized and depicted as an expression of savagery, a rejection of civilization. Whites continued to assert themselves as natural agents of modernity via, for instance, international development; their authority now increasingly drawn from an emphasis on technical expertise rather than any explicit white man’s burden. Tenets of the white man’s country were transmuted by technocracy to appear universal or color-blind.
Though white nationalism developed transnationally and in response to common international changes, it evolved asynchronously and asymmetrically according to different local logics. The United States has a history of domestic slavery, mass immigration, and subjugation of Native Americans that contrasts with Britain’s long history as an imperial metropole or the history of white minoritarian regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. These differences are perhaps clearest in immigration policy changes and their demographic effects. The civil rights movement made the existence of racial quotas in U.S. immigration policy untenable, leading to the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 which soon (unintentionally) led to a mass wave of emigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Similarly, Australia dismantled its restrictionist White Australia policy in 1973, leading to a sharp increase in non-white immigration, especially from Asia.
In Britain, however, the story was different. Migrants from colonies and former colonies, who held citizenship in the British Empire and Commonwealth, began to arrive in increasing numbers after World War II in search of economic opportunity. This moment is often marked by the 1948 London arrival of the ship Empire Windrush which carried migrants from the Caribbean. The non-white population in Britain increased tenfold by 1961. Then, as a result of domestic political opposition, the British government began to introduce migration controls. To signal that these controls were part of a wider government effort to benefit race relations, the government also passed new equality legislation modeled on that of the United States but accompanied by the imposition of immigration restrictions rather than their relaxation.
In different countries, white nationalists adapted in similar ways to outlast the challenges against them: they persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties, such as the Democratic Party’s southern strategy in the United States. Everywhere, though, the array of forces against them led white nationalists to take up a defensive posture. In this new mode, white nationalists mobilized emotions of besiegement, resentment, loss, and nostalgia. The populist language of aggrievement white nationalists developed in retreat enabled them to capture broad appeal when new forms of political activism—on both left and right—challenged the legitimacy of the postwar order and the political establishment.
White nationalists persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties.
In response to the efforts to challenge white racial privilege in the 1960s and ’70s, a reactionary discourse emerged that rejected any guilt complex over the long history of white supremacy and instead offered a counternarrative of white victimization. Histories of lost causes were marshalled to this goal. As Paul Gilroy has examined, in Britain the loss of empire produced a “postcolonial melancholia” attached to the lost glories of the past—one detached from any sense of the real history of the empire. In Britain, as in Australia and the U.S. South, white nationalists turned away from acknowledging the atrocities of white supremacy. Instead, theirs is a history of heroism in defeat: the Lost Cause of the U.S. Confederacy, Australia’s Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, and Britain’s myth of self-reliance at the retreat of Dunkirk in World War II all serve as sites for what Gilroy calls “dreamworlds” where white male heroism can be retrieved.
This sense of resentment framed around perceived loss gave additional resonance to a wider set of social and political tensions in the period of decolonization and equal rights. The sexual revolution, student protests, and progressive legal reforms on marriage and abortion came to be viewed by many white nationalists as further examples of the destruction of national culture. Women’s liberation and the moral revolution of the late twentieth century played into fears of a declining white population. White nationalisms throughout the Anglosphere are replete with anxious visions of lost white male and patriarchal authority. Opposition to gender equality has been and remains crucial to the making of modern white nationalism—as the defense of white women and white domesticity has long functioned as a focal point for white supremacy, colonial violence, and the dehumanization of people of color. Drawing from this long tradition, white nationalists present the white woman as the perennial potential victim, under constant threat from migrant rapists, Black male sexuality, and sharia law.
• • •
From the civil rights era to the present, white nationalists found a home in right-wing political parties, where leaders appealed to race despite formally renouncing racism. White nationalism fit within the broader constellation of ideas advocated by the transnational right, whose critique of liberal internationalism also included asserting the place of social hierarchy, patriarchal families, and fundamentalist Christian values while attacking the legitimacy of the postwar social welfare state.
White nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists.
Though white nationalism is nurtured most intensely by a small group of activists and intellectuals, the electoral right throughout the English-speaking world has consistently appealed to racial fears among whites about loss of status. The electoral right receives much of its dynamism from the far right. Yet the existence of such far-right groups makes the electoral right more respectable by contrast, able to appeal to white nationalist sentiment while disavowing violent and explicit racism, and thereby enabling it to assemble a broader political coalition. This dialectic of extremism and respectability operates not simply within national boundaries but in a transnational framework.
One of the key issues involved in understanding global white nationalism is whether it should be perceived as a marginal political movement or as part of the mainstream of contemporary political culture. We think white nationalism should be understood as both constitutive of our societies and as a specific political movement of the right whose fortunes are now resurgent. Given the deep ways in which notions of white man’s countries structured Britain, the United States, and British settler colonies just a century ago, it is hardly surprising that a foundation of white supremacy remains under the edifice of societies that have formally renounced racism. This is particularly true given the partial defeat of movements for racial equality, as reflected in the continuation of vast institutional inequalities. The unacknowledged persistence of white supremacy in our societies has provided a strong platform on which white nationalists can stand, and it must be dismantled.
We also believe that white nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists. The successes of anti-racist movements in the twentieth century were only partial, but they were enough to spark a powerful reaction from those who wished to openly assert that that their nations were still white men’s countries. White nationalists’ sense of betrayal and loss is very real. While their claims of victimhood often serve as cover for the assertion of racial dominance, they are rooted in very real changes to the racial order. Without question, combatting white nationalism requires truly grappling with the long history of white supremacy and the untold damage wrought by our contemporary racial order. But it does not mean accepting that our civic cultures must remain racist or that a majority of whites will be inevitably drawn to racist politics. Rather, it requires understanding contemporary Anglophone white nationalism as a specific historical formation which cannot be extricated from the history of slavery, settler colonialism, and white supremacy.
To many observers, Brexit and Trump made it seem as if an atavistic ideology was suddenly resurrected. But white nationalism has always been a presence in trans-Atlantic political culture. While rooted in the older ideal of the white man’s country associated with British settler colonialism, it has adapted to the challenges posed by decolonization, civil rights, and liberal internationalism.
Those seeking to explain white nationalism’s renewed political strength in our own time should then ask why it has begun to have greater appeal. To the minority who explicitly identify with white nationalist ideas, their sense of victimization and desire to return to an imagined past era of national glory has everything to do with the decline of white dominance. To many others, white nationalists’ rhetoric of betrayal, nostalgia, and denouncement of non-white immigrants and internationalist elites has increased appeal in a period of depressed wages and precarious employment.
Critically, the lack of a significant left-wing challenge to neoliberalism has made ethnonationalism the main political form in which antiestablishment sentiment can be articulated. The adaptations that white nationalists made since 1945 has enabled it to broaden its appeal in our time. White nationalism is a worldly ideology. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, its resilience should never again be underestimated.
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October 16, 2020
18 Min read time