“Hail Trump”. “Lugenpresse“. Nazi salutes. The United States and the wider world reacted with shock when footage emerged of a fascist speech by the poster boy of the so-called “alt-right” movement, Richard Spencer, given right in the heart of Washington, DC.
Loaded with racism and dehumanisation, the “alt-right” leader declared: “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward.”
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In his rhetoric, he echoed “manifest destiny”, a 19th-century belief justifying the white European conquest of America. “We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours,” Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, wrote in White Jacket.
But today’s white nationalism is unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West pretty much ruled large swaths of the world and required an ideology to justify its global dominance. In place of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden.
Adopting the language of the oppressed
Behind the veneer of entitlement and thin crust lies a serious inferiority complex. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented, echoing the Islamic extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”
And Spencer is not alone. In a recent tweet, David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan demanded that the Senate “stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites“.
The far-right movement in the US and Europe, as well as mainstream conservatism – to a lesser degree, seems to have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule, uncommon among a cultural collective still perched at the top of the human power hierarchy.
In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race through immigration and multiculturalism.
A recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees flooding into Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of Western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer.
But beyond the white privilege of the 'old boy' network, there is the aspirational privilege of underprivileged whites. Like the patriarchy and the class system, race primarily serves the top dogs, not the lower classes.
But what is driving this sense of victimhood among white extremists? After all, objectively speaking, whites remain dominant within their own societies and their countries still exercise a huge amount of global hegemony, especially the US.
“White supremacy is still dealing with the aftermath of the anti-racist struggles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, spearheaded by the black liberation movement, as well as the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles across the global south,” Matthew Lyons, an independent researcher into fascism, told me.
“Most lynchings in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries took place [when] white privilege and power was being eroded,” Barry Van Driel, vice-president of the International Association for Intercultural Education, explained to me. “That leads to identifying with an authoritarian and strong white leader to protect white interests.”
Known popularly as a “whitelash”, this phenomenon saw the US swing from electing its first African American president, the most visible symbol of the advance of civil rights, to electing arguably its most unqualified white candidate ever.
Donald Trump epitomises the truism that hell hath no fury like a middle-aged white man scorned. Raised with a diamond-encrusted golden spoon in his mouth, Trump believes it is his inalienable right to be a master of the world; he is less neo-Nazi, more neo-narcissist.
Imagine how galling and frustrating it must have been for Trump that an unknown black senator became president before him – and to the adulation of the liberals, to which Trump had once belonged, who sang Obama’s praises at a rock concert.
Even now that he is president-elect, Trump cannot emerge from under the shadow of his rock star predecessor, whom the liberals regard as a mixture of cool intelligence and vision.
But beyond the white privilege of the “old boy” network, there is the aspirational privilege of underprivileged whites. Like the patriarchy and the class system, race primarily serves the top dogs, not the lower classes. In fact, racial supremacy has been used since its invention to control the anger and frustration of ordinary and poor whites in two ways.
Firstly, although many whites have always been almost as economically disadvantaged as other “inferior” groups, their sense of belonging to the “superior” group helps distort their subordinate reality and absorb their frustrations.
Secondly, when these frustrations threaten to bubble over, this illusion of superiority helps to channel anger away from the real authors of white underprivilege towards softer targets, namely “inferior” ethnic, religious and racial groups.
This is what the fascists and Nazis in Europe expertly did in the first half of the 20th century, to devastating effect. Moreover, in its efforts to recapture an idealised and distorted “golden age” before “decay” set in, white supremacy bears striking similarities to supremacist Islamist and militant discourse.
As unchecked neoliberal economics creates a growing underclass of unemployed whites in the US and many parts of Europe with no prospects, the conditions are ripe for the rise of a similarly delusional and destructive white nationalism that can potentially wipe out everything multicultural progressives hold dear and lead to large scale conflict.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at www.chronikler.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.