The events in the U.S town of Charlottesville, Virginia have put white nationalism firmly in the spotlight. The ‘Unite the Right’ rally saw far-right activists and sympathisers violently clash with anti-racist counter protesters, resulting in one death and several injuries.
But who are the white nationalists and what do they want?
What is white nationalism?
White nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of non-whites, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. They share a belief that white people are superior to all other races and as a result should dominate society. Many white nationalists believe that multiculturism and immigration are threatening the white race. These groups range from those that use racial slurs and issue calls for violence to others that present themselves as serious, non-violent organisations.
Is this a new movement?
No, is the simple answer. Existing groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and Christian Identity hold many of the same beliefs and could also be fairly described as white nationalist. More recently, the Alt-right movement that has emerged in America, a form of right-wing populism, is a loosely defined group of people whose shared ideologies have been described as anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and protectionist.
Do white nationalists pose a threat?
Because white nationalists are so loosely organised and do not tend to belong to recognised groups, it remains difficult to assess the overall size of the movement and the threat that it poses. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified more than 900 active hate groups in the U.S. which are sympathetic to white nationalist ideology, compared to 600 in the year 2000.
Taking advantage of the current political climate, the Alt-right movement itself does indeed appear to be growing and is moving from what was previously an online-only presence to real-world gatherings like the one seen in Charlottesville.
The town of Charlottesville was chosen as the location of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally due to an ongoing dispute over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park. The General was vilified during the Civil War only to become a heroic symbol of the South’s ‘Lost Cause’, and eventually a racist icon.
The impact of Trump
Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign was characterised as that of a right-wing populist and he courted controversy throughout, drawing accusations of racism and Islamophobia. In an interview with CNN in 2016 he refused to condemn the Ku Klux Klan or initially disavow his endorsement by former Klansman David Duke. The Alt-right movement was also vocal in its support for Trump with his opponent Hillary Clinton claiming he had taken the movement “mainstream”. On winning the Presidency, Trump’s appointment of controversial figures such as Steve Bannon, the former chief of Breitbart News, and Jeff Sessions, a senator dogged by past allegations of racism, did little to dispel criticism that he was allowing right-wing views to flourish.
Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn the white nationalist groups involved in the Charlottesville violence has seen him increasingly come under fire.