In the immediate aftermath of May’s mass shooting at a Buffalo grocery store, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, talked with Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg. Their wide-ranging conversation—about history, racial violence, and strategy—was so galvanizing that Boston Review encouraged them to invite other experts to continue the conversation with them.
In the following interview, Dunbar-Ortiz and Hogg talk with Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (2018). In Bring the War Home, Belew documents the disturbing history of how Vietnam veterans swelled the ranks of white power organizations, giving renewed vigor to groups like the KKK.
In today’s interview, which was recorded in the days following the Highland Park shooting, Belew, Dunbar-Ortiz, and Hogg discuss how the myth of the lone-wolf shooter has been promulgated by white supremacists to hide their organizing, and what it would take as a country to break the cycle of violence.
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ: When David and I talked in May, the shooting in Buffalo had happened just a few days before. Sadly there have been many others since then, most recently in Highland Park. One change we’ve seen is that there now finally seems to be some enthusiasm from federal legislators to do something about it, even if what they do is weak tea.
DAVID HOGG: I do feel slightly better since the legislation passed, but as I’ve been tweeting, I’m more anxious than ever about the possibility of a coordinated mass terrorism attack by white supremacists. And that’s partly why I was so eager to talk with Kathleen today. For people who haven’t read your book, Kathleen, could you start us off by saying how you think your work on white supremacist organizing during the twentieth century informs how we understand our present moment.
KATHLEEN BELEW: Yes. I want to start by acknowledging that this is hard for you, David, in ways that it is not hard for us as experts who are outside of it. Sadly, so many people have been finding out recently how different these headlines land when they have happened to you and to your community. The closest I have gotten personally is that I grew up in Colorado, and was at a neighboring school during the Columbine shooting. And for that reason I’ve been attuned to these events for a very long time.
One of the weird things about this last one in Highland Park—which is just up the street from Northwestern University, where I teach—is that a lot of smart, good people are still expressing surprise. And, you know, I think it’s ethical to be angry and outraged and shocked and to feel the horror of the event. But surprise? I’ve run out of patience for surprise, because we’ve been doing this for decades.
This last stretch of shootings has given us a sort of sample of the different varieties of U.S. mass shootings that we have come to identify. We have a clear white power movement–driven act of domestic terror in Buffalo. We have a school shooting in Uvalde that does and doesn’t conform to sort of the “typical” school shooting. And then we have this shooting in Highland Park that we’re still learning about, but which we know has connections to domestic violence. And the question of how to “type” mass shootings is something I see really twisting people up.
One of the things that was so powerful about your Twitter thread, David, was that it questioned the existence of the so-called “lone wolf”. The idea of the lone-wolf terrorist is something that I have argued against for many years now. We have gotten better in general about identifying that when a shooter talks of being inspired by white power, then we’re looking at a networked and coordinated act of violence, even if those connections are mainly or exclusively online. But we still struggle with how to talk about school shootings, because on the surface they often do not appear to be a networked and coordinated act. They’re usually an individual or a small group.
But those acts sometimes do have what I would think of as meme-level or call-out relationships to the rhetoric of networks of violence. For example, the shooters at Columbine talked about Hitler. They talked about not liking Black people. They used some racist symbolism in their notebooks. They did not have networked connections to the white power movement—so we don’t think about Columbine as a white power attack. Right? But we also see that even these individual shooters are targeting various out-groups, depending on the community.
RDO: I was thinking this week about the influence of a racist tract by Louis Beam called “Leaderless Resistance,” which I remember circulating in the incredibly early days of the Internet—this was in the mid-1990s, and there was no social media, but there were emails lists that people were using to share messages with hundreds and even thousands of people. And in this document, Beam encourages white supremacists to make their attacks look like the actions of a lone wolf so that no one would know they were organizing.
KB: Beam’s work is a fascinating case. Beam was a multi-tour Vietnam veteran who came home from the war and first joined an existing Klan group, and then founded his own Klan group, and then ascended into the white power movement’s leadership structure. And when I say white power movement, I’m talking about the organized network of Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, militiamen, radical tax resisters, and others who came together in the late 1970s and have been involved in a revolutionary war on the U.S. government since 1983. This is a movement responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. This is the movement that we’re still seeing playing a role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and in other moments of “Stop the Steal” politics.
Beam wrote “Leaderless Resistance” in 1983, and it was reprinted and recirculated in 1992. And that’s how it ends up circulating online in the mid-1990s as part of the militia movement. So it’s a really good example of how this movement has been with us, dipping in and out of perception, very effectively, over the long haul. The concept of leaderless resistance has been an incredibly useful strategy for them. It is, in effect, cell-style terrorism, where one or a few white power activists can work without direct contact with others, but toward a commonly held set of targets, and without contact with leadership. Among other things, it allowed them to evade all of the federal informants who had infiltrated Klan groups in the 1960s, and to make it harder to prosecute them in court.
But the bigger consequence is that the white power movement has been able to pull this incredible disappearing act, where it just looks like a whole bunch of disorganized lone-wolf violence. And because of this what we end up with is misperceptions such as the fact that, for example, the Oklahoma City bombing is not remembered as the most devastating act of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil but rather the act of a few bad apples. So leaderless resistance is an incredibly important philosophy for these activists.
Thus it falls to us to try to sort through the parameters of who, then, counts as a leaderless-resistance operative. To me, the parameter cannot be in-person contact, because we have examples, like Dylan Roof, the shooter in Charleston . . .
RDO: And the shooter in El Paso, Patrick Crusius . . .
KB: Right. Neither had real-life contact with anybody, but were heavily networked online in such a way that they were tapped into this movement.
RDO: On the subject of networks, I think it’s important that the Highland Park shooter is, along with his father, a diehard Trumper. They took photos together of themselves at Trump rallies. I don’t know if they were from before, during, or after the election. But when you think about connections, they must’ve surely been encountering other people there who were interested at least to some extent in the ideas of white supremacy.
DH: Without question, 99.99 percent of Trump supporters and Republicans would never commit a mass shooting. But there’s also no question that there are clear links between Trumpism and mass shootings: the link is acknowledged by the shooters themselves in their manifestos, as in Christchurch and Buffalo—and although there was no manifesto, we know that the Highland Park shooter is a Trump supporter. Again, that’s not to say that people who have supported Trump or Republicans are responsible for this. But I do think we have to talk about the fact that a lot of these young men are supporting the former president.
I think about how someone like Tucker Carlson, who never directly calls for mass violence, nonetheless represents how mainstream white power ideology has become. You might think, if you were Carlson, and realized that things you’re saying—about a white genocide, about a depopulation of the white race, and losing our country and having our country taken from us—are being echoed as manifesto points by shooters, maybe you would question whether you should really be saying that stuff in the first place.
Likewise, it’s not like Trump is directly calling for violence. It’s all coded. And people on the right are attuned to the signs. We saw that with QAnon, where people thought Trump was a kind of political messiah, and watched his every move and then interpreted it to match what they believed. So they’d be online saying, Oh, the president did this one thing, or sent this one tweet, and, like, he wasn’t saying it directly, but that was a sign. And now there’s no bigger sign than the fact that he won’t tell people the truth that he lost an election. Right?
But there’s no way toward ending the violence that doesn’t involve working with Republicans. So we have to be clear with ourselves about two things: First, there is a clear connection between things mass shooters believe and the xenophobic, patriarchal, and hateful things Trump has stated over and over. Second, nearly all Republicans will never commit a mass shooting and, indeed, repudiate those who do.
KB: I would say that when people are promoting replacement theory, doing so is itself a call to violence, regardless of what else they might say, because we know that there is no such thing as peaceful ethnic cleansing. We know that it is a fundamentally violent prospect to want to whiten the country and create a lower class of citizenship for people of color, as is infringing on the right to vote and failing to do anything about guns. We know that these are calls to violence, and we know that direct calls for violence—like Trump saying to the Proud Boys, “Stand back and stand by”—lead to things like the January 6 insurrection.
DH: Today most of the time Trump is not directly calling for violence but he has before with things like “Stand back and stand by,” and saying privately to his security on January 6, “They’re not here to hurt me.”
KB: Exactly. It’s a direct call to violence to wave people through a magnetometer and then direct them to Capitol Hill saying, “They’re not here to hurt me”—the subtext being that they will certainly hurt some other people. The calls to violence are there. I think that’s established.
But then we have to talk about how white power movement networks actually enable people to act on these provocations. Because they not only say, These are the targets. The part that people generally don’t see is that they are also providing—whether in person or online—tactical training, guidance on how to access weapons and other resources. And these resources escalate the violence.
DH: When we talk about these shootings—and white power networks, for that matter—I think we have to talk about the fact that the vast, vast majority are men. Patriarchy and gendered violence play a huge role here. White supremacist groups typically recruit disgruntled, isolated young men who have a bone to pick. They’re really a strange disconnect from the philosophy of toxic masculinity, which is all about being a strong independent man, when most of these guys can’t even cook or do their own laundry. We know there’s a strong connection to incel culture, that these are men who feel that no woman wants to go out with them—which is no surprise given their horrible beliefs! So you have these men for whom white supremacy and toxic masculinity provide a compelling explanation, they believe, for why they are so socially and erotically disadvantaged. And then they are weaponized by groups like the Proud Boys, who establish even more control over them by telling them that they can’t masturbate and stuff. All in the name of solidifying a group identity organized around hating the people whom they feel have stolen their chances of happiness and success: women, immigrants, Black people, Jews, LGBTQ people.
RDO: There’s no question that part of why the Proud Boys are particularly prominent is because of Trump’s endorsement of them after Charlottesville—the “Stand back and stand by” that Kathleen mentioned earlier, and his insistence that they are “very fine people.” “Stand back and stand by” is now practically the Proud Boys motto.
A related group, the Patriot Front—which often cooperates with the Proud Boys, and may well have overlapping membership—had a march in Boston during July 4 weekend. I watched a segment about it on the news where a reporter followed them quite a way. And they were grown men, some of them not all that young, acting like kindergarteners, doing pranks and shoving each other. And they were also really bothering people and getting in the middle of the street and stopping traffic. It was like they were demonstrating chaos, and I’m wondering what a young person watching that would get from that, besides maybe that it looks like a fun group to be in, since the politics of it is not what you initially take in. Just grown men acting like misbehaving children.
So that was Saturday, and then Monday was the shooting in Highland Park, and you have to think that people who feel they’re part of this community, even if only in an imaginative sense, are watching these things and feeling inspired—thinking, you know, It’s time for me to do my part.
And it does, as David says, seem to have a lot to do with how masculinity is understood and being taught. And not just to children but also to military personnel. I talk with a lot of Afghan and Iraq vets who are involved with the anti-war movement, and they really are afraid of the kind of molding that they got in those wars. So many of them have PTSD from it. And there’s a very small percentage of them for whom their training as a weapon becomes their identity. Kathleen, I know this is something you’ve thought about a lot in your work on returning Vietnam War veterans. How much of a problem do you see it as being now?
KB: The radicalizing effect that warfare can have remains a huge issue. If you look at the KKK, which has been with us since the late 1860s, and has ebbed and flowed over time, being in a postwar period is the strongest correlation for times when Klan membership has swelled, more so than periods of extreme poverty, upswings in immigration, gains in civil rights, gains in women’s rights. The aftermath of warfare creates a huge opportunity for recruitment, because there’s a whole bunch of mobile people, particularly men, of a particular age who are very susceptible to the kind of radicalization that we’re talking about. David, you’re absolutely right that there’s a late-teens-to-early-twenties window for people being particularly available for indoctrination. And then you add on top of that a military training in tactics and weapons that really amplifies the violent impact of these groups.
That said, it’s important to note that during these periods, it’s not just that veterans are coming back and becoming radicalized. A sociology study by Joanna Bourke found that all of us are more violent after warfare. It’s not just veterans. It’s not just people in that age bracket. It’s everybody. Which, you know, there’s this common sense that violence begets violence.
So in the aftermath of warfare there’s an opportunity for movement-driven violence, and we know that the Klan and other white power groups are incredibly opportunistic. They’re perfectly happy to use whatever the prevailing cultural forms are, to set their sights on the scapegoat of the moment. And Trumpism gives them a very clear set of forms and scapegoats that they can very easily use for their own purposes.
Of course we’re not talking about all Republicans. That would be a gross mischaracterization of what anybody in this conversation is saying. But what we are saying is that the way that Trump has moved the window of acceptable rhetoric and action very far to the right has let these fringe groups and actors use this set of scapegoats and forms for their own purposes. And at the very least, we’re talking about a lack of accountability. And at the most we’re talking about people calling them to arms and using them.
DH: Political scientist Robert A. Pape at the University of Chicago did a big study about insurrectionists—both who they are and how Americans perceive them. One of the most interesting aspects of it to me was his findings about where insurrectionists grow up. According to Pape, insurrectionists rarely come from solidly Republican counties. In fact, the top correlation was that they came from counties that had become significantly less white in recent years—that is, they’re mainly from predominantly blue areas where they are essentially the political minority.
KB: Right—in particular, in counties that have become less white due to immigration. It’s a very interesting study.
The term “insurrectionist” is worth parsing, because when you think of the January 6 insurrectionists, for example, that big tent includes some white power activists—in fact they account for only a very small percentage in that group, but certainly they are the most highly organized. Those are the people in the pictures who are wearing flak jackets, and who breached the building first—who came prepared to do violence that day. And then there’s QAnon folks who are slightly different. They have rapid radicalization and a very heated rhetoric but are not necessarily organizing violence in the same way. And then there’s just all of the other people who came to the Stop the Steal rally: some of them extremist, some of them just there for a political rally. We have stories about people getting instantly radicalized on that day. We have stories about people who came to damage something. And so within that group, there is a lot of variation.
But, in any case, yes, feeling that your home is becoming less white is a huge predictor of an interest in these politics. And then alongside that, we have the constant fuel of the War on Terror, which has generated again something very much like the paramilitary culture of the 1980s where there’s just this overflow of military and violent stuff into other sectors of our society. It has happened again, but in a slow-burning way, because it’s been such a long war.
DH: And for decades gun companies have been marketing, along with the NRA, that if you feel afraid about the demographic shift in the United States, owning guns is your only chance of keeping yourself safe and keeping the government in check. On that premise, they’ve sold literally hundreds of millions of guns. And now we have a former president who says that an election was stolen, and a sizeable percentage of the country that believes him. So now we have this incredibly volatile union of capability and intent, worsened by skyrocketing gun sales during the pandemic. We shouldn’t be surprised that in the wake of all this we see so many mass shootings.
My fear is that these “lone wolf” shootings are only the beginning. I fear that some group like the Proud Boys will find a way to organize all these potential mass shooters to plot some kind of mass terror attack to destabilize our country and start taking over state capitols and Congress. What we saw on January 6 makes it feel like it would be easier than we had ever imagined. Especially because—as you talk about in your book, Roxanne—we know that there are many white supremacists who don’t ever speak publicly about their beliefs, but are in law enforcement, the intelligence community, the military. It feels very possible, especially given that police forces are now basically a domestic military.
KB: We certainly have to get a handle on what’s going on in police departments, both in terms of the capacity they possess for violence due to their militarization, and their degree of infiltration by white nationalists. We have almost no record-keeping about police officers. Police officers who have a record of inappropriate use of force can simply move to the next force down the road, and no record follows them. There’s no central police record-keeping in the United States. But in Germany, where they are keeping track, they’ve found anywhere from a 200 to 400 percent increase in white supremacists in departments in recent years. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is trying to figure out how significant white power infiltration is in the Armed Forces, but their counting mechanism doesn’t work well yet. Getting an accurate measure of the problem has to top the list for social ills to triage if we’re to slow the violence in our society. It’s a massive social problem. It would require a huge mobilization of effort to even make a dent.
DH: That’s a great way to move into the final point I’d like us to discuss, which is a question of strategy: Where do we go next? What tangibly can we do from a societal perspective, as individuals, and how can we talk with our young men?
I think if there’s room for hope, it is because public opinion is with us. A recent NPR poll of gun owners showed that there’s huge bipartisan support for basic gun control: 80 percent of Republican gun owners support universal background checks, and 97 percent of Democratic gun owners do. For raising the minimum age for buying a gun to 21, 64 percent of Republican gun owners support it; 57 percent support red flag laws. Our country is a lot less divided on how to address this issue of gun violence than we’re led to believe. We all want gun violence to end. The most divided people in this country are not the American people. It’s 100 senators who need 60 votes to get anything done because of the filibuster.
So if we want to get basically anything done legislatively, there’s a certain segment of Republicans whom we have to get on our side—at least ten of them. And that means having conversations with Republican Americans that focus on what we can agree on. That was the mentality with which we approached the effort to get this new gun control package passed. It is a small law. It is a lot less than I would have liked. But even if it stops one shooting, it’s better than nothing.
KB: Thank you very much to you and others who worked for that law.
When I try to think about strategies for where we go from here, what strikes me about the United States is that there are so many countries that have legacies of racial inequality and white supremacy. We’re not unusual in that way; that is not the American exception. But what is unusual is how little we have actually talked with each other about our history. And, indeed, white supremacists are desperate to keep us from doing so. This is why Proud Boys are showing up at school board meetings, and Texas school boards are trying to prevent the word “slavery” from being used in classrooms.
Elizabeth Gillespie McCrae’s Mothers of Massive Resistance (2018) is about how people who supported Jim Crow did the same thing by getting school boards to distort the violent history of Reconstruction in the curriculum, and then when they were trying to obstruct the civil rights movement, they did the same thing with not wanting children to be taught about Jim Crow. The way we tell our history sets the limits for what’s possible going forward.
We’ve never had a truth and reconciliation commission. We’ve never had a major national conversation about who we are and who’s included and how we got here. And as a result, there are huge fissures in who we think is American, and who we think is deserving of protection, and who we think is not. Even something like Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again—that’s an argument about our history, about when it was great, who was included. Was it great? That’s an argument.
As a historian, I wish we could have a big public conversation about our history and get more people on the same page. Other countries have done it: South Africa, many countries in South America. There have been big public conversations like this in Germany. I mean, it is a possible thing.
We have to figure it out, because I have the same worst-case imaginings that you do, David. I think a lot of people have taken too much comfort from the idea that violently overthrowing the state isn’t really possible anymore. Historian Saul Cornell in A Well Regulated Militia (2006) argued, for example, that the Civil War was the last time that “the People” really had the capability of overthrowing the state, because since then the astounding technological capacity of the military has hopelessly outstripped the ability of the people to use guns to constrain the government. But I think that’s only true if we’re talking about a civil war like the one we experienced in the nineteenth century. I don’t think that’s necessarily true if you’re talking about asymmetrical combat, guerrilla war, and campaigns of domestic terrorism.
RDO: Something to consider is that a truth and reconciliation process doesn’t necessarily have to be organized by the government. I’m thinking about the example of the Vietnam War tribunal that Bertrand Russell organized in 1966 along with Jean-Paul Sartre and many other well-know thinkers from around the world. It had no official imprimatur but received a huge amount of attention. To me there’s a real sluggishness in our progressive politics these days to do out-of-the-box big actions like this. We’re so focused on electoral politics. That’s not to say that if something like this were organized, it couldn’t involve politicians, if they chose to participate. I could certainly imagine the so-called Squad (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush) being involved, for example, along with progressive organizations. I think if something like that were organized well, it would be very powerful.
DH: This idea of gathering to establish a set of facts about our history feels crucial, because a democratic society can’t function if there’s no basis in reality, and it does feel as though that has slipped now. People feel they are entitled not only to their own opinions but their own facts. Which is again why we have to find a way to work with Republicans around a shared set of facts and goals, or else we will lose the country.