BENNINGTON — University of Michigan professor Alexandra Stern was “not all that surprised” by the storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, since armed white nationalists had earlier entered the capitol in her state during protests over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 regulations.
Stern was the guest speaker Thursday during the fourth in a series of six forums on the events of Jan. 6 sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College.
She spoke on “The Alt-Right and White Nationalism on the American Landscape.”
Stern, the author of “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination,” said she sees the events in Lansing, Mich., in 2020 as “a dry run, both in terms of ideology and in networking” for the groups involved.
At one point, armed protesters entered the state capitol in Lansing while lawmakers were speaking on the floor. Later, multiple arrests were made, including over a subsequent failed plot to kidnap the governor.
While Stern said she understands the threats posed by the proliferation of white nationalist and supremacist groups around the country, she is possibly more concerned about the spread of their ideologies throughout mainstream society.
Unlike in the 20th century, she said, the expansion of the internet and social media provided these groups with myriad new channels to spread their messages — and not only to group members.
The messages usually are spread “one image at a time, one idea at a time, one meme at a time,” she said.
As the internet grew, for the alt-right, “It was very much about changing culture,” Stern said.
Former President Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is an example of an effective political message that is benign on the surface, she said, but also connotes a familiar call for a return to an earlier, supposedly better era.
For these groups, that means before the post-World War II civil rights movement, the Voting Right Act of 1965; a relaxation of immigration quotas around the same time; the rise of feminism, gay rights, transsexual rights; and a focus on and recent celebration of diversity in American culture.
Often, Stern said, internet messages aimed at the general public contrast a “supremacist nostalgia” image of America that is akin to a Norman Rockwell painting or a “Leave it to Beaver” episode from the 1950s, with divisive social issues today.
Stern said her principal concern about the future is the effect these messages have on many young people and how that might be countered.
In combating the current rise of white nationalists, supremacist and similar ideologies around the world, Stern said new forms of social media regulation “is absolutely essential.”
She pointed to social media platform bans imposed on Trump and talk radio host Alex Jones as examples of effective measures that had to be considered.
Other media also are being used to spread the white supremacist ideologies, she said, including video games, which have been used to reinforce similar messages.
A 2019 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center listed 940 hate groups the organization was tracking around the U.S., Stern said, showing that the number is on the rise.
Beyond the United States, she said, most European nations now have groups with supremacist and/or ethnocentric views that are reflected in the significant minority support for far right political parties registered in the polls.
Roots in the 1960s
During her research, Stern said she found white supremacist or nationalist ideology in the post-war era tends to have theoretical roots dating to the mid- to late-1960s.
The year 1965 marked passage of the federal Voting Rights Act that barred states from enacting discriminatory laws to keep minority groups from voting. That is a milestone year for many of the white nationalist groups, she said, in that they see the beginning of a decline in white-dominated government and culture.
In addition, that period also saw a loosening of immigration quotas on people coming from non-European nations that had been imposed in the 1920s.
Another crisis year noted as critical by the alt-right, she said, was 1968, when sometimes violent protests over the Vietnam War and favor of broad societal change erupted here and in Europe.
In France, a New Right movement stressing traditional values emerged, she said, and many of the writers involved in that movement or their themes proved influential to later nationalist or supremacist groups.
Living in France just two decades after the four-year German occupation, the French movement tried to express their views so as not to evoke those of the hated Nazis, she said, providing a blueprint for many others since then.
Among the common themes, Stern said, are that these groups hold anti-egalitarian beliefs that run counter to democratic values and traditions.
And at the heart of white supremacist beliefs, Stern said, are anti-Semitism and racism, even though other groups also are targeted, including women, gays, other minorities, other ethnic groups and transsexuals.
Today, there also is “a rightward trending populism,” she said, which is focused on anti-elite grievances, such as being violently in opposition to pandemic lockdown requirements like masking or vaccine orders, or in Europe, in opposition to the European Union.
Conspiracy theories like QAnon are in turn “one of the fuels of the rise of the far right,” Stern said.
In addition to the internet and social media since the early 2000s, the election of an African American, Barack Obama, as president in 2008, coupled with a major economic recession just before he took office, spurred the growth of far-right groups, she said, as did disruption from crises like climate change and the pandemic.
Prior to 2016, when Trump was unexpectedly elected, the alt-right was primarily focused on local political issues, power on the local level, such as on school boards, and with promoting their views as culturally dominant, Stern said.
By the end of Trump’s presidency, she said, during which he frequently resorted to white identity politics, an already growing white nationalist/supremacist movement in the U.S. had been building for decades, making something like the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol almost inevitable. Today, she said, people holding similar views can likewise be found in many local and state governments and in Congress.
A central question for Americans going forward, she said, “is how to we tackle as a society the fact that these ideologies have become so mainstream, are circulating daily, minute by minute, second by second, on social media?”
The far right, which increasingly is also involved with paramilitary organizations, conspiracy theories, deliberate misinformation and hate group ideologies, has become “a multiheaded hydra” for the country to confront, Stern said.
One approach, she said, is to remain vigilant in tracking and maintaining awareness of these ideologies, and understanding how they can influence people — and in seeking options to counter those messages.
Stern, a professor of history, American culture and women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan, also is the author of “Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America.”
Her book “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate” applies the lenses of historical analysis, feminist studies, and critical race studies to deconstructing the core ideas of the alt-right and white nationalism.