Born in the USSA

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th August, 2017)

Savage street fighting had been raging for several hours after far-Right agitators, many prepared for battle and backed by gun-toting militia, invaded the laid-back college town of Charlottesville. The day became bloodier and nastier.

A state of emergency was imposed. Then a car driven by a young extremist powered into anti-racist protesters and reversed away at speed, leaving one woman dead and 19 people wounded.

As the crowds melted away, bellicose far-Right leaders returned to bases around their nation to celebrate what they proclaimed as a major victory. Despite the death of an innocent woman, these demagogues declared it ‘an absolutely stunning success’. Deluded extremists even see it as a stepping stone on the path to another civil war over race.

I spent last week talking to some of these repellent characters. All insist they are not racist, blame others for the violence in Charlottesville – such as the mayor, who is Jewish – and say they are simply standing up for ordinary people.

Veteran Ku Klux Klan leader Thomas Robb claimed Charlottesville showed white nationalism was on the rise and blamed all the trouble on ‘anti-white terrorists’.

‘It was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force,’ said Richard Spencer, a key speaker at last weekend’s Unite the Right rally.

Jeff Schoep, anti-Semitic ‘commander’ of the National Socialist Movement who was in Charlottesville, said that despite what he called a ‘car accident’, the disruptive event had empowered disparate white nationalist groups across America. ‘This is the start of something. Now the Right is united,’ said Schoep. ‘I think a white ethno-state would be a good thing.

‘It was like when you had Martin Luther King marching for the rights of blacks. We were basically peaceful but if we are attacked we are going to fight,’ he said. ‘Next time we will bring in bats.’

Few would agree the hardcore agitators went to Charlottesville with peaceful intent after the city decided to remove the statue of a Confederate general in a park. They sought to inflame national debate over historic artefacts and the legacy of slavery.

It was the boldest show of force by violent white supremacists in generations with chilling scenes of flaming torches, KKK insignia, swastikas, anti-Semitic slogans and menacing gun-toting militia. Many protesters wore protective gear and carried shields, staves and pepper spray.

Schoep even tweeted: ‘Self defence is beautiful. I knocked out an antifa [anti-fascist] scumbag who attacked us in Charlottesville. Laid him out in the street :)’

Yet it led to a response from President Donald Trump that flirted with these modern fascists, which finally forced some conservative supporters to question his fitness to lead their divided country.

This prompts big issues: who are these malevolent racists, how serious a concern are they for America – and, perhaps most alarmingly –have nasty fringe forces been fired up by a president who preaches much of their hardline nationalist rhetoric?

There are 917 hate groups in the US, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such organisations. It saw a rise to near-historic levels in this number since Donald Trump’s election. They include traditional far-Right groups such as the KKK – infamous for its robes, cross-burnings and lynchings – along with a motley collection of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, southern separatists, skinheads and libertarian ‘patriot’ movements.

These groups have been boosted by recent emergence of the so-called ‘alt Right’, led by Spencer and tending to be younger, urban, better educated and smarter at using the internet to recruit, organise and spark outrage.

Another key ‘alt-Right’ figure is Augustus Invictus, who has encouraged followers to arm themselves for a new civil war, challenged the Holocaust and ended speeches with the words ‘Hail Death’. He says he is running for the Senate as a Republican.

Robb, a Christian pastor who rebranded the KKK as The Knights Party in a bid to move closer to the mainstream, alleged the Charlottesville marchers were just decent white people with ‘love for their heritage, their history and for their families’.

Rachel Pendergraft, his daughter and the party spokeswoman, admitted ‘some of our people’ marched in with flags. ‘Everything is inflammatory to some people,’ she said. ‘I find signs saying we’re going to kill you pretty inflammatory.’

Yet the sensitivity of the statue issue should not be understated. The capital of the slave-holding confederacy was in Virginia – a tobacco-growing state that saw scores of racist lynchings, often involving groups involved in the protests.

Jason Kessler was local organiser of the protests who previously tried to unseat the city’s only black councillor. He told me he was in hiding after receiving death threats and said he was ‘angry’ at the city’s failure to protect marchers.

But let them talk and bigotry starts to spew. Kessler complained about ‘disproportionate influence of Jews in elites of government and power’ and said he feared white people might soon need a separate nation.

He also used false facts about Britain to shore up his arguments, claiming ‘native people’ were dying out in England, British Muslims voted only for other Muslims and that London Mayor Sadiq Khan ‘got elected through this foreign invasion’.

Kessler outrageously compared himself to non-violent icons such as King. He said he would sue Charlottesville for impeding free speech in a case he claimed would be comparable to civil rights landmarks of the 1960s.

Similarly Schoep, a convicted petty crook who heads perhaps the country’s biggest neo-Nazi group, started by complaining of being pelted by ‘communists’ with urine on the protest and ended up praising Adolf Hitler’s policies.

He refused to discuss ‘the so-called Holocaust’ but then went on an anti-Semitic rant, concluding that Jewish people should not be allowed in government.

Schoep claimed his country faced risks of civil war and ethnic cleansing. ‘You have all the racial groups pushed together and a lot of us don’t get along. Look at what happened in former Yugoslavia. We feel this may be a possibility here in the US.’

Tom Metzger is another notorious far-Right figure who founded Neo-Nazi organisation White Ayran Resistance and declares: ‘We are racist and we don’t beat around the bush.’ He claimed civil war on multi-racial lines was ‘inevitable… a free-for-all similar to Syria.’

In a bid for more appeal, Schoep’s group stopped wearing Nazi-style brown shirts nine years ago in favour of black ‘battledress uniform’ and then, following Trump’s election, replaced swastikas with the Odal rune, a less obvious fascist symbol.

‘The masses believe exactly as we do but have steered clear of us due to our use of the swastika,’ wrote Schoep on his party website. Their views are risible, their fancy dress ridiculous. Rebranding and the ‘Unite the Right’ rally shows how hate-filled fanatics are joining forces to claim spurious white victimhood, fight diversity, exploit free speech and stir up cultural struggles.

The internet, with its swirling conspiracy theories and potential for secrecy, has given them new energy and appeal for younger supporters – what the founder of the far-Right The Daily Stormer website called ‘a reboot of the white nationalist movement’.

And as seen in Charlottesville, they can pose a significant threat of civil disorder – especially with their savvy use of internet provocation and the rise of determined opponents who will use direct action and violence to stymie their activities.

So do they get too much attention given their minority appeal? None of the far-Right leaders would tell me their membership figures but even the KKK – which had millions of members in its 1920s peak – is estimated to have only 3,000 adherents nationwide.

Yet despite their small numbers white supremacists are believed to be the biggest source of extremist-related violence in the US and they are often linked to criminal activities, according to the respected Anti-Defamation League. An FBI report blamed them for 49 killings in 29 attacks between 2000 and 2016. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African-American churchgoers two years ago, was inspired by a group whose leader talks about ‘racial genocide’ against whites.

Metzger’s group has been linked to a mail bombing and the beating to death of an Ethiopian student, which led to a multi-million dollar fine for deliberate incitement of skinhead violence. He did not go to Charlottesville, saying it was stupid to announce such events in advance. ‘I would do it the opposite way. I would seek out the opposition’s meeting places, rallies and their homes and pay them a visit. At our own opportune time.’

One of Metzger’s lieutenants was British-born Tony McAleer, who spent 15 years as a far-Right activist and admits to attacking opponents and gay men. Today he chairs Life After Hate, which fights extremism and encourages other militants to quit.

He said the far-Right was very dangerous and growing in popularity, especially with a surge of alt-Right activity on campuses. ‘They have a disdain for the skinheads but are just as angry, except much of their violence is online.’

McAleer said many recruits found a sense of acceptance and belonging inside the groups, just as he did after a difficult childhood – and that Life After Hate had seen a tenfold increase in approaches from alarmed families and friends over the past 18 months.

And in this astonishing statistic lies the cause of such concern over Trump’s latest bout of bizarre behaviour: the fear he is stoking up far-Right racism and dangerous nationalism with his crude populism.

First he blamed ‘many sides’ for chaos in Charlottesville. Then he read a statement condemning neo-Nazis as ‘repugnant to everything we hold dear’ before reverting the next day to blaming both sides and attacking ‘very violent’ groups on the Left. He even insisted people bearing flaming torches, shouting ‘Sieg Heil’ and chanting slogans such as ‘Jews will not replace us’ were simply ‘protesting very quietly’ over a statue’s removal.

White supremacists were thrilled by Trump’s refusal to explicitly condemn them while backing preservation of Confederate icons. ‘I really appreciated his remarks this week,’ said Pendergraft, spokeswoman for The Knights Party.

She complains about how immigration over the past half-century has eroded their ‘white Western civilisation’ – and having been in Britain filming a documentary – sees common cause with a Brexit vote she claimed to be anger over ‘mass mobilisation of non-white people who are for the most part against Christianity.’

The president, remember, has been openly racist and won KKK endorsement. ‘I’m a fan of Donald Trump,’ said Robb. ‘I don’t think he is a white nationalist but he has promoted policies we’ve wanted for years on the economy and building a wall.’

Clearly Trump is playing to his core constituency of voters angry with the liberal establishment. But he is also playing with fire given the divisions and dark forces in his country, exposed in such stark light by those fatal events in Charlottesville.

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