Many people were shocked at the emergence of a white supremacist movement in the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to power. But not Stanislav Vysotsky.
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater assistant professor has been keeping tabs on white supremacist groups, as well as their antifa counterparts, for years.
“What we’re really seeing is not so much the birth of a movement but one that’s starting to come up from the underground,” he said.
Vysotsky got interested in the hate culture while studying at Northeastern University in Boston with Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt, both leading scholars on hate crimes. But while white supremacy moves from the underground to the public sphere, there are few scholars studying the phenomenon. Vysotsky, a criminologist, said that’s because it doesn’t fit neatly into an academic discipline.
“I talk about myself as being sort of an accidental criminologist because I started in sociology, and there isn’t really a good home for studying this stuff,” Vysotsky said. “Criminology is one of those areas where there are people doing this work.”
Vysotsky’s work is focused on the larger picture. He’s gained insight by interviewing antifa activists and by scouring the dark corners of the web for white-supremacist chatter.
“They’re already distrustful of academics,” he said of the white supremacist groups he tracks. “They’re certainly distrustful of Jewish academics, like myself. So Stormfront (the neo-Nazi internet forum) has been a blessing for research.”
On the internet and in the street, white supremacists are emerging into the public sphere with increasing prominence. Is the movement becoming more organized?
One of the things that’s been happening is that there’s less formal organization. More and more what you have are people who are subscribing to a belief rather than any specific group.
And what is that belief?
At the core of it is a belief in superiority of white people. There’s a lot of different ways in which they reframe that, and they have been since the 1980s using a lot of language that is designed to obscure that idea. That’s why they use terms like white nationalist, or like western chauvinist. Steve Bannon referred to himself as an economic nationalist. The reason that they use these kinds of terms is to overtly go out in public and say you’re a white supremacist or you’re a white racist is certainly going to turn people off. The idea that drives them is ultimately that there is an inherited superiority among white people and that there’s an entitlement to power, to resources, to a certain kind of social life.
What are the dominant organizations?
One of those groups that we’ve seen a lot of recently, including the protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere, is Vanguard America. Another groups that’s been mobilizing particularly on the west coast is the American Front. And nationally you’ve seen the organization of the Proud Boys. In terms of Wisconsin, we have seen attempts to organize by the Proud Boys, and there’s a group called New Order out of New Berlin. There’s a right-wing racist label, Stahlhelm Records, in Milwaukee. There are other groups scattered around the state.
A lot of these groups are pretty well established. How did they build their bases?
What brings them together is this ability to use certain kinds of themes. This is where you see a lot of the internet culture and the meme culture starting to appear in a lot of their stuff. They’re using this subculture. And they perfected this really by being involved in other kinds of subcultures throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They recruited within punk and skinhead subcultures and then expanded into other kinds of subcultures – especially what’s known as National Socialist black metal and certain variations on the goth subculture and other places where you find alienated youth. And once you begin to have these spaces on the internet where people are being intentionally offensive, they moved into those because they found that those were places where they could get away with using that kind of language and bringing up those kinds of ideas. All those subcultural markers are how they are able to unify and come together.
What are some of the themes and symbols adherents of white supremacy use to identify themselves?
The neo-Nazis or actual Nazis would use number codes like 14, which stands for 14 words of David Lane, which is, “We must preserve the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Then there’s 88, which is two H’s (the eighth letter of the alphabet) for Heil Hitler. Rather than a swastika they’ll use a triskele symbol, which is three 7’s that look like a swastika. They’ll use the SS death head; it’s just a skull and crossbones. Some of it is less obvious. Some of it is biker imagery. There’s also the new stuff that’s popped up on the internet, like Pepe the Frog. They made up this nation of Kekistan and a flag for it, and they talk about Kek as being part of the internet alt-right. There’s moon man. The symbols constantly keep changing.
Distasteful as the ideology behind these symbols is to many Americans, this idea that whites need to defend their place in society seems to be gaining traction. How is that happening?
The victim frame. This idea of them talking about themselves as being persecuted. It was an intentional propaganda move by white supremacists. They realized they weren’t going to be able to appeal by talking about white superiority because white superiority carried with it such a stigma. But if you could talk about white people as victims, and if you could talk about the white supremacist movement as being victimized, then you could talk about them as operating on an even playing field with other ethnic groups.
An increasingly militant presence of the antifa at white supremacist rallies has some labeling them as thugs. Is that fair?
While you’re seeing some militarization on the left, it’s not to the degree or extent that we’ve seen on the right. There are some relatively small factions on the left that have been using arms, like having some guns and open carrying at protests, but not to the same number and the same degree and not with the same kind of conflictional relationship you’ve seen with some of the people on the right. The violent aspect tends to be a very small proportion of what anti-fascists do. Most of the time what happens when it comes to anti-fascist response is a kind of public shaming. A lot of the time, what people do who are involved in white supremacist organizations or involved in those kinds of ideologies is that they use coded symbols to demonstrate to people who are involved in the movement that they are part of it. But the average person wouldn’t be aware of their political ideology. So what a lot of anti-fascist groups do is make that public. They call for boycotts of venues or call for venues to cancel events. They do a lot of information gathering and spreading information.
But the antifa also seems to be rejecting the pacifist approach in favor of a show of strength.
There’s research that goes back about 44 years that was done by William Gamson. And one of the things that Gamson points out is that movements that have violence used against them tend to lose. Fascism begins often with people who are out there on the streets committing acts of either what we now label as bias crime or simply engaging in street fights against their political opponents. And they use that to their advantage.
Since Charlottesville, vast opposition has shut down some white supremacy rallies. Are white supremacists being forced back underground, or are they just adapting?
One of the things that people like Richard Spencer have now started talking about is attacking soft targets. Having a rally in Boston was a really dumb idea -- 40,000 people opposing them shut them down fairly quickly. So they’re not going to go places like Boston. What they’re talking about is going to find, like, Quaker meetings and other kinds of progressive religious groups and going in and causing chaos and possibly engaging in violence in those kinds of spaces. Because those are the kinds of spaces where people aren’t necessarily going to resist the violence. This is what they do. They sort of build small, build up their strength, and come back out into the street when they’re feeling strong again.