Up Close With Small-Town White Male Rage

Explaining the phenomenon of the bitter, scary men who feel left behind by economic and cultural change.

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The following is an excerpt fromAngry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, by Michael Kimmel (Nation Books, 2013). 

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Who are the white supremacists? There has been no formal survey, for obvious reasons, but there are several noticeable patterns. Geographically, they come from America’s heartland—small towns, rural cities, swelling suburban sprawl outside larger Sunbelt cities. These aren’t the prosperous towns, but the single-story working-class exurbs that stretch for what feels like forever in the corridor between Long Beach and San Diego (not the San Fernando Valley), or along the southern tier of Pennsylvania, or spread all through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, across the vast high plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, through Idaho and Montana. There are plenty in the declining cities of the Rust Belt, in Dearborn and Flint, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in the bars that remain in the shadows of the hulking deserted factories that once were America’s manufacturing centers. And that doesn’t even touch the former states of the Confederacy, where flying the Confederate flag is a culturally approved symbol of “southern pride”—in the same way that wearing a swastika would be a symbol of German “heritage” (except it’s illegal in Germany to wear a swastika).

There’s a large rural component. Although “the spread of far-right groups over the last decade has not been limited to rural areas alone,” writes Osha Gray Davidson, “the social and economic unraveling of rural communities—especially in the midwest—has provided far-right groups with new audiences for their messages of hate. Some of these groups have enjoyed considerable success in their rural campaign.” For many farmers facing foreclosures, the Far Right promises to help them save their land have been appealing, offering farmers various schemes and legal maneuvers to help prevent foreclosures, blaming the farmers’ troubles on Jewish bankers and the one-world government. “As rural communities started to collapse,” Davidson writes, the Far Right “could be seen at farm auctions comforting families...confirming what rural people knew to be true: that their livelihoods, their families, their communities—their very lives—were falling apart.” In stark contrast to the government indifference encountered by rural Americans, a range of Far Right groups, most recently the militias, have seemingly provided support, community, and answers.

In that sense, the contemporary militias and other white supremacist groups are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, and other Far Right patriot groups who recruited members in rural America throughout the 1980s. They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’” which may, in part, “be responsible for rural people’s easy acceptance of the far right’s agenda of hate,” writes Matthew Snipp. “The far right didn’t create bigotry in the Midwest; it didn’t need to,” Davidson concludes. “It merely had to tap into the existing undercurrent of prejudice once this had been inflamed by widespread economic failure and social discontent.”

And many have moved from their deindustrializing cities, foreclosed suburban tracts, and wasted farmlands to smaller rural areas because they seek the companionship of like-minded fellows, in relatively remote areas far from large numbers of nonwhites and Jews and where they can organize, train, and build protective fortresses. Many groups have established refuge in rural communities, where they can practice military tactics, stockpile food and weapons, hone their survivalist skills, and become self-sufficient in preparation for Armageddon, the final race war, or whatever cataclysm they envision. Think of it as the twenty-first-century version of postwar suburban “white flight”—but on steroids.

They’re certainly Christian, but not just any Christian—they’re evangelical Protestant, Pentacostalist, and members of radical sects that preach racial purity as the Word of Jesus. (Catholicism is certainly stocked with conservatives on social issues, but white supremacists tap into such a long and ignoble tradition of anti-Catholicism that they tend to have their own right-wing organizations, mostly fighting against women’s rights and gay rights.) Some belong to churches like the Christian Identity Church, which gained a foothold on the Far Right in the early 1980s. Christian Identity’s focus on racism and anti-Semitism provides the theological underpinnings to the shift from a more “traditional agrarian protest” to paramilitarism. It is from the Christian Identity movement that the Far Right gets its theological claims that Adam is the ancestor of the Caucasian race, whereas non-whites are pre-Adamic “mud people,” without souls, and Jews are the children of Satan. According to this doctrine, Jesus was not Jewish and not from the Middle East; actually, he was northern European, his Second Coming is close at hand, and followers can hasten the apocalypse. It is the birthright of Anglo-Saxons to establish God’s kingdom on earth; America’s and Britain’s “birthright is to be the wealthiest, most powerful nations on, by divine right, to dominate and colonize the world.”

A large proportion of the extreme right wing are military veterans. Several leaders served in Vietnam and were shocked at the national disgust that greeted them as they returned home after that debacle. “America’s failure to win that war was a truly profound blow,” writes William J. Gibson. “If Americans were no longer winners, then who were they?” Some veterans believed they were sold out by the government, caving in to effeminate cowardly protesters; they can no longer trust the government to fight for what is right. Bo Gritz, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, returned to Southeast Asia several times in clandestine missions to search for prisoners of war and was the real-life basis for the film "Rambo". He uses his military heroism to increase his credibility among potential recruits; one brochure describes him as “this country’s most decorated Vietnam veteran” who “killed some 400 Communists in his illustrious military career.” In 1993 Gritz began a traveling SPIKE (Specially Prepared Individuals for Key Events) training program, a rigorous survival course in paramilitary techniques.

Many of the younger guys are veterans of the first Gulf War, a war that they came to believe was fought for no moral principles at all, but simply to make America’s oil supply safer and to protect Israel from possible Arab attack. They feel they’ve been used, pawns in a larger political game, serving their country honorably only to be spit out and stepped on when they returned home to slashed veteran benefits, bureaucratic indifference to post-traumatic stress disorder, and general social contempt for having fought in the war in the first place. They believed they were entitled to be hailed as heroes, as had earlier generations of American veterans, not to be scorned as outcasts. Now a guy like Bo Gritz symbolizes “true” warrior-style masculinity, and reclaiming their manhood is the reward for signing up with the Far Right.

The Class Origins of Racial Politics

Perhaps what binds them all together, though, is class. Rural or small town, urban or suburban, the extreme Right is populated by downwardly mobile, lower-middle-class white men. All of the men I interviewed—all—fitted this class profile. When I compared with other ethnographies and other surveys, they all had the same profile as well.

In the United States, class is often a proxy for race. When politicians speak of the “urban poor,” we know it’s a code for black people. When they talk about “welfare queens,” we know the race of that woman driving the late-model Cadillac. In polite society, racism remains hidden behind a screen spelled CLASS.

On the extreme Right, by contrast, race is a proxy for class. Among the white supremacists, when they speak of race consciousness, defending white people, protesting for equal rights for white people, they actually don’t mean all white people. They don’t mean Wall Street bankers and lawyers, though they are pretty much entirely white and male. They don’t mean white male doctors, or lawyers, or architects, or even engineers. They don’t mean the legions of young white hipster guys, or computer geeks flocking to the Silicon Valley, or the legions of white preppies in their boat shoes and seersucker jackets “interning” at white-shoe law firms in major cities. Not at all. They mean middle- and working-class white people. Race consciousness is actually class consciousness without actually having to “see” class. “Race blindness” leads working-class people to turn right; if they did see class, they’d turn left and make common cause with different races in the same economic class.

That’s certainly what I found among them. Most are in their midthirties to early forties, educated at least through high school and often beyond. (The average age of the guys I talked with was thirty-six.) They are the sons of skilled workers in industries like textiles and tobacco, the sons of the owners of small farms, shops, and grocery stores. Buffeted by global political and economic forces, the sons have inherited little of their fathers’ legacies. The family farms have been lost to foreclosure, the small shops squeezed out by Walmarts and malls. These young men face a spiral of downward mobility and economic uncertainty. They complain that they are squeezed between the omnivorous jaws of global capital concentration and a federal bureaucracy that is at best indifferent to their plight and at worst complicit in their demise.

And they’re right. It is the lower middle class—that strata of independent farmers, small shopkeepers, craft and highly skilled workers, and small-scale entrepreneurs—that has been hit hardest by globalization. “Western industry has displaced traditional crafts—female as well as male—and large-scale multinational-controlled agriculture has downgraded the independent farmer to the status of hired hand,” writes journalist Barbara Ehrenreich. This has resulted in massive male displacement—migration, downward mobility. It has been felt the most not by the adult men who were the tradesmen, shopkeepers, and skilled workers, but by their sons, by the young men whose inheritance has been seemingly stolen from them. They feel entitled and deprived—and furious. These angry young men are the foot soldiers of the armies of rage that have sprung up around the world.

Printed with permission from Nation Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

Michael Kimmel is among the leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity in the world today. The author or editor of more than twenty volumes, his books include Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity (1987), Men Confront Pornography (1990), The Politics of Manhood (1996), The Gender of Desire (2005) and The History of Men (2005).