Breitbart editor Stephen K. Bannon has been grabbing headlines lately, not least for an appearance in Hong Kong. It might seem strange that the economic nationalist and self-proclaimed media ally of the white supremacist alt-right is taking his message abroad, but it fits with the publication’s strategy of international expansion. Since 2014, Breitbart has added offices in London and Jerusalem with plans for more in the future.
Such a strategy makes sense. Bannon and Breitbart might be critical of globalization, but their tendencies toward nativism and occasional race-baiting have long histories of uniting populations across borders. In fact, despite popular depictions of white supremacists as parochial reactionaries out of step with the modern world, this racialized ideology has always been reliant on international networks. Understanding this reality helps explain the resiliency of white supremacy, as well as how political agitators like Bannon make the right vulnerable to infiltration by racial extremists.
Indeed, white supremacy as we now know it evolved in response to global forces. During the late 19th century, the racialist thought that underlay European imperialism merged with social Darwinism — a flawed application of species evolution that claimed human subgroups were biologically distinct and in constant competition — to legitimize the concept of a hierarchy of races. It was a belief shared by prominent figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including Cecil Rhodes and Teddy Roosevelt.
Topping this new hierarchy was an idealized Anglo-Saxon culture, which represented the ascendant powers of the day: Britain, the United States and (to a lesser extent) Germany. Leaders in these countries claimed that their Protestant religion, national ingenuity and unmatched military power established their right to conquer and manage the world. Whiteness became a shorthand for this collective proof of superiority.
And this racial superiority had a global mission. Leaders of the United States and the British Empire embraced the belief that Anglo-Saxons had a duty to educate backward civilizations in Christianity, Western modernity and capitalism. Rudyard Kipling described this as the “white man’s burden,” a term he coined in 1899 while encouraging the United States to colonize the Philippines. This shared undertaking provided a network for the exchange of ideas and policies aimed at cementing a global white supremacy that transcended national borders.
Because it emerged in this context, white identity was shaped by imperial patterns of work, trade and migration. The influx of Asian laborers to the frontiers of the United States and Australia inspired widespread fears of a “yellow peril” diluting or displacing Anglo-Saxon stock, which led to the establishment of some of the first formal immigration restrictions. Both the American Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and “white Australia” policies at the turn of the century sought to calm popular fears of a flood of foreigners by limiting the admittance of specific migrants into these countries. Such unanticipated consequences of empire thus established a rhetoric of both power and precariousness, which became centerpieces of political white supremacy.
In other areas — especially regions where authorities felt outnumbered by black people used for cheap labor — the logic of white supremacy informed more extreme policies. In South Africa and the American South, elected officials created systems of segregation to manage regular interactions between races, backed by legal regimes and extralegal violence. Laws like the voting literacy test first developed by redeemers in the “old South” found proponents among policymakers in Natal.
Officials in both countries justified these systems by claiming that black people lacked the civilizational maturity to govern themselves, and therefore required a separate set of laws and more limited set of rights. By carefully creating a set of race-based privileges, these officials helped forge a sense of white unity among often-divided European ethnicities, defined by their access to political and economic power.
Cold War anti-communism provided cover for white supremacy in some arenas, even as the Western emphasis on freedom, democracy and human rights chipped away at traditions of racism after World War II. George Kennan, architect of the containment policy that shaped U.S. relations with the world for much of the Cold War, viewed nonwhites as impulsive, ignorant, illogical and lazy. He predicted they would ally with communists not as a way of fighting European imperialism, but out of spite, ignorance or weakness.
As a result of this racial reasoning, European empires gained tacit American approval by claiming an ultimately unsuccessful role in containing Soviet expansion. Washington policymakers accepted European claims that they were the most reliable guarantors of pro-Western stability in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Even as colonial agitation made decolonization all but inevitable, American officials continued to hope that reforming political relations with its colonies would allow allies like Britain and France to maintain diplomatic and economic dominance in these regions.
Yet there was little doubt that public acceptance of white supremacy was on the decline. Nazi Germany had demonstrated the danger of racial superiority, and successful struggles for decolonization in Asia and Africa slowly diminished European influence in those regions. This global embrace of new definitions of civil and human rights directly affected politics and culture in predominantly white nations. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence shaped Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of protest, and Third World revolutions fueled African and Asian pride movements from London to Los Angeles.
The pressure that popular movements were able to place on South African apartheid, the most visible remnant of white supremacy, testified to a tangible shift in international attitudes. Still, the apartheid state remained intact into the 1990s by courting Western governments, businesses and banks whose investment in the global status quo militated against a dramatic change of course. Existing structures of international military and economic power continued to favor Europe and the United States, but the overt political and social program of white supremacy had been put on the defensive.
The shrinking dedication to white supremacy led its adherents to adapt. More flexible advocates responded to these conditions by expanding whiteness to encompass a broader Judeo-Christian culture, making room for Catholics, Eastern Europeans or even Jews who had long been excluded from earlier iterations of white supremacy. For many, the centrality of Anglo-Saxon traditions of freedom and even capitalism was diminished in an effort to secure racial solidarity in an increasingly complex and decentralized world.
Recently, global white supremacy has been making a comeback, attracting adherents by stoking a new unease with changing demographics, using an expanded rhetoric of deluge and cultivating nostalgia for a time when various white governments ruled the world (and local cities). At the fringes, longing for lost white regimes forged a new global iconography of supremacy. This was revealed most dramatically in 2015 when news reports showed Charleston shooter Dylann Roof clothed in the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia alongside the familiar Stars and Bars.
To be sure, the nationalism of Bannon, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen does not fully overlap with the extremist ideology of Roof or the white demagogues who invaded Charlottesville last month. Yet each consciously and subconsciously draws upon the rhetoric of deluge, catastrophe, righteousness and control that emerged from this global history of white supremacy. They share a common emphasis on the importance of preserving and protecting idealized European and American identities, and all bring with them a nostalgia for past decades when Europeans and their descendants dominated the globe.