The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Radical right is a threat to some individuals but will never hold political power

A crowd of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include “Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism” and “Making Sense of the Alt-Right.”

A short time ago, most people ignored the furthest fringes of the radical right, secure in the knowledge that they were marginalized and sliding toward inevitable extinction. With the election of Donald Trump, and fears that white-nationalist extremists occupied the White House, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Throughout 2017, observers expressed great concern that the alt-right — the latest iteration of the American white-nationalist movement — was an existential threat to democracy and racial progress. Both views were mistaken.

Where the alt-right wants to take America — with or without Trump

The explicitly racist right never went away and may always be with us. However, the extremists who made so many headlines at places such as Pikeville, Tenn., and Charlottesville last year are not on the verge of a breakthrough — even if the man they called “the God Emperor” during the last presidential election sits in the Oval Office. The reenergized extreme right presented itself as a united movement, ready for the political main stage. Those unaware of its inner workings failed to notice that it remained as fractured, fractious and penniless as ever — though still dangerous.

Vegas Tenold’s book, “Everything You Love Will Burn,” provides helpful insights into this small but noisy element of the political landscape. For six years, Tenold investigated America’s most radical right-wing groups, getting to know the movement’s leading figures on a personal level, often at considerable risk. He provides an insider account of these organizations, helping readers understand their motivations and strategies. He describes his experiences with the National Socialist Movement, the Ku Klux Klan, the Hammerskin Nation and the Traditionalist Workers Party. He was present when neo-Nazis battled Antifa activists with folding chairs and other weapons of opportunity at the 2010 “Battle of Trenton,” and he nearly took a brick to the face at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. At one point, a drunk KKK member held a gun to his head.

The main takeaway from Tenold’s book is that his subjects — while a threat to individuals on a small scale — will never possess actual political power. The KKK, which once boasted of its “invisible empire,” is now considered a joke, even among white nationalists. The fact that its leaders often turn out to be federal informants does not help its cause. The National Socialist Movement sought to rebrand itself by ditching the extremist imagery, but this was a challenge because so many of its members have swastikas permanently inked on their skin. Racist skinheads are eager to assault racial and religious minorities, but if they do not see any around, they are happy to wallop each other. The book gets repetitive at times because so many events Tenold attended entailed drinking beer in an isolated field.

Matthew Heimbach, the young leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, is the book’s main character — an understandable choice, as he is an important figure in his movement. Heimbach gave Tenold extraordinary access to his meetings over several years. Although Tenold repeatedly announces his distaste for Heimbach’s worldview, he provides a mostly sympathetic portrayal of the man described as the “little Führer.” This is one of the book’s shortcomings. Tenold describes Heimbach as the moderate in his story, and to some extent this is an accurate portrayal; Heimbach does avoid racial slurs and open declarations of white superiority. Yet his moderation is more apparent than real. The fact that his T-shirt depicts Corneliu Codreanu, a Romanian ultra-right leader between the world wars, rather than Adolf Hitler, just proves he is pragmatic enough to celebrate fascists most Americans have never heard of.

Throughout the book, we hear that Heimbach dreams of tying fringe groups together into something resembling a cohesive organization. By the end, we learn he somewhat succeeded, and the Nationalist Front did bring the Traditionalist Workers Party and various neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate members together for public events. Yet Tenold gives little indication as to what Heimbach plans for Step 2. Given the many hours the two spent together, one concludes that there is no greater plan and that even if he is successful, Heimbach will just be the leader of a slightly larger despised and powerless coalition.

What the alt-right really wants, according to a professor writing a book about them

“Everything You Love Will Burn” is a fascinating, disturbing book. Tenold tells an important story well, and as far as I can discern, he does so accurately. Yet Tenold also notes that the groups and individuals in his book represent a tiny sliver of contemporary America. Most Americans, including most Trump voters, still wince at the sight of parading neo-Nazis. Although members of these kinds of groups have been responsible for murders and other hate crimes, the unsettling truth is that the worst instances of racist violence often come from lone wolves with no organizational affiliation — people like Dylann Roof, who killed nine in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, and Anders Breivik, a Norwegian far-right mass murderer. These kinds of attacks are thus very difficult to predict and prevent.

We should not ignore the extreme right, and Tenold’s book provides welcome understanding. The author suggests, however, that we should not fixate too much on the pageantry of extremist groups. They are not the ultimate cause of racial inequality and division. By centering our attention on the most outrageous radicals, we risk losing sight of more mundane, structural causes of inequity and racial polarization. Tenold suggests that private prisons, mandatory sentencing and unconstrained police power are greater threats to disadvantaged communities than the KKK, and he is almost certainly correct.

By Vegas Tenold

Nation. 321 pp. $27