First part of Anis Shivani‘s very nice introduction to the issues surrounding the meaning of “white supremacy” and how the term has been at the heart of a number of movements in America.
Yet we may conceive of white supremacy, as it has always been practiced in this country, as merely the exaggerated form of our official creed, and think of all the meanings this implies for social status. Obviously the libertarian dimension is highly pronounced in the Posse Comitatus and Patriot movements, but this draws on the suspicion of government in all its larger manifestations, from the Federal Reserve Bank to the IRS, that is a staple of more acceptable conservative thinking. The John Birch movement arose in response to McCarthyism (calling Eisenhower himself a tool of the communists), just as the Patriot movement of the 1990s arose in a dynamic relationship with post-Cold War globalization and the new forms of war that went with it.
If war inspired by illegitimate government was a collective endeavor, then how was the patriotic American to preserve individual liberty? How could the true American patriot’s existing social status be leveraged? It is not always a question of perceived inferiority, or status anxiety, and it would be a mistake to reduce white supremacy to those terms.
The social status of white supremacists has always been subject to interpretation. The same has recently been asked of Trump’s supporters: Were they dispossessed voters trying to reclaim lost economic and social rights, or were they privileged voters seeking to disbar others from gaining equality?
What we learn from history is that no easy generalizations are possible; white supremacism is pervasive to the extent that it can’t be isolated as a phenomenon. Some of the most intellectually respectable among our founding fathers were supremacists, as were many establishment scientists and philosophers in the 19th century. The second-era Ku Klux Klan, which at its peak in the 1920s could boast millions of adherents and real control over policy, had legions of followers in the middle and even aristocratic classes. The JBS attracted solid bourgeois citizens, with the stage set by McCarthyism, while the third-era KKK of the 1970s easily transformed, for the most part, into respectable White Citizens’ Councils (now the Council of Conservative Citizens) which bridged the gap with establishment Republicans in the wake of the George Wallace candidacy.