A Dangerous New Americanism?
When extremists wield the full force of the federal government, American identity is profoundly threatened.
Editor’s Note: The below is based on the new ICCT report, Extremist Construction of Identity.
“An endless stream of the most undesirable immigrants pours daily into the United States,” the unnamed writer warned.
Inadequately vetted, they pretended to be refugees, but they refused to assimilate and instead advanced a secretive agenda. It was not “merely an immigration of persons, but an immigration of ideas” — foreign ideas that sought to overtake American values. They were reportedly sneaking across the border from Mexico, bringing crime and corruption with them.
Perhaps not all of them were bad. Some, the writer assumed, were good people.
“[We] will continue to assume that the majority of the Jewish people do not approve of criminal acts,” he wrote, but “the Jewish idea … eats the substance out of the civilization which it attacks, destroys its moral virility, throws down its reverence, saps its respect for authority, casts a shadow on every basic principle.”
These excerpts were printed in The International Jew, a collection of newspaper columns published in the 1920s and attributed to business magnate and infamous anti-Semite Henry Ford. But the real author was William J. Cameron, an adherent of an obscure religious theory known as British-Israelism.
Cameron’s words are notable, not simply for how their language foreshadows American politics in the 21st century, but also for their place in an evolutionary process that produced one of the most infamous white nationalist sects in American history—Christian Identity.
The story of how Christian Identity emerged from British-Israelism helps shed light on the causes of extremism and highlights a troubling transition taking place in American identity today.
In a new research report for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague, I analyzed in detail the evolution of this American white nationalist movement whose members believe that people of Jewish and African descent are the literal descendants of Satan. Important lessons can be learned by examining the process by which Christian Identity emerged as an extremist movement from its non-extremist predecessor. Michael Barkun’s seminal book, Religion and the Racist Right, traces the history of the movement and its organizations referenced herein, while my paper analyzes the evolution of its ideology through texts. British-Israelism was a 19th-century pseudohistorical theory, which held that Anglo-Saxons were direct descendants of the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel. As such, adherents believed that the British Empire and the United States were the inheritors and fulfilment of God’s covenants described in the Old Testament. Taken together, Britain and the United States constituted the modern-day continuation of God’s chosen state of Israel. Advocates of the theory justified this belief through a combination of biblical genealogies and “evidence” selectively culled from history and folklore.
Although the movement reflected widely held racial and religious prejudices of its day, British-Israelism was not inherently extreme. Early adherents believed Jews and Anglo-Saxons shared a common heritage and would eventually be reunited (albeit only after Jews converted to Christianity).
From its birth in 1870 through the 1910s, British-Israelist writers generally saw Anglo-Saxons as a blessed “race,” but ideologues and adherents did not go out of their way to denigrate other “races,” nor did they recommend any kind of hostile action against them. In fact, British-Israelism originally advocated very little action at all. It was primarily a polite request for wider acknowledgement of Anglo-Saxony’s perceived prestige.
But over time, other influences crept into the British-Israelist worldview, especially as the movement faded in England and found new life in the United States and Canada during the 1930s, as its texts found their way across the ocean, inspiring dozens of individuals and small organizations to promote the theory and publish their own takes.
The claim that Anglo-Saxons had inherited the mantle of God’s “chosen people” created tension with Judaism, even if early adherents did not dwell on it. But that tension became more overt after World War I, reflecting a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and America.
In 1920, the American edition of the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was published. Cameron, the adherent of British-Israelism who went to work for Henry Ford, helped popularize the Protocols in America through newspaper columns, which were later collected in The International Jew. Thanks to Cameron and others, elements of the Protocols infiltrated British-Israelist writings in steadily increasing detail over the next three decades.
Cameron, through his association with Ford, helped bring a far-right anti-Communist element to the movement. Both men followed the lead of the American edition of Protocols in blaming a Jewish conspiracy for the Russian revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union.
Millenarian fears stoked by World War II and the detonation of the first atomic bomb raised the stakes. British-Israelist genealogies, originally deployed to support Anglo-Saxon claims to God’s covenants, were now reinterpreted to deny the legitimacy of Jewish claims to the same as well as to define an “Anglo-Saxon race” as distinct from a “Jewish race.” Biblical prophecies were reinterpreted to predict a coming apocalyptic war between American Anglo-Saxons and Soviet Jews.
Amid these soaring tensions, the rise of Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel presented existential challenges for the movement. As its name suggests, the most central element of British-Israelist ideology was its claim that Anglo-Saxons were the true Israelites described in the Bible. A Jewish state of Israel undermined that basic premise in the most dramatic way imaginable.
British-Israelist ideologues became frantic to discredit the partisans of this rapidly coalescing Jewish nationalist movement. This resulted in ever-more aggressive justifications and escalating attacks on the “out-group”—those who are excluded from an identity movement’s privileged core membership.
In its final iteration, a new ideology splintered off from British-Israelism, introducing a fanciful and fake history of the human race, which took British-Israelist genealogies into the realm of science fiction. Adherents increasingly began to refer to the new strain of thought as Identity, or Christian Identity.
Christian Identity ideologues expanded the British-Israelist “in-group” from Anglo-Saxons to “the white race.” They expanded the “out-group” to include all Jews (who they argued were literally descended from Satan) and added a mythological history of a “black race” (largely ignored by earlier British-Israelist writers), which they said was descended from extraterrestrial aliens brought to Earth by Satan in prehistorical times.
Finally, Christian Identity ideologues preached that the time had come for whites to take up arms in the name of God against inferior races, and some adherents responded to the call.
In my paper for ICCT, I examined the progression of British-Israelism into Christian Identity in more detail in order to gain insight into why some social identities become extreme I also explore what is meant by the term extremism, a term that has not been well-defined by academics and policymakers.
Extremism can be seen as the belief that an in-group can never be healthy and successful unless it takes negative actions against an out-group. For extremists, negative actions against the out-group are inseparable from the health of the in-group. These acts range from milder options, such as assimilation or voluntary segregation, to much more severe options, such as terrorism or genocide.
The evolution of British-Israelism highlights crucial tipping points in an identity movement’s march toward extremism:
- Demand for legitimacy: Identity-based movements are not always extreme. They begin by justifying the right of an in-group to exist as a collective. Movements become extreme when this healthy need for legitimacy escalates uncontrollably, like an auto-immune disorder. When this occurs, the in-group’s need for legitimacy can only be satisfied at the expense of an out-group.
- Escalating justifications: As the demand for legitimacy increases, extremist ideologues seek additional justifications for their demands, sometimes drawing on sources of questionable authenticity, such as apocryphal scriptures and conspiracy theories. The new justifications sometimes inspire further demands for legitimacy and as the cycle repeats, a movement spirals into extremism.
- Perception of threat: As a movement becomes extreme, the out-group is seen as an increasingly dangerous threat to the legitimacy or security of the in-group. As the perception of threat grows, so too does the range of “solutions” that an in-group is willing to consider for the “out-group problem.”
- Fluidity of groups: The definition of the “in-group” (the identity a movement seeks to support) and the “out-group” (people excluded from the movement’s support) changes over time. For Christian Identity, both the in-group and the out-group expanded (from Anglo-Saxon to “white” for the former, from Jewish to “non-white” for the latter). This dynamic differs for other groups; for instance, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has contracted its in-group while expanding its out-group. But shifts in group definition, regardless of direction, may be among the most dangerous points in the life of an identity movement. When identity is in the process of being redefined, it is more vulnerable to extremist formulations.
All of these factors are now at play in the consideration of American identity, and that should worry everyone. “American” is an identity collective, like any other. Identifying as part of a collective is not inherently bad. In many ways, it’s normal and healthy. People who live in communities seek definition, whether as a neighborhood or as a nation. But when the health of the in-group can only be obtained at the expense of an out-group, identity takes on sinister and destructive overtones.
The “American” identity is not immune to this dynamic, no matter how nobly it has been defined in the past. President Donald Trump and the “movement” he touts are steering America into the death spiral that leads to true violent extremism.
The opening salvo of his presidential campaign set the tone from the beginning, stating that “our country is in serious trouble…we don’t have victories anymore.” He then proceeded to list a number of out-groups to whom Americans were allegedly losing.”
Mexicans? “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” The Chinese? “They kill us (on trade).” Muslims? “I think Islam hates us.”
He painted a despairing picture of America that he would repeat and escalate throughout the 2016 campaign and carry on into his presidency. His focus on “bad deals” hammered home the point that America’s weakness was inextricably linked to its attitudes about outsiders. Both the in-group and out-group are nebulous in Trump’s worldview. He arbitrarily redraws the lines whenever it is convenient and insists he is supported by the very people he is marginalizing.
This is the “fluidity of groups” that accompanies a transition to extremism. The definition of the “American” in-group is elusive and shifting. The definition of a core out-group of “immigrants” (including Muslims, Mexicans, and more) is crystallizing but still flexible. Around the edges, it is expanding—for instance, with the recent wave of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism, passively endorsed by an administration that attacks reporters for even asking about the issue.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric is framed in the context of business and competition, and here it is important to understand some of the subtleties of the definition of extremism. For a movement to be extremist, it must believe an in-group’s success is inseparable from negative acts against an out-group.
Competition does not by definition require negative acts against competitors. For instance, a sports team seeks to defeat competing teams, but it does not seek to destroy them. Similarly, most businesses define success by their own profits, rather than by the destruction of their competitors.
The Trump administration believes that America’s success can never be separated from hostile action against perpetual out-group threats.
“We either have a country or we don’t,” Trump has said on more than one occasion. “If we have a country, we have to have borders. We have borders, we have to have laws. We either have a country or we don’t, and it’s that simple.”
The theme was endemic during his campaign, acting as a drumbeat that drew the candidate enthusiastic support from white nationalists. A critical moment came on December 7, 2015, when candidate Trump made his infamous “statement on preventing Muslim immigration.” One can argue (accurately, in my opinion) that a very large number of Trump administration policies are intended to marginalize and exclude minority communities rather than to achieve their stated policy objectives. The so-called “Muslim ban” is the most unambiguous example.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” the statement read, echoed by the candidate himself during subsequent campaign appearances.
In office, Trump has attempted to make good on the ban, while limiting its scope in the hopes of passing constitutional muster. This process is made more difficult by his own statements, which are admissible as evidence of intent to discriminate. Notably, there has been no movement on the second part of the pledge—to “figure out what is going on.” There’s a reason for that: This administration doesn’t care.
As most national security professionals agree, the so-called Muslim ban is not about making America safer. Instead, it is about reinforcing the perception of threat by drawing a box around the American “in-group” and firmly situating Muslims in the “out-group.”
The administration can accomplish its extremist goals without actually implementing the ban. In fact, its agenda may benefit more from a definitive defeat in court than it would from a quiet victory. Those who registered well-meaning objections to the travel ban noted that the countries singled out were not implicated in terrorist attacks on the homeland. These arguments correctly assess that the travel ban is not based on a genuine security consideration. However, they played right into the administration’s hands by pointing out other Muslim countries whose natives did carry out terrorist attacks here.
Trump wins when the national debate becomes a discussion about whether Muslims are “safe”—and which Muslims are safe. That debate is so precious to this administration that it is willing to sacrifice the order’s legal standing for the sake of repeatedly emphasizing its identity component.
It might seem comforting that the administration is losing this argument by the numbers: Americans, overall, view Muslims in an increasingly favorable light. But it’s not about convincing the majority; it’s about radicalizing a minority. Views about Muslims are increasingly divergent along partisan lines, and sharply more negative on the right.
Extremist movements do not arise fully formed from the ether; they emerge through processes and over time. They grow by polarizing ever-larger niches of a population into ever-more extreme views. They radicalize their opposition, triggering escalating justifications that drive the in-group deeper and deeper into the mire.
British-Israelism descended into Christian Identity amid aggressive challenges to its legitimacy, both from skeptical members of the in-group and from developments within the out-group. After each challenge, the justification for demonizing the out-group became more elaborate and more severe.
President Trump has already begun institutionalizing this escalation, with a drumbeat of tweets and an announced government initiative to shine a disproportionate spotlight on crime by immigrants. These are only the beginning. The presidency is an unparalleled platform for shifting public opinion, and it will continue to be, especially in the wake of the next inevitable terrorist attack. We have been given no reason to hope the president’s rhetoric will moderate when that time comes; we have been given every reason to think it will escalate.
America is at a dangerous tipping point. No extremist movement in modern times has had the full force of the federal government behind it. The audience available to the president of the United States vastly outstrips the wildest dreams of the KKK, neo-Nazis, or the Islamic State. Through both policies and public statements, no one in the world can convey a message more powerfully and pervasively. And the content of his message directly assists those extremist movements in escalating their own arguments, while contributing to the radicalization of American identity more broadly.
The administration’s policies consistently escalate the narrative of in-group/out-group conflict, making the fears stoked by extremist ideologues into a semblance of reality.
In an increasingly volatile world of instant global social connections, it is impossible to overstate the transformative power of a U.S. federal government in thrall to an extremist presidency. This is especially true when the administration’s policies and rhetoric are both informed by unhinged, racist paranoia about an imagined army of invading immigrants.
A quote ascribed to Winston Churchill, while probably apocryphal, may ultimately hold true: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
But until then, President Trump and his extremist administration can wreak tremendous havoc upon America, its citizens, and people around the world. It may take a generation or more to repair the damage this presidency has already done to the body politic. In the meantime, countless lives may be destroyed and decades of gains in civil rights may be rolled back.
At this stage, it is unlikely that this new brand of extremist Americanism can be derailed easily, if at all. Even in abject political defeat, if such an outcome is possible, President Trump can still inspire hate crimes, motivate terrorist violence and even sow the seeds of insurgency. By disposition and worldview, he is likely to walk out of the White House over a proverbial field of smoldering, scorched earth.
The new Americanism will also inspire increasingly radical and potentially violent responses from the left. This will ultimately serve to further escalate the Americanist demand for legitimacy.
Meeting extremism with extremism is ultimately counterproductive. It is counterproductive when the Trump administration presents it as a solution to “radical Islamic terrorism,” and it will be unproductive as a tactic to reduce the harm of a Trump administration. No matter how you look at it, using extremism to fight extremism is a recipe for disaster.
What remains is for us to fight to hold the center, a daunting and difficult task.
We can fight to maintain an open and pluralistic vision of American identity in our personal lives and local communities. We can build bridges between majority communities and minority communities that are at risk in the current toxic social environment. We can fight the flow of misinformation (on both sides) and speak the truth. We can resist the temptation to embrace an escalating “us versus them” mentality and try to reclaim those who are swept up in the rising extremist tide. We can lash ourselves to the wheel of an inclusive American identity and fight the gales that seek to push us off course, until they at last subside.
Here, an opening exists for those who seek to preserve American identity from its extreme “Americanist” doppelganger. For all the time and focus President Trump has devoted to creating fear of an out-group threat, he has spent very little time or effort defining what it means to be an American within the context of his movement.
Most extremist movements spend considerable energy constructing a picture of their “eligible” in-group—the qualities that define what it means to be part of their identity collective. For Christian Identity, those qualities were racial, and the criteria for understanding race were discussed at great length. For the Islamic State, those qualities are both religious and martial, and its propaganda catalogs the characteristics of the in-group in obsessive detail.
Trump has not defined what it means to be an Americanist, or even simply an American, in any sort of detail. This may be a deliberate strategy to avoid using an implied definition that is obviously extremist and potentially alienating to voters—such as defining Americanism as predominately Christian or white. Or it could reflect the fact that Trump’s Americanism might be better described as Trumpism and defined primarily by subscription to the president’s cult of personality.
Regardless of why it happened, this omission creates an opening for those who believe in a healthy, inclusive vision of American identity. If this extremist movement is afraid to define what it means to be an American, we should leap into that breach. Over the past 50 plus years, the picture of American identity has steadily become more diverse, and while some have resisted that evolution, most Americans haven’t.
Rather than launch a head-on attack against the legitimacy of the Americanists—an approach that is likely to result in escalation—we can step forward to affirm the American identity that emerged from the civil rights movement and developed over the decades that followed. We believe that America is constantly growing, and gladly incorporates new and diverse faces. We are the America that is populated by an overwhelming majority who are generous and work hard, who love their neighbors, who believe in the rights and protections provided to everyone, equally, under the law and in our founding documents.
The most important act of resistance is to stand up and clearly state that we are Americans, and to affirm a vision of American identity that is not cruel, afraid, or intolerant. It is to argue that America’s strength comes from inclusion—through democratic processes, through the protection of our rights, and through thriving communities where people co-exist peacefully with their neighbors, no matter who they are, no matter where they were born, no matter where their ancestors were born, and no matter for whom they voted.
In many ways, this spirit of inclusion has become the true rising tide of American identity. The new Americanism has emerged, in part, as a fearful reaction to that change. We are strongest when we clearly affirm that we stand together as a healthy and unified community in the face of those who seek to tear us apart.
J.M. Berger is a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague.
Image: Fibonacci Blue, CC