Vegas Tenold, “Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America” (2018) – My efforts to “keep up” with the literature on the altright has brought me to this effort by a Norwegian journalist. So far, he’s been the one with the most access out of the lot. He started out writing curiosity stories about neonazis and klan groups- kind of like those episodes of Maury every nineties kid will remember, where he’d have on some absurdly kitted-out racists for everyone to gawk and yell at. Later, he began following Matt Heimbach, leader of the “Traditional Workers Party,” around, as he toured the country, got hyped for the Trump election, and right up to Charlottesville.
Like a lot of books on the altright (though Tenold defines his subjects as being adjacent to, not in, the altright- the definitional stuff can be a pain) this has something of a thrown-together quality. In part, this is because the story changed and grew as Tenold was following it- from freak curiosity in 2010 to the white nationalists’ guy in the White House (though not because of them) in 2017. So he can never quite tell if he’s depicting a freak show, like those episodes of Maury, or if he’s doing one of those soft-focus New York Times profiles, or is trying to depict a movement. This results in some jarring tonal shifts, like between following some white trash klansmen straight of central casting, and then trying to take Heimbach seriously as a political actor.
Heimbach provides the closest thing to a connective thread. A tubby middle-class nerd (I know the sort, believe me) who reinvented himself as the white nationalist savior of Appalachia, he is trying some things that are strategically interesting, in his grotesque, hapless way. There’s a certain deeply vulgar Maoism to his strategy- send his cadres out to poor white areas, make the problems of the people’s theirs, gain their trust, and then build a base to eventually mount an insurgency. This probably wouldn’t work in any event and would never work helmed by the sort of guy whose idea of communicating to the people he wants to ally with is haranguing them about Assad and interwar Romanian fascism, but it is one of the classic insurgent strategic models.
We don’t see as much of that in the book, but we do see his other big strategic idea- form a united front on the far right, get all the squabbling tribes in one tent. This provides a frame for the book, as Tenold follows Heimbach around as tries to get various klan, Nazi, and skinhead groups to come together and follow his vision, what would eventually become the Nationalist Front, which is indeed a thing now. In many respects this runs counter to the “organize the people” strategy, as those other groups are even more of a liability than Heimbach’s nerds are in terms of appealing to people. But it does provide a narrative frame for Tenold’s journey around the movement, where he gives little mini-profiles of various neonazi types (who Heimbach sees as out of date), Richard Spencer (who Heimbach sees as a snob and a fake), etc. It’s a decent narrative device.
But in the process, Tenold is coopted somewhat by Heimbach. Heimbach seems more reasonable than the other fascists, less eliminationist in his racism- he sometimes tells the klansmen or whoever that black people, too, deserve an ethnostate, that he’s not a white supremacist merely a white nationalist, yadda yadda. While the inter-right squabbling is interesting to follow — and let’s just say I’m familiar with the dynamic of “these assholes in the other sect are wrong and corny, but fuck it, we need the numbers” — Tenold takes Heimbach’s claims of not being a white supremacist, merely a nationalist, much too much at face value. There’s no such thing as a non-bigoted, non-violent white nationalist: that’s just the shit they say to confuse people. They know forming ethnostates would be massively violent, and that’s why they like it. Tenold acknowledges Heimbach is a racist and, basically, bad — if nothing else, he is openly, unabashedly antisemitic — but some journalistic (or liberal, or perhaps Scandinavian) scruple prevents him from connecting the dots a bit more between the image his subject presents, his political project, and the larger context. It’s not quite NYT profile bad — at least Tenold is willing to laugh at his subjects some — but it’s in the ballpark. ***