Scot Nakagawa is a community organizer and activist with decades of experience fighting white nationalist groups in the Pacific Northwest. He’s now a Senior Partner at ChangeLab, a think tank that examines the effects of demographic change on racial justice politics. Nakagawa emailed with The Forge’s Lindsay Zafir about the history, organization, and tactics of white supremacist groups in the United States — as well as the strategies organizers need to employ to effectively combat white nationalist movements today. The interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

You work for ChangeLab, an organization that calls itself a racial justice think/act lab. A big part of your work focuses on how to combat white nationalism and vigilante white supremacist groups. Can you tell us why you consider the fight against the right central to racial justice? 

[At ChangeLab] we believe that the far right, and especially its white nationalist faction, is not just a driver of violence and fomenter of hate. Violence and hate promotion are the means, not the end goal, of the far right in the U.S. Their goal is at the very center of the struggle over the meaning and consequences of American nationalism: who gets to be an American, and what does “American” mean? 

Around the question of race, the white supremacists have set the far-right pole. They anchor and frame the debate on the right. On the question of immigration rights, for instance, the far right makes outrageous claims and, by doing so, pushes the political debate to the right. In the process, those to their immediate left, what I call the near right, have more running room and the ability to make their policy positions and racist justifications appear reasonable by comparison.

We regard race as an extremely powerful anti-democratic ideology. Over the course of U.S. history, it has limited our democratic potential by facilitating extreme hierarchy, anti-democratic regimes of exclusion, and unsustainable labor and natural resource extraction practices. Race also divides us from our shared interest in investing in a robust and equitable welfare state. 

 

What’s your understanding of white supremacist organizations in the U.S. and how the landscape has changed (or not) over the past few decades?

The V-Dem Institute, an international democracy watchdog group based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, recently reported that, for the first time in this century, the majority of the world’s nations are autocracies. That’s 92 countries, home to 54 percent of the world’s population. 

This group includes a member of the European Union and G-20 nations with significant geopolitical influence. 35 percent of the world’s nations are in the process of autocratization, meaning they are losing key characteristics of democratic states like free elections, a free press, peaceful transitions of power, and checks and balances on executive authority, among others. Brazil, India, Turkey, and the U.S. are in this group. Under Trump, the process of autocratization in the U.S. speeded up dramatically, not just because of the policies he put in place but, very importantly, because of the style of leadership he legitimized and the democratic norms he obliterated.

Now believing that they’ve been denied the ballot, many among the white nationalists and other far right factions are likely to reach for the bullet. They will take their fight to the streets. This fight is something we need to prepare for right now, and that's going to require us to up our game dramatically, and not just through getting better at protest. I’ll get into this more later.

 

How are white supremacist groups organized?

As an underground movement [since the Oklahoma City bombing], white supremacists adapted very quickly to the emergence of the internet and social media. And there they remained, in virtual space, mostly alienated from mainstream politics. And then 2016 came around and Trump began doing the equivalent of calling their names as he ran for president. The white nationalists heard him and came out of the shadows. 

[White supremacist movements are] a combination of adults playing army in the woods and online movement builders and mobilizers. They function to an extent like fraternities, as violent far-right groups always have, starting with the KKK. They lean into masculinism and cultural — often read as racial — grievances. And they reach out to the isolated and the alienated who feel their concerns are being ignored by the government as they are being drowned out by feminists, LGBTQ people, and, of course, people of color. And while all of these groups are viewed by them as inferior, the threat we represent is clarified by antisemitism

The radical core believe that Jews are taking over and are achieving this by using people of color and other groups as pawns in a race war that will erase them. Remember the chant from Charlottesville? “Jews will not erase us. You will not erase us.” They use public rallies and marches as political theater, drawing violent confrontations in order to make the case that their first amendment rights are being violated, suggesting, often, that it is because they’re “just white guys,” and then they reinforce this with online organizing and education. 

 

What are the different points of entry into white supremacist movements?

We should be paying attention to the Christian nationalists, what most folks call the Christian Right — a very big soft entry point into white nationalist radicalization. 

Also significant, the core memberships of the various paramilitary factions [of white supremacist movements] include a large number of military veterans and current and former first responders, including police. One of the ways this happened is via the protests last summer. Political Research Associates reports that by disrupting protests, white supremacists were able to create relationships with police officers while also building their national network. Among military vets, my sense is that one of the pillars of their success is that we’ve become a martial culture since 9/11. Imagine you have been in active duty in the Iraq War. You joined because of 9/11 in order to protect the homeland. You got there and soon learned that the war was based on a lie. When you [come back and] reach out for help, you run directly into an underfunded and balkanized Veteran’s Administration. This is the kind of circumstance that might make right-wing deep state conspiracy theories feel legitimate.

They also targeted liberal cities. Right-leaning angry white men [in those places] are often ripe for recruitment. They are subject to the tyranny of a liberal majority. If you’re in Portland, Oregon, one of the centers of conflict with the white supremacist right, you are completely unrepresented at every level of government unless there’s a Republican in the White House. 

 

How are white supremacist groups funded?

They’re mostly self-funded on the extreme right. But, again, we should remember that the Christian Right is a big soft entry point into right-wing radicalism, and those groups are funded by billionaire oligarchs like the Mercers and others who are right-wing Republican donors, and they’re funded by them because they’re a critical part of the Republican coalition. Under Trump, white nationalists have most likely become a permanent part of the Republican coalition along with QAnon and other far-right groupings. That opens the door to investment.

 

What are some other successful examples of organizers combating white supremacists? Where have we been less successful as a movement? 

Back in the day, we relied heavily on counter-protest. When you can mobilize overwhelming peaceful opposition, this is still a good way to go. Nowadays, we need to consider not just the presence of white nationalist paramilitaries but their potential impact, and organize to address that, especially because they’ve mainstreamed to a much greater degree. Build bulwark communities via coalition building, rapid response networks, and communications hubs, especially reaching to local media. And build local public policy maps for the community to organize itself around. We need clearly articulated, materially meaningful, actionable demands within a political agenda that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. That means we need narrative strategies and meta-narrative rooted both in political theory and in concrete policy and institutional change goals. 

Our strategies to defeat or at least minimize the influence of authoritarianism should be designed to play a number of roles. First, we need disruptors, people dedicated to exposing white nationalists, and legal and organizing campaigns that act like roadblocks, slowing them down and upping the cost of moving their agenda. And we need a narrative reframe, to defuse rising tensions and broaden the base of opposition. And those narratives need to also position us to fulfill what is, I think, the most critical need, which is to mobilize people who can appeal to those vulnerable to recruitment and compete with the far right for base. That means we need to address race and class and gender in terms of outcomes and impacts in the broadest context possible. 

Remember that the rejection of demographic change and social inclusion on the right, and of white supremacy and patriarchy on the left, are effects of a broader change we’re going through that we need to speak to directly. What is underlying these changes is that capitalism is failing. Nothing has held this nation together, for good or bad, as effectively as the idea that capitalism is a fount of personal freedom and social mobility and a driver of progress and ever growing prosperity. We need to reject these ideas, but lacking a clear, cogent alternative to scale, the fight is going to be very messy and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The threat to white supremacy and gender is that capitalism is the scaffolding for those hierarchies. But capitalism is not just failing and going away, it is evolving into something potentially far worse. We need to speak to that and to the economic changes we’re going through, the diminishing power majorities have in this context, and all of the other effects through gender and race, not by going around and avoiding these subjects, because gender and race are the lenses through which most of us understand class and power, but while not ever forgetting that gender and race are class and power issues that affect all of us badly.

Finally, we need to deal with social media. At this point, we are meeting this challenge by demanding that information oligarchs act to de-platform dangerous individuals and cancel vectors of radicalization like Parler. But this has us in the position of asking those oligarchs to serve as benign dictators. We don’t really have power in this relationship. And, by doing so, we may be endorsing their ability to wield censorial power. Worse, we are doing so while letting the government off the hook for its regulatory responsibility. Policy makers appear to be screening themselves from criticism with first amendment nostalgia at a time when social media and Deep AI are making the first amendment obsolete.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

One of the key changes among the white supremacist faction is that they went from a political agenda of white supremacy to one of white nationalism while retaining white supremacy as their ideological glue. White supremacy was tolerated under federal authority until the 1960s. Groups like the KKK stood for the rule of law as it was being interpreted under Jim Crow — racially exclusive and exploitative residential codes, hiring practices, and mortgage lending practices, to name just a few injustices. 

When those codes fell, the white supremacist political agenda lost clarity and political traction. They were still ideologically white supremacists, but they had no real issues and a whopper of an image problem that was causing the movement to age out. Leaders responded by rebranding and rethinking their political goals and strategies. They moved resources, intellectuals, and organizers into places like the Pacific Northwest, and they moved from advocating for continuing white supremacy to white nationalism, which is fundamentally anti-government and less about racial hierarchy than racial exclusion or even cleansing. This makes them especially dangerous and helps explain what went down at the national Capitol on January 6.

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