Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin writes on refugee and immigrant identity, as well as Ukraine, Russia, and the far right. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last Wednesday, as the country was reeling from yet another massacre caused by a likely domestic terrorist, a CNN exclusive revealed the White House resisted attempts from its own Department of Homeland Security to place a greater emphasis on combatting white terrorism.
It is easy to feel helpless reading reports like this. But there’s much to do beyond grieving. Of course, the White House must heed DHS’s warnings about white terror, but the rest of us must act as well. Figures such as the suspected El Paso shooter are part of a network of single-minded individuals driven by hatred. In order to defeat them, decent people across both America and the world must form a network of our own.
So, where do we begin?
A quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. Today, we can add a grim corollary to that definition: Insanity is staring at a decade of massacres across multiple continents while refusing to recognize the underlying cause.
The impetus for the horrific slayings in El Paso likely did not come from mere hate or xenophobia; it came from an ideology, one as intricate, multifaceted and virulent as that which drives Islamic terror.
This ideology has already infiltrated our national discourse – including the halls of Congress – via euphemisms we’ve failed to call out. It’s spread across the globe, via a network of transnational white supremacy we’ve failed to monitor. It has led to the rise of white terrorists from Oslo, to Pittsburgh, to Quebec, to Charlottesville – most of whom we naively call “lone wolves.”
Condemning such attacks isn’t enough; we must commit ourselves to understanding their full scope.
What keeps white supremacists up at night
Modern white supremacy has been transformed by a single overarching concept: the white genocide theory, also called “The Great Replacement.” The Christchurch shooter referred to it and police believe the alleged El Paso shooter did, too.
The white genocide concept, like any other racist conspiracy theory, is offensive, illogical and above all, false. But it is impossible to understand today’s white supremacy without examining it. And as long as these lies continue to inspire violence, we must take them seriously.
White genocide theory, popularized by American white supremacist David Lane in the 1990s, is a false belief in the concerted effort to transform predominantly white nations in Europe, North America and Australasia into white-minority states. This nonsensical view states the “replacement” of white people is being implemented via suppression of white culture; declining white birthrates; and, above all, mass immigration – and its believers try to blame it all on Jews, in an echo of what the Nazis did.
The irrational fear of “white genocide” isn’t merely a motif of modern white supremacy – it is modern white supremacy. A 2016 George Washington University study found #whitegenocide to be the most popular hashtag among white supremacist and neo-Nazi Twitter networks. And, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the 14 Words – a motto summarizing white genocide theory – is “the most popular white supremacist slogan in the world.”
Once recognized, the tenets of white genocide theory are ubiquitous. They were demonstrated in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Charleston, and of course, in manifestos written by the Christchurch and the suspected El Paso shooters.
But the white genocide myth has successfully penetrated our national discourse far beyond terrorist manifestos. It can be heard in politics and the media via euphemisms and dog whistles.
Earlier this year, numerous outlets covered comments by Iowa Representative Steve King, including his obsession with a “cultural suicide by demographic transformation.” King later said he denounced white supremacy and white nationalism, though many – including me – found that hard to believe.
Echoes of white genocide claims are also unmistakably heard in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish billionaire George Soros driving migrants to Europe and America, which were spread by President Donald Trump, among others. The bogus Soros conspiracy has become the rallying cry of European far-right leaders, including Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who are forming alliances to “save” white Europe.
This brings us to the most dangerous and underreported aspect of modern white supremacy: its international nature.
The global wolf pack
The writings and actions of today’s white terrorists make it clear they see themselves as crusaders in a worldwide battle against annihilation. Indeed, when it comes to white supremacist terrorism, there are no more lone wolves; there’s only the global wolf pack. And the pack is communicating.
Prominent American white supremacist Matthew Heimbach traveled around neo-Nazi circles in Greece and the Czech Republic. Heimbach then returned to the US and organized a bloody 2016 rally in Sacramento, as well as helped promote the 2017 march in Charlottesville. That same year, neo-Nazis who trained in Russia bombed a refugee shelter in Sweden.
Indeed, last October, the FBI arrested members of the white supremacist Rise Above Movement who had allegedly attended events hosted by Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Azov organization. By now, numerous Western journalists have chronicled Azov’s crusade to turn Ukraine into a hub of international white supremacy.
How we can fight back
In order to confront the proliferation of a violent global hatred animated by angst over white genocide, the media, the public and the government must take certain long-overdue steps.
First, media and public figures should drop euphemisms such as “white nationalist” and “alt-right” – especially considering both terms were coined by white supremacists precisely to conceal their true nature.
Journalists and public figures are trained to exercise caution around terms like white supremacist, which is good practice. Crying wolf when there is no wolf is negligent; but so is filing stories about alt-sheep in the presence of an actual wolf. We cannot address the problem if we cannot even bring ourselves to accurately describe it.
Second, a transnational alliance of white terror must be addressed by a transnational alliance dedicated to combating it. Faith leaders, hate watchdogs and politicians must heed the call of European and Australasian leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, to unite against white supremacy. Far right politicians have spent the past decade forming alliances; we must as well.
Lastly, Congress must hold immediate hearings to take stock of America’s resources to combat transnational white supremacy. Last year, the New York Times exposed US law enforcement’s woeful unpreparedness to deal with the resurging far-right. Indeed, following the El Paso massacre, several former federal officials expressed concerns that law enforcement is not adequately tackling the white supremacist threat. If such gaps exist domestically, imagine how little we’ve done to confront the international facets of a network which extends across continents, cultures and languages.
The time to address this was after the Charleston massacre in 2015. Four years later, we have not even begun to play catch up. This cannot change soon enough.