The Long Arm of the American Nazi Party Reaches the 2020 Illinois Primary

Republicans voting on Tuesday in Illinois’s 3rd congressional district primary will get to decide if they want Art Jones, a lifelong white supremacist, to be their candidate. The state’s GOP is actively campaigning against him. They are still embarrassed that Jones was their 2018 candidate, after the party had forgotten to field a primary opponent to ensure that he wasn’t their candidate in the general election in a strongly Democratic district. And later that year, despite ample publicity of his views, Jones received 57,000 votes (26 percent) in the general election.

But Jones, and his perennial campaigns, are not a random product of one man’s idiosyncratic commitment to bigotry. Rather, they are the direct result of neo-Nazi activity in Chicago, and Illinois more broadly, which goes back to the 1960s. These have included Nazi-led rallies which have drawn thousands, as well as electoral campaigns which have also produced unusually high outcomes.

The continuing influence of neo-Nazi organizing, a half-century after its heyday, should be a warning about the “alt-right. Even though its influence is subsiding, we should be prepared for the thousands of young adults who’ve become white nationalists through the movement to remain politically active for decades. The alt-right has created a new generation of racist activists, breathing fresh life into what previously was a moribund movement.

A History of White Supremacist Electoralism

Even before World War II, there were Nazis in Chicago; pro-Hitler groups like the German American Bund had a strong base of support there. The leadership of the America First Committee also came from Chicago. This group opposed U.S. entry into the war but not from a pacifist approach; consequently, it was filled with fascists.

Chicago was also the site of the greatest achievement of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, which was the first postwar group to openly embrace the Nazi label. Rockwell traveled to Chicago to oppose Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chicago Freedom Movement, which sought to desegregate housing markets. In August 1966, a Rockwell speech in Marquette Park drew 2,000 local residents. A September 1966 march drew 250 people, including many local youths who marched with the Nazis while wearing “White Power” t-shirts.

In order to take advantage of this newfound popularity, Rockwell changed the American Nazi Party’s catchy name to the awkward National Socialist White People’s Party (NSWPP). But he was assassinated in 1967 and his replacement was unpopular. Many groups splintered off the party, including members of the Chicago chapter, who in 1970 formed a new organization, the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA). They sought to rebuild a base in the same neighborhoods that had supported Rockwell in 1966. The NSPA opened a local storefront office and held public rallies — until the city prevented them from doing so with exorbitant fees. The NSPA responded by threatening to march in Skokie, a nearby suburb where many Jewish Holocaust survivors lived. This ended up in a famous lawsuit in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Nazis, who were backed by the ACLU, on free speech grounds. The NSPA never went to Skokie, however; instead, they held a celebratory march in Marquette Park in July 1978. (This was lampooned in the Blues Brothers movie, where Jake and Elwood run the Nazis off a bridge after declaring, “I hate Illinois Nazis!”)

The NSPA used the ballot box, too; in 1975, their leader won 16 percent in a city council election. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the NSWPP’s Art Jones ran political ads — complete with swastikas — in the February 1976 mayoral race, pulling 5.5 percent. And soon after, he moved to Chicago.

Chip Berlet, a veteran researcher of the far right, told Truthout that around this time, “There were three different Nazi groups in Chicago. Jones had a group of youngsters who would parade around in uniform.” The NSPA disbanded in the early 1980s, and Jones tried to fill their shoes. Berlet wrote, “By late 1985 it was clear that neonazi Art Jones and Klan leader Ed Novak, both residents of Marquette Park area neighborhoods, along with their small but growing number of supporters, were making some gains in their attempts to organize the neighborhood against integration and tying that to anti-Semitic, antigay, and anticommunist organizing.

Jones helped pass the flame of bigotry and blame to another generation, too, as Chicago was one of the first U.S. cities to have organized Nazi skinhead groups. For example, Christian Picciolini — who subsequently left the white supremacist movement and now runs the group Free Radicals, to help others leave it — told me he went to a private meeting with Jones in the 1980s.

Today, Jones is still at it, using elections to spread his political talking points. And in addition to him, a number of other activists and organizations which came out of the American Nazi Party/NSWPP are also around today, and — following the party’s original strategy of courting media attention — regularly pop up in the news. Having changed its name a third time, the party itself still exists as New Order. Its most famous former member is David Duke, who was its star student activist in 1970; he later went on to win a seat as a Louisiana State Representative in 1989.

But the former member most influential on today’s alt-right is James Mason, whose book Siege has helped spawn “accelerationism” — an idea that encourages terrorism as part of strategy to collapse society. Mason is also the guru for the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, which has been linked to five murders — at least until last week, when Mason announced the group’s dissolution.

William Pierce also came out of the party. Pierce’s infamous novel, The Turner Diaries, depicts a white supremacist revolution that starts with attacks on federal buildings (which inspired the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) and ends in the “day of the ropewhen Nazis lynch their opponents in the streets. Although Pierce died in 2002, his organization, the National Alliance, still exists, and “the day of the rope” has become an alt-right meme.

The National Socialist Movement, an open neo-Nazi party which was at the 2017 Charlottesville rally, and in 2019 held an armed counterprotest against the Detroit Pride march, was formed by current and former NSWPP members in 1975. Stormfront, at one point the most popular white supremacist website, was founded by former NSWPP member Don Black. Other projects active today which are run by former party members include Rocky Suhayda’s American Nazi Party, Gerhard Lauck’s NSDAP/AO and Karl Hand’s Racial Nationalist Party of America.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Front advocates forming a separate white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. Its founder, Harold Covington, was in the NSWPP; he also briefly lead the NSPA, during which he received 43 percent of the vote in the 1980 North Carolina GOP primary for attorney general. He later moved west and formed the Northwest Front, which has continued on after his 2018 death.

Last, the alt-right also venerates Rockwell himself. His books and speeches are circulated along with memes glorifying him.

In the last few years, many thousands of people, mostly white men between their teens and 30s, have floated into the alt-right. They have created a whole new generation of white nationalists, with a limited number of organizational ties to the last generation. The American Nazi Party/NSWPP had a similar, although much smaller, dynamic in the 1960s and 1970s. But this cohort of Nazis remains present in our political landscape, ranging in its approach from Art Jones’s ballot to James Mason’s bullet. Though the alt-right appears to have plateaued in influence, it remains an active movement — and, just like its predecessor, we should expect its members to continue to engage in toxic political organizing for many decades to come.