“Trendy Fascism”: White Power Music and the Future of Democracy

Trendy Facism. (Image: SUNY Press)(Image: SUNY Press)With the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the rise of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the white backlash against identity politics and immigration have thrust fringe movements into the mainstream of power.

Reams of op-eds have appeared in newspapers in the US and Europe in the struggle to make sense of how extreme racist and nativist platforms, once sidelined to the fringe, have morphed into mainstream politics.

The impact of the white supremacist movement upon mainstream music has normally been relegated to fringe academic critiques. Its role in the steady rise of the right and importance in the change of Western society is thoroughly explored in Nancy Love’s 2016 book Trendy Fascism.

Love argues that the importance of music within the broader white supremacist movement has not been properly examined. She demonstrates how music affects, attracts and transitions young listeners to adopt more overtly violent right-wing beliefs. As Love suggests, the movements that have their origins at the turn of the 20th century have effectively weaponized elements of the music industry. As it becomes more apparent, Love emphasizes just how “effective” these methods have become.

While Love’s book displays the rigor of serious research, her prose permits those of us who may not be as familiar with the theorists she cites to fully appreciate her thesis. Love’s exhaustive critique takes the reader from how the white supremacist is mobilizing music through avenues of “hate” to the lyrical depictions of an imagined “white nation.”

The contextual analysis of the “white supremacist” music scene from Europe to the United States is a critical chapter in her book, and an excellent introduction to the social landscape of those who feel forgotten and oppressed as a “white working class.” More foreboding, savvy right-wing opportunists who know what is working and what sells have supercharged the politics of hate. Love positions “hate music as an extreme form that illuminates the white supremacist norm.”

There is little doubt that music and lyrics are being consciously produced to attract the young with what Love cites as the “epistemology of ignorance” — a powerful descriptor of how the music is a powerful tool to attract the youth beyond text. Love explains, “In the modern, secular West, white supremacists have continued to use religion to shape group identity, guide political actions, and build racial solidarity.”

Love takes the reader into the “racial world” of the World Church of the Creator, also known as “Creativity.” Founded by Ben Klassen, the Church of the Creator mimics traditional religions by incorporating the Bible, ritual song, symbol and even tax-exempt status, but rejects belief in the supernatural, or what Klassen calls, “spooks in the sky.”

Through the emotional power of musical genres such as, heavy metal, Goth and electronica, the beliefs of the white supremacist movement were spread by such labels as Resistance Records. Resistance records, once the major distributor of white power music in the United States, was founded by the Canadian leader of Creativity, George Burdi. Burdi used his band, Racial Holy War (RaHoWa), a Goth metal band, to convey the message of Creativity through its music. Love connects the dots between the World Church of the Creator and music when she writes “Burdi, who understands the emotional power of RaHoWa’s music to mobilize followers … explicitly affirms and invokes the anger, hatred, and violence toward racialized Others that fuels white supremacist violence.”

What I found most intriguing was Love’s deconstruction within the white supremacist music scene in which she identifies and elucidates song lyrics. Love exposes the insidious exploitation of folk music in the United States by neo-Nazi groups. “With its neo-Nazi folk genre, the white power movement joins, co-opts, and shifts the long-standing social reformist tradition of folk and protest music in America. It embraces folk music as a racially pure expression of white culture.”

In the United Kingdom in the early 1970s, the London skinhead movement started to split into racist and non-racist factions, with the former exhibiting their racism by attacking South Asian immigrants on the streets of South London. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Fueling these attacks and cementing the new racist skinhead identity was increasing association with two neo-fascist political parties, the National Front and the British Movement.”

The UK witnessed the racist faction of the skinheads and the National Front marching on the streets in South London in the 1970s and early 1980s. In “The soundtrack of neo-fascism: youth and music in the National Front,” Ryan Shaffer writes how in reaction to challenges from the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, the National Front developed its own youth outreach programs that transformed neo-fascism and how neo-fascists distributed their message. In adopting skinhead style and music, the organization spread “nativist” culture not only to gain supporters, but to counter multiculturalism in popular music and politics. By examining the white supremacist violence that plagued the late 20th century, we can visualize the genesis of this transnational co-opting of a music movement.

Love may wish to review further the political zeitgeist that led to the formation of the National Front. The open clash between the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher with labor unions and the working class opened up an irrevocable fissure. That crucial context helps to situate the class warfare that marked the 1970s and 1980s between the Tories and the Labour Party. Unemployment in Britain reached over 3 million people by 1982. Hell was unleashed and the music of the age turned from rock to punk.

Groups such as the Clash and The Sex Pistols took off during this period. The beginnings of white supremacist music — if one believes it was birthed by artists like Ian Stuart Donaldson — has a uniquely English context within this social and political confrontation. Love devotes considerable space to Donaldson’s musical influence and its pulsating ability to recruit skinheads in England. Skrewdriver’s music, the band formed by Donaldson, helped start the skinhead movement in Europe, and later the United States. As Love writes, T.J. Leyden, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, credits Donaldson with “getting the skinhead movement going in Europe and bring[ing] it to the United States…. [Skrewdriver’s music] had a hard-hitting, addictive beat. Usually once I gave some kids this free music, they wanted more.”

As Love indicates, it was the punk genre that helped to influence the music (though not the lyrics of white power) of the rebellion against the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism and by proxy, the anti-immigration and anti-establishment National Front. Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s now-infamous tirade against the changing social landscape in the 1960s played upon nativist fears of the period. In his “Rivers of Blood” speech, Powell framed his racism as so many had before him: as a premonition. His words became a warning of an inevitable civil conflict if immigrants were allowed to “dilute” English culture. Enoch’s message, as with many white supremacist tropes, strongly indicated that only a preemptive race war could save England from itself.

Love’s examination of white supremacy in Western liberalism is an intrinsic part of her book. This is a complex issue. Love explains how Western liberalism situates a default position for white supremacists, in direct relation to Indigenous peoples and others. One can appreciate how Love teased out this point to clarify the irony embedded in Western liberalism: The political hypocrisy of revolutions in the United States and France that effectually benefited their white male citizens alone. These social movements, for better or worse, only afforded white men the inalienable rights all classes and races of society had fought to earn. In the United States, the Declaration of Independence serves as “Exhibit A” for this overtly hypocritical stance. White male privilege was expressly embedded in the Declaration of Independence to dehumanize both African slaves and Indigenous people as “savage warlike Indians.”

In summation, Western liberalism should not be shocked that extremely undemocratic traits define and partly inform their historical liberalism. As Love states, “the challenge is to create the awareness among committed liberal democrats that this right-wing cultural politics is an unacknowledged aspect of their political history and national identity. In the presence of such systematic racism, why assume that fugitive movements or youthful swarms will mobilize on behalf of democratic ideals?”

By the time white supremacist music fully developed in the UK, it merely had to be re-tailored to a Southern US audience. As Love reveals, the music that formed the battle cry of the far-right fringe in the UK still played upon the same platitudes once popular within the United States. In revealing the transnational influence of white-power musicians, Love decodes the changed band names and lyrics to suit a given national audience. “Nazi references also occur in songs by The Klansmen, Ian Stuart’s second band, which targeted audiences in the American South. However, The Klansmen replace allusions to Camelot, Valhalla, and Norse Gods — all of which played well in Britain — with different racial heroes, such as Confederate soldiers….”

In addition to Ian Stuart Donaldson’s influence, which Love documents, contemporary examples abound. For instance, the band Changes, a US folk band, has adopted mainstream sounds to occupy gray spaces between popular folk music while also embedding a white power undertone. Unlike Donaldson’s band The Klansman, the band Changes, formed in 1969, avoided the traditional white power motifs of Southern Confederacy or Christianity to instead mix up their music with more traditional anti-fascist gatherings normally occupied by the anti-capitalist spaces.

To camouflage their white power message, Anti-Fascist News reports “the growing white ultra-right sphere looks more like a rainbow gathering rather than a Klan rally.” Despite Changes’ links to “alt-right” associations, Anti-Fascist News asks, “why is it that Changes continues to appear in folk music circles where left-wing politics tend to dominate? Well this has happened by general intent in Changes where they intend to play on the obscurity of many references and outright lying about associations.” Whether punk or folk, whether targeting traditional Southern Confederate history, Christianity or Euro-German Heathenism, the music is deployed to evoke white power. Specifically, in the case of Changes, the idea is to blend in with folk spheres to help normalize obscured messages — messages designed to confuse anti-fascists and to mainstream white power.

Love is quite right in stating that both white supremacists and liberals are “playing with hate.” Whether the former wear their hate as a badge of group identity or the latter mask their embedded hatred, ultimately, white supremacists continue to occupy spaces of support and denial in Western liberalism. Love does a brilliant job of illuminating this point.

Love’s book is timely and an important work to make sense of how today’s fascists have made significant use of song and lyric to attract youth. Let us not mince words: The subtext that seems embedded throughout Trendy Fascism is alarmingly apparent that the white supremacist movement, now more present than ever, has not only acculturated the very music our children listen to; it is indoctrinating our children right under our ever-doubtful noses.