A few moments with the Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt can show us ways in which race, religion, and political life operate elastically to produce a narrative that sustains a totalitarian, anti-pluralistic system of control. Arendt’s insights are deeply relevant to the cultural imagination of America’s “Alt-Right”—the euphemistic label employed by American White nationalists. This is an especially important time to revisit Arendt.
Arendt shows us how the Nazi racial fantasy of almighty power to remake the world, the will to power of ethnic nationalism, remains entangled in a tradition of monotheistic theology. The continuous logic of messianism operates together, paradoxically, with Nietzsche’s conviction that “God is dead.” The Nazi ideology of Arendt’s own “dark times,” as she called them, depended upon the tension between these contending modernities. Whether killing God left us an inheritance only of the human will to power, or whether the will to power killed God, cannot be readily disaggregated.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt provides an account of “the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved,” (viii). (This theme is under-recognized in the current literature, but I address it in my forthcoming book Politics in the Absence of God.) Comparable threats are manifesting today. With the dramatic resurgence of White nationalism in America, we can borrow Arendt’s insights and say that “[t]he subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition” (ix).
This twenty-first century “Alt-Right” American movement revives singular White entitlement to formal power, complete with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discourse that are both sublimated and explicated. The movement is at once secular and indebted to singularly Christian logic. Its manifestos preach the “imperious necessity of a European Brotherhood.” The National Policy Institute, its primary think tank, is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” The movement’s adherents admire Russia as an embodiment of White anti-LGBTQI nationalism. They herald Zionism as implemented in Israel for its commitment to religio-ethnic purity and domination (ethnocracy). Its aspirations require that the “Alt-Right” subvert the aspirational values that underpin, to return to Arendt, “all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world” (viii).
Below, I shadow male writers of White nationalism as they contend internally over how to occupy time and space, and under allegiance to what God or gods. We will see how pre-modern aesthetics and theology function to produce White politics and culture in ways that can be culturally practiced.
A Note on Method: Technology as Medium, Subverting “Hidden Mechanics”
Contemporary fantasies of White supremacist and/or separatist patriarchal White nations are not overtly modeled by the mastery of antebellum plantations or racialized purity drives marching native peoples west. Nevertheless, the “Alt-Right” imaginary is fostered by alluring narratives and archetypes that foster identification with pre- or a-modern cultures. Virtual realities of cable television, video games, on-line blogs, and chat rooms present enchanted worlds manufactured as “purer” times of White supremacy, free from contaminating environments of pluralism, diversity, feminism, and the regime of “political correctness.” Collective imaginaries of a lost world that must be fought for, or might be made Great Again foster identification with concatenated European Whiteness, masculinity, and power.
Distinctively late-modern technological delivery systems and cyber space also allow for accelerated and more effective consolidation of “alternative facts.” Therefore at each stage in this brief tour, we will briefly glimpse how a fantasy of White patriarchy with a special relationship to God and to salvation history is reflected back through contemporary American media.
The Madman’s Cry: “Where is God?” and the Conflict of Absolute Values
Where is the Christian tradition in this project of racial trans-Atlantic nationalism? Within to the Alt-Right movement, this is a surprisingly complex and important question.
Christian doctrine teaches a universal brotherhood of salvation in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek.” Because the “Alt Right is openly and avowedly nationalist,” because it does not recognize spiritual equality across races and ethnicities, the movement would seem to be on a collision course with essential Christian values.
For the New Right, “The Christian Question” (Sam Francis, 2001) asks whether the values of German folk religion have not always been at odds with Christian values of egalitarianism and universalism. Francis works from James Russell’s Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Socio Historical Approach to Religious Transformation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). The recent kerfuffle at the University of Chicago Divinity School reminds scholars of religion that we should be alert as to how reputable academic institutions, and perhaps our guild in particular, wittingly and unwittingly serves white nationalist agendas.
Stephen McNallen, the Texan-born founder of the neo-Paganist religious movement Asatru Folk Assembly, rejects Christianity for its profession of universal humanity. Because Christianity “lacks any roots in blood or soil,” he says with concern, it can “claim the allegiance of all the human race.”
McNallen calls for a return to “the Faith of our Ancestors.” He professes, “I am a pagan, because it is the only way I can be true to who, and what, I am. I am a pagan because the best things in our civilization come from pre-Christian Europe.” (Other American Heathens object to any association of McNallen with their religious movement, given his association with the “American neo-fascist radical traditionalist movement.”
Identifying against Christianity functions in multiple ways. A new identity is produced that signifies its repudiation of values of universalism and egalitarianism. Rejection of Christianity also accomplishes rejection of debts to the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish origins of Christianity.
These practices of identity are also derivative of neo-romantic atavistic values and aesthetics of proto-fascist Europe. Then too, Aryan nationalists identified with “pagan” Europe, appealed to hero-god mythology of Greek antiquity, or claimed absolute allegiance to a lineage of blood and soil.
In the U.S. now, pre-modern but post-Christian media invites viewers in to constructed worlds of so-called “paganism.” Earnest adventures of noble Whites triumph in “Vikings” and “Game of Thrones.” “World of Warcraft,” like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings invites consumers to inhabit fantasy worlds in which species are differently playable races (The blond humans of the Alliance fight the tribal orcs of the Horde, etc.).
Christendom and Racial Rule
The paradox here, Vox Day, another White nationalist male blogger, reminds his readers, is that Christendom was necessary for forging common European identity. “Pagan or Nietzschean alt-righters” have “legitimate criticisms about Christianity,” he allows. Yet his White brethren “souldn’t [sic] forget that it was the first religion that gave a feeling of kinship and a common purpose to Europeans.”
Arendt agrees. “Consciousness of nationality is a comparatively recent development” (230). Under Christendom, the ethnic nation was secondary to participation in God’s order. By doctrine, all humans shared the possibility of salvation through Christ.
In “What the Alt Right Is,” Vox Day professes that “[h]uman equality does not exist in any observable scientific, legal, material, intellectual, sexual, or spiritual form.” Nevertheless, he identifies as a Christian, as well as with the superiority of Whites.
If this claim strikes some readers as dissonant, Arendt invites her readers to re-encounter the theo-politics of European Christian imperialism and colonialism. On their imperial adventures, Christian Europeans encountered “great physical differences between themselves and the peoples they found on other continents,” she recounts. They proved themselves unable “to include all the peoples of the earth in their conception of humanity” (176-177).
Religion is a malleable institution. Its history can be told in many ways, and it can be lived out in many ways. Arendt revisits the Dutch Boers in South Africa to illustrate how readily they reconciled Christian practice with the supremacy of their own ethnic group.
Nativist White American Protestants lived out this performative contradiction of doctrinal principles of universalism with militant chattel slavery by identifying Whiteness alone with civilization and progress. They are indebted to European imperialists and colonialists, but also to ongoing White American Christian practices of eugenics, mass incarceration, and other forms of terror.
Given this history, it should not be surprising at all that some American White Nationalists seek to “Save Christianity.” Richard Spenser joined the conversation in December 2016 with “Ghosts of Christmas Past.” He reclaims both the enchantment of Santa and the local and in particular the Whiteness of Santa in religious imagination of northern Europeans.
Certainly Jesus is back on TV. Promos for “Finding Jesus” season 2 play on CNN between the hours as news anchors fret about Breitbart news and the authority of Alt-Right visionary Stephen Bannon. Special effects enchant biblical epics such as “Noah” (played by Russell Crowe) and Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: God and Kings” (in which Welsh Christian Bale plays Moses). The Roman world of primitive Christianity also performs White masculinity in divine favor. In “Ben-Hur,” the British Jack Huston is cast in a “Gladiator”-like remake. In the forthcoming “Resurrection,” Mel Gibson will supplement his “Passion of the Christ.”
The Post-Christian White Nation: Its Own Absolute
“A criticism of the Christian concept of God leads inevitably to the same conclusion,” says Nietzsche in The AntiChrist §16. “A nation that still believes in itself holds fast to its own god. In him it does honor to the conditions which enable it to survive, to its virtues—it projects its joy in itself, its feeling of power, into a being to whom one may offer thanks.”
In Europe, says Arendt, even an idea of a sovereign God slipped away. The collective no longer looked to providence to work through a chosen nation, granting it a warrant for ethnic violence. Instead, the ethnic nation came to believe its “own chosenness without believing in Him who chooses and rejects,” she says (73). Attributes once assigned to God (stable, eternal, and essential) transferred to the nation in which one lived and for which one died. Émile Durkheim’s social functionalist analysis of religion shows its ongoing conceptual purchase. Society worships itself. The practices and sentiments of social solidarity prove basic in this analysis of religion as epiphenomenal.
This post-Christian vision for White nationalism that seeks “metapolitical prayer and will to power” installs the ethnic nation as its own god. Predictably, the ethnocracy arrogates ultimacy to itself and authorizes the “ethical” violence required for population purity.
In this rendition of contending modernities, individuals and groups of the Alt-Right travel the internet under the name of nihilism. Their second-order humor is sardonic; they deride enchantment. Pepe the Frog (with benign origins in the web comic Boy’s Club) functions as an anti-Semitic, racist internet meme. The signification of the image is, again, atavistic. Kek the frog-headed man had a prior life as the ancient, androgynous Egyptian deity of darkness and god of chaos. Now his initials show up as “LOL” on infamously female-trolling World of Warcraft chat boards.
The technological medium is modern, but the message refuses the norms of modern liberal society: transparency, accountability, and equal power of civic participation.
Where That Leaves Us
“We are protected by God,” said President Donald Trump in an Inauguration Speech co-written by Bannon. This much American exceptionalism is consonant with our national history. But singular changes to civil religion are afoot. In the Holocaust Remembrance Day national address, the murder of European Jewry went purposefully and unapologetically unmentioned. Muslims with U.S. Green Cards were singularly legally held at international airports, while Syrian Christians received the special attention of the president. Bannon’s ascent to a general’s role on the principles’ committee of the U.S. National Security Council defies precedent, and Arendt’s cigarette smoke lingers in the air.
 All citations from Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).
Mara Willard is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma, She is completing her first book, entitled Politics after the Death of God: Hannah Arendt on Religion and Politics, and publishes and teaches more widely on religion, modernity, and feminist thought. She holds a PhD from Harvard University and her BA from Swarthmore College.
Featured image credit: IndyBay.org. White supremacist group Identity Evropa was founded in 2016 in California and conducts poster campaigns across US universities, particularly targeting offices of professors of color.