Everything You Love Will Burn presents a fascinating account of the far-right scene in the United States. Vegas Tenold attempts to depict and explain the resurgence of right-wing radical groups in the country, and does so by describing his personal encounters with leaders and other members of the most influential far-right groups in the country.
While media generally directs its attention to the alt-right movement, Tenold analyses those groups that are active in the streets, through rallies and other actions, such as the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the Hammerskins, and Aryan Nations. He followed this scene closely from 2011 until the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing one and injuring 28.
A Fragmented Far-Right Scene
Tenold’s account focuses on the rebirth of far-right groups in the United States. He encounters a movement that is highly fragmented, disorganized, lacking a clear strategy, and at times outdated. His conversations with leaders of the main far-right groups in the US bring the reader a clear sense of the major challenges the far-right scene is confronted with.
The first struggle for the far-right is the declining membership, prestige and fear-factor they once had. The KKK probably presents the best example. During their ‘glory years’ in the 1920s, the KKK was a national organisation with more than five million members, including senators and governors, and acted practically unconstrained by the law, either because of sympathy or impotence from law-enforcement authorities. The KKK was also able to exert considerable influence without violence by this point, having instilled fear among African-American communities, and indeed well beyond that, through many decades of brutality.
The author describes in a fascinating manner some of the local KKK meetings he attended, to which only a handful of (mainly elderly) members participated and which often resulted in nothing more than an accumulation of blundering rituals. He explains how the Klan’s rallies are now “related to the backwoods, as far from people as they are from relevance”, and that the organisation is “atrophied into a handful of more or less defunct chapters, more preoccupied with squabbles and infighting than protecting the white race from imagined threats”. Lost glory plays an important role in most of these far-right groups, who anxiously await the turn-out of every event they organise, struggle to keep their members aligned, and even more so to recruit new members.
A second challenge of the US far-right concerns the fragmentation and the “tireless intergroup skirmishes” within the movement. Tenold describes how America’s far-right seems unable to organize and unite itself. During his research, he has met a wide variety of groups that are unable to collaborate against a ‘common enemy’, and that each stick to their own vision and ideology.
For example, the TWP tries to promote a more moderate image for the far-right through its post-supremacist form of nationalism, while the NSM remains obsessed with symbolism of Nazi Germany. The KKK and the Aryan Nations group use violence narrowly in accordance with their white supremacist ideology; by contrast, the Hammerskins seem mostly interested in violence rather than ideology, employing it indiscriminately, including within its own ranks.
The infighting and distrust has a further dimension, between the so-called “boots” and “suits”, i.e. the for-real activists and the alt-right, respectively.
A third strategic challenge for the far-right is to connect with mainstream politics. Tenold spent considerable time following Matthew Heimbach, leader of the TWP, who — like most others in the movement — admires the European nationalist wave that has brought to power anti-liberal governments in Hungary, Slovakia, and elsewhere. But the American far-right does not seem able or even interested in forging links with the European far-right, and they have been unable to emulate them by finding a way into mainstream politics in the United States.
The author shows that the primary problem is that the US far-right groups are just too extreme. They are too extreme doctrinally: rather than presenting themselves in identitarian white nationalist terms, these groups remain openly wedded to a racialist white supremacism. This limits any chance at outreach to “the marginalized, disaffected, and lost, who are the radical right’s ideal audience”. And they are too extreme tactically. Tenold describes how a Klansman argues against a comrade’s suggestion to open a soup kitchen for the poor in order to liaise with local communities. “The KKK’s power lies in fear,” he says, “and people wouldn’t fear them if they handed out free soup every which way”. Winning the hearts and minds of dissatisfied citizens clearly has no place in the strategy of America’s far-right.
Root Causes of Right-Wing Radicalism
Through his conversations with members of far-right groups, Vegas Tenold gets a little closer to understanding why they joined extremist movements.
Unemployment and poverty play a role, in particular in regions that have seen the relocation of manufacturing industries or the closure of coalmines, such as Appalachia and the Rust Belt. The author encounters members of such communities that feel abandoned by the richer and elite-populated coastal areas of the US, who consider “the part of America that had built this country as ‘flyover country’, an inconvenience and nothing more”.
Yet the stereotype of the poor and the ignorant joining the far-right is far from the whole picture. Tenold meets people from comfortable backgrounds who have taken an intellectual decision to join the far-right.
Many of those he encounters have found a sense of purpose and belonging within the arms of extremist groups. The leader of a local Klan chapter, an ex-drug addict, claimed that “Jesus and the Klan had saved him”.
There are also those who have found the far-right groups to be a source of self-empowerment and status. Heimbach, the leader of the TWP, is described by Tenold as “a big fish in a very, very small pond,” which possibly explains his reluctance to take his nationalism mainstream.
One thing that right-wing extremist groups provide to their members is clarity, often in the form of conspiracy theories, which simplify a complex world that is only becoming more complex. The alienation and dislocation caused by our modernity, the anger of some about where things are heading, and the sense of being left behind, provide substance to a rhetoric of victimization. It allows the far-right to portray themselves as facing an enemy that wants the defeat of their in-group, namely white Americans.
It is in this context that the march towards racial equality in America is seen as an attack targeted against whites. Tenold suspects “they needed to know that there was an enemy who hated them and wanted them dead because the opposite — that there was no grand, evil scheme against them, merely that the world was a massive, complex organism that perhaps had little use for them — was too terrifying to bear.”
The fortunes of the American far-right are strongly interlinked with domestic — and to some extent international — political and social developments. This can be seen in the power of the KKK at the time it was set up in 1865 by Nathan Bedford Forrest; the environment was one that allowed guerrilla warfare and there was a large pool of people to draw on who wanted to resist the outcome of a civil war that had given freed slaves legal equality. After an ebb in their strength, the KKK returned in the intra-war period, possibly due to the increased prevalence of antisemitism, and again in the 1960s as a vanguard of the anti-Civil Rights movement.
Tenold’s conversations suggest that we are in such a moment again now. Members of the far-right he spoke to during the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump felt emboldened, and Trump’s victory has been perceived as a major victory for white nationalism, despite the movement being highly divided on their thoughts about Trump himself. Their misgivings about Trump accepted, the far-right senses that it is in a “historical position to bring nationalism in America out from the shadows”.
In his book, Vegas Tenold gives an excellent overview of America’s far-right movement. He depicts remarkable events within the far-right scene that he witnessed directly, such as a major street battle between the violent far-left ANTIFA movement and neo-Nazis at a NSM gathering, KKK funeral and marriage ceremonies, the closed-door celebrations for the forty-year anniversary of the NSM, an annual Hammerfest gathering, and the TWP’s participation in Trump’s inauguration.
One of the overwhelming senses that stick with the reader is that of a movement incapable of uniting, organizing, and keeping up with modernity, able to offer something appealing and relevant in the world as it is. Though the movement has had some success online, it lacks real leaders able to mobilize large numbers of people in real life.
In spite of its small size and fragmented nature, the American far-right groups remain dangerous, as statistics of rising hate crimes in the US demonstrate. America’s far-right is also becoming increasingly radical, as Tenold explains at the end of the book. Tenold witnesses the complete dehumanization by far-right leaders of Heather Heyer, the victim of the car attack at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Everything You Love Will Burn shows an evolution of the far-right in the US and depicts a movement that, despite its repeated failures and limited ‘successes’, continues to exist and will possibly rise again.