When Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist behind the 2015 Charleston massacre, issued his manifesto, he did so with a specific vision of America in mind.
To Roof’s mind, the United States was his country — a white man’s nation, worth reclaiming through horrid bloodshed, done in the name of racial supremacy. To Roof, white supremacists could still conquer their country, even if they made up only a fraction of the population.
Ideas that white people in America should pack up and relocate elsewhere were ludicrous to Roof. Movements to cleave part of the country — say, the Pacific Northwest — into a whites-only utopia were anathema to Roof’s endgame. “I think this idea is beyond stupid. Why should I for example, give up the beauty and history of [South Carolina?],” Roof claimed. “The whole idea is pathetic and just another way to run from the problem without facing it.”
Fast forward four years, to last weekend. In El Paso, Texas, a white supremacist picked up where Roof left off. In a reprise of the Charleston shooter’s slaughter, the alleged El Paso shooter murdered some 22 individuals at a local Wal-Mart, all in the name of white nationalism. A manifesto purportedly written by the shooter lays out his extremism: how he was specifically targeting Hispanics, how his massacre would help prevent Texas from becoming a Democratic stronghold, how he aimed to end “racial mixing.”
The alleged El Paso manifesto however, carries a different vision for an American future than that pushed by Roof — one overlooked in the days following the attack, and one that may portend a growing shift in the end-goals of white supremacist extremists. To the shooter, America was, in a sense, beyond saving. Instead, the shooter wrote, the country must fracture entirely.
“You’re going to have people who are unstable, who are going to say, ‘I’m tired of waiting. Now I want to make it happen. I want to kick off this race war.'”
In the shooter’s vision, there would be no more United States. In its place, would be an America “divide[d]… into a confederacy of territories with at least 1 territory for each race.” Such a proposal would apparently allow “each race self-determination within their respective territory(s) [sic].”
Contra Roof, the alleged El Paso shooter wanted to be done with the United States. To him, there was no U.S. to reclaim — instead, it should be scrapped entirely.
“It sounds like they’re borrowing past ideas and putting renewed emphasis on it,” Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security official focused on monitoring the far-right, told ThinkProgress. “It’s getting new traction if these guys are quoting it in their manifestos.”
While the idea of breaking the United States into separate racial territories is, of course, ludicrous, it doesn’t come without support. And if anything, that support is growing, with flames fanned by actors both foreign and domestic. American state fracture — breaking up the country. outright — has gained increasing credence among the far-right over the past few years. And with last weekend’s terrorist attack, the domestic push to dissolve the United States outright entered a new phase — one whose end remains unclear.
Racial States of America
The record of attempts to break the country into racial regions has, of course, a lengthy history. Andrew Jackson’s administration, for instance, pushed the notion of creating a “Western Territory” peopled solely with Native Americans, many of whom would be ethnically cleansed from the American Southeast by both Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren. To the Jackson administration, the territory would eventually gain statehood outright: a state populated by, and for, the indigenous nations conquered through America’s white supremacist expansionism. (The proposal crumbled in the face of Congressional pushback.)
The Jackson administration’s proposal for a “Western Territory” would be “governed by a confederacy of Indian polities and given a delegate in Congress,” eventually to obtain statehood. (Idea was shot down on account of Congressional white supremacy.) pic.twitter.com/UM0LaRReu4
— Casey Michel 🇰🇿 (@cjcmichel) April 17, 2019
Indeed, the root for such a race-based division largely took place in the American West. Oregon celebrated its ascension to statehood with a constitution barring any black settlement outright. Anti-Chinese pogroms in Nevada and Idaho and Wyoming aimed to drive competing non-white laborers from the territories, as did anti-South Asian riots in Washington State. Genocidal massacres of indigenous nations in California in the mid-19th century — against Wintus, against Pomos, against Tolowas — achieved much the same, all in the name of forcing non-whites from newly American territory. And Texas was no different, with Texas Rangers responsible for much of the attempts at ethnic cleansing along the Texas-Mexico border.
Of course, it’s not as if the American West had a monopoly on these platforms of ethnic cleansing, or of racial reorganization. Post-Civil War white supremacist terrorism in the U.S. — lynchings, armed uprisings, political violence — aimed at driving formerly enslaved populations and their descendants from the American South, one of the primary drivers behind the Great Migration, itself part economic exodus and part refugee movement.
But for decades, the idea of breaking the U.S. into racial regions was a fringe fantasy. White supremacists — from the Ku Klux Klan to white nationalist extremists in the militia movement — wanted a return to white racial hegemony across the entirety of the United States. Ideas of a whites-only nation-state started resurfacing in the 1970s and 1980s, according to Johnson, and percolated especially in the Pacific Northwest. But only a small minority of extremists shared these views; such was the idea Roof ridiculed in his 2015 manifesto.
Over the past few years, though, the notion of state fracture and racial reorganization, may have gained credence among far-right voices — and backers have been finding support from the highest ranks of the American government.
The recent interest in creating a whites-only state within the U.S. can be seen in a selection in terminology. Whereas “white supremacists” claim precisely what their name implies — the supremacy of the white race, however they define it — “white nationalists” often fall back on myopic claims that they are, in fact, not racist, but simply prefer people of the white race to others. These claims are belied by the fact that the most prominent white nationalists of the past few years — Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, and the like — also happen to be inveterate anti-Semites who regularly spew racist diatribes, and clearly use the term “white nationalist” as a linguistic defense against their own white supremacy.
But it’s also true that there appears more interest over the past few years on the far-right in the interest of unwinding the U.S. entirely — an interest that culminated in a massacre in El Paso last weekend.
“You watch how the world trembles.”
Take Heimbach. While the former head of the Traditionalist Workers Party has transformed into a laughingstock, after being arrested for an altercation with his step-father-in-law after sleeping with the man’s wife — Heimbach’s step-mother-in-law.
He gained notoriety in 2016 as one of the faces of a rising generation of white supremacists. To Heimbach, the solution to America’s ails was simple: Balkanization. “Every ethnic group should be able to opt out of multiculturalism if it wants to,” Heimbach said. “Multiculturalism leads to violence. Multiculturalism leads to disunity. Different cultures want to live differently.”
Spencer, likewise, echoed Heimbach. Another prominent face of the fascists who rose to prominence in 2016, Spencer — accused of domestic abuse, to go along with his white supremacy — has advocated the creation of a white ethno-state. While Spencer hasn’t specified where such a state would exist, one of his allies, former KKK lawyer Sam Dickson, fleshed out Spencer’s idea in late 2015. As the Southern Poverty Law Center related, “Dickson claimed African Americans could ‘be given Manhattan,’ describing his version of a Balkanization of America.”
Other semi-prominent extreme right voices have picked up the threads since. Patrick Little, another anti-Semitic white supremacist, announced in 2018 that he supported the “Balkanization” of the U.S. “I’m a fan of Balkanization,” Little claimed. The backing of “Balkanization” fits into broader trends of American white supremacists looking to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the kind of ethnic cleansing resultant, for inspiration. (Former president Barack Obama specifically pointed to “ethnic cleansing in the Balkans” in his statement following the El Paso shooting.)
And just this week, the SPLC outed a State Department official named Matthew Gebert as a white supremacist — one who claimed white Americans need a new country, one that could boast its own nuclear arsenal. “That’s all we need,” Gebert said. “We need a country founded for white people with a nuclear deterrent. And you watch how the world trembles.”
Having someone as outwardly racist and sympathetic to white nationalist rhetoric in power as President Trump in some ways mitigates the push for outright state fracture. So long as Trump remains ensconced in Washington, the ludicrous notion of territorial reordering in the United States remains at bay.
“I don’t think they’ve thought about [the structure of an all-white society],” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “It’s this idealistic utopia, and they don’t sit there and say, ‘Well, how are we going to govern, how are we going to tax,’ things like that.”
“The fact that these people are talking about doing this should disturb Americans of all stripes.”
But that doesn’t mean things can’t change — or that Trump himself wouldn’t be sympathetic to the movement at some point in the future. After all, just this week Trump took to Twitter to boost a fired Google employee. The man Trump publicly praised also happened to be a vocal supporter of Richard Spencer.
Nor is this swelling white supremacist push for the disintegration of the country, which spilled into bloodshed in Texas last weekend, purely of domestic interest.
Look at recent Russian interference efforts. Not only have Kremlin-funded groups previously cultivated ties with neo-Confederates in the U.S., but some of the most prominent fake social media accounts specifically, and successfully, targeted secessionists with racist rhetoric through and after the 2016 election. (American secessionists also happened to flock to Moscow before the 2016 vote.) Just a few months ago, we learned of an aborted plan to try to stoke racial discontent with the ultimate aim of cracking apart the nation into racial polities.
“Regardless of whether or not these plans are an amateurish thought experiment, the fact that these people are talking about doing this should disturb Americans of all stripes,” a former assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI told NBC.
Elsewhere, rhetoric advocating the fracturing of America has begun to seep beyond just white supremacist messaging. Far-right pundits like Kurt Schlichter and Jesse Kelly, who claim to be “patriots,” have floated the idea of destroying the United States. Kelly claimed he wants an “amicable divorce,” but it’s unclear why he thinks any dissolution would be peaceful.
Just this week, 538 ran an interview with “Chris, a 35-year-old white man from rural Pennsylvania,” who backed up the idea of dissolution. As Chris revealed, he thinks American dissolution is effectively a fait accompli. “I feel like it’s going to happen one way or the other,” he said. “Maybe if we can control the process a little it won’t be quite as bad.” His support for dissolution rests largely on the racists surrounding him, pointing out that those in his community regularly refer to Martin Luther King Day with racial slurs. “It’s the N-word,” Chris said, noting how people describe the holiday. “N-Day is kinda what they say. Even the people who don’t say it chuckle at it.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the recent rhetoric advocating for U.S. dissolution — whether from white supremacists or otherwise — is predicated on the belief that American socio-political divides remain at the state level: that the supposed Red State/Blue State divide remains insoluble. But the notion that America’s divide remains on a state-by-state basis is years out of date. Instead, as recent elections indicate, the split is far more centered on rural-urban divides.
Just look at Texas. Two decades ago, Austin was viewed as a “blue island” in a “sea of red.” In the second half of this decade, Texas’s major urban areas — Houston and Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth — have all tilted Democratic. Texas is no different from other Republican-leaning states, where major cities — Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Missoula, Montana — have voted Democratic in recent years. And there’s little reason to think that trajectory will shift in the foreseeable future.
But then, that allegedly was one of the factors driving the shooter responsible for the killings in El Paso. It’s also one of the reasons domestic terrorists like him have begun turning toward trying to dissolve the nation, rather than returning to what they view as the halcyon days of white supremacy.
“I think the closer we get to the 2020 election, the more scary it’s going to get,” Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist who renounced the movement to run anti-extremist programs, told ThinkProgress.
“If the Democrats win — and I’m not predicting anything, this is just my opinion — if the Democrats win, I think you will see a lot of activity in states that are heavily Republican starting to talk about secession, starting to say, ‘Do we want to be part of this liberal, socialist, whatever-they’re-calling-it America?’ And I think you’ll have discussions about that,” Picciolini said.
“But on other hand, you’re going to have people who are unstable, who are going to say, ‘I’m tired of waiting. Now I want to make it happen. I want to kick off this race war’.”