A “Few Bad Apples”: A Historiographical Review of the White Power Movement

By Aidan Goldberg

On the morning of April 19th, 1995, a Ryder truck containing close to 5000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the northern half of the building, severely damaging all structures within a 4-block radius, and killing 168 people, including various federal employees and, particularly disturbingly, 19 children in a day care center directly adjacent to the blast. The bombing was perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, two disaffected Army veterans, radicalized both by antigovernment literature and the perceived brutality of federal law enforcement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho–where a standoff between survivalist Randy Weaver and the United States Marshal Service resulted in the death of Weaver’s wife and son–and Waco, Texas, where an ATF/FBI siege of a fringe religious sect’s compound in Waco, Texas ended in the immolation of the compound and the deaths of 76 people.  

The attack on the Murrah Building remains the deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in American history, effectively forcing the federal government to dedicate new attention and commit greater resources to investigating and prosecuting white supremacist groups. While the intensity and efficacy of these investigative efforts has varied greatly depending on the ideological priorities of political leadership—consider, for example, the contrast between the Obama administration’s investment in anti-domestic terrorism efforts and the Trump administration’s legitimization of white supremacist rhetoric for political gain—white supremacy is now generally regarded as one of the most pressing national security concerns facing the United States. Racist, right-wing attacks have been occurring with increasing regularity; Black churchgoers gunned down in Charleston, Latinx individuals murdered at a Walmart in El Paso, elderly Jews shot at a congregation in Pittsburgh. Taken with other, overseas incidents of racialized political violence—Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attacks on the Norwegian Prime Minsters’ office in Oslo and a Labor Party-run children’s summer camp, and the 2017 murder of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, to cite but two examples—these domestic attacks seem part of an increasingly globalized pattern of white supremacist revolutionary activity, in many ways inextricably tied to the development of a shared discourse between right-wing ideologues in Europe and the United States. Testifying to the urgency of the present moment, both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) affirmed during 2021 congressional hearings that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States comes from “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” specifically white supremacists [1].

Given the post-Oklahoma City governmental focus on the security risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorism, and, more recently, the heightened public awareness about the dangers of white supremacy with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Trumpism, it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been a proliferation in the past two decades of literature focusing on white supremacist violence. In this review, I have analyzed three popular readings which exemplify this body of work. The readings— The Terrorist Next Door, written by Daniel Levitas in 2004; Blood and Politics, written by Leonard Zeskind in 2009; and Bring the War Home, by Katherine Belew in 2019—are illustrative of the varying approaches academics, popular writers, and journalists have taken in their treatment of the white supremacist movement, and of the ways in which these historiographical methods have shifted over time. While it is difficult to extrapolate anything definitive from such a small sample size, it appears that authors writing about the white supremacist movement have adopted an increasingly holistic analytical lens, one emphasizing the tactical flexibility, social cohesion, and political influence of white power groups.

The Terrorist Next Door by Daniel Levitas is fairly narrow in scope, focusing specifically on the figure of “Reverend” William Potter Gale, and his establishment of a paramilitary group known as the Posse Comitatus in the early 1970s. Levitas delineates the origins and maturation of the Posse, outlining its birth out of opposition to the Civil Rights movement, its broadening connections to other factions in the white supremacist and anti-tax movements through the 1970s and 1980s, and its eventual metamorphosis into the “Christian Patriot” and militia movements which dominated the late 1980s and 1990s [2]. While Levitas clearly establishes the nexus between the Posse and other white supremacist groups, which, he contends, have been profoundly influenced by the Posse’s ideological framework, his book is primarily focused on the Posse, with any broader analysis of the modern paramilitary right filtered through that lens. 

As befits a semi-biographical study, Levitas begins the book with the immigration of William Gale’s family–ironically Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms in the late 19th century–to South Dakota. This background, while seemingly anecdotal, effectively forces the reader to consider the ways that religious and ethnic minorities might, in their effort to assimilate into existing sociopolitical and economic power structures, internalize and adopt white supremacist attitudes [3]. After discussing Gale’s family background and important experiences in his early life, Levitas describes how, following his discharge from the Army in 1950, Gale became increasingly engaged with anticommunist and, intertwined as they tended to be, antisemitic political causes, effectively embracing the Christian Identity movement by 1953. 

Gale’s political efforts which predated his founding of the Posse Comitatus were largely reliant on harnessing the bigotry of both conservative opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and Christian Identity theology, a fringe ideology which dictated that white people constituted the true Israelites, and which regarded the extermination of nonwhite peoples as necessary for the fulfillment of eschatological prophecy. Levitas is less interested in these early efforts to mobilize opposition to racial integration and to infuse Christianity with white supremacy–two tactics which were hardly novel–than he is with the ways in which Gale was able to take radical, right-wing rhetoric and effectively cloak it in “pseudoreligious legalisms” which lent it a semblance of credibility [4]. Through synthesizing anticommunist and white supremacist talking points, historical allusions to the principles of common law, and the idea of radical popular sovereignty into a single rhetorical toolbox, the Posse was able to provide a range of white nationalist activists and sympathizers with a useful (if inane) legal framework–one which affirmed the unconstitutionality of both federal civil rights legislation and the income tax [5].  Levitas suggests that the relative success of the movement can be attributed to both the usefulness of this quasi-legalistic framework and the movement’s effective use of dog whistles, rather than explicit appeals to notions of racial purity, to recruit a broader segment of the American public [6]. 

Professing this “American-sounding” ideology, Posse groups expanded rapidly from California, Gale’s home state, up the West Coast and to the Midwest, where they effectively leveraged contemporary economic challenges facing farmers—high interest rates, rising inflation, and low farm prices—to expand their recruitment efforts and political activities in rural areas. By the 1980s, the Posse had expanded its political base to encompass a wide range of economic classes and political demographics. While increasing confrontation with the federal government—including, notably, the murder of two federal marshals in 1983 by Gordon Kahl, a Posse member—forced the movement to reconfigure itself under the new label of “Christian Patriotism,” its ideas were effectively incorporated by the militia movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Levitas concludes that the Posse’s success lay in its ability to articulate a new anti-government legal framework, and, critically, in its ability to unite the underlying conspiracy theories and bigotries of its ideology with more mainstream political issues like gun control, land use, and regional planning [7]. While Levitas’ study of the white supremacist movement vis a vis Gale and the Posse is narrowly focused, and his discussion of broader historiographical issues and events somewhat minimal, Levitas provides an excellent overview of a critically important faction within the larger movement. 

By contrast, Zeskind’s Blood and Politics, written five years after Levitas’ account, takes a significantly more expansive view of white supremacy, providing a survey of the white nationalist movement more broadly and describing critical developments from the 1950s through the immediate aftermath of September 11th. While Zeskind, like Levitas, is sure to situate the subject of his investigation, white nationalism, in the context of other white supremacist movements, his engagement with the latter is relegated to what he sees as pertinent to telling the story of the former. Like Levitas, Zeskind clearly emphasizes the importance of the Civil Rights Movement in mobilizing political actors on the radical right.  Zeskind contends that white supremacist organizations in the post-Jim Crow era, responding to the inability of their predecessors to prevent widespread racial integration, opted to “build a movement around the idea of white dispossession.” The rhetoric of white dispossession—that the economic and political dominance of whites was being threatened by political reform and demographic change—motivated racist groups to coalesce around the need to create a white ethnostate [8].

Zeskind has chosen to center his narrative around individuals, focusing on two prominent white nationalists,Willis Allison Carto and William Pierce,whom he believes epitomize a key strategic divide in the movement between a more reformist “mainstreaming” represented by Carto and a more revolutionary “vanguardism” represented by Pierce. As Zeskind describes it, Carto’s “mainstreaming” approach was heavily preoccupied with cultivating political respectability. Zeskind notes that Carto attempted to win people over to the white nationalist cause by working within existing political institutions to affect policy change. Pierce’s “vanguardism” approach, by contrast, was rooted in the premise that gradual reform is an impossibility, and that any attempts to recruit white people en masse through respectability politics is misguided, instead suggesting that the movement should rely on small, highly organized cells of dedicated cadres to take revolutionary action [9].

Zeskind’s narrative, which describes the political activism and criminal activities of numerous factions within the white supremacist movement—David Duke’s neo-confederates, pseudo-constitutional groups like the Posse Comitatus, and myriad paramilitary survivalist groups—is framed around this ideological and strategic debate between Willis Carto and William Pierce. Zeskind suggests that the viability of each strategy shifted depending on contemporary political conditions. For instance, when describing white supremacist activities in the 1980s, Zeskind notes how the bank robberies and assassinations carried out by vanguardist factions like the Order prompted federal prosecution of key figures in the white supremacist movement, leading the vanguardist approach to fall out of favor. This is not to say that acts of political violence were not perpetrated by organizations within the movement—the OKC bombing testifies to that—but that vanguardism ceased to be the dominant strategic approach as the 1980s drew to a close. Indeed, Zeskind suggests that by the 1990s, those on the right had begun to develop a form of ethnic nationalism which found its way to the margins of political respectability, attributing this development, in part, to the ways in which the end of the Cold War and effective collapse of communism catalyzed a reckoning within conservative circles about the meaning of American identity [10]. He argues that the relative political success of figures like David Duke, who was elected to the Louisiana state legislature, and Pat Buchanan, who enjoyed considerable support in national presidential primaries, exemplified this new form of white nationalism and illustrated the extent to which white nationalist rhetoric has been assimilated into the political mainstream. 

Zeskind’s study is, broadly speaking, more all-encompassing than Levitas’, and he provides the reader with greater insight into both the methods of his historiographical approach and the challenges associated with studying white supremacist groups. He describes how, in researching hate groups, he would rely on a wide range of printed sources, including racist and antisemitic booklets and periodicals, numerous newspaper clippings, and a variety of courtroom documents, including federal affidavits, criminal indictments, and depositions. Additionally, Zeskind details how he relied on the stories of people who were part of the movement, both current members that he met while attending white supremacist rallies, and those individuals who sought him out when they were trying to leave the movement. Zeskind also addresses what is one of the most obvious historiographical challenges associated with studying fringe, racist groups—their tendency to lie to outsiders—noting that  to work around this, he enlisted several volunteers to attend racist meetings and gather information covertly [11].

In Bring the War Home, Katherine Belew seeks to provide a more extensive narrative of the white supremacist movement. The author departs from the traditional historiographical approach to the post-Vietnam white power movement—one which characterizes the movement as a simple resurgence of Klan activity–seeking instead to understand white power as something more ideologically all-encompassing and tactically flexible than had been previously understood [12]. Indeed, Belew is quite deliberate in her use of the term “white power” rather than “white nationalist” or “white separatist,” arguing that the former better encompasses the range of ideologies and practices aimed at affirming the political and economic control of white people, and suggesting that the latter terms minimize the violence of the movement while implying that white supremacists were seeking to defend the American state [13]. Taking a comprehensive approach to the archive, Belew begins her study in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, arguing that the historical memory of American defeat in Vietnam played a central role in the efforts of the white power movement to construct a common group identity [14]. The centrality of Vietnam in her narrative represents a particularly interesting contribution to the historiography of the movement, forcing the reader to reckon with the ways in which militarism, imperialism, and racialized violence abroad might, and frequently do, have profound repercussions domestically. Her historical study goes on to discuss the intensification of white supremacist criminal activities in the 1980s and the effective climax of the movement’s violence in Oklahoma City.  While Belew’s work is more limited in time frame when compared to the chronological scope of Zeskind and Levitas, the depth and comprehensive nature of Belew’s research enables her to effectively reframe our understanding of the white power movement. 

Moreover, Belew argues quite compellingly that prevailing scholarship has failed to recognize both the extent to which white power constituted a full-fledged social movement and the movement’s remarkable influence on mainstream politics [15]. Whereas Levitas and Zeskind orient their narrative around particular individuals and their respective organizations, Belew’s study examines the ways in which more macro-level political developments, namely the Vietnam War, allowed the white power movement to construct a common political identity. Belew argues that, after the military defeat in Southeast Asia, there was a concerted effort by the white power movement to construct a common narrative about the war: that American soldiers had been betrayed by cowardly military and political leadership, and that their sacrifice had been trivialized by an ungrateful public. This narrative helped the movement both to create a common political identity, effectively unifying a disparate array of white supremacist congregations, neo-confederates, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis, and to attract more military veterans, a development which she sees as instrumental in the development of the movement’s paramilitary culture and infrastructure and, consequently, of its capacity for revolutionary violence [16].

Belew divides her study into three constituent parts. Part I focuses on the 1970s, establishing the role of violence within the movement, including the centrality of the Vietnam narrative, the development of paramilitary training camps, and the nexus between the white power movement and various transnational mercenary groups. In Part II, Belew focuses on the 1980s, illuminating how the movement became more and more violently antistatist, discussing the movement’s 1983 declaration of war on the federal government, its use of early computer networks and cell-style organizing, and its attempts to steal military-grade weaponry from the state. Part III looks to the apex of the white power movement’s revolutionary violence, describing its confrontations with the federal government at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas, and the effective culmination of antigovernment violence with the Oklahoma City bombing. Belew concludes her study with a meditation on the ways in which the bombing has obfuscated and distorted historical memory, arguing that it cemented public perceptions of white supremacist violence as merely the acts of a few men rather than the manifestation of a broader movement. Belew argues that the inability of the American public to understand the broader implications of OKC and the white supremacist violence that fueled it, in part, set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump, a political development that seemingly took mainstream and left-wing America by surprise. 

Perhaps because she is writing as an academic historian, Belew deals at great length with the historiographical issues inherent to writing about white supremacist groups. She notes, for instance, the difficulties associated with incorporating images from the white power movement into the book, saying that using any photographs owned by racist organizations risks making a financial contribution to their cause. Like Zeskind, she also points out that white supremacists tend to hide their activities, legal or illegal, to mitigate the risk of government infiltration of their cells. Belew also emphasizes the many ways that the archive itself is limited. She suggests that FBI, ATF, Marshall Service, and DOJ records, used widely in research of the white power movement, vary enormously in the accuracy of their accounts, the motivations of their authors, and the degree to which they have been redacted. She further asserts that white supremacist activity in prisons—a key part of the movement—has been poorly documented, and that legal documents from the height of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s are rarely digitized, making them difficult to access. Belew also notes, quite shrewdly, that records from extremist watchdogs like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, while extremely useful, ought to be read in light of these organizations’ reliance on donations; that is to say, they might have a financial incentive to overestimate the movement’s influence and organizational sophistication [17].

Taken together, these readings support several broad statements about contemporary trends in the historiography of the white power movement. First, the recent proliferation of literature focusing on the white power movement and racialized violence illustrate the extent to which both popular and academic interest in these groups has increased as right-wing domestic terrorism is increasingly seen as one the most pressing critical threats to national security. Second, the books I selected suggest an evolution in who is writing about the movement. Whereas Daniel Levitas and Leonard Zeskind have worked primarily as experts on the origins and activities of white supremacist and neo-Nazi group (Zeskind, for a time, also worked as a community activist), Katherine Belew is a professor at the University of Chicago, suggesting the ways in which the white power movement has increasingly become an important subject of inquiry for academic researchers. Finally, the differences between the three books indicate a fundamental shift in the historiography towards more all-encompassing studies of the white power movement as a whole, exemplified by Bring the War Home, rather than more specific examinations of particular groups, as shown by Blood and Politics and The Terrorist Next Door. All three books, however, are thoroughly researched and cogently written, significantly contributing to our understanding of the history of various factions within the white power movement. Future scholarship should look to answer more developed questions, building off of the work of Levitas, Zeskind, and Belew. For instance, is it even possible to identify common root causes of white supremacist violence that can be applied across disparate demographic groups; disaffected workers in the rust belt, Christian extremists, anti-immigration vigilantes at the border, corporate CEOs reliant on GOP support? Furthermore, what does our lack of understanding about these issues mean about our ability to address white supremacist violence in a cohesive, policy-driven manner? There is an urgent need for continued scholarship in this area—scholarship that broadens our understanding of white supremacy beyond the focus on a few isolated groups, a few bad apples.


[1] Eileen Sullivan, Katie Benner, “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists,” New York Times, June 15th, 2021.

[2] Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002): 3.

[3] Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, 11.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid., 9-10.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 26-27.

[10] Ibid., 29-30.

[11] Ibid., 16-18.

[12] Katherine Belew, Bring the War Home (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019): 25.

[13] Belew, Bring the War Home, 12.

[14] Ibid., 12-14.

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 15.

[17] Ibid., 30-34.


Belew, Katherine. Bring the War Home. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Levitas, Daniel. The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2002. 

Sullivan, Eileen, Benner, Katie. “Top law enforcement officials say the biggest domestic terror threat comes from white supremacists.” New York Times, June 15th, 2021. 

Zeskind, Leonard. Blood and Politics. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009. 

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