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Normality Under Siege
Fascism offers white women a contradictory but satisfying narrative.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
On the liberal left, it's a given that conservative rank-and-file true believers consistently vote against their own interests. Republicans are on average wealthier than Democrats. Still 58% of GOP families had income of less than $75,000, and 27% had incomes of less than $30,000. These middle-class and working-class GOP voters cast votes against reducing health care costs, raising wages, and strengthening the safety net to provide a cushion during recessions. They line up to fight initiatives to provide free college for their children, and fight tooth and nail to raise the age at which they can retire.
Obviously, they're dupes. If we could only educate them, or show them where their real interests lie, we'd break the power of the right permanently. Wouldn't we?
Seyward Darby's depressing answer is, "Probably not." Her 2020 book Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism is focused, as the title says, on gender, not class. But it makes a strong case that people who choose the right, and the far right, do so because the movement gives them real psychological and material benefits. Whiteness is a privilege, a wage, and a narrative. All of those can equal real power. Choosing that power—which is, in essence, power to harm others—is immoral. But it's not exactly delusional.
What (Some White) Women Want
Darby's book focuses on three white women: Corinna Olsen, Ayla Stewart, and Lana Lokteff. They all have different life stories and had different entry points into the far right. Olsen was a lonely misfit looking for community. Stewart began as a New Age, home-birth, women-power feminist and slipped into tradwife Mormon influencer. Lokteff was a punk/folk musician who ended up as a pagan conspiracy theorist.
The stories of all three, though, share certain similiarities. First of all, most obviously they're all white. And by virtue of being white, they all had an immediate level of status and cachet on the right.
Olsen, who had two daughters, stumbled onto far-right chat boards and was instantly praised for preserving the race as a fertile white women with white children. Ayla's videos, featuring her numerous children wandering around adorably in the background while their mother bemoaned the dangers of immigration in the foreground, racked up thousands and then hundreds of thousands of views. Lokteff's racist YouTube rants were much more popular than her band had ever been.
Ayla Stewart’s former twitter account; she’s since abandoned most of her online presence.
It's not all clicks and praise for white women who join the far right. The movement is extremely misogynist; women are supposed to be subservient and domestic; their primary function, in theory, is to raise children to propagate the white race. The three women Darby profiled all faced sexist insults from men angry that women were putting themselves forward, even in the name of Nazism. Lokteff and Olsen were attacked for not having enough babies. And Neo-Nazi women get little support from the community when their asshole Nazi husbands physically or emotionally abuse them.
The misogyny can dissuade some; Olsen left the far right in part because she was worried about how men spoke about, and tried to get access to, her daughters. But for a lot of white women, (including to some degree the 55% of white women who supported Trump in 2020) the upsides of being celebrated for whiteness outweigh the downsides of the sexism. As Darby says:
it’s possible to acknowledge the rampant, persistent sexism of the far right while also giving women the credit they deserve. They aren’t being duped or forced into hate. They have agency, they make choices, and they locate power in places other than standard political authority. Whether they’re in a dominant order or a fringe crusade, women are getting something they want out of their position as mothers: validation, security, solidarity, visibility, purpose, bragging rights.
Some of what white women on the right get can be very material; Lokteff makes a good living off of hate, and Olsen and Stewart both made Nazi money as well. But, as Darby says, there are also less concrete, but still crucial benefits. Belonging, community, friends to support, enemies to hate.
One powerful incentive for white women is that they get to embody an aggressive, celebrated normality. Darby quotes researcher Kathleen Blee, who notes that "Racist women understand that groups of women who seem innocuous can attract people to racist politics." Normal (white) moms who just want the best for their normal (white) children have long been a basis for racist organizing; school segregation in the south, and anti-busing activism in the north were both often led by outraged (white) mothers, just as the current anti-LGBT panic is based in a rhetoric of child safety.
Leveraging white femininity for the greater glory of whiteness is a tactic to draw in mainstream support and whitewash far right violence. But it's also a source of narrative meaning and validation in itself. People like to feel that they're normal or that they're the standard; it's validating to feel like you're living an authentic, natural, wholesome life at one with your gender, your race, your biological imperative, your identity, and your favorite retro media representations. “The calling to motherhood [is] the way through which the German woman will see her calling to be mother of the nation," said Gertrude Scholtz-Klink, leader of the Nazi Women's League in Hitler's Germany. "She will then not live her life selfishly, but rather in service to her people,"
At the same time as it offers women a vision of iconic normality, the far right also gives them the change to feel edgy, rebellious, anti-establishment. Darby notes that "perceived victimization" is a constant on the right. White nationalists insist that only they have taken the red pill which allows them to see that men and white people are oppressed by a feminized, decadent, Jewish government and culture. Where "normal" whiteness appeals to conservatives and centrists obsessed with preserving the status quo, the anti-establishment aspects of fascism can draw in people with (supposedly) left commitments—people who mistrust hospital births, or worry about government surveillance or just like a grungey oppositional aesthetic.
The Shire Will Prevail
White women join the far right because they want to be hyper normal helpmates and because they want to fight the man. That seems contradictory, but in fact it dovetails with many of our most beloved cultural narratives. Hollywood screens are bursting with stories of normality under siege. In film and television, (white) hearth, home, and domesticity are constantly being threatened by the twisted forces of darkness and perversion. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, superhero films—if there's an epic, there's probably a shire of good, normal, white people preserving their homeland from invading orcs.
The point isn't that all of these narratives are intentionally, or even by implication, white nationalist. Rather, the point is that we love stories in which a normal domesticity is under threat, and our underdog heroes fight to preserve their way of life. White nationalists and the right hack those cultural narratives and enthusiasms for their own purposes. Women (and not just women) get to feel like heroes in a great, ongoing battle for the soul of the country, the race, the volk, the world. That's fun—not least because it provides justification for extensive acts of sadism, cruelty, and violence, sometimes rhetorical, sometimes, as in the case of January 6, real.
The Far Right Isn't That Far
Part of the reason the far right can look and feel "normal" is that racism in America is mainstream. Olsen found far right ideas about segregation natural and familiar because she, like most white Americans, had lived an almost completely segregated life. Darby notes that she often encounters supposed moderate and liberal acquaintances who parrot far right talking points—rushing to respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter" or blaming slavery on Africans selling other Africans to Europeans. And of course at this point supposedly moderate conservatives mimic far right talking points (about Black on Black crime, for example) all the time.
White Americans—far right, right, center and even, often, left—see the privilege, power, and righteousness of white people as a given. Whiteness is at once normal (it's the standard!) and daring (only the brave will admit...) White people should be the leads in all the movies; they should get into the best schools; they should have the right to police everyone else. They'll fight for a world in which that's the case, not because they're confused or misguided, but because they believe (immorally, but not illogically) that such a world benefits them.
That doesn't mean that all hope is lost. Again, Olsen has left the far right; she became a Muslim, and is now part of a multi-racial community loathed by her former associates. The GOP keeps losing elections, in no small part because a substantial minority of white women join the vast majority of POC in voting for Democrats. There's community, and virtue, and exhilaration in embracing multiracial democracy too.
I think it's important, though, to recognize that when people choose hate they're not (just) acting out of ignorance. Many white people—even white women, even white working-class people— cling to whiteness for the same reason rich people cling to money. Unjust privilege is intoxicating, and people don't let go of it easily.
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