White Nationalist Richard Spencer Uses Diffusionist Fringe History in Speech Praising Trump, White America
Cast your mind back to that far-off distant year of 2009, when conservative thinkers were outraged that an elementary school teacher in Chicago led her students in a chant praising Barack Obama. Fox News pundits decried what they alleged was an incipient communist cult of personality, and Sean Hannity devoted several segments of his various programs to red-face outrage. Then-GOP chairman Michael Steele said at the time “Friend, this is the type of propaganda you would see in Stalin’s Russia or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. I never thought the day would come when I’d see it here in America.” Yesterday white nationalists held a meeting in Washington, giving fascist salutes and shouting “Hail Trump!”, led by the man that Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, through his Breitbart website, hailed as a great “intellectual” of compelling brilliance. You get no points for guessing that Fox News downplayed the event, or that Ann Coulter dismissed it as merely thirty people in a room, or that Sean Hannity devoted his time instead to praising torture and begging Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to use the power of his office to silence criticism.
The gathering of members and supporters of the National Policy Institute was led by Richard Spencer, the clean-cut leader of the so-called alt-right movement. Spencer has purposely attempted to use the power of aesthetics to give a more traditional face to white nationalism by downplaying the skinhead and Neo-Nazi stylings of the Frank Collin (a.k.a. Frank Joseph) era of the American Nazi Party in favor a subtler style based on a resurrection of 1950s haircuts and sharp suits.
In a speech to his National Policy Institute, Spencer praised Donald Trump as a white nationalist fellow traveler, asked his audience to offer call-and-response style chants of Nazi propaganda phrases “in the original German” (which, of course, they all knew), and concluded with shouts of “hail Trump,” “hail our people,” and “hail victory” in the style of “Heil Hitler.” Spencer later claimed that such exclamations, and the fascist salutes offered in response were meant as “ironic,” though video of the event does not support this reading. He seemed quite serious at the time. What, after all, is the purpose of referring to the “original German” is not to praise the Nazis who used those words? Spencer told NBC News that using Nazi language was “cheeky” and “fun.”
Michael Steele in 2009 thought that elementary school students singing about how Obama would make “America’s economy number one again” was Stalinism, and yet in two weeks we have descended to the point where CNN actually had the following chyron on screen while discussing that same white nationalist gathering:
Yes, it is now acceptable to argue about which groups count as fully human on national television. Granted, CNN’s pundits still think Jews are human beings and that the alt-right are nasty hatemongers, but making such questions a subject of conversation is the first step toward debating them in earnest.
But the more important problem for our purposes is that CNN completely misunderstood the context of the comments. Spencer was referring to the press, not to Jews, in claiming they were soulless golems. (Granted, for white nationalists, Jews and the media are often conflated.) But this speaks to a larger problem: The media lack the literary, historical, and cultural framework to understand the very real and disturbing allusions and references that pepper the rhetoric of the white nationalists, whether they call themselves alt-right or something else.
In his speech, Spencer declared that white Europeans were “Children of the Sun,” and these words passed through the media filter without criticism or comment because they seem innocuous but are not. “Within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun lies the potential for greatness,” he said. This appears to be a reference to a classic text of fringe history, W. J. Perry’s 1923 book Children of the Sun, one of several that the anthropologist wrote to provide an academic gloss on what was essentially a more scholarly version of Ignatius Donnelly’s vision of Atlantis.
Perry’s Children of the Sun, echoing contemporary work by his close colleague Grafton Elliot Smith, replaces Atlantis with ancient Egypt, but in all other respects, it is the same argument: that there was a global archaic culture of sophistication, based on stone-working, agriculture, sun-worship, mummification, and all the other elements fringe historians typically attribute to the “lost civilization” of ancient times. Perry further argued that this ancient culture had a ruling class, the “Children of the Sun,” who commanded and controlled the entire world from their headquarters in Old Kingdom Egypt. These Children of Sun, identical with the Followers of Horus in Graham Hancock’s similar fantasy of white hyper-diffusion, emerge from the Victorian misconception that Aryans created civilization and were everywhere sun worshipers first and foremost. (Hancock did not use Perry or Elliot Smith directly, but he cited sources that were in turn influenced by these authors.)
This map of Grafton Elliot-Smith’s proposed areas where the Children of Sun influenced culture, taken from one of his colleagues’ books on diffusionism, is strikingly similar, though less widespread, than Donnelly’s map of the areas where Atlantis once reigned. The big difference is that Donnelly did not extend Atlantis into the Pacific while Elliot Smith and Perry made the Pacific a key field of play for their archaic culture.
Needless to say, according to Perry this cult of spiritual rulers was white, even if he tended not to specify this directly. “It is unfortunate,” Louis C. G. Clarke wrote in a review of Children of the Sun for The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, “that he has started with a theory and has tried to adjust the facts to that preconceived idea.” Such is fringe history.
That idea, of course, is that indigenous people were incapable of their own accomplishments and needed the firm hand of colonial masters to rise above savagery. As Elliot Smith put it, there is an “incongruity” between the “primitive and highly developed customs” of indigenous societies that could only be explained by alleging that “they received practically every element of their culture from abroad.” Elliot Smith made no bones about his supposedly scientific racism, couched though it was in academic languages and bromides about the benefits of hybrid racial cultures. He wrote that the “Armenoid” race (i.e. white Caucasians from the area of Armenia) supplanted the indigenous “Brown” race of Egypt and led to the cultural explosion that we call civilization. The influence of this school was very strong, especially among race theorists, even though most anthropologists and historians rejected it. James Henry Breasted, the American archaeologist and Egyptologist, placed in his high school textbook of ancient history, Ancient Times, the label “The Great White Race.” The text was used in American high schools through the 1930s.
Compare this view of the Children of the Sun, the world-conquering master race of ruling elite, to Spencer’s comments in his speech about how to be “white is to be a striver, an explorer and a conqueror.” He added, “We don’t gain anything from [other racial groups’] presence. They need us and not the other way around.” Is this not what Elliot Smith said about indigenous peoples? Elliot Smith reflected the ideology of imperialism in the twilight of the British Empire, while Spencer strips the academic veneer from the underlying ideology. The point, though, is the same, and only partially obscured by Spencer using half-hidden references to Edwardian and Interwar imperialist and colonialist fantasies to give it an aesthetic gloss.
When Spencer speaks, he is using language that is sometimes explicit and more often coded, and those coded phrases, harking back to the hyperdiffusionist school of the early twentieth century, are intentionally designed to elicit an understanding that he is speaking of white supremacy and the white Master Race. The “Children of Sun” sounds merely poetic to the media, ignorant of the obscure diffusionist arguments—celebrated on the History Channel and in the pages of Ancient American and the anthologies of ex-American Nazi Party head Frank Joseph—that Spencer strip mines for hate, but to his followers it is simply another term for the Master Race.
Something I saw online yesterday shows how much has changed in just two weeks. Yesterday on Twitter I saw people talking about what was said to be a deleted tweet that the History Channel had posted last evening to promote Hunting Hitler, their weekly Hitler fetish program. According to these tweets, which included what they claimed were screen captures, the channel’s tweet had said (and I am quoting from memory here since I can’t find the original) that Hitler was a fan of clean living, but new evidence suggests that the Nazis had a dark side. The fact that I can’t determine whether this tweet was a Photoshopped parody, a mistaken attempt at a dog whistle to an alt-right audience, or an ignorant screw up, and that all these option are now equally plausible, speaks volumes.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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