LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS — It’s a biting cold Saturday morning in Little Rock and a hush has descended around the Arkansas State House. The National Socialist Movement (NSM) is in town for a demonstration.
“It’s sad,” an elderly traffic warden says as we wait for NSM’s convoy of minivans and clapped-out SUVs to arrive. “They need the Lord.”
Around two dozen black-clad NSM members eventually show up for this latest rally, supposedly to protest against “Human Rights violations in South Africa,” but police are still taking no chances. The streets surrounding the Capitol have been sealed off, armored MRAPs wait nearby and snipers line a nearby rooftop. Throughout the afternoon, a police helicopter and drone buzz around in the air, monitoring the protest and counter-demonstration.
It could be argued that the heavy law enforcement presence is giving NSM — founded in 1959 by George Lincoln Rockwell as an offshoot of the America Nazi Party, and which was present at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — exactly the kind of attention it craves. But when you consider how heavily-armed this group is, as well as its constant threats about being ready to defend itself against the so-called Antifa threat, the police response starts to make some sense.
Little Rock PD making the NSM check their weapons pic.twitter.com/h0uPbRRiaw
— Luke Barnes (@LukeBarnes_92) November 10, 2018
The rally also marks the re-introduction of Matthew Heimbach, whose prominent position on the white nationalist scene went down in flames after he was arrested in March for assaulting his father-in-law, who had discovered that Heimbach was having an affair with his own mother-in-law. When I meet Heimbach at a staging point prior to the rally, however, he seems jovial and eager to discuss how white nationalism isn’t actually racist or xenophobic, but inclusive. (None of that is true.)
“If we allow ourselves to form into an imperialist or supremacist’s mindset, we’re actually playing into the capitalists’ hands,” Heimbach claims. “We need to have a total rejection of that and that’s gonna be a big correction within white nationalism in general of viewing ourselves as part of an international struggle for liberation.”
Heimbach continues, claiming the “purpose of the rally is to raise awareness of the ongoing discrimination against minorities in South Africa.”
“We believe this in violation of international law so we’re calling on the U.S. government to sanction South Africa until it comes into compliance with international law,” he says.
Heimbach’s rhetoric sounds almost progressive — he started out the interview by quoting Chomsky — until you zoom out and take in the entire scene. He’s standing in a Kohl’s parking lot, surrounded by armed, loud-and-proud National Socialists, one of whom is waving the flag of apartheid-era South Africa — the same one racist mass-murderer Dylann Roof wore on his jacket.
The supposed “white genocide” in South Africa has been a white nationalist talking point for years, but the rejuvenated far-right has given the myth a new lease-of-life in recent days. Far-right commentators Lauren Southern and Katie Hopkins have both recorded documentaries on the issue, and Southern’s film “Farmlands” has been viewed more the 1.9 million times on YouTube.
Perhaps most importantly, President Trump tweeted about it in August, after seeing a segment on the issue on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.” @TuckerCarlson @FoxNews
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2018
Despite NSM’s general lukewarm feelings about Trump, the group was elated when he mentioned the issue.
“What boggles my mind is that the mainstream American press was billing it as a hoax until President Trump started tweeting about it and some others like Tucker picked up on it,” NSM member Kynan Dutton tells ThinkProgress. “Whites colonized that area and made it what it was. They took a desert and made it into a society only then did the others start intruding and want their own piece.”
NSM Chief of Staff Burt Colucci also name-drops Trump during the rally, mimicking the president’s rhetorical assaults on the media.
“We’re speaking about genocide in South Africa, even President Trump brought it out that the people are being wiped out there on a daily basis,” Colucci says. “The United States and many other countries are saying it’s not true but we have people on the ground reporting constant rapes and killings, and the fake news organizations here in the United States like the Huffington Post…are slandering us, libeling us and straight-up telling lies to the American people.”
Of course, there’s no real evidence to back NSM’s claims up. According to the South African Police Service, farm attacks have actually declined since the late 1990s. A 2016 study by The Lancet found that white deaths from interpersonal violence in South Africa equaled 2.7 percent of the total mortality data for South Africa — a drop of nearly 30 percent since 2000.
In 2002, a study by the Crime Information Analysis Centre found that just 2 percent of attacks on farms were racially motivated. As The New Statesman notes, while the data is old, the fact that it was conducted when the region was experiencing its highest levels of violence suggests the vast majority were crimes of opportunity against isolated properties.
There’s also the fact that South Africa has an extremely high crime rate overall. While horrific crimes against whites do occur in the country, they are far more likely to happen to women, LGBTQIA people or immigrants.
“It’s akin to the ‘black-on-white crime’ [lie],” Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center tells ThinkProgress in an interview, the day before the rally. “What they’re doing is misreading stats or choosing to ignore other relevant statistics on who’s likely to be affected by a crime. They isolate one particular statistic out of context and try to use it to justify their views.”
But the subtleties of who or what is to blame for violence in South Africa are lost on NSM, whose rally quickly descends into a grievance free-for-all. NSM members are simultaneously convinced that Antifa poses enough of a threat for them to bring rifles (in one case kitted with a bump stock) while also criticizing the crowd of 100 or so counter-protesters — chanting “bullshit” at NSM members — as degenerates and third-raters.
Heimbach talks about how NSM “[does] not advocate animosity and conflict.” Meanwhile, Colucci claims Jews deserved to be kicked out of more than 100 countries over the course of their existence.
“No Trump no KkK no fascist USA” pic.twitter.com/AcWBISqgAp
— Luke Barnes (@LukeBarnes_92) November 10, 2018
The rally gives an inside look at the “optics debate,” which has plagued the far-right since the PR catastrophe that was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year. In a nutshell, a substantial section of the far-right believes marching in the streets in so-called “shows of force” makes the far-right look bad, because the on display is too palpable for mainstream America.
“We need to speak to the culture,” avowed Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wrote in August. “We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet.”
That prediction appears to be accurate: NSM is outnumbered at least 4 to 1 at this event, notably in a deep-red state, and despite the city of Little Rock severely restricting the number of counter-protests allowed.
Aside from the obvious optics problem is a far more pressing issue: whether these protests are even needed for far-right ideas like “white genocide” to worm their way into the mainstream.
Trump’s aforementioned tweet about South African farmers — and his instruction to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study” their “large scale killing[s]” — came in response to a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, one of the network’s top-rated evening programs. Carlson has also previously defended Lauren Southern and Gab, a free speech platform which was briefly taken offline after it emerged that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter had used the site to spout anti-Semitic bile — his last post, just prior to the shooting, was “Screw your optics I’m going in.”
The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., though he hasn’t tweeted about “white genocide” himself, has nevertheless tweeted his support of British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who has warned supporters about nonwhite immigrants taking over British neighborhoods.
GOP Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has repeatedly parroted white nationalist talking points about the the so-called decline of white civilization. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he once tweeted.
Overseas, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a charm offensive for white South Africans. This last move has delighted Heimbach who once described Putin as “the leader of traditional Christianity and Nationalism in opposition to the Atlanticist agenda.”
Back in the United States, the broader GOP has also taken a page from the white nationalist playbook, blaming Jewish, progressive billionaire George Soros for everything from the migrant caravan to the Kavanaugh protests.
BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source! pic.twitter.com/5pEByiGkkN
— Rep. Matt Gaetz (@RepMattGaetz) October 17, 2018
The rally in Arkansas wraps up relatively early in the evening, at around 5 p.m. Surrounded by a phalanx of bike cops, NSM members depart state house grounds, with evening plans to burn an Odal at a backwoods location. Heimbach explains that a swastika won’t work well unless an actual carpenter made it.
Seeing NSM members retreat back into the hills, to indulge in a ceremony which has long-since been deemed unacceptable by mainstream America, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of grotesque pity for them — especially 20-year-old “Lurch” who had made his way down to the event from Kentucky, despite being homeless.
But any sort of pity would be grossly misplaced. America is back at a place where it’s ready to accept white nationalists marching through the streets. And the mainstream GOP is more than willing to lap up their ideas.