One of the most disturbing and popular books in white supremacist subculture is The Turner Diaries. Its author, William Pierce, who penned the thing under the name Andrew MacDonald, was a physics PhD who taught at the Oregon State University in the 1960s; Pierce became a leading American Nazi Party member (and editor of their journal) and eventually founded the National Alliance, which was for a while the most well-funded white nationalist group in the U.S. The Turner Diaries was published serially before it was released as novel in 1978. Pierce also authored Hunter, a book about a serial killer who stalks and executes mixed-race couples.
In the years since Barack Obama’s election, the number of anti-government militia groups (as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center) has exploded from 150 to over 1250. 2012 was also the first year that most of the babies born in the United States were not white. These demographic and social changes, augmented by an entrenched and politically active nativist movement that targets illegal immigrants, should encourage our awareness of the ideological fountain from which the racist subset of these militias draw, including The Turner Diaries.
To discuss The Turner Diaries, I sat down at a Mexican restaurant for a taco with Tom Lolis, my colleague and fellow Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech. Tom is a Renaissance scholar who has taught writing classes about the occult, but also takes a professional interest in conspiracy and conspiracy theories. As we sat down and ordered tacos, I pulled out my copy of The Turner Diaries and placed it on the table face down.
“You brought a copy?” Tom asked.
“When I first heard about it I downloaded pages as a PDF and printed them up on the department printer,” I said. “I ran down to the copy room to make sure that nobody intercepted it, because if someone did, it would be the end of me.”
“Yeah, it’s not the type of book that you read on the bus. If the other people on the bus knew what you were reading …” he trailed off.
“… they’d rightly kick my ass,” I finished.
“Yeah, especially if they don’t assume that you are a college professor interested in this because it is a book of dangerous and terrible ideas.”
I showed him the promotional blurb by Timothy McVeigh on the back cover. “How did you get your copy?” I asked.
“I made the horrible mistake of ordering it online, which has probably put me on who knows how many watch lists? And it also started getting me inundated with pamphlets and catalogues from companies that I wish I didn’t know existed. I don’t recommend anyone does that.”
Tom gave a brief outline of the book’s premise. A resistance group known as “the Order” “is going to protect America from itself. The group has the aims of creating a white society, and in particular targets African-Americans and Jews. The novel suggests that Jews run the world, that Jews pull the strings, and that African-Americans are their unwitting flunkies, the unfortunate dupes who supposedly don’t know better (and of course a word like ‘African-American’ is nowhere to be found in the book).”
To Pierce, protecting America from itself means inciting a revolution, Tom said. “What seems to kick start this incendiary movement [in the novel] is an act called the ‘Cohen Act,’ which is a proposed bill to take our guns away, so it grafts that fear onto this race-hatred, and this becomes the realization for this group that they have to strike now, because once the guns are taken away, once the guns have been physically seized from your home, the Jews win.” 1
The act that sets the revolution in motion is a truck bomb that destroys the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. “You always see in the lore of the militias that there is always going to be one act that triggers the revolution,” I said.. “All they have to do is strike against the Feds, for instance, and that’s going to spark the revolution. Even that Breivik guy, kinda thought that he was going to foment revolution. The Hutaree narrative: kill a cop, start a revolution. In The Turner Diaries, the act that is going to set things off is an attack on the FBI headquarters. This has some real world implications.”
Tom agreed. “What’s weird is what Breivik has been spouting off in Norway sounds very Turner Diary-esque, this claim that he is a part of this secret cell. [In the Turner Diaries] we have this network of terrorist cells that work together but don’t always know what the other is doing. And it’s also this quasi-theological order; there’s a lot of white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism mixed in with this notion of a master race.” The major difference seems to be that Breivik substitutes the Muslims for the Jews in his conspiratorial hierarchy.
Tom suggested that the structure of the book, framing the story in the form of a revolutionary’s journals, gives the story a sense of authenticity. “It allows the reader to imagine a world where the Revolution has already happened. […] The book sets the time of the action in the 1990s and we’re reading the journals [of martyr Earl Turner] a hundred years beyond that, when the world has completely changed (for the worse),” Tom said. “Asia has been made a desert via a nuclear strike, Africa has been ethnically cleansed—all of it. Puerto Rico has been colonized by whites, and there’s a whole list of other atrocities. In the final scene, our ‘hero,’ Mr. Turner, goes on a suicide run [in a small airplane] to nuke the Pentagon. New York is also hit with nuclear weapons because it’s seen as a sort of a Jewish capital.”
“It’s a sort a blueprint for the revolution that they are hoping will come,” I said, referring to a scene which describes in detail exactly how to prepare and bury weapons in the woods to keep them from being seized by authorities.
Tom nodded. “It’s very much, I think, a how-to manual, or at least it’s intended to be. What its efficacy could be, let’s hope we never find out, but it seems that the design is I’m going to tell an entertaining story (entertaining in huge quotes) because people are going to pass on the instructional manual. If you don’t have the wherewithal to sit through hundreds of pages of pure polemic, we’ll couch it in story.”
Tom paused. “I think one of the things that is so disturbing about the book is that the prose is actually not terrible, in the sense that had he been a gentler man, or a reasonable man, Pierce may have been able to have crafted a career as a bestselling novelist. It has that sort of page turner quality. The sentences are clean. It was one of the slowest books I ever read, though, because of the content and how hard it was to take, but I think if you looked at it purely as a prose stylist, you know, he can write. It’s not going to be high art, but there’s a story. It’s a terrible story. And I think that might account for this book’s success, that it has a sort of ‘thriller’ feel. I think that’s what makes it stand out from a lot of similarly themed fiction. And any other book I can think of that has achieved visibility, any vision of the world comparable to this, say, in science fiction, this is going to be presented as uniformly dystopian.”
“That’s the scary thing,” I chimed in. “Hitler was quite a utopian. A lot of these sorts of movements have this utopian vision and there’s no other way, you either go all the way toward the utopian world or the world is corrupt, and there’s nothing in between.”
Our tacos arrived. When we finished lunch, I mentioned that The Turner Diaries is part of a larger body of work, a collection of similarly themed novels. “I don’t think that most people would realize that there is an entire subgenre of what you have termed ‘militia fiction.’ What are some of the other books in that genre?”
“As far as books that have achieved heavy circulation,” Tom said, “you can take Unintended Consequences, which Tim McVeigh read in jail. It’s a long novel, 1,000-plus pages. It’s another one that [has] a bestseller prose style. That one is more about resistance against the ATF as opposed to killing ethnic groups. I think that’s become dominant in subsequent novels, taking the subversive tendencies of The Turner Diaries and turning them more toward political agencies than toward ethnic groups. Now in some of those works, we might find the underlying theme of ethnic groups controlling these agencies but the ATF will be front and center, or the FBI.
“I think that [The Turner Diaries] is the most prominent because it has been associated with specific crimes. Obviously you’ve got McVeigh. [A copy of the book was found in McVeigh’s car when he was arrested.] There was the case of the dragging of the African American man—I believe his name was James Byrd—in Texas. One of the assailants said that they were ‘starting The Turner Diaries early,’ so there’s clear association there. I’m not suggesting that reading a book drives you to commit violence, but those who are inclined toward that type of crime seem to gravitate toward it. […] I don’t think that it works well as a conversion tool. I can’t see anyone picking it up and saying, ‘It changed my ideas.’
“You know, the Order, which was responsible for killing [Colorado radio host] Alan Berg [in 1984], the talk show host—the name of that group comes from The Turner Diaries. Berg was taken out because he was supposed to be a Jewish mouthpiece. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think that’s a coincidence either.”
“We end with nuclear strikes,” Tom concluded. “When this is written [in the late 1970s], nuclear terror is at the top of the list, in terms of our cultural anxiety, so it makes sense that we end with a nuclear attack. And it’s this utopian vision, this idea that all other races are wiped off the globe. Those few who remain we recolonize all over again to create a new workforce. This is seen as a sort of ultimate moral good, within the frame of the disturbed mind of the narrator and author.”
1. It should be noted that this is a type of argument from fear that we see in recent statements by the National Rifle Association, which floats conspiracy theories about people scheming to take their guns away. Tavis Minnear, a writer for the Ashland Times-Gazette, reported that in November 2008, a year that saw the Supreme Court uphold handgun rights in Washington, D.C., and only a week after Obama’s election, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA told members:
…that an ‘elite ruling class’ of anti-gun politicians has ‘declared war on our individual rights’ by trying to restrict Americans' ability to keep and bear arms.
Seventy-five years ago in his first inauguration as president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,' he said. Today, I would argue almost the exact reverse is true. The greatest thing we have to fear in many ways is not enough Americans are afraid, because not enough realize what grave dangers are out there to our freedoms. (http://bit.ly/KVWVvM)
To fans of The Turner Diaries, those unnamed “elites” are Jews, but the structure of the narrative offered the NRA is the same. A powerful group is working below the radar to take away Americans’ guns. Not everyone knows the truth, but you do. You must resist this to preserve your way of life. In every way, this is a classic conspiracy theory operating as mainstream political rhetoric. You may remember that in the days after Obama’s election, ammunition sales spiked, and LaPierre is again warning constituents about “Obama’s secret plan to destroy the 2nd Amendment by 2016” (http://bit.ly/ue0GA0). ↩