From Anglo-Saxonism to “Alt-Right”: A Brief History of White Supremacy

After President-Elect Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, one of this country’s ugliest traits has reared its head again: white supremacy, now called the “Alt-Right” as embodied by the National Policy Institute. As clear as day, this organization’s “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of  people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” At face value, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this. But we all know that race relations is the US’ achilles heel; slavery, its “original sin.” The NPI is fairly new, just the past couple of years. In fact, the Washington Post recently ran a piece about the NPI’s origins, so I won’t talk specifically about them. This article’s mission is to look at the history of the idea of white supremacy in the U.S.

As a trained historian, I’ve always been fascinated by ideologies. As a Latino, I’ve been more than curious to learn about the origins of the philosophical arguments that essentially justified the aggression against Mexico, Native Americans, blacks, and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Anglo-Saxonism, or the “belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority” is the idea that the peoples of Anglo-Saxon descent–the English, Anglo Americans, Canadians, Australians, and generally the English-speaking world–possess superior traits that have allowed them to construct more superior and civilized societies. In fact, Anglo-Saxonism’s greatest achievement is the idea that their way is the most appropriate way for everything:  progress and development, the economy, rule of law, esthetics, and so on.

No one knows exactly when Anglo-Saxonism came to be, but it is believed that seventeenth and eighteenth century Englishmen though of themselves superior as a result of their “love of free institutions,” a trait particular of the Anglo-Saxons, the Germanic tribe that conquered Britannia in the middle and late fifth century.

Naturally, these attitudes were brought over to the Americas, where English and other British settlers established booming trading ports along the eastern seaboard and aggressively expanded into the West. But it’s very important to understand that before the nineteenth century, Anglo-Saxonism was not necessarily tied to race, or whiteness. Rather, it was around the turn of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries that Anglo-Saxonism began to be directly tied to race, or biology. Meaning that since Anglo-Saxons were white–in fact, the most superior of all the white peoples of Europe–it became almost one in the same. As a result, Anglo-Saxons are superior; Anglo-Saxons are white; whites are superior.

Both branches of the Anglo-Saxon family used this “unofficial,” yet widely held belief to “spread civilization, progress and the rule of law” across most of the world. The English used it to subdue the peoples of the Indian subcontinent and later Africa (in fact, by 1914, the English ruled over a quarter of the world’s population). While their American cousins used it as the base of their Manifest Destiny; the idea that Anglo-Saxon civilization must spread across the North American continent as mandated by Providence.

It was this attitude that party justified the aggression against the “inferior and mixed peoples” of Mexico. It was Anglo-Saxonism, among many other things, that encouraged William Walker to invade Nicaragua in the mid 1850s in order to establish a white-ruled slave republic, and so on.

Interestingly, in the U.S., Anglo-Saxonism took a somewhat different tone. From the very early days of the English colonies, non Anglo-Saxons whites came to the Americas as well. Many Scots, Ulster Scots, Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians also contributed to the white melting pot. Now, for all its exclusiveness, Anglo-Saxonism was quite inclusive to other Nordic peoples in the U.S. In that sense, when descendants of Germans and Dutch fully integrated into Anglo American culture, apart from surname and other immediate cultural traits, they were still English-speaking whites. And this is why the term Anglo-Saxon came to be out of use, generally, by the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Let’s look at perhaps the most ardent Anglo-Saxonist or white supremacist that has ever been president, Theodore Roosevelt. TR, as many of his contemporaries believed, that the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic races were destined to conquer over the world’s lesser races. In fact, TR’s work, The Winning of the West, follows the Anglo-Saxons “from the forests of Europe to the forests of North America.” It was TR’s belief that the Anglo-Saxon was meant to actively expand and conquer. As a result, he’s known as perhaps the most active and imperialist of all U.S. presidents. However, as a knickerbocker, or descendant of Dutchmen, TR resented the term “Anglo-Saxon” as it didn’t apply to him and to many other white Americans. That’s another reason why the term “white” has become sort of a blanket term for all English-speaking whites in the U.S.

Throughout the early twentieth and right up to the Second World War, most whites, including most Europeans, saw themselves as superior to the rest of the world’s darker and mixed peoples. However, Nordic whites considered themselves superior over Latin peoples–French, Italian, Spanish–and definitely Slavs (this is ironic because Trump’s wife is of Slavic origins. To a Nazi racial thinker, this would be a sin against the purity of the Aryan race).

In the U.S. however, the “color-line” allowed people who weren’t of English or Germanic stock to freely enter the world of whiteness. Thus, in the U.S., as long as you “look white” you may pass and enjoy the “privileges of being white.” Luckily, Nazism dialed down racial thinking as dangerous and barbaric. Yet still, throughout the world, dark and mixed peoples were thought of as inferior and enjoyed significantly less rights as their white peers.

Now I admit, the Obama presidency has allowed blacks and other non-whites to express themselves even more. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, vocalizes the disparity of treatment of blacks and colored people by the state, mainly the police and the judicial system. Unfortunately, for those who grew up in a time or space when/where white supremacy was unquestioned, the idea of a black president has been earth-shattering.

Especially for those working-class whites in rural America, the idea of a black president is completely outside their realm of acceptance. That’s also why there’s no “N-word” equivalent for whites; call them what you will, no slur will ever question their true place in society. And that’s also why extreme and conservative whites have feared and hated Obama. They’re afraid that a black president may finally turn the tide of power. And it goes without saying that white supremacists tend to be sexist, as well. Consequently, white supremacists are macho men who believe in traditional gender roles.

The current “making of America great again” is simply a secularized form of white supremacy. Because at the end of the day, white supremacy is all about power, and no office symbolizes power as much as the office of the President of the United States. And I don’t think that Trump is necessarily a white supremacist; he’s far too practical and earthly for that. But he does certainly posses the attitudes of a 70 year old white man in the U.S., and for him and millions like him, that’s the natural order of things.

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