A Network of Fear: towards a global history of white nationalism from 1960

Camilla Schofield       November 2018

Commentators and scholars have rightly sounded the alarm that we are living through a resurgence of white nationalism in the United States, Australia, Britain and across Europe. Sociologists and political scientists continue to disagree on what they regard as the root cause of this political turn, from broad economic and cultural anxieties wrought by globalisation to the refugee crises of Central America and the Middle East. Whatever its root cause, racial anxieties about demographic change sit at the centre of much of this nationalist resurgence.[1]

As a historian of postcolonial Britain, the language of this new nationalism is disturbingly familiar – with its emphasis on demographic change as an existential threat, narratives of the (male) migrant as predator and a language of war and invasion. It echoes British postcolonial fears of the ‘coloniser becoming the colonised’ in the face of mass migration from the ex-colonies in the post-war period.

Remarkably, the new American conservativism of the Trump era seems to have embraced a worldview that no longer categorises the world in terms of its relation to capital, between the free and the unfree world, or even simply between the West and Islam. In populist movements across the world, we see the strength of a global worldview that turns on a racially-coded North-South axis, rooted in the history of colonialism and decolonisation. The so-called ‘caravans’ of Central American refugees attempting to cross borders into the US – and often coming from areas once under the informal economic and political control of that country – may be dramatizing America’s own postcolonial moment.

At times directly borrowing from postcolonial imaginaries of the European far-right, which first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the new American conservatism of the Trump era has developed a global view of white victimisation – wherein the decline of a white majority threatens national annihilation.[2]

The current resurgence of white nationalisms not only requires sustained scholarly analysis of the political present but also new work by historians of the recent past. We must work to situate these reactionary movements in a wider history of opposition to post-war migration, equal rights and global black liberation. When Dylan Roof murdered African Americans in a Charleston church in 2015, he was discovered with an insignia of the Rhodesian flag. It emerged that he had been radicalised by reading online material of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.

This was a successor organisation to the Citizens’ Councils, which had once fought against desegregation in the American South and had fostered links to groups in both Rhodesia and South Africa since the 1960s.[3]

The contemporary coincidence of white nationalism in all its forms across the globe – and the transnational alliances that now animate white nationalist activists and institutions – also require a fundamental reconsideration of how we frame histories of nationalism. Often white nationalists, bound to the defence of the ethno-racial character of a nation, are treated by historians as atavistic, inward-looking, anti-globalist and therefore near-immune to outside influences. In fact, global flows of capital and ideas have long supported white nationalist groups.

Critically, after World War Two, white nationalism became more global in reaction to the forces of decolonization, struggles for equal rights, mass migration, and the rise of international institutions and human rights laws. During this period, assumptions of white supremacy embedded in the very structures of law and empire began to be challenged and reformulated as Western political and social elites professed a commitment to colour-blind ideals. New internationalist institutions such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches began to espouse an equal rights agenda. In reaction, white nationalists increasingly adopted a rhetoric of ethnic populism, casting themselves as representatives of forgotten whites betrayed by liberal elites. Opposition to this ‘liberal internationalism’ was also often accompanied by a commitment to orthodox Christian values, social hierarchy and the patriarchal family. In 1966, Ian Paisley – a leading figure of Ulster Unionism – received an honorary doctorate from Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist South Carolina university that fought legal battles to remain racially segregated. Three years later, Paisley toured the US and gave a public talk there, insisting that the civil rights movements of Northern Ireland and South Carolina were part of the same ‘international conspiracy’ to destroy law and order and Christian values.[4] Their fight and his fight, he insisted, were one in the same. The politics of reaction to equal rights was global. Similarly, George Wallace’s 1968 pro-segregationist and populist presidential campaign built on the work of the Citizen’s Councils and embraced a foreign policy platform that explicitly supported Rhodesia’s white minority rule. Importantly, the decline in the legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced in its wake new international alliances among white supremacists and new claims of populist legitimation. In this international context, white nationalists often looked to other nations as sources of inspiration and projection.

I have argued in my first book, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain, that the British anti-immigrant populism of the 1960s and 1970s was informed by postcolonial anxieties as well as increasingly visible calls for racial justice in both Southern Africa and the United States. After a trip to the US in late 1967 as UK Shadow Defence Minister, Powell hired a man to send him local newspaper clippings of evidence of unrest and violence within the African-American community in Detroit. In the context of major protests there, Powell warned in speeches across the UK that Birmingham would soon become Britain’s Detroit. In 1971, Dr Roger Pearson, a former British Indian Army officer and ethnographer at the University of Southern Mississippi, helped to arrange a speaking tour for Powell of Louisiana and Mississippi. The tour was subsidized by the Citizen’s Council. Powell’s status as the politician who stood against the ‘oppression’ of white people resulted in speaking tours in Australia and South Africa in the early 1970s too. Further emphasising the explicit connections drawn across the national boundaries of white racism, Pearson sent Powell a year-long subscription to the South African paper Behind the News, in thanks for his tour of the American South. Others have also made clear that we cannot understand the racial politics of Britain in a political vacuum; it was profoundly informed by what has been called the global civil rights movement as well as decolonisation and black liberation in the postcolonial world.[5]

Today, Britain’s Nigel Farage consistently emphasises the coincidence of Brexit and the Trump presidency as a singular triumph. As he told the Conservative Political Action Centre in the US in 2018, both the Trump and Leave voter ‘stuffed the establishment’ and their ‘revolution…is still rolling across the West’.[6] Farage envisions here one transatlantic populist movement rising in opposition to migration from the Global South.

The coincidence of Trump and the Brexit referendum underlines that the global dimensions of white nationalism deserve closer historical examination. Two historians of the US, Daniel Geary and Jennifer Sutton, and I are now working on an edited collection entitled From Enoch Powell to Donald Trump: Britain, the United States and Global White Nationalism, which will examine the transnational history of white nationalism in the ‘Anglosphere’. We share a concern with understanding the complexities of this political formation, its discursive strategies and different processes of political mobilisation. We have brought together historians of Cold War America, Britain and the former British colonies of Australia, South Africa and Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) to examine the global dimensions of white nationalism from World War Two to the present. Our transnational approach in this collaborative project has revealed the strength of international networks within these white nationalist movements.[7] The development of English-speaking white nationalism in these different places over the past sixty years has been uneven, contradictory, yet remarkably interconnected. Uncovering these forgotten connections and the global strategies of white nationalists of the recent past is, we argue, essential to understanding its power today.


Camilla Schofield is Senior Lecturer in Race and Empire at the School of History, University of East Anglia, U.K. Following her book on Enoch Powell (Cambridge University Press, 2013), she is currently researching various projects on racism in post-war Britain. Her latest article, with Benjamin Jones, is entitled ‘Whatever community is, this is not it: Notting Hill and the Reconstruction of Race in Britain after 1958‘ in Journal of British Studies, 2018.


[1]T. Vlandas and D.Halikiopoulou,‘Does unemployment matter? Economic insecurity, labour market policies and the far-right vote in Europe,’ European Political Science (May 2018) and J. Gest, The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in the Age of Immigration and Inequality (2016).

[2] P. Blumenthal, ‘This Stunningly Racist French Novel is How Steve Bannon Explains the World,’ Huffington Post (4/3/2017) https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/steve-bannon-camp-of-the-saints-immigration_us_58b75206e4b0284854b3dc03

[3] Zoe Hyman, ‘Transatlantic White Supremacy: American segregationists and international racism after Civil Rights,’ paper presented to Historians of Twentieth Century United States conference, Cambridge, 13 June 2018.

[4] Dan Geary, ‘Irish Unionists and U.S. Segregationists: Ian Paisley’s American connections’ paper presented to Historians of Twentieth Century United States conference, Cambridge, 13 June 2018.

[5] See, for instance, K. Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (2015). 2018); B. Schwarz, White Man’s World (2011); R. Waters, Thinking Black: Britain, 1964-1985 (2018); W. Webster, Englishness and Empire, 1939-1965 (2007).

[6] For Nigel Farage’s full speech, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Va06Tsyfok

[7] S. Dubow,`Racial Irredentism, Ethnogenesis, and White Supremacy in High-Apartheid South Africa’, Kronos, 41, 1(2015), pp.236-264 and D. Geary and J. Sutton, ‘Resisting the Wind of Change: The Citizens Councils and European Decolonization’ in C. van Minnen and M. Berg (eds.) The US South and Europe (2013), pp. 265-79