When I want to go somewhere, I look at a map—these days, of course, it’s a map on my iPhone. I may learn that my destination is close at hand and easy to reach. Or, I may discover bad news: the place I want to go is far away, and there is a big obstacle in the way, like a nine-car crash on the interstate. This is bad news. But the right response is not to denounce the map and the mapmaker. The proper response is not to imagine that the destination is close by, and there are no obstacles—and to set out on my journey based on those pleasingly false assumptions. No, the thing you have to do is, first, understand the obstacle, and second, figure out how to avoid it and still reach your destination.
It is in that spirit that I suggest you approach Adam Serwer, White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots: A long-overdue excavation of the book that Hitler called his “bible,” and the man who wrote it:
America has always grappled with, in the words of the immigration historian John Higham, two “rival principles of national unity.” According to one, the U.S. is the champion of the poor and the dispossessed, a nation that draws its strength from its pluralism. According to the other, America’s greatness is the result of its white and Christian origins, the erosion of which spells doom for the national experiment.
People of both political persuasions like to tell a too-simple story about the course of this battle: World War II showed Americans the evil of racism, which was vanquished in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act brought nonwhites into the American polity for good. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 forever banished the racial definition of American identity embodied in the 1924 immigration bill, forged by Johnson and Reed in their crusade to save Nordic Americans from “race suicide.”
The truth is that the rivalry never ended, and Grantism, despite its swift wartime eclipse, did not become extinct. The Nazis, initially puzzled by U.S. hostility, underestimated the American commitment to democracy. As the Columbia historian Ira Katznelson writes in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time(2013), the South remained hawkish toward Nazi Germany because white supremacists in the U.S. didn’t want to live under a fascist government. What they wanted was a herrenvolk democracy, in which white people were free and full citizens but nonwhites were not.