Alt History

How a self-published, racist novel changed white nationalism and inspired decades of violence

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh speaking with his attorneys in 1995. (STR New / Reuters )

Before there was an alt-right, there was The Turner Diaries.

First published nearly 40 years ago, the infamous dystopian novel depicts a fictional white nationalist revolution culminating in global genocide.

The events of the book open 25 years ago today—September 16, 1991, the date of the first entry in Earl Turner’s diary. The fictional diary describes a racist’s vision of a nightmare world, in which “The System”—African American enforcers led by Jewish politicians—attempt to confiscate all guns in the United States. A secretive organization known as The Order rises up to take back the country for white supremacists, eventually winning an apocalyptic insurgency and nuclear war, first taking over the country and later the world.

The Turner Diaries was created in the 1970s by William Luther Pierce, leader of the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance. Crudely written and wildly racist, The Turner Diaries has helped inspire dozens of armed robberies and more than 200 murders in the decades since its publication.

The Turner Diaries first made headlines when a violent white nationalist gang appropriated the name of The Order, following the tactical blueprint for terrorism in the book. Turner catapulted to national prominence when it was revealed to be a key inspiration for Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people using a truck bomb strikingly similar to one described in detail in the book. Since then, The Turner Diaries has inspired hate crimes and terrorism across the United States and in Europe in more than a dozen separate plots through the present day.

But beyond the violence committed by its readers, The Turner Diaries was also the seed of significant shift in white-nationalist ideology and recruitment, the effects of which are increasingly relevant today. In “The Turner Legacy,” a new paper for ICCT – The Hague, I examine the complicated history of racist dystopian propaganda and the reasons for Turner’s enduring impact.

White nationalism was the law of the land in the United States through most of the country’s history. In the wake of the Civil War, institutionalized white supremacy began to erode, a process that accelerated into the 20th Century. Against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, white nationalism began to develop complex ideologies, with a number of different strains emerging.

Pedestrian racism—simply disliking or discriminating against people based on race—still played a significant role in society, but as mainstream white nationalism became increasingly stigmatized, these ideological variants became subcultures in which violent extremism could fester.

The most important movements to emerge from this dynamic were neo-Nazism and Christian Identity. Neo-Nazism is heavily focused on Holocaust denial and symbolic identity markers, while Christian Identity is based on an elaborate religious justification that evolved out of a 19th century religious conspiracy theory called British Israelism, which claimed Anglo-Saxons were the lost tribe of Israel. Both movements trafficked heavily in anti-Semitism, but their animus was directed to all non-white people.

These movements, along with the Ku Klux Klan, became the face of white nationalism, resulting in further marginalization due to their flamboyant racism and increasing scrutiny from law enforcement, as their views and rhetoric became increasingly extreme.

It was within this context that William Luther Pierce split from the American Nazi Party and founded the National Alliance. Pierce, an atheist and scientist, was attuned to the fact that these ostentatious forms of white nationalism were deeply alienating to “normal people,” attracting recruits he described as “defective” and “crippled.”  The National Alliance downplayed swastikas and goose-stepping, and instead focused on creating propaganda capable of sidestepping mainstream media gatekeepers appealing to broader audiences.

The Turner Diaries was one of his earliest efforts, and undoubtedly the most successful. Serialized in a National Alliance newsletter, and later published in collected form, The Turner Diaries is a dystopian novel about a United States where non-white minorities have disarmed and oppressed white Americans, leading to an armed white nationalist revolution. In sparse, simplistic prose, the apocalyptic plot follows a white supremacist guerrilla resistance movement known as The Order as it launches a series of terrorist attacks, eventually blossoming into a full-blown insurgency. The Order wins in the end, and embarks on a campaign of global genocides against non-whites.

The Turner Diaries is notable for its lack of ideological persuasion. At one point in the novel, its protagonist, Earl Turner, is given a book to read. Turner claims the book perfectly explains the reasons for white supremacy and the justification of all of The Order’s actions. Importantly, this magical tome’s contents are never specified. Although the novel’s epilogue broadly hints at a Nazi orientation, the book never explicitly identifies The Order with a specific movement.

Due in part to Pierce’s desire to appeal to “normal” people, as well as the novel’s limited initial circulation among neo-Nazis, Turner assumes its readers are already racist and do not need to be recruited to that mindset. The abandonment of “why” empowers a singular narrative focus on “what” and “how”—the necessity of immediate, violent action and concrete suggestions about how to go about it. This is part of why the book has so often been associated with violence and terrorism.

But as the book’s notoriety grew, it had another effect on the white nationalist movement. The Turner Diaries is a Rorschach test for racists of all stripes, pedestrian or ideological. Readers can bring their own ideologies and justifications to the narrative, or they can bring none at all.

Over the course of time, this universalist approach to white supremacy became the dominant trend for the movement in the United States and Europe. Rather than attempting to market the elaborate mythology and scriptural footnotes of Christian Identity, or the stigmatized pageantry of Hitler and the Nazis, prominent white nationalists began to take a more carefully generic approach, playing on racial fear and resentment as they existed, rather than attempting to manufacture doctrinaire justifications.

It began with The Order, a real-life terrorist cell that was directly based on the organization described in The Turner Diaries. In a yearlong spree starting in 1983, The Order killed three people and stole millions of dollars, much of which was then distributed to white nationalist leaders and never recovered. Members of the group referred to Turner as their “bible.”

One member of The Order, David Lane, became a prolific writer in prison after authorities broke up the gang in 1984. Although he wrote a number of lengthy ideological tracts, one of his most important works was the three-page “White Genocide Manifesto,” which took Pierce’s dislike for complex ideological formulations to new heights, instead arguing from a platform of “Nature's laws, common sense and current circumstances.” The manifesto argues that “’racial integration’ is only a euphemism for genocide,” and that the “white race” is on the verge of extinction due to interbreeding with other races.

Lane later distilled his views further into a one-sentence statement now known as the 14 Words and widely quoted by white nationalists: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Lane died in prison in 2007.

His simplified formulation avoided the alienating and stigmatized imagery of neo-Nazism and the elaborate Biblical convolutions of Christian Identity, allowing the highly factionalized white nationalist movement to coalesce around a theme on which they could all agree – an existential threat to the “white race.”

The manifesto itself was soon reduced to the simple phrase “white genocide,” which proliferated at the start of the 21st century and has become the overwhelmingly dominant meme of modern white nationalism. The theme was promoted by white nationalist Robert Whitaker, who added what he called “the mantra”—“Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.” These two phrases were deliberately repeated and spread widely online, among white nationalists of various ideological persuasions.

White nationalist Richard B. Spencer moved the bar even further with the latest iteration of white identity politics, creating the “Alternative Right” website in 2010, the seed of the broader movement is now known as the alt right. Even more amorphous than its predecessors, the alt right includes a variety of anti-social attitudes, including racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, offering many points of entry for new adherents who are frustrated with some aspect of society or politics. Many who identify with the alt right continue to promote the white genocide theme.

While it would be a mistake to credit The Turner Diaries for the entirety of this transition in white nationalism, the novel demonstrated how to successfully leverage racial fears and resentments in the service of violence, without a call to a specific ideology, and the book remains widely influential today.

While Turner is rightly infamous for the violence it has inspired, most notably in Oklahoma City, its impact on the shape of white nationalism—and the movement’s current resurgence—is an equal part of its dark legacy.