June 2020

Just Like Earl: William Luther Pierce and the Hero Complex of Far-Right Masculinity

Pierce fetishized a particularly patriarchal, violent, and primitive form of masculinity and deliberately sought to attack the masculine insecurities of his readers in order to mobilize a violent hero complex.

by Simon Purdue

The works of William Luther Pierce do not appear on many bestseller lists, nor is his name often discussed alongside the most impactful authors of the 20th century. Among his literary repertoire, however, are some of the most infamous and unfortunately influential American novels of the last 50 years. Writing under the pseudonym of “Andrew Macdonald,” Pierce penned both The Turner Diaries and Hunter, which together have formed something of a scriptural canon for extreme-right activists.

The Turner Diaries alone has become one of the most widely-distributed racist tracts in recent history and has directly influenced perpetrators of extremist violence across the globe. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was a major advocate of Pierce’s work and was known to distribute copies and excerpts of the book at gun shows across the American midwest in the early 1990s. The book directly influenced his turn towards terrorism and his bombing of the McMurrah building was almost a word-for-word re-enactment of an attack detailed in the book, during which a federal building was bombed using a van packed with ammonium-nitrate explosives.[1]

William Luther Pierce, the influential Neo-Nazi whose Turner Diaries inspired the Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Image via the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Germany, copies of both The Turner Diaries and Hunter were found on the scorched hard-drive of Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who alongside Beate Zschäpe were responsible for a decade-long campaign of anti-Turkish violence.[2] However, in the last decade and a half, despite the continuation of extreme-right activism on a global scale, Pierce’s work seems to have largely been ignored by those studying far-right movements. Furthermore, the gender roles expressed in Pierce’s work have been completely disregarded, despite the role of the books as manuals for extremist activism.[3] This is especially unfortunate because gender underlies all activism in the violent far-right milieu, and that hegemonic visions of both masculinity and femininity have been crucial forces in shaping far-right thought and action.

With this in mind, a gendered analysis of Pierce’s writing offers an explanation of the ways in which Pierce, seen by many as the paragon of far-right philosophy, carefully and deliberately constructed his idealized vision of masculinity, mobilizing toxic, violent tropes in order to promote radicalization and violent activism. Pierce fetishized a particularly patriarchal, violent, and primitive form of masculinity and deliberately sought to attack the masculine insecurities of his readers in order to mobilize a violent hero complex, promoting its expression through unfettered masculine rage. This article examines how Pierce constructed the hero-complex of fascist masculinity in his writing and at the impact that his work has had on the violent far-right globally.

Pierce’s books had such a violent impact upon the far-right largely due to their targeting and masculine norms, mobilizing toxic conceptions of gender to promote violence. The construction of white masculinity in both Hunter and The Turner Diaries largely reflects the consensus across the post-war extreme-right spectrum regarding the role of the white man. Masculinity is portrayed as dominant, violent, and radical, and Pierce’s white male characters are most often written as part of a revolutionary “vanguard” driving the ideological and activist momentum of their movement.[4] Pierce portrayed the two protagonists—Oscar Yeager in Hunter and Earl Turner in The Turner Diaries— as hyper masculine “alpha males,” who adhere largely to the accepted Aryan male archetype. He described Yeager as being “a tall, blond man… [with] deep-set, gray eyes… yellow stubble on his broad, heavy jaw… [and a] thin scar running diagonally across his left cheek,” very much in line with the Hitlerian construction of ideal masculinity.[5]

While Pierce offers the reader no explicit description of Turner’s physical appearance, he depicts the character’s actions and interactions as overtly masculine, physically dominant, and ideologically driven. Throughout The Turner Diaries, Pierce builds an image of Turner as a “heroic,” self-sacrificing ideologue who leads the violent anti-government and racist campaign of “The Organization.”[6] Meanwhile, Yeager is initially portrayed as a lone-wolf murderer, who would randomly target mixed-race couples and prominent Jewish figures. He is defined, in the early chapters of the book, by his violence and activism, even if it isn’t driven by any coherent ideology. Only when he is influenced and, in the eyes of the author, “educated” by other male characters—most notably his deeply anti-Semitic friend Harry Keller and the equally racist FBI agent William Ryan—does he become more ideologically driven. At this point in the novel, we see him become a leader in a much more coherent, organized movement, much like Earl Turner.

Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh selling anti-government bumper stickers outside the standoff in Waco, Texas. The photographer captured the hyper-masculine image Pierce encouraged readers to cultivate as a gateway to racist violence. Photo via FBI.

Interestingly, however, Pierce does not cast all white men as active and engaged, nor does he suggest that all white men have the potential to fullfil the masculine archetypes portrayed by Turner and Yeager. In fact, Pierce suggests that this hyper-masculine vanguard is the exception rather than the rule, and that the rest of the male population are simply sheep that will follow the herd. In interviews with sociologist George Michael, Pierce articulated this view quite explicitly, stating that most “average white Americans” were little more than ”couch potatoes, ball game fans, Joe six packs and lemmings.”[7] Pierce used the Gramscian notions of metapolitics and cultural hegemony—much like the contemporary “alt-right”[8]—to further his separation of the vanguard and the rest of the white male population, describing a passive, easily-influenced version of masculinity that was simply waiting to be led by the enlightened revolutionary bloc. He often used the term “Lemmings” to describe this vision of passive masculinity, saying:

In deciding what to believe, the lemming is interested only in what other lemmings believe – or in what he thinks they believe. It doesn’t do any good at all to try to change a lemming’s opinion by showing him factual evidence or by appealing to his ideals. The only way to change a lemming’s opinion is to trick him into believing that all other lemmings have changed their opinions.[9]

This view emerges clearly in Hunter, when Keller makes the distinction between “man and higher man,” claiming that the average white man is simply an unconscious participant in the wider movement, preparing the way for “the Superman” who will lead the revolutionary vanguard.[10] This idea of lost or latent masculinity clearly built on the combined works of Nietzsche and Julius Evola, whose respective ideas on the “übermensch” and the “warrior caste” were crucial elements in the formation of classical fascist masculinities.[11] However, it is evident that Pierce anticipated that most ideologically sympathetic male readers of the book will see themselves in the position of Yeager rather than in the more passive sense. His separation of “leaders and led” was an attempt to mobilize toxic, violent masculinity in his readers, radicalizing them and fostering the delusional hero complex that most often results in violent lone-wolf attacks.

Pierce viewed himself as the intelligentsia of the extreme-right, positioning himself as the “great enlightener”—evidenced by his founding of a religion in the late 1970s.[12] While he consistently claimed that “education” and “enlightenment” were pre-requisites to violent activism, it is clear that he saw the reading of his work as “education” enough. In his interviews with Michael, he claimed that “undisciplined [and] premature violence” was a detriment to his cause, but that calculated violence was an acceptable, even desirable outcome.[13] Pierce’s construction of white masculinity clearly relied on radicalization, racism, and a sympathy for violence, but also on a “dark enlightenment.” Pierce envisioned a racial “awakening” in which the subject is either indoctrinated or self-indoctrinated with a racist and virulently anti-Semitic worldview. Pierce, somewhat narcissistically, saw himself as the sole authority on this worldview—despite the interwar fascist origins of many of the core principles underlying it—and so in his view his books were all the ‘enlightenment’ that was needed.[14]

Pierce saw his writing as a radicalizing and “enlightening” force, and he expected the readers of The Turner Diaries and Hunter to cast themselves as “enlightened” revolutionary men in the mold of Earl Turner or Oscar Yeager, rather than as the passive “Joe six-packs” who, in Pierce’s view, made up the rest of the male population. The construction of masculinity in his novels was a deliberate and calculated method of radicalizing his readership, and preyed upon the masculine insecurities that Michael Kimmel argues consistently drive young men towards far-right activism.[15]

Original cover of The Turner Diaries showing the muscular Earl Turner hiding with an attractive woman from the “Equality Police.” Photo via Wikimedia.

Pierce actively sought to propagate and mobilize the violent hero-complex of far-right masculinity, promoting an idea of martyrdom and mass violence as the pinnacle of masculine expression. By offering a dichotomy between “couch potato” and “Superman,” he pioneered a tactic that would prove to be an effective and deadly means of radicalizing men towards violent extremism, offering two archetypical and dichotomous visions of masculinity and allowing the reader to choose where they stand.

The impact of Pierce’s work on the far-right globally cannot be overstated, and as a result this vision of far-right masculinity has become almost hegemonic among violent extremist groups such as the National Socialist Movement, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and more recently Atomwaffen Division. What was once a means to radicalize young activists has become a staple of far-right masculinity, particularly among accelerationist groups, militias, and “Boogaloo” movements who often see themselves as the vanguard of a coming rightwing revolution.[16] Similarly, the vision of idealized, violent masculinity has had a formative impact on the Incel movement, which is quickly becoming one of the most violent and dangerous ideologies facing the world today.

Contrary to extreme-right activists, who seek to fulfill the archetypical far-right masculine role envisioned by Pierce, Incel ideology is built on the idea that its adherents can never fulfill this role. Incels mobilize and idealize the same Hitlerian vision of the strong-jawed alpha male, but see themselves as “betas” or even “omegas” who are inherently barred from reaching alpha status. Even Stormcels—Incels affiliated with the extreme-right—construct their own violent activism as “omega rage,” rather that the “righteous” vanguard violence of the far-right lone wolf.[17] Thus the far-right construction of masculinity can lead to violence, even for those men who do not see themselves as the “Superman,” but rather are expressing their rage at never being able to attain that title.

It is this same thread of violent masculinity, driven by the manufactured hero-complex propagated by Pierce that is driving the current armed protests around the COVID-19 lockdown. Armed men, often without masks, placing themselves on an imagined front line battle in the midst of a very real public health crisis, is the most recent expression of this violent martyr-masculinity that has become the standard for the far-right. Similarly, self-envisioned übermenschean world leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have expressed toxic and dangerous masculine tropes, refusing to wear masks and even calling into question the existence or severity of the virus.

Photo of white nationalist “reopen” protesters in Pittsburgh. Photo by Ryan Deto via the Pittsburgh City Paper.

The tropes of masculine invulnerability, national-revolutionary vanguardism and “heroic” self-sacrifice for the racist cause inspire men on the contemporary far-right to join armed and militarized organizations and join the imagined fight against “tyrannical” governors and local governments. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has escalated the same anti-government sentiment and rhetoric that influenced terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh to express the most violent aspects of their masculine hero-complex. The image of a government at war with its people, and a people fighting back, offers the ideal backdrop for violent lone-wolf terrorism, guided by far-right visions of masculinity.

In the weeks since the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, we have seen a contradictory expression of the same masculine tropes. While protesters around the country express their rage at a violent and white supremacist policing system, far-right militia members are now mobilizing to support the same institutions which they claimed to be fighting just weeks ago. With the exception of the most ardently anti-government and accelerationist groups—such as the Boogaloo Bois—the same groups who advocated war against a tyrannical government are now mobilizing to protect a racialized vision of “law and order.”[18] This lack of a coherent ideology presents an added danger, and demonstrates the extent to which violent hegemonic gender norms are the true driving force behind far-right activism.

Despite any claims to ideological underpinnings, it is the vision of an armed, violent masculinity that drives much modern far-right activism. These same tropes, combined with the cumulative extremism of the radical right-wing milieu, have historically contributed to the radicalization of men towards violent lone wolf action, and so the danger of far-right visions of masculinity cannot be overstated. In order to actively counter the extreme-right today, it is crucial that we understand the toxic, hegemonic visions of masculinity that underpin it and drive it in the direction of violence.

Simon Purdue is a PhD Candidate at Northeastern University in Boston, where is doing research on race, racism, and violence, specifically looking at the gender politics of global white supremacist movements between 1969 and 1999. Simon received his BA (international) in history from University College Dublin in 2015. He then received a Wellcome Trust medical humanities scholarship to continue his work at the MA level. He received his MA in the Social and Cultural History of Medicine, also from UCD, in 2016. Simon has worked on a number of other projects, including an article which took an intersectional approach to the history of Boston’s ‘Grove Hall Welfare Protests.’ Simon also served as lead editorial assistant at Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society in the 2017-18 academic year. At H-Nationalism Simon is primarily responsible for the new ‘Question of the Month’ series.

Further Reading

[1] Gender analysis of the post-war far-right is a scholarly field that has been developing rapidly in the last twenty years, and has offered a new lens through which radicalization, violence, and other elements of racist activism can be viewed. This work is illuminating the previously unexplored intimacies of far-right communities, highlighting the deeply ingrained structures and norms upon which the movement has been built over the past sixty years. George Michael, ‘The revolutionary model of Dr William L. Pierce’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 15:3 (2003), pp 62-80; Andrew MacDonald, The Turner Diaries, National Vanguard Press, 1979.

[2] Daniel Kohler, Right-Wing Terrorism in the 21st Century: The ‘National Socialist Underground’ and the history of terror from the Far-Right in Germany, London, Routledge, 2017.

[3] This work has been spearheaded by the sociologist Kathleen Blee whose work on the Ku Klux Klan and skinhead groups in the United States (Kathleen Blee, Understanding Racist Activism: Theory, Methods, and Research, New York, Routledge, 2018; Blee, Inside Organized Racism: Women of the Hate Movement, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002) has shifted the lens of analysis to a much more personal and intimate understanding of social and sexual politics on the political fringe. More recent work by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, most notably Mothers of Massive Resistance, has developed this field further by examining the activist roles that women have taken in this historically hyper-masculine context (Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2017).

[4] Pierce often used the term ‘Vanguard’ despite its Leninist origins, even naming his press ‘National Vanguard’. This again points to the amalgamation and mutation of ideas from across the political and philosophical spectrum and the resultant ideological incoherence of the American extreme-right. For more information on Vanguardism and the Vanguard party, see V. I. Lenin, What is to be done?, pamphlet, 1902.

[5] Macdonald, Hunter, pg. 8; Gregory Maertz, ‘Eugenic Art: Hitler’s Utopian Aesthetic’, in Jorge Dagnino, Matthew Feldman and Paul Stocker (eds), The “New Man” in Radical Right Ideology and Practice, 1919-45, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018, pp 87-104.

[6] Macdonald, The Turner Diaries.

[7] Michael, ‘The revolutionary model of William Pierce’, pg. 67.

[8] Patrik Hermansson, David Lawrence, Joe Mulhall and Simon Murdoch, The International Alt-Right: Fascism for the 21st Century?, New York, Routledge, 2019, pp. 123-135.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Macdonald, Hunter, pg. 148.

[11] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Berlin, Ernst Schmeitzner, 1885; Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar: An Intellectual Autobiography, London, Arktos, 2010; It is important to say here that the übermensch idea that is mobilized by the post-war far-right is not that of Nietzsche, but a version that finds its origins in Nazi-era misrepresentations of Nietzsche’s concept.

[12] Diane Dentice, ‘Cosmotheism and the Legacy of William Pierce: The Stormfront Connection’, in Jared A. Jaworski (ed.), Advances in Sociology, New York, Nova Science Publishers, 2017.

[13] Michael, ‘The Revolutionary model of William Pierce’, pg. 69.

[14] Zeev Sternhell, The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006.

[15] Michael Kimmel, Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into – And Out Of – Violent Extremism, Berkeley, UC Press, 2018.

[16] Paul Jackson, ‘The New Man in Fascism Past and Present’, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, March 12 2020, https://www.radicalrightanalysis.com/2020/03/12/the-new-man-in-fascism-past-and-present/, accessed May 26, 2020; Robert Evans and Jason Wilson, ‘The Boogaloo Movement is not what you think’, Bellingcat, May 26, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/05/27/the-boogaloo-movement-is-not-what-you-think/, accessed May 26, 2020.

[17] Incels: A Guide to Symbols and Terminology,  Moonshot CVE report, May 2020.

[18] Isaac Stanley-Bekker and Tony Romm, ‘Armed white vigilantes lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth’, Washington Post, June 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/protests-armed-white-vigilantes/2020/06/04/09e17610-a5bb-11ea-b619-3f9133bbb482_story.html, accessed June 8, 2020.

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