It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US, by Alexander Laban Hinton (New York: New York University Press, 2021).
Reviewed by Marc Edelman, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
The Trump presidency in the United States and the consolidation of strongman regimes in Turkey, Russia, India, Hungary, Brazil, and elsewhere sparked new concern about authoritarianism among scholars, including anthropologists. The Society for Cultural Anthropology recently ran a blog series on “American Fascism,” Anthropology Now devoted an issue to the current U.S. conjuncture, and this reviewer and others have highlighted the urgency of analyzing the rightwing offensive. In this outpouring of apprehension, Alexander Hinton’s new book occupies a special place.
Hinton has written an unconventional, alarming, deeply researched, and eminently readable book that persuasively argues that “the danger of genocide and atrocity crimes in the United States looms much larger than most people realize.” A specialist on the 1970s Cambodian genocide who in 2016 was an expert witness in the trial of Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number Two,” Hinton brings to the U.S. case an unusual comparative sensibility and a laudable skepticism about American exceptionalism. The book ranges widely, from the outrages of the Trump administration to the Ku Klux Klan in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is also a disquisition on teaching during the Trump presidency. Much of the argument develops as Hinton recounts how he patiently walked students through theories and historical particularities of cases of genocide and authoritarianism and the arcane symbols, codes, and literary canons of white supremacist movements. This includes unpacking the “white genocide” framing that far-right groups propagate and scrutinizing the manifestos of mass killers, such as Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 labor youth activists in Norway in 2011, Dylan Roof, who murdered nine African American parishioners at a Charleston church in 2015, and Robert Bowers, who slaughtered eleven at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. It was the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” march — with its chants of “Jews will not replace us,” “Blood and Soil,” and “White Lives Matter” — that catalyzed Hinton’s decision to write the book.
What leads perpetrators of violence to “start fires”? This is a question that Hinton poses to students and that the court asked him when he testified at Nuon Chea’s trial. The spark, he says, “is circumstance, the deep histories that inform the moment, the sudden upheavals that give it shape.” But he cautions that a focus on “haters” sometimes obscures systemic contextual elements and individualizes broader social pathologies. Together with his students, he methodically examines each of the eight risk factors in the United Nations’ “Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes” and concludes not only that “it could happen here” but that it has happened here. By the time the group works through the U.N. list — elaborated as a predictive tool after the Rwanda genocide — it does not seem a stretch to assert that “the [U.S.] white-power-extremist movement somewhat resembles the 1960s Khmer Rouge movement—both have a vision, decentralized organization, and believers.”
While Hinton’s exposition of the looming danger is thoroughly documented and largely persuasive, some aspects of his account cry out for further discussion. How, in the era of trigger warnings and heightened sensitivities about identity politics, did Hinton’s audiences react in the face of primary sources that spew hatred? It’s one thing to show students the widely viewed VICE documentary on the Charlottesville march leaders; it’s another to put the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf on the syllabus. What if encounters with these antisemitic texts in Hinton’s classroom were to generate more support for the far right? What if enraged students denounced him or colleagues misunderstood his intent? Other academics have suffered grievous professional consequences for what might appear to be lesser offenses.
It Can Happen Here went to press shortly after the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. This gives Hinton’s analysis a rather prescient quality. Two somewhat contradictory tendencies, however, shape his examination of right-wing movements. One is the “mainstreaming” of previously extreme ideas, which accelerated under Trump and continues in the Republican Party. The other distinguishes “the hard far Right” (KKK, Christian Identity, neo-Nazis) from the “softer and somewhat more politically palatable ideas promoted by the ‘alt-lite’” (Proud Boys) and indicates it was the latter “that most clearly intersected with the Trump administration.” If the January 6 attempted coup showed anything, it was that such divisions, while significant for explaining the tactical incompetence of the pro-Trump mob, may be accorded more importance as doctrinal differences than they merit. After Trump’s departure, the anti-democratic, neo-Fascist consensus is further along than many wish to acknowledge.
It is no longer far-fetched to assert that a racist authoritarian movement could seize power, destroying what remains of U.S. democracy and intensifying violence against stigmatized groups of all kinds. Already Republicans are enacting frameworks to disenfranchise voters of color and that justify overturning elections in which their party is defeated. Intimidation of election officials further undermines democratic process. In numerous states, right-wing activists are targeting public health and school board officials with violence and denouncing educators in terms reminiscent of the McCarthy period. New laws criminalize protest, set harsher penalties for protestors who block roadways, and facilitate prosecuting groups of protestors for the actions of a single individual. Several states now grant civil immunity to people who injure protesters. Successful coups d’état often follow failed ones and may occur through prolonged erosion of democracy rather than a dramatic insurrection. Alexander Hinton’s It Can Happen Here is a magisterial work that goes a long way toward showing us how we arrived at this worrisome moment.