The hateful sci-fi novel that brought white supremacists together

The Turner Diaries inspired generations of white supremacists, and its narrative filled with racist tropes continues to have an impact.

The hateful sci-fi novel that brought white supremacists together

On April 19th, 1995, a white supremacist drove a rented Ryder truck to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Loaded down with fertilizer and diesel fuel, he parked, got out, lit the fuses, and walked away. At 9:02 AM, the truck exploded.

The blast ripped through the building and killed 168 — including 19 children — and injured hundreds of others. The attack remains the worst act of domestic terrorism in the country's history.

It left a major impression on me at the time — I remember heading about it on the radio and wondering how something like that could happen. It wasn’t until years later that I began to fully understand how that horrific act came together: a confluence of white supremacist ideology, organizations, and individuals, bound together in part by one object: a deeply racist science fiction novel called The Turner Diaries.

The last decade or so has at times felt like a crash course in learning about the various hateful ideologies that exist in the United States. The election Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, prompted many of these racists to come out of the woodwork, while the election of Donald Trump to the office legitimized those groups and ideologies as he courted them for support. According to government officials, the greatest terror threat to the country comes from white supremacist groups.

What’s struck me in particular about these movements is how often their language is couched in a sort of science fictional framework, often informed by an idea of a declining America (one where a white majority population is supplanted by various minority groups), where the government exceeds its authority (aided by various technologies), and which is preoccupied with the need for bringing on an apocalyptic cleansing of the nation.

All of those ideas are present in William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, a work that’s served to bring together the nation’s various networks of white supremacists, and which has prompted some of them to take its ideas into their own, deadly hands.

CW for descriptions of antisemitism, racism and terrorism.

Graphic: Andrew Liptak

Originally serialized in the National Alliance’s (a neo-Nazi group founded by Pierce) publication Attack!, The Turner Diaries is a novel written as a diary by a man named Ed Turner, read by some future reader in the year 2099 in the white, utopian world that Pierce and others imagined for their future.

In it, Turner recounts his journey as he becomes a member of a terror cell following the passage of a law known as the Cohen Act (which essentially allows the government to confiscate guns from civilians). Pierce uses the story to play out the fears of the white supremacist movement, depicting a world where whites are under siege and under attack from African Americans and Jews, and where the government is tracking the upright citizens of the nation through their social security numbers (which are required for everyday things like grocery shopping).

Through a network of isolated cells, Turner and his compatriots begin to wage a low-level war against the government (called the System), first by bringing like-minded radicals together in a larger resistance movement, and escalating up to stealing munitions from Army bases, blowing up federal buildings, assassinating key officials, and eventually attacking Washington D.C.

Turner eventually moves up the ranks within this movement to the highest levels — the Order — which has been coordinating the violence, is eventually captured and tortured, and eventually is rescued. The Order eventually steps up its campaign when it gets its hands on some nuclear weapons, and attacks New York City and Israel, and eventually establishes an Aryan homeland in California, and escalates into a world-wide campaign against Jews. As the United States declares martial law, Turner is ordered (as part of his punishment for getting captured and failing to resist his captors) to fly a nuclear bomb to the Pentagon.

The future, as we eventually learn, is one where the Order exterminates billions of people around the world. It’s a horrific, racist, and deeply troubling novel, one that's brought together the various factions of the white supremacist movement. It's also a book that manages to be a surprisingly readable book, highlighting the power that narrative holds for any ideology.

That readability is part of the novel’s enduring appeal, according to Kathleen Belew, who writes in her book Bring The War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, that the book is “perhaps the most prominent white power text,” one that helped to inspire and provide the various white power groups within the United States with common ground.

“The novel provided a blueprint for action, tracing the structure of leaderless resistance and modeling, in fiction, the guerrilla tactics of assassination and bombing that activists would embrace for the next two decades. It was more than a guide, though. The popularity of The Turner Diaries made it a touchstone, a point of connection between movement members and sympathizers that brought them together in a common cause.”

The Anti-Defamation League describes the book as “lurid, violent, apocalyptic, misogynistic, racist, and anti-Semitic,” while the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that it’s “fueled some of the last two decades’ most infamous outbreaks of extremist violence,” including the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Timothy McVeigh, the bomber behind the attack, was a steadfast advocate for Pierce's book. Something in the book seems to have spoken to him; a soldier who served during Operation Desert Storm, McVeigh attempted to join the US Special Forces, only to wash out on the second day of training. He soon left the military and bounced around from job to job, had trouble finding a girlfriend, and found a community in the network of anti-government groups. He found a comfortable environment working at gun shows around the US, where he began advocating and hand-selling copies of the book.

When McVeigh began planning his attack against the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma, he drew his inspiration from The Turner Diaries. Early in the novel, Turner and his allies prepare a fertilizer bomb, load it into a truck, and drive up to the FBI’s national headquarters, where they detonate it. The similarities are striking.

The rise in white supremacist ideology is something that I've written quite a bit about since 2016, and over the years, The Turner Diaries was something that was frequently mentioned as an influence on the community. Following the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, I decided to take a look at it to see if I could glean some insight into the rhetoric that's become increasingly visible in the last couple of years.

I wasn't terribly surprised to see some fairly consistent talking points — the blatant, casual racism and antisemitism, as well as the the paranoia and hatred of the federal government from white supremacists. It's a demonstration for how influential the title is amongst the extreme right, and what's concerning is how that messaging has spread from those extreme groups to far more mainstream networks and commentators.

A key component of that viral ideological spread, I think, comes down to how readable The Turner Diaries is. Pierce, for all of his abhorrent ideas, seemed to understand the inherent power of narrative when it comes to spreading one's message. The book most likely isn't the originating point for a lot of those tropes, but what it does do is repackage them into a slick adventure story that puts an everyman type character in the center of the narrative and casting him as a sympathetic character. The Turner Diaries isn’t a difficult book to read, and absent the racism and antisemitism, it plays out a fairly standard story of a revolutionary fighting against an overwhelming, authoritarian threat.

I spoke with Annalee Newitz about the book and its power as a tool for the white supremacist movement. "Science fiction is great storytelling vessel for any kind of ideology," they explained. "If you want to write feminist science fiction, it's there for you. If you want to write right-wing, race-purity propaganda, it's there as a great way to convey ideas and make them more palatable."

"The Turner Diaries is really great propaganda because it's has a zippy plot, [and] it's very fast paced. It's not like reading Robert Heinlein — when he gets into his right-wing libertarian space he's just boring to read."

The Turner Diaries takes a variety of somewhat mainstream ideas: that the Federal Government was revealed to be horribly corrupt following the Nixon Administration, and that the only way to "fix" things was to overthrow it. This tracks with what Belew notes was taking place in the white power spaces: prior to Nixon's administration, many of these groups were fractured and unaligned or at odds with one another: but over the 1980s, these groups began to coalesce a bit, coming to believe that changing the government from within wouldn't work: they would have to violently overthrow it to achieve their goals: establishing a homeland for whites.

The Turner Diaries, with its remix of tropes and ideologies that all groups shared, seemed to work as a bit of connective tissue. And it seems as though it served as a bit of a bridge between the various white supremacist factions: providing each with common ground that aligned them in somewhat the same direction. And, because it's written like a thriller rather, it serves as an excellent recruiting and propaganda tool: it provided potential recruits with a dystopian vision for what could be. The worst-case scenario for a white supremacist, or someone who was potentially amenable to their views? A world in which oppressed minorities were ... not oppressed. It takes those extreme ideas and eases the reader (through Ed Turner) into an increasingly extreme place and mindset. Handed out in an environment where people are already deeply skeptical of the US Government and its various programs, the book is an excellent tool for normalizing those ideologies.

And in many ways, we can see the success of those visions. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, Virginia chanting "You will not replace us" during the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, which had deadly consequences. Fox News, with hosts like Tucker Carlson, regularly uses fears over immigration, violence from minority groups, and criticism of government spending and programs to push these views. Earlier this month, Carlson argued that immigrants were coming to "dilute the political power" of Americans, which prompted considerable backlash against the broadcaster. That's a long-standing right-wing trope, one that plays into traditional fears of racial equality, a prominent theme in the book. A handful of more extreme members of the Republican Party are putting together an "American First Caucus" — which seeks to promote "uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions" — read: white traditions.

These are all things that have been supported, and encouraged by the ideological underpinning of Pierce's book, which has in turn, furthered those tropes and world views, propagating those ideas from generation to generation of racist Americans. Decades after its publication, it remains a dangerous piece of propaganda that is still widely distributed and read.

There's been a long-standing argument as to whether science fiction and fantasy are inherently good at conveying right or left wing viewpoints. But as Newitz pointed out, the genre is simply a good vessel for portraying any form of ideology: the framing of The Turner Diaries is similar to that of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about an enslaved woman in a patriarchal totalitarian state known as Gilead — it's a story of fulminating revolution told through a diary format.

Science fiction as a genre has a unique ability to develop worlds that could be — and from its earliest days, has been used as an ideological tool to push forward various lines of political thought. Writers ranging from Margaret Cavendish to Jack London to Robert Heinlein to Jerry Pournelle to Iain M. Banks to Octavia Butler have used their stories to portray how they saw the world, from building utopian, socialist civilizations to oppressive, dystopian hellholes.

It's a tool that's also well-suited for white supremacist movements: they're attempting to imagine a potential future, already a science fictional idea, one in which there's genocide, violence, and space for their own heroes to operate against. Newitz noted that some of these groups emerged out of the "charismatic Christian tradition, where they're already thinking in terms of narrative arcs that involve massive transformation that involves an apocalypse and reaching some sort of heavenly state."

"That's a very science fictional kind of narrative, right? Where you fight the bad guys and when they're all defeated, then you're all in heaven. That maps nicely onto utopian thinking, where instead of going to heaven, you build a utopia of your own in your nation. And even nationalism is build into the Bible: the old testament is all about nation building.

And science fiction has been used as a framework for popular right-wing literature like Tim LaHaye and Jerry B Jenkins' Left Behind series, which retold the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations as a series of slick, readable genre-like thrillers.

I think the other piece of it is that a lot of white supremacy is very focused on an American sense of justice, and just trusting that the government will destroy anything that interferes with individual freedom, and that's really part of the DNA of science fiction. The genre comes out of the Westerns that are all about the kind of individuals who are doing lone experimentation or are brave, individual adventurers."

The history of science fiction also provides some congruency between mainstream fandom and the world of white supremacists. Pierce was apparently a science fiction fan, and he wouldn’t have had to work very hard to find people sympathetic with his worldview.

The American strains of science fiction have a long history of this sort of thinking behind it: pulp novels pulled in authors and ideas from Westerns that used white supremacist thinking as it worked to justify the exploitation of the American continent — literally committing genocide against a people to ensure a new homeworld for Europeans. These ideas have become embedded in the genre itself, through stories of planetary colonization or of alien invasions.

Editors like John W. Campbell Jr. entertained his own authoritarian and racist ideals, which he expounded on in lengthy editorials in Astounding Science Fiction. “During the height of the Civil Rights movement and riots in inner cities around the country,” David Forbes, author of The Old Iron Dream (an examination of science fiction’s authoritarian history and ties) wrote for Vice, “Campbell, resting on the flimsiest pseudoscience, sputtered in a 1965 essay titled "Barbarians Within" (originally titled "Race Riots") that humanity was divided into genetic "citizens" who made civilization possible and "barbarians" who had to be crushed.”

Within fandom these days, it's not hard to see some of these ideological battles playing out as though it's a zero-sum game. The Sad/Rabid Puppies and Gamergate fights between 2015-2016 was pushed forward by avowed racist / white supremacist individuals like Vox Day and championed to more mainstream audiences by people like Milo Yiannopoulos. Through those outlets, the ideas first put forward by The Turner Diaries continue to be upcycled to mainstream audiences, because they can map so easily onto cheap genre adventures.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my work as a journalist in the last decade, it’s how adept the white supremacy and other hate groups have become at transmitting their messaging out to a mainstream audience, where they can work to further legitimize their arguments and worldview by making their ideals seem reasonable.

Federal authorities never found a firm evidence that McVeigh and his co-conspirators Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols received help from the larger white supremacist movement when they planned to bomb Oklahoma City. However, their actions and ideology come out of the framework that that movement created: McVeigh was inspired in part by Pierce's book and his time in that community, and some of those arguments continue to persist in the larger canon of genre fiction.

Fortunately, there have been some positive steps: Amazon pulled the book from its platform shortly after the January 6th riots after criticism, and it also appears to have been pulled from the Internet Archive (where I found my copy in the days after the January 6th riots) — although there are still lots of content from Pierce lingering. It'll still remain circulating around in white supremacy circles, but limiting its spread on those big platforms should help tamp down its visibility.

But the legacy of the book remains stained in blood, and it's an important, cautionary tale of the power that narrative holds with ideology, and how this fringe text continues to radicalize individuals.

As always, thanks for reading. I'd like to throw out a special thanks to Annalee Newitz, Adi Robertson, Reed Bonadonna, and Daniel Charles Ross for their comments and insights.

I would like to encourage donations to the Anti-Defamation League, which has been doing some excellent work on tracking and fighting against hate in the US.