Crazies. Lone nut jobs. Isolated loonies. Those are frequent descriptions of people like James von Brunn, the 88-year-old white supremacist who is charged with opening fire at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and killing a black guard.
Others believe he represents something more dangerous: a growing racist movement motivated by a number of converging factors, including the first black president.
The potential for an increase in violence from whites who feel they are slipping from power is high, according to experts from across the ideological spectrum.
“I believe we are headed for an unprecedented level of conflict and racial turmoil,” said Carol Swain, author of the 2002 book “The New White Nationalism in America” and a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University.
Swain cited anger over immigration, growing minority populations, high minority crime rates, the economy and multiculturalism as forces driving people toward racist extremism.
“It seems like the tables have turned for some white people, and they have no recourse except desperation,” Swain said.
An April intelligence assessment by the Department of Homeland Security said right-wing extremists could use the troubled economy and the election of President Barack Obama to recruit members.
Former FBI agent Danny Coulson, who headed the terrorism investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and now runs a security firm, said federal agents have increased their monitoring of white supremacist groups since Obama’s election, and have noticed increased chatter and membership.
“These neo-Nazi groups have been laying in the weeds for a long time,” he said. “Then you have a president who comes in who’s an African-American and they hate that.”
The concept of defending white interests has broadened beyond neo-Nazis.
Louis R. Andrews, chairman of a white advocacy group called the National Policy Institute, said he does not support violence, but he expects to see increased racial animosity that will eventually manifest itself in more physical attacks.
“There’s no such thing as post-racial,” Andrews said, when asked about the claim that Obama’s election moved American race relations to a different place. “There’s conflict, conflict and continued conflict.”
Andrews said he voted for Obama because “I want to see the Republican Party destroyed, so it can be reborn as a party representing the interests of white people, and not entrenched corporate elites.”
Swain’s book argues that many people with “white nationalist” views do not fit the extremist stereotype — they are professors, scientists, elected officials.
Some people can be “pushed over the edge” into extreme views by stresses such as the loss of a job or another traumatic event,” said psychologist David Eigen.
“Men aren’t supposed to feel powerless or helpless,” Eigen said. “When a man starts to feel that, he feels angry and ashamed inside, and he can project it outward. For hundreds of years, Jews have been a convenient target. So let’s blame the Jews.”
“There’s something festering in society today,” he said. “A boil has been broken. We want to put a Band-Aid on it, but it’s too late.”