Dickson County, Tennessee
Chuck Watkins can recognize pretty much everyone in Dickson from his back booth at Burger King. But he can’t put names to the people who just came in for breakfast this Sunday morning. All he knows is, they’re trouble.
The two women are wearing camouflage pants and black boots. The man’s jacket reads “Aryan Nations Black and Silver,” displaying his membership in the Ku Klux Klan's Sadistic Souls motorcycle club.
He carries two guns.
“A handgun and a sawed-off,” Chuck says low to his friend, Bob England – a Korean War POW who punctuates his opinions by pointing a cane with his name wood-burned onto it. A few minutes ago they were arguing about why Bob likes peach soda.
“They aren’t from here,” Chuck says. “I don’t know them. You know them?”
Nobody knows them.
The men - all white - just learned there are about 300 white nationalists visiting their town - just 12 km up the road in Montgomery Bell State Park.
And now this Aryan Nations guy is in their Burger King.
They’re visibly disgusted.
White Separatists in a Changing U.S.
Montgomery Bell State Park
The American Renaissance supporters sitting in the windowless conference room call themselves "race realists."
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League label them a hate group.
To hear founder Jared Taylor explain his world vision is so very matter-of-fact. He believes "his" people (white, non-Hispanic, of European origin) should be allowed to have separate areas in the U.S. with their own "institutions, communities, even territorial areas… for them and their children."
Most years since 1994, Taylor’s group - the New Century Foundation - and its supporters, have met for the AmRen conference to talk about their fears. Attendees say they are concerned about Muslims, Latinos - pretty much every non-Anglo, non-Christian race, ethnicity or religion - taking over the country demographically. And while population projections do show ethnic and racial minorities will eclipse the number of people who identify as white, non-Hispanics in several decades, most people do not see the threat that Taylor and his cohort do.
"I want my people and culture to survive," Taylor tells VOA on the sidelines of the May conference at Montgomery Bell State Park in central Tennessee. "That’s a natural, normal healthy thing."
Racism on the Rise
A growing share of Americans believe racism is a big problem in the U.S., a Pew Research Center report released in January shows.
Marilyn Mayo, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, says some ethno-nationalist groups like AmRen are trying to make their arguments more palatable to more people.
“There’s a way of using language to kind of get away from the real impact of what they’re about," she says, "which is that they’re racist."
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made repeated statements taking aim at minority groups, primarily Hispanics and Muslims, occasionally women and the disabled. That rhetoric, researchers say, overlaps with what can be heard at conferences like the one in Tennessee.
"The Trump phenomenon is helping to normalize this type of talk about minorities," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate-group activity.
Trump's press office has not replied to a request for comment on this story, though he has denounced white supremacists before.
And not all ethno-nationalists favor Trump. But Jared Taylor does. He lent his voice to a robo-call in Iowa in February that attempted to drum up votes for Trump. He told the The New Yorker in August 2015 he felt Trump "would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit."
Lukewarm Support among Trump Voters
At the Burger King, Bob and Chuck have time in their retirement years to drink coffee together and watch the world go by. They keep the life of a town in their heads.
When they talk about war, they talk about sons who went to Afghanistan and friends who went to Vietnam. When they talk about the 2016 election, they worry about radical Islam coming to this town that has three Waffle Houses and a Cracker Barrel restaurant. They don’t share all of Donald Trump’s views – but most of them say he’s better than the alternative.
"I’m not voting for either one,” Bob says.
“Oh but you’ve got to vote,” Chuck says softly. “I believe you’ve got to vote.” He’s a wiry man who sinks into the chair as he talks. He voted for Bill Clinton twice.
“But Hillary is no Bill,” he says with a knowing smile. He says he knows Trump can’t mean all the crazy things he says. But he’s a “billionaire up in New York. He can build things and we need to build things again.”
So he’ll vote for Trump.
Coming Together to Live Separately
Montgomery Bell State Park
The crowd at AmRen is largely men, almost exclusively white, in suits and ties, many with the close-cropped, floppy top haircut favored by young male attendees – the “fashy” (for fascist) look. One speaker during the three-day conference is a woman, and there are about 15-20 others in the audience.
The diversity in the crowd doesn’t come, generally, from race or ethnicity. There is a Belgian, a Briton, an Estonian, and a South African among the speakers, all white. The diversity comes from whether attendees are anti-Semitic or not. In favor of controlling the birth rates of “minorities” or not. Supporting Donald Trump, bans on Muslims, and generalized disdain for non-European immigrants. Or not. And – since this is Tennessee – there is also a strong pro-South, pro-Confederate contingent.
They aren’t all Trump supporters, but a third of the room raises hands when asked if they’ve attended a Trump rally.
Among the speakers is Peter Brimelow, who predicted the rise of Trump at last year’s conference. This year he says, "It will only take one election and then Mount America will really blow." He thinks Trump will win in a landslide because he speaks to the identity of white Americans. “He’s speaking to them as a nation-state... They feel as though they’re losing control and they’re right. They feel profoundly and deeply insulted.”
Even if Trump doesn't win, he thinks everything has changed.
“There are people who have come to consciousness because of Trump and the Trump war, and it will have a lasting effect on a whole generation,” he says.
Inside the conference room, the Estonian nationalist calls on younger Americans to rise up.
“Perhaps the future leader of a white ethno-state is in this room,” he says. The crowd cheers.
But if a group of white nationalists meets in the central Tennessee woods, does anyone hear?
“They have an influence that exceeds their numbers and their political space,” says Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research & Education of Human Rights.
Author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream,” Zeskind has been researching white nationalist groups since the early 1980s.
He says American Renaissance influences the Tea Party, which in turn influences the Republican Party - and the validation of seeing ideas once considered marginal on the political main stage during the 2016 presidential campaign emboldens groups like AmRen.
Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, gives AmRen less credit, saying they don’t have “real political influence in terms of legislation.”
“The role American Renaissance has is to provide a sort of cleaned up ideology (no slurs, that kind of thing) that provides racists with a justification for their biases,” he wrote in an email.
“That certainly does help spread the ideas and creed of white nationalism, but I don’t think that translates in any direct way to political or, certainly, legislative power.”
For regular AmRen opponent Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who missed the weekend protest due to illness but usually shows up year after year to take a stand against Taylor, the segregationist rhetoric is an attempt to unravel decades of civil rights activism.
Race in a Southern Town
The man in the Aryan Nations jacket and the two women dump their trays and go on their way. Chuck watches them until they’re in their car and gone.
The men return to talking about politics and the town and the feeling something is off with the country. They pull in younger neighbors who bring their breakfast trays.
Danny Williams is killing time before his son’s Little League baseball game. He sits down when he hears about the white nationalists up at the park in his town. Slowly, he starts talking about how his father moved their white family to Dickson in the mid-1960s to avoid the racial desegregation of schools in Nashville, about 80 km away. He still thinks it was the right decision. Yet when his uncle asked him to join the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan as a young man, Danny was firm.
“I said no... I was on a basketball team. I had a black friend I knew who was on the team. I knew his sister on the girl’s team. I didn’t want to change my relationship with them because of that.”
Yet when his daughter married a black man from Africa, Danny wasn't there. Eyes full of tears he doesn't allow to fall, he recounts how she asked him to walk her down the aisle.
"I told her I didn’t know the guy – I had never met him. I had to meet him to know.”
He sees the two children from that marriage – his grandchildren – only occasionally.
His son comes back to see how soon until the game. Danny hugs him tight and switches to talk of how much Dickson has changed since the 1970s, like the arrival of immigrant workers. He's voting for Trump.
Chuck repeats what he’s said all morning, interjecting talk of the economy and war and Trump with one simple line,“We’re good people here.”
Montgomery Bell State Park
As the AmRen conference winds down that Saturday, attendees wander outside. They smoke and vape in clusters along the sidewalk, a few park rangers standing between them and a small group of protesters - three men on a hill overlooking the hotel and conference hall.
“They try to make it to where it doesn't seem racist,” John Carico says. He drove three hours from his home in south Tennessee to demonstrate against the event. Some of the conference-goers heckle the protesters, and a man in a German World War II uniform watches the protesters, tapping his leg with a riding crop.
Inside the facility, park staff are setting up the conference room for that evening’s closing banquet.
When Dickson County High School seniors graduate the same weekend of the AmRen conference, both sides of the football field are packed with thousands of friends and relatives. Among the white families there are also black, Southeast Asian, and Latino families watching their teenagers close out an era of their young lives.
One of the senior girls takes the podium and tells the crowd, "Where there is acceptance, there is growth and discovery." The alternative is "a dystopian society where no one can think."
She pauses then pushes on, her voice defiant, "Diversity is the medium that allows power to shine bright."