clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a dystopian neo-Nazi novel helped fuel decades of white supremacist terrorism

Following the Capitol insurrection, Amazon removed The Turner Diaries from its shelves. Will it be enough?

A copy of “The Turner Diaries” written Dr. William Luther Pierce under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald at the McClintic Library in Marlinton, West Virginia in 2006.
Jeff Gentner/AP
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, Amazon took the unusual step on January 12 of removing all copies of a novel called The Turner Diaries from its virtual shelves. That may seem like a drastic stance given the debate over censorship and free speech that has accompanied these types of purges. But it’s one that signifies just how notorious the book has become, and how much real-world damage it’s arguably caused.

Written and self-published by a racist man who founded a dangerous white supremacist organization, The Turner Diaries has long been viewed as a fundamental manual of extremism. While other more well-known cultural artifacts like The Catcher in the Rye (a favorite of presidential and other assassins) or The Anarchist Cookbook (a well-known “murder manual” for terrorists, mass shooters, and other extremists) have captured the public consciousness as bait for potentially violent, disaffected loners, The Turner Diaries has been little-known for decades outside of extremist circles. But within those extremist circles, it became well-established as a core text due to its use as, essentially, a training manual for America’s largest neo-Nazi organization — and then the internet made it more accessible than ever.

Although The Turner Diaries is fiction, its narrative mirrors recent real-world events, probably because many modern-day extremists have been so influenced by it. We can see that influence in the most direct and chilling way — because, among other things, The Turner Diaries ends with a violent terrorist coup against the US government, not unlike the January 6 Capitol insurrection. But while The Turner Diaries is foundational to modern white supremacy’s terrorist tactics, it may have shaped the ideology even more — and that’s an influence that will be harder to remove than the book itself.

The Turner Diaries was written by an avowed neo-Nazi

The Turner Diaries was first published in its entirety in 1978 under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The real author was William Luther Pierce — a racist man the hate-watch group Southern Poverty Law Center dubbed “America’s most important Nazi” of the 20th century. It would be hard to overstate Pierce’s galling contributions to the cause of US white supremacy — and that’s without considering The Turner Diaries.

Born in Atlanta in 1933 and raised in Virginia and Alabama, Pierce reportedly claimed to be descended from a Civil War governor, and attended a military high school in Texas before going on to attain a doctorate in physics. According to an offensively obsequious 2001 biography of Pierce — in which author Robert Griffin extensively quotes Pierce spouting unchallenged white supremacist propaganda — Pierce was raised for part of his childhood by a relative who had a Black person who’d been convicted of a crime working for him who “in effect was his slave.” Racism was a consistent part of Pierce’s upbringing and his political pursuits, and he eventually left a career as a rocket scientist in 1966 to invest more deeply in American Naziism.

He first joined the American Nazi Party, then gradually latched onto a different group created in support of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his 1968 presidential election campaign. Pierce evolved that organization into what ultimately became, in 1974, a group called the National Alliance. The group grew rapidly and gained influence at home and abroad, as Pierce preached dire warnings about how a rise in diversity and the societal changes of the civil rights movement would bring about “the end of white America.”

Through the National Alliance, Pierce ran his own underground media empire, including a newspaper, a book press, a radio station, and an extremist record distributor — all to broadcast his message of violent white nationalism. His efforts worked. In a report published in 1998, the Anti-Defamation League noted, “With 16 active cells from coast to coast, an estimated membership of 1,000 and several thousand additional Americans listening to its radio broadcasts and browsing its Internet site, the National Alliance is the largest and most active neo-Nazi organization in the nation.”

The group’s goals, the ADL reported, were to establish “a racially clean area of the earth” and to “do whatever is necessary to achieve this White living space and to keep it White.”

Griffin’s biography reveals Pierce to be a man isolated by his own heinous ideas. Late in his life, he was estranged from both of his sons and was living in rural West Virginia with a lonely young wife with whom it seemed he could barely communicate. She was the latest in a string of Eastern European wives, all of whom he’d chosen based on his belief that Eastern European women were more subservient to men than American women. At the time of his death in 2001, he was reportedly living alone.

But Pierce’s impact on the national political landscape was far more lasting than his personal relationships.

The Turner Diaries became exactly what it was intended to be — a manual for violence

The Turner Diaries began as a fictional adventure series that Pierce published in the National Alliance newspaper, Attack, starting in 1975. A dystopian novel set in a future version of America, it follows the journal entries of a man named Earl Turner as he turns to increasing violence in his resistance to the US government as part of a group called the Organization.

In Pierce’s scenario, Turner is fighting an orgiastic ultraconservative fantasy of an unchecked liberal future: The government confiscates all guns from private citizens and pursues resistors using a force called “the Equality Police.” The media and Hollywood operate as untrustworthy left-wing propaganda, while racial and ethnic minorities gain power and enact anti-white laws. The back cover of the book asks readers, “What will you do when they come to take your guns?”

The book contains lurid, graphic violence carried out against liberals, government officials, members of the media, and Black and Jewish citizens. It gleefully urges white militias to rise up and engage in guerrilla warfare against the oppressive government — think the ’80s action movie Red Dawn, in which Russia invades the US and small-town civilians fight back with renegade tactics, but with more racism and bloodlust. Among other things, the book features car bombings, suicide missions, and one scene in which white supremacist terrorists hang politicians en masse — a scene that some experts felt had echoes in the Capitol insurrection, during which a gallows was erected amid calls to hang certain elected officials.

The book chillingly culminates in Turner planning to fly a plane into the Pentagon in a suicide bombing mission — an act the narrative tells us ushered in a “New Era” of white supremacist rule and made Turner a national folk hero to the subsequent Aryan civilization.

By all accounts, Pierce intended the book to be influential, more than just a work of fiction, and it was. In many chapters of the National Alliance, the book was required reading and was essentially presented to new members as an instruction manual. Pierce also intended it to glorify violence against nonwhites and progressives. The ADL report quoted a 1997 radio broadcast in which Pierce said:

In 1975, when I began writing The Turner Diaries ... I wanted to take all of the feminist agitators and propagandists and all of the race-mixing fanatics and all of the media bosses and all of the bureaucrats and politicians who were collaborating with them, and I wanted to put them up against a wall, in batches of a thousand or so at a time, and machine-gun them. And I still want to do that.

After its serial publication, Pierce published The Turner Diaries in novel form in 1978 through his own independent press, after which it circulated underground for over a decade, known mainly only to white nationalists, extremists, and the people who kept a close watch on them. By the late 1980s, an advertisement for the book had appeared in the extremist survivalist magazine Soldier of Fortune, making it available via mail order. That’s how it ended up in the hands of an Army recruit named Timothy McVeigh.

Later, at McVeigh’s trial for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — the worst terrorist attack on US soil prior to 9/11 — McVeigh’s fellow soldiers would testify that he was obsessed with the book and pored over it constantly. He sold copies of the book at gun shows, and mailed others to friends and family urging them to read it.

One of them did read it, and later recognized McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma City federal building as drawing straight from The Turner Diaries’ terrorist template. When authorities arrested McVeigh, they found excerpts from the book in his car.

McVeigh’s terrorism is the most famous, but it’s far from the only Turner Diaries-influenced act of extremism or racist violence. These range from lone individual hate crimes to at least one mass assault to numerous crime rings.

One group of domestic terrorists operating in the ’80s called itself “the Order” after one of the fictional militias in the book, which they referred to as a bible. Their ringleaders were former members of Pierce’s National Alliance, and they allegedly hoped their acts of violence might help usher in the dystopian uprising fictionalized in The Turner Diaries.

In 1998, another group of National Alliance members planned to detonate 14 bombs across the city of Orlando, including one at the entrance to Walt Disney World; they failed when one of the would-be bombers accidentally set off one of the bombs as he was building it. The Southern Poverty Law Center cites at least 14 terrorist acts linked to the National Alliance between 1983 and 2005.

Much of this activity, crucially, took place before the internet, which of course made it possible for The Turner Diaries to spread and gain more influence — even beyond the scope of terrorist acts it influenced.

The novel’s biggest impact on far-right politics may have been philosophical

Extremist expert J.M. Berger has argued that even beyond its practical instruction in violent tactics, The Turner Diaries was directly responsible for a profound shift in extremist right-wing ideas — particularly regarding the way Pierce’s National Alliance, and later the neo-Nazi movement more generally, recruited new members. Through his organization and then through the book, Pierce broadened neo-Nazi messaging by emphasizing emotional rhetoric rather than drilling down into specific, potentially alienating philosophical debates.

Berger wrote in the Atlantic in 2016 that through Pierce’s influence, “prominent white nationalists began to take a more carefully generic approach, playing on racial fear and resentment as they existed, rather than attempting to manufacture doctrinaire justifications.”

In many respects, Berger argued, The Turner Diaries presaged the amorphous, slippery character of the modern alt-right, with its various loosely allied groups all united under one general commitment to the theme of white nationalism. “The Turner Diaries,” he wrote, “demonstrated how to successfully leverage racial fears and resentments in the service of violence, without a call to a specific ideology.”

Not only that, but The Turner Diaries’ rhetorical emphasis, the constant drumbeat of its themes — they’re coming to take your guns; they’re coming for you; the media can’t be trusted; violent reaction is all but inevitable — seems not only to form the backbone of far-right propaganda but to contain significant parallels to today’s mainstream conservative ideology. As a text, it offers the kind of heady heroic narrative that appeals to would-be rebels, patriots, and martyrs for a cause. It teaches its adherents not just to adopt the mentality that they are at war with progressives, but that a real-life war is inevitable. As the New York Times observed after the Capitol insurrection, a Telegram user watching the melee wrote, “The turner diaries mentioned this. Keep reading.”

Still, Berger told Vox that while prohibiting access to The Turner Diaries is an important part of dismantling white supremacy, it’s not as crucial as many in the media have made it seem. “The Turner Diaries is a landmark text in white nationalism, and it’s worth talking about,” he said in an email. “But I think its relevance to the Capitol Siege has been overplayed somewhat.”

Berger pointed out that while the book’s removal from Amazon is a step forward, it’s not the only such work out there that white supremacists have drawn inspiration from.

“The book is already notorious and widely available online for free, so while it’s probably a net positive that it’s been removed from Amazon, it’s not exactly a game-changer,” he said.

“I think the significance has more to do with Amazon waking up to the problem of extremist content on its platform, which can be seen in some of its other recent moves as well,” he added. He noted that in recent weeks, Amazon has removed products promoting the QAnon conspiracy and banned white nationalist groups from its charity program, after previously removing merchandise related to other white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations. “Several of these removals are more pragmatically important because they deny revenue streams to current extremist leaders and groups,” Berger explained.

In other words, it takes dismantling a white supremacist village to fully attack the ugliness that leads to real-world violence. Removing The Turner Diaries and these other elements from Amazon, along with deplatforming extremists from other parts of the mainstream internet, won’t totally remove their ability to access harmful material that helps fuel their hate. Still, these actions may crucially make such material harder for potential recruits to find. As Berger concluded, Amazon and tech companies like it “still have some way to go, but it’s a start.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.