Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America by Norwegian journalist Vegas Tenold is not light reading. It’s a book that I started while also knowing it would be upsetting. But I can’t walk away from these topics, or allow myself to be blissfully ignorant anymore. That said, I can only understand the white nationalist movement on an intellectual level. Emotionally, the belief set is still completely unfathomable to me.
Tenold doesn’t set out to explain why these people believe what they believe. He wants to explain the history of the movement, from post-Civil War KKK to Charlottesville. The historical focus means that he discusses various white nationalist groups, focusing primarily on their leaders. Tenold doesn’t agree with them, and he’s not trying to get readers to understand their positions. He puts them all on a timeline of history, and states their primary focus and challenges. He also connects this history to white nationalism as it exists now.
One of Tenold’s main guides to the current state of white nationalism in America is a guy named Matthew Heimbach. It’s clear that Tenold has spent a lot of time with Heimbach, as a journalistic resource. They aren’t friends, but sometimes Heimbach forgets and that allows Tenold to learn things only members of these groups typically know. It’s not easy reading about cross burning or other hateful views and behavior. I can’t imagine being in Tenold’s shoes.
All of his subjects let Tenold behind a curtain of membership, without requiring his admittance to their groups. Why? They are interested in publicity because it gets the word out to potential followers. And these groups need it. Until very recent years, they were a fast-dwindling group of mostly male, definitely aging members. However, Tenold tracks the work Heimbach and others do to help unite several smaller groups into a larger organization. They’re looking for presence in the current political scene.
Vegas Tenold is a journalistic story teller, with a strong stomach for difficult situations. He embeds himself in a way that most writers would choose not to do. And then he takes that experience and turns it into a frighteningly compelling story.
I didn’t expect to be as drawn to this book as I was. I thought it would be horribly difficult to read. Don’t get me wrong. It was absolutely difficult. But the distance Tenold puts between the white nationalist and the reader helps. His writing style is historical and somewhat dispassionate. And although it made for some dry passages, the style balances the topic’s hot and angry feel.
I read this during a time I was also reading Congressman John Lewis’ memoir about the Civil Rights Movement. (Review coming soon—the Lewis book is long!) The two books were counterpoints of good and evil, right and wrong.
If you’re curious about the alt-right and far right as they relate to U.S. politics in 2018, this is a strong reading choice. Be prepared for plenty of much earlier history, though. Tenold writes well, and his willingness to engage people he disagrees with is admirable. I’m curious what he’ll choose next.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Perseus Books, PublicAffairs, Nation Books, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.