The Death Of White Supremacist Tom Metzger Marks The End Of An Era

Former KKK leader Tom Metzger's style of white supremacy has been supplanted by new, Trump-like white nationalism.
White supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger in San Diego – May 12, 1977. (The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

White supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger in San Diego – May 12, 1977. (The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP)

Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right who for 20 years was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

The American radical right is thick with opportunists, men who spend their days milking their mailing lists, engaging in petty crime for profit, and bloating their egos by endlessly seeking press attention. They exploit their followers for money, sex, power, and prestige, and as often as not, when faced with arrest or the threat of prison, they don’t hesitate to sell out their former comrades.

That was not Tom Metzger.

Metzger, who died at age 82 last month, was a vicious racist who gloried in violence and printed some of the most guttural attacks on Bblacks, Jews, and the government in the history of the movement. But he also was a principled activist, one who stuck to his guns in the face of prison, an enormous civil judgment that cost him his home and most of his livelihood, and the scorn of millions.

He was a rarity on the radical right in his ideology. He was militantly pro-union and lauded labor heroes like the socialist Eugene Debs. He hated capitalists, opposed nuclear weapons, didn’t see the Soviets as enemies, and was a vocal defender of the environment. He opposed “armaments and war in general” and supported the “self-determination of other races” outside the United States. He was an atheist who scorned religion and called himself “definitely left of center.”

Metzger was also a dangerous man. He became a leading proponent of “lone wolf” terrorism, in which right-wing attacks are carried out by single individuals or very small cells. His White Aryan Resistance organization and its WAR tabloid regularly glorified street fighting and published grotesque cartoons depicting black people and Jews in ways that sometimes made the Nazis look tame. He once sent an organizer to teach violence to skinheads in Portland, Oregon, and when several of them murdered an Ethiopian graduate student there in an unprovoked street attack, Metzger crowed that they had done their “civic duty.”

It was that 1988 murder that changed the course of Metzger’s life in the movement. In 1990, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued Metzger, his son, White Aryan Resistance, and two skinheads involved in the murder. Evidence showed that Metzger had dispatched an organizer to Portland to school East Side White Pride skinheads in violence not long before three of them killed Mulugeta Seraw in the street. The jury found the defendants liable for $12.5 million.

Metzger was forced to sell his house, and his earnings as a television repairman were garnished by the SPLC, which was collecting the money for Seraw’s estate, for 20 years. As a result, Metzger’s group was reduced from a major organization to a minor website that promoted his views.

Thomas Linton Metzger was born in 1938 in Warsaw, Indiana, a town of some 15,000 people known for manufacturing orthopedic appliances. After serving in the Army and training in electronics, he moved to Fallbrook, California, near San Diego, where he would work for most of his life repairing televisions.

In 1964, he backed Republican Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful run for the presidency, beginning a political trajectory that went from right-wing conservative to committed revolutionary. Later, he joined the John Birch Society, a conspiracist far-right organization engaged at the time in battling the civil rights movement, but was expelled for opposing the Vietnam War. He went on to promote segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his losing 1968 presidential campaign.

In 1975, Metzger joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, then led by David Duke, and was named the group’s California leader. He helped Duke lead armed anti-immigrant patrols on the Mexican border that were a precursor to the activities of later groups like the Minutemen. But in 1980, he broke permanently with Duke, who had a reputation for fleecing his followers and insistently hounding women and girls for sex. Calling Duke an unprincipled opportunist, Metzger reorganized his KKK chapter as the California Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

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The same year, Metzger and a group of his followers clashed violently with anti-racist demonstrators in Oceanside, California. According to The New York Times, seven people were injured, one of them severely. Also in 1980, Metzger garnered 32,344 votes to win the Democratic congressional primary for his San Diego area district, though he was trounced in the general election. Two years later, he lost a Democratic primary bid for the U.S. Senate, but did manage to win more than 75,000 votes despite his well-known racism. That 1982 loss marked the end of Metzger’s interest in infiltrating mainstream electoral politics.

Metzger was a movement pioneer in several ways. In the mid-1980s, he used court rulings mandating public access to cable television to force some 40 cities to run his homemade program, “Race and Reason.” And he was an early proponent of racist skinheads, seeing them as the foot soldiers for an upcoming race war. He sponsored at least one skinhead music concert, and at the same time was invited to appear on Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and other national TV shows.

Metzger was openly disdainful of political conservatives, telling the journalist James Ridgeway that they held “the boss man’s position.” He was increasingly attracted to “left wing positions,” deploring white collar crime and capitalist exploitation, and allying with former hard leftists. “We’re definitely left of center,” he told Ridgeway, but “with a racial concept, racial separation.”

Metzger also was one of the first to see possible alliances with his enemies. In 1985, he attended a rally of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that describes white people as intrinsically evil. While there, he praised leader Louis Farrakhan for characterizing Jews as “parasites,” donated $100 to the group, and lauded his and Farrakhan’s mutual commitment to racial separation.

In 1988, Metzger’s son John, head of White Aryan Resistance Youth, appeared on The Geraldo Rivera Show with two other skinheads, two victims of skinhead violence, a rabbi and Roy Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality. A melee broke out after John Metzger called Innis an “Uncle Tom,” with audience members and Rivera joining in. A skinhead named Wyatt Kaldenberg charged up from the audience, famously breaking Rivera’s nose on live television.

Ultimately, Metzger came out in favor of the so-called Third Position, or Third Way, an idea that is better known in Europe and rejects both capitalism and communism. He often described non-revolutionary whites as the primary enemy of his movement, seeing them as race traitors, although his enemies list was a very long one. As he once enthused in his WAR tabloid: “It’s open season on niggers, kikes, cops and capitalists — kill ’em all, and let the devil sort them out.”

Tom Metzger’s ideology, as racist and violent as it was, belongs to another era — a time when white supremacist thinkers still claimed to represent the regular American working man and were open to some left-wing ideas; he saw himself as part of an ideological tradition that stretched back to people like American novelist Jack London, a socialist who also harbored racist ideas. Trumpism today is an entirely different animal, treating working Americans as suckers and feathering the nests of the wealthy even while posing as a populist enemy of the elites.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times that Metzger was a “hard-core white supremacist” whose “brand of hate likely will still linger long after his death.” And Metzger certainly was a hard-core racist hater. But I don’t agree that his “brand of hate” will live on. Metzger was a highly unusual thinker on the radical right, and at a time when that milieu is increasingly dominated by know-nothing “intellectuals” like Richard Spencer and David Duke, I think Metzger’s particular brand of racist radicalism is dead.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Opinion // CARR / Radical Right / White Supremacy