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Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Blood Tribe isn’t from Wisconsin. But other fascist groups were.

<p>Photos courtesy of <a href="" target="_self">Drake White-Bergey</a>, <a href="" target="_self">Francesca Pica</a> and <a href="" target="_self">Alexa Coleman</a> / The Daily Cardinal</p>

Photos courtesy of Drake White-Bergey, Francesca Pica and Alexa Coleman / The Daily Cardinal

Elizabeth Richter Boxell was holding her daughter when she first noticed the black-clad, swastika-bearing neo-Nazis marching toward a Pride in the Park event in Watertown, Wisconsin last July.

She trembled.

She turned around and froze, trying to process the situation.

“A group with so much hatred, who is so stereotypically dangerous, was at our small town USA Pride event,” Boxell said.

As the neo-Nazi demonstrators, members of a group known as the Blood Tribe, began to spout epithets and bigotry at eventgoers, Robin Kangas, vice president of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Unity Project of Watertown, tried to bring community members away from the demonstrators.

“There's a lot of hatred towards the queer community,” Kangas said. “It's just you don't think that it'll actually happen to you, you know?”

In more recent months, the Blood Tribe chanted antisemitic and racist epithets during a November march through Madison. At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in January, they projected a swastika on a dormitory.

Prominent Madison and Wisconsin leaders like Gov. Tony Evers, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin quickly issued public condemnations of the Blood Tribe after their demonstration in Madison.

When UW-Madison student Ben Newman learned of Blood Tribe’s presence in Madison via social media, he decided to film their activity to prevent misinformation around their message. He felt the neo-Nazis were emboldened by a heightened political and on-campus climate of antisemitic speech amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

“It was a real shock to see people walking down State Street with swastika flags and chanting hateful things,” Newman said.

Despite recent activity in Wisconsin, the Blood Tribe isn’t — or, at least, wasn’t always — a local fixture. Founded by former U.S. Marine Christopher Polhaus in 2020, the group claims to have chapters across the United States. Polhaus previously ran a paramilitary-style training camp in Maine but sold the property after receiving widespread attention from local residents. 

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The group most recently marched on Feb. 18 in Nashville.

Months earlier in Watertown, Kangas said he knew it was always a possibility that Nazis could appear at a Pride event similar to this. But he didn’t think they would come to his small town. 

“I feel like the only reason why they felt it was okay to come here was because they saw the hatred fundamentalists were spreading in the community,” Kangas said.

How has fascism marked Wisconsin history?

Neo-Nazi propaganda has exploded nationally over a five-year period, multiplying tenfold since 2017. Experts have tied the increase to increasingly public far-right ideology offered by social media and encouraged instances of political violence.

But fascist groups are nothing new in Wisconsin.

As fascism seeped through international waters into the United States and Wisconsin in the 1920s, numerous groups promoted the nascent ideology. Fascism began making inroads into the Dairy State around the 1930s. 

Before then, the stage for fascism was set in the nineteenth century by rising cultural uncertainty and the birth of the KKK.

“We talk about culture wars today, but in the 1920s they had some rather similar concerns,” said Dr. Mark Van Ells, a professor of history at Queensborough Community College in New York. 

At the time, an increasingly stark divide between cultural interests of rural and urban residents appeared as more people began to live in cities than the countryside, Van Ells said. 

“Rural people felt left behind,” Van Ells said. “[It’s] not unlike the red state [versus] blue state thing we see now.” 

Cultural instability paved the way for fascism’s spread in the U.S., he added.

Popular culture played a key role in fascism’s spread. In the 1930s, figures like Father Coughlin, a fundamentalist Catholic radio host based near Detroit, began to broadcast pro-fascist, pro-Mussolini and pro-Hitler messaging to a considerable audience. Some experts estimate these shows had up to 30 million listeners.

During this time, chapters of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund — the German word for league or confederacy —  spread to different locations throughout America, similar to the Blood Tribe’s chapter-based approach. 

The Bund had around 25,000 members nationally, Van Ells said. Its leader, Fritz Kuhn, was known as the leading antisemite in the country. Despite resistance from many local community members, Bund chapters spread pro-Nazi sentiments in big cities and suburbs nationally. 

In the small town of Grafton, Wis., the German-American Bund operated Camp Hindenburg, a youth summer camp meant to indoctrinate children into fascist ideology. The camp later closed in 1941 as Bund members faced imprisonment or denaturalization in federal proceedings.

“[Camp members] dressed in uniforms, they marched around saying Nazi songs. It was just like the Hitler Youth in Europe,” Van Ells said. 

The Bund’s ideological power was widespread, and its Wisconsin chapter had around 5,000 members. 

A local connection

Two different UW-Madison student groups donned the Ku Klux Klan moniker — a name separate from the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan —  between 1919 and 1926. As an unmasked, above-ground interfraternity society, the UW-Madison Klan was made up of campus royalty, with its members including class presidents, student senators, varsity athletes and theater stars.

That student group infiltrated the Student Union Board, The Daily Cardinal, the YMCA cabinet and a Memorial Union fund drive committee. Although there is “no evidence that this group was ever affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” the group excluded African American and Jewish students and staff.

“Most of the UW’s ‘student leaders’ were members of the Klan group,” historian Timothy Messer-Kruse said in a 1993 article. “Approval of a group calling itself the Ku Klux Klan as an official campus organization raised not a ripple of concern among the student body.”

Kacie Luccini Butcher, the director of UW-Madison’s Public History Project, told the Cardinal fascist ideology and protests against it appeared frequently throughout the 1920s and 1930s on campus and throughout Madison. 

“Students [were] having conversations about World War II in The Daily Cardinal opinion section,” Butcher said. “There is a Wisconsin Alumni Magazine article from [UW-Madison] President Dykstra where he [says] that Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin offer a ‘new slavery.’”

For some, the manufactured appeals of fascism — clean roads, safe streets, a “bold new view” of a supposedly better country — were appealing, Butcher said. But people weren’t seeing what was happening in Germany or other fascist countries due to strict communication controls.

“It’s not like now, where if this was happening, people would be posting on Twitter,” Butcher said. “[Atrocities] were not being communicated to the American public.” 

A lack of accurate information was crucial to the rise of fascism, Butcher said. Before phones, restricting media was a more feasible option, and fascist states commonly controlled or assassinated journalists.

In the following years after World War II, students continued to discuss far-right ideologies and fascism, conversations Butcher said are “always happening” on campuses. She cautioned against the narrative that antisemitism went “out of fashion” after Americans learned about fascism’s horrors.

“That is not true. I think we all know that now, especially in the times we live in. But in 1963, you see a man who feels empowered enough to wear a Nazi armband and disrupt a vigil mourning black children,” Butcher said. “These people are not hiding or cowering. They are making their views known throughout this period and up until today.”

Is anything different now?

Fascism operates under intense ideological and religious zeal, Van Ells and Butcher said. Violence and fear are often beneficial to their cause.

It’s a different worldview than most “normal” people have, Van Ells said. “If you’re a religious fundamentalist, how committed are you to democratic values in the first place?”

That fundamentalist worldview plays into the strict partisan divides which mark American politics today, he said. After the Blood Tribe came, Boxell said some Watertown residents turned their ire toward local police and LGBTQ+ people for bringing the neo-Nazis to town while alleging police “stomped on the Nazis’ First Amendment rights.”

Those beliefs hold true in the current U.S. presidential race, where presumptive Republican nominee and former President Donald Trump openly spews hateful rhetoric about racial minorities and immigrants.

“Illegal immigration is poisoning the blood of our nation,” Trump said in a December post on his social media site Truth Social. “They’re coming from prisons, from mental institutions — from all over the world.”

That statement “echoes the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric of fascism in the 1930s,” Van Ells said.

The same term — “blood poisoning” — was used by Adolf Hitler in his 1925 manifesto “Mein Kampf.”

And in a December poll conducted by the Des Moines Register, 42% of likely Republican caucusgoers said Trump’s statement about “poisoning the blood” of America makes them more likely to back him. Nearly 30% said that the statement “didn’t matter.”

Far-right ideologies and groups like the Blood Tribe, the Klan and Nazis contain different tactics and end goals. The common threads among the three, however, lie in taking advantage of an uncertain economic and cultural moment to spread hatred. 

These ideologies rely on societal decline — the feeling many Germans felt when thinking the Allies had “punished them unfairly,” Van Ells said. And at a time when republican governments face “threats from groups increasingly distrustful of democracy,” Van Ells said the strings echo the same perpetual undercurrent. 

“I’m concerned about democracy,” Van Ells said. “That’s the thing that really seems under threat at this point.”

Three months after the Watertown Pride event, Republican legislators passed bills that would ban transgender women from participating in women’s sports and ban gender-affirming medical care for youth in Wisconsin.

“As we warned when these bills received public hearings in the State Assembly, their introduction alone is harmful and dangerous to transgender youth,” said the Wisconsin Legislative LGBTQ+ Caucus in a statement.

“A Republican governor would not want to support a neo-Nazi group,” Boxell said. But she questioned whether a future GOP governor would explicitly condemn the Nazi march or uplift a comparable Pride event in the future.

Additionally, Boxell argued a shifting cultural landscape led to the Blood Tribe feeling a need to demonstrate.

“I think this community and the neo-Nazi community feel like or even the Christian fundamentalists very much feel like they're losing a grip,” she said. “When neo-Nazis come to your town, you know that you’re doing something right.”

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Jasper Bernstein

Jasper Bernstein is the Associate News Editor for The Daily Cardinal. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.

Liam Beran

Liam Beran is the Campus News Editor for The Daily Cardinal and a third-year English major. Throughout his time at the Cardinal, he's written articles for campus, state and in-depth news. Follow him on Twitter at @liampberan.


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