“The Turner Diaries” and Pulp Fascism

By Noah BerlatskyFebruary 5, 2022

“The Turner Diaries” and Pulp Fascism
WILLIAM LUTHER PIERCE’S right-wing propaganda novel The Turner Diaries (written under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald) includes strange passages that feel like they could be drawn from pulp science-fiction narratives — like this one, which almost seems to describe the ranting of a slimy outer-space horror who has seized control of earthly telecommunications: “[H]is voice became louder and harsher. He stood up and leaned into the camera, an incarnation of pure hatred, as he shrieked and gibbered in his alien tongue, gobs of saliva flying from his mouth and dribbling down his chin.”

The monster Pierce is describing in these sentences, however, isn’t some Venusian invader: it’s a Jewish person. Pierce, a neo-Nazi propagandist, uses the tropes of science fiction in service of his blatant and ugly antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Pierce was originally a physics professor, and he founded the white nationalist National Alliance in 1974, when he was 41. Four years later, he combined his love of old science-fiction pulp with his love of Nazism to create The Turner Diaries, a fictional chronicle of a successful fascist revolution set in the United States in the early 1990s. The book has subsequently become a staple of far-right propaganda, inspiring a terrorist group called The Order, which murdered three people in 1983. Timothy McVeigh was also a fan; his attack on a federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168. Kathleen Belew, a historian of far-right movements, saw Pierce’s influence in the fascist elements behind the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, as well.

The publication of The Turner Diaries marked a notable transformation in far-right messaging. J. M. Berger, who studies extremist ideologies, said that Pierce and the National Alliance “downplayed swastikas and goose-stepping, and instead focused on creating propaganda capable of sidestepping mainstream media gatekeepers [and] appealing to broader audiences.” There is little in the way of explicit proselytizing in The Turner Diaries. Instead, it embeds the reader in a narrative popularized by decades of dystopian fantasies. Pierce was himself a science-fiction fan, and his novel takes advantage of the overlap between science fiction and far-right conspiracy theories to cast white racists as the kind of virile, self-sacrificing heroes any fan might recognize from numerous books, movie, and comics. Pierce radicalized readers in part by radicalizing the tropes of popular pulp.

The Turner Diaries is presented as the diary of Earl Turner, written in the early 1990s. Turner is radicalized when the Jewish-controlled System passes laws outlawing firearms. He joins the Organization, a far-right terrorist group dedicated to overthrowing the System through violence. In his role as Organization man, he builds communication networks and bombs, and he blows up federal buildings. He also is involved in the “liberation” of California, and helps to systematically murder all Jewish and nonwhite people in the state. The Organization detonates nuclear bombs in major US cities and precipitates a nuclear conflict with Russia; Turner sacrifices himself in a suicide bombing of the Pentagon. An epilogue set 100 years later, in 2099, reports that the fascist revolution was successful, and that all nonwhite people on the planet have been exterminated.

A cold recitation of this genocidal plot is obviously disturbing. But Pierce frames and justifies the violence through standard science-fiction ideas and references. For example, he borrows tropes from racist, colonialist serials to claim that faced with food shortages, Black people naturally turn to cannibalism and barbecue and eat defenseless white children. (Turner is careful to take pictures of the remains for “troop indoctrination” — a smug meta-acknowledgment that Pierce has staged the scene explicitly for propaganda purposes.)

Pierce is also aware that many fantasy and science-fiction narratives contrast a white, noble hero against twisted, decadent, racial enemies who must be exterminated. The orcs in Tolkien’s Middle-earth are an obvious example. So are the aliens in martial bug-hunt novels like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985). H. P. Lovecraft, who was himself virulently racist, describes tentacular horrors from outside space and time whose terrestrial servants include “a queer and evil-looking crew of Kanakas and half-castes.” Pierce uses similar language in describing Turner’s disgust at liberal America’s “cosmopolitan racial goulash.” Norman Spinrad’s novel The Iron Dream (1972) parodies the fascist tendencies in science fiction by having a blond fascist with a mighty magic rod murder his way through shoals of mutant monstrosities in the name of — the Sons of the Swastika! Pierce’s actual fascist diatribe is barely more subtle. 

Another staple of postwar science fiction is the paranoid anticommunist infiltration narrative. That common plot dovetails perfectly with paranoid anticommunist antisemitic conspiracy theories dating back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 forgery which purports to describe a Jewish plot to take over the world.

You can see the close link between antisemitism and science-fiction conspiracy theories in the reception of John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). The film is about skull-faced aliens in human skin suits who flood television and billboards with subliminal propaganda urging people to buy, fornicate, and consume. Carpenter intended it as a critique of Reagan-era capitalism, but it was quickly (and to his horror) picked up by the far right, who saw in it an analogy for Jewish control of the media.

What neo-Nazis saw in They Live, Pierce sees in many other science-fiction texts. The Turner Diaries nods to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but it’s also inspired by narratives like Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955) and Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951). These novels imagine aliens who land on earth and take over the minds and appearance of humans in order to further their plots of global domination. Body Snatchers has been made into four movies, just counting the direct remakes, and the story line has become so prevalent it practically has the power of myth. People know the tropes well enough that The Turner Diaries doesn’t even really need to explain how Jewish people are doing whatever it is they’re supposedly doing to exert control over government and culture. The brave white hero in pulp is always fighting some disgusting, hidden, cunning, insidious foe. Pierce just says the evil in question is Jewish people, rather than a space spore.

Perhaps the most important aspect of fascist propaganda that Pierce links to science-fiction tropes is the reversal of persecuted and persecutor. Nazi ideology was built on the myth that Jewish people wanted to exterminate Aryans, when in fact it was Hitler who wanted to exterminate Jews. The justification for the Holocaust was projection and reversal — do it to them before they do it to us.

This transposition of oppressed and oppressor has long been central within science-fiction narratives. H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), to take just one example, is about a Martian invasion of Britain that is explicitly modeled on the British invasion of Tasmania. It’s a colonial nightmare, built around the terror that what the British visited on others might be inflicted upon them, in reverse.

As David Higgins notes in his recent book, Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood, reverse colonization fantasies like these are now an almost obsessive feature of science fiction. Red Dawn (1984) is an alternate history in which Russia, Cuba, and Central American communists invade middle America, just as Americans invaded Vietnam. Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints (1973) is about a vast immigrant influx into France: it’s a narrative about people from out there taking over the metropole and imposing their culture, when in reality it was France which colonized large swathes of the globe and forced others to adopt its government, language, and priorities.

Raspail’s book is openly racist. Like The Turner Diaries, it’s popular in white nationalist circles — former Trump advisor Steve Bannon is a fan. Even less obviously ugly narratives, though, appropriate nonwhite experiences of oppression for white characters. The original 1960s Stan Lee/Jack Kirby X-Men, for example, featured an all-white team of mutants who were despised and ostracized for being racially different. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about an authoritarian government that bans reading. The protagonists are all white, even though the Jim Crow South was fighting to prevent Black people from receiving adequate education at the time when Bradbury was writing in 1953.

In the work of Wells, Raspail, Heinlein, or Stan Lee, white people are oppressed and targeted, and nonwhite people are erased. It’s not much of a leap to The Turner Diaries, where white people are targeted specifically for being white. Historically, under slavery and Jim Crow, white men sexually assaulted Black women with impunity. But in Pierce’s topsy-turvy world, Black men are rapists, and no one will defend white women for fear of being labeled as “racist.” Similarly, Pierce (like Hitler before him) believes that Jewish people are trying to murder all white people. This supposedly justifies murdering Jewish people in large numbers.

The racist association of Black men with sexual violence and criminality isn’t some sort of innovation, obviously; you can see the same stereotypes in The Birth of a Nation (1915). Is Pierce taking aspects of racist propaganda and turning them into pulp? Or is he building on elements of pulp to create Nazi propaganda? The conflation of the two is so seamless it’s impossible to say.

There is a multitude of antiracist, antifascist science fiction and fantasy, often written by Black creators like Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, N. K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor. But the connection between The Turner Diaries and so many of its SF predecessors and peers suggests that extremism in the genre — and in the US in a larger sense — is not some sort of alien imposition. Aliens didn’t infiltrate the United States and take over our television broadcasts. Rather, fascism and science fiction have had a long, ugly dialogue, influencing and building on each other.

Fascism can be hard to recognize, or easy to dismiss, precisely because it’s part of the popular imagination. It tells us a story we already know. When Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene says Jewish-controlled space lasers were responsible for California forest fires, it’s easy to dismiss this as a goofy pulp fantasy. But The Turner Diaries show that our dreams, however goofy or familiar, aren’t necessarily innocent. They can lead us to hate, or to murder.


Noah Berlatsky is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics from Rutgers University Press.

LARB Contributor

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, from Rutgers University Press.


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