What actually happens is far more subtle and complex.
Kevin MacDonald, a Cal State Long Beach psychology professor described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the most important living anti-Semite,” answers the door timidly enough to be felled by a breeze. Tall and gaunt-looking with wire-framed eyeglasses set against wispy gray hair, he looks frail. During several hours of conversation, MacDonald warms to his subject—the pervasively negative impact of Jews in America—yet almost seems to cry at the mention of his critics. “They ruined my life,” Orange County’s grandfatherly extremist sighs. “It’s been emotionally wrenching.”
Then we take a spin in his ’58 Olds.
MacDonald wasn’t always famous for his controversial theories about Jews. Back in Oshkosh, Wis., his father was a policeman, his mother a part-time secretary, and MacDonald himself a fervent altar boy at the local Catholic church. In high school, he played basketball and had a paper route; eventually he attended a local university.
Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he got out of town. “Kennedy inspired lots of people,” explains MacDonald, now 69. “He made them want to do something, and I just felt like I shouldn’t spend any more time in such a small town.”
What he ultimately did do might have made Kennedy wince. Through the late ’60s and early ’70s, though, MacDonald remained a fairly typical student of the era. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he wrote for the campus newspaper, participated in anti-Vietnam War sit-ins, and discussed movement politics with Jewish roommates on the far left. By 1970, when protestors famously bombed the university’s Army Mathematics Research Center, killing one graduate researcher and injuring at least three others, MacDonald—who by then had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy—already was beginning to drift. Temporarily opting out of politics, he adopted a bohemian lifestyle and pursued a career in the arts before returning to academia at the University of Connecticut, where he received a master’s in biology in ’77 and a doctorate in bio-behavioral sciences in ’81.
About the time the professor says he was growing a beard, smoking pot, and trying to be a professional jazz musician, I was having an encounter with my uncle that I’ve never forgotten. Uncle Joe had survived Nazi Germany, but the tattooed numbers on his forearm testified constantly that he’d been in a concentration camp. After the war he miraculously made it to the United States and opened a women’s clothing boutique with his wife, Claire, also a camp survivor and my mother’s sister. And though I hadn’t seen much of them growing up, one weekend they invited me to a family gathering at their home in Philadelphia.
By then I’d undergone a transformation similar to MacDonald’s. Once the clean-cut president of my high school Key Club, I’d attended a small college in Vermont where I had turned into a scruffy radical, sympathetic to displaced Palestinians. I don’t recall how the argument at my uncle’s house started, but it ended with me, using the wisdom of my 21 years, delivering a discourse on the evils of Zionism to a rapt audience of observant Jews—including the local rabbi—many of whom were Holocaust survivors. I remember the reaction as if it were yesterday: Dozens of creased faces staring at me in stunned silence.
A few awkward seconds ticked by before one of them leaned forward. Uncle Joe put his elbow on the table, the same arm bearing the infamous tattoo, and pinned me with his eyes. “Scratch a goy,” he said, using a less-than-flattering term for non-Jews, “you got a fascist.” He inched closer, and I could see the pain and anger in his eyes. Then he said it again, and everyone knew the party was over.
It took many years before I could even begin to grasp the agony from which that sentiment arose. MacDonald, on the other hand, seems to have embraced it early as the defining characteristic of Jews. He says he can’t pinpoint exactly when he began viewing the religion’s adherents as a race set apart by its “hostility” to other cultures; probably sometime after he began looking into other fields. Eventually he found evolutionary psychology, an area of study that, among other things, examines the success strategies employed by various groups. Before that he’d studied wolf cubs and, later, child development. He has taught evolutionary psychology since 1985 at Cal State Long Beach, where he has full tenure.
His initial focus on Jews, the professor says, was purely academic. In the early ’90s, “it occurred to me that, if I was going to study groups, what better group to study than the Jews? They appealed to me because they are so cohesive.” So he began reading up on the subject, everything from the Old Testament to volumes on Jewish history, culture, and lore. Gradually he developed the theories he later promulgated in numerous articles, blog entries, and books.
What that theory boils down to is this: The evolutionary strategy of American Jews is to destabilize the white society to which they are hostile by supporting immigration policies designed to undermine traditional American values. If allowed to succeed, MacDonald argues, this ultimately will render white Americans a minority in their own country.
MacDonald uses population trends to support his theses. According to projections published last year by the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s minorities—now 37 percent of the population—are expected to increase to 57 percent by 2060. This historic shift, the bureau’s studies suggest, will be driven, among other things, by the emergence of international migration as the principal driver of U.S. population growth, a development MacDonald believes is steered by Jews intent on political and economic domination.
“It’s no surprise,” he says, “that Jewish interests are in conflict with my own.”
I’d experienced some religion-based conflicts myself. The first time I remember sensing one was when I arrived home five minutes late from elementary school to find my mother in tears on the phone. Convinced that I’d been kidnapped or worse, she’d frantically called her friends. Later the pattern recurred; one night when uniformed police officers knocked on our door responding to a neighbor’s complaint about noise, she cowered in a back bedroom until they were gone.
Over the years I pieced together the story, though my mother seldom spoke of it. As a Jewish child in 1930s Germany, she always had feared arrest. Finally the worst actually happened: Mother was away at school when the Gestapo came for her family. Though she eventually was smuggled out of the country to spend 10 years as a refugee in Japanese-occupied China, the others weren’t so lucky; her parents and a brother died in concentration camps, while another brother escaped, only to forever disappear. So whenever a family member of my generation was late, she instinctively assumed the worst.
Growing up, the overwhelming message I got from Mom was that the world wasn’t safe. So, although we were Jewish, we always had a Christmas tree prominently displayed each December. The reason, I understood, was to fit in; being different could be dangerous. Mother mellowed as she grew older, eventually feeling safe enough to celebrate Hanukkah and even join a temple. None of it, though, was ever as important to her as being president of the PTA. She was, above all else, the proud parent of American sons.
Back in Laguna Hills, the Olds’ ancient engine coughs before finally jerking to life. MacDonald stares through the rear-view mirror across the car’s vast black-finned exterior, and then cautiously pulls into the wide, deserted street. We’re bound for the post office just three miles away, he informs me, lightly brushing the rim of a baseball cap he’s donned for the trip. At the speed he’s driving, this could take all day. The professor makes good use of the time by continuing the saga of his intellectual journey.
He says he became a high-profile figure after testifying as an expert witness for a well-known British Holocaust denier at a much-publicized London trial in 2000. David Irving had sued American author Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher for libel, claiming she had defamed him by writing that he falsified history. Despite MacDonald’s testimony that Jews systematically undermine the interests of gentiles, Irving lost. MacDonald, on the other hand, became a local—and much maligned—celebrity as fellow professors and university administrators became aware of his views.
For a while things simmered, mostly in vigorous online debates among Cal State Long Beach professors who almost unanimously slammed MacDonald’s writings. The situation escalated after the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a researcher to the campus in 2006. The resulting article, published in the center’s Intelligence Report quarterly the following year, was scathing.
“MacDonald’s three-volume set of books on Jews and their destructive habits is devoured by anti-Semites the world over,” wrote Heidi Beirich, the center’s intelligence project director. “Not since Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ have anti-Semites had such a comprehensive guide to what’s wrong with ‘the Jews.’… Instead of depending on Hitler, MacDonald has provided today’s neo-Nazis with a whole new set of reasons for why Jewish behavior and culture are a threat to whites.”
In the months that followed, similar articles appeared on the website of the Anti-Defamation League—which added MacDonald to its list of American extremists—and in a host of print publications. The reaction on campus was swift and dramatic: Department after department publicly condemned his work, as did his school’s academic senate. Fellow professors shunned him and, on at least one occasion, student protestors invaded his classroom.
“It was awful,” MacDonald tells me, scowling at the windshield. “I’d go to campus with a huge rock in my stomach, feeling like just disappearing.” For months he’d hole up in his office, go to class, and then slink back into hiding. Walking across the quad was tortuous because, he says, people were staring. So he became a recluse, and felt plagued by chronic anxiety. Colleagues with whom he once dined in the faculty cafeteria no longer wanted to be seen with him. With his guts churning, he anxiously waited for summer.
Then a seismic event occurred in 2008: Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first nonwhite president and, after a long decline, white supremacists began to re-emerge. In a joint 2009 assessment, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI reported that “right-wing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues,” including the economic downturn and the election of Obama. In the first three years of the administration, according to statistics compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of anti-government “patriot” groups—including armed militia—grew by 755 percent, from 149 at the end of ’08 to 1,360 in ’12. Echoing the government report, an unsigned article on the center’s website says this surge “has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of nonwhite immigrants, and the diminishing white majority as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.”
Riding the crest of that wave was Kevin MacDonald who, three years ago, co-founded an activist organization—originally based in Orange County—called the American Third Position Party. After decades of academic inconsequence, he finally decided he had a horse in this race. A year later, in an effort to gain wider appeal, the group changed its name to the American Freedom Party and moved its national headquarters to Las Vegas. Though he claims not to be actively involved, MacDonald is named on the party’s website as one of it’s directors. That website declares the group’s intention “to be a force to be reckoned with by the 2016 presidential election, if not sooner … .” The strategy: create a viable third party by appealing to disaffected Republicans and white independents who feel threatened by what they perceive as unhampered immigration.
“We unabashedly promote white interests,” says William Johnson, an affable Los Angeles attorney who chairs the group’s board and characterizes its membership as “modest but growing faster than the Republican Party’s.” Though the organization has no official position on Jews, Johnson says, he considers MacDonald’s theories “well thought-out and well-reasoned.”
The professor sees the battle for American white supremacy as all but lost. He says he harbors no strong opinions regarding the European Holocaust, saying he would not wish to repeat it. He describes its causes as “very complex.”
“Anti-Semitism doesn’t necessarily lead to a Holocaust,” MacDonald says. “That’s a whole other ballgame.”
If he were president, MacDonald says, he would immediately halt all immigration to the U.S., deport illegal immigrants, and work toward the voluntary repatriation of those who entered legally. “We need to make clear that this is a white European country,” MacDonald says. He also would end America’s “knee-jerk” support for Israel and expose the inordinate power of American Jews.
There’s a relatively recent time in history, of course, when similar ideas put forth by another small group of rabble-rousers that no one took seriously seized the moment to become a major world force. In 1919, when Adolf Hitler attended his first meeting of what would become the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, more commonly known as the Nazis, it had fewer than 60 members. Also casting its mission as defensive—against economic ruin and various other political, social, and ethical ills caused by the Jewish “intent” to survive and expand at the expense of Germans—the party eventually took control. You know the rest of that story.
In 1980, more than six decades after that seminal gathering, I returned to the country where it occurred with my 65-year-old mother. It was the only pilgrimage she ever made back to Germany and, though the visit was short, it profoundly affected us both.
As Americans we were allowed to cross the border into what then was East Berlin, for the 146-mile train trek to a town known as Karl-Marx-Stadt. When my mother was born there in 1915, it had been called Chemnitz; the name to which it later reverted following the fall of communism in 1990. During our visit, though, the city was still strewn with Communist Party banners and was a dark place with suspicious-looking characters.
Mom showed me the silk stocking factory her father had owned. I took pictures of her pointing to the balcony where she’d played as a kid. Once, she said, someone saw her up there laughing as a procession of soldiers marched by. The laughter ended abruptly when an SS officer pounded on the door, demanding to take her away.
“My mother screamed and begged him not to,” she recalled. “She said, ‘I will punish her more than you ever could,’ and beat me to prove that she would. Finally, he went away satisfied, and everyone cried.”
There were tears on this trip, too, when she met a stranger strolling in the park. About the same age, the two women talked quietly in their native tongue, and then embraced like long-lost sisters. Mom had shared her story, she later explained, and the woman—who was not Jewish and had lived in Chemnitz all her life—began weeping. In the end, they wept together.
It’s hard to imagine that the man running errands in his ancient Olds is “dangerous,” but according to Beirich, the law center researcher who studied him in 2006, MacDonald is a threat because of his far-reaching influence. “The books are dangerous because they’re smart. MacDonald has inspired lots of people to get involved, and we’re watching him like a hawk.”
Melissa Carr, regional director of the Orange County-Long Beach office of the Anti-Defamation League, agrees. “His significance is that he carries the title of professor,” she says. “His ‘evolutionary psychology’ is based on nothing except his repeating it over and over. There’s no truth behind it.” Yet he’s become an “influencer,” she says, by reaching broader audiences through the Internet.
Some of MacDonald’s Laguna Hills neighbors express surprise at hearing such talk about the low-key professor living quietly among them. “He’s just an average person,” says one who has lived nearby for many years. “I know his name only from his mail being delivered by mistake to my house.”
Here in the comfortable expanses of South County, where the median annual household income is more than $82,000 and the median home worth nearly $525,000, MacDonald lives unobtrusively in a five-bedroom house backed by a shimmering pool, with his wife, Melissa, and two German shepherds, Branson and Schroeder. It’s a bookish sort of life spent mostly alone in an office where he conducts research and works daily on writing projects.
In addition to books, articles, and blog postings, MacDonald edits two academic journals, both dealing with politics, Western culture, ethnicity, and race. Now semiretired, he teaches one semester a year at the university, which includes classes in evolutionary psychology, psychology of child and adolescent development, and social and personality development. He says he avoids discussing Jews in class to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism that might violate his contract. He also gardens, works out, and occasionally visits two grown sons, neither of whom he says share his views nor have read his books. One, in San Francisco, has a toddler daughter on whom MacDonald dotes.
And then there’s the black ’58 Olds he keeps parked across the street. “I’ve kept it going,” he says. “I do a little work on it, change the spark plugs. It needs new upholstery and paint; I drive it to the post office or the grocery store and back.”
As if underscoring the normalcy of his life, he takes a break from our talk to play a passable rendition of the 1939 Oscar Hammerstein hit “All the Things You Are” on the keyboard near his desk. As abruptly as it started, the recital suddenly stops, and the conversation continues.
The closest I ever came to meeting a Nazi was when I lived with the son of one. His name was Klaus and we met at a cafeteria in Berlin. It was 1970 and I was on a quest to find my roots, while Klaus was interested in extending his. Both of us also were long-haired hippies, which is why we hit it off.
Klaus invited me to occupy a couch in the small flat he shared with his wife, and for several months I did.
During one of our late-night heart-to-hearts, he mentioned his family’s past. His father, Klaus said, had been a kind and caring man whose wise counsel he missed daily. He also had been a card-carrying Nazi. And yet there were tears in my friend’s eyes as he spoke lovingly of his late dad. Seeing that emotion pushed me across an invisible threshold; I realized then that even Nazis were human.
I remembered this many years later as I drove down the 405 Freeway toward Laguna Hills to meet a man who represented so much that I loathed. How would I feel looking into a face I was hard-wired to hate?
MacDonald claims not to be a neo-Nazi, and probably isn’t, at least not in the traditional sense of feeling superior to Jews. Nor did he strike me as particularly hateful, though his theories clearly provide comfort to many who are. In the end I regarded my encounter with the monkish professor as just another marker, one more step in a long personal journey away from the primeval pain of the past. My fervent hope—and firm belief—is that the path is not a circle.
If I could speak to my uncle, the Holocaust survivor, today, I’d tell him this: “You’re wrong, Uncle Joe. Scratch anybody, and you get blood.”
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Photograph by Jason Wallis
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.