The 1978 novel, which Amazon recently removed from its site, depicts a right-wing assault on the Capitol. Scholars say the parallels with last week’s insurrection are clear and chilling.
In “The Turner Diaries,” a group of white supremacists attacks the Capitol in an effort to overthrow the U.S. government. Dozens are killed in the assault, including members of Congress and their staffers. But in the insurrectionists’ view, the greater victory is symbolic.
“The real value of all our attacks today lies in the psychological impact, not the immediate casualties,” the 1978 novel’s narrator, Earl Turner, writes in his diary. “They learned this afternoon that not one of them is beyond our reach.”
Since its publication by the neo-Nazi leader William Luther Pierce, “The Turner Diaries” has become one of the most influential texts among white nationalists and right-wing extremists. It has inspired dozens of acts of violence, and has been held up as a blueprint for how to enact a violent insurrection.
Last week, as rioters broke into the Capitol, incited by President Trump, some saw frightening parallels with the events described in the novel. Experts who track rhetoric on the far right say the book has long been a reference point for white supremacists who see the government as an oppressive force to be overthrown.
“Many of the ideas that are central to ‘The Turner Diaries’ have turned into memes and proliferated online in right-wing media,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There are books that are required reading for people who are enmeshed in the movement, and ‘The Turner Diaries’ is at the top of the list.”
On social media and in militant chat rooms on sites like 4chan, Telegram and Stormfront, some users celebrated last week’s violence and likened it to “the Day of the Rope,” a mass hanging that occurs in “The Turner Diaries.” Some rioters who live-streamed the assault made references to hanging politicians, and strung up nooses and erected a gallows outside the Capitol.
“The turner diaries mentioned this. Keep reading,” one user posted on Telegram in reference to the attack on the Capitol.
On Monday, Amazon removed the novel from its website. It had previously been available for purchase with a disclaimer identifying it as “a racist, white supremacist fantasy” that had inspired domestic terrorists.
“As a bookseller, we think it is important to offer this infamous work because of its historical significance and educational role in the understanding and prevention of racism and acts of terrorism,” the note said. The book also disappeared from Abe Books, a used and rare books site owned by Amazon.
Part of the book’s appeal to right-wing radical groups stems from its seemingly far-fetched plot, in which a small group of insurgents terrorizes the most powerful people in the world with attacks that rally other white people to the cause. Though it’s a work of fiction rather than an ideological treatise or tactical manual, many domestic terrorists have tried to emulate the attacks in the book.
Over the decades, the novel has been cited as inspiration in at least 40 terrorist attacks and hate crimes, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to J.M. Berger, a researcher and analyst who studies extremist activities in the United States.
“We see a lot of cases where people have taken some element of the book and tried to play them out,” Berger said. “‘The Turner Diaries’ is part of the background noise that created this moment.”
Fiction has often fed into right-wing propaganda movements, said Seyward Darby, author of “Sisters in Hate,” a book about women in the white nationalist movement. In addition to “The Turner Diaries,” influential right-wing novels include Jean Raspail’s “The Camp of the Saints,” a dystopian depiction of immigrants overrunning Europe, and “Hunter,” another novel by Pierce that valorizes a white supremacist who targets interracial couples and civil rights activists.
“Before the internet, that was how they disseminated a lot of information,” Darby said. “What you’ve seen is a lot of these texts finding new life online.”
Pierce, a physicist who grew up in Texas, was radicalized in the 1960s, and he joined the American Nazi Party. He later formed his own group, the National Alliance, which called for an all-white homeland and the genocide of Jews and other races. Pierce led the organization until his death in 2002, but his lasting influence took hold through his fiction.
He began publishing “The Turner Diaries” in 1975, as a serial in the group’s newspaper, “Attack!” The narrative, presented as found diary entries, follows white people who form terrorist cells and start a race war. The attacks they launch include a bombing of F.B.I. headquarters, a mortar attack on the Capitol and “the Day of the Rope,” in which “race traitors” are lynched, including “the politicians, the lawyers, the businessmen, the TV newscasters, the newspaper reporters and editors, the judges, the teachers, the school officials, the ‘civic leaders,’ the bureaucrats, the preachers.” Eventually, the group takes control of the United States and carries out genocide on a global scale.
Pierce published the chapters as a full novel in 1978, under the pen name Andrew Macdonald, and right-wing organizations seized on the story’s message that violence was a necessary means to protect whites.
Since its publication, the book has been sold at gun shows and circulated online, and it has frequently been tied to domestic terrorist attacks and racist violence. In the 1980s, a white supremacist group called itself the Order, and was closely modeled on an organization in the novel.
Timothy McVeigh, one of the architects of the Oklahoma City bombing, had pages of the novel in his truck. One of the men who carried out the murder of a Black man in Texas in 1998 cited “The Turner Diaries.” So did a terrorist in Britain who targeted Black people and gay people in 1999 with shrapnel bombs, killing three and injuring some 140.
More recently, the book has cropped up online in messages posted by far-right groups like the Proud Boys and has been referenced by extremists who sought to overturn the presidential election. A man in Staten Island was arrested in November after posting violent messages that referenced “The Turner Diaries,” including an anti-Semitic threat directed at Senator Chuck Schumer and a message about his desire to “blow up” an F.B.I. building.
Scholars and historians have expressed concern about the book’s availability in the United States. As more social media networks crack down on hate speech and calls to violence, some extremists may turn to books as a way to spread their ideology.
Before it was removed from Amazon, “The Turner Diaries” had received hundreds of five-star reviews from readers extolling its message. One edition that was previously for sale, at $24, was published by National Vanguard Books, the publishing operation of a white nationalist group.
The historian Kathleen Belew, author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” said that while the novel is valuable as a lens for understanding the motivations of white nationalists, it must be put in context when it is read and studied.
“It’s a book that has been used to kill a lot of people, over and over and over,” she said. “People should understand that’s what it is.”
Ben Decker and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.