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Ropes, Accelerationism, and the Enduring Legacy of the Turner Diaries

26 Apr 2024

This article includes extracts from God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America, published by Columbia University Press in January 2024.


The modern far-right canon is replete with European tracts such as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. But perhaps no book has had so pervasive or sustained an influence over violent far-right extremism in the United States as the dystopian 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries. Among the many memorable images of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, for instance, was the makeshift gallows erected outside the US Capitol building—an unmistakable evocation of The Turner Diaries summons to “hold accountable” America’s corrupt, self-serving elected representatives. The New York Times in 1984 described it as “the bible of an anti-Semitic movement”—a movement which that same year actually declared war on the US government. And, an important 1991 FBI memorandum cited The Turner Diaries as “a significant work and foundation document closely embraced by the leadership as well as rank and file members of the Right-wing, White Supremist [sic] Movement, also known as the ‘Christian Identity Movement.’” At least 200,000 and perhaps as many as 500,000 copies of the paperback have been sold and until a week after the attack on the Capitol, it could be purchased from In other words, since its impact among earlier generations of American violent far-right extremism, The Turner Diaries has had an almost unmatched influence in crystallising ideology and inspiring violence.

The Turner Diaries

The Turner Diaries recounts the eponymous hero’s two-year struggle after he and his “fellow patriots” are forced to go underground to defend themselves when a predatory government imposes the Cohen Act to seize all legally held firearms. After more than 800,000 of his fellow citizens are arrested, a thirty-five-year-old electrical engineer named Earl Turner joins The Organization, the movement spearheading this revolution-cum-race war. He embarks on a concerted terrorist campaign that includes the assassination of public officials, journalists, and prominent Jews; the wholesale murder of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities; the shooting down of commercial airliners; poisoning of municipal water supplies; and bombing of public utilities.

Among the more noteworthy incidents is The Day of the Rope, when The Organization carries out the mass public execution by hanging of an expansive category of alleged “race traitors” 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” and others; as well as the truck bombing of the FBI’s downtown Washington, DC, headquarters recounted in Chapter VI. An “epilog” records the consequences of Turner’s martyrdom: the final defeat and collapse of the United States.

The author, William Luther Pierce, denies that his intention in writing The Turner Diaries was to provide any kind of a blueprint or model for the violent, race revolution it depicts. But on numerous occasions the novel has done exactly that: inspiring emulation and imitation, with often tragic results. The 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building killing 168 persons, by a US Army and Gulf War veteran named Timothy McVeigh, is the most prominent example.

A Blueprint for Accelerationism

It is difficult to downplay the absolutely seminal role that The Turner Diaries played throughout McVeigh’s adult life and his terrorist trajectory. He appears to have learned of the book shortly after graduating from high school and then a few months later dropping out of a local two-year business college in the fall of 1986. McVeigh had embarked on an all-consuming project of self-education centered mostly around gun magazines and subsequently the various books he found advertised in them. In addition to books advocating a “combat mindset” and others detailing various survivalist techniques, he also discovered Pierce’s dystopian novel.

He would later claim that the book’s championing of Second Amendment rights, and the teaser on its back cover, often repeated in the ads— “What will you do when they [the US government] come to take your guns?”—is what caught his eye. More than a decade later, McVeigh’s sister, Jennifer, would testify in a Denver federal court how her brother had urged her to read the book and had specifically drawn her attention to those same words on the back cover. McVeigh was so enamoured with this novel that in his spare time, he had begun selling The Turner Diaries at local gun shows.

The Turner Diaries figured prominently in McVeigh’s 1996 trial. The government’s opening statement zeroed in on the seminal influence that the book had on McVeigh. Assistant US Attorney Joseph Hartzler described how McVeigh “read and believed in it like the Bible” and had used the novel as “a blueprint . . . for his planning and execution of the bombing in Oklahoma City.” Both McVeigh’s sister and best friend, among other witnesses, detailed his obsession with it. And, the prosecution’s closing statement twice referred to McVeigh’s fascination with a work of fiction that he truly “believed in.” Indeed, an envelope that McVeigh had left on the front seat of his getaway car contained pages from the book that he had carefully removed which had especially resonated with him. Among them was a page of The Turner Diaries containing the accelerationist instruction “to create unrest by destroying the population’s sense of security and their belief in the invincibility of the government.” Accelerationism is the decades-old anti-government strategy to foment violent chaos as a means to seize power—a plan that resonates equally strongly among American far-right terrorists today.

In fact, decades later the book would inspire a 20-year-old San Diego man, John Earnest, to attack a Jewish synagogue in Poway, California that killed one person and wounded three others. Earnest specifically sought to appeal to The Turner Diaries devotees: “Some of you have been waiting for The Day of the Rope for years. Well, The Day of the Rope is here right now—that is if you have the gnads [sic] to keep the ball rolling.” Ryan Palmeter, perpetrator of the August 2023 white supremacist Dollar General murders in Jacksonville, Florida, similarly wrote, “The Day of the Rope is coming, and my own regret is not living to see it.” In an article written for ICCT, terrorism expert J.M. Berger recorded over 200 deaths that can be directly linked to the book—a number that continues to rise.

Indeed, the accelerationist strategy that produced the Oklahoma City, Poway, and Jacksonville attacks, and again surfaced in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, is far from new, and its sulphurous legacy can be credited in part to Pierce, who always admitted to having written The Turner Diaries to urge and promote its use to overthrow the US government. Kelvin Pierce, son of the white supremacist ideologue, would later regretfully reflect on the parallels between the attack and his father’s book. “I guess when it really kind of popped into my consciousness is when I saw that noose, that was placed on the Capitol grounds,” he said. “I feel like our country is in very big trouble right now.”

Looking Ahead

In our new book, God, Guns, and Sedition we seek to situate accelerationism and terrorist incidents such as Oklahoma City and Poway in a broader historical trajectory within which January 6, 2021 was just the latest milestone. As the book reveals, this trajectory commenced in the late 1970s and gathered momentum throughout the 1980s. Its evolution slowed following the nation-wide law enforcement crackdown that resulted from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It was infused with new purpose after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and the economic recession which stunned the country that same year. And, it was subsequently weaponised in the 2010s by social media, and further empowered by the febrile rhetoric and polarisation of politics that crystallised both during and after Donald Trump was president and has continued to divide America. The Turner Diaries, in fact, would perhaps presciently predict the mechanisms of Trump’s grip on such large swathes of the United States, and his ability to direct them against the US Capitol on January 6. As Earl Turner, the protagonist, reflected, “Actually, it has been true all through history that only small portions of a population are either good or evil. The great bulk are morally neutral—incapable of distinguishing absolute right from absolute wrong—and they take their cue from whoever is on top at the moment.”

As a new presidential election approaches, whose outcome will likely again be doubted and contested, the same powerful, centrifugal forces championed and urged on by The Turner Diaries may yet surface with unpredictable consequences.


Bruce Hoffman is senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council of Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University. Jacob Ware is a research fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and DeSales University. Together, they are the authors of the forthcoming God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America.