March 9, 2017
Riding on a Portland bus one time, I was talking to one of my PSU students and said, “I was at a Klan rally once…” and I think all talk on the bus stopped. My student knew I was referring my years of undercover work in the white supremacist world, but the passengers on the Number 8 likely thought I was one of the racist recruiters that pop up in the city looking for fresh cuts for the coming race war.
It’s impossible to count the number of white supremacists I’ve interviewed over the last 30 years. Over 200, for sure. Some of that was at covert Klan rallies in Georgia, in dark strip bars in Oregon, and in the bright light of the mainstream media. (Somebody please put my appearance on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show on YouTube. It’s a Klanriffic hoot!) I’ve interviewed anti-government militia members in a cabin in Montana and Aryan murderers in a Texas prison where I had to wear a Kevlar vest (to protect my vital organs, the guard said). And I’ve interviewed grandsons of real Nazis in Berlin, standing next to the rubble of the wall. And I’ve heard it all.
In qualitative research we call it “data saturation.” When you start hearing the same thing over and over again, you’ve probably got enough information to start building a theory. Did you know the world is controlled by a secret Jewish cabal? Did you know that Jews in the music business want white kids to listen to rap music so they won’t listen to their own “white” music? (Yodeling, perhaps.) Did you know that if a white woman has intercourse with a black man, his sperm is so potent, any child she has after that will be part black? (I always thought that one was a pretty good case for black supremacy.) These people were mastering alternative facts before Sean Spicer knew how to chew gum.
People often ask, “How can you sit down and talk to these Nazis?” Well, beer helps. And growing up in a Klan town, like Stone Mountain, Georgia, doesn’t hurt. Many of these “extremists” are a lot like the people I grew up with, a few who went off and joined the Klan or other racist groups. They are, at their core, human beings who are trying to make sense of the world with the tools they’ve been given. And that’s why there is hope.
When I started interviewing racist skinheads in the 1980s, people would ask me, “What happens to these people when they grow up?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. Talk to me in 30 years and I’ll tell you.” Now there is a whole world of former racist activists who are actively engaged in the other side, working to undue the hate they once spread. They have written amazing books, like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, and formed vitally important organizations, Life After Hate. Individually and collectively they talk to young people about the mistakes and thinking errors they made that caused them to burn up valuable time in their lives while undermining the essential peace in our communities. The best person to talk about the problems with living in the extreme right-wing is somebody who used to live in the extreme right-wing.
When Trump launched his political campaign in 2015, it was painfully clear he was borrowing the playbook from white supremacists. My blog post on the parallels of Trump’s rhetoric and what you’re likely to hear at a KKK rally has over 270,000 reads and has been posted across the world. (I was even interviewed by a newspaper in Spain about its assertions.) In the time since then, I’ve written about how a good number of his followers share many qualities with the rank and file followers of neo-fascist subcultures.
I’ve been honored to help many people leave the world of hate. They use their experience as both a source of reflection and advocacy. I have to think the same will be true with many Trump followers. That as the true agenda of his administration becomes clear, many of those people who voted for him, including people in my family, will see the thinking errors and reject his dangerous demagoguery. The best people to talk about the dangers of supporting Donald Trump will be people who used to support Donald Trump. Just like inside every white supremacist is a potential committed anti-racist activist, inside every Trump supporter is a potential social justice warrior. The threat of Trump to core American values is just too serious to not try.
I want to briefly outline a few traps that both white supremacists and Trump fans (and plenty of liberals) get caught in. Maybe these issues can be addressed when attempting to appeal to the humanity of either. (By the way, I could write a book on each of these. But here are 3 quickies.)
When we are young we learn in opposites. Up/down, good/bad, hot/cold. It’s been something of a miracle that I’ve convinced my 2-year-old daughter that there is a category called “warm.” But when we’re kids, the Good Guys are always good and the Bad Guys are always bad (and look it). Similarly, we think of gender as “opposite sexes.” As we get older, things become more nuanced and endlessly shaded in grey, depending on context. Are those guys terrorists or freedom fighters? It depends what side you are on. Is that person male or female? Try asking them how they identify.
Many of the people I studied never graduated to shades of grey. Figuring out the context was too much work. They’d say things like, “How come black people can use the N word but I can’t?” Everything associated with white was good, and non-white was bad. Men were men and women were girls. Their leaders were infallible (until they weren’t) and anything outside their tiny subculture was perverted and corrupt. Stereotypes were absolute and they actively looked for anything to confirm them (“Did you hear about that black guy who raped the white girl?”) and ignored anything that invalidated the stereotype (like their own white criminality).
Numerous studies have backed this up. Feminist Patricia Hill Collins has long examined how dichotomous thinking fosters racism and the research supports the idea that people who see the world in black and white have a hard time empathizing with people they don’t see as members of their group. A 2012 study found this type of “low-effort thinking” pushed people towards the conservative end of the political spectrum. It’s just easier. John Wayne never worried about “nuance,” right?
Of course this is the hallmark of the Trump supporter who hates Obamacare but wants to keep the benefits gained under the Affordable Care Act. (Anything associated with Obama is “bad.”) In Trumpland, you are either with us or against us. America first! There’s no need for diplomacy when your arsenal is bigger than theirs. Trump was the guy who said the show Blackish was racist because you couldn’t have a show called Whiteish (which would be 98% of the shows on TV). And Ben Carson’s goofy comments about immigration and slavery are no different than Obama’s. Don’t ask me to look at the “context.”
On its surface, it seems moronic, but we all engage in some type of low-effort thinking. I still think anyone who plays for the New York Yankees must be care more about money than the game. Could I be wrong?
It’s a conspiracy, I tell ya!
That low-effort thinking paves the way for conspiracy theories. Nazis are the master of this. It all goes back to their hackneyed belief that events across the planet are controlled by a secret gang of Jewish rabbis. Why is circumcision the norm in the United States? Those rabbis want to lob off gentile foreskins to force the goyim into submission. They’ve got a million of these.
The conspiracy theory orders their world and simplifies it. A white student fails social studies? It’s because he or she is being forced a “multicultural curriculum meant to make whites feel guilty.” A white dude can’t find a girlfriend? It’s because the Zionist Occupation Government gets non-white women to die their hair blonde so you can’t tell who is truly “white.” (A Neo-Nazi once shot up a bunch of beauty parlors for this exact reason.) The theory explains literally EVERYTHING. No context or thinking required.
You have to think Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Donald Trump, the modern master of the alt-right conspiracy theory lifted straight from Alex Jones’ Infowars. From “Obama’s birth certificate” to “Obama tapped my phones!,” it’s an endlessly fact-free world and his supporters love it. The Mexican government is conspiring to send its rapists across the border and the “fake media” is conspiring to make him look bad. The definition of “fake news” has been repurposed to mean anything that’s not favorable coverage of his ego-driven administration, sending his loyal troops to get their information from “real news” sources, like Breitbart and the National Enquirer. Conspiracy theories about Muslims and refugees and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the dumbing down of America. Where have we seen this kind of cultural thinking before? Hint: You won’t find the answer at Breitbart.
Inside the bubble
All this leads to something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, life under the dome. (And not the cancelled CBS show I was briefly addicted to.) Hate groups work a lot like cults. The flow of information inside the bubble confirms all biases and anything outside the bubble must be avoided, including that gay uncle and cousin who dated a black guy, as well as the classmate who went off to college and was brainwashed by the liberal Jewish (or Jewish liberal) education system. Under the dome their is complete accord – that everyone outside the dome sucks.
That echo chamber is a powerful force on social media where it’s easy to mute a noisy neighbor who has upsetting viewpoints. I’ll admit I’ve blocked a few Trumpies this past year, mainly because I don’t want to waste time arguing. I’m happy to engage, but anytime I see the word “libtard,” I just close my laptop and make a sandwich. That’s not a person who wants a reasoned conversation.
While there are echo chambers on both the right and left, research shows conservatives are more likely to seek out news sources that confirm their own political positions while liberals are more likely to seek out opposing views. (I always enjoy a quick dip in the Fox News crazy house.) Conservatives tend to be more distrustful of anything coming from outside their bubble. There’s little chance for an alternative perspective if your Trump-loving dad thinks the New York Times is “fake news” and would rather proclaim, “Ditto, Rush!”
Learning from ex-Nazis
The path out of the white supremacist world is often a very personal one. I’ve published about male racists connecting with females who impressed upon them the value of empathy and their own potential victim status as women. Frank Meeink, former racist skinhead leader, has written about how life routinely put people in his path who shattered all his stereotypes. One of my friends was involved in a notorious racist murder in Portland and her conversion started when she befriended her black cellmate and began listening to stories from outside her bubble.
Even the most hard-core Trump supporter has potential of moving to a radically different position. We’re already seeing scores of disillusioned Trump voters who see that they’ve been duped. If we can help move others out of the black/white thinking, away from the simplistic conspiracy theories, and out of their echo chamber, the possibilities are endless. They’ll reflect back on the days when they were chanting, “Build a wall!” and “Lock her up!” and shake their heads. Instead of pushing them further into a dark corner, we can walk them out to the light.
This piece is dedicated to my family and friends who voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016. It’s 2017 and the door is open.