Bridging the Great American Divide: Stepping back from the cliff that is Civil War II

February 1, 2021

I haven’t spoken to my father in six months. At the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, he posted on my Facebook page, “You can either support Antifa or be my son.” I replied, “You know I’ve worked to oppose fascism my entire adult life. I am, by definition Antifa – anti-fascist.” His response was to unfriend me on Facebook. Unfriended by my Trump-loving father.

I know this scenario has played out in thousands of ways in American families as the lines of division have been drawn up. “Trump cult” brother against “libtard” brother, QAnon daughter against “communist mother,” or in my case, Antifa son against “Anyone who listens to the mainstream media has drank the Kool Aid” father. I was going to call my dad after election day, and then after inauguration day. I keep putting it off because I don’t want to hear his fragile old white man “sky is falling/Joe Biden is too old” blather.  (For the record, Joe is eight months younger than my father.) If I can’t heal my relationship with my old man, how can America heal this chasm that separates us? And is this how families felt before that last civil war?

Like a lot of Americans, while watching the January 6 storming of the capitol (It’s its own Wikipedia entry now) unfold on TV, I more than half-expected to see someone I knew (including my older-than-Biden father). We might have heard some great calls for unity on Inauguration Day but it feels like we’re more divided than ever. Trump still holds the reigns of the GOP from his gilded palace in Florida. A large percentage of the 74 million people who voted for Trump think that a large percentage of the 81 million people who voted for Biden were dead people. And complete nut jobs like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green are either seen as prophets or complete nut jobs.

It seems so hard to cross this divide. The mother of one of my childhood friends (who I had a mad crush on when I was 12) just posted something about Biden letting in “illegal immigrants who carry diseases.” My first response was to call out her racism. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? But am I just driving her back into her fragile white castle? I’m good on a Facebook smackdown. I’ve got links to New York Times articles, persuasive statistics, hilarious memes, and, if all else fails, a facepalm gif.

Then I remember what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years, helping people leave the white supremacist movement (WSM). There are two ways to think of the WSM. The first is a fractured subculture of hate groups, white nationalists, and anti-immigrant organizations. The second way is to see the white supremacist movement is as America writ large. The real advocates of making America white again are not Klansmen and Proud Boys, they are people like my friend’s mom who would never own her own racism. “I’m not racist, but…” So maybe the things I learned about extracting Neo-Nazi skinheads could be helpful to talking to people stuck Trump’s in narrow nationalist vision of “patriotism.”

How has this improved your life?

One of the questions that has helped to get racist to rethink their commitment to racist activism is, “Has anything about this choice you’ve made made your life better?” They’ll sputter a bit and maybe parrot some line about finding “pride.” But then you push them with questions about their family relations, their economic prospects, their legal problems, their love lives and they’ll start to see they’ve painted themselves into a corner. The silly “white utopia” that they are physically fighting for isn’t coming and they are increasing socially isolated. I had one troubled young skinhead tell me, “It’s so hard to be racially pure and know what to eat. I love Mexican food but I can’t eat it anymore.” He left the movement shortly after that.

I wonder how my father’s life has changed with his devotion to this failed businessman from Queens. He chose that over a relationship with his son. It must be hard to be a Trump loyalist, having to believe so many things that are obviously untrue; that COVID-19 is “just the flu,” that the January 6 insurgence was a false flag plot by Antifa, that Trump won the election. The emotional labor it must take to ride the wave of disinformation while everyone around you watches you fall down the rabbit hole must be taxing. Just like the QAnon cult that saw their prophecy fail when the “Storm” failed to materialized to prevent Biden’s swearing in, Trumpists must have to expend a lot of energy to just not look crazy. 

We’re always telling racists that life is better on the other side, with our wide open cuisine and limitless playlist. Maybe an open invitation to Trumpists to break bread at the mosque and talk about Jesus in a black church would work. When you take off your Giuliani-stained blinders, so much great comedy, music, and NPR is there to enjoy. All that Ted Nugent and Scott Baio must get old. There’s so much celebration of life over here. Invite a Proud Boy to a Gay Pride parade. They kinda seem like overlapping circles anyway.

The power of the open hand instead of the clenched fist

I get it. It’s fun to fight. I’m always up for a few rounds with my high school posse, most of whom have become pot-bellied Trumpies. Sarcastic insults worked in high school so let them fly. I have a 50-something classmate who still calls me “Ballsack.” I won’t say he’s been emboldened by Trump’s bullying. This guy was always a prick. The political banter can take on a sport-like quality. Who gets the best jibe and obscure historical fact in last? I have dialed down my social media time (at the request of my wife and humanity), so I get a lot of “He stopped responding. I won.” Cheerio, desktop gladiator.

But the stories of haters leaving their racist lives have a similar element. Most had someone who they were supposed to hate reach out to them. A Muslim, a gay bashing victim, a black man harassed by Klansmen. In The Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, former skinhead Frankie Meeink tells the story of a Jewish boss who helped him out of a tight jam and how he never wore another swastika after that act of undeserved act of kindness. I published a book chapter in 2004 after numerous interviews with former Neo-Nazis remarking on the pattern that females in their lives (girlfriends, teachers, daughters) had helped them out by showing the hate that they experienced as females was no different than the hurtful hate their men expressed as racists, opening the door to empathy.

I’m currently reading The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn. She describes how both sides of the political divide are pretty good at dehumanizing each other. Internet trolls can lay some pretty hateful rhetoric on their victims, but referring to them as trolls makes them less human as well. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment dehumanized Trump supporters who she accused of dehumanizing others. (We don’t put people in baskets, Hill.) 

Remember when Barack Obama said in 2004 that. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states”? In fact we’re all shades of purple. We’re not so divided as we pretend to be and there’s more that unites us. As a life-long anti-racist, I can have a pretty good conversation with a racist skinhead about our common love of Slayer albums or classic WWF wrestling stars. Then, if we have time, we can get to the deeper stuff. I promise you this; no Nazi has ever stopped being a Nazi because they were told they were wrong just the right amount of times. You’ve got to win hearts and minds. I have to remind myself of this fact when I’m armoring up for a Facebook battle with my Georgia homies.

Being a part of something that matters

The teenage skinheads and the old white men who stormed the Capitol have one thing in common. They all want to belong to something that matters. The skinheads I studied wanted to save American from Jewish communists and the Trump loyalists want to save America from, well, Jewish communists. The both see a country that is about to “cease to exist” because of perceived enemies of “real Americans” and feel the rush of engaging in a great historic cause to the “save the country.”

The left has a similar raison d’etre, as we call others to, “Man the barricades!” and burst into lyrics from Les Miserables and Hamilton. “We’ll tell the story of tonight. Let’s have another round!” When I was getting teargassed by the police last summer at the George Floyd protests, I had a feeling that I was a part of something that really mattered, a page in American history. A younger version of me might have seen fit to hurl a projectile at the symbols of oppression. (Older me has several friends who are cops.) We want to feel like we are bigger than just our small one man/women shows. That we can change the world for the better.

The Trump loyalists and Nazi skinheads feel the same way. They see an injustice, however upside down or lie-based it might be, and they want to set it right. “Raise a glass to freedom. Something you will never see again!’ as they sing in Hamilton. What if they were brought into our great cause, the cause that expands the rights millions of Americans, not one that expands the right of one bloated con-artist to become America’s first dictator?

One of the best weapons against hate is an organization called Life After Hate, made up of former extremists, like Frankie Meeink. They use their time in the rabbit hole of racist violence to pull others out and advertise the waste of the dead-end world of hate. There are plenty of former Trumpies, Proud Boys, and QAnon cultists who can serve a similar function. I’ve interviewed militia members and former militia members, and the formers have all said the same thing, “I wish I could meet my younger self and talk some sense into him.” The Life After Hate members are a part of something that matters. Former racists make the best anti-racists, because they understand the humanity of the racist.

Adapting to these times

We’re in strange times. The uncertainty of life makes the comfort of a perfect conspiracy theory seem all that more appealing. It creates a world that is easily understandable. But unfortunately it also creates a world where half of the country thinks the other half is brainwashed, and vice versa. This may be the time to reach out. 

My friend’s mom felt like I was picking on her on Facebook and I responded that I loved her and that her ignorant comments broke my heart. I forgot that calling a white person in the South “ignorant” is essentially calling them “black.” (The phrase “ignorant black” has long been a part of the racist Southern lexicon.) She immediately shut down and ended the conversation. I forgot how to talk to fragile white people. I should have said, “I don’t think YOU are ignorant, but I find some of your racial comments not based in fact.” I apologized for my poor approach hoping to have another opportunity to reach out to her. Nobody said this would be easy. Part of me wonders why I should waste any time with people whose thinking is so entrenched in fear and hate and conspiracy theories and just incorrect information. But another part of me thinks that nothing is ever going to change unless we try. As Axl Rose once sang, “I don’t want a civil war.”

I understand this approach centers the haters and doesn’t address the trauma caused by the hate itself. But one way to allow the victims of hate to heal is to stop the wounding done by the haters.

OK, I’ll call my dad. 

The Barbarians at the Gate: Confronting MAGA Terrorists Post Trump

January 12, 2021

I’m not one to say I told you so, but I told you so. Since 2015,  I’ve been writing and talking about how Donald Trump was leading a cult of personality that wanted to bring fascism to America. But I’m not here to take credit. I’m here to urge action.

History tells us that failed coup attempts are followed by successful coup attempts. The 1/6 siege on the Capitol Building was not the last gasp of the Trump base. It was first attack by so-called “patriots” who have been arming and training for their revolution to overthrow our duly elected government. It won’t end on Inauguration Day. In fact, January 20th could be one of the bloodiest days of American history. Trump has spent 5 years emboldening (God, I’ve used that word way too many times since 2015) his rabid right-wing base with veiled (and not-so-veiled) racist declarations, and calls to attack the media and anyone who is not 100% loyal to him (including former members of his administration). He took something that was a fringe political movement of “Wackos from Waco” to a mainstream social movement of self-imagined 1776 revolutionaries. He’s done his work and now can stand back and stand by while the chaos destroys America. His father/fatherland didn’t love him, so he’s going to burn it down.

It’s not a matter of when Trump’s civil war will start. The fact that his troops were roaming the halls of the U.S. Capitol with zip ties, chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” while the vice president was certifying Biden’s victory, is evidence that we’re at least in “soft” civil war that’s about to get very hard. So what do we do to save the country from sliding from democracy into totalitarianism, as so many nations have before?

Recognize the threat

There is a straight line that runs from the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to Wednesday’s insurgence. To the outside viewer, Wednesday’s mob might have seemed like a crowd of sub-moronic good ‘ol boys who just got caught up in their angst that their “manly man” (lol) lost the election. But there was a method to their madness.

A small band of similarly minded “patriots,” guided by the blueprint provided in a racist novel called The Turner Diaries, intended to start a civil war to rid the government of “Zionist” control. It was their conspiracy-fueled version of the “deep state.” In one moment on April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed, including 19 children. Timothy McVeigh and his cohorts were the product of the patriot militia movement. Twenty-five years ago it was a fringe underground that was largely squashed by public rejection and federal policing. Now it’s a massive overground, fueled by internet, right-wing news outlets, QAnon, and the President of the United States. But the end goal is the same, a right-wing revolution to purge America of any vestige of liberalism, multiculturalism, feminism, and religious tolerance. And it probably includes somebody in your family.

It’s not surprising that several white supremacist groups were involved in Wednesday’s attack, including the Oath Keepers, the Rise Above Movement, and, of course, the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys, Trump’s shock troops, have shed any pretense of not being a racist gang. The Oregon Capitol has been besieged by right-wing extremists, including one Proud Boy with a notorious past. Apparently, Kyle Brewster has been engaged in the actions in Salem. Brewster, besides an avowed Trump supporter, was one of the racist skinheads convicted of beating an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat in Portland in 1988. The white supremacist scene has rebranded itself as a “Western chauvinist movement” and invited a few men of color along to prove it’s not your grandfather’s Klavern.

I’ve written plenty in this blog about the “militia funnel” and the real threat of civil war. Just understand this. Some of these people are nut jobs. I mean the “Q Shaman”? Brother, please. But there is a core in the center of several concentric circles of anti-government fury that is heavily armed and has been training since the day they saw Timothy McVeigh take down a federal office building in Oklahoma.

This threat is domestic in nature but don’t think there is no foreign involvement. Numerous adversaries stand to benefit by pushing America into great discord, even if this soft civil war doesn’t go full Gettysburg. This includes Trump’s buddies (and creditors), the Russians. Don’t be surprised if we see Russian actors involved in the call for Trump loyalists to come to D.C. on January 6th, if not actually breaching the security at the capitol.

Now that the White House, and both houses of Congress will be in Democratic control, expect extremists to use Wednesday’s attack as a recruiting call for a national uprising. They know they have sympathizers on the inside who will open the doors for them. And we thought 2021 was going to be so chill.

Recognize the roots of the threat

Once we’ve come to terms with the threat level, it’s worth understanding the roots that got us here. Complex problems have complex causes, but Wednesday’s white riot has three factors (+1) that led to the destruction and death that occurred in the halls of Congress.

First is the massive social change that America has experienced in the last 50 years. The “natural” authority of the straight, white, cisgendered, Christian men is no longer assumed. Civil right movements to make equity a real thing have challenged (but not eliminated) their social position. Feminism, black lives matter, inclusion officers, and the rest has threatened their (male) God-given right. So Trump, a “macho” (stop) man, appears and says he’s going to make America “great again, ” speaking directly to their insecurity. Let’s make America 1950 again, before all this civil rights business. And quickest way that men gain authority is through violence. Just ask that “bitch who opened her mouth one too many times.”

This upsetting of white male power has occurred in the context of globalization. The manly factory jobs have all moved to non-white countries. In their place are low wage service sector jobs, with no union card and no benefits. Before COVID hit, there were actually more women working in America than men, and they were mostly working at Walmart, not at the plant. So what does the king of his castle do when the HR lady fires him for sexually harassing a co-worker? And then his job is sent to China?

The third factor is the coronavirus. It’s both turned everything upside down and magnified the race to the bottom. On the one hand, the virus has caused economic devastation, pushing formerly “king of the hill” white men further down into desperation. All this being blamed on, as Trump calls it, the China virus. On the other hand, the lockdown (and layoffs) has plopped people in front of their computers, looking for information and ending up in less than legitimate news sites like Newsmax, OANN, and Epoch Times, who traffic in endless conspiracy theories about the “stolen” election. (I can’t believe I’m going to put Fox News in the “legitimate” column.) And then here comes the web fad QAnon to tell you that the deep state is “communist” and controlled by baby-eating Democrats. Desperate people will believe pretty much anything that gives them a leg up on the uncertainty.

The fourth “bonus” factor is Trump. In a crisis like this, a leader would take on the task of bringing the nation together and steering those at risk away from the radical fringes. Instead, he has pushed these sad souls right into the militia rabbit hole because it suits his need for ego feeding. A bunch of yahoos who would never be let inside Mar-a-Lago are worthy props. They’ll be mowed down by the National Guard waving their stupid Trump flags, but it all serves substitute for the love he never got from his parents.

Neutralize the threat

What we do about this is a much larger discussion. The first order of business is to shut down the immediate threat. After the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno got in front of the militia threat and moved FBI resources to go after it. The bureau had its hands full shutting down terrorist plots, especially leading up to Y2K. (Ask your granddad about that one.) I don’t doubt that the Biden Administration, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, will take this issue seriously. The Trump Administration essentially ignored it, allowing it to fester. When members of the militia movement in Michigan plotted to kidnap and execute Governor Whitemer, AG Bill Barr acted like he had no knowledge of any of it. The difference between 1995 and 2021 is the anti-government threat is now massive. All 50 state capitals are facing assaults by right-wing extremists. Several Democratic governors have had armed extremists on the grounds of their homes. Shutting down these barbarians, who think they are on the brink of their promised white revolution, is going to take a well planned coordination between Homeland Security, local law enforcement agencies, and community groups.

The other strategy has nothing to with police and everything to addressing to the root causes of this wind that has blown so many Americans over the right-wing cliff. We’re probably not going to recreate a massive manufacturing sector to get men back into GM factories, but we can help those men learn to manage the social changes instead of freaking the F out. One of the best resources here are people who have actually been through the grinder and come out the other side. Groups like Life After Hate have created a place for former extremists to share their journey into the dark side and help pull other racists and extremists off the ledge. 

Rebuild the middle

America needs to have several hard conversations that deal with trauma and reconciliation. If we want to “smash the binary,” we can include the pointless division between red and blue. This isn’t 1861. We’re all shades of purple. There’s such a need for leadership to guide us to unity. That leadership can come from the White House or it came from the liberal who reaches out to Trump supporters and invites them over for dinner (when that’s safe again).

The first civil war didn’t really end in 1865. We remained divided, especially on the issue of race. Jim Crow and the electoral college were the South’s revenge. But we’ve learned a few things in the years since then. We are on the edge of something that will turn this county into ash (and delight Mr. Putin and Mr. Jinping). But we also have the capacity to create a second, better American century. This is the moment for bold, if not a bit desperate, action.