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. 

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism

January 23, 2021

Trump is gone. We survived the inauguration, not only unbloodied, but closer to united, which I am crediting to J. Lo. She sang a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” written by the OG Antifa Woody Guthrie. Besides Bernie’s mittens, the grand ritual was notable for one key sentence from the newly sworn in president. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It was a first for an inaugural address and a focus that is desperately needed.

I’ve written much in this blog about the threat of right-wing extremism and the through-line that connects the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The 25,000 National Guardsmen and the collapse of the ludicrous QAnon prophecy helped us to deflate the threat this past week but that doesn’t mean the barbarians are not still at the gate, hoping to cripple our democracy. The election of Barack Obama (and a Democratic congress) in 2008 gave raise to the Tea Party movement. 2021 will see a post-Q antigovernment movement that, with the help of social media, will fuse all the bad actors of the past. It’s already a broad counterculture the ranges from Trump’s “suburban housewife” that still thinks Joe Biden is fronting an underground pedophile ring to the self-styled Timothy McVeigh-wannabe who plots to bring down federal office buildings to strike a blow against the “Zionist Occupation Government.”

So what do we do now?

If President Biden is sincere about confronting political extremism and white supremacy and defeating domestic terrorism, now is the time to create an organized, cohesive interagency plan to get in front of this issue, or we’re going to need a lot more than 25,000 National Guard to protect our institutions of government. As a researcher and organizer working in this field for 30 years, I’ve started sketching out what a countering violent extremism strategy might look like. Similar to the institutional shifts that occurred after 9/11, it recognizes the capacities of existing agencies, including the Department of Education, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. This initial approach contains four organizing principles; suppression, education, extraction, and vision.

Suppression: Addressing active threats

After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Clinton Administration immediately pivoted to confront the threat of violence from the patriot militia movement. The reality is that, on October 25, 1994, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Attorney General Janet Reno to alert “all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by unauthorized militias that have recently sprung up in at least eighteen states.” While that warning may not have been heeded, after the terrorist attack the following April, Reno made the suppression of domestic terror groups a priority. The FBI broke up several plots, including those leading up to the “doomsday” prophecies connected to Y2K on January 1, 2000.

The events of 9/11 propelled President Bush to move many of those law enforcement resources to the investigation of international terrorist plots, particularly after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “patriot movement” didn’t go away after 9/11. It retreated to the corners of the internet. In the Obama years it scooped up many Tea Party activists and by the Trump years it was in the streets, heavily armed and promising a revolution, rebranded as the “Boogaloo.” In 1997, I interviewed several militia members in western Montana and one told me, “We’re patient men but this war will happen in our lifetimes.”

The suppression plan of the Biden Administration must include 5 important areas. 1) The interruption of ongoing plots. While we still don’t have a federal definition of “domestic terrorism,” criminal conspiracy statues have been used and must be utilized with increased use of intelligence services and investigative resources. 2) The monitoring of e-chatter of threats, including open source social media posts, the dark web, and encrypted communications. Research from the Rand Corporation has found that this chatter increases before acts of hate-motivated violence occur. 3) Turning extremists into assets. Life After Hate is a group of former extremists who now work in the field of countering violent extremism. The Prevent Program in the UK has utilized former jihadists in the working of interrupting jihadist plots. “Formers” are a vital resource available but under used. 4) Disrupting extremist prison gangs. There is a pipeline  that runs from white gangs inside prison to hate groups outside prison. A national strategy on these security threat groups would cut off a channel of extremist recruitment. 5) Monitoring foreign involvement in in-person and on-line extremism. Foreign actors, particularly from Russia, have been active in both bolstering the American white supremacist movement and spreading disinformation that increases hostility towards the American government.

Education: Confronting the issues that divide us

In this age of disinformation, we must honestly address the sins of the past while reaching out to those who are drawn into the conspiracy theories of radical right because of their lack of understanding of social and demographic changes (and how government itself works). The summer 2020 protests following the George Floyd killing highlighted the work that remains to be done to address institutional, cultural, and personal racism.

If we are going to have a national conversation about race, it needs two very important audiences. The first audience is people of color who need an honest acknowledgment of the generations of trauma that racism has cause. We’ve never really dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary psyche. It’s not like anti-black racism magically disappeared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Similarly, we also haven’t confronted the trauma caused by Japanese internment, the Bracero Program, or separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The second audience must be white people, especially white people who have been economically dislocated by globalization and economic shifts. Lecturing about white privilege is a hard sell to a coal minor who has lost his job in the push for “renewable energy.” We don’t reduce the normalization of white supremacist thinking that pushes white people into thinking “their” country is disappearing if we don’t help white people see the value of inclusion and the futility of extremism.

Education must revolve around four key agendas. 1) Racial reconciliation. As Germany did after WW II and South Africa did after apartheid, we need a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation that links the dark past to the problems of the present. This work is hard but must be done. 2) Diversity, equity, and inclusion training and celebration. The Biden team doesn’t have to give America a long HR diversity training, but there are some valuable skills that can be taught widely, including the understanding of implicit bias. This work can also be a lot of fun as we come together, not to melt into a national pot, but celebrate the diverse ingredients of our national gumbo. 3) Community healing and dialogue. Much of this work must be done locally, recognizing the intersectionality of different communities. “Asian-Americans” are not one monolithic group. 4) Outreach to dislocated populations. Equity requires actively bringing people to the table. We must recognize that many of those marginalized communities are white. They are better served at a table with their non-white neighbors than in a basement plotting attacks on their own government.

Extraction: Dealing with the internal threat

Nearly one in five of the participants in the Capitol attack were members of the U.S. military. There is a long list of police officers who have had ties to white supremacist groups. There is an alleged group of prison guards who work to support racist gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood. The infiltration of groups sworn to protect us by extremists is the worst kept secret in America. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet who handed out copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist revolution handbook, to the white members of his platoon.

Addressing this problem is vital to this strategy for two reasons. The first is the utilization of the military for training by right wing extremists. Additionally, having people on the inside (cops, prison guards, National Guard, Air Force officers with access to nuclear weapons, etc.) makes waging a civil war at lot easier. While I was undercover with a group of racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989, four Stinger missiles disappeared from the armory of a nearby Army base and were recovered from the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho. And if you’ve got a Josh Hawley who can open the doors for you, all the easier.

The second is all about perception. The belief that police and the military reinforce white supremacy didn’t die with Bull Conner and is central to the protests for racial justice. We can’t move forward until we’ve proven this important work is incompatible with organized racism.

So this plank of the strategy must both respect government workers’ first amendment rights while managing extremist infiltrations in three areas; 1) the United States military, 2) municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and 3) correctional officers in local jails, and state and federal prisons.

Vision: Who are we as a nation?

If the “America Century” began at the end of World War I, the century is ending. Will there be a second American century that is different? Or will it just be a high tech version of Jim Crow and people begging for black lives to matter. For the last four years there has been a massive vacuum of leadership. All we heard was a call to make America 1950 again, a time when millions of Americans were institutionally disenfranchised. We need a clear message about what America is going to look like. The hard fact is that demographic trends don’t lie. The country is becoming less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and less Protestant. Will we sink into an endless battle between WASPs and everyone else? A clear articulation of what the other path looks like is desperately needed. It seems like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are willing to formulate that vision.

We need our national leaders to think about four central agendas in this “re-visioning.” 1) A clear articulation of our values. What does mean to be an American? We are a nation of people of deep empathy, willing to confront our demons and work together on meaningful solutions. If the military reminds us “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” we can do the work to lift all those in our country to “be best” (Sorry, Melania.) 2) Addressing intersections. These issues are complex and overlap with other important issues. For example, global warming is pushing environmental refugees into extremist groups around the globe and is having real impact on the American farming community. 3) Addressing the truth and pain of the past. Donald Trump tried to erase the past with his 1776 Project. We must confront it head on and that will include some sincere acknowledge of harm done. President Reagan’s 1988 apology to Japanese-Americans for the mass internment in the 1940s went a long way to heal the wounding that was done to so many families who had their lives ripped away because of racist war hysteria.  4) Envisioning the path forward. What will a “less white” America look like? Our president can guide to a stable, diverse, beautiful pluralist view of the future that won’t doom us to endless division and extremist violence.

We have the ability to achieve this. We can both prevent domestic terrorism and bring disaffected Americans back into our wonderful, diverse family. The second American century can be spectacular, not just for few, but for all. There is a heavy load to be lifted by the Biden Administration, but it will be made lighter if we all help carry it.