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Neo-Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists encircle and chant
at counterprotesters, Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 11, 2017.
(Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
To better understand the current spike in bigotry and hate in the United States, Yahoo News interviewed historians, sociologists, psychologists and experts who study hate groups. And we spoke to four individuals caught up in the white nationalist movement, including a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a young ex-“social justice warrior,” whose stories are told here.
Hate in America:
Where it comes from and why it's back...?
By Andrew Romano and Lisa Belki
Nov. 14, 2017
On Oct. 19, former President George W. Bush traveled to New York City to deliver a speech at an event dedicated to “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World.”
His message was sobering.
Most of the media focused on Bush’s “implicit rebukes” of the man who currently occupies his old office, Donald J. Trump: his barely veiled critiques of “conspiracy theories and outright fabrication”; of “bullying and prejudice in our public life”; of a “discourse degraded by casual cruelty.”
But less attention was paid to what might have been the most significant part of his speech. George W. Bush, the previous Republican president, was appearing on the political stage for one of the few times since leaving the White House nearly nine years ago – to announce that hate, of all things, was back.
“We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism,” Bush lamented. “Bigotry seems emboldened.”
The signs are insistent. The odious memes. The “Heil Trump” salutes. The racist graffiti. A rally to save a Confederate statue — and “unite the right” — that descended into violence, including the death of a young woman counterprotester.
“Recently I was kind of introduced to the concept of activism and rallies,” says Gunther Rice, a 22-year-old New Jersey native who attended that deadly event in Charlottesville but was not implicated in the attack on the woman. “I’m like, ‘Wait, there’s a bunch of white nationalists that go out in public and speak and do all this cool stuff and cool events? Hell yeah.’”
The statistics tell a similar story. The most recent were released by the FBI just this week, the agency’s annual measure of the number of hate crimes reported in the United States the previous year. . The FBI defines a hate crime as “a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias.” In 2016 there were 6,100 reported instances of people targeted based on their race, religion, sexuality, disability or national origin, an increase of 300 over 2015, and like last year the overwhelming majority of those victims were targeted because of their race or religion. Of the 4,496 targeted because of their race, 50.2 percent were black or African-American. Of the 1,583 targeted because of their religion, 55 percent were Jewish and 25 percent were Muslim. This is the second year in a row that hate crime numbers have increased, reversing the trend of the preceding 20 years.
“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. Jeff McDevitt, an associate dean and director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University who has worked with the FBI to train agents to identify hate crimes. The numbers are consistent with those reported in recent months by groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, he says, as well as by cities and other municipalities. In fact, their numbers for 2017 are looking worse: In America’s six largest cities, more than 525 hate crimes have been committed so far this year, up 22 percent from the same period in 2016. “The reason I’m not surprised is this is just another indication of a coarsening of relations in America in the past year or two, particularly aimed at people of color and certain religious groups.”
Still, hearing a former leader of the free world concede that hate is having a moment? That’s a turning point — an admission that’s impossible to ignore.
Why is this happening? And why now? Haven’t we put hate — the bigotry that Bush denounced as a “blasphemy against the American creed” — behind us?
The answer, sadly, is no. Hatred of outsiders has been a cyclical thing in America, and we seem to be in such a cycle now. Economic and social insecurity fuels bigotry, and new forms of communication — the internet, especially — helps it spread. But psychologists and sociologists over the last few decades have begun to understand the qualities that make a person susceptible to what was once called “xenophobia,” meaning fear of outsiders — a useful term that perhaps deserves to be resurrected in Trump-era America. And understanding how people are recruited into hate is a first step in combating it.
Hate in America began even before there was an America. Among Benjamin Franklin’s many written rants against what he called the “*, Swarthy Germans,” was this: “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
The new nation, he wrote, should be a haven for “the … purely white People in the World”, because so many other places were “black or tawny” [Africa], “chiefly tawny” [Asia], or “swarthy” [most of Europe, including Spain, Italy, France, Russia, and — to the puzzlement of historians for centuries, Sweden.) It is only logical to distrust those who look different, he argued, because “I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.”
This wariness of “the other” is one of the entwined threads that form the foundational myths of the country — of a melting pot contains within it an assumption that blending in rather than standing out is what is valued; the ideal of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps assumes an upper and lower rung of social order with membership rules determined by those already at the top.
And so any graph of America’s emotional temperature over time would show periods of exclusion punctuated by spikes of outright hate.
Slideshow: Hate in America: A look under the hood >>>
As a consensus begins to emerge among experts that the friction we’re now experiencing, from Charlottesville, Va., to Berkeley, Calif., may represent yet another one of those hateful peaks, it’s worth considering what the present moment has in common with the past, and how it differs.
The lesson learned from such a look is that while history and psychology act on our prejudices in predictable ways, hate manifests itself differently in every era.
Today’s haters — the white-nationalist radicals of the so-called alt-right — are not nearly as powerful as Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, or as pervasive as the small-town bigots of the Jim Crow South. But that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Like all waves of hate, this newest one comes with distinct origins and unique challenges.
Specifically, the rise of the alt-right has been enabled by changing norms and technology that make it easier to become radicalized in the first place. In fact, the rise of hate within America shares roots with the rise of hate toward America; the same tools and trends are helping to facilitate both terrorism and nativism.
Hate, in short, is becoming more accessible than ever before — and that poses a distinctive, and particularly insidious, threat.
Human beings have always harbored bias. The pathways to hate, experts tell us, are hardwired into our brains.
But how does the psychology of prejudice actually work?
One of the earliest attempts to grapple with hate in psychological terms was Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, a 1916 case study of German anti-English sentiment by British neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter. Trotter sensed primal forces — “the psychological mechanisms of the wolf” — at work in orchestrating groupthink hatred.
It wasn’t until the rise of the Nazis, however, that psychological inquiries into the nature of hate really took off. Theorists of the time came to regard prejudice as pathological, and they tried to link racism and anti-Semitism to specific personality syndromes.
A crowd of German women, children and soldiers give the Nazi salute on June 19, 1940. (Photo: AP)The most influential of these efforts — and the most widely criticized — was The Authoritarian Personality (1950), a nearly 1,000-page tome authored by philosopher Theodor Adorno, a refugee from Nazi Germany, and a team of psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley. Employing what they called the “F-scale”— a novel way of measuring fascistic tendencies — Adorno and company claimed to have identified a new authoritarian personality type: “rigid thinkers who obeyed authority, saw the world as black and white, and enforced strict adherence to social rules and hierarchies.” Authoritarians became authoritarians for reasons that Freud would recognize, according to the study, and they were more susceptible to bigotry — especially right-wing bigotry — as a result.
The assumption that prejudice was a personality problem, however, soon fell out of fashion. In 1954, Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport published a landmark study, The Nature of Prejudice, that synthesized existing knowledge on the subject and came to a disturbing conclusion: Prejudice isn’t deviant at all, but rather all too human — the natural extension of normal psychological processes. “The human mind must think with the aid of categories,” Allport wrote. “Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”
Since then, most research into prejudice has sought to measure and describe these processes. The prevalence and persistence of stereotyping, for instance, was established long ago. In 1933, Daniel Katz and Kenneth Braly asked 100 Princeton University students to list traits of 10 racial and ethnic groups, then check the five they felt best characterized each group. Because the students agreed so often — 75 percent described “Negroes” as lazy; 79 percent described Jews as shrewd — Katz and Braly were able to prove that these generalizations arose from widespread social attitudes rather than individual experience.
Yet stereotypes are only half of the story. In the 1970s, researchers studying the dynamics of social groups found a pervasive “in-group bias.” Within minutes of being divided into minimally cohesive teams — even on such trivial pretexts as a taste in art — strangers tend to see their own group as superior and seek to maximize their advantage over other groups. Polish-born psychologist Henri Tajfel explained this on the basis of what he called “social identity theory.” According to Tajfel, groups offer people two key benefits: identity (they tell us who we are) and self-esteem (they make us feel good about ourselves). It’s only natural, according to Tajfel, that people believe their own group is better than other groups.
In fact, in-group bias is so potent that it can alter our perceptions of the differences between people. Decades of research into what’s known as the “outgroup homogeneity effect” have shown that we tend to see members of another race, religion, nationality (or even academic field) as an undifferentiated group defined by common traits, while members of our own group, according to Scott Plous of Wesleyan University, appear to constitute a diverse assortment of individuals.
This illusion can, in turn, deform our sense of why others do what they do. In 1979, social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew described what he called the “ultimate attribution error,” a double standard that explains negative outgroup behavior as dispositional (“that’s just what those people are like”) while dismissing positive outgroup behavior as exceptional: a fluke, a stroke of luck, the product of lots of effort, etc.
As blatant displays of bigotry declined in recent years, psychologists turned their attention to the prejudice that lurks below the surface — the so-called implicit bias that most people don’t even realize they harbor. (“I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone,” Hillary Clinton declared during last year’s first presidential debate.)
The most famous yardstick of implicit bias is the implicit association test, or IAT, that was developed nearly 20 years ago by Mahzarin Banaji, current chair of Harvard University’s psychology department, and Anthony Greenwald, a highly regarded social psychologist at the University of Washington. To date, the racial version of the test has been taken online more than 17 million times. It asks subjects to associate positive words with white faces and negative words with black faces, then do the opposite; the difference in reaction times is taken as evidence that making a positive association with members of a different race creates cognitive dissonance.
But while the tendency to treat familiar faces with care and foreigners with caution may be instinctive — it’s certainly part of human culture — the mere fact that our circuitry and civilization are conducive to prejudice doesn’t explain why some people act on their biases and others don’t even realize they’re biased to begin with.
So how does bias become bigotry? And why is white nationalism on the rise now? (Self-described “white nationalists” claim to promote white identity and push for the creation of a separate-but-equal white ethnostate; critics say white nationalism is merely a sanitized public version of white supremacism, which holds that whites are a superior race. Yahoo News uses the two terms interchangeably throughout this story.)
“The capacity to hate is relatively constant,” says Brian Balogh, a history professor at the University of Virginia and a host of “Backstory,” a popular history podcast. “But there are certain circumstances that tend to bring it front and center.”
Hate has been simmering under the surface of American life since the beginning. There have been ebbs and flows of xenophobia, directed at specific groups, such as the Chinese, the targets of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But historians generally agree that America has endured four especially hateful eras — and that each of them can help us figure out what’s happening today.
The first began during Reconstruction, when the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the defeated South, its malice aimed at freed slaves who were exercising newly granted rights.
Confederate cavalrymen led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, later the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, killing unarmed black Union soldiers after the surrender of Fort Pillow in Tennessee, Aug. 12, 1864.
(Photo: MPI/Getty Images)
Next, the early 1920s, when Klan activity increased again, now directed at recent immigrants — particularly Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe. Those years marked the first era that immigration quotas were established in the U.S.
Third, the “Great Deportations,” also known as the “Mass Deportations” of the Depression Era. In this little-remembered episode during the 1930s, more than half a million Mexican immigrants – including one-third of the entire Mexican population of Los Angeles — were repatriated by the Hoover administration. Among these were hundreds of thousands of children who were born in the U.S. and therefore American citizens. These were followed in the next decade by the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Then came the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when the two steps forward in voting rights and housing and school desegregation sparked the one bloody and chilling step backward of racial reaction: lynchings in the South and race riots in the North.
And the final major spike on the graph? Many sociologists who study hate believe we are at the beginning of it right now — a period that is in its own way as dark as, while also substantially different from, some of the worst of times that came before.
Carol Anderson, chair of African-American studies at Emory University and the author of the book “White Rage,” offered some examples in a recent essay:
“The ‘Heil Trump’ salutes at a gathering of white nationalists shortly before the inauguration. An uptick in reported hate crimes across the country. The killing of Lt. Richard Collins by a white supremacist in Maryland. The double homicide and severe wounding of good Samaritans defending teen girls in Portland [Ore.] from another white supremacist. The nooses found at and near the National Museum of African American History and Culture.”
Any analysis of American hate, therefore, requires parsing what these eras do and do not have in common.
Albert Camarillo, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford University,who specializes in the study of American minorities, believes all hateful chapters start with the same stewing “intolerance, a hatred, a feeling of ‘our problems are caused by someone else and something needs to be done about that.’ That’s fundamental whether you’re talking about the 1860s or the 1960s or the times between and since.”
Economic uncertainty also plays a major role here. John Higham, in his seminal analysis of American nativism, “Strangers in the Land,” found a correlation between downturns in economic opportunity and the emergence of hate. During Reconstruction, more prosperous Southern whites lost wealth with the emancipation of the slaves and working-class whites lost jobs to a newly freed workforce. Later, during the Depression, white workers blamed their strugg[quote]les on Mexican immigrants, although the newcomers were, statistically speaking, even worse off.
Relatives and friends wave goodbye to a train carrying 1,500 illegal Mexicans being deported from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)A second and related factor these eras share was the feeling that a group that was accustomed to being “in charge” was looking over their shoulder at a group threatening to overtake them.
“It’s a strand of people acting as if they are independent when others don’t think they should be,” says Nell Irvin Painter, emeritus professor of history at Princeton University, where she taught African-American history and a former president of both the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association.
During Reconstruction, that notion manifested itself in attempts by the KKK to keep newly liberated blacks from voting. During the 1920s, it was a reaction to sheer numbers — more than a million immigrants arrived each year in the United States before the war, literally changing the complexion of American society, creating the highest ratio ever of foreign- to native-born. The response by Congress was sharp curbs on immigration, mostly notably the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, whose co-author, Washington state Rep. Albert Johnson, was described by his biographer as a “fanatic and eugenicist.” The passage of his bill, Johnson said, would end “indiscriminate acceptance of all races,” in America.
The last factor that all these eras had in common was political and cultural leadership that condoned the expression hateful views. After World War I, that was provided by President Woodrow Wilson, who had worked to resegregate employees of the federal government and who held a screening of the blatantly racist film “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House. During the civil rights era it was personified by such politicians as Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace.
A scene from D.W. Griffith’s 1914 film “The Birth of a Nation,” depicting Ku Klux Klan members riding horses against soldiers. In 1992, the Library of Congress added Griffith’s work to the National Film Registry, calling it a “controversial, explicitly racist, but landmark American film masterpiece.” (Photo: AP)And what role do these factors play in the current outbreak of white nationalism? There is ample evidence that all three are at work, historians say.
First, there is a feeling of deep economic instability. The Great Recession of 2007 upended the for millions of Americans, and recovery has been uneven. Americans lost an estimated $16 trillion in household wealth in that downturn, and while the highest earners have regained more than they lost, those at the bottom have recouped as little as one-third of their losses.
Coupled with that is the realization by some that they are regressing in other ways. Partly owing to the opioid epidemic, life expectancy is decreasing in the U.S. for the first time since the AIDS crisis. The millennial generation is predicted to be the first to be less well off than their parents. Entire industries face disruption and in some cases disappearance.
But economics now appear to play a secondary role in today’s environment.
Speaking of the white supremacist marches at the University of Virginia, where he is a professor of history, Balogh says: “A lot of those protestors were fairly well off. To invest in the weaponry and equipment they came with, I don’t think you pay the cost of all that, and the cost of travel, without having resources. There’s no question that if you pull the camera back you could argue that this is a moment of incredible flux for the U.S., a hemorrhag[ing] of certain jobs … but that wasn’t the direct, linear reason why many of those individuals were marching and chanting.”
Clashes at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017.
(Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
More likely, he sugg[quote]ests, economics served as backdrop for the second factor — the feeling that a historically dominant group, in this case white men, feel that dominance ending. The percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. is currently at just over 60 percent, a record low (as recently as 1980 the country was 80 percent white) and is projected to dip below 50 percent by 2043. Already nearly half of American children under age 5 are of races other than white, and by 2019 there are expected to be more nonwhites in America younger than 18 than there will be whites in the same age group.
“For a lot of these men, they perceive their world slipping through their fingers and other people benefiting from their loss,” says Camarillo. “That’s not to say there aren’t elements of truth in their world changing, but when that fear is projected on another group of people, then it expresses itself as hate.”
And, finally, now as then there is the ascendance of leadership that is seen to condone the worst forms of expression. It is not coincidental, Painter and others say, that this reactionary uptick follows the two terms of the first African-American president.
“I think the spark this time around was the Obama presidency, which I think shook a segment of America to the core,” she says. “He was the embodiment of a political change, societal change, which has been taking place for the past couple of generations but haltingly. This made it real.”
The election of the next president, Balogh agrees, left those who “espouse racial superiority to feel emboldened to speak out.” He does not believe that all of Donald Trump’s supporters are racist, but rather that those who are sense permission and even support from the current administration.
Barack Obama with his wife, Michelle, takes the oath of office to become the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009. (Photo: Ron Edmonds/AP)“The very important role of Donald Trump personally and elements of the Republican Party was to help make this seem like legitimate public discourse,” he says. “It is hard to find, in the post-World War II period, any president who legitimized the views of white nationalism and white supremacism as effectively as Donald Trump has.”
Studies have substantiated this effect. A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more participants were willing to openly donate money to an anti-immigrant organization after the election (48 percent) than before the election (34 percent). And last year, University of Kansas psychologist Chris Crandall asked , both before the election and in the days after, to rate how normal it was to denigrate members of various minority groups. Both Clinton and Trump supporters were more likely to report that such discrimination was acceptable after Election Day.
“Lots of people criticized Dwight D. Eisenhower on race and felt he could have done more, felt he could have been more courageous,” Balogh continues. “And he was not in fact a thought leader on race. He didn’t like Brown,” the Supreme Court decision that ended legal school segregation. Nevertheless, Balogh says, when school doors were barred to black school children in Little Rock, Ark., “Eisenhower sent troops.”
Similarly, while Richard Nixon campaigned on his opposition to school busing and George H.W. Bush ran the “Willie Horton” ad, intended to create white fear of black violence, “all these things were miles away from embracing white nationalist thought or putting people who embraced it close to themselves in the Oval Office,” Balogh points out. “You would be hard-pressed to find any example in all this history of a leader who said anything like ‘There were some nice people standing among the neo-Nazis.’”
What President Trump actually said in the wake of August’s tragic events in Charlottesville, after a “Unite the Right” rally descended into violence and death, was even more emphatic than Balogh recalls.
“You had some bad people in that group,” Trump declared. “But you also had some people who were very fine people.”
These were not “rough, bad people” — not “neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” he clarified. Instead, they were “people protesting very quietly” — “innocently,” even — “the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
“I watched those [protests] very closely,” Trump concluded, addressing the national media. “Much more closely than you people watched it.”
However closely he may have watched, however, his conclusion was demonstrably wrong. As conservative journalist Stephen Hayes has pointed out, there was really only one kind of right-winger at that rally — the white supremacist kind. Its organizer, Jason Kessler, is an avowed white nationalist. The purpose of the march, according to promotional materials, was to protect “the right of white people to organize for our interests.” Its speaker list was a who’s who of white nationalist leaders. Its participants shouted “F*** you, faggots!” and “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” And according to a Charlottesville-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving some Confederate-themed monuments, “Nobody from our group attended the protests or counterprotests. We all stayed away. As everybody should have done.”
Trump’s confusion — the fact that he says he saw “very fine people” where there were only white supremacists — is telling. Because what psychology and history would indicate he saw when he “watched those [protests] very closely” on TV, was white supremacists who didn’t conform to his “rough, bad” stereotype.
He saw white supremacists in white polo shirts and khakis — not white robes. White supremacists with college degrees, like Kessler, a UVA grad — not a motley crew of high-school dropouts. White supremacists with sharp haircuts — not swastika tattoos. White supremacists who were fluent in cutting-edge pop culture — not confined to a backwoods compound in Idaho or Tennessee.
This is what hate is starting to look like in today’s America: better educated, more prosperous and more “mainstream” than before.
“Members of the alt-right are … qualitatively different from the KKK of a generation ago,” political scientist George Hawley, the author of “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” has explained. “They’re very well-trained, very well-educated, and they have a lot of time on their hands.”
The fact that even the president of the United States couldn’t tell these protesters were white supremacists is a troubling sign of how the audience for bigotry is broadening — and how some of the old psychological barriers to hate are breaking down.
White nationalists march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017.
(Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
By now — 15 months after Hillary Clinton characterized this “loosely organized,” “mostly online” “movement” as an “emerging racist ideology” that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity” — the alt-right has been diagrammed and dissected to death. The surreal memes. The transgressive “humor.” The insane conspiracy theories. The insular web culture. The White House ties. The echoes of nationalist movements in Europe. The sprawling cast of characters, ranging from Brooks Brothers-clad neo-Nazi Richard Spencer to Hitler-loving internet troll Andrew Anglin .
Journalists have explored the movement from several different angles: cultural, economic and political.
But what no one has really explained is the psychology of it all.
Experts have plenty to say about the roots of bias. Yet when it comes to actual bigotry — bias that crosses the line into deliberate word or deed — the science is shakier. Why do some people act on their prejudices while so many others do not? Why do some people become extremists, letting hate define them?
The best way — perhaps, at the moment, the only way — to look for answers is by looking at terrorism. While the alt-right is a new (and largely unresearched) phenomenon, the psychological processes that produce a Unite the Right rallygoer may have a lot in common with the psychological processes that, taken further in a different cultural context, produce an ISIS soldier. A subset of researchers has been studying the psychology of terrorist recruitment for years.
Followers of the Ansar al-Sharia group and other Islamic militias demonstrate against a film and a cartoon denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 21, 2012. Some members of Ansar al-Sharia, one of Libya’s most powerful Islamic factions, later joined ISIS. (Photo: Mohammad Hannon/AP)“Today, the parallels between the alt-right and radical jihadism are clear,” argues Scott Atran, the director of research in anthropology at the CNRS École Normale Supérieure and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford.
“Ideology is one piece of the puzzle,” says John Horgan, professor of global studies and psychology at Georgia State University and author of “The Psychology of Terrorism.” “But beneath that is something far more powerful: the ebb and flow of everyday human psychology. Whether you’re alt-right, alt-left, anti-government, or just a jihadi, the psychology is the same. Those feelings of frustration, insecurity, paranoia, anxiety, jealousy, desperation, all tangled up in a lack of direction and purpose — these are the real forces at work. And the internet just makes it worse.”
A recent preliminary online survey of self-identified alt-rightists by psychologists Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily hinted at some tendencies and traits that might distinguish members of the movement from the general population. (Forscher and Kteily are currently surveying a larger sample group to confirm their findings.)
Respondents scored highly on measures of dehumanization, rating Muslims, Democrats, black people, Mexicans, journalists, Jews and feminists as significantly less evolved than whites. They showed high support for groups that work for the benefit of white people, and they were more willing than most Americans to express prejudice toward black people. They also “scored higher on social dominance orientation (the preference that society maintains social order), right-wing authoritarianism (a preference for strong rulers), and somewhat higher levels of the “dark triad” of personality traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism),” as Vox’s Brian Resnick put it in his summary of the paper.
All of which is intriguing, in a descriptive sense. But it’s hardly determinative. Many Americans likely share these views. What transforms someone into an extremist, radicalization experts now agree, isn’t a pathology or personality type (contra Theodor Adorno). It’s “the person-changing dynamic of the group,” as Atran recently explained.
In a wide-ranging 2016 article for Scientific American, leading researchers Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam synthesized and summarized the existing psychological literature on group dynamics to illuminate how ordinary people move toward radicalism. The process they detailed can be divided into roughly four (not necessarily sequential) steps: 1) susceptibility 2) misrecognition 3) identification and disidentification and 4) polarization.
If you’re looking for signs of alt-right susceptibility, the prejudices identified in Forscher and Kteily’s survey probably qualify. But so do some less exotic traits, like age and gender. The vast majority of terrorists are young and male. The vast majority of U.S. mass shooters are too. And the same goes for alt-righters.
Having yet to form a secure identity, all young adults “search for meaning and belonging in groups,” notes Horgan; the company of others is a particularly effective in stimulating the reward pathways of the young adult brain, according to the research. But while girls are neurologically primed to build coalitions and fear ostracism, boys are primed to assert dominance and to stand out. The result is a tendency to seek a sense of identity through confrontation, a dynamic familiar to anyone who has followed the alt-right evolution’s from a kind of punky internet counterculture to a more potent real-life movement — from the doxxers of GamerGate to Milo Yiannapoulos’s campus shenanigans to the more violent displays in Charlottesville.
It’s no coincidence, for instance, that white-nationalist shock jock Mike Enoch “found strength in contrarianism” when he was younger — not to advance any particular agenda, a relative recently told the New Yorker, but simply “to stir up resentment.”
“Misrecognition” is the term that Reicher, one of the authors of the Scientific American article, gave to the “experience of having others misperceive or deny a valued identity.” Reicher’s study, conducted in 2013, focused on Muslim Scots returning home and being treated with suspicion at airport security, which in turn “provoked anger and cynicism toward authorities” and “led these individual to distance themselves” from mainstream society. “Why am I being made to feel as the other in my own house?” one asked.
Listen to any alt-right sympathizer rant for two minutes and you’ll hear similar complaints — only in this case about an increasingly diverse and politically correct America that (in their view) bends over backward for feminists, immigrants, blacks and other “social justice warriors” at the expense of the very people who founded this country: white men like them. There might not be objective evidence for that sense of misrecognition, but it feels real, and it motivates them all the same.
“I started out as a leftist,” says John May, a member of the Traditionalist Worker Party who spoke to Yahoo News at a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, Tenn., last month. “I was an anarchist and went into left-wing politics and socialism and realized, growing up in Houston, you can’t just be a leftist and be for your people at the same time. I mean, you can’t walk down the street without getting attacked just for being a white guy.”
John May in Shelbyville, Tenn. in October 2017. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)Perhaps the most pivotal stage of the radicalization process, however, is the one that typically happens next: identification (and its corollary, disidentification). Here’s where the pioneering work of Henri Tajfel resurfaces. As Reicher and Haslam put it, Tajfel (and his student John Turner) demonstrated that “for someone to follow a group — possibly to the point of violence — he or she must identify with its members and, at the same time, detach from people outside the group, ceasing to see them as his or her concern.”
This jibes with a recent description by French deradicalization expert Dounia Bouzar of how terrorist recruits come to identify as terrorists. First, they disengage from their social circles, immersing themselves, usually online, in rhetoric that “convinces them that they live in a world in which adults and society lie — about food safety, medicine and vaccinations, history and politics.” They “start to doubt everything,” and start to believe that “secret societies” — a Zionist conspiracy, the Illuminati, the Freemasons — are “buy[quote]ing up the planet.” They devour YouTube videos and scour recruiting websites, many of which “cleverly reference films such as “The Matrix,” in which the protagonist, Neo, wonders if he should take a [red] pill that will wake him up and show him the truth about reality or if he should keep on sleeping, blissfully oblivious.” They decide to swallow the red pill — and shun everyone who hasn’t, dismissing them as “blind, asleep or, worse, sellouts to the system.”
Next, recruits conclude that “only true Islam can renew and reawaken” them; that they are “among the chosen people, who are more discerning than they rest.”
Then comes the final step, according to Bouzar: dehumanization. “All those who do not follow the recruit’s same path of ‘awakening’ are considered not really human,” she writes. “Killing them is not a crime and is even a duty.”
Members of the alt-right are not terrorists; they do not plot acts of mass murder. But they are radicals, and their path to identification (and disidentification) bears striking similarities to a typical terrorist’s.
Conspiracy theories, for instance, are rampant on the alt-right: the one about “a secret society of pedophiles operating out of a pizza place loosely connected to [Hillary] Clinton associate David Brock”; the one about all the left-wing antifascist (or “antifa”) groups “planning to kill every single Trump voter, conservative and gun owner” the weekend of Nov. 4; even the one that animates the entire movement, which is that Jews and “social-justice warriors” and “globalists” in “predominantly white countries” around the world are promoting “mass immigration, racial integration, miscegenation, low fertility rates and abortion” in order to “deliberately turn them minority white and hence cause white people to become extinct through forced assimilation.”
A “White Lives Matter” rally in Shelbyville, Tenn., October 2017. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)Research has shown that the more radical a person’s politics — whether left- or right-wing — the more susceptible they are to conspiracy theories. Collective narcissism is another psychological marker — that is, the belief that one’s own group or nation is superior to others and deserves admiration. And according to a pair of studies published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology in 2015, conspiracy theorists also tend to feel a lack of control over their lives. Terrorist recruits and alt-rightists share these traits.
“Conspiracy theorists believe [in conspiracy theories] because it restores a sense of agency,” Viren Swami, a professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, has explained. “It gives them a sense of power. It gives them a sense that they can do something about the world.”
The rhetoric of awakening to a hidden truth, meanwhile, is nearly identical among terrorist recruits and alt-right adherents. In fact, members of the alt-right constantly use the same “Matrix” reference as terrorists — i.e., taking the red pill — to describe their moment of conversion.
Dehumanization is typical as well. Recall the preliminary psychological portrait of the alt-right. When Kteily asked alt-rightists to rate certain groups on a scale of 0 (not human at all) to 100 (fully human) — he used the famous “March of Progress” image as a guide — respondents doled out chillingly low scores.
The final step in the radicalization process is what Reicher and Haslam call “co-radicalization.” In the context of terrorism, co-radicalization means “provok[ing] other groups to treat one’s own group as dangerous” — usually via attacks — which ultimately “helps consolidate followers around those very leaders who preach greater enmity.”
On the alt-right, the dynamic is similar, if less murderous: memes and trolls and campus stunts designed to trigger outsize attention and mainstream denunciations — Hillary Clinton’s anti-alt-right speech, for example — that in turn feed a self-serving cycle of censure, conflict and conversion. “Terrorism,” Reicher and Haslam write, “is all about polarization. It is about reconfiguring intergroup relationships so that [extremism] appears to offer the most sensible way of engaging with an extreme world.” The same might be said of the alt-right.
Yet from a psychological perspective the rise of the alt-right also represents something new — a sign that the same technologies that have enabled terrorists to increase their ranks are now helping to make hate accessible and even attractive to Americans who until recently might have seemed immune.
In nearly every way, the internet seems tailor-made to amplify and accelerate the psychological process of radicalization.
As sites like Breitbart stoke fears of invading immigrants and a looming loss of white status, psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson have “run experiments showing white participants who read about demographic change are — on average — more likely to respond to statements like ‘I would rather work alongside people of my same ethnic origin’ in the affirmative.” Even minimal exposure to “threatening” information, in other words, can make a white person more prejudiced.
Meanwhile, psychologist John Suler has described what he calls the “online disinhibition effect” — that is, “the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in person.” As a result, outrage-inducing rhetoric has saturated the internet, notes neuropsychologist Molly Crockett; social media, she says, serves to trigger it, spread it and minimize its personal repercussions.
This, in turn, has fueled online echo chambers — Reddit, 4Chan, fake-news-filled Facebook feeds — that capitalize on our false consensus bias and trick susceptible individuals into overestimating how “normal” alt-right views really are. As social psychologists and Dominic Abrams and Kevin Dutton have put it, “when groups start becoming isolated from conventional society, this innate propensity to ‘swarm and norm’” — “to follow the example of those we identify with and disregard everyone else” — “can form a springboard for cliques, cults and other kinds of extremists.”
Real-life action isn’t far behind. Usually, potential radicals are reluctant to go it alone. But social media alleviates this “collective action problem,” according to political scientist Richard Hasen, because it lets these would-be extremists see others like them who are willing to share the risk. And research by sociologist Mark Granovetter sugg[quote]ests that a movement like the alt-right can start growing much more rapidly once it crosses some expected threshold — or, in the case of the internet, makes it seem as if a lot of like-minded people are rallying around its ideas.
“The rise of social media,” writes Atran, the anthropologist, “has allowed people who might want to be part of the white supremacist movement to adhere without incurring the stigma previously associated with physically joining.”
A quick historical comparison illustrates the differences between analog radicalization and digital radicalization. Don Black is the founder of Stormfront, the first major white nationalist website; before that, he was a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a sidekick of David Duke. He recently told Yahoo News how, as a young anti-Communist in Athens, Ala., he started down the path to white nationalism.
“Back in the day, in 1969, when I was 15 years old, you actually had to find a mailing address and write,” Black said. “You know, the old-fashioned way. And a couple of weeks later they’d send you back a packet of literature.”
To spread the word, Black handed out pamphlets at his high school — and got questioned by the FBI and the county sheriff as a result. Then he realized there were “student handbooks with the actual home addresses of every student in the school, and postal rates were fairly cheap[quote],” he said. “So I started mailing to everybody.”
Becoming a right-wing radical today requires far less effort and exposure — in part thanks to Black. Gunther Rice attended a high school where 50 different languages were spoken; he was a self-described “social justice warrior” until the age of 16, when he began to question the liberal values he’d been raised with. After that, radicalization was largely a matter of surfing the web.
“I just came to Stormfront and like, looked into ‘How the f*** do people get this mentality?’” Rice told Yahoo News following last month’s White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, Tenn. “And I went, ‘Yeah, my school did teach me that! Ever since I was a kindergartener, they do have an anti-white historical narrative!’ My mind was blown just by the hypocrisy I had seen.”
Gunther Rice in Pulaski, Tenn., in October 2017. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)Asked what drew him to the Traditionalist Worker Party, Jimmy Mayberry, Rice’s fellow member, didn’t hesitate.
“Internet culture,” said Mayberry, 24. Not long after losing his factory job in January, Mayberry came across a video of TWP founder Matthew Heimbach “debating with two leftists at inauguration day.”
“I don’t know anything about this group,” Mayberry said to himself, “but I know I gotta find out more of it. … These people seem awesome!”
John May, another TWP member, agrees. “The internet is pretty much the best route these days to find like-minded people,” he said.
What, then, is the way out?
Historians would tell us that there is some small comfort in the fact that that while hate seems cyclical, its breadth and acceptability decrease with each episode.
“It has changed over time,” says Camarillo. “There is still a thread of racial hatred, but there is also more tolerance, more pushing back and saying ‘you’re wrong.’”
In fact, the history of the fight against hate can be seen as the extinguishing ever smaller fires — marches with tiki torches in territory where there used to be lynchings, limits on Muslim immigration where there once were Japanese internment camps. The Mexican deportations of the 1930s, Camarillo says by way of one example, “were based on bald racial hatred and no sector of society stood up for the Mexicans.” In contrast, he says, the threat of similar deportations under the current administration brought vocal opposition.
“History tells me I have to be optimistic,” he says. “We see these ugly flashpoints today, but they are different from what we teach and write about in the past. Racial hatred and racial attitudes die hard. They do die, but they die hard.”
Psychologists, on the other hand, would warn that the road through this current chapter could be particularly rocky and its destination essentially uncertain. The suppression of hate depends on pushback by the mainstream, clarity that the hateful views are not the norm. With the wildcard of new technology, however, and the resulting bubbles and echo chambers, it is ever more possible to live in a world where one’s views are only reinforced, never challenged.
The result makes radicalization, hatred and bigotry simultaneously less obvious and more accessible. And because they are both those things, they are more likely to seep into, and to infect, the mainstream conversation.
By way of evidence, look to the fact that alt-right champions Steve Bannon and Steven Miller made it into the White House. Or that Trump himself has repeatedly retweeted alt-right memes.
Or this story from Charlottesville:
As tensions ratcheted up, a reporter saw a young white supremacist running, terrified, from a crowd of liberal counterprotesters. Suddenly, the man ripped off his Vanguard America shirt in the middle of the street.
“I’m not really white power, man,” he whimpered. “I just did it for the fun. I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” the reporter asked him.
“Scared the * out of me,” he replied.
Later, the young man explained why he had come to Charlottesville.
“It’s kind of a fun idea,” he said, almost smirking. “Just being able to say ‘white power,’ you know?”
Perhaps the moral of that story is encouraging. The would-be supremacist backed down and didn’t hurt anyone.
On the other hand, perhaps the moral is this: It’s now “fun” to say “white power” — and not only that, but to show up at a rally, in person, and square off in the streets.
A few hours later, another young white supremacist with the same white polo shirt ran over 19 counterprotesters with his Dodge Challenger, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
If that man had not been behind the wheel of that car on that day, but rather out in the crowd, chanting, it’s possible that the president of the United States might have mistaken him, too, for a “very fine person.”
With Caitlin Dickson
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