Insights and Impact

Extreme Makeover 


alt-right protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia

Far-right extremists have evolved their look over the last 20 years, from shaved heads and combat boots to the khakis and polo shirts they donned when they descended on the University of Virginia with tiki torches in 2017.

Many now look “more like the neighbor next door than the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang member” that people envision when they think of a racist skinhead, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, School of Education professor and director of AU’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL).

Clothing is just one example of how far-right extremists across the United States and around the globe have dressed their hate in new aesthetics and tactics. And, as Miller-Idriss explains in her latest book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right, these groups have pivoted to the mainstream with frightening results. 

There were a record 1,040 hate groups in the US in 2018—including 148 white nationalist organizations, up from 100 a year prior—according to Miller-Idriss. To explain the rising threat of these groups, the education and sociology professor goes beyond the how and why of radicalization by digging into the where and when—the everyday places, spaces, and gateways that normalize extremism. 

By weaponizing youth culture—clothing, music, the hypermasculinity of mixed martial arts, and the edginess of internet memes—far-right groups are able to exploit entry points for the spread of conspiratorial and hateful ideas. 

People might not be consciously drawn to those ideologies, but “they’re attracted to a whole other set of emotional impulses—a desire to belong or a sense of brotherhood and connection,” Miller-Idriss says. “They’re feeling isolated or depressed or anxious. They’re looking for something online and a community draws them in, offering scapegoats for their problems, explanations for why things are the way they are, and solutions for their plight that seem to make [their belief systems] fall into place.”

Hate in the Homeland describes vulnerabilities and recruitment practices that are troublingly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of stressed and lonely young people are spending more time online and less time with the responsible adults in their lives.

The result is a “perfect storm” of pathways to extremism. Miller-Idriss tries not to be a scaremonger despite her area of expertise, but the alarms are now sounding loud and clear. 

“Radicalization is a long process, and people don’t get exposed to this material and then plan an attack tomorrow,” but the seeds of violence are now being planted, and “this is the moment to be intervening.”

In the final pages of Hate in the Homeland, Miller-Idriss cites the need for “innovative, flexible, and youth-driven ideas” to halt the surge of far-right extremism. Her efforts did not stop at the back cover. In late June, PERIL partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center to produce Building Resilience and Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era, an 18-page toolkit for parents and caregivers that highlights warning signs of online radicalization, methods for engaging youth, and ways to intervene.

Having “open, nonjudgmental conversations” with young people and helping them understand how conspiracy theories work before they get sucked into them is critical, Miller-Idriss says. It ensures that the next time a loved one turns on the monitor, we’ll know what to monitor.