Far-right extremists are often opposed to values such as equality—especially the idea that all races are equal. They reject the notion that America is a country comprised of immigrants and that the government has a role in preventing and prosecuting discrimination. But why?
In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Carole Gallaher joins us to discuss America’s relationship with far-right extremism and its movements, groups, and people (1:25). She breaks down who is most likely to engage with extremist ideals (3:26), and we learn how those ideals are becoming normalized by President Trump (8:07).
What is the purpose of using the word “nationalist” in far-right political rhetoric? (11:15) Has “nationalism” always been a ‘dog whistle’ for racist politics, or has the word ever connoted a more neutral meaning? (12:53) We discuss the observable patterns of right-wing extremist violence (13:45) and discuss the efficacy of right-wing movements in solving the issues that initially mobilized extremists (20:09). Gallaher introduces us to the world of alt-right Twitter, and we learn more about “do-it-yourself” radicalization on the internet (21:25).
During our “Take Five” segment, we ask Gallaher about the top five ways she would counter far-right extremism (16:41).
0:05 Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.
0:13 KS: The word "nationalism" is as fraught and multilayered a concept as one can imagine. To some, it's simply love of one's country in a benign form of patriotism. To others, it's an ideology with strands of racism and even genocide. Whatever its Merriam Webster definition, at this time in US history, nationalism is inextricably linked to far-right politics and far-right extremism. Today, we're talking about far-right extremism. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Carole Gallaher.
0:42 KS: Carole is a professor in the School of International Service and the school's associate dean for Faculty Affairs. Carole researches the politics, internal dynamics, and patterns of violence of militias and paramilitaries. She is the author of three books, including: On the Fault Line: Race, Class, and the American Patriot Movement. Carole, thanks for joining Big World.
1:02 Carole Gallaher: It's lovely to be here.
1:03 KS: Carole, you research far-right extremism in the US. In your book about the American Patriot Movement from 2003, you honed in on this Patriot Movement, which was a broad, far-right, US social movement that was fueled by anxieties around globalization. To help kind of set the table for this conversation, tell us, how do you define far-right extremism?
1:25 CG: It can be ideological or it can be a physical manifestation. So in terms of ideology, normally what you see is a rupture from agreed upon societal norms and values. So just to give you an example of this, on the right, because you have left-wing extremism too, on the right they're often opposed to values such as equality and norms like a having a role for government and fostering it on the ground. Other kinds of things that far-right extremists might oppose would be the notion that men and women are equal, that all races are equal, or that America is a nation of immigrants, or that the government has a role in preventing discrimination. So a lot of far-right extremists, for example, would be opposed to the Civil Rights Act.
2:10 CG: The other quick thing I would just add here, too, is that extremism can be violent. So often these ideologies, if you don't believe in equality and someone who is someone you don't believe is equal to you, that's less than you, is gaining in social ground, then you might support violence to stop that. I'd also say that the far-right is not unified. So it's not one big movement. There are actually a lot of different movements or groups on the far-right, and they often don't get along, and their targets,who they are opposed to, varies.
2:42 CG: So you have neo-Nazis, you have white nationalists, or the "alt-right" as it's often called today, you have male supremacists, you have groups that are anti immigrant, groups that are anti Muslim, anti LGBT, Christian identity groups, neo-Confederates, black nationalists, and militia patriot groups. So just to think about, you know, who the targets are, neo-Nazis are often targeting people of Jewish descent. Militia patriot groups are normally focusing on the government as the enemy.
3:11 CG: So these groups all kind of have norms that are outside of societal norms and have views that are outside the range of societal norms. But they often use similar tactics, and they often don't believe in equality, but who they think the problem is varies.
3:26 KS: You described that most people who join the Patriot Movement were white, working-class males. Now this is a book you had published about 16 years ago, but it seems like this trend of this demographic comprising the lion's share of people involved in far-right extremism has not changed. What would you say that it is about far-right extremism that attracts white, working-class men?
3:49 CG: I would start by saying, just to be fair, that most white, working-class men are not extremists. However, most of these groups on the far-right are run by white men, although not always working-class men. And they typically target this group. They tend to try to do this by addressing two sets of concerns or anxieties. Sometimes they're separate, sometimes they overlap. The first is globalization, broadly. It's important to think about like, well, what does globalization mean for an average white working- class man? It often means job loss.
4:21 CG: So if you go to places in Ohio or Buffalo, New York, or even near where I grew up in Altavista, Virginia, people, white working class men worked in factories. And beginning in the late '80s, mid '80s, late '80s, and accelerated in the '90s, those factories left the country. They shut down. So these people lost their jobs. So there's a lot of anxiety about a world that's so globally interconnected because, for this category of people, globalization hasn't been positive. And neither political party has really addressed those concerns head on, in a fundamental way, so a lot of these groups target these men around those kinds of working-class issues.
5:06 CG: Another connected area is a sense among white, working-class men that people that were below them on the social hierarchy previously are now gaining ground, while they are losing ground. This can be women, it can be minorities, it can be newly- arrived immigrants into a town where they live. So it's kind of a generalized anxiety. Like, think about it this way. If you're a white working class man, and you were the breadwinner, and your factory job goes away, and you can't find a replacement job, and your wife starts working or now she's the primary breadwinner, you feel like this isn't right, that you should be the primary breadwinner.
5:45 CG: You know, those issues could be addressed by left- wing groups as well, but the right has tended to address these groups more fundamentally, and it says: This is wrong. You should be at the natural top of the hierarchy, and you're not. So why is that? Who is to blame? Is it the government? Is it, quote, unquote, "Jewish people," or Muslims or immigrants? Whatever it is, the idea is that we're gonna help you recover that place that you think you should be at the top of and that we agree you should be at the top of, of a social hierarchy.
6:16 KS: Which kind of brings us to politics. You mentioned politicians sort of weaponizing this, almost. Since Donald Trump became a candidate for president in 2015 with that speech that was full of anti-immigrant rhetoric, much of the rise in what we could term "extreme activity" or invective has been laid at his feet, for better or for worse. I'd like your thoughts on whether President Trump has galvanized and empowered a movement, or if he's only exposed something that was brewing under the surface and was going to explode no matter what. The question for you, Carole, as someone who's been studying this for a while: Is far-right extremism seeing a spike in activity, or has this movement actually been working towards this moment for many years and the role played by President Trump was incidental?
7:05 CG: Before I even get to the question of Trump, I would say it's good to keep in mind that far-right extremism in the US has been with us from the beginning. Literally since the beginning of European settlement, there were groups like the South Carolina Regulators that would go out and attack Native American groups, always groups in towns and cities out on the sort of frontier who would go after vulnerable populations. So this sort of far-right extremism isn't new. It tends to be cyclical.
7:31 CG: In the contemporary period, which I would define as post World War II, it's been related to a couple of different variables. Sometimes it's a specific crisis, also elections, so in a positive and in a negative sense in terms of growth. So when Bush was elected, after 9/11 you actually saw a decline in these groups. After Obama was elected, you saw an uptick for the first four to six years, and then you had a sort of a decline and then when Trump was elected, you saw an increase in some far-right groups, not all. Militia groups actually didn't go up, but white supremacist groups, for example, did.
8:07 CG: So I would say you can't lay this all at Trump's feet, but I think what's important to keep in mind about what Trump has done, is he's used his bully pulpit. Traditionally, that would be speeches and press conferences. For Trump, it's Twitter. And he's used this to normalize views that were outside of the mainstream, and even sentiments that you would not have said two years ago.
8:31 CG: After the white supremacists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, he said, "You also had some very fine people on both sides." For me that was jarring. I'm a Gen X person, my dad was a World War II veteran. I remember him telling me and my sister, when we were growing up, and he didn't talk about the war very much, but he said Eisenhower made, General Eisenhower, at the time, made all the troops in the American theater go to a concentration camp. Most of the troops by the time they got to a concentration camp, the people that were surviving had left, but the infrastructure was there, mass graves were still there, remains, clothing, things like this were there.
9:10 CG: The idea was every American soldier in the European theater will see this, and they were fighting fascists. They were not fighting for freedom of speech, they were fighting fascists. So I think, you know, for me it was such a jarring comment to equate white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were in the streets in Charlottesville with people who were protesting them. You know, he died in 2012. I'm glad he didn't see that. I mean, to me it's just kind of shocking.
9:40 CG: It's a really jarring moment, if you think about this from the perspective of where we are temporally from the end of World War II. That generation is dying out, but that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.
9:54 KS: Yeah. I think whenever I hear someone say, "He's just saying what people already think," I think that may sadly be true in some cases, but saying it changes it. Saying it changes the dynamic.
10:07 CG: Totally changes it. It totally changes it, and that's why I think, I was looking at David Dukes' Twitter feed, and I believe it was after Charlottesville, and he obviously was looking at these comments in a very positive light. So to the extent that he's normalizing it, he's also sending a message, whether he means to send it or not, I think you could argue that, I suppose, I think it's pretty clear what he's trying to say, but even if you don't think that's what he meant, it's clear that the audience of white supremacists and neo Nazis saw this as an opening: The President of the United States thinks this is okay to say and do.
10:43 KS: Yeah. Carole, for your book you interviewed members of Kentucky's Patriot Movement. One Kentucky patriot said, "You see, I'm not a racist, a sexist, or a xenophobe, I'm a nationalist." And President Trump also stated that he was a nationalist, at one of his rallies, saying, "A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can't have that." End quote. What is the purpose of using the word "nationalist" in far-right political rhetoric?
11:15 CG: It kind of serves two purposes, and sometimes they're separate, and sometimes they're overlapped. The first is to signal your anti-globalization, that you are opposed to free trade and the way it's brought economies together in ways that make it very difficult to extricate yourself. I mean, if we look at Brexit, this is a good example of how complicated it is to pull out of a global economy.
11:40 CG: The second way is to signify, and again it's a shorthand or a codeword for America as a white, Christian nation. So I would say my experience studying militia groups, I went to meetings in the late to mid '90s, militia meetings. They focused on anti globalization, but it was clear that some of the members of the group also saw this as connected to sort of a white nation, but they didn't tend to say those words. So that quote that you gave to me, that's from a militia leader, and he was saying to me, "I'm glad you came and talked to me, because we aren't a racist militia. It's not what our goal is, is to focus on minority groups." So I think it's difficult to pull the two apart, but I think one way to think about it is if you're studying groups: What's the emphasis this group is focused on? Is it on globalization and the economic effects, or is it on race and religion? But again, it's really hard to completely pull those apart.
12:40 KS: I guess as a followup, I'm curious, has "nationalism" always been, at least to some people, a dog whistle for racism? Or is it a word that has ever had truly a more neutral meaning?
12:53 CG: Well, I think it would be hard to go back beyond the 1900s and make that argument. But I think it's very clear, in the 1900s, it was a century of nationalism, and it brought us two world wars and millions upon millions of deaths. So it's really hard to look at nationalism with that relatively recent history and go: Oh, nationalism is no big deal. I mean, the term, if you study any history at all, and most of us have to study World War I or World War II in high school, nationalism was a big problem. It led to horrific deaths when countries embraced it. So yeah, it's kind of hard to separate it from that history.
13:37 KS: Carole, are there patterns of violence within right wing extremism since 2016? And if so, what are they?
13:45 CG: A lot of nonlethal attacks are up. One way to look at this is hate crimes. Hate crimes are basically traditional crimes that are deemed by prosecutors to be motivated by prejudice of some sort. The FBI reports that, in 2017, hate crimes were up 17 percent over 2016, which was itself a high mark year. So it's really, it has gone up. The lethality of it is not necessarily greater by any big significant margin, but the amounts of attacks. So for example, arson of churches or getting assaulted on the street, these kinds of attacks are way up. DC also has experienced an increase in attacks, although in DC, Interestingly, It's been focused on LGBTQ populations.
14:38 KS: And this may be an impossible question, but why are we seeing this increase? What's the why?
14:42 CG: I think one kind of way to think about it, I can't explain the exact why, 'cause if I could then I would be a millionaire.
14:49 KS: Stop it.
14:49 CG: You know, I'd be able to solve crime. I would be a superhero. But I think it's interesting that the larger pattern is that right now extremist violence in the US tends to be concentrated on the right, not the left. That was not the case in the '60s, for example, the Weather Underground, other groups. Now it's concentrated on the right, and it tends to be equal or a little bit higher, it depends on what stat you look at, than terrorism by other groups inside the US.
15:20 CG: Since 1980, the way the US economy has been organized has radically changed, and that's led to these big shifts. We haven't had mass migrations in the way that other countries have, because we were a fairly wealthy country to begin with. But it's changed the way people live. It's changed what kind of jobs they have, it's changed where they see themselves in the country and how attached they feel to it. It's changed everything. And so I think those structural factors have ... we need to think about them as an important backdrop.
15:51 CG: We also have to look at the fact that right now is a good environment for mobilization. There's less social taboo in saying openly racist things or joining an alt-right group. I mean, I think a lot of people would have hesitated to do that, and now people are willing to go on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and identify themselves in this way.
16:22 KS: Right. Carole Gallaher, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to daydream out loud and reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, what are the top five ways you would counter far-right extremism?
16:41 CG: I think the first big thing I would do is say that we have to treat domestic extremism as a serious problem, and as serious as international terrorism. So when white males kill people, go to a synagogue, for example, in Pittsburgh and kill people, or they go to a church and kill people, we shouldn't resort to thinking about their mental illness. This was an act of terror.
17:09 CG: My second policy change, and it's kind of big and broad, but we need to do investment in rural and ex-urban areas. These are places that have seen disinvestment of jobs in the agricultural sector, in factories, and far-right extremism doesn't just happen in rural areas, but it's certainly an attractive place for people who've seen their communities fall apart. Opioid addiction is another manifestation of these problems in rural America. So we need to think about that, we need to actually have a game plan. What do we want to do in these communities?
17:46 CG: The third is we need to promote the role of government and really celebrate the fact that government is not this big, bad monster. It built the interstate highway system, it built the Beltway. Government in and of itself is not the problem, and we need to really fight that fight and say that.
18:07 CG: I also think we need to educate people about the Holocaust. Most millennials, and certainly Generation Z, don't have anyone in their family who has a living memory of World War II. So they don't have a sense of just how devastating the Holocaust was and how it was connected to nationalism. That's important because if you don't know that history, then you can equate a neo-Nazi group with Occupy Wall Street or Antifa. They're not the same thing. One group wants to exterminate a whole group of people based on their ethnic and religious heritage. Antifa doesn't want to do that, neither did Occupy Wall Street. But if you don't know that history, how do you distinguish between a neo-Nazi and Antifa?
18:56 CG: And finally, I think that we need to develop counter narratives to the normalization of hate. So anytime the president or congressperson or people with influence and power talk about hate and try to normalize it, we have to push back. We have to constantly and vigilantly produce counter narratives so that it's not the dominant narrative and that we undermine those narratives of hate.
19:28 KS: Thank you.
19:29 CG: Thank you.
19:37 KS: Carole, you wrote that the people who joined the Patriot Movement had little success in actually meeting their stated goals, and that the movement, while allowing patriots to express racial anxiety and pride, did little in terms of solving their issues. So what are the actual problems of far-right extremists? Is it economic inequality? Is it access to educational opportunity? History of domestic violence, substance abuse, or some combination of all those things? What would you say?
20:09 CG: I would go back to my time in the mid '90s doing research and going to these meetings. There wasn't one thing they were looking at, looking for. I mean, some of it was a sense of belonging. Some of it was about de-industrialization. In Kentucky, a lot of it had to do with the tobacco settlement, environmental regulations on coal, and the decline of coal, which wasn't just about the environmental regulations. There was also just kind of a sense of a fear of white male status eroding, but it wasn't often said exactly in those terms. It was like, you know, "I'm not better off than my mom and dad were," or "I thought my life would be better than this, and I see all these new people coming in and they're getting things I'm not getting." So there was this kind of sense of-
20:52 KS: Aggrievement.
20:54 CG: Yeah, aggrievement and status erosion. It wasn't that they were necessarily poor, but that they felt their status was eroding. And just kind of a generalized fear of the other. I think these fears are roughly the same, although the specific instances are different. But they tend to be rooted in these kinds of macro level changes, but also in this cultural fear. In terms of whether it solves problems, I would say if you're looking for a sense of belonging you can find it in these groups. So it solves that problem, but does it solve the bigger problems? No.
21:32 KS: Right. That sense of belonging kind of plays into this next question, our last question. Carole, when you were researching that Patriot Movement, you mentioned that the internet played a role in recruitment. Obviously, since then there's been this rise of social media that we've mentioned. How do platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter impact not just the flotsam that flies around with what people say, but actual recruitment?
21:57 CG: I call it "self-radicalization." It's like do-it-yourself far-right extremism. You can self educate, you can read things that help you interpret events through a right wing extremist prism. Once you've self educated if you want to go and do something about it there are various plans from very concrete how to build bombs to how to do attacks on the internet. You can follow that on your own. Then you can actually go out and do an attack. You don't have to necessarily be part of a group. You don't have to be in a gorilla or paramilitary organization to go off and do this.
22:39 CG: I also think, you know, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have normalized hate. You know, I think I mentioned I look at the Twitter feeds of far-right folks, and a lot of people talk about Twitter and the alt-right, for example. They say this is basically a way for the alt-right to troll people. That's true: Leslie Jones of SNL, the GamerGate conspiracy, but also if you ...
23:02 CG: I just finished a study looking at five different alt-right Twitter feeds for about a three month period. Most of the stuff they say isn't trolling. It's just normalizing, you know, hate and not putting out videos where you're screaming into a mic. It's like a Breitbart on steroids, where you're just writing about why we shouldn't have Jews in the country, or why we shouldn't have black people in the country, or ruminating on how we would make America white without violence. Again, things that would have been really taboo to say and do in the past.
23:45 CG: Now Twitter will go after and take people off of Twitter that are engaged in violence. But someone like Richard Spencer is a good example of this. Richard Spencer is often seen as the founder or leader of this loose grouping of people called the alt-right. His Titter feed is sort of ... Well, first of all, he doesn't encourage violence on the Twitter feed. He just kind of talks about things that would normally have been considered way out of bounds on Twitter. It's also kind of stylized production. So the people that have these Twitter accounts, they manage them like they are managing their image, so really professional pictures of themselves on the picture part of the page. They will post pictures of themselves where they look glamorous. There are women that do this. So it's just normalizing it.
24:38 KS: Yeah. I think there's something also about having this sentiment mixed in with the other things that you're seeing. So if a teen or 20-something is following, I don't know, an Instagram star like one of the Kardashians or somebody, you know, is into style or whatnot but then they're also seeing this kind of stuff filtered in, it kind of brings it all in that same playing field. It makes it all seem like it's perfectly normal and fine, and that's sort of the normalization is just having it all right there, equal placement, it's just part of the feed.
25:16 CG: Yeah, no, that's a really good way of thinking about it. I'll just give you an example. There's an alt-right woman called Lana Lokteff, and if you go on her Twitter feed, she's young, she's glamorous, she's very attractive, she never has a bad picture of herself on the Twitter feed, not that anybody really puts bad pictures of themselves up, but they look like they're professional photographs.
25:52 CG: Some of it's like, you know, I'm gonna retweet the Blonde Butter Maker, who's gonna show me how to grow catnip and use it, mixed in with "we are losing our whiteness in Europe and we're under threat," to pictures of blonde women dancing in Russia, and examples of white Russian culture. So the right used to be kind of, you know, stodgy, grumpy old men or crazy middle aged men. The alt-right, which tends to skew younger, has really gone out of their way to try to make it look and feel hip.
26:29 CG: So when you were talking about it's just one other thing on the feed, it doesn't stand out in terms of the images in the visual narrative, the script of it. So then you're like, well, if it all kind of looks the same, you know ... Kim Kardashian and Lana Lokteff may not look alike, but they're both kind of stylized in a certain way ... then you can just read the two feeds and go about your business and not really realize: One of these feeds is not like the other.
26:56 KS: Right, right, right. One of these is giving me a dose of hate, and I don't even realize that I'm getting it.
26:58 CG: Yeah, exactly, mixed in with ... again, a retweet about how to grow catnip or bake bread.
27:07 KS: Carole Gallaher, thank you for joining Big World to discuss far-right extremism. It's been a pleasure to talk with you, and I learned a lot today. Thank you.
27:14 CG: Thanks for inviting me.
27:16 KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.