Marc Fisher, Washington Post, April 30, 2021
The first images of “The Last Battle” seem designed to rile people on the conservative side of the culture wars: public nudity, strippers, children dressed in drag — symbols of a society supposedly in a moral free fall.
Then the online video pivots to more extreme material: quick-cut scenes of attacks on White people, bogus allegations of election fraud and a parade of pictures purporting to show “the Jewish Communist takeover.”
The six-minute video, distributed on gaming platforms and social media, rapidly reveals itself as a visually arresting propaganda piece — a recruiting tool for far-right extremists that draws viewers in with “They’re coming for your guns” and “They’re opening your borders” and then hits them with “They’re humiliating your race” and “Defend your race.”
The far-right groups that blossomed during Donald Trump’s presidency — including white supremacists, self-styled militias and purveyors of anti-government conspiracy theories — have created enduring communities by soft-pedaling their political goals and focusing on entertaining potential recruits with the tools of pop culture, according to current and former members of the groups and those who study the new extremism.
They approach young people on gaming platforms, luring them into private rooms with memes that start out as edgy humor and gradually grow overtly racist. They literally sell their ideas, commodifying their slogans and actions as live streams, T-shirts and coffee mugs. They insinuate themselves into chats, offering open ears and warm friendship to people who are talking online about being lonely, depressed or chronically ill.
The pathways into the kind of extremism that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, threats against lawmakers and last year’s armed confrontations at state capitals nationwide are often initially anything but ideological.
“All these people who stormed the Capitol and later said, ‘What did I do wrong? I didn’t think it was illegal’ — they want what we all want: belonging, friendship, cultural meaning,” said Robert Futrell, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who studies white-power movements. “We gloss over that too often, but in any movement, there’s a festival atmosphere. They gain a feeling of power from being surreptitiously connected through things they enjoy, like music. This is much more complex than just an ideological movement.”
Before conspiracy theories take root, before people decide to break the law because they think society is somehow rigged against them, there is first a bonding process, a creation of connection and camaraderie that encourages members to believe they will now be privy to answers that outsiders cannot know or understand.
What the various strands of the far right have in common is the ability to give some Americans a sense of community.
Decades ago, the far right’s media content was created mainly by small, ideologically driven businesses — publishers, record companies, film studios. Now, the material, from nasty or barbed online memes and videos to overtly racist calls for violent conflict, is the product of countless people, operating independently.
When Jared Taylor, the longtime editor of the white nationalist journal American Renaissance, first became involved with extremist ideas in the 1980s, “you’d have to write off to obscure P.O. boxes in Olathe, Kansas,” to find like-minded people, he said. “If I hadn’t known a few people personally, I probably would have remained with an utterly conventional view of race.”
The far-right’s shift away from in-person recruitment and radicalization started even before the World Wide Web became widely available. In 1984, Louis Beam, a Texas leader of the Ku Klux Klan, created the Aryan Nation Liberty Net, an online message board open only to people who had a code word. Beam built his online community to foster small cells nationwide that could evade infiltration by law enforcement officers.
Liberty Net became an early version of social media, replete with games, music, lectures and kids’ activities. Mainly through the mail, adherents traded physical artifacts — tapes of white-power music, newsletters, books that no mainstream publisher would produce.
Then came the Internet. By 1998, former Klan wizard and Louisiana politician David Duke could declare that “the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world.”
Said Taylor: “The ideas remain essentially the same from the ’60s on, but our reach has been hugely extended. Up to 2012, we were a print publication with 4,000 subscribers, essentially a newsletter. Now we reach 400,000 people.”
Longtime members of the far right still marvel at the exponential growth in audience that the Internet has provided them, but many have concluded that despite the surge in gross numbers, the level of commitment and quality of community have been diminished.
Music, cartoons and video “are a great thing if it shakes people ever so slightly loose from conventional thinking,” Taylor said, but the cultural tools today’s extremists use to recruit people produce less-informed, less-connected followers.
“You get these horrifying memes: ‘Gas the k—s,’ ‘Race war now!’ And that is very counterproductive,” said Taylor, 69, a Yale graduate who portrays himself as an intellectual advocate for racist views.
Older extremists say the new movement struggles to bring its followers together in person.
“It’s just wonderfully refreshing to be with people who view the world as you do,” Taylor said. “If you are in a marginalized group such as white advocates and racial nationalists, you might lose your job or get kicked out of school if you go public with your views. So they meet online, anonymously. But it’s not the same: It attenuates any human interaction. It crushes the fun, which is the crucial element, the sense of belonging.”
Don Black, 67, the founder of Stormfront, one of the first white nationalist sites on the Internet, is also nostalgic for the community he found with fellow extremists.
“Retreating into the anonymity and pseudonymity of the Net is not ideal for building a real movement,” Black said.
But he likes a lot of the videos that attract young people to white nationalist ideas now because they embrace the soft-sell approach he finds most effective at bringing in new followers.
“It’s important to be able to talk to people without coming across as a raving Nazi or white supremacist,” Black said. “So if we focus on the border, the economy, whatever’s upsetting people right now, we’re in a stronger position.”
Many extremist leaders say recruits still need to gather in person or their movement will be little more than a many-tentacled chat room. But pressure from law enforcement officials and from their political opponents has made holding meetings and conferences very difficult, according to Taylor, Black and other leaders of extremist groups.
“The only thing I’m grateful for these days is that Trump allowed us to reach a much broader population and to use a gentler way of bringing people into the fold,” Black said. “For years, I was pretty demoralized by the number of people turning out to our Columbus Day demonstrations. Then Trump comes along and gets tens of thousands of people and a certain percentage of them look further into our ideas.”