The Deradicalized

Why some white supremacists eventually give up on hate.

White supremacists  with torches encircle counter-protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson
White supremacists encircle counter-protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11. Zach D. Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This weekend, far-right extremist groups are planning to congregate in Washington to mark the anniversary of their Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, which led to the death of Heather Heyer and infamous evenhandedness from President Trump. It remains to be seen if this weekend’s event will be as well-attended or violent, but the city is already preparing for possible confrontations.

Despite the growing allure that racist violence and white supremacist ideologies hold for many Americans, there are white supremacists who have eventually rejected that ideology and disengaged from their community. Even among these “formers,” though, the lingering traces of white supremacy are harder to shake.

That, at least, is the conclusion of research by Matthew DeMichele and his colleagues, who have debriefed a number of these people and written extensively about their motivations. “Many of them broke down crying on us,” DiMichele, a sociologist and researcher at the Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience at RTI International, told me when we recently spoke by phone.* “It’s shame, it’s guilt, it’s regret. They are formers that sat down with us between no less than four hours and up to nine hours. When I say we interviewed these people, they were in-depth interviews from childhood through their life.”

Below is an edited and condensed version of my conversation with DeMichele. In it, we discuss how people become “addicted” to poisonous ideologies, the role of women in white supremacist movements, and the different strategies extremists might try to use in Washington this weekend.

Isaac Chotiner: Can you describe the difference, among the people you are researching, between disengaging and deradicalizing?

Matthew DeMichele: Very simply, disengagement essentially means that you stop the behaviors. You distance yourself and disassociate from your group membership. If you’re a skinhead, you just quit going to the barbecues, and the meetings, and hanging out with other skinheads. But you have not necessarily changed. You just stop the behavior, but you haven’t necessarily changed your mindset or your identity, how you define yourself.

The idea of deradicalization is that people actually change their thoughts and not just their behaviors. The idea of somebody being completely deradicalized is that, for instance, when they see a same-sex couple or an interracial couple, they no longer have the negative connotations. When you get to deradicalization, you essentially had some cognitive behavioral change.

Did you find a commonality among people who made the jump from disengagement to deradicalization?

I think in some ways it’s more of a continuum, and what I think we learned is that people maybe fit on a scale between disengagement and deradicalization. All of these folks have essentially disengaged, and they’re at various points on a continuum toward deradicalization. Those further along on this scale would have things like family support, having the ability to find a job, being able to find substance-abuse therapy, if that’s an issue for them. Of the 50 folks that we interviewed, the bulk of them were closer to being deradicalized than just disengaged, but I think it was their ability to have these social supports.

You could have said, “They read some speech by Martin Luther King.” Or they read a book about political equality, and they realized that people actually should all be treated equally. But it seems like what you’re saying is that it’s less a political awakening than underlying social and familial issues.

Yeah. We had folks that could have fit into different buckets, but I think to get into deradicalization, it’s people who have been intentional about reorganizing their thought process and how they view themselves in the world. And in general one needs to have support structures around them, and we say this because what we found in our research, and my co-authors have found this in other studies they’ve done with jihadists: People rarely join these groups because of hate. They rarely join because of ideology.

I’m working on a study right now with some folks that are jihadists in Southeast Asia, and most of it, the young men that are joining, they don’t even come from conservative religious families. But what they have in common with the white supremacists we interviewed is that prior to joining, they had a sense of hopelessness, a sense of lack of belonging, and lack of self-identity, which are known in the field as being vulnerable to recruitment slogans and being vulnerable to messaging to pull them in this direction. Now, this is not to say that there aren’t people out there that prior to finding a group have some underlying sense of racism or bias. Many people have an awareness of general racism and maybe were raised in a household where the N-word was used or same-sex relationships were derided.

One of the concepts in this study is addiction and the feeling of addiction. Can you explain what that means?

The notion is that addiction can be used in multiple ways. One is as a metaphor. It’s common vernacular that people understand the idea of being addicted to a thing and having these strong impulses toward it. But we also find that when we look at the cognitive literature and the literature coming out of neuroscience, we find that people, as they engage in behaviors frequently, brain structures are created, and these various thought pathways are actually formed.

I can remember one individual that we interviewed. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m having trouble stopping the hate.” She was like, “I just want to stop hating and be normal.” We might have had that quote in the paper. But she was compassionate about it.
She was very similar to substance abusers that just want to quit doing dope or quit drinking, and she wanted to stop hating and was having trouble.

And we heard numerous stories of this, and the idea that they become these impulses. We found that there’s a lot of triggering for folks when they hear types of music, they hear other sounds, certain smells were conveying thoughts to people. There could be a little bit of a relapse/recovery thing going on here. It’s not a linear path. If you’ve ever tried to change any of your personal behavior, whether it’s losing weight or exercising more or quitting smoking—

Interrupting people in interviews.

Yeah.  In criminological literature we refer to it as “desistence” now. People commit crimes at a lower frequency and at a lower severity, and eventually most of those people stop committing crimes eventually. But it’s not just this linear thing of you’re either a criminal or not a criminal. And this appears with these racial extremists. They don’t go from this extreme hate to just all of a sudden like, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to give that up because”—like you said—“I read a Martin Luther King book” or something. Not that those can’t facilitate that, because they do, and things like that are important. But just to say it’s a process that people move through, and they move back and forth through this process.

There are exit programs in at least 40 countries. It’s not a novel concept to say, “We need to have some approach to handing these extremist ideas and to help people move out of those.”

How big a role are women playing in the white supremacist movement? And did you find a lot of misogyny and sexism among the men?

A thing to remember here is we talk with former members, and it’s clear that there’s a very big difference between talking with former members and current members. With current members, they’re going to fit the stereotype you’re suggesting. The alt-right is coming out a little bit differently, but even those folks are very misogynistic clearly. Now, as far as the women we interviewed, they shared experiences of being sexually assaulted. I think 25 percent of the males have been sexually assaulted as children, and I think almost 45 percent or so of the females have been sexually assaulted as children, on top of neglect, and trauma, and all these other things that go along with that. A greater proportion of members of these groups have had various forms of victimization relative to the general public, and with that said, females have a much higher rate of victimization, and that’s similar to what you see in general society.

How are females treated within the movement? Women are seen as the vessels for Aryan children, and the idea is that they’re there to breed the future white race. They’re anti-interracial marriage, and that’s one of the biggest sins that a white person could commit, especially a white woman with a black male, because they are to populate the Earth with white children, and that’s how they’re seen.

I know you are going to Washington to observe the rally this weekend. Is there anything in particular you will be looking for?

What I think is going to happen is you’re going to see the left essentially come out really strong against some of these right-wingers. Daily Stormer and Storm Front, which are white supremacist blogs and websites, have come out telling people not to go to the rally at Lafayette Park. Jason Kessler, who organized Charlottesville, he’s telling people to come, he’s telling them that the only flags they should bring are Confederate flags and U.S. flags. I’ve been hearing some talk that there’s encouragement for shirts and hats that are supportive of the current administration.

Wait, what’s the thinking in telling people not to come, and what’s the other thinking with telling people “wear certain garb”?

Richard Spencer and some of those folks that are really deep into white nationalism feel like Charlottesville turned into a shit storm and did not help them. Their argument is that seeing violence on the street is not what they want. The idea of the alt-right today is that they’re to be clean cut, to essentially not commit crimes that are not going to push the movement forward, and so they want to be seen as a little bit more righteous. I think the idea of seeing a bunch of folks marching down the road with swastikas and things didn’t play out well, and there’s a lot of regret on how that got carried out in Charlottesville, and they don’t feel as though it helps their movement.

And what is behind Kessler’s idea about the garb to wear?

My theory is that they’re going to show up in MAGA hats and American flags, and they may or may not be saying “Jews will not replace us” or whatever, and Antifa is going to show up with black masks and sticks and those things and start attacking the right-wingers. Then they’re going to say, “See? We told you these Antifa folks are dangerous assholes.” You see how that plays out.

Update, Aug. 9, 2018: This piece has been updated to add the organization at which the Center for Justice, Safety, and Resilience is based.