Christian Picciolini discusses the mainstreaming of white nationalism, what it takes to de-radicalize far-right extremists, and why the problem is metastasizing.
It’s going to get worse.
That’s the warning of a former violent extremist, Christian Picciolini, who joined a neo-Nazi movement 30 years ago and now tries to get people out of them. White-supremacist terrorists—the ones who have left dozens dead in attacks in Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, in recent months—aren’t just trying to outdo one another, he told us. They’re trying to outdo Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government terrorist who blew up an Oklahoma City federal building and killed more than 100 people in 1995—the worst terrorist attack in the United States before September 11, 2001.
On Saturday morning in El Paso, a gunman shot and killed 22 people, including children, at a Walmart. The store was crowded for back-to-school-shopping season. The victims included a high-school student, an elementary-school teacher, and a couple carrying their infant son, who survived. And the shooter, according to an online manifesto authorities attributed to the suspect, saw himself fighting a “Hispanic invasion” as he gunned them down.
That shooting, along with another one hours later, in which an attacker killed nine people over 30 seconds in Dayton, Ohio, renewed the clamor for gun-control laws that has become a grim ritual after such events. But Picciolini said that even if the U.S. could get a handle on its gun problem, terrorists can always find other ways. McVeigh had his car bomb, the September 11th hijackers had their airplanes, Islamic State attackers have suicide bombings, trucks, and knives. “I have to ask myself, Do we have white-nationalist airline pilots?” Picciolini said. “There have to be. I knew people in powerful positions, in politics, in law enforcement, who were secretly white nationalists. I think we’d be stupid and selfish to think that we don’t have those in the truck-driving industry.”
Picciolini now runs a global network, the Free Radicals Project, where former extremists like him provide counseling to others trying to leave extremist movements. He spoke with us yesterday morning about the mainstreaming of white nationalism, what it takes to de-radicalize far-right extremists, and why the problem is metastasizing.
A condensed and edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Yara Bayoumy: What are your thoughts in the aftermath of El Paso?
Christian Picciolini: I’m as horrified as everyone else is. And frustrated, because this is something I’ve been banging the drum about for 20 years—that the escalation of violence would get worse. The [white-supremacist] ideology is spreading more into the mainstream than it ever has before. There aren’t checks and balances to counter it. There aren’t programs being funded to help people disengage from extremism. Some of the rhetoric coming from the very top is emboldening extremists.
Bayoumy: Talk to us about the evolution you’ve seen since you were in the movement 30 years ago—these views used to be on the fringe, and now are much more mainstream.
Picciolini: Unfortunately, I think that the underpinnings of the ideology have always been there. The extremists were on the fringe, and very visible, but other people weren’t willing to voice those beliefs. Thirty years ago, when I was in the movement, we were turning off the average American white racists who didn’t want to be so open and visible about those beliefs. So there was this effort to make it more mainstream, to grow the hair out, turn in the “boots for suits.” I never thought we would have a social and political climate that really kind of brought it to the foreground. Because it’s starting to seem less like a fringe ideology and more like a mainstream ideology.
Kathy Gilsinan: What role does the internet play? There’s a lot of discussion about internet radicalization for members of ISIS—is this a parallel process for white-supremacist movements, or are there differences?
Picciolini: It’s a very parallel process. The propaganda is very similar. The internet itself is a platform. Thirty years ago, marginalized, broken, angry young people had to be met face-to-face to get recruited into a movement. Nowadays, those millions and millions of young people are living most of their lives online if they don’t have real-world connections. And they’re finding a community online instead of in the real world, and having conversations about promoting violence.
Bayoumy: What about the shooter’s apparent anti-immigrant manifesto? Does anything in it strike you as surprising?
Picciolini: Unfortunately I’ve read every one of these things, since the first, in 2009, when James von Brunn walked into the D.C. Holocaust Museum and killed a guard [Stephen Johns]. He left a manifesto that had the same conspiracy theories, and much of the same language, that [we’ve seen] in other shootings up until this week—this whole idea of the “Great Replacement,” of “white genocide,” the belief that immigrants are going to overwhelm the white race. That, frankly, is a crock of shit. But we see things in the news that seem to kind of stand behind these notions—that border facilities are overwhelmed. Even though it’s not really a threat to anyone’s race. Migration has been happening for centuries, and we’re still here. Nations change over centuries, borders have been different. But that’s all the language white supremacists have been using for decades.
Bayoumy: What about the international connections between these movements?
Picciolini: There was always a connection overseas; these far-right movements shared the same names, the same leadership structure. Certainly the manifestos suggest that they’re playing off of each other; the El Paso shooter referenced support for the New Zealand shooter. It’s no longer a lone-wolf-type situation, which is something we were pushing in the ’80s and ’90s. The ideology then was that there were no leaders, there was no centralized movement, individuals were empowered to act on their own. But the internet has really solidified this movement globally through all these forums online; they’re connected in the virtual world in ways that we often can’t be in the real world. I would say that the threat of a transnational, global white-supremacist terrorist movement is spreading.
Bayoumy: How do they raise money?
Picciolini: Thirty years ago, music was the vehicle for that; you’d have touring white-supremacist metal bands, and groups would raise money off ticket sales. Nowadays, there’s a lot of crowdsourcing. These groups are generating revenue, for instance, through serving ads on some of their propaganda videos. If ads are being served on their videos, chances are good, depending on how many views, they’re making ad revenue based on Google, Facebook, YouTube, serving ads against their content. So, in that sense, de-platforming is good. It does slow them down quite a bit. From my perspective, it also makes people harder to reach. And a lot of times, it also emboldens them to get even more vile and vitriolic about what they’re doing, because they feel kind of like a caged animal. They play the victim narrative.
Bayoumy: What do you make of the president’s tweets Monday morning, in which he tried to connect gun background checks to immigration restrictions? [In later remarks on Monday, the president said: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”]
Picciolini: Any tragedy that happens now is being politicized, so it doesn’t surprise me. He’s very good at kicking little buckets of gasoline over sparks of fire that already exist. Racism existed before he became president, and is now again at the fore. When he says those things, he is speaking to his base by not coming out strong for a very specific opinion, as after Charlottesville[, Virginia,] when he said there were good people on both sides. This is a little bit of a dilemma for me, because I also have to believe there are good people on both sides in order to do what I do.
Bayoumy: That’s a good segue to get into your own story. How did you go through this evolution and find yourself on the other side of this? And since then, how have you been able to help people who are still in these groups? Have you noticed any change in the frequency of people who want to leave these movements but don’t know how?
Picciolini: I’ve seen the requests for help skyrocket since 2014. I was recruited when I was 14 years old, in 1987. My parents are Italian immigrants, and when they came over they struggled, had to work constantly, so I didn’t see them very much. But I grew up in a loving family. Still, I went searching for a sense of identity and community and purpose. I was standing in an alley, and a man came and recruited me. I spent eight years as part of America’s first neo-Nazi skinhead group. I didn’t have a foundation for racism; everything I wore as a suit of armor, I ended up believing, and certainly promoting and acting on. But the foundation of racism was never there for me. When I started to meet people that challenged what I believed about them, people that were black, brown, gay—they showed me compassion at a time in my life when I least deserved it. I’d kind of sealed myself off from the real world for eight years, and when I finally started to get peeks at what these people were really like, things changed.
I got out in 1996, and spent three years trying to self-reflect after disengaging, and trying to understand how and why I got there—really struggling with that, until around 2000, when I started … unofficially doing the work that I was doing. I was walking through a mall in Chicago, and still had tattoos on my arms from the old days, and a man walked up to me and said, “White power.” I was out at that point, so I sat and talked to him for a little while. And I don’t know what happened to that guy, but he seemed pretty amenable to the fact that I was leaving. And I hope he got out. But that was kind of my first unofficial intervention, 20 years ago, and I have been doing that ever since.
I don’t necessarily look for people. They find me. I do interviews, I have a TV show, I’ve published a memoir. Anytime people see an interview or a TED Talk, they reach out to me. Because there really is nobody else to turn to. If you have a heroin addiction, there are groups for that. If you’re being abused, there are groups to turn to for that. But unfortunately, if you’re struggling with these ideas of hate, there really is nobody else.
Bayoumy: What does disengagement look like? What’s a typical example of someone reaching out to you saying they want to leave? How do you help them through that?
Picciolini: It’s a whole lot of listening. I listen for what I call potholes: things that happen to us in our journey of life that detour us, things like trauma, abuse, mental illness, poverty, joblessness. Even privilege can be a pothole that detours us. As I listen to those—rather than debate or confront them about their ideology, but creating a rapport with them—I start to fill in those potholes. I will find resources in their community to help them deal with the trauma, with whatever it is that was the motivation for them to go in that direction. Nobody’s born racist; we all found it. Then I leverage the community around them to try to engage them and support them, and try to find ways for them to crawl out of that hole. Typically what I found is, people hate other people because they hate something very specifically about themselves, or are very angry about a situation within their own environment, and that is then projected onto other people. So I’m really trying to build resilience with people.
I’ll also do immersions to try to challenge their ideology—so I’ll introduce them to the people they think they hate once they’re ready, and challenge them in the same way I was challenged. It’s helped me disengage over 300 people over the years.
Bayoumy: What are some of the things that prompt these people to question their beliefs?
Picciolini: Certainly not facts. It’s very emotional. I try to take them through an emotional journey where they come to the conclusion that they’ve changed, and it’s not me telling them that they’ve changed. What I’ve found least effective is me telling them that they’re wrong, or me telling them that they need to think a certain way. Typically these people are pretty idealistic, although they’re lost, typically pretty bruised emotionally, and they have very low self-esteem.
Gilsinan: So it’s not effective to say, “Actually, immigration is often good for the economy.” Then what’s your answer instead?
Picciolini: I’ve always found it very difficult to sway opinion when it’s a group of people. When people are in a group, they tend to not be as vulnerable or as forthcoming. So I think it has to be a personal journey. But there has to be a way to sway a whole group of people, so facts are important—for most people, facts are still important. For folks in these movements, they have their own set of facts. Two plus two equals five, so you can’t argue that two plus two equals four, even though we know that that’s the case. You have to take them through situations where they challenge themselves.
I was working with a 31-year-old man in Buffalo, New York, several years ago, and he had been discharged from the military for an injury that he suffered during basic training and wasn’t able to deploy to Iraq at the time. And he saw all his friends go off to war and fighting for America, and he wasn’t racist going in, but he started going in that direction and became very much of an Islamophobe. When he came home, he started drinking and got really heavily involved in the white-power movement.
He got a copy of my book and he wasn’t very happy with [it], because I had left the movement and he was still very much in it. And after a couple of weeks of talking with him, I finally met him in person and asked him if he’d ever met a Muslim person before, and he said he didn’t want to; he thought that they were evil, the enemy, animals, whatever, insert word here. And when I flew out I had arranged, unbeknownst to him, a meeting with an imam at a local mosque. When I convinced him to go, we spoke with the imam, and then two hours later, it was as if these men had known each other their whole lives. The guy who I was working with was a Christian, and he learned that Jesus was part of the Koran, and Muslims revered him as a prophet—all these things that he never knew. They were both Chuck Norris fans; they bonded over that. We were crying at the end, and hugging.
And now they eat falafel together every chance they get.
But it’s not an easy process; it’s a very, very long process. If you think about quitting smoking, or drinking, or anything like that. For me, from the time I was 14 years old till I was 23, those were kind of the adult developmental years, so there were a lot of things that I had to unlearn.
Gilsinan: So what can the U.S. do on the policy front? What has your experience been like trying to work with the government on these issues? Are we equipped to deal with this?
Picciolini: I think we can be equipped. There’s just no will to build something about domestic extremism. We don’t currently have any hate-crime laws that apply to online activity, but photoshopping someone’s face onto an Auschwitz prisoner on Twitter isn’t so different from spray-painting a swastika in a synagogue. I think we need to start asking ourselves what kind of policies need to be in place, not to limit speech, but to protect people from it. I don’t know what the answer is there.
Gilsinan: What’s next?
Picciolini: I really think we need to get away from using the term lone wolves, because while they are single actors, they are part of a larger ecosystem. I just think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. They’re all trying to outdo each other, not just the last person, but Timothy McVeigh. Terrorists will always find another way to do it. I have to ask myself, Do we have white-nationalist airline pilots? There have to be. I knew people in powerful positions, in politics, in law enforcement, who were secretly white nationalists. I think we’d be stupid and selfish to think that we don’t have those in the truck-driving industry.
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YARA BAYOUMY is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees national security coverage.
KATHY GILSINAN is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.