Cynthia, you have been working on many different aspects of far-right culture, but I would like us to begin with your seminal Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. You offer an impressive mapping of the physical and virtual spaces of recruitment. Could you tell us about the main spaces you identified and which ones were the most surprising to you?
First of all, thanks for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be in this conversation and I think it’s a great thing to try to communicate some of the arguments put forward by academics in more ordinary language to students and academic communities. Sometimes we just talk among each other, and I don’t think that’s very good.
In this book, there are two different ways that space is approached. One is that it is becoming increasingly common, when considering the spread of disinformation and propaganda, that people just encounter extremism wherever they are. Extremism used to be a destination that you had to seek out—you had to find a space where extremist ideas were being propagated among a group that usually had initiation rites and membership lists and was part of a network of other groups with clear ideologies and manifestos.
Now, it is much more likely that extremist ideas come right to you in the spaces where you spend time ordinarily, especially online. This could be wherever you’re doing your hobbies or if you are looking for information. They come to you even in physical space: since I wrote the book, the number of white supremacist propaganda flyers being spread in public spaces has doubled. Extremist groups used to target college campuses, but with the COVID-19 shutdown, they have been targeting dog parks, community parks, town halls, and anywhere else people might be.
One of the prime examples is YouTube. A woman once told me after a talk I gave that she had once gone online looking for strategies to prep things in Tupperware containers. The first hit took her to an extreme survivalist prepping site that had intersections with the prepping community and the survivalist extreme right. Another example that somebody shared with me is the story of a man who wanted to learn how to install drywall in his garage. He started a series of videos on YouTube, a 10-part video tutorial. At about video three, right when he’s in the middle of the project, the guy starts introducing white supremacist and anti-immigrant ideas. But now he’s stuck, right? He has to decide: “Am I finishing this project?” Ultimately, he finished the series and by the end it was showcasing full-fledged, extremist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideas, which had been very gradually and carefully introduced in the beginning.
So first, these far-right groups build a captive audience, and second, they take advantage of the para-social relationship that people sometimes develop with YouTube and social media personalities or hosts. And you end up in an algorithm that recommends even more extreme content.
The reason why I had “Homeland” in the title was because I also wanted to talk about territory itself and this white supremacist obsession with the genetic link to the land and the way that that plays out in so many different pursuits of a white ethno-state—the “blood and soil” idea of a connection to the land. What was interesting was the use of Native American metaphors by the white supremacist fringe in the United States and Europe as a cautionary tale: natives were pushed onto reservations when immigrants arrived and that’s going to happen to white people.
If I had to pick one space that surprised me, it was finding far-right ideas around food. I started exploring what was going on with food and ended up on these conspiracy sites that sell nuclear masks next to organic seed vaults. The more I dug into how food is used, the more I found. For instance, far-right groups in Europe will run soup kitchens, but they put pork in the product so that Jews or Muslims can’t eat it. There are ways that food is used to recruit. It’s tied to identity, but also used to exclude and to make people anxious. The idea of a seed vault, of needing to stock up in case of an apocalypse, is very closely tied to accelerationist thinking, the idea of end times, and then of rebirth and restoration. I realized I could write a whole book just about food and extremism, which was incredible.
That’s really fascinating! What does that tell us about the mainstreaming of extremism? And how do we articulate the conceptual relationship between the mainstream and extremism? Can we also see the reverse process—that is, extremism losing some of its extreme features and becoming “normalized” by its entry into the mainstream?
Yeah, that’s not an easy question. My previous book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream, tracked the mainstreaming of style and clothing in Europe—the erasure of that racist skinhead look and its replacement with a much more mainstream style. That phenomenon was accompanied by a blending-in of extremism and the way that people could pass in public. Your ideology didn’t have to be reflected in a uniform appearance anymore. Before, when you shaved your head and wore a bomber jacket and combat boots, everybody knew who you were and what you stood for, no matter where you were in the world or what you were doing.
But as aesthetics became more mainstream, supporters of far-right ideas could go to work or to school without people necessarily knowing what ideas they held. In this way, they became a little bit more secret at the same time as they became more mainstream. That allowed a lot more people to hold those ideas because it was less commitment than before, when you immediately stood out on account of your clothes.
This literal mainstreaming of extremism has been reinforced by the increasingly widespread idea of an existential threat to the West, as advanced by populist leaders in Europe and the US. Being anti-elite has become blended with a nationalist, anti-immigrant stance, even though populism itself is a tactic that can be used by the left as well as the right.
It made people at least perceive the legitimation of some far-right ideas, even if this was not intentional, allowing a normalization to happen. There has been so much going on since the book was published. Take this bogeyman of critical race theory, for instance: look at the backlash against the teaching of even racism and the idea that there’s only one version of history to be told—at least in the United States. I think we need a lot more work on these issues because there’s a growing defense of hate speech as free speech. For example, the U.S. government is very focused on the prevention of violence, but one also needs to prevent disinformation and conspiracy theories from spreading, even if they’re not directly tied to violence.
The issue of where to draw the line between the mainstream and the extreme is complicated, and I don’t think anybody really has a very good idea of how to do it, except maybe Germany, which actually has a legal definition of the difference between radicalism and extremism. Radicalism is troubling but allowable within the German constitution, whereas extremism is illegal and outside the bounds of the constitution. It would be helpful if someone tried to draw that line for the US, even if it were drawn in a different place than in a country like Germany.
For example, the U.S. has done a very bad job of recognizing male supremacy as part of the problem, even though we know that there have been repeated mass attacks against women—in a yoga studio, in a sorority, by van in Toronto, on a judge’s home in New Jersey, on women in a massage parlor in Atlanta—that are all attributed in some form or another to male supremacists. But in the new Department of Justice and FBI classification, gender is listed at the end, under all “other” forms of extremism (animal rights, environmental issues, anti-abortion, seditionists, etc.) and isn’t given the same attention or focus as white supremacist extremists and antigovernment militias. The UK recently officially declared misogyny a hate crime, which is a move in the right direction, but the US has not yet done so.
You mentioned Germany, and you worked on youth clothes culture moving from neo-Nazi underground culture to mainstream. How would you compare the U.S. and German cases of mainstreaming of extremism? What are the similarities and differences?
I think the main difference is that after World War II, Germany approached the issue with what they called “defensive democracy.” There’s an acknowledgement there that you can’t just address extremism by targeting extremist groups and ideas, but that actually the better way—or at least as important of a way—is to reinforce the ability of the mainstream to be resilient to the propaganda and disinformation, or tactics like fearmongering or scapegoating, that are propagated by extremist groups. The idea is that these extremist groups are always going to be there; you have to monitor them and you can try to get rid of them, but you’re never going to eradicate them entirely.
The United States has had the opposite strategy for most of its history of domestic terrorism and extremism, a strategy that focused on infiltrating, surveilling, and monitoring the groups to ultimately shut them down and try to interrupt violent plots before they occurred. Until very recently, the US was almost exclusively focused on Islamist terrorism, completely ignoring—as is now widely acknowledged across agencies—the rising threat from domestic violent extremism. But even though federal agencies have finally started to recognize that, they still have a very heavy focus on groups and associations, even though the vast majority of extremist violence does not come from people who are card-carrying members of any particular group.
The U.S. government struggles because it wants not to police ideology, but to prevent violence. Currently, the only way they really know of preventing violence is to stop it by infiltrating groups. In this way, law enforcement agencies have successfully thwarted dozens of attacks. But the vast majority of far-right violence happens outside associations. For example, many of the arrests on January 6 were of people who are not card-carrying members of any organization and are not members of any groups.
That’s the major difference between Germany and the United States: a growing awareness. The Biden administration recently released a new national strategy for combatting domestic terrorism that says it’s going to take a public health approach. It calls for partnerships, at least with schools, with parents, and with communities, but we don’t know what the implementation is really going to look like.
There are other differences. Germany has its own dedicated independent agency charged with eradicating extremism from the military, showing how many investigations are going on across military units. You can’t even imagine that kind of transparency here. We know it’s a problem. We don’t know how big of a problem.
Your book’s title contains both the word “homeland” and the word “global.” Can you tell us more about the articulation of domestic and transnational aspects? Are transnational links and borrowings mostly limited to intellectual circles or can we find them more broadly in far-right cultural products such as music, video games, MMA, etc.?
There are so many ways that it’s global!
First, the US has been a major exporter of far-right ideology for many years. Over the past five years, there has been a 250% increase in far-right terrorism in Western countries, according to the Global Terrorism Index, with over half of the incidents and about half of the deaths in the United States alone. We have a bigger problem than most European countries, and many of the original ideas are rooted in ideologies that were produced in the United States, as were the platforms, social media platforms, gaming platforms, and servers where they spread.
Second, white supremacy has a global audience. In the last two major attacks in Germany, in Halle and Hanau, both attackers—on a synagogue and a Turkish restaurant and then the shishi bars—either wrote their manifesto or livestreamed their attack in English. It was a national white supremacist attack against immigrants in their country, yet enacted with the global audience in mind. I think that captures the contradiction of what’s happening.
Many years ago in Germany, I saw a photograph of two young men wearing a T-shirt that had the number 168:1 on the back, and above it “McVeigh versus U.S. Government.” It’s set up like a soccer score, talking about how many victims McVeigh had versus the execution of Timothy McVeigh by the U.S. Government. The thing that really struck me was that these were German neo-Nazis wearing a T-shirt claiming an anti-government terrorist attack on another country’s soil as their own victory.
Along similar lines, there are gaming platforms that have a gaming console that shows the different terrorist actors and how many “kill score” points they have. The “high score list” features the Oslo shooter at the top, followed by the Christchurch shooter, the El Paso shooter, and so on.
Hate in the Homeland invites us to rehabilitate the role of culture in the study of the far right. Can we say that the far right is succeeding at penetrating the mainstream not so much through politics but through culture? Is that a Gramscian strategy or the result of the creativity of far-right groups in investing cultural scenes, which are more open and less formalized/institutionalized than political spheres?
Yes, it’s really interesting because “metapolitics”—the idea that you create political change through cultural change—has been a strategy of the Nouvelle Droite since the late 1960s. Some people called them the Gramscis of the right, as Antonio Gramsci, a leftist, argued that one cannot have a revolution without gaining control over the ideas of a society. One can see the same strategy now among Identitarian groups. Andrew Breitbart once said that politics is downstream from culture, that pre-political ideas will seed political change. It’s a long game; it’s an exercise in patience; it takes decades—but that long game of the far right seems to be bearing fruit now.
Some of that is deliberate, some of it is organic, coming from the bottom up, and that’s what’s complicated. Take the whole meme world, for instance. That’s not being directed by anyone, but look at something like the Boogaloo meme or Pepe the frog—how Pepe the frog evolved into the flag of Kekistan, which signifies a white ethno-state, and then that flag was waving at the Capitol on January 6. It started as a joky meme created by teenagers, and then it showed up at the Capitol insurrection. Boogaloo, too, started as a joke among teenagers to signal a second civil war before being adopted as a code that motivated violent actors to kill people in the name of Boogaloo-type scenes.
Youth culture may become a real driver of offline violence and extremist protest in ways that I think we often dismiss. I often cite the second reviewer of a grant proposal that I wrote years ago when I was first researching the mainstreaming, who said, “Aren’t you being alarmist? Won’t they just grow out of it?” But this isn’t just about style, or about an aesthetic change or a cultural phenomenon; there are very clear connections with mobilization of violence.
That brings me to my last question, which is more about “What do we do?” You are also an educator. In both books, you stress the importance of youth culture and the rebellious aspect of youth as a conduit for far-right penetration. Where do you see the solutions for our societies? How do we “inoculate” our youth against far-right ideas while protecting their search for rebellion and autonomy?
For me, the most straightforward approach is the German one of equipping the mainstream—that is, pre-preventative work. Everybody, not just youth, should be able to recognize and be resilient to propaganda, disinformation, or persuasive extremist techniques like scapegoating or fearmongering. These intervention techniques can apply to anything. They should help people better recognize how not to be susceptible to Q-Anon, for instance. We call that inoculation and we’ve been testing a variety of video-based approaches in a partnership with Jigsaw. We try to basically prime and teach people how propaganda works.
In the same way that we teach kids in digital or communications classes how to be wary of potential predators and be careful about their privacy online, we should be teaching everybody how to recognize propaganda and disinformation. One can’t address the rise of far-right narratives properly by only focusing on the fringe; it has to be addressed by the mainstream’s ability to understand some basic issues about equity and racism. We need social inclusion, inclusive diversity, and attention to issues of equity in the mainstream as part of the long-term effort to combat the public’s vulnerability to extremist groups’ claims.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Professor in the School of Public Affairs and in the School of Education at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) in the Center for University Excellence (CUE). Dr. Miller-Idriss has testified before the U.S. Congress and regularly briefs policy, security, education and intelligence agencies in the U.S., the United Nations, and other countries on trends in domestic violent extremism and strategies for prevention and disengagement. She has written, co-written, or co-edited six books and over three dozen peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, including her most recent book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right (Princeton University Press, 2020). In addition to her academic work, Dr. Miller-Idriss writes frequently for mainstream audiences, both as an opinion columnist at MSNBC and in additional essays, with recent by-lines in Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN, The Hill, Politico, The Guardian, Le Monde, Salon, and more. She appears regularly in the media as an expert source and political commentator, including regular appearances on Fareed Zakaria GPS as well as other CNN news programs, PBS News Hour, NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, MSNBC, NBC’s The Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, and in global news outlets in over a dozen countries. Prior to her arrival at American University in August 2013, Dr. Miller-Idriss was on the tenured faculty at New York University, and also taught previously at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Sociology and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Michigan, and a B.A. (magna cum laude) in Sociology and German Area Studies from Cornell University.