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Can White Supremacists Unlearn Hate?

An interview with Michael Kimmel, whose new book, "Healing From Hate," focuses on men who have left their extremist pasts behind

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds//AFP/Getty

Donald Trump is famous for his unvarnished appeals to white masculinity. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” Trump said of Mexican immigrants in 2015, a comment that catalyzed his campaign to become president. Trump didn’t introduce this rot into American society, but he has caused it to metastasize. Anti-extremism researchers have connected American white supremacists to an uptick in violent crimes, including the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. The alt-right is a real and present danger, and the movement’s face is, for the most part, male.

In a new book, Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University and the author, previously, of Angry White Men, examines the joint where racism connects with pernicious beliefs about what it means to be a man. Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into—And Out Of—Violent Extremism documents Kimmel’s interviews with “formers,” men who made a break from extremist movements in Sweden, Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. (Most of his subjects are former white supremacists, though a few are ex-jihadis.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is not your first book about angry white men. Let’s talk about how Healing From Hate builds off your previous research.

Angry White Men, which came out in 2013, was really being done at the same time as I was beginning the research on Healing From Hate. But I focused Angry White Men entirely on the U.S. and I interviewed some active members of various extreme right organizations. At that time I also began to hear that there were these programs to help guys get out of the movement. My analysis was that masculinity issues were all tied up into their entry to these movements, in what they were looking for: the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the feeling of restoring a sense of masculinity that had been taken away from them unjustly. The idea that white men were the victims of reverse discrimination.

I was really inspired by the possibility that they were finding a way to reclaim masculinity outside of the movement. So I began to do research initially in Sweden with a group called Exit. That was the first group that I went to.

Is it possible to characterize the average neo-Nazi recruit?

In Angry White Men, I did come up with a fairly uniform, unitary class background and it was downwardly-mobile lower middle class. And by that I mean these were sons of independent farmers who had lost the farm. These were the sons of ma-and-pa grocery stores who had closed when Wal-Mart took over. They were the sons of very well-paid, union-protected auto and steel workers.

And so these guys grew up with the idea that if they went into the same kind of world that their fathers and their grandfathers entered, that they would be entitled to certain kinds of benefits. Like if I work hard and I pay my taxes, I should be able to support my family, and buy my own house, and pay the mortgage, and put food on the table so my wife doesn’t have to work.

The big difference with the Swedes and the Americans was their age. The guys in Sweden were getting into the movement at 12 and 13. They were getting out of the movement at 17 and 18. So I realized something different was going on for them. It wasn’t simply a class-based phenomenon, in which their masculinity and race are part of a constellation of experiences. It was an age thing. It was an adolescence thing.

How does the way young men are socialized potentially make them easier targets for radicalization?

On one level, these guys feel that they have been emasculated. They feel humiliated. They feel like they’ve lost something that they were entitled to. It’s aggrieved entitlement. They also feel like what was rightfully theirs has been given to people who don’t deserve it. Like black people: Well, they’re not real men. Or gay men: Well, they’re not real men. They’re effeminate. Or Jews: They’re not real men. So the constant theme is the masculinity of the Other. So, you join up and you get your masculinity back.

In Healing from Hate, the experiential piece is the more important story that I tell. So my position on this—my politics, if you will—is if you think that we’re going to be able to counter violent extremism by going to these guys and saying, “Your interpretation of Mein Kampf on page 147 is wrong,” it’s going to fail, because that’s not why they’re there, it’s not what they’re getting out of it. The ideology comes later.

Now let me be very clear for readers of The New Republic: I am in no way saying that gender is the only explanation. Of course there’s a political economy of white nationalism and of the emergence of the extreme right. There are social conditions. These guys feel, for example, that gender equality or LGBT equality are an invasion of the world that they expected to inhabit. So I’m not for a minute discounting those factors. I’m simply saying you must also include gender because that’s the need that’s being fed here.

How does the de-radicalization process introduce an alternative masculinity to formers?

If you talk to these guys and say, “I’d like to give you a different idea of masculinity,” you’re not going to get very far. Exit in Sweden provides group therapy, where they talk about their experiences, and their shame about what they’ve done. Then Exit also gives them job placement services. It is also true that for many of these guys, getting out involves a commitment to a relationship that they may have been working toward or developing. A couple of the guys told me it was when they had a kid. Suddenly they felt a different sense of themselves.

Does the de-radicalization process also include making amends for the behavior that they’ve engaged in?

Yes, for for some of them. Frankie Meeink, who I talk about in the book quite a bit, spends a lot of time going to yeshivas around the United States talking to young Jewish children about his life as a neo-Nazi. In fact, Frankie has actually done dialogues with Holocaust survivors. So that’s one of the ways that he does his truth and reconciliation.

Some of the guys I met, they just said, “I’m just going to go have a life now. That was then and this is now. And you know I did some bad things, I’m sorry about that, but I’m moving on now. I’m going to be with my family and I’m going to pay my taxes and I’m going to have my job. And I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

How can we be sure that once these individuals leave the movement, they’re disabused of the prejudices that made them susceptible to joining the movement in the first place?

That’s a very good question. Of course, my samples are very biased. I’ve looked only at the guys who got out through a program, and part of the program has been a confrontation with what they’ve done. However, it is really interesting in Sweden particularly, that when I ask guys who get out of the movement about their current politics, they mostly talk about the environment.

Now, it makes a certain amount of sense because their old argument was that, “Sweden is so beautiful, and so gorgeous, and so bucolic, and now these hordes of immigrants have come in and they’re ruining it. So we’ve got to get the immigrants out so we can restore the beautiful Swedish countryside.” Even when they come out of the movement, they still have that kind of love of the land and love of country. And many of them become social democrats. Which is not probably the case among these the guys in the U.S., who hold pretty steady to views that are just left of the alt-right, so to speak. They’re still strong Republicans and probably maintain several of the prejudices that they had.

Do you think one of the reasons it’s not quite like that in the U.S. is that we don’t have as strong a left compared to, say, Sweden?

It could be that, the weakness of the left. It could be that, in Sweden, environmentalism is seen as a masculinizing interest, whereas here it’s considered very feminine to care about the environment. There was an article in Scientific American a couple of months ago about how environmentalism is seen as something for women. So it could be just the gendering of a political position.

When you were conducting these interviews, did you encounter a man who began seeking a way out of the movement because he actually felt remorse, or was it usually more a reaction to social penalties for holding white supremacist views?

Very, very few experienced an initial motivation of remorse. Several of them told me stories of hypocrisy in the movement. This one Swedish guy told me: “I was trying to live the life that they were saying, and then the leader of my group was dating an immigrant. What’s that about? We have to kick all the immigrants out except for your girlfriend?” So some part of it was the hypocrisy, that they weren’t living up to their own principles, or that there were sets of differences, or that the brotherhood was fraudulent.

I think remorse is what you would call a derivative or a secondary emotion. They have a kind of confrontation with self, like, “Oh my god what have I done? What was I asked to do? How did I come to this?” And that’s when they reach out for support.

We have seen cases where people are getting radicalized at younger and younger ages by the alt-right. Swastika vandalism in high schools is an example of that. There’s a story in your book of a German teenager who was expelled from school for his views. So what what should a school do when they’re confronted with a situation like this?

The organizations that I talk about in the book have great outreach. You bring them in. You don’t bring the police in. You don’t kick the kid out because he has friends outside who say, “You’re right to be out. They don’t want you. Stand up to them.” So Life After Hate goes into schools in the U.S. Quilliam goes into schools in London and large cities, and imams go in and talk to them. Exit does outreach programs in high schools.

Some people could say, looking at all this, that we’re cutting them a lot of slack in order to get them out of the movement. How would you answer that criticism?  

I’m not sure. I think people should be held accountable for their crimes. So it’s not like I would say, “Oh, we’ll give them a pass.” But I also do know that unless we work with them, or if they are sent to prison, we continue to work with them, there are other support networks that perpetuate the very things that they’re trying to get away from. So I do cut them some slack in the sense that if they’re sincere and remorseful I want them to find a way out. And that may come with a tremendous amount of remorse and accountability for what they’ve done.

Is there a way that we could raise and socialize white boys that would make them less susceptible to the rhetoric recruiters will use to get them into the movement?

That’s the right question, because it takes me out of the child development world and into the realm of political economy. These guys are the ones who are falling through the cracks.

These guys are the ones who are sort of being left on the side road of the information superhighway. Do you remember what one of Obama’s first policy initiatives was? To make community college free. And why? Because his administration recognized that these guys need to retrain for a completely different economy than their grandfathers and fathers had inhabited.

So we have to figure out ways economically, and that’s what I say at the very end of Angry White Men. I talk about Franklin Roosevelt’s Forgotten Man speech when he inaugurated the New Deal. And he basically said, “These are the guys that we have, we have to find a place for them. We saw what could happen to them in Germany and Italy. We have to find a place for them. We have to create jobs for them and projects for them.”

If we’re talking about the New Deal, it wasn’t exactly a universal boon to African-Americans.

I’m not suggesting for a second that it was utopian, but it was an effort to take the resources of the state and say, “We need to do something for these guys.”