Political and media figures have reflexively depicted the racist who confessed to last Saturday’s massacre in El Paso as having “acted alone.”
Technically, this is an accurate way to describe what Patrick Crusius says he did that day — in targeting the people whom he views as part of an “invasion” meant to “replace” whites, his finger was the only one on the trigger.
But Crusius did not act alone. No race-hate attacker does. These mass murders are the direct byproduct of a practice of obfuscation and disinformation the white supremacist movement has spent decades perfecting. It’s a messaging campaign designed to encourage in-group believers to take violent action, while tricking outside observers into believing the actor was self-inspired and isolated. It is an intentional, robust, and well-developed system with a clear history.
Elements of this “lone-actor strategy” can be traced back to the early days of the Ku Klux Klan, Pete Simi, an author and expert on extremist groups told ThinkProgress. But starting in the 1980s, white-power leaders refined those loose movement traditions into a concerted, purposeful set of practices designed to inflict violence but avoid both legal and political liability.
“That’s the strategy: To get individuals or small groups of individuals to commit violence on behalf of the movement, without the violence being connected to the movement,” said Simi, a Chapman University sociology professor. He added that white supremacists view it as “one of the most important strategies” to their success.
“The key here is this is not just a person who for whatever reason feels like violence is the solution to their problems. This is somebody that identifies a larger set of problems that are connected to an existing social movement, and sees their violence as acting on the larger interests of the movement,” Simi said.
All the talk of the El Paso shooter and others “acting alone” is therefore playing right into the white-hate strategy, and making it even harder to come to grips with the rapidly evolving internet-enabled form of an age-old violent ideology.
“We need more focus on that [and] to understand that there’s a whole movement culture behind what happened in El Paso,” Simi said. “Because that keeps it from being looked at as just a generic shooting rampage.”
The key to the strategy is community. Community used to be built at cross-burning rallies back in some woods, or weekly meetings in a church basement. Now it’s found in internet chat rooms, Simi said, but the rationale remains the same.
“We’re just a like-minded community,” Simi said, paraphrasing the argument of the race-hate movement. “We just come together, we talk about different stuff, and then people go their own way. It’s not our fault if somebody goes out and does something like this.” Sometimes it’s single individuals. Other times, it’s a “small cell” of three or four who ultimately commit violence on behalf of the movement. But eventually, inevitably, someone will live out the group’s bloody fantasies.
“We have no idea how much or when, but it will produce violence,” Simi said. “Violence is central to the ideology. The ideology doesn’t exist without violence, so there has to be violence for the ideology to continue.”
The El Paso shooter’s attack fits every element of the lone-actor strategy. The 8chan hate boards where he announced his plans moments before opening fire are but the newest incarnation of the strategic pivot white supremacists initially made in the 1990s.
Today, Tony McAleer de-radicalizes white supremacists with the organization Life After Hate, coaxing them away from hate groups and chat rooms and rallies filled with countless other aspiring “lone actors.”
Three decades ago, however, he was helping usher white supremacy into the internet age.
“I built one of the first white-power websites in 1994,” McAleer, who co-founded Life After Hate, told ThinkProgress. “[A]t the time, music was the most effective medium to recruit people. So it was about the music.”
The site pushed newsletters and white supremacist novels right alongside the skinhead CDs, but McAleer helped perfect the mix of incitement and deniability that persists today.
“I shifted the tone of it to talking about leaderless resistance. I encouraged people to join the military. Don’t get tattoos, don’t make it easy for them to spot you,” he said.
“I would tell people: Don’t mail me anything, I don’t want to know who you are. I don’t want to know. But here’s what you can do to prepare.”
McAleer has seen the lone-actor strategy work from all too close.
In 1999, four guys he helped bring into the white supremacist movement kicked a 65-year-old Sikh man to death at a temple outside Vancouver.
The men had come into the movement courtesy of the messages McAleer so carefully peddled. (“Recruited by guys I had recruited kind of thing,” he said.) Once inside, they decided — as the strategy hopes some devotees will decide — that they would be the ones to do something on behalf of the hateful community.
McAleer channeled his early interest in computers into setting up a sophisticated call-in system to disseminate white-supremacist propaganda. It was the late-’80s equivalent to the anonymous spaces where race-hate killers like the El Paso shooter lather up today. Anyone with the number could call and use a touch-tone menu to hear messages recorded by McAleer and the hatemongers he considered brothers in arms at the time.
The former white-power recruiter described familiar themes to the actual messages he disseminated – Jews secretly using the media to hurt white people, all the classics – but the through line of it all, he said, was paving the way for the lone-actor strategy.
“Most of the messages were anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic. And I had a pretty good idea where the legal line was. The idea was to go right up to that legal line and go no further,” McAleer said.
The phone line and early websites gave a digital backbone to the skinhead punk music scene where the British-born McAleer had first been radicalized in the ’80s. The records and books they sold are still touchstones in the modern movement too. McAleer said the same white supremacist tome recently recommended by the “lone actor” who killed three and injured 12 at the Gilroy, California, garlic festival was among his best sellers 30 years ago.
The pop-culture aspects of the hate movement are so durable, Simi said, because books and music are crucial to the ideology’s survival in a world where message boards have replaced in-person meetings.
“Anything that lends to some portability of that community strengthens a person’s resolve, right? It gives them something to continue to help feel a part of that like-minded community when they’re not in those shared spaces,” Simi said. A skinhead once told him “about how he could take a CD and pop it in any time he was feeling down or angry, and it would remind him that he has this larger community he’s part of.”
McAleer in the mid-’90s correctly anticipated that the internet’s evolution would allow violent white supremacists to shift away from organizing in gangs that law enforcement could effectively target, track, and crack. It led to the birth of the strategy, and a weaponization of the media’s fondness for he acted alone.
McAleer is now a leading figure in the de-radicalization movement, dedicated to teaching police and social workers the specific techniques that work with white-power devotees.
Fifteen years after the Vancouver killing, as part of a long journey of reconciliation and atonement, McAleer met victims of another attack on Sikhs — the 2012 massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, perpetrated by Wade Michael Page, yet another “lone actor” product of the movement’s modern strategy. McAleer spoke with reverence of one Wisconsin man’s attempt to protect the congregants by lunging at the shooter.
“Page had a handgun, and he’s got a butter knife,” McAleer said.
The recent mass political violence in El Paso, Christchurch, Gilroy, and elsewhere reflects lessons white-power leaders learned 20 years ago, Simi said.
On Independence Day weekend in 1999, a man named Benjamin Smith went on a shooting spree in Indiana. Smith had been a stand-out member of the white supremacist World Church of the Creator, so prolific in recruiting that WCC head Matt Hale had named Smith his “Creator of the Year” in 1998. But his acolyte’s decision to play race-warrior left Hale in a bind.
“[Hale] did this whole thing of like, ‘Well he was a great Creator, but we don’t promote this violence,’” Simi said. “It was this whole wink-and-a-nod type thing.”
Around the same time Smith killed two and injured 10 others in drive-by shootings targeting people of color, another white supremacist named Buford Furrow attacked the Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. Furrow was a prominent member of Richard Butler’s Aryan Nation. Butler disavowed Furrow’s attack much as Hale had done with his “Creator of the Year.”
These and other disavowals “are sincere for pragmatic organizational reasons, but not in terms of moral revulsion,” Simi said. “These folks know that they’re subject to both civil and criminal consequences.”
In Butler’s case, he was successfully sued and stripped of his assets following Furrow’s attack. In the wake of that accountability, the lone-actor strategy evolved from a suggestion to a movement-wide best practice, Simi said.
Fellow white supremacist Louis Beam had by then been preaching “leaderless resistance” for several years. Beam had first become famous in the movement for helping to burn Vietnamese immigrants’ fishing boats with fellow Klansman in the 1970s. But he understood their hateful war was made vulnerable by organizations with member lists and traceable networks of assets.
The transition from member groups to the lone-actor strategy wasn’t frictionless, Simi said, but it helped that Beam and others could point to white supremacist martyrs who had assassinated civil rights figures throughout the Reconstruction Era and the ensuing century.
Today’s web-based version of all this may look slightly different. But the idea has always been that, sooner or later, the community would spawn a monster committed to the violent fantasies they shared.
“What I’ve seen on 4- and 8chan is a lot less disavowal and a lot more just open endorsement: ‘Oh the only problem is they didn’t kill more people,’” Simi said.
Crusius walked up to a police officer after leaving the Walmart and announced he’d committed the attack. It was actually the second time he’d taken credit. Though 8chan owner Jim Webster insists Crusius never uploaded his “manifesto” to the site, investigative reporters at Bellingcat showed that someone on the site had posted his name, his plans, and his written explanation well before the first reports of an attack.
The guaranteed anonymity of 8chan and its precursor 4chan is a key tool to the newest incarnation of the lone-actor strategy. The chat service Discord provides similar insulation and is another popular home for the fomentation and – as Bellingcat’s Robert Evans put it – “gamification” of white supremacist terrorism.
But what good is a game if there’s nobody to play with? The community ethos once provided by Klan lodges is still necessary. Like-minded, hateful people still need a place to gather and goad each other into violence — and a fig-leaf to hide behind when someone actually acts on the urgings of their peers.
Pages of the playbook that white supremacists made to enable their terror have now entered the canon of mainstream political projects.
White House spokesperson Hogan Gidley gave one demonstration of the technique in a Fox News interview on Tuesday morning. Just a day earlier, Trump had read a conciliatory prepared statement denouncing white supremacists. The next morning, Gidley was back on the attack.
Calling the notion that Trump’s repeated warnings of an immigrant “invasion” could have stoked someone like Crusius “absolutely ridiculous,” Gidley turned the thing back around. “We don’t blame Barack Obama for the deaths of Dallas police officers,” he said.
Tucker Carlson joined the chorus in the evening hours on the same network.
“The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium,” Carlson said, while telling the faithful Fox News bubble that the very existence of a white supremacist problem in the United States is a “hoax.”
That’s exactly what white supremacists themselves say, Simi told ThinkProgress. “They pretty much universally reject the labeling of ‘white supremacy.’ That’s what you see with Tucker: We’re not gonna give any ground on calling something what it is.”
The gap between the statement Trump read to cameras on Monday and the commentary his pals delivered to his base the next day gives the game away. The community bubble where Trump’s fans hang out get one message, while the wider broadcast public gets another.
“There are some parallels there to what the white supremacist movement will try and do in some ways,” Simi said. “It’s presenting one image that we’re not about hate, this is just about civil rights, we’re about white people feeling okay about their heritage [and] they just don’t want to be made to feel guilty about who we are.
“And then simultaneously, through another channel, you get messaging that’s quite different, where violence is being emphasized, where dehumanizing language is central to the message, where you’re depicting other groups as subhuman and so-forth.”
“If you use the term ‘invasion,’” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said Tuesday, “it’s not anti-Hispanic, it’s a fact.”
Fox News is hardly the only place that conservatives can hear this defiant double programming after El Paso. The right-wing radio ecosystem long predates the television network, and big tech platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook each play their own part in the radicalization pipeline.
In these forums, hatemongers are even more insulated from consequence than their Fox News peers. Michael Savage took full advantage of that freedom on Monday after Trump read his headline-making scripted statement.
“I was very disappointed in the president attacking white supremacy. He is now saying everyone who is concerned about the illegal alien invasion is a white supremacist?” Savage said. “That is going to cost you thousands, if not tens of thousands of votes.“
The conservative media machine’s consequence-free recitation of white supremacist talking points leaves de-radicalization experts like McAleer worried for the country’s future.
The hate communities that breed, antagonize, and elicit murder in El Paso, Christchurch, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere also make it harder for groups like Life After Hate to reach the people who most need their intervention. Even as the organization expands its efforts to train outside professionals in law enforcement and mental-health fields in the special techniques required to break angry, hateful, young, white supremacists from the communities that foster their rage, McAleer said, the bubbles radicalizing young whites act as ideological armor.
Those bubbles aren’t just hard to pierce for social-worker types. They’re very difficult to interdict with legal tools. Such hard-power policing would require deep and alarming renegotiations of constitutional precepts, Simi noted. Market pressures can chase a hate community offline now and then, but only temporarily.
And even if you could wave a wand and disappear these digitized lone-actor-strategy incubation tanks in an instant, McAleer said, the psychological preconditions that make young white men as vulnerable as he was to the ugly lure of white supremacist violence will remain.
Most of the people Life After Hate de-radicalizes have some form of trauma in their childhoods. Almost all have what McAleer called “toxic shame,” and have woven their shattered sense of self so deeply together with the ideologies of hate that they’re one and the same.
“Those types of things inform a young person’s identity belief system, and when your identity belief system is impaired, you see yourself as worthless, not lovable, less than human,” he said. “Healthy shame is, ‘I did bad.’ Toxic shame is, ‘I am bad.’”
By the time such a hate-movement member ends up on the line with McAleer or another de-radicalization counselor – whether a former movement member or a total outsider – they are hard to reach. It’s difficult work. But with the right circumstances, and with the right resources they can bring people back from the dark side.
“It’s very difficult to engage someone when their ideology and their identity are intertwined. Mine was, completely – it wasn’t something I believed, it’s something that I was,” he said. “So the first thing we do is listen… We despise the ideology but we don’t despise the individual: Never condemn, and never concede.”
People alarmed and angered by the escalation of phenomena McAleer has spent the last 15 years of his life trying to defuse tend to crystallize much of their frustration in Trump individually. But the president is only one man, and incitement rhetoric only one facet of the lone-actor strategy.
“That despair is what gave rise to Trump. If we don’t look at that underlying despair it’s going to keep happening,” McAleer said. “I’m always hesitant to blame Trump because then it’s, ‘Well if we just get rid of Trump, it’ll all go away.’
“It takes the argument away from actually looking at the causes and finding a constructive solution to it.”