At this point, it’s no secret that white identity politics, and racial resentment writ large, has been the primary driving force behind the rise of Donald Trump. Trump, of course, played on that reality — on that ethnic revanchism, on the notion that America had become a zero-sum contest between races, rather than a country in which the fortunes of white Americans were, in reality, bettered by the improving standards of all groups. Trump spent 2016 playing footsie with white supremacists, and tapped Steve Bannon — a man whose Breitbart website had a tag dedicated to “black crime” — to help run his campaign. And despite the better angels of America’s nature, he won.
A year into the Trump presidency, questions about how that racial resentment can be unwound is a puzzle that will face sociologists and political scientists for years to come. But first-hand accounts — like the new book, White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement and How I Got Out by Christian Picciolini — can offer some insight into what motivates the individuals who populate white supremacist groups. The book details Picciolini’s ascent within the neo-Nazi movement, and his eventual transformation into an advocate for efforts to counter extremism in its multiple forms. His work culminated in helping found Life After Hate, dedicating his time to rolling back the extremist strains swelling the ranks of the groups he once knew.
Picciolini began as a man wayward, flailing, looking for a community the “white pride” movement offered, looking for a rallying point that white supremacy eventually provided. The book digs into Picciolini’s shift, and the experience of something he’d long gone without: compassion, and meaningful interactions with those beyond the white supremacists he’d surrounded himself with. The story, and the book, shows a way out — for Picciolini, and, increasingly, for America.
Picciolini spoke with ThinkProgress recently about his book’s progression, the current state of extremism in America, and how the 2016 election helped shine a light on a festering problem long ignored, and suddenly resurgent.
It feels like your book — your story — couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, especially after everything we’ve seen since 2016. What was the hope behind the book?
I started writing the book 11, 12 years ago, so I wanted to say that it’s clear I’m not just writing in response to what’s happening. This is something I’ve been talking about, warning about, for many, many years. I wanted it to be a lesson to anybody who was struggling, who felt marginalized, or who was vulnerable to any kind of extremism, or who was going down a dark path.
I got involved when I was 14 years old, not because of any kind of dogma or fundamentalism — I didn’t even know about racism; my parents are Italian immigrants — so it’s really a broken search for identity, community, and purpose. So I hope that by reading the book they recognize that they don’t have to adapt to hateful tactics because they hate themselves for whatever reason. I wanted to share my story so that other people might be able to relate to it.
So you started working on the book in 2006, 2007 — did you always have this broad outline for what you wanted to do with it?
I went to DePaul [University] while working for IBM, and one of the first classes was a reflective paper that was part of the entrance project. And I decided it was the first time to really be public, and put pen to paper about what I’d done. That 10- or 12-page paper turned into the idea for the book after people like guidance counselors and the dean read it, and said I should really tell this story. But just to step back, the inspiration for the book, even before I wanted to write, was a gentleman I’d hurt years before and reconciled with, and he encouraged me to tell my story. Him encouraging me and forgiving me in 1999 really is when it all started.
And how has it been received so far?
I think overwhelmingly it’s received positive responses from people who’ve read it — the feedback there was just incredible. I think naturally some people might be skeptical of the story because of the actual content, and I understand that, but I’d just encourage people to read the book and see themselves in my story and be vulnerable, and think of that as the ultimate form of empathy, really, to just understand what someone might have gone through.
This book takes you, takes the reader, to dark places — how vulnerable did you feel writing this, putting yourself out there for readers to pick apart?
I think the natural reaction when writing a book like this was that I was afraid of putting myself out there like that. In writing you come across emotions of having to put yourself back in situations, what that was like, uncovering things you may have suppressed. But more than anything the vulnerability has empowered me. I think we can all take comfort in being vulnerable. We live in a society that values strength and perfection, that doesn’t always value weakness — and weakness can sometimes be our greatest strength. We’re all broken in some way.
“We thought we were living in this post-racial society, when in fact we were just closing our eyes and sweeping it under the rug.”
One of the reasons the book’s gained such attention is because, at least from the outside, it seems like there’s been this swell in ranks of white supremacists, of “white pride” groups. Have you heard from any in that cohort, or from anyone who’s gotten out of the movement like you did?
I’ve gotten dozens and dozens of emails from people who either said, “I read your book,” “I heard about your book,” “I got out of the movement on my own years ago and didn’t realize there was anyone else like me.” I’ve gotten emails from people who said, “What you said, what you believe, is what I believe now, and now I realize that maybe I’m not looking at it the right way, and I could use some help or someone to talk to.” And I’ve also gotten emails from parents or friends of people or loved ones that say, “I know somebody who went through what you went through, and I think it’s what my son or daughter or friend or coworker is going through, and now I have a new approach with them, because I care about them and don’t want to lose them.”
I also get thousands of emails from people who may not go through something like that, but say that “I used to hate people like you, but now I know that maybe that would push them further down that road, and I want to show them some compassion.” Although I also get those emails that call me a “Jew-lover” and a “race traitor,” so, you know.
If it’s any consolation, I get those emails too.
You’re a journalist, so I’m sure you do, man.
So the book is out, you’ve already helped get Life After Hate off the ground — what’s next?
I’ve been pursuing this global intervention network, been traveling the world, speaking, meeting nonprofits to help people disengage. I’m very passionate about creating a larger collaborative platform, helping serve people more — and not just about the far-right. I’ve spoken to Muslim groups in Norway, Syrian groups in Stockholm, all over the world. It isn’t specific to a far-right problem. It’s a kind of a vicious cycle — and unfortunately we’re now developing this attitude in society where we’re trying to counter it sometimes in language and actions that even unknowingly help it grow.
Turning back to the U.S., it seems like everything changed in 2016 — or maybe didn’t change, per se, so much as this world came rushing out that we’d ignored for years. How do you see 2016, the discourse surrounding the election, the types of groups that gained all this prominence over the past two years?
It’s as if we lifted up a rock in the park and recognized that there are all sorts of creatures crawling underneath. Just because we couldn’t see them didn’t mean they didn’t exist. The election allowed this light to shine. It’s like we kicked a bucket of gasoline over and ignited all the sparks. We thought we were living in this post-racial society, when in fact we were just closing our eyes and sweeping it under the rug. This is something that always existed, but the election was the kind of rocket fuel that it needed, and talking about anti-immigration, or the wall, or a Muslim ban, these were all things we talked about in the neo-Nazi movement. But now they’ve taken that message and made it more palatable, and are using fear rhetoric to get people to support racist policies.
These groups, they’ve been growing in my lifetime for the last 30 years. And now we have “white nationalism” and the “alt-right” — they’ll call themselves that, but they’re white supremacists. And when we say “alt-right,” we’re using their terms. We used to call ourselves “white pride” back then, because who would have a problem with pride?
But, you know, we had a strategy back then, because we recognized that our edginess, our tattoos, our swastika flags, they were turning people away who we really wanted to recruit. We decided we were going to blend in, that we had to start to normalize ourselves, and go to college, and get jobs in law enforcement, in the military, all these things to sound and act and look like the people we wanted to recruit. And that effort kind of pushed the boulder down the hill.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.