‘I don’t know how you got this way’

A young neo-Nazi reveals himself to his family. And now his mother and grandmother wonder whether they can get him back.
A young neo-Nazi reveals himself to his family. And now his mother and grandmother wonder whether they can get him back.
Kam Musser spends a lot of time on his computer at home outside Columbus, Ohio, watching videos of white nationalist rallies. Despite his mother’s and grandmother’s disapproval, he continues to tout his neo-Nazi views. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The mother and son were sitting in the living room, arguing about Ellen DeGeneres again.

“She definitely helps push the degeneracy. Didn’t she have that cross-dressing little boy on?” Kam Musser, 21, said of one of her recent guests. “That little boy in makeup.”

Kam Musser spends a lot of time on his computer at home outside Columbus, Ohio, watching videos of white nationalist rallies. Despite his mother’s and grandmother’s disapproval, he continues to tout his neo-Nazi views. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“He’s a makeup artist,” said his mother, Kirsten, 48, correcting him. “What’s wrong with that? . . . He does a beautiful job.”

“I don’t think putting makeup on little boys is very kosher.”

“He’s not hurting anybody or himself.”

“Okay,” he said, rolling his eyes. “He does what he does; I do what I do.”

What Kam was doing, and what he wasn’t, had come to dominate so much in their lives. He was two years out of high school now, and he didn’t have a job, or a car, or a place of his own, or much money beyond what his mother gave him — nothing at all to occupy his time except a computer that had carried him to the most extreme parts of the Internet, and to beliefs that no one in his family could understand. In the year since the 2016 presidential election, Kam had gone from supporting white supremacists, to joining a neo-Nazi group, to shouting “white lives matter” at a rally, to standing beside Richard Spencer outside the White House, to increasingly tense conversations with his mother and grandmother, both of whom were beginning to fear that what they had once thought was just a phase was quickly becoming his life.

How did this happen?

Where did these ideas come from?

Could he still be saved?

Kam Musser and his mother, Kirsten, have tense discussions because of his beliefs. Kam has been out of high school for two years, and he doesn't have a job, a car, a place of his own, or much money beyond what his mother gives him. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

These are questions being asked here and across America, as many among the growing number of young white supremacists — raised in an era scarred by recession, upturned by social change and governed by the first African American president — reveal themselves to their families. In Fargo, N.D., the realization ruptured one family: “Peter Tefft, my son, is not welcome at our family gatherings any longer,” his father said in a public letter after his son joined a white nationalist rally. In Wenonah, N.J., another father uncomfortably accommodates what he abhors: “People expect me to condemn my son,” Bob Stankard said. “But my son is my son.” In Greenland, N.H., another family doesn’t yet know the truth: “I tell [my parents] I’m a feminist, and I run a fake Instagram to throw them off,” said an 18-year-old white nationalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m living a double life.”

And in this suburb, just outside Columbus, there was this: one more discussion coming to a frustratingly abrupt conclusion between a mother and son who felt as though they didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore.

“I just think they’re pushing all the trannies and stuff,” Kam said of “Ellen.”

“They’re not pushing it, though!” Kirsten said.

“You just went to a bar with a bunch of drag queens. You have an opinion bias right now,” he said. “You’re going to say Hitler was a cross-dresser next.”

“He was gay is what I heard.”

“Okay,” he said, laughing sarcastically. “All the lies about World War II.”

“And he was a horrible painter, too.”

“He wasn’t a horrible painter. I like his stuff,” Kam said. “Where do you get your information from?”

“High school.”

“You were getting shoved all that propaganda down your throat. . . . They got to reach you young. Got to shove it down your throat right away so you buy it. I don’t believe the whole entire narrative of the Holocaust,” he said, referring to Nazi Germany’s murder of 6 million Jews during World War II.

Looking irritated, Kirsten stood up and walked into the kitchen — past the message she’d written for Kam on the refrigerator, saying, “When you chose the behavior, you chose the consequences” — but he kept on talking.

“A lot of it was most definitely fabricated by the Soviets,” he said. “That’s my personal belief.”

She came back to the living room. He looked at her. He sighed.

“I don’t talk about this to all the normies,” he continued.

I’m a normie,” she replied and then stood up and left again.

Kam Musser lives at home with his mother, Kirsten. In the year since the 2016 presidential election, Kam had gone from supporting white supremacists, to joining a neo-Nazi group, to increasingly tense conversations with his mother and grandmother, who were beginning to fear that what they had once thought was just a phase was quickly becoming his life. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

They live in the most suburban of American neighborhoods — wide roads, lines of trees, two-story houses in every direction — and inside one of those houses, on the second floor, is the room where Kam sometimes retreats after these arguments. It was where he was sitting one late morning when Kirsten came in, saw him unshowered and in sweats and a sleeveless T-shirt, and wearily said, “Kam, have you let the dogs out?”

He said he had.

“Okay, love you.”

“Love you, too,” said Kam, who shared his story on the condition that The Washington Post withhold his family members’ last name, which is different from his, as well as the name of the suburb where they live. And then his mother was off to her job as a businessman’s personal assistant, and he was alone again, with so much time it felt suffocating, so he hit a button on his keyboard and woke his computer. It sat on a desk strewn with pamphlets bearing titles such as “The Truth Behind the Jewish Talmud,” a lighter emblazoned with a swastika, a business card that read, “It’s not illegal to be White . . . yet” and cited a website glorifying the Nazi regime, and a stack of books: “The American Militant Nationalist Manifesto,” “Trump: The Art of the Deal” and “Fatherland,” a novel set in a world where Germany had won World War II.

He got on Facebook and scrolled. Here came and went a picture showing scowling white nationalists in black. Next up was a post from a group called “White People Vs. Black People.” Then a post saying, “Name something blacks invented.” Later an image of an 18-year-old blond Frenchwoman he called his girlfriend. Kam had never met her, but she had been telling him she wanted to move in with him, and he hoped it was true.

The scrolling stopped. The only sound in the house was the hum of his computer and the flick of the swastika lighter he held in one hand. With the other, he reached for his phone to check his messages. A white nationalist friend who’d told him he’d like to meet up still hadn’t called. Back to Facebook, back to scrolling.

There were so many things he thought he could be doing. He had a bench press in the garage that he wanted to use more, to get in the kind of shape his group wanted its members to be in. There was the application to Columbus State Community College, the one his mother and grandmother told him to get on with, but he didn’t know what he wanted to be, or how he’d get to campus, 12 miles away. Or should he look for a job? He’d hardly worked in months, since biking to his moving job became too difficult. Afterward, he applied to a few places within walking distance, except for fast food restaurants. But the CVS didn’t get back to him. Neither did the Beer Barrel Pizza & Grill. He had two interviews at the Speedway, but nothing came of them, and he was left wondering whether they’d found his Facebook page.

Kam Musser walks the family's three rescue dogs. His mother feels a sense of shame that her son is so dedicated to a cause that she not only finds repugnant, but that seems so distant from the Kam she thought she knew. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

He had never thought what he posted was particularly incendiary. They were just his opinions, like how it was wrong that the country was becoming less white every day, and the “double standards” he saw benefiting minorities, and all the lies about the American Dream. How the life he thought should be his — with a car, a job, a wife, a house — was somewhere out there, and he instead was here, the son of an alcoholic father who died of cirrhosis of the liver. The confidant of a mother who, left struggling for money, had married a man he felt had ridiculed and neglected him. The student who a friend recalled as an “outsider,” so disconnected that he didn’t sit for a senior photo. The isolated young man who, increasingly convinced that Barack Obama favored African Americans over whites, consumed thread after thread on Stormfront, an online forum filled with white supremacists, growing more radical as peers scorned him, calling him a racist and a Nazi, and he scorned them back.

“If you believe white privilege is a thing we’re not friends,” he wrote in January 2016 on Facebook.

Then: “I don’t care what your relation to me is, if you believe the BLM movement is anything but a sham, unfriend me,” he wrote of Black Lives Matter in July 2016. “You are now my enemy.”

Then: “I find it hilarious ‘friends’ that turned their back on me would ask me for help,” he wrote in March 2017. “The f—— nerve.”

Around that time, he dispatched another message. This one he wrote to a group he had heard of on Facebook. The Traditionalist Worker Party championed a whites-only ethno-state, ruled by Nazi Party edict and headed by men who believe in traditional gender roles. Kam had already been in another white nationalist group, but he liked this one better because it seemed to advocate more for disaffected whites, and because he felt like one, too.

On the other end of his message was a recruiter for the group, which over several years had gone from a few dozen members to more than 1,200 nationally, reflecting growth in neo-Nazi groups nationally — from 99 to 121 in 2017 — according to a report published this month by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of the new recruits are young white men like Kam, men who feel “humiliated,” said Matthew Parrott, co-founder of the Traditionalist Workers Party. “It’s all relative to what your community expects of you, and what your family expects of you, and what you expect of yourself,” he said. “ . . . And they’re sitting at their mom’s house with everyone laughing at them, and it’s a toxic thing.”

Matt Parrott, left, and Matthew Heimbach voice their displeasure to reporters after a court hearing for James Alex Fields Jr. in Charlottesville on Aug. 14, 2017. A judge denied bond for Fields, who is charged with plowing his car into a crowd at a white nationalist rally and killing one woman. Parrott and Heimbach founded the Traditionalist Worker Party, which champions a whites-only ethno-state ruled by Nazi Party edict. Kam Musser is a member. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Kam, sitting in his mom’s house months later, a dues-paying member now, a rally-goer, part of the “fellowship,” continued clicking through his Facebook timeline, as morning turned to afternoon and another white nationalist podcast came on.

“Nearly 40,000 illegals,” the podcast said.

“I’m dreaming of a whiteface Christmas,” the timeline said.

“This is bad,” the podcast said.

“F—— K1KES,” the timeline said.

“This has got to stop, man,” the podcast said. “This has got to f—— stop stop.”

“Jewish f—— puppet,” the timeline said.

Kam’s mom knocked. She stood at the doorway for a moment. But it wasn’t the Nazi paraphernalia or the 9mm handgun in a Traditionalist Worker Party holster beside Kam’s bed that seemed to grab her attention.

“Where did you get that monitor?” was all she asked.

“I’ve had this monitor,” he said.

“Oh, never mind, you can see I hardly ever come in here,” she said, closing the door behind her.

Kam Musser spends a lot of time in his bedroom each day scrolling through white-supremacist websites. “If you believe white privilege is a thing we're not friends,” he wrote on Facebook in January 2016. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Why couldn’t she talk to him? Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t she just say that neo-Nazism had no place in her home, that either he stops this, or he goes? She hadn’t even been able to bring herself to research the Traditionalist Worker Party, too scared of what she might discover about her son, who felt more distant every day.

So it was easier to ignore it, to focus on things still in her control. Get the bills paid, the laundry done, the fridge stocked. And do as she was doing now, after arriving home from work — opening a Busch Light, starting a cigarette and turning on “Ellen,” resigning herself to this being just one more thing in her life that hadn’t gone according to plan. Her first husband had loved her, but alcohol more, so she left him. Her second try had been more than a decade of marital warfare, the first half as an unhappy couple, and the latter as divorcing combatants. By the time the lawyers were done, Kam’s younger sister no longer wanted to talk to her, and still didn’t to this day.

Through it all, there had been Kam. The happiest she’d ever been was the time between marriage one and two, when it was just him and her, and the only thing she wanted in this world was to make him feel safe. A little overweight and introverted, but sensitive with family, he had always seemed vulnerable to her. And with everything he would ultimately go through — his dad’s death, the divorces, the moves her love life put them through — she could never bring herself to come down hard on him. Hadn’t he dealt with enough already? Even when he did poorly in school, or showed no ambition whatsoever, or couldn’t hold a job, she went easy on him, and even now, she felt as though she was still mothering him.

“Did you eat?” she asked him. “Did you pack a sandwich or something?”

“No, I haven’t eaten today,” he said, not looking up from his phone, thumbs a whir.

She looked at him for a moment longer — at his short beard, sharp features, all the pudginess gone — and then went back to watching television.

It was soon after the election that she noticed more changes in him. He had always been fascinated by World War II, researching military arcana and collecting memorabilia. He displayed vintage flags in the basement, including the Third Reich’s, and uniforms, including an SS soldier’s, which he wore sitting in front of the house on Halloween, German shepherd at his feet, giving candy to children. But in the months after the election, the obsession started to seem less harmless. There were anti-Semitic posts on his Facebook wall. He spent more time in his room, late into the night, podcasts going. He started saying things that scared her. One night, he went on and on about the Jewish cast of “Saturday Night Live,” until she told him to go to bed. Another day, he started “barking his agenda” at a family lunch, and she wondered where this had come from. One of his childhood friends was African American, and so is her best friend, whom he calls “Aunt Tammy.” Another aunt is Jewish. He had always known racial diversity growing up near Columbus.

Fox News Channel blares in Kam Musser’s bedroom. His desk is strewn with pamphlets bearing titles such as “The Truth Behind the Jewish Talmud,” a lighter emblazoned with a swastika, a business card that reads, “Its not illegal to be White ... yet” and cites a website glorifying the Nazi regime, and a stack of books, including “The American Militant Nationalist Manifesto.” (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

She finished watching “Ellen,” and then came the news.

The lead story featured developments in a high-profile criminal case in which an African American man was alleged to have kidnapped, raped and killed a white Ohio State University student. The defense was accusing the prosecution of “racial bias,” the newsman said. It wouldn’t be considering the death penalty if “his victim had been a black girl.”

“They’re saying he wouldn’t be sentenced to death if it was a black girl,” Kirsten said.

“The lawyers are trying to say it wouldn’t be appropriate?” Kam said.

“Because it would be different if it was a black girl.”

He chuckled in apparent disbelief.

She stared at him, now feeling disbelief herself.

“Do you not get it?” she asked, and he didn’t say anything.

Who was he becoming? What was this group doing to him? Was it a cult?

She couldn’t put it off any longer. She had to know. She reached for her phone. She plugged in the name that for so long she had tried to ignore.

“Traditionalist Worker Party.”

Said Wikipedia: “. . . neo-Nazi, white nationalist group . . .”

Said the Southern Poverty Law Center: “. . . advocates for racially pure nations and communities and blames Jews for many of the world’s problems.”

Said a party tenet: “Citizenship in the ethno-state must therefore be limited to White persons, and White persons alone.”

She shook her head, sighed, looked at her son, put down the phone.

“It makes my stomach hurt,” she said.

“What?” he asked. “The reading?”

“The description,” she said.

She felt a sadness come over her, and a sense of shame, that her son was so dedicated to a cause she not only found repugnant, and was certain would never yield anything, but seemed so distant from who he was. She knew him, and there wasn’t hatred there. The words on the screen — that wasn’t her Kam. This had to be a phase. It just had to be.

Kam Musser, center, and other members of the Traditionalist Worker Party protest at a White Lives Matter rally in Shelbyville, Tenn., on Oct. 28, 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

But increasingly, family members were finding that difficult to believe. Like the day, weeks later, he headed for the door with his backpack festooned with white pride pins. He told Kirsten he was off to Knoxville, where some of “our guys” were planning to protest a feminist rally. Or the time, after his return, after “My Borders My Choice” had been painted at a Knoxville university, he was sitting downstairs and said things were picking up.

“A TWP business is in the works,” he said. “They’re starting a . . . warehouse in Tennessee, and it’s got a free room if I came and worked with them.”

“What do you mean free room and board?” Kirsten asked. “A commune?”

“Something like that,” he said.

She nodded slowly, trying to absorb what he was saying. He was going to live and work with neo-Nazis? But she didn’t press him, and then it was hours later, and Kam’s phone was ringing, with someone who did want to press him.

It was his grandmother Bobbie, and she said they had to talk.

For months, Bobbie had stayed quiet, which hadn’t come easily. She was quiet when he told her in December that he wanted to throw a white nationalist barbecue on her property, a sweep of woods a 45-minute drive from Columbus. And then again, a week later, when a few men arrived with him, wearing black. She had wanted so badly to confront them, to ask what they were doing with her grandson, but instead she said nothing at all, sensing it wasn’t the right time to say what she wanted. That she believed in an America where people could think whatever they wanted. That she had an open mind and knew what it was to adopt controversial positions — first as a League of Women Voters activist, then as an outspoken government critic — but that this seemed different.

It was now weeks later, and she was ready to tell him just how different. There had to be some kind of intervention, she had been thinking. What Kam was doing had gone far enough, so she called him and asked whether he could get lunch.

The next day, she pulled into a parking lot near the house where he lived with Kirsten and tried to gather herself. She thought of her daughter. She didn’t know why Kirsten wasn’t harder on him. “Kirs the fierce” — that’s what she used to call her — and she wondered where that had gone, just as she wondered so many other things. She wondered whether Kirsten’s strained relationship with her daughter had made her fearful of endangering what she had with Kam. She wondered why it had come down to her, the grandma, to talk with him. But most of all, she wondered what words she should use.

“I should have a plan,” she thought aloud. She looked at her hands. She knew she had to be careful. She didn’t want to risk losing him. But she needed an answer to a question she didn’t think anyone in the family had asked.

Where had these beliefs come from? How did a boy with his background, raised by people who held such progressive values, end up with these views?

Feeling ready, she pulled out of the parking lot. She drove down the wide streets, past all the two-story homes, and their mailboxes and neat yards and driveways, and pulled up to her daughter’s house. She got out, went inside without knocking and saw the blinds were drawn.

“Kamden?” she said into the darkness.

Kam Musser's grandmother Bobbie has been involved with liberal causes and acknowledges that she gets frustrated with her grandson's extremist views. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

She had become so accustomed to seeing him in the camouflage cargo pants, boots and sleeveless T-shirts with Nordic symbols that Bobbie was surprised to find him dressed in a handsome sweater, jeans and new-looking tennis shoes. “My boy,” she said, hugging him. “I love that sweater. Is that cashmere?”

She told him that she’d made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, and together they went to her car, then to a table near the entrance, then the menus were in their hands, and here they finally were, ready to talk, but she didn’t know where to begin. She put on her glasses, took them off. She asked him to text Kirsten to join them. She watched him for a moment, said, “So . . .” and picked up her menu again. “I’m going to see what I want to eat, then we can talk.”

The restaurant was so loud, with music playing, and televisions going, and other people carrying on, that the first words that came out of Bobbie were almost impossible to hear.

“I wonder,” she soon said. “Your dad was a liberal, and your mom is a liberal, and your grandpa is definitely a liberal. . . . I’m trying to think how this all got started.”

“It’s just the type of society that’s going on right now,” Kam said.

“Did you discover it over the Internet?”

“I guess you could say that,” he said. “I wasn’t approached by anybody.”

“And what made you . . .” Bobbie started, trailing off, stumbling. “Do you disagree with anything, the precepts you told me about?” she said, referencing Traditionalist Worker Party doctrine.

“I can’t think of anything specific,” he said.

“But don’t you have something else that you want to do?” she asked.

“Right now, no,” he said.

“I guess I just wanted more for you,” she continued, pressing him on it now, getting into everything she’d wanted to say, her fears for his safety and future, the repercussions he wasn’t considering, even though she could tell he was becoming uncomfortable. “If your circumstances were different, if you had some money, if you had a car and could do whatever you wanted to do, what would you do?”

“It probably wouldn’t be too different,” he said shortly. Then he pushed back his chair and stood. Bobbie watched as he tugged at the sweater that made him look like the young man she wanted to see, the one who could still have all the successes she wished for him. He took it off, folded it neatly and sat back down. Under the sweater was a white nationalist T-shirt, and now its words were exposed to Bobbie and to anyone who bothered to look.

“Local Solutions To The Globalist Problem,” it said, listing his group’s web address.

She stared at it.

“Oh, Kamden, Kamden,” she said. “My boy. I don’t know. I thought you’d go off and do something wonderful.”

Kirsten holds a photo of Kam when he was 18 months old. She still hopes that his extreme views are just a phase. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Then she had a thought.

“Your Aunt Tammy is black,” she said.

“I don’t hate black people,” he said.

“But you don’t want to live with them?”

“No.”

“I mean,” was all she could say. “I mean.”

“It’s not a subject I’d like to talk about right now.”

“In America, we cross cultures, and we always have,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean we have to flood the country with so many different races that we all mold into a brown plate of —” he said without finishing the sentence. “When all of these races come together to express their own unique culture, then nobody gets to have anything expressed anymore because all of their cultures are destroyed in this process, and then you’re left with a cultural mutt that doesn’t know where to go in life, that hates themselves and hates everything around them.”

There were 11 seconds of silence.

“Whites are being bred out,” he said.

“I don’t see all of that,” she said.

He hit the table. It shook.

“You don’t have to see it!” he said. “You just have to look at the . . . statistics!”

She could feel him slipping away. He was shaking his head.

“Honey,” she said. “I just don’t get it. You have all these people in your family who are so liberal and so compassionate. I don’t know how you got this way.”

He didn’t respond to that, just stared at his food.

“If I told you I would never talk to you again unless you leave this group, what would you say?”

“I would leave the group,” he said. “But I wouldn’t change how I feel.”

She felt some relief in having that, at least, and reached out and touched his arm. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “I’m truly exhausted. This whole thing.”

“I understand your frustration,” he answered, and there was nothing left to say, so they finished their meals, looking up to see Kirsten arrive, smiling and fresh off work.

“Hi!” she said. “Did you guys have lunch?”

Bobbie paid the bill, Kam put his sweater back on and everyone got up to leave. They drove to the house, and the family got out: the son who had made his choice between extremism and putting his family at ease. The mother who couldn’t bring herself to confront what she feared in him. The grandmother who had wanted to know whether this really was him, and now had her answer.

They went inside. Bobbie said she had some things to do and left. Kirsten said she had to go to the grocery store. Kam had nowhere to go at all, so he went upstairs, closing the door to his room behind him. He was still there when Kirsten returned a little later. Normally he would come out and help her bring everything in, but this afternoon, he didn’t. His room stayed dark. She carried the food and beer inside herself.

Opening one, she sat down on the couch. There still wasn’t a sound from upstairs. So she took a sip, picked up the remote, turned on the television, and flipped it to something that would make her feel good.

“Here she is now,” the announcer on the television said, as the crowd cheered, “Ellen DeGeneres! ”

Photos on a laptop computer from a recent white nationalist rally in Tennessee are reflected in Kam Musser's sunglasses. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

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Credits: Story by Terrence McCoy. Designed by Kazi Awal.