Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor at American University and a senior fellow with the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, is an expert when it comes to radical right-wing groups around the globe. Americans often assume we are unique in every respect, but when it comes to these organizations and the ideology behind them, we face the same threats as other countries from Germany to New Zealand.
On what to call these groups, Miller-Idriss says, “I prefer the term ‘white-supremacist extremist’ — in part because I think ‘white nationalism’ can have a tendency to inadvertently soften the extreme nature of this, and because it can make it seem like it is only domestic, obscuring the global linkages.” She adds, “That said, I know we are talking about the same thing with these two terms.” In other words, white nationalism, white-supremacist extremism and far-right extremism are all terms for the same phenomenon.
She also cautions that the interaction of mental illness with extremist ideologies isn’t entirely understood, although new research suggests it is more complex than previously believed. Moreover, the sample sizes for such studies are quite small, making it difficult to reach a definitive answer. Miller-Idriss notes that Pete Simi and Bryan F. Bubolz’s work suggests that “individuals with mental-health problems may find white supremacist extremism attractive because of how it aligns with some kinds of mental-health issues (paranoia, high levels of anger, etc.). She notes that some former extremists argue that “youth who experience childhood trauma (abuse, sexual violence) are more vulnerable to white-supremacist groups.” Miller-Idriss concludes on this issue, “I would argue that we need more research on mental health across the ideological spectrum when it comes to research on the root cause of radicalization to violent action.”
The rest of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, follows.
Is the ideology you study something different than run-of-the-mill racism?
White-supremacist extremism is different than run-of-the-mill racism. Most people understand white supremacy to be based on a set of exclusionary and dehumanizing ideologies that position some groups as superior to others — this is racism, but also anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. But when we talk about white-supremacist extremism, we are also talking about two additional dimensions. The first is a sense of existential threat posed by the “other” group. In the U.S., this has historically been called “white genocide,” and in Europe, it’s often called EurAbia (the idea that Europe will eventually be under Islamic rule). They have been brought together under the unifying concept of the Great Replacement — which many people are starting to know now because it was referenced both by the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto and by the purported manifesto from the El Paso shooter. The Great Replacement is a conspirational ideology — meaning that it not only argues that whites will be demographically replaced, but also argues that this is being orchestrated by groups of elites who want to create multicultural societies and eradicate the white race. Echoes of this show up in the [George] Soros-funding-the-migrant-caravan conspiracy that motivated the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooter, for example.
The second additional dimension is what’s called acceleration. White-supremacist extremists believe that there will eventually be an apocalyptic race war which will result in a rebirth into a new world order and a restored white civilization. They believe the fastest way to get to the phase of rebirth is to accelerate societal discord and polarization through violent acts. So each of these acts is seen as heroic and one step further toward bringing about the end-times collapse and subsequent restoration of a new white civilization. White supremacy itself — the exclusionary and dehumanizing beliefs described above — is foundational to these latter dimensions. But what makes white supremacist extremism different from run-of-the-mill racism is these latter two components. These are seriously extreme and violent ideological beliefs that rely on violence as a solution to an existential threat posed by demographic change and immigration.
Do we know the degree to which public figures motivate these groups?
Rhetoric that uses the word “replace” definitely legitimizes and reinforces the idea of a great replacement. Language like “invasion,” “incursion,” “defense,” all reinforce the idea of a threat. What we know from data is that hateful speech from political leaders sparks large-scale social media hate speech, which in turn can and has inspired fringe actors to take violent action. So the link between the political rhetoric and the violent act is mediated through social media platforms, chat rooms, etc. This is shown most clearly in the data from Brian Levin (professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino) on social media spikes following political hateful rhetoric.
Is the rate of violent incidents motivated by this ideology increasing?
Yes, there has been an uptick in violent-white supremacist extremism and attacks in the U.S., but it’s not a straight line upward. The Anti-Defamation League data on this is very clear — at least 50 deaths from far right extremists in the U.S. in 2018, up from 2017 (37) but lower than 2015 (70) and 2016 (72). They report that 2018 is the fourth-deadliest year since 1970 in terms of domestic extremist deaths.
Aside from the actual numbers, what is most disturbing is the clear indication that they are inspired by each other, citing each other and drawing on similar conspiracy theories around the great replacement, the idea of an organized group of global (often Jewish) elites orchestrating multicultural societies, etc. The Christchurch shooter explicitly cited the Oslo shooter; the El Paso shooter explicitly praised the Christchurch shooter. There is a pattern here that shows how inspiration is drawn from other acts globally, not just nationally.
What, if anything, that we’ve learned about Islamic radicalization can we apply, and what basic issues should we be researching?
There are strong similarities in what draws youth in to both movements in terms of the emotional underpinnings: a desire to belong, to contribute to something bigger than themselves, a need for purpose and to enact meaning, and also expressions of anger, a sense of betrayal, resentment and the desire to resist and rebel against adults and mainstream society. We also see similarity in language around an apocalyptic end phase, restoration and sacred territory (white homelands, the Caliphate).
If I had a wish list on what research would help us combat white-supremacist extremism, it would include this: We need to know more about what kinds of early interventions are effective at building resilience to extremist narratives, building empathy, improving cross-cultural understanding, etc. We need more knowledge about the modern places and spaces where young people encounter extremist messaging, and ways to intervene in those places. We need collaborations with the private sector to help combat “algorithmic radicalization” — e.g., when youth enter the rabbit hole of far-right radicalization through “recommended links” or “what others viewed” on sites like YouTube or other platforms.
And we need serious media literacy and “Internet safety” education for youth and adults that helps people understand what they are encountering when they run across extremist content online. We have done a decent job of educating young people about Internet predators and privacy concerns, but we don’t teach them about how they might encounter extremist narratives. One colleague told me she Googled something about food prep and Tupperware, and was taken to an extreme “prepper” website — those are places that communicate the same kinds of doomsday, apocalyptic messaging that can reinforce far-right and white-supremacist-extremist ideologies. But people who are more vulnerable might not understand those sites for what they are.
The ADL recently reported that a large percentage of gamers report having encountered white-supremacist content in video games. We need parents and educators to help youth know how to recognize that content as extremist and know how to react to it.