A new book explores the strange ways young men get sucked into toxic ideologies like the alt-right. But according to the author, "many of the guys who get out quietly slip back into society."
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
It's no secret that violent American extremists—from alt-right foot soldiers to militia movement diehards to archetypical skinheads—tend to be men. And that's who Michael Kimmel studies. The sociologist at Stony Brook University has written extensively about masculinity, and just dropped a new book, Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, that explores the process by which young men latch onto fringe worldviews. His central idea is that the people who gravitate toward violent ideologies are often those who haven't been given a chance to prove their value in more typical—and mainstream—ways, like taking care of a family. Employing some of the same language he and others in his field have used to explain Donald Trump's appeal to white, rural America, Kimmel argues a sense of "aggrieved entitlement" and a longing for community are much more integral to radicalization than any particular political issue or stance.
I called the author up to prod him on exactly how young men are lured into dangerous belief systems—and, just as important, how they might be saved. The good news is that, because the ideology itself does not seem to be the main draw here, there really is a road map for redemption.
VICE: Almost invariably, the guys in your book are looking for a clique. But lot of where this radicalization is happening nowadays is on the internet. How does the increasingly large amount of time people seem to spend online shape far-right recruitment?
Michael Kimmel: I honestly don’t completely know the answer to that yet because part of it has to do with the effectiveness of online communities who actually give you the visceral experience of community. Some of these Reddit arenas and you know, Stormfront chat rooms and stuff, and some of the other, like, sort of male men’s right groups—these are places where people do feed off each other. Whether that's enough is an open question. It's initially very exciting and there’s a lot of energy, but I think the energy dissipates when you’re not asked to show up in person. And so what you may have is a constant number of people, but they’re streaming in and out. The entry and the exit are much more truncated than they used to be. Like, after a few months of it, it's like, Oh, OK, I know those guys. They never ask anything of you existentially. It's just, "Show up and yell at people."
Also, if you blend in with everyone else, it doesn’t help you toward the type of identity of opposition, a kind of sartorial display of the old skinheads. The Doc Martens. The suspenders. The white T-shirt. Or in Europe, the blousy silk bomber jacket. Camo cargo pants. That look brands you. And guys in Sweden, especially, would tell me that when they had joined up and they shaved their heads and they got all the gear and they went back to their high school, people were just, like, frozen. They were fearful, and that gave them a real rush. For that reason, skinheads—that aspect of skinhead style—sort of remains popular for guys for whom this is not sort of an ideological movement but also an identity movement.
Is it fairly routine for these guys to cycle into the far right—whether online, IRL, or both—and then cycle back out to more mainstream circles?
Yes, many of the guys who get out quietly slip back into society. I suspect that will be even more true of the guys who are sort of assimilationists. It will be a lot easier for them to have a job, have a family, go to work and all that.
I was surprised to read that some of the people who go through some of these programs to leave the far-right lifestyle don't do it because they renounce the ideology, but because their friend let them get beat up or something particular happened to upset them. Is it better for these people to harbor abhorrent views in secret—and function as part of mainstream society—as opposed to being overt skinheads?
It’s a good question. You go in because you want that kind of camaraderie and connection and brotherhood, and then the ideology is sort of added late. So when they want to leave, then the ideology can fade away. [Some guys] spend a lot of time going all over the country and talking about their experiences and what they believed and why. I think there’s a kind of redemptive value in that. Other than that, I think these guys say it was a phase and go out to get a job.
What was interesting to me was the difference between the guys who were flirting on the boundaries of white nationalism here in the US who are still very right-wing, anti-environmental, and anti-immigrant [after their "phase" and] the guys in Sweden. Many of them now vote Social Democratic because they are very strong environmentalists. They want to protect the beautiful Swedish countryside, but now it’s not necessarily from these immigrant hoards and the Jews who manipulate them.
You talk a lot about emasculation being a motivating a factor for joining the far right, but I feel like you don't explore sexual failure and the fact that a lot of these people who flirt with white nationalism are just dudes that can’t get a girlfriend.
Look, in Angry White Men, I talk about [2009 Collier Township shooter] George Sodini and [2014 Isla Vista shooter] Elliot Rodger and these guys who start murdering women because they couldn’t get laid. Elliot Rodger was furious because he was a great-looking guy and he was still a virgin, and George Sardini hadn't had a date in ten years. Yes, of course, there are those kinds of cases where you can trace it directly from sort of a sexual failure as a failure of masculinity.
I didn’t really hear much of that side of things when I interviewed these guys. What I heard instead was that one of the things that was attractive was, "Hang out with us, we have awesome parties, everyone gets drunk, and there will be girls." But that could be a fraternity advertisement to a young freshman at a large public university. It's appealing to a few adolescent guys who think they aren't having as much sex as they think they are supposed to or want to.
I guess I’m just curious how you would address that if you saw that as a motivational factor for drifting to the far right or even engaging in mass violence.
You also can’t say to women: If you put out a little more, then these guys wouldn’t join the Nazis. And by the way, that worked on the left as well. There was this poster in 1969 of Joan Baez and Mimi Farina, both sort of the beauty queens of folk music, and the poster said, "Girls say yes to boys who say no," and it was an ad against the draft. So [those kinds of appeals] can work on both sides.
On that note, do you think anarchist punks are also seeking to retrieve or restore masculinity? Is it kind of a different side of the same coin?
Sometimes I do. Some of the Swedish guys told me that at night they would all party and get drunk, and they would all take painkillers, and they would go out on the street and look for a group of immigrant guys, or Antifas, or a bunch of anarchist punks who were also drunk and on painkillers and looking for a fight. My guess is that all of those groups would be seeking to engage in this same kind of identity quest or identity demonstration just from different sides of the ideological spectrum.
Why join one versus the other? They’re in many ways diametrically opposed, but as you suggest, they seem to attract a similar type in some cases.
Similar in process but not in the substance. One guy did tell me directly, he said, "In my high school, you couldn’t be alone because everybody had to have a group, so I looked around, and there were the punkers, and the hip-hoppers, and the Antifas, and the skinheads. People were really afraid of the skinheads, so I joined them." And to pretend for a minute that this is an elaborate ideological commitment is going to kind of disappoint.
Is there any way that we as a society could do more to make this an unattractive option for disaffected young men?
Obviously some of the ways to do it are media, some of the ways to do it would be to tell the truth about how many of these guys are in jail for violent crimes and what percentage of all hate crimes are committed not by Islamic terrorists but actually by white nationalists. Some of the media representation making these guys who are out of the lifestyle into media stars would be a nice thing. I think American History X and some of the films that have been made about these guys are really useful in showing the way that that dilemma kind of works out. What the risks really are.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Learn more about Kimmel's book here.
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