CHICAGO – A day before the United States President called himself “The Chosen One,” a reformed Nazi predicted Christian fundamentalists view Donald Trump as an end to a means: the Apocalypse.
Violent extremists strive for RaHoWa, or a racial holy war, while Christian fundamentalists pray for the “Second Coming,” with rivers of blood, dead walking the earth, a time when all will be judged. The difference between white supremacists and religious fundamentalists boils down to semantics, Christian Picciolini said.
“I really do believe that in many ways they see Trump as their Jesus figure,” Picciolini said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s done wrong. I’m not saying they actually see him as ‘The Chosen One,’ but they see him as this prophet. They’re willing to forgive his sins for the greater mission. There is very little difference with walking into a fundamentalist Christian church than walking into Christian Identity meeting.”
Christian Identity ideologoy is a racist, anti-Semitic, white supremacist interpretation of Christianity, and their messages have been resonating with young, white males. Similar to American Identity groups including Identity Evropa, rebranded in March as American Identity Movement or AIM, which targeted North Dakota universities in 2018, such groups claim to be patriotic, but only to those who share their own ideals and skin color.
Picciolini joined a neo-Nazi skinhead group 30 years ago, but left in 1996. Born to Italian immigrants, his family struggled financially when he was young. He now fights to extract people from violent extremist groups. Picciolini is the author of “White American Youth,” and also a speaker, a consultant, and reformed extremist. He is an Emmy Award-winning director/producer, a MSNBC contributor, and runs the Free Radicals Project where former extremists like himself can find counseling and help leaving extremist movements.
“Yes. The language that is coming from the President and the Administration mirrors identically what I used to believe 30 years ago,” Picciolini said. “He may not use the ‘N’ word publicly, he may not be talking about Hitler or the 14 words, he is really feeding people with this underlying current of phobia and creating a racial holy war: white Christians against the rest of the world.
“There is very, very little difference except for the fact that fundamentalists are not outright saying that white people are better. They’re using different language. They say the ‘faithful,’ are better, and for the people in that church they’re white and they’re Christian. They don’t associate the Christian with anybody else, and if they are it’s a different kind of bastardized Christianity.”
“And that’s scary because there are a lot of traditional evangelical and fundamentalist churches that deep down are very much the same type of thing.”
White supremacist violent extremism is linked to fundamentalist Christianity, and has been integral in the rise of violent extremism in America, but the hatred of ‘others’ was brought over from Europe, long ago.
“The misconception is that this started with Nazi Germany, but the Nazis got their ideas from America and eugenics in the U.S., which was massive in the 1920s, the whole idea of breeding the perfect white person,” Christian Picciolini said.
“White supremacists and extremism has existed in the U.S. for over 400 years. So it’s always been here, and it’s always been normalized, and the fact of the matter is now we’re saying ‘Oh, it’s being normalized,’ no, we’re just seeing it now, and we’re fighting for it not to be normalized any more.
“This is a new thing. When you go back to the ideals of America and say racism doesn’t belong here, but the fact is that it is what we’re about. Now we’re just making the turn to not be like that anymore.”
Mark Juergensmeyer, a leading national writer and speaker on religious violence, believes the rise of religious nationalism began at the end of the Cold War.
“If you want to know why people are doing the things they’re doing you go and talk to them,’ Juergensmeyer said in a 2017 video. He has traveled across the world speaking to religious leaders who promote violence against those that hold differing beliefs.
“These instances of what we see as terrorism… bring us into the world view of the people who are perpetrating it and their world view is that of a world at war,” Juergensmeyer said. “We are engaged almost immediately when a terrorist acts around the world. We are brought in almost immediately into that sense of confrontation.”
For instance, Juergensmeyer never interviewed Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, but he studied McVeigh’s manifesto. McVeigh wasn’t a churchgoer, but he believed in “cosmotheism,” which views Christendom and the white male as a social structure under peril. Today, such beliefs purport that Islam is invading the world, including America.
Extremism appeals to young males, of any culture and religion, who are called on to be a soldier taking part in a great struggle, Juergensmeyer said.
“In all these cases there is this image of a war, a great battle, a great struggle, where young men, and they are invariably men, who are called in part for reasons of machismo to come out and defend society to defend their people, and there’s a religious element to it in that they feel that the threat is from people who are not ‘us,’” Juergensmeyer said.
A state like North Dakota is a potential target for radical extremists, Picciolini said. In 2017, small towns across the state were targeted for “Pioneer Little Europes,” not dissimilar to what neo-Nazi Craig Cobb attempted in Leith in 2012.
“Places like North Dakota are interesting because they are one of those states that most everybody forgets about, right?” Picciolini said. “Not a whole lot happens there. It’s kind of a peaceful little rural state. So it’s really easy for somebody to come along and say ‘Hey, we want to keep the status quo. We want to go back to what was a great America when we were left alone, when we were not taxed – in their opinion – to the equalization of other people that feels like our oppression.’
“They want to go back to the comfort that they had and not progress, which is not comfortable. So you see places like North Dakota be the hit places where people like Craig Cobb will go to try and take over a small town, or where you see militia groups training paramilitary style because hearing gunshots across 50 acres of land is not that unusual.
“They’ve always kind of seen the upper Northwest area of the United States as what they want to carve out as a white homeland. It’s very white, very quiet, and to them that means safety. They used to call it Casscadia, which is why you see Aryan Nations in places like Idaho.
“Where there’s a lot of room, a lot of space between people for them that means safety.”
Typically, extremists use kernels of truth wrapped in lies to attract recruits and sympathizers.
“Fear tactics but also creating the conditions that keep people afraid,” Picciolini said. “If you want to keep talking about how bad immigration is, well you keep the immigration scenario really broken, because then you have something to talk about. Or if you want to talk about crime in inner cities well you make sure that it keeps happening, and as long as it doesn’t touch you and it’s quarantined to a certain area it can get as bad as it can and we can keep talking about it. Somebody in North Dakota can talk about the decay on the coasts or in New York, and it never touches them, but it keeps people afraid because they say it will touch you if you are not careful.”
Jews are easy to pick on because they are a minority and they hold positions of power, Picciolini said. Number two on hate groups’ hit list are “race traitors.”
“The worst thing you can do is to be a traitor and also an ally to the Jews,” Picciolini said. “After that it’s blacks, and down the line is Native Americans who are probably the lowest on the list.”
Typically Natives are not on violent extremists’ radar because America’s Indigenous population is comparatively small in most states. When Native issues are covered by the media, for instance 2016’s Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, Nazis will look for an opening to spread fear.
“If it’s something they can latch on to with a kernel of truth they will wrap it up with a million pounds of lies,” Picciolini said. “And then you can’t argue with it because they bury the kernel of truth.
“There is a refugee crisis; nobody can dispute that. We are facing some kind of a crisis right now. The way that they paint it, wrapped in a million pounds of wrapping paper, is that they’re raping our women, they’re coming over illegally, they’re taking away resources, terrorists, jobs, they feed in all of these lies into this kernel of truth. If you peel the layers back you may find some truth in that.”
All of the paranoia surrounding immigrants is rooted in unfounded fear, but more importantly about protecting political and social power, Picciolini said.
“Hatred is born of ignorance: fear is its father, and isolation is its mother,” Picciolini said. “If you target people who are isolated, you can make them afraid of what they don’t know. You can keep them afraid of that, and then eventually the ‘others’ turn into the enemy. If you are afraid and you are isolated and you never give yourself the opportunity to see for yourself through the ruse, well there is no white genocide. We’ve been on this planet for a million years, and we’re still here.
“It’s about control. White men still control power in the whole world, not just the United States, and to them the equalization of others, equalization of women, of people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, that to them, even though nothing is being taken away from them, feels like oppression. I used to own this control and now I don’t.
“Nothing is being taken away from them. To them that feels like I am giving something up.”
How to argue with a Nazi?
“Good question,” Picciolini said. “The way I answer that in a short way is, no you cannot argue. You cannot change someone’s mind. You cannot debate with radical ideology and expect to win, there is no fact that you can use that they won’t counter with lies.
“Let’s say you have a twin brother, and he went to one school that taught two plus two equals five, and you went to one school that taught two plus two is four.
Based on his environment, you get together for a family event and math comes up, and there is really nothing you can say to that person even in the short time to change their mind.
“This is their reality. It’s not necessarily about winning their hearts and minds with facts, the way I do it is letting them come to the conclusion that they are wrong rather than me telling them they are wrong, and that’s like putting them in situations that challenge the way they think so that they are emotionally coming through the change.”
Picciolini does immersions with violent extremists and white supremacists. He introduces them to those they hate.
“Holocaust deniers with Holocaust survivors, and it becomes an emotional change at that point,” Picciolini said. “I put them together to connect as people, and once they connect as people then it’s safe to go into ‘This is what I experienced.’
“And I am not saying that you not believing me is wrong, but to lead you to believe my reality is a possibility. The more that happens people come to the conclusion that they have been dehumanizing people and now they are humanizing them by sharing in these experiences. Then the two plus two equals four is at least a possibility.”
Nazis for the ‘working man’ lie
Nationalist Socialists say they’re fighting for the proletariat, the working man, but in reality they only care if that working man or woman is of their own ethnic and cultural background.
Socialized medicine for all? Nazis would never support because it would help black people, Asians, Middle Easterners, Natives, essentially everyone who is an American.
“National socialism, people say it’s socialism but it’s not,” Picciolini said. “It’s the opposite of socialism. The socialist part isn’t exclusive, it’s attached to the nationalist, so we are going to be social socialists, but only for the benefit of our people and not the benefit of people.”
Using the terminology that they fight for their own proletariat, Nazis and other like-minded groups have to discover a way not to help those they deem as undesirable.
“Who’s really causing the problems in terms of what’s happening in the world?” Picciolini said. “It is big business in most cases, and I would agree with that. But when they blame immigrants for losing jobs, but is it immigrants taking those jobs or is it big business moving those jobs? But they blame immigrants because they don’t have the power to make decisions.”
Civic nationalists vs. white nationalists
“NSM doesn’t bother me,” Picciolini said. “As a matter of fact, Jeff Schoep who is the leader of the NSM, (Nationalist Socialist Movement), I’ve been working with him for six months. He’s out. Nobody knows it yet. It starting to come out and some day on MSNBC there will be an episode I am doing. They don’t scare me because they’re visible, we know what they’re about.
“One of the most dangerous areas of white nationalism is eco fascism, because so many of the things they talk about is climate change, destroying the earth, big business and their power, topics you can find in any Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter or anywhere and say ‘Yeah, we agree with that.’ But the way they paint it is to turn us against each other and keep us afraid, they create those conditions to where things are polarized so they can continue to keep using their fear rhetoric.”
“Identitarianism is scary to me because like American Identity movement does resonate with young white males who are patriotic and do believe they want to be something bigger than themselves, of course at the exclusion of other people because they paint it as ‘White men are the most oppressed people right now.’ Well white men are being talked about a lot right now because in a lot of cases they’re being caught at misogyny, sexual assault, misappropriation of funds at the highest levels of business and government. Yes, we should be demonizing those white males, but they paint it as all white males. And that is just not the case.”
Identitariansim is a post-World War II European far right ideology asserting the right of peoples from European descent to their own culture and territory.
“I can be an American and not support the President’s policies, and not be anti-American. I’m still a proud American and patriot and I hate the things that Trump is doing. I can still be pro Israel, pro Jewish and say you know what it seems a lot of the things they’re doing are things I don’t agree with, but of course you have to be really, really careful because we’ve seen what has happened with certain people who have been critical of Israel, now apparently they hate all Jewish people, according to the President.
“But the American Identity Movement, they’re tough to convince people that they’re bad, because they’re civic minded, they’re civic nationalist versus white nationalists. They want to make America a better, safer place – at least that’s what they say, and of course to the exclusion of any non-white, so their mainstreaming in the media is scary because it’s unleashing a toxic substance that tastes like candy.
“You don’t know it’s poison until you’re in, and once you recognize that you want to leave, leaving is very, very hard, and society is not very welcoming once you’ve been there.”
‘We’re all just a little bit broken’
“We put people in prison and we don’t offer them any real rehabilitation while they are in prison and once they get back out we say you’re just an ex-con, it’s like we’ve cancelled them, once they’ve made that mistake. It’s like they are forever cancelled, and it’s kind of the same way with radicalization. Once you are an extremist, people don’t believe you and fail to recognize that at one point you weren’t an extremist and then became one.
“Why is it not possible to go back to that person you were before you were an extremist? People make mistakes and I’m not trying to whitewash anything, and some people atone for them. And the ones that want to atone for them and want to be better need to be given the space to do that.
“We have people in prison. We have a captive audience, we should be doing everything possible to rehabilitate them so when they’re out of prison we’re not worried about them going back.
Since the war on drugs began, most ex-cons are painted as irredeemable.
“We should make it mandatory, like they’re at university or counseling or developing skills they can use in the real world, because if we are not doing that then we are creating again the conditions of this cycle.
“The truth is, most people who go to prison end up being worse than before going in. Because one, the opportunities for them once they get out are not there. Lack of opportunity is what keeps people attached to extremist behavior, whether it’s crime, drugs, suicide, Nazism, ISIS, whatever, and when they get out we expect them to live up to our standards in the real world, not only by not giving them the tools to operate, but they’re expected to be a productive member of society when we haven’t given them space to practice.
“We’re all just a little bit broken. We’re all insecure to a certain degree. Nobody is perfect although we all pretend to be. The universality of our brokenness is actually the glue that can keep us together once we recognize that we’re all just a little big broken.
“But we’re all afraid to admit that none of us are perfect, and in reality it’s just as easy for any person on earth to become a Nazi. It’s not about ideology, it’s not about people being racist, it’s about the conditions of why we’re standing up to the point where it detours us to a place where there are extreme narratives. Frankly, right now, we’re living in an extremist environment.
“Since 9/11, if you were born in 2001 or later, every single thing that has happened in the world is extremist: 9/11, we went to war in Afghanistan, we had a first black President, right after that we have an openly racist President. We’ve had other attacks; we’ve had ISIS. What positive things have happened in the last 19 years? The environment they were born into was a polarized, hateful, prejudiced environment, more so than when I was a kid. And if I was afraid in my environment and I went to an extremist ideology, imagine the things young people are getting attached to these days?
“If we can only repair the human infrastructure. We’re focused on an ideological battle, but really it is a public health problem.”
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