How It Works > What Attracts Young People to White Nationalism?

What Attracts Young People to White Nationalism?

Young people are in a time of transition. They’re moving from childhood to adulthood, seeking to discover their identity and purpose in life. Adolescents often seek increased independence from family patterns and broader bonding with peers as part of this process. Rapid physical, emotional, and social changes can make them feel unsure and vulnerable. Powerful hormones are raging, and while they may demand to be treated as adults, neurologically, their brains are still growing.

White nationalist groups appeal to these everyday adolescent developmental needs. They offer young people a clear us-versus-them identity and tell a dramatic crisis narrative that places that identity under imminent threat. White nationalists encourage young people to join their groups and become part of a community working together to face this crisis, picturing opportunities to play a heroic role in the country’s future.

A sense of identity

White nationalism is founded on a simple us-versus-them framework and offers something many teenagers crave: a clear identity as a member of an exclusive “in” group, in this case, one based on race. White nationalism treats race as central to the identity of every person. It gives any young white person a chance to define themselves by membership in a large and influential group, and see themselves reflected in the positive accomplishments of historical and contemporary figures whose race they share.

For young white men, most white nationalist groups also provide a culture of assertive masculinity that provides a simple way to “be a man” and feel accepted. Although girls and women are far less common in white nationalist movements, some groups offer identity roles as support for male leadership or as models of idealized virtues such as young motherhood and domestic skills.

A sense of certainty

Like many forms of militant extremism, white nationalists tell a crisis narrative about an existential threat to an in-group: in this case, the white race (see White Genocide). The story usually describes this threat in terms of:

  1. favored treatment of non-white groups, often through diversity and welfare programs that disadvantage white people;
  2. massive additions to the non-white population through immigration;
  3. policies and practices designed to suppress white birthrates and increase minority birthrates.

These are fundamental features of the ideology of white nationalism. But most new recruits do not commit to this ideology until their engagement deepens. Still, the assurance that the group possesses a clear and confident worldview may make membership attractive to young people searching for an identity and group.

While outsiders may describe white nationalism as a “hate” movement, insiders believe it is a noble cause in a time of apocalyptic war. Being part of heroic resistance against the forces of evil appeals to the idealism of many young people.

A sense of belonging

Young people often experience rapidly shifting social circles. Many forge new friendships and feel like members of one or more groups that support their clearsense of identity. Often those most vulnerable to white nationalist recruitment, however, feel excluded from or rejected by groups within their existing social circles of school, community, church, and so on. They may be looking for any group that will accept them.

White nationalists are on the lookout for vulnerable white young people. Groups encourage members to support each other in many aspects of their daily lives, including physical fitness, dating, reading habits, self-help guidance. The social connection offered by white nationalist groups can feel intense, personal, and affirming.

Today, white nationalist organizations are primarily connected online. New recruits might become seriously engaged in cyberspace before ever meeting a fellow white nationalist in person. They may have more friends and role models in their online social life than in their real life—and this new social life is accessible at any hour, from anywhere.

Local, regional, or national gatherings can provide opportunities to cement connections and meet leaders. These may be annual conferences, training events, marches, or other political actions. Traditional-style white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan also offer occasions for in-person social bonding that may extend into community life. Although those groups may appeal primarily to older adults, they offer social networks to young people at a time of life when they are most likely to be in search of them.

Ways White Nationalist Group Leaders Develop Social Bonds Online

  • Hold regular discussions
  • Coordinate small in-person local cells
  • Track and celebrate local actions by members
  • Enforce discipline on non-conforming members
  • Collect funds for members’ baby showers, bail, legal fees, etc.
  • Create and monitor fitness regimes
  • Provide self-help advice
  • Provide inspirational messaging

A sense of purpose

The crisis narratives of white nationalist ideology always involve an action plan to respond to the crisis. Recruits are attracted by the prospect not only of “being on the right side,” but also of having a role to play. They may engage passively much of the time: watching or listening online, doing prescribed reading, posting symbols on the walls of their rooms or wearing items with white nationalist symbols.

However, leaders also alert recruits to small-scale actions to help the cause, prove their worth, deepen their engagement, and move from passive spectators to active participants. These actions might include insulting minorities or “white traitors,” spray painting graffiti, posting flyers, or holding a protest sign. They are also prompted to improve their preparedness, including maintaining their physical fitness, to play a more dangerous and perhaps violent role in future battles.

The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville remains a focus of attention for white nationalists and those who oppose them in part because of its sense of drama, solidarity, and force. It appeals to new recruits as a promise of future excitement, just as it alarms those outside the movement as a threat of future danger.

White Nationalists in their own words

  • From 2016 until late 2020, the most dynamic American white nationalist membership group was almost certainly Identity Evropa (IE), which rebranded itself as the American Identity Movement in 2019. During its last two years, IE’s leader (“CEO”) was Patrick Casey, who used the alias Reinhard Wolff in his many chat posts to group members. In early 2019, the previous year and a half of online communications of IE, chat posts and webcasts, were exposed, enabling us to see how one major group functioned as a largely online society of friends.
  • The selections quoted below from “Reinhard Wolff’s” regularly scheduled group chat posts below help illustrate ways in which white nationalists bond young members in a rewarding, largely virtual social network.

Coordinating in-person local cells and celebrating their actions

Every day, we’re given a choice between extinction and survival. When you choose to spend your time frivolously, you are choosing extinction. But when you choose work toward the cause, you choose survival. You might not see simple things like flyering, demonstrations, attending meetups, etc. as being significant in the big picture, but they absolutely are.

Our Florida chapter did an excellent cemetery clean up a few days ago. Great work! Let’s keep showing America that we’re capable of creating positive change.

Our Chicago guys did a great banner drop today. The banner itself is top notch, and while the wind did make obtaining good pictures hard, we still were able to make it work. Great work, gentlemen!

Do activism on a regular basis—there are many forms that don’t involve showing your face, e.g. park cleanups, charity stuff, etc. Plan local toastmasters events. Work with your coordinator. Become worthy.

Enforce discipline

I’d like to remind you all that rule 3 forbids religious discussion on this server, because it inevitably leads to useless infighting. IE is open to Christians, Pagans, atheists, etc. so long as they’re respectful, tolerant, and civil toward the religious beliefs of others within the organization.

Create and monitor fitness regimes

I’m also pleased to announce a national initiative to grow local fitness and sparring clubs. As you know, physical fitness is a requirement for membership in Identity Evropa. In addition to being good for your confidence, physical fitness, and safety, it’s also a great way to form bonds with your fellow local members.

REMINDER: Identity Evropa takes fitness very seriously. If you let yourself go, you run the risk of being asked to leave our organization.

Announce personal events and solicit contributions

I’ve made the decision to become a patron and contribute $50 a month to our legal defense. I am calling on you to do so as well.

If you—meaning IE members—are having a baby, please let us know. I think it’d be great for us to start a tradition of buying gifts for new parents within the organization.

If you have a child on the way, feel free to send her an Amazon registry (or equivalent) and expected date of delivery. We’ll post the registry in announcements at some point so everyone can pitch in. One of the benefits of having a tribe is that individuals can make small contributions—contributions that add up, given how many of us there are!

Attention, my fellow White people: As many of you already know, @*** and @*** are expecting a baby boy—and soon! While any baby born to members of Identity Evropa is a blessing, this particular baby will be the first born to parents who met through IE.

Providing self-help guidance

If you’re new or haven’t joined Identity Evropa’s Practical Skills Server, you should. There, we help each other in topics ranging from personal finance and auto mechanics to gardening and outdoorsmanship. We have designated Subject Matter Experts for each topic area, but everyone contributes as we help each other learn and grow.

If you aren’t reading at least one book per month, you should consider setting aside 30 minutes every night or morning to read.

If you’re single and have no relationship prospects, you should consider making an effort to go on at least one date a week.

Providing inspirational messaging

I wish you all a productive and fulfilling week. As you go through the motions of your daily routine—work, school, errands, etc.—make sure to keep our struggle in the back of your mind. Don’t let the tedium, comfort, and frivolousness of modern life distract you from what ultimately matters most: the survival of our people, culture, and civilization.

*  *  *

  • In addition to Casey’s messaging, members used the chat function to converse directly, sharing recipes, child-rearing tips, religious thoughts, and so forth among hundreds of members. Although white nationalist communities may be largely virtual, the immediacy of web interaction and the promise of occasional meet-ups at local and national events can provide young people an alternative network of friends that may be easier for them to manage than the complex relationships formed in family or school networks.
Sources & Discussion2022-04-01T23:41:57+00:00

The theme of four attractions used on this page largely coincides with the approach of Christian Picciolini’s Breaking Hate, which emphasizes the attractions of white nationalism for young people using three categories: Identity, Community, and Purpose. We have added the sometimes crucial role ideology plays in providing what J.M. Berger calls a “crisis narrative” in his book, Extremism. Such narratives can be essential in generating the experience of in-group community and sense of purpose in resisting an out-group. The role of ideology in recruitment is emphasized in The Three Pillars of Radicalization, by Arie W. Kruglanski and others, which uses a somewhat different framework of three motivating features: personal needs, ideological narratives, and social rewards. Both Berger and Kruglanski draw more heavily on radical Islamic extremism than American white nationalism, and the general impact of ideology on those two cases may differ in degree, as it does in individual cases within any type of extremism.

In his book, Healing from Hate, Michael Kimmel notes that in American white nationalism the specific content of ideology is often less of an attraction than the group-binding function of simply possessing a shared crisis ideology. Others, such as Christian Picciolini concur that ideology alone rarely brings recruits into the white nationalist movement: instead, community and the promise of a new sense of identity created through group action are the key. CO•RE’s discussions of the role of ideology in radicalization tracks closer to these approaches. As one commentator puts it: ideology is not the show, it’s the ticket you need to get in.

The page also draws on Michael Hogg, From Uncertainty to Extremism: Social Categorization and Identity Processes. Hogg’s broader work has developed theoretical models to analyze the relationship between the experience of “identity uncertainty” and the drive to resolve it through group membership.

The thousands of leaked messages and internal webcasts (“fireside chats”) of Identity Evropa/American Identity Movement provided primary source material for the section, “A look inside a white nationalist group.”

“The ideology and the dogma are not what drive people to this extremism; it’s in fact, I think, a broken search for that acceptance and that purpose and community.”

Christian Picciolini, White American Youth, (MR Live 1/29/2018, 22:31-22:43), quoted in Paris Martineau, The Alt-Right Is Recruiting Depressed People

Updated, March 2022

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