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.
The Emotional Appeal
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:
- favored treatment of non-white groups, often through diversity and welfare programs that disadvantage white people;
- massive additions to the non-white population through immigration;
- 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.
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