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What the Alt-Right Has Learned From Al Qaeda

The far right knows to play backlash politics to draw more recruits. And the left, by coming after Washington and Jefferson, may just be helping them.

The far right knows to play backlash politics to draw more recruits. And the left, by coming after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, may just be helping them.


In recent days, it has occurred to me that that radical Islamists and the alt-right have more in common than domestic terrorism. By tapping in to similar psychology and group dynamics, the alt-right is aping the recruitment strategies of radical Islam.  

Consider this: Terrorist groups like al Qaeda purportedly believe that getting the West to overreact is more important than instilling fear. “If you can provoke enough non-Muslims to treat all Muslims with fear and hostility,” write Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam in Scientific American, “then those Muslims who previously shunned conflict may begin to feel marginalized and heed the call of the more radical voices among them.”

The alt-right is likewise playing the long game of engaging in behavior so despicable as to entice an overreaction. This is the smart thing to do if you are a relatively small (in number) movement that prioritizes recruitment. The end result is to increase polarization by “red-pilling” whites into viewing a shared racial status as their defining identity (which is why another term for the alt-right is “identitarian”).

Here’s how it works: When minorities see Nazis marching in Charlottesville, they are understandably troubled. But when their leaders overreact to the acts of a small group of whites who are attempting to co-opt conservatism, it actually helps push mainstream whites into the alt-right.

A prime example of this overreaction played out recently when liberals like Al Sharpton and my CNN colleague Angela Rye suggested that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (not just Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) should be taken down.

By coming after Washington and Jefferson, otherwise apolitical and moderate whites—people who never thought much about their white identity—could have “skin” in this game.

The same liberals who worry that we are “creating more terrorists” by being overly aggressive on the anti-terrorism front don’t seem to worry that they might be “creating more racists” by being overly aggressive in their opposition to racism.

This is not to say we shouldn’t fight against fascism; we should. It is to say that we should fight smart. Sadly, some on the left have taken the bait.

This is not to say that left-wing iconoclasm is the moral equivalent of drone strikes, but it is to say that there are some parallels in the way extremists bait us into overreacting in order to grow extremism.

In the case of Washington and Jefferson statues and monuments, the desire to remove images of America’s Founding Fathers demonstrates the radical nature of one’s adversaries. Even for those who would prefer to remain on the sidelines, confronting the unreasonable demands of retroactively imposing modern values on our nation’s most revered founders might justify fighting fire with fire.

It’s plausible to imagine some young white conservative who is sort of on the fence about all of this now thinking: “Well, if they’re going to come after Washington and Jefferson, I guess this really is a mutually excusive, binary choice. And the truth is, I don’t have a choice. I was born this way.”

This is just one small example of how liberal overreaction fans the flames of extremism, but it’s a timely one.

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Extremists on both sides make it harder for anybody to be a conscientious objector to this culture war.

It has been said that the first thing you should do upon going to jail is to join a gang for protection. In that regard, the outside world is becoming more and more like prison.

You may not be interested in tribalism, but tribalism is interested in you.

Just as moderate Muslims may come to believe that they will never be truly accepted by a white mob that wrongly conflates them with terrorists, some vulnerable whites increasingly feel pressed into service for their tribe. Young people are especially vulnerable to getting caught up in this cycle. If the alt-right’s plan works, this same sort of “misrecogntion” will also help drive moderate whites into the alt-right.

It used to be easy to spot a white supremacist. They wore hoods or stupid black Hitler t-shirts or skinhead tats and regalia. In contrast, anyone wanting to signal that he was harmless could do so by looking preppy or stylish and being educated or cosmopolitan.

Thanks to the alt-righters, that’s no longer the case. Consider the tiki-torch rally held in Charlottesville the Friday night before the big protest. Donning polos and khakis, these guys looked more like they were attending the “Brooks Brothers riot” than a Nazi rally.

This was not an accident. Recently, the editor of the Daily Stormer advised his fellow neo-Nazis to start dressing better and getting in shape. But there’s more to it than aesthetics. As Cam Wolf writes in GQ, “the khaki-wearing demonstrators in Charlottesville weren't trying to be fashionable—they were trying to blend in. And in doing so, they've turned the blandest items in our closets into a dog whistle. Is your neighbor wearing a polo and khakis because he's a style-agnostic dad? Or is he just actively supporting the creation of a white ethno-state?” The problem is that when they put on our uniform, they don’t just blend in with us, we blend in with them.

Case in point: The other day, a man was stabbed and accused of being a neo-Nazi in the parking lot of a Steak ’n Shake in Colorado, all because his haircut resembled that worn by alt-righters (called a “fasci”). This man is reportedly considering “changing his look,” and who could blame him? At the micro level, that’s probably what will happen. But it’s the macro level that concerns me. It’s not absurd to think that someone attacked or shamed (even in a case of mistaken identity) might be easier to radicalize. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” warned Kurt Vonnegut. But maybe we also become the people who pretend to be …us?

This is not to say that it will work. There are lots of moderating traditions and mediating institutions in America to mitigate this. But it’s very clear that the alt-right is tapping into some of the same strategies that have been used to fuel the growth of other extremists in history.

Violence usually begets violence; hate usually begets hate. At least, that’s what the alt-right is planning on.