The rise of far-Right extremism in the West, in the United States in particular, has been one of the major media stories since at least 2016. Think tanks have gotten in on the action, and in due course official institutions followed the lead. There has been a significant element of moral panic about this, a result of a search for explanation by liberal ruling classes hit with disorientating political developments, above all in the Anglo-American world, with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President. Christian Picciolini’s book, Breaking Hate: Confronting the New Culture of Extremism (2020), is very much a product of this mood of doom among Western liberals.
Picciolini himself is not one of the far-Right insta-experts that have cropped up and produced books in the Trump era. Picciolini joined the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) at age-14 in 1987, rose to be their leader, and left in 1996; he has written a memoir and other books over many years on the extreme-Right in the U.S., and has worked on the frontlines to bring people out of these radical groups. But the book is very much in the mould of the potboilers of the era, promising a guide through this “bleak period”. In some ways, Picciolini does himself a disservice by this framing.
The vignettes Picciolini provides—a young women led astray by an online Nazi boyfriend that wasn’t, a grieving war veteran prized by recruiters for his military skill, the boy from the trailer-park that liked classical music—and Picciolini’s practical dealings to try to separate radicals from their extremist ideas and milieu are interesting in themselves and insightful. What one cannot help but notice is that once these cases are looked at on their own terms, the Trumpian framing becomes tenuous at best.
A problem, then, that the book is presented as an answer to Trump and the “hate” that he has spread across the nation with his “incendiary ‘America First’ platform”. A “new strain of white-supremacist ideology that calls itself ‘white nationalism’” has reached “epidemic levels” in the U.S., and it was Trump who “lit the fuse”, says Picciolini. The implication of tying the white supremacist movement to Trump is that once Trump goes away, it will, too, and that is evidently not the case. This is a misdiagnosis one can see in Picciolini’s own account: all of these people are detached from the political process entirely.
Equally problematic is the book’s opening, declaring that white supremacism “began” with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and “seeped into the … soil” of the United States of America over the next five centuries. It can be said that this framing is as anachronistic as it is ahistorical, stripped of all context about slavery and imperialism, and devoid of those, like Bishop Las Casas and the Quakers, born of the same “soil”, who remedied the problems no other civilisation had even known to call problems. The bigger issue is that the adoption of this faddish, false historiography is sure to be alienating to more than half of the American population, who do not agree that their country is an irredeemably racist endeavour in its DNA. In a book that is a call to create a common front against extremism, this seems like a serious tactical blunder.
By far the most serious failing in the book, however, is its conceptualisation of “radicalisation”. Some examples:
- “I help [radicals] uncover the truth about who they really are … I filter out the deafening noise of ideology, ignoring it to focus on which underlying motivations detoured them to those wrong conclusions”, Picciolini writes, adding that he tries to find the “pain, trauma, and uncertainty” that drove them to radicalism. “[I]deology often substitutes as convenient reasoning to project pain”, writes Picciolini, thus showing these people “unexpected (and often unwarranted) compassion … is the only thing I’ve ever seen truly break hate” [italics original].
- Arie Kruglanski and his Psychology of Terrorism is quoted to the effect that the War on Terror was lost because of Western “unwillingness to understand that the root of extremist behaviors form through isolation and grievance before being focused by ideology”.
- Of Dylann Roof, the terrorist who massacred nine people at a black church in Charleston in 2015, Picciolini says, “Ideology may well have provided what he saw as ‘permission’ or an invitation for his heinous act, but even from a distance, I knew a radical belief wasn’t what had initially pushed him into his spiral.” Speculating that Roof had some kind of depression, and used alcohol and drugs to mask it, Picciolini writes: “no specific mental condition can cause someone to become a white supremacist or to embrace violence—but left untreated, stigmatization of Dylann’s conditions and marginalization could have contributed to the alienation that developed his anger and drove him toward hatred, including ideations of revenge and murder.”
Picciolini describes his approach to “deradicalisation” as identifying “potholes”—the “unresolved traumas”—that are the gateway to extremism. After “I discover which potholes exist”, Picciolini says, “Then I become a pothole filler”. These fillers are described as “ICP” (identity, community, and purpose). Picciolini reports that the “need to fulfil ICP is so essential” that it has featured with “every person I’ve worked with” [italics added]. Drawing on Martin Luther King—a marked improvement over Malcolm “X” Little, who is quoted elsewhere—Picciolini proposes a “Seven ‘L’ Steps of Disengagement”: Link, Listen, Learn, Leverage, Lift, Love, Live.
This is the approach of the old Marxist historians, who treated ideology as a mere veneer for material interests, though their attempts to explain Stalin’s collectivisation as something other than a practical application of Communist ideology look positively reasonable next to the tortured efforts Picciolini has to go through to make the facts fit his theory, a pseudo-medicalised vision in which people are “vulnerable” to radicalisation, a force that seems to hang in the ether and can be transmitted at any moment by watching the wrong YouTube video. This confusion about what radicalisation is and how it spreads creates a moral confusion, as Liam Duffy pointed out recently, where radicals are posited as afflicted people in need of sympathy—feelings better directed to the victims of extremism and terrorism.
A related issue, in terms of the mechanisms of radicalisation, is Picciolini’s emphasis on online radicalisation and disinformation: this not only ignores the gathering body of scholarship showing that physical spaces and social environments remain important, even in the Internet age; it downplays his own evidence, which fairly strongly hints at the same thing.
Historian Tom Holland has noted the way that in our secular age Satan has been replaced, not abolished, with Hitler now the stand-in and the Holocaust the moral lodestar by which the West orders itself. Human nature, unchanging that it is, still has witch-panics; it’s just that in the twenty-first century they take the form of believing Nazis are everywhere and are just about to take over. This belief congregates disproportionately on the Left, and the Left dominates the cultural sphere in West, allowing an idea on an evidentiary par with the phlogiston theory to get a respectable hearing in the press and academia. Playing to this gallery is easy, and lucrative; people should resist it all the same.