On the heels of mass shootings in New Zealand and the United States, we ask: what are the mindsets, trends, and changes of a globally connected right-wing movement? What are the solutions to the growing animosity between identity groups? Maria Armoudian speaks with Lawrence Rosenthal, Brian Levin, and Ervin Staub.
Lawrence Rosenthal is the Chair and Lead Researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. He is an expert in the American right and is the author of Empire of Resentment: How the Populist Revolt Shook America.
Brian Levin is a Professor in Criminal Justice at California State University, San Bernardino. He is an expert in hate crimes and terrorism and is the co-author of Confronting Hate in America: Issues and Responses.
Ervin Staub is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts. He is an expert in the psychology of violence and terrorism and is the author of The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil: Inclusive Caring, Moral Courage, Altruism Born of Suffering, Active Bystandership, and Heroism.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: Lawrence Rosenthal let’s start with you in terms of understanding the scope and the trends both of this so-called alt-right and related movements. How would you describe what is happening?
Lawrence Rosenthal: Well, one thing that is really important to understand is its international dimension. The alt-right in the US is very much connected to similar groups abroad and illiberalism is about the wearing away of the principles and norms of functioning democracies. And there are any number of strongman leaders throughout the world of which Donald Trump is one and people like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, and it goes on and on. And their followers tend to be people who have bought into a version of nationalist ideology. What is unusual about this moment in terms of nationalist ideology is, in the past, the ‘30s for example, when fascism was rising, you didn’t have an ability for fascist movements in various countries to really affiliate with one another, essentially because they all felt their nation was greater. I mean how can you have an international movement with people who think they are the master race? It doesn’t work. But now there is what I think we can call a ‘common other’. The common other frequently consists of immigrants, people of colour, and so internationally there is a kind of bond around the idea of traditional societies, traditionalism, which sometimes goes by the name of Christian society, Christian Europe, traditional Europe and things of that nature. This is, if you wish, the export from the USA into this international mix. There are things which come from abroad also, for example, the idea of replacement theory, that immigrants are going to replace the white population. But really significant is the place of ‘white’ as the discriminating factor between us and them, and increasingly the support of strongmen in power, people who are similar to Donald Trump.
MA: Let’s look specifically at the US given what appears to be the rise in violence especially in hate crimes. Brian Levin, you have been calculating this year over year and it looks like hate crimes have increased. Can you break this down for us, how much has it changed?
Brian Levin: The good news is we are below where we were in 2001. Interestingly though, looking at the long-term chart, hate crimes have been on a general decline from 1996 to 2014 – interrupted by 2001. What has been very interesting though is that according to FBI data, we bottomed out in 2014 at just under 5500 hate crimes. In 2017, there were just under 7200. What we have been doing is looking at America’s largest cities and in thirty of the largest cities we found that in those cities in 2018, hate crimes rose by nine percent which is the steepest rise we have seen since 2015. Additionally, forty-seven percent hit decade highs including places like Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC and many others. Moreover, white supremacist extremist homicides have really eclipsed everybody else. In 2016 we had approximately mid-60s overall extremist homicides in the US and that was also the case the year before as well. We had the horrible San Bernardino massacre which hit my community, for example. But since then, in 2016 we had three white supremacist homicides, in 2017 that rose to thirteen, in 2018 it rose to seventeen, and now in 2019 the white supremacist extremist homicides in August alone now outnumber every extremist homicide of any stripe that took place in 2018.
MA: These are by the perpetrator. What about the victims?
BL: Interestingly enough, over the last quarter century we have generally seen hate crimes targeting African Americans, Jews, gays, Latinos. Interestingly though, in 1996, we had a peak other than 9/11 times and in that year African Americans accounted for forty-two percent of all hate crimes in the US. In 2017, the last year we have data available from the FBI, it had shrunk down to twenty-eight percent which is the lowest proportion of hate crimes that we have seen against African Americans. There seems to be a reshuffling of things, and what I mean by that is in 2015 anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped sixty-seven percent and in December of 2015 when we had a combination of the San Bernardino terrorist attack on December second and then five days later Trump as a candidate launched his Muslim ban proposal, that month we found that was the third-worst month for anti-Muslim hate crimes only behind September and October 2001 when there were many more. But nevertheless, when Trump spoke five days after San Bernardino, hate crime spiked by twenty-three percent above the spike we saw after 9/11.
MA: So if we are going to draw from these trends, what are the big takeaways in terms of what is happening in the US right now? What would be the most important conclusion that you would make?
BL: The most important conclusion I would make is that often times we will see these spikes around a catalytic event or some emotionally charged issue, and moreover there seems to be a political nexus. And here is what I mean: in August 2017 we had the Charlottesville protests which was tied for the second-worst month for hate crimes in this decade. The worst month for hate crime overall this decade was November 2016 after Trump got elected when Latinos bore the brunt of Trump’s anti-Mexican comments. Also, in 2015 and 2016 if you look at most of the opinion polls of the electorate, terrorism was the top issue, but since then, anti-Muslim crimes declined significantly but anti-Latino hate crimes went up. So I think we are seeing a reshuffling of the deck chairs about who is a legitimate political target to launch aggression towards and I think that has an impact on hate crimes.
MA: Ervin Staub, you have studied violent conflict all over the world, you have also studied reconciliation all over the world. When you look at what is happening globally and also in the US, how would you see this in comparison to the kinds of conflicts you have studied?
Ervin Staub: I think what we have here is a little bit different but also there are some similarities. Firstly, to state the obvious, we have a leader in the US who incites people. He incited people from the very beginning and he continues to incite people in all kinds of ways. It is also a broader question for me than just the people who commit hate crimes because they act in a context. The context in addition to this leader is that he created a tremendous amount of confusion. He creates chaos. Several influences usually contribute to political violence in a society. One is the very difficult conditions of life in society. Now we don’t have that, but another one is political confusion and disorganisation, and we do have that, there is incredible confusion and disorganisation and part of that is a tremendous amount of division between us and them. A core influence leading to violence between groups is the devaluation of the other. If you look at other people and see them as more us than them and have a positive view of them, it is very unlikely to lead to violence. But devaluation creates violence. Another thing that is very important in all societal violent situations is that there is an evolution. Violence can begin and people change as a result and they justify what they are doing with an increased devaluation of the other, seeing the other as immoral, seeing the other as dangerous to themselves, seeing the other in all kinds of negative ways. And so that is a significant problem. But I am also interested in who the people are who follow Trump. I did some research years ago on what I call blind patriotism. Now, patriots are people who say ‘I love my country’. Blind patriots seem to say ‘I love my country no matter what it does’ and they have some interesting characteristics including that they don’t expose themselves to much political information and also that they don’t like other countries…Given they like their own country, the types of things that Trump does – enhancing America in relation to all foreign countries by distancing them from allies and speaking negatively about allies – this feeds the kind of people who follow him. And I think the people we are talking about, the ones who are committing hate crimes are an extreme group within this larger group of people who love the fact that we are going to be great and we are going to be special and that we are better than everyone else.
The question is what are we going to do? Yes there are many hate crimes, yes it is a terrible situation, but we have to look at it and ask why this is happening, and I think it is happening because of the kind of people that support Trump, I think it is happening because of the way he incites people, it is happening because there is no political process, it is happening because of the amount of confusion and disorganisation that has happened in the US which has a very bad effect on people.
MA: Lawrence Rosenthal, would you agree with Ervin’s assessment?
LR: One of the things Ervin pointed out was that we need to put the shooters, the violent people into context. They are not lone wolves. There are no lone wolves anymore in a world that is so networked and the alt-right is so networked. But what they have in common with Trump’s followers is this notion that white people are being displaced by people of colour. If you remember Charlottesville in 2017 there were three well-known chants from the people marching the night before the violence hit and one of them was “blood and soil” and another one was “Jews will not replace us.” Those were taken straight from Nazism but they didn’t translate as well as the third one which was “you will not replace us.” That chant goes to the heart of what Trump followers feel most strongly and what they have in common with people who perform massacres like we have seen in El Paso.
A couple more things to say about that. One is the US is becoming majority-minority and this is an assault on status, there is a panic about racial status among largely white Christian Americans, and the phrase ‘you will not replace us’ is also something that connects the movement in the US with movements abroad. That gives it an awful lot of strength. Steve Bannon, when he left the White House started going around the world attempting to create a kind of illiberal international or a nationalist international. And it was on that basis of all of these various polities and nations which had a population of largely right-wing populists who were feeling this sense of displacement or replacement. And Bannon is one of these people who says this is about economic issues, but that is not how they sell Trumpism, that’s not how they sell any of this. I mean just think of Trump’s campaign it is about that the immigrants are bringing crime, they are threats to our children and things like that, all of which helps mobilises this antagonism around feeling that you are being replaced. This is what the Trump voter has in common with the shooters.
MA: I was wondering also about these sort of anti-political correctness memes…
LR: Trump and his campaign, if you remember, often said the biggest problem in this country is political correctness. What he is getting at has two pillars. One of them is feminism and one of them is multiculturalism. And on that basis you could almost say that this mobilisation of resentment was very effectively carried out. This was in fact the specialty of things like Breitbart News, they would send out people like Milo Yiannopoulos who would put things on the internet that attracted what we used to call alienated young men for whom the idea that multiculturalism and feminism were becoming more powerful in a way that explained their own sense of powerlessness. And a great deal of the successful political organisation of Trump supporters occurred via this use of political correctness, specifically feminism and multiculturalism to kind of stir up the passions of alienated young men. There is this whole part of the alt-right, which is sometimes called the alt-light, which in many ways is playful on the internet and create characters like Pepe the frog and the effect of the Trump candidacy was in affect to make Trump the king of the world of Pepe the frog. The merger of Trump with this kind of alienated culture was extremely effective and continues to be in creating widespread support that was crucial in his election, and where it stands today is I think on a bit of a knife-edge.
MA: Ervin Staub?
ES: I was saying something before about how difficult life conditions is one of the things that generates violence in a society. Group conflict is another one, political disorganisation, and great social changes are all also very important. Now what do all those things do? We humans have some core universal psychological needs. I have not yet met a single person who said I don’t have these. One of them is a need to feel secure, another one is a need for a positive identity, a third one is a need for some form of control over important events in our lives, one is a need for connection to some important people or groups. And then there is also a profound need to understand the world and our place in it. So there aren’t difficult conditions in the usual sense but people do feel threatened by so many people coming into the country who are Hispanic or are seen as others by so many people in the country, by all the changes we are seeing in the world that affect them and makes it difficult to have control over. This is all magnified greatly by Trump who blows the horn of all of these things. And even people who may not have experienced this on their own, when they are introduced to all these ideas, it is going to come alive and be magnified even further. So I think that the combination of all these things happening in the world and Trump magnifying it creates a terrible problem.
MA: Lawrence Rosenthal?
LR: I would like to add one point to what Ervin had to say which is that the fear of the other and the capacity to be manipulated by the demagoguery of Trump. Studies demonstrate that it is most effective among people who are distant from really immigrant communities. People who actually live around immigrants are far less susceptible to it. It is almost as though it is not simply the other who is the frightening image around which Trump voters organise and mobilise, but it is almost a fantasy other, it is someone who you haven’t had real contact with and that allows a kind of vacuum to be filled with these images of hateful criminal people who have to be defended against.
MA: Brian Levin, in terms of solutions, is it possible to actually bridge between such groups? Is it possible to give this kind of agency and security and positive identity? Would that make a difference do you think?
BL: I think that one of the things that is happening is a real decline in trust in the communal institutions which define our values and hold us together. That has happened in the last fifty years. We’re also diversifying and the group that is diversifying the most are young people. Pew did a study and found that young people are constantly online, much more so than their older relatives, for instance. Also young people tend to be more tolerant, but they are also in the most rapidly diversifying demographic age cohort. And I think what we really have to have as part of communal education is a little history, a little civics, as well as something else, the rise of conspiracies, and critical thinking. And on the other side if I may, I think the notion that if you somehow disagree with someone on something that that constitutes hate speech or people who are mainstream conservatives shouldn’t be invited to campuses gives the hard right the kernel of truth that they need to take everything out of context. And let me tell you, even with the hate crime data things are so highly charged, people respond emotionally. So I think a couple of things that could be done is if we had civic leaders who role-modelled dialogue, who role-modelled critical thinking, and we had education that really focused on some important issues. There was a recent study that came out of Americans and it showed that the millennials were woefully undereducated about things such as the Holocaust. So there is no one magic wand to this but rather a series of steps that are about civil society. Because what happens is in the absence of this, particularly when we have what we are having now, we are not only the most polarised we have been in decades, we are the most entrenched in this polarisation, and we don’t have the honing of the critical thinking skills but these critical thinking skills have been replaced by emotions where insult ascends over facts.
MA: How do you reconcile these principles of trying to get people to think critically when the conspiracy theories contain anti-intellectualism, anti-critical thinking, anti-science? How do we reconcile this?
LR: Well I can address that a little bit. The kind of rejection of science and fact is rooted in a rejection of the class of people who seem to embody that, in other words it is a resentment of what is perceived as a liberal elite. Basically, they think they know everything and want to tell us how to live our lives and that kind of thing. So what you describe as a rejection of fact I think is a secondary phenomenon to a rejection of the messenger. And so if there was a route to undo that, perhaps that route goes through some kind of reestablishment of reasonable connection between the populist right and what Steve Bannon calls the administrative state.
MA: Brian Levin?
BL: This point is critically important. This decline in trust of institutions is partly because these institutions are regarded as not only elitist but disenfranchising people who are seeing all kinds of change and are having trouble making sense of it. The elite in turn are not responding to these people at a visceral level, in other words people are sometimes made to feel uncomfortable. I was talking to a sociologist recently and he said we have to be able to embrace people who might be fearful of change and sometimes a little ignorant. I think one of the things that we are seeing is fragmentation, social media, politics, and I think that is hitting the vein where at the root of this is the fact that these institutions are either slow to respond or unresponsive to some of the underlying concerns of people. For example, when the KKK hit it big in the 1920s, what did we see? We saw a changing world, America out of an international conflict, we saw technology changing, a shift to an industrial economy from an agrarian one, a population shift from rural places to cities, and an influx of immigrants. What happens in those instances, when people are under fear they are a lot more susceptible to accepting bigotry then when they are not.
MA: Ervin Staub?
ES: The problem of course here is that with social media, with the incredible multiplicity of voices, with Trump and Bannon and other people, how do you access people and work with them on the way they think about the world and what is right and wrong. One way we could transform people is by working together for shared goals, constructive goals. It is important to engage the people in the communities where the far-right come from in some kind of way to constructively create projects that benefit them and the country in their view. This could make a huge difference because change requires emotional engagement and when you work together with other people for shared goals, you are emotionally engaged and you come to connect with other people you are working with.
MA: Brian Levin, final thoughts?
BL: There is one word I have mentioned before which is a good starting point and that is fragmentation. Not only are we becoming more diversified but we are not unified in that diversity. Moreover, the social media landscape, the cable news landscape continues to be fragmented as well. And what I think we are seeing a bit is a democratisation of hate. We have to try and put together some communal values and attach that to institutions and then let people know that they are being heard because when that doesn’t happen and when we have these people who spout this toxic magma of bigotry can crystallise when people think that they are not being heard and that they are being disenfranchised. I think a good point that was being made was that with some of these people who have been involved in these mass killings is that the jobs they get and the future they see isn’t as rosy as perhaps they thought. Indeed, the killer in El Paso wrote about his lack of ability to get jobs going forward. So I think that is something, automation and immigration are changing things and I think we have to prepare people for a changing world but o so in a way that I think encourages them and is not conflictual.
MA: Lawrence Rosenthal?
LR: The question is, how is it possible to reengage conversation with a country that is so fragmented? A lot of people are tired of being looked down upon. But if you pay attention to right-wing websites you will see they are engaged in contempt. Their contempt for liberals is at an extraordinary level. It is the idea that liberals are stupid and mentally ill and this is taken for granted. So the question is how do we get these groups to communicate in some way with one another. It is not simply a question of the liberal world saying mea culpa for looking down on people, that back and forth is far more complicated. I think a solution may be found in actually working together on things like infrastructure projects, actual face to face contact with the other is perhaps the most successful means of cutting through hate and dismissal and contempt for others.
This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.
For more of our audio and visual content, check out our YouTube channel, or head to the University of Auckland’s manuscripts and archives collection.
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.
You might also like:
Same tune, different venue? The ideology of white supremacist terrorism
Q+A: How did America become the home of mass shootings?