- Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
- Many white nationalists and members of the “alt-right” argue they aren’t racist.A former white supremacist says most are lying to make their message “palatable.”One study suggested that Nazi sympathizers made up about a fifth of the white nationalist movement on Twitter.
Since violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month at the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally, many self-proclaimed “alt-righters” and white nationalists have argued they should not be lumped in with neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and KKK members.
Peter Cvjetanovic, a 20-year-old college student featured in a viral photo of the rally, said that he attended the march “for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture” and that he believed the planned removal of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville symbolized “the slow replacement of white heritage” in the US.
Richard Spencer, one of the leaders of the so-called alt-right and white nationalism in the US, has denied that the movements are racist.
“Did he say ‘white nationalist’?” Spencer asked reporters, after President Donald Trump denounced neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacists in his second post-Charlottesville statement. “‘Racist’ means an irrational hatred of people. I don’t think he meant any of us.”
White nationalists often seek to separate their ideology from white supremacism, arguing that the white nationalist belief that white people are deserving of an ethnostate or other special protections is not inherently racist. The alt-right is a broader coalition of such groups that further distances itself from white supremacy by omitting any reference to race from its name.
But Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist, says observers shouldn’t believe claims by Spencer or others belonging to similar movements that they aren’t racist.
Speaking with Business Insider, he described the alt-right and white nationalist movements as the culmination of a 30-year effort to “massage” the white supremacist message.
Picciolini would know – at the age of 14, he was recruited by Clark Martell, then the leader of the Chicago Area Skin Heads, reputed to be the first organized neo-Nazi group in the US. Two years later, in 1989, Picciolini became the leader of the group.
- Courtesy of Christian Picciolini
“We recognized back then that we were turning away the average American white racists and that we needed to look and speak more like our neighbors,” Picciolini said. “The idea we had was to blend in, normalize, make the message more palatable.”
This effort to normalize is visible in the alt-right rhetoric that has been prevalent during and since the 2016 presidential campaign, he said. Common white supremacist tropes like “Jewish media” and “Jewish global conspiracy” have been transposed to “liberal media” and “globalism” – or avoided altogether by invoking figures like billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish.
Picciolini said there were two reasons that alt-righters and white nationalists try to distance themselves from neo-Nazis and white supremacists:
They are at an early stage in their recruitment and “don’t yet realize the path they are on.” They are lying – Picciolini says this is the “vast majority.”
“We lied all the time,” Picciolini said. “To the media, we weren’t a hate organization – we were a pro-white organization. We felt that our white pride was being taken away. It was all spin. Behind closed doors, it was all about supremacy and power and eliminating people that weren’t like us.”
These days, Picciolini leads Life After Hate, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, and other far-right activists leave their organizations and their hateful ideologies. He said the organization had seen a flood of donations since the events in Charlottesville.
The connection between the alt-right and hate organizations has not been lost on experts like J.M. Berger, who studies far-right extremism in the US as a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.
“Not everyone in the alt-right is a overt white nationalist,” Berger told Business Insider in an email. “But white nationalism is definitely the movement’s center of gravity, and the term originated with an explicitly white nationalist website.”
That website, Alternativeright.com (now Altright.com) marked the birth of the term alt-right and was founded by Spencer, who heads a white nationalist think tank called the National Policy Institute.
In a September report published by George Washington University comparing the social-media efforts of white nationalists with the Islamic State terrorist group, Berger wrote that neo-Nazi groups began pushing “for more collaboration” among “Nazi-sympathetic and other white nationalist strains” when efforts stalled to recruit more “normal” people.
In a random sample of Twitter users who followed prominent white nationalist organizations and leaders, about 19% were Nazi sympathizers, Berger found.
Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting to this story.