Friendship Alone Cannot Deradicalize Fascists

With the publication last week of journalist Eli Saslow’s new book, Rising Out of Hatred, which details how the son of KKK leader Don Black renounced white nationalism after becoming friends in college with Jewish students and others who questioned his views, discussions about how to deradicalize fascists are once again in the news.

While stories of transformation, such as the one documented by Saslow inspire optimism, it’s important for excitement about such victories not to bleed over into arguments about how anti-fascist energies are best spent through befriending Nazis in order to counter their violent bigotry.

While there is a place in this world for such a piecemeal effort to change the hearts and views of those on the far right, the problem with an overemphasis on such an approach is that it obscures the complex nature of how deradicalization is typically accomplished. Further, befriending members of the far right can lend them social clout and access to various spaces where they have the potential to cause significant harm.

Calls to befriend fascists rather than to forcibly contain their public presence tend to crop up in response to any new resurgence of anti-fascist mobilization. Conservative commentator Bethany Mandel’s op-ed in the Forward — titled “We Need to Start Befriending Neo-Nazis” and published in August 2017, mere days after the deadly “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — is a prime example of this inclination.

In the essay, Mandel argued that “It’s time to admit that even in the wake of Charlottesville — especially in the wake of Charlottesville — the only way we’re going to get our country back is to change minds. This might mean we need to start befriending nazis.”

As evidence, Mandel cited three white nationalists who were deradicalized with the help of people who patiently worked with them to dismantle their bigotry. For example, he mentioned Daryl Davis, a musician known for forming long-term friendships with members of the Ku Klux Klan to try to persuade them to give up their bigotry. Davis, the subject of a recent documentary called Accidental Courtesy, claims that he has convinced 200 Klan members to leave the group. While it’s true that extremists can deradicalize with the help of others who push them to challenge their bigotry, having engaging and challenging conversations with a person does not necessarily equate to a friendship (whatever that concept means to a fascist), and friendship alone is not sufficient.

Let’s Not Underestimate the Difficulty of Neutralizing the Fascist Threat

The inordinate amount of hand-wringing attention the mainstream press has paid to fighting Nazis, coupled with the counteroffer of befriending Nazis as a solution to fascism, has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of the broader anti-fascist project, and the scale of the fascist threat. Anti-fascist tactics are not, in fact, limited to the now famous punching of Nazis in the street but also involve organizing to inoculate communities against bigotry, mutual aid projects, occupations and picketing, doxxing fascists (collecting information such as place of employment and phone numbers and revealing it to the broader public), and general community defense against both civilian fascists and state abuses. These tactics, like all tactics, are limited, but have seen success.

One of the unfortunate outcomes of both portrayals that suggest anti-fascist activism only involves punching Nazis and of responses about how befriending Nazis is more helpful than physical confrontations is the notion that it is somehow easy to neutralize the fascist threat. If all it takes is “making friends” with violent people, or, alternatively punching them in the face, it sounds like a fascist-free world is easy to achieve. Our current political climate demonstrates this is anything but true.

The left and also some liberals have not taken kindly to the friendship theory of confronting fascism. Writer Quinn Norton was briefly hired then let go from a position with The New York Times this year after tweets came to light in which she spoke favorably of a now-notorious American neo-Nazi called “weev” (whose real name is Andrew Auernheimer). Norton had referred to Auernheimer as her “friend.” Auernheimer, who co-runs the Daily Stormer, a website that is massively popular with neo-Nazis, appears on white nationalist podcasts and incessantly calls for genocide against non-white people.

Despite all this, Norton found it appropriate to maintain a friendship with Auernheimer. “I have been friends with various neo-nazis in my time, yes” Norton tweeted when asked about her relationship with Auernheimer in 2014. “I have never agreed with them, and I’ve been clear on that.”

This latter statement in particular exemplifies a sort of “holier-than-thou” position that fascist-adjacent people sometimes deploy in order to skirt accountability for their relationships. In attempting to show that she, a good person, can be friends with a Nazi and still be good herself, Norton is also attempting to show that she is above the peskiness of partisan biases: the ultimate tolerant liberal.

However, other tweets where Norton used the n-word also recirculated amid the public outcry that accompanied her hiring at the Times, as did a 2013 Medium post where she called Nazi leader John Rabe her “personal patron saint of moral complexity.” Rabe was a leading figure in Nazi Germany, and also helped thousands of Chinese people avoid being killed during the Holocaust. That is, there are at least two Nazis about which Quinn has kind things to say. Still, Norton also claimed on Twitter in February amid all this backlash that on the rare occasions she still speaks to Auernheimer, she brings up “the racism” and attempts to address it with him.

Even if Auernheimer were open to leaving the Nazi movement, and even if Norton were herself a staunch anti-racist, it’s not only a matter of disagreeing “with the racism” when it comes to helping fascists change their ways. Indeed, if Norton had hoped to somehow neutralize Auernheimer’s hate or make the world safer via a friendship with Auernheimer, she failed spectacularly. Auernheimer is still a prominent player in the fascist scene and shows no sign of giving up on the movement any time soon.

This is in no small part because it’s actually quite difficult to deradicalize a neo-Nazi, and the process has to start with a genuine desire or need to change on the part of the fascist.

The Complicated Process of Deradicalization

Contrary to popular belief, the process of deradicalization is long, complicated and very difficult work for all parties involved. Peter Simi, a professor of sociology at Chapman University who studies political extremists, says that “we have more to learn than we already know” about deradicalizing far-right extremists. Simi explains that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to helping Nazis leave the movement, but he emphasizes that a “combination of internal and external forces” are often required.

“Internal motivation is critical,” Simi says of the necessity of a desire to change. “Sometimes it’s not the storybook we want to hear, but [the motivation to leave] often comes when a person involved in this lifestyle is not having their needs met.” Bigoted people are often drawn to far-right movements in order to feel “involved in a family, a cause and excitement, you think it’s going to change the world,” Simi says, but after time, some will get burnt out on the “backstabbing and hypocrisy, and cheating with one another’s significant others” that is rife within fascist groups. When fascists decide they’ve had enough with these things and get some distance, Simi explains that they are then able to have “the breathing room to see not only was it not satisfying, but it’s wrong. And then there’s more fundamental changes in beliefs that happen later, but not initially.”

Simi also says that external pressure, such as losing a job, being exposed publicly as a fascist, or realizing they’re putting family in harm’s way because of their activities can push fascists to begin the deradicalization process. “They realize they’re sacrificing way too much,” he says. However, “For some people, that can also kind of seal the deal for lifetime, lifelong commitment. There’s a lot of contingencies; in some cases it works, in others quite the opposite. There’s no one model that’s going to work.” Simi also notes that there have been multiple cases where having a child prompts fascists to turn their lives around. In these instances, having a baby and the responsibilities that come with parenthood provide enough motivation for fascists to act in the best interests of their family’s safety and leave the movement.

For those with the energy, patience and knowledge, it is possible to help deradicalize Nazis, but they have to want it first.

Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of the anti-fascist organization One People’s Project, regularly works with fascists who are ready to leave their hateful ways behind. Jenkins says he has an “open door policy” for fascists who want help getting out, “but they have to give us something in return.” Jenkins will be cordial to fascists to establish an initial rapport, he says, but he always requires that soon-to-be-defected fascists spill information about their comrades and work to undo the damage they’ve inflicted on society.

“My concern is the accountability for their actions being missed,” he says. “I think one of the things that makes it easy for me [to work with them], is they have to come to me. They have to be ready to give it up.”

Jenkins also notes that dealing with Nazis one-on-one during the deradicalization process is but one aspect of a much broader movement to resist and defeat fascism and support vulnerable communities.

Direct Confrontation and Exposing Fascists Is Also Necessary

There are times when anti-racist and anti-fascist activists find it necessary to directly confront fascists, particularly as a means of preventing them from assembling and organizing in public. In the internet age, doxxing — a tactic also employed by fascists so they can threaten and harass anti-fascists, anti-racists, journalists and other private citizens they perceive to be their enemies — has proven effective for anti-fascist activism.

When asked how concerned citizens can best expend their energy tackling fascism and racism today, Jenkins immediately called for more work to expose fascists’ identities publicly. “We need to know who it is that is involved with this nonsense,” Jenkins says. “Yes, they have the right to speak and live their lives to an extent, but the bottom line is that when they’re out, they’re harassing people and seeking to tear the fabric of society. They shouldn’t have the luxury of anonymity.” While exposing individual members of fascist groups may sound like it has a small impact, the consequences have the potential to be massive under the right circumstances. Jenkins provides the cases of Richard Spencer and Stephen Miller as an example.

“Several years ago [One People’s Project] caught on to Richard Spencer and tried to sound the alarm on him. But we missed his buddy Stephen Miller, who is now in the White House and is the architect of the child separation policy.” Had Miller been exposed and confronted sooner, it’s possible he wouldn’t have a prominent role in the federal government today.

While Miller wasn’t adequately exposed in time to prevent his political ascendance under Trump, other fascists who work for or with the government have recently been thrown into the spotlight, and in some cases, fired. Take, for example, Michael Miselis, a white supremacist who, until recently, worked for the aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman Corporation. ProPublica published an article exposing Miselis as a participant in last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally and as an employee of Northrop Grumman, which is contracted to work with the Department of Defense. Following the report, Miselis was fired.

Of course, Miselis’s firing alone will not temper the violence the Department of Defense perpetuates with Northrop Grumman’s help. The military-industrial complex is a massive structure of oppression that cannot be brought down with the firing of one racist man. But it demonstrates that there can be consequences for far-right extremists, even those in positions of some power.

And while doxxing and exposing fascists may not necessarily help deradicalize them, as Simi notes, it’s important to bear in mind that deradicalization is not usually the intended result of anti-fascist tactics. Rather, the primary goal is to prevent fascists from causing harm and generally making public spaces unbearable to them so that they do not act on their beliefs. Just because a Nazi doesn’t leave the movement after getting fired doesn’t mean the tactics that led to their firing were a failure; it means they were successful in inflicting some sort of negative consequence for bigotry. Some anti-fascists, such as Jenkins, incorporate deradicalization into their activism.

Physical confrontations, research, doxxing and applying pressure so that fascists face consequences for their actions are all vital tactics in the anti-fascist arsenal. With the ideal outcome, these tactics help to deny fascists platforms to organize, propagandize and commit violence. Working with extreme bigots who are ready to change their ways can sometimes be effective, but forming simple friendships alone can’t accomplish that massive task. Nor can confronting the fascist threat be limited to any one tactic.

Ridding our communities of racism and fascism is a tall and difficult order. Many on the left embrace a diversity of tactics, believing that a number of different approaches can be useful. This is necessary when we’re confronting individuals and groups that identify as fascists, violent racists who don’t necessarily belong to the fascist eco-system and the systemic racism that dominates our political system. Only a broad movement that is vigilantly opposed to racism and inequality can overcome these threats. And while already vulnerable communities are under increased attack, perhaps it’s best to spend the most energy confronting fascists, rather than trying to make them our newest friends.