From Moderate Republican To Neo-Nazi In About 18 Months

In the Trump era, young conservatives who once supported mainstream politicians like Mitt Romney are being seduced by the alt-right movement

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Apr 25, 2017 at 2:22 PM ET

Kevin is a 17-year-old high school junior in Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his parents in a middle-class community and has a group of friends he’s known since elementary school. He likes history and politics and gets decent grades. Like lots of kids his age, he spends much of his free time online sharing memes and reading blogs.

But there’s something else about Kevin: He’s a self-described fascist who serves as a national recruiter for an emerging white nationalist organization.

American Vanguard advocates for a “Muslim-free America” and for white people to “take your country back.” An extension of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, the group came to prominence over the last year as Donald Trump helped move its anti-immigrant ideology into the mainstream.The group made headlines in recent months for distributing racist flyers at college campuses across the country. Its website features an image of a white man proudly engaged in a Nazi salute and encourages people to join its ranks and help spread its white-power message.

People at school know about Kevin’s politics, he said, but it’s not something he talks about with friends. “Well, people make me out to be some kind of racist piece of shit that hates minorities and blah, blah, blah,” said Kevin, whose name has been changed because he is a minor. “That’s just not the case.”

He then offered a common refrain of people with his views who don’t want to be categorized as racists: “I have black friends, Latino friends, Asian friends. If I was a racist I wouldn’t hang around them.”

Vocativ reached out to Kevin online to learn about how average teens like him have descended into the growing ranks of the extremist right under Trump. The way Kevin describes it, it didn’t happen overnight. “I used to be a regular conservative,” he said. His first brush with politics was campaigning alongside his dad for Mitt Romney, a middle-of-the-road Republican, in the 2012 presidential election.

Then Trump came along.

As his campaign progressed, Trump dragged Kevin and countless others toward right-wing radicalization with his nationalistic rhetoric and tales of Mexican rapists and murderers flooding the streets and taking jobs away from Americans like Kevin’s parents, who worked in a manufacturing plant until the plant relocated to Belgium.

“I became fed up because [Republicans] were failing to push our agenda against the Obama administration,” Kevin said. “Alt right is a rejection of mainstream conservatism. I’m now a right-wing authoritarian.”

Kevin spends a lot of his days carefully curating memes for his Instagram account, which he said spiked in followers five months ago when he started posting “more and more alt-right content.”

“I think that says a lot about the alt-right,” Kevin said about his popularity. “It’s definitely growing in numbers.”

On some days, he posts as many as five memes a day, most of which he swipes from 4chan or Twitter. We communicated in February the day after Trump gave a rousing speech in Florida in which he touched upon familiar themes: the “lying” media and criminal undocumented immigrants who should get “the hell out of here.”

“I thought it was one of his best speech[es],” Kevin said. He posted a handful of memes that day: One depicts an abstract image of Trump’s face with glowing eyes above a quote that says “I am growing stronger.” The caption reads, in all caps, “LONG LIVE THE TRUMP EMPIRE.”

Kevin’s not alone on the road to right-wing radicalization. Over the last year, white nationalist groups have seized on their foray into the mainstream and are targeting people just like Kevin: young, white males.

“White supremacists have consciously made the decision to focus their recruitment efforts on students,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group that monitors movements like the alt-right. “While there have been recruitment efforts in the past, never have we seen anti-Semites and white supremacists so focused on outreach to students on campus.”

Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute of Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, says the phenomenon of the alt-right in the U.S. is “stunningly similar” to what’s been happening in Germany for the last several decades.

“There are multiple reasons people become radicalized,” he said. “Personal experience, rhetoric, or anything you see as a threat to your own identity. [In the case of the alt-right] white males feel that their group is treated unfairly. They tell themselves that they are the underdogs.”

Trump, he said, has helped to create the perfect breeding ground for radicalization with his nationalistic rhetoric — much of which is not based in reality — and creating a sense of urgency to fix problems that may or may not actually exist. “His simple use of language and the way he does not speak openly against [things like hate crimes or racist rhetoric] directly influences fear and hatred,” Koehler said.

Over the last year, a number of charismatic alt-right charlatans have emerged to spread their racist views across the internet — and then, increasingly, to the real world. Websites like University of Virginia-educated Richard Spencer’s Radix Journal lend some faux-academia to white nationalist beliefs that until recently were generally propagated by juvenile, racist memes in deep corners of the web.

Spencer, who made headlines in November when he led a group of white nationalists in a Hitler salute at an alt-right conference/Donald Trump victory lap in Washington D.C., offers a degree of logic to the ideology — regardless of how flawed that logic may be — that appeals to people like Kevin. In our conversations, Kevin frequently referenced his admiration for people like Spencer, as well as David Duke, a former Klan leader turned routinely failed politician who runs his own racist website.

Vocativ also spoke with Thomas, who at 15 comes across as not quite as radicalized by the right as Kevin. Not yet, anyway.

Thomas said that his interest in politics emerged when Trump announced his candidacy for the 2016 election two summers ago. When the now-president descended from those escalators at the famous New York City building that bears his name to give the first of many blustery speeches, Thomas was only 13.

“I found myself at least vaguely agreeing with everything he said,” Thomas said. “From that point on I followed and supported him.”

Thomas said his evolution to what he calls right-wing authoritarianism didn’t happen overnight, but Trump certainly helped speed up the transformation. He liked Trump’s strongman stance on immigration and trade. “The more I learned about the reality of the world, the more I switched from libertarianism to wanting a stronger state,” he said. “I started seeing the faults in leftist policy.”

He cites affirmative action, taxes, government regulations of the Obama era as some of the biggest threats to his culture, a social construct he sees as more important than race. Thomas insists that he’s not a racist, and in fact, he shuns fascism because he says it is “very closely tied to racial hatred, which makes it less attractive.”

That said, Thomas also admitted, “I see some cultures as inferior, the way I determine that is based purely on historical and modern performance. And in racial groups there are certain cultures that are toxic.”

Thomas arrived at this conclusion through what he claims was personal research. He says he pays close attention to the news, he listens to both sides of an issue and takes to the internet for more information — where alt-right trolls often dilute the truth with race-based BS.

“Every time a big controversy would appear, I’d do my own research and almost always found myself agreeing with Trump,” Thomas said. He reads Breitbart and watches Fox News. For the left’s point of view, he said, he reads Huffington Post and Salon. He rejects over-the-top racists like Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the uber-anti-Semitic, conspiracy theory pushing Daily Stormer website, because it’s “all just shocking and provocative.”

Researching both sides isn’t necessarily the key to avoiding radicalization, though, experts say. A lot of times it just reinforces what a person already believes.

I think that we have to acknowledge that the kinds of information that appeals to the alt-right is about ideas these individuals already believed in,” said Michael Stefanone, a communications professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in social media and social psychology.  “The difference now is that these alt-right news sources are treated as legitimate, and are effectively drowning out information coming from reputable journalistic enterprises. They’re taking over the conversation.”

The attempt by Spencer and others to slither the alt-right into the mainstream took a hit in February when he and his movement were specifically denounced at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the event, referred to the alt-right as “a sinister organ trying to worm its way into our ranks.”

“They are anti-Semites,” Schneider told a crowd of a few hundred conservatives in a large ballroom where Trump spoke the following day. “They are racists. They are sexists. They hate the Constitution … they despise everything we believe in. They are not an extension of conservatism.”

In the hallway outside was Spencer, holding court for reporters looking for his reaction to Schneider’s speech. Just feet away was a group of conservative men and women who appeared to be in their late 40s and early 50s. They were as disgusted by Spencer as Schneider.

“It’s bullshit that they try to categorize him as [conservative],” said Laura Lightstone, a Maryland conservative who wants nothing to do with Spencer and his ilk. “The conservatives I know and live around down here, nobody believes in that shit.”

For some of the younger CPAC crowd, though, Spencer is a rock star — countless 20-somethings at the conference were decked out in flashy Brooks Brothers suits similar to the ones for which Spencer is now famous (or perhaps infamous) and sporting his trademark crop-top “fashy” (short for fascist) haircut.

As Spencer was enjoying the press attention, he was approached by several young men who asked for “selfies” with the alt-right demagogue.

“Praise Pepe!” one of the men said, beaming after meeting the poster boy of their movement.

A few minutes later, Spencer was kicked out of CPAC.

Whether young people influenced by Spencer’s rhetoric become violent, radicalization expert Koehler said, is a legitimate concern — extremist violence has been a significant problem in Europe as an influx of immigrants have enraged the racist right. And the U.S. has seen its share of scattered-but-growing right-wing violence against immigrants and minorities, too. Just look at Dylann Roof, the self-styled white supremacist who credited the internet with forming his beliefs that black people were the enemy and that it was his job to start a race war. He then went and murdered nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“There’s a psychological process that drives you towards violence,” said Koehler. “There’s a decreasing perception of solutions to your problems. And an increasing feeling of urgency to act. Trump talking about terrorists flooding the country, violence in Chicago — it’s playing with that sense of urgency and the emotions of people that will make them more likely to use extreme measures.”

The new season of Dark Net — an eight-part docuseries developed and produced by Vocativ — airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.