Anthony F. Lemieux, Georgia State University
Background: Our research team at Georgia State University (Anthony Lemieux, P.I., Dror Walter, Rebecca Wilson, Katherine Kountz, John Hendry, Allison Betus, and Mor Yachin) and the University of Cincinnati (Michael Loadenthal) have been working on analyses of a corpus of leaked interviewing and vetting calls provided to our research team by the Southern Poverty Law Center ( n = 127) for membership in the white supremacist, neo-nazi accelerationist group The Base.
The calls included in this data set took place between November of 2018 and January of 2020, and were primarily conducted as vetting interviews for potential members (i.e., candidates), while some focused on core readings (i.e., James Mason’s Siege). Transcripts of the calls equal approximately 780,000 words over 1,500 pages. Some of the members, particularly those in leadership roles including Rinaldo Nazarro, the leader of The Base (using the pseudonyms Norman Spear and Roman Wolf), are present on multiple calls.
A series of posts have been created for the VOX-Pol blog to complement forthcoming journal articles, whereby members of the research team discuss various aspects of these interviews, examining such issues as motivation, catalysts for joining (so-called redpilling), survivalism, media, and concerns related to organizational and operational security.
Part 1: Capitalizing on Rhetorical Ecologies: Indoctrination Strategies of The Base
By Katherine Kountz
We live in a world of uncertainty: armed conflict and war, a global health crisis, economic instability, climate change, radical socio-cultural shifts, and the systematic delegitimization of institutional authority worldwide. These uncertainties demand attention through constant communication streams—an information glut that often directs attention to problems without offering any actionable solutions. In the absence of information on how to effect change, our information glut may serve to disempower and frighten people, particularly those who are younger and trying to make sense of the world that they are encountering. Additionally, the increased aggregation and amplification of fringe conspiracy theories and disinformation exacerbate this chaotic appearance of the world. In this milieu, extremist discourse thrives and proliferates. In his analysis of the ideological and cultural dynamics of the radical right’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic, Chapelan (2021) suggests that “crises intensely mobilize meaning making mechanisms” (p. 284). Against this backdrop, our research team has engaged in analysis of the recruiting and vetting interviews conducted between 2018 and 2020 for membership in The Base, a white-supremacist, neo-nazi accelerationist group.
In a recent analysis of vetting calls for the accelerationist group, The Base, Wilson et al. (in press; Wilson et al., in preparation) find that of the candidates interviewed, 62% of them were between the ages of 17-21. The interviewers prompted candidates to articulate their path to radicalization and desire to join the base within the framework of a popular grand illusion narrative, the “red pill” experience. Expressing a strong affiliation motive (which we detail in the second part of our writing on the recruiting and vetting interviews of prospective members of The Base), many of these young men identified Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign as formative in their radicalization. Trump’s populist discourse proposes simple solutions to complex problems, suggests affiliation with the “real” people, provides convenient Others to blame, challenges institutional authority and expertise, and resists deliberation or critique through post-presumption argumentation which rejects deliberation and privileges one-sided confrontation; however, Trump’s rhetoric is just one element within a broader rhetorical ecology. Edbauer (2005) defines rhetorical ecologies as “co-ordinating processes, moving across the same social field and within shared structures of feeling” (Ibid, p. 1). Rhetorical ecologies are not limited to the contexts of speech acts, but the affective flow of “a circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events” (Ibid, p. 9).
Candidates’ red pill narratives warrant a closer examination of the rhetorical ecology that influenced these young men to join an accelerationist movement. In a rhetorical environment full of uncertainty and political chicanery, the red pill narrative has circulated widely online, adapting a wide range of contexts and meanings for those on both the left and right sides of the ideological spectrum. Here, we contend that red pill narratives create a sense of affiliation between individuals within a hierarchy of knowledge, thus serving disempowered youth as a mechanism for claiming agency. Therefore, the red pill narrative serves as a strategic frame which the Base recruiters exploited to further radicalize the men they interview.
The red pill narrative, integral to The Base’s vetting procedure, is an allusion to a metaphorical trope from the popular film The Matrix (1999). Take the red pill and awaken to the truth of reality or take the blue pill and continue wandering cloaked in a dream. An updated version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which “received a new lease on life in our extremely online moment,” red pill narratives depict epiphanic events which solidify often anti-establishment ideologies and promote dissent (Shullenberger, 2021, p. 4). Dissent, Ivie (2015, p.54) suggests, “encourages communities to revise self-understandings and refashion common sense, revealing that dissenters may express “sharp differences with prevailing attitudes and policies” while affirming “points of mutual dependency” between themselves and the publics they engage” (Asen, 2021, p.42). The red-pilled continue to engage the blue-pilled in the hope that they can awaken the dupes from their slumber and recruit them to join the red-pilled resistance. Red pill narrative’s conspiratorial character addresses both psycho-social and ideological needs by endowing adherents with an epistemic superiority, “nurturing the stringent need of “being in the know” (Chapelan, 2021, p. 287). Chapelan concludes that far-right adherents to red pill narratives “weave their outsider status and remoteness from power into a circular, self-reinforcing narrative: they are marginal because, not despite, they are pure, they are right because, and not despite, they are disavowed by canonical authorities.” (p. 310). Belief in one’s capacity to see through the illusion, to recognize the truth, affiliates otherwise isolated adherents to stigmatized knowledge with an elite cadre of enlightened individuals.
The red pill narrative gained considerable traction in far-right discourses as a cornerstone of the movement which gave rise to the alt-right: The Dark Enlightenment (Aikin, 2019). The Dark Enlightenment emerged online in response to political and cultural gains made by progressives, attributing these strides to “a roughly ideologically confederated set of institutions” which rules the Western world called “The Cathedral” (Ibid, p. 423). The grand illusion narrative, according to Aikin, is comprised of three functional components: the illusion itself and the machinery that maintains it, the shattering of the illusion, and a vision of what will replace the machinery. Typically, these narratives express a strong degree of deep disagreement, Aikin argues, but do not suggest absolute deep disagreement suggesting that argumentation remains a possible mode of engagement. However, as Chapelan points out, “what mediates and organizes the interactions of these two realms [the red-pilled and the duped subjects of the Cathedral] are a series of counter-cultural narratives” which take the form of conspiracy theories (Chapelan, 2021, p. 286). Within a particular rhetorical ecology, however, the common sense of conspiracy theories will prove more resistant to critical scrutiny.
Neville-Shepard (2019) argues that Trump’s normalization of post-presumption argumentation created an environment in which conspiracy rhetoric “is not simply about shifting one’s burden of proof, but about casting doubt on presumption altogether” (Ibid, p. 19). In this environment, conspiracy arguments attain dangerous potency as they are immune to the presumptions of veracity, institutional authority and expertise, and deliberation potentially leading to what Aikin calls “absolute deep disagreement” leaving no room for deliberation or persuasion whatsoever. Therefore, it is within the context of a rhetorical ecology characterized by post-presumption argumentation that we turn to the nihilistic “red-pilling” of accelerationists, sometimes referred to as “black-pilling,” because it advances the claim that there is no political solution available through democratic processes such as deliberation and that action is the only available recourse.
In our examination of leaked recruiting call transcripts of The Base, we found interviewers highly prioritized candidates’ red pill experiences in their line of questioning (Wilson et al., in press). For recruiters, articulating the red pill experience grounds distal ideological abstractions in proximal experience. In a meeting among members, they discuss the narrative’s value:
“When we talked about red pill moments, we’re talking about moments from your life, not necessarily, you know, digesting literature from your life, because it’s a personal matter for a lot of us. You know how we got into it. So it’s that part. You know, to hear something that’s personal to you” (Member of Base Leadership)
However, many of the younger candidates lacked personal experiences to draw from. Instead, they might cite events in the news, “Red pilling moments… was, I think, the refugee crisis” (Candidate for Membership), or the ideas they’ve been engaging which reiterate the importance of the information ecosystem these young men inhabit. Despite acknowledging in the aforementioned meeting that the two lines of inquiry are distinct, recruiters collapsed media consumption with their red pill inquiry to guide responses in the absence of a formative experience: “Have you had any red pilling moments in your life? As far as any personal experiences, you know tell us about stuff that you’ve read, you know” (Member of Base Leadership).
Consequently, a prominent theme that emerged from the candidates’ red pill narratives is the pursuit of knowledge and truth about the sociocultural, economic, and political conditions of uncertainty that candidates find themselves navigating. Wilson et al (in press) suggest that “[t]he desire for ‘truth’ and ‘awakening’ is a common political and educational motivator, which extremist groups can exploit.” Candidate’s red pill narratives often entailed various media they consumed as part of their self-enlightenment (e.g. literature, online resources, and podcasts). If candidates didn’t mention James Mason’s Siege, recruiters asked candidates whether or not they had read James Mason’s Siege. Some candidates boasted that they had, demonstrating that they share an affiliative bond with individuals who share the same status within a hierarchy of knowledge. For example, when asked about Siege, one young candidate responds, “Oh yeah, of course. I have 3 physical copies” (Candidate for Membership).
Reading Siege indicates candidates have adequately mentally prepared for induction into the group: “Siege is great and kind of it did get me up to speed. Really. It was like, oh, wow, this is you know, this is like unadulterated truth. It’s like someone actually speaking what’s what’s (sic) real” (Candidate for Membership). The phrase “up to speed” suggests that Siege contains the base knowledge required for group affiliation. Their effort to educate themselves is an action they can take and, therefore, empowers them. Recruiters exploit this drive for affiliation and control, leading candidates farther down the ideological path. The recruiters make it an imperative: “the other thing I want to talk about, you haven’t read Siege, I don’t really have a question on that. I just should repeat that you should definitely read Siege” (Member of the Base Leadership). For candidates who had not read Siege, eager to prove they deserve acceptance into the closed circle of esoteric knowledge, they consistently committed to doing so.
We conclude by positing that one way in which leaders who are recruiting and vetting others for membership in The Base recruiters strategically use the articulation of red pill narratives to frame young candidates’ experiences and further indoctrinate them during the interview process. The Base recruiters use the red pill narrative and Siege as a way of crystallizing the candidate’s ideology by introducing more extremist propaganda into their information ecosystem. We also gesture at changes in the broader rhetorical ecology that foment cynicism and increase receptivity to disinformation. Our ongoing research pays close attention to the media, events, and communicative norms that shape red pill narratives and radicalization to violent extremism.
Wilson, R., Kountz K., Hendry J. P., Betus, A., Yachin, M., Walter, D., Loadenthal, M., & Lemieux, A. F. (in press). The Base: An Analysis of Recruiting, Vetting, and Motivations of Potential Members.
Wilson, R., Kountz, K., Yachin, M., Betus, A., Hendry J. P., Loadenthal, M., Walter, D., & Lemieux, A. F. (in preparation). Why I Want to Join The Base: Analysis of the Stated and Implied Motivations, Ideologies, and Identities of Candidates.
Katherine Kountz, M.A., is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University and a presidential fellow in the Transcultural Conflict & Violence Initiative. She researches American political culture in the context of digitally networked communication and everyday discourse using computational methods to investigate political identity and subjectivity, citizenship, and pathways to radicalization.
Image Credit: PEXELS