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 2: Affiliative Hopes, Survivalist Fantasies, and the Motivations of Recruits for Membership in The Base.
By Rebecca Wilson, Allison Betus & Anthony Lemieux
Globally, far-right extremism has dramatically increased over the past decade, with progressively nationalist overtones in popular discourse, protest and mobilization, and outright acts of violence serving as indicators of the growing challenge of the far-right movement. The current domestic terrorism threat is complex, with groups constantly evolving in their strategies and tactics to achieve objectives harmful to U.S. national security interests.
Two primary overarching types of right-wing extremism (RWE) have been noted as particularly virulent: 1) racially or ethnically motivated, white supremacist/neo-nazi violent extremists; and 2) anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists inclusive of self-proclaimed “militias” and “accelerationists”. It is important to recognize these are not mutually exclusive categories, rather the far-right landscape includes groups whose ideologies and identities range from singular to blended typologies. Broadly, however, the former focuses their violence towards the same segment or segments of the American community (i.e., persons of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, other religious minorities, women and girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, or others). The latter believe in utilizing violence to resist government authority or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. Government, effecting a “system collapse”.
One such group is The Base, a White Supremacist, neo-nazi accelerationist group founded in 2018 as a public facing “survivalism and self-defense” network. Central to accelerationist ideology is the belief that society should be pushed to collapse in order to rebuild America as a white ethnostate. Despite The Base’s “survivalist” brand serving as a critical recruitment strategy, the groups’ weak operational security ultimately led to infiltration, leaked caches of communications, and the arrest of several members in 2019 and 2020. Among the leaked communications were a series of recruiting interviews that provide a unique opportunity to examine initial details on several aspects of what motivates people to seek out such a group.
Our initial analyses reveal that among candidates’ most prevalent reported motivations to join The Base, is a pronounced sense of social isolation, with the majority of candidates describing their desire for affiliation, community, and belonging. Several candidates conceptualize their current social circles as often fewer than three people. Further analysis reveals the complexity associated with individuals’ experiences of isolation. While our data does not afford the opportunity to determine a reliable or causal order of events, many candidates detail experiences of isolation leading to engagement with violent extremist material, which initially amplified their loneliness. For example, many candidates stated ‘redpill moments’ (primarily the desire for “truth”) led them to mis/disinformation channels where they began to cultivate socially abnormal perspectives (e.g., perceived fear of white replacement, societal collapse) which rendered them rejected from mainstream society. In other words, as their beliefs became increasingly aligned with RWE ideology, candidates’ social circles diminished, leading them to seek out new groups where they wouldn’t be rejected for their burgeoning beliefs. This initial observation is supported by prior research detailing the ways in which post-initial exposure to violent extremist online content, individuals continued to engage with a variety of extreme right-wing content out of “wanting to belong” and “be a part of something” (Gaudette, Scrivens & Venkatesh, 2020, p.7). In fact, within Gaudette et al’s study, 2/3 of participants described feeling isolated and disconnected from their family and friends.
Discussions around survivalism comprise over 50% of the recruiting transcripts. This is not surprising on one hand, as the group is defined as a “survivalism and self-defense” network, however, closer examination of conversations reveals the inherent mechanics between survivalism and candidate motivations. Implicit to candidates’ reported desire for survivalism skills are several psychological needs: 1) affiliation in the form of outdoorsmanship and brotherhood akin to relationships formed in the military, 2) empowerment in the form of developing tangible skill sets, and 3) anxiety-reduction as a means of preparing for “societal collapse”. Notably, our analysis demonstrates a strong relationship between affiliation/belonging and survivalism skills. Specifically, we parsed the transcripts between conversations that included survivalism and non-survivalism. Linguistic comparison of the two samples found that conversations around survivalism measured significantly higher in affiliation motivation and positive emotion language. That is, even talking about survivalism skills with other members in the chats increased candidates’ experience of affiliation/sense of belonging and positive affect.
In addition to belonging, candidates report feeling devoid of purpose and impact on the world around them specifically selecting The Base for its’ “survivalism and self-defense” branding. Candidates associate survivalism training with “taking action”, describing a strong desire to implement change on the world around them. Descriptions of mundane jobs and daily routines serve as precipitators for desiring these tangible skills that (in candidates minds) will distinguish them from the ‘average’ population. In other words, candidates are seeking an identity that is unique and empowering, and garnering these skill sets is a part of that.
Finally, although less prevalent than the needs for belonging or impact, is the desire for cultivating survivalism skills in preparation for the “inevitable societal collapse.” The majority of candidates cite the polarity of recent political discourse as proof that society is moving toward collapse, and express strong desires to be prepared in event of this happening. Although linguistic measurements of anxiety are relatively low in the transcripts overall, they appear most prevalently in the context of candidates’ discussions of societal collapse. Thus, garnering survivalism skills appears to be a means for alleviating candidates’ reported anxiety.
What might be done?
Recruitment strategies for extremist groups often emphasize psychological vulnerabilities and appeal to individuals by offering positive rewards, such as social bonds, status, and self-worth, which have previously been identified as important sources of motivation in the radicalization process. Our data supports this, conceptualizing recruits as significantly driven by the need to belong, desire to feel empowered/unique, and to a lesser degree for reducing existential anxiety. For these candidates, far-right extremism, and in this instance, The Base, meet these various motives at the same time. Further, our results demonstrate the ways in which motives can interact with each other. This has important implications for the dynamics of countering RWE groups. For instance, implementation of digital literacy and education programs may not hold credibility with our sample population who have already been rejected from mainstream society. Candidates whose experiences and ideologies have developed out of social rejection express significant mistrust of those trying to persuade them otherwise. Interventions that simply seek to provide information that “changes their minds” may subsequently fail. Considering this specific sample is motivated by a need for belonging and empowerment/uniqueness, it may be critical to develop opportunities where the confluence of these motives can be met. Community engagement alternatives where this subpopulation may express their opinions and engage in collective discourse without fear of shame or judgement, and perhaps more importantly, hear alternate points of view, may provide more effective pathways to disengagement.
Importantly, our data suggest for this population, that the ideology and ideas inherent to far-right extremism may be less relevant, rather it is the anxieties, values, needs and emotions that lead a person into a far-right community that are the true motivating forces. Thus, future research that motivationally distinguishes the behavior of right-wing extremists will be crucial in developing successful and effective prevention and intervention programs.
Rebecca Wilson, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University. She has served as a Research Fellow on research supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Minerva program and as a fellow of the Violence Against Women Research Prevention lab. She has extensively analyzed the behavior of jihadi and far-right violent extremist groups including inter/intra group dynamics, communication strategies, cognitive and behavioral correlates of radicalization, recruitment, and operational strategies.
Allison Betus is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University who researches white supremacy, far-right terrorism, media depictions and public perceptions of terrorism, bias, and intergroup dynamics. She has an MA in Psychology from The New School for Social Research and her work has been featured on media outlets including NPR, National Geographic, and The Washington Post.
Anthony F. Lemieux is a Professor of Communication, founding co-director of the Atlanta Global Studies Center, and a lead researcher in the Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative at Georgia State University.
Image Credit: PEXELS