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 5: The Motivating Power of Grievance Among Recruits for Membership in The Base.
By Mor Yachin, Rebecca Ann Wilson and Anthony Lemieux
In no small part, an individual’s self-image derives from the status, successes, and accomplishments of the social groups to which they belong (Social Identity Theory). According to SIT, social identities are fundamentally rooted in social comparisons emphasizing differences between in-group and out-groups, with favorable ingroup attitudes shaping social perceptions. Shared social identities exert a significant influence on group level grievances by emphasizing the importance of one’s identification with a particular social group, especially as it pertains to shaping and reinforcing perceptions and attitudes towards members of other groups.
A substantial body of research has explored the ways in which both perceived and legitimate grievances, specifically those related to a state’s economy, government, identity-based groups or societies, and security, influence violent extremism, including domestic terrorism (e.g., Lemieux & Asal, 2010; Post, 2005; Schwartz et al., 2009; Woolf & Hulsizer, 2005). Either personal or group-based, grievances can be understood as the perceptions that one or one’s group has been treated unfairly[i]. Perceived political, cultural, or socioeconomic (among others) injustices are examples of legitimate or perceived grievances known to motivate individuals or groups to violence. Perceptions of vulnerability as a result of demographic and cultural shifts, challenges to status quo power structures, and concerns about “replacement” have added considerably to the amalgam of grievances.
Examining leaked recruiting transcripts of The Base, affords a unique opportunity to assess “first-person” accounts of reported grievances. Using cluster analysis, which evaluates the perspectives and worldviews of a person or a group by clustering keywords with other words and symbols used in proximity to the specified keywords, we examine the stated and shared grievances of candidates seeking membership with The Base. We identified four key themes in the discourse related to grievances:
- Shared grievances expressed as a need to belong
- Grievances related to other (extremist) groups
- Grievances related to minorities
- Evaluation of grievances by group leadership
To better understand candidates’ perceptions and grievances related to intergroup dynamics, we used keywords including group and community in our first cluster. Two primary themes emerged, centered around a need to belong and criticism of other domestic extremist groups within the White supremacist/neo-nazi milieu. Additional keywords included minority and race to better understand the ways in which The Base recruits conceptualized themselves versus others, and interview to interrogate how group leaders evaluate the candidates after they left the conversation[ii]. Themes for minority and race reveal negative experiences with Black, Jewish, and LGBTQIA+ communities that led the candidates to their current attitudes and opinions. Finally, key themes related to interview determine the importance group leadership place on Siege and the extent to which candidates express and articulate a well-developed ideology, or the potential to do so.
Shared Grievances as a Need to Belong
A confluence of several disparate grievances were related to a desire for belonging and social communion. First, candidates detail their inability to relate to people that do not hold the same beliefs and worldviews, complaining about how they spend much of their time with people they “don’t connect with,” and describing their desire for a community of like-minded people. Other candidates report negative experiences in childhood or in interactions with minority group members as catalysts for their exploration and adoption of ideologies (i.e., white power) that rendered them socially and interpersonally isolated, and thus subsequently seeking others with similar values. Candidates also shared grievances about not being able to act against the injustice (e.g. societal, interpersonal) they feel. This lack of perceived self-efficacy was positioned as an important motivation for their willingness to become more active and involved through group affiliation.
As part of their efforts to impress and show deference to leadership, several candidates that were interviewing for an organization of this kind for the first time admitted that they felt somewhat nervous. In all cases, recruits were prompted to emphasize the congruent beliefs they hold with the leaders, as well as their desire to become an active and capable member of the group. In addition, and perhaps as an indicator of a high degree of commitment, when the risk of being “doxxed[iii]” came up, candidates testified that they “don’t care”, or that it is a risk they are willing to take.
Grievances Related to Other Extreme Groups
The key term group led to a cluster expressing grievances regarding other extremist groups. Many recruits report that their prior involvement with groups such as Atomwaffen Division (AWD), The Order of the Nine Angles (O9A), and the Aryan Brotherhood led them to seek out a better alternative, which they felt The Base offered. Candidates describe a strong frustration in not taking direct action against perceived societal injustices and cite an ‘action-oriented’ ideology and differentiated branding as a primary motivator to join The Base versus other groups. Several candidates detail frustrations with a lack of ideological commitment, in-group harmony, and organizational exploitation present in some of the other aforementioned groups. In fact, some candidates who communicated these particular grievances, conveyed that if they cannot be part of the Base, they do not want to be part of the broader movement at all. From a leadership perspective, candidates’ negative attitudes and opinions toward other groups was viewed as a positive marker for admittance into The Base. Interestingly, as vetting members assessed candidates’ opinions of other groups, their own evaluation of The Base as successful and genuine increased, leading to a greater acceptance rate.
Grievances Related to Minorities
Unsurprisingly, the “Us vs Them” categorizations based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. have a particularly strong influence on the social identities of prospective recruits. Thus, this cluster evolves around key terms such as race and minority. Candidates’ grievances around minorities were predominantly related to experiences with Black, Jewish, and LGBTQIA+ communities. Several individuals shared negative personal experiences such as being a student in a “mainly all-black school” or having a negative sexual experience with a Jewish female, which they posited as leading them to adopt their current ideologies. For example, one candidate shared that he wore a vest with a Trump pin on it. A black teacher in the school noticed it and told the school board about it. A week later, according to the candidate, he was called to the principal’s office where police were waiting, accusing him of being a potential school shooter which led to his expulsion. Several candidates expressed concerns related to the broader notion of “White replacement” describing the White population as the “real” minority, and one that was under an existential level of threat that was largely underappreciated.
Evaluation of Grievances by Group Leadership
The last cluster of our analysis aimed at analyzing grievances in a two-way interactional model to study how potential candidates communicate their ideas and behaviors and how group leadership evaluate these ideas. Thus, this cluster evolves around the key term interview. It is important to note that in this phase, candidates left the conversation not knowing how leadership was discussing their interview to determine whether an offer of membership should be extended.
First, past adverse experiences with different minorities, as well as some familiarity with or participation in adjacent movements or groups seemed to influence the opinion toward candidates positively. Post-interview conversations among the leadership indicate that interviewers expected candidates to arrive well-prepared for the conversation, share their ideologies, and talk profoundly about what bothers them and how they can be effective agents of change in addressing it. In some cases, when grievances seemed too obvious or ridiculous, they were met among the interviewers primarily with laughter. Moreover, getting familiar with the main ideas of Siege was a critical point for leadership; when candidates expressed knowledge and endorsement of specific aspects of Siege, they were viewed more favorably. Nonetheless, when leaders felt a candidate did not have a well-developed ideology, but that they came across as having a genuine desire to expand their ideological knowledge, they were still willing to consider adding him to the group.
Consistent with SIT, candidates for membership in The Base communicated a primacy of their sense of group identity. The conversations reflected grievances and concerns related to both their perceptions of vulnerability and their need to belong to a collective of like-minded others. To that end, our observations demonstrate that those who indicated both shared grievance and a higher valuation of The Base were viewed more favorably by leadership.
Distinctions between in- and outgroups were drawn throughout the interviews. This dichotomy is a critically important element of the quest to form a cohesive group and a collective identity that differentiates The Base from other groups operating in a similar ideological space. The expression of grievances based on personal experience, along with broader cultural grievances are important components of these conversations. Particularly, we found that candidates’ expression of cultural grievances (especially those informed by their personal experience) were causally attributed to their subsequent experiences and beliefs toward minority group members as noted earlier. A particular focus of note is on outgroups who might be considered part of the broader ideological movement. To the extent they were discussed, these outgroups were largely described as ineffectual, complacent, and weak, with the majority of recruits characterizing other groups as doing little other than chatting on forums.
Finally, examining leadership perceptions of candidate grievances (especially as related to their motivations to join the group) revealed that sharing hate-driven thoughts on other groups is insufficient to gain membership. Rather, leadership also expected candidates to hold, or be willing to cultivate, an ideological perspective that prioritizes the centrality of societal collapse based on Siege by James Mason.
[i] The concept of relative deprivation (Gurr, Runciman, etc.) at the group level has been extensively studied in the context of intergroup relations, and has been found to shape the trajectories of rebellions and the advent of social movements.
[ii] Note that as these were conducted as recruiting and vetting interviews, leadership of The Base often remained in the conversation after the candidate had left.
[iii] Being ‘doxxed’ involves the releasing of personally identifying information about a person or organization in public, typically online.
Mor Yachin is a doctoral student and a Presidential Fellow at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative, pursuing her Ph.D. in Communication Studies. Her research interests include health communication and media effects, older populations, and their use of innovative technologies. In addition, she focuses on the intersection of social media and music.
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.
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