Neo-Nazi Threat Is Rising

When I got the chance to talk with Christian Picciolini last week, I knew I was talking a former neo-Nazi skinhead gang leader. He managed to extract himself from that life 22 years ago and has dedicated himself to the organization Life After Hate. He mentioned, in almost a throwaway line, that they have been busier since November.

Why November? Election Day.

I’ve tried not to be alarmist about the state of the world as a Jew in the era of Trump. However, despite last week’s revelation that it was an American-Israeli Jewish teenager that allegedly perpetrated a large number of the Jewish Community Center bomb threats across the United States and Canada, we aren’t safe.

Don’t take my word on this. I know this because an ex-Nazi told me so.

“I can tell you 30 years ago, me and my comrades would have been rejoicing over the fact that there are people in power who reflect the same types of policies and ideals that we did,” said Picciolini, who speaks at Temple Israel on Thursday night. “The election created a platform, intentionally or not, for these people who always existed in the shadows and now feel emboldened and mainstreamed to normalize their activities. That to me is alarming, as well of some of the policies that really mimic exactly what I was going for 30 years ago: On immigration, isolationism, and ultra-nationalism.”

This isn’t an alarmist progressive politician or a tree-hugging liberal saying this. It’s coming from you someone who lived and led the ideology. So, you’re probably thinking: They don’t look like skinheads, right? No, they don’t. That was a part of Picciolini’s plan.

“I can tell you we had a concerted effort that they are calling the alt-right now that we called ‘leaderless resistance,'” he explained. “We recognized that the shaved heads and swastika tattoos were turning off the average American racist that we could recruit. We decided to stop shaving our heads, we need to stop wearing the boots and waving the swastika flags. We needed to grow our hair, wear suits and ties, go to college, get jobs in law enforcement, run for office. Blend in and normalize.

“Here we are 30 years later, and that has been working for the last three decades so they’ve gotten to the point where November kind of kicked over a bucket of gasoline over all the sparks that were already smoldering across the U.S. Here we have a very strong platform for white nationalists or American nationalist. The language keeps getting savvier. We knew we had to make our message more palatable to the mainstream masses. Here we see a rise in hate crimes. We see islamophobia go through the roof. And an administration that has a really hard time calling white extremism terrorism.”

It’s not just white people exercising extremist behavior or tendencies; recruiting tactics for groups like ISIS with Somali kids in Minneapolis are the same.

“The parallels are pretty striking. It’s similar to gang recruiting: Essentially, you’re looking for vulnerable, marginalized people with a grievance, and you’re giving them an easy solution for that grievance,” he said. “It’s very black and white thinking. It’s very us against them. If you target young, vulnerable marginalized people, you’re providing them an identity and a sense of community and focus. Recruiters are very good at finding those people.

“You give them a scapegoat and promise them paradise in return. That’s nearly identical across any ideological or fundamentalist religious extremist group.”

What’s happening in the U.S. is what Picciolini has seen around the world. He’s been taking his message to Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belgium, Sweden, and Italy, where a wave of far-right politicians are being elected to parliaments that have seen this in their not-so-distant past.

“The same fear-rhetoric is being used to foster Islamophobia or fear of refugees, and it’s building up far-right extremism like it is in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s alarming to see it happen again, but It’s fascinating to see how my message being an American guy from Chicago, how well it resonates in places like Budapest or Bratislava or Oslo: Because people there share the same experiences.”

Picciolini and Life After Hate launched Exit USA, and more recently, Exit Slovakia. Exit USA is their intake page with a confidential contact form. It allows people to contact Life After Hate for help to break them or someone they know from a hate group or hateful ideology.

“We’ve seen a rise since the election of people looking for help,” he said. “Maybe they’re recognizing the signs more in their peers and they are asking for help.”

The help is out there, but the outward rise in neo-Nazism is becoming more prevalent. It’s up to all of us to be vigilant and aware of it.