Ex-neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini: "The words I used to say are now part of the mainstream"

Christian Picciolini now works to combat white supremacy — but the ideas he once espoused are now everywhere

Published September 4, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Christian Picciolini, an award-winning television producer, a public speaker, author, peace advocate, and a former violent extremist. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)
Christian Picciolini, an award-winning television producer, a public speaker, author, peace advocate, and a former violent extremist. (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

The foul odor of fascism has become inescapable in the American atmosphere. Republican officials across the country are working overtime to undermine the right to vote, leading right-wing pundits brazenly promulgate racist conspiracy theories and the Anti-Defamation League reports that 2020 saw a 45 percent increase in hate crimes throughout the Midwest.

There is perhaps no time more urgent to learn from one of fascism's former foot soldiers. Christian Picciolini became a neo-Nazi as a teenager in the working class Chicago suburb of Blue Island in the late 1980s. As the leader of the Chicago Area Skinheads (CASH) and singer in the white-power rock band the Final Solution, Picciolini was one of the most effective recruiters in the white supremacist movement.

His story transformed, however, from horrific to redemptive and inspiring. Picciolini is now one of the most effective anti-hate activists in the United States. The details of his transition from Nazi to progressive — from hate leader to democratic healer — are available in his fascinating and important memoir, "White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement – And How I Got Out."

Picciolini is the co-founder and director of the Free Radicals Project, an international multidisciplinary organization dedicated to the prevention of hate crimes, and working to stunt the growth of the movements that fuel them. He chronicles his current work in his insightful new book, "Breaking Hate: Countering the New Culture of Extremism."

He is also the host of a new podcast, "F Your Racist History," which aims educates listeners on the often unknown or whitewashed influence of racism in American culture, politics and economics.

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In the past few years, Picciolini's warnings have become increasingly severe. As he and his colleagues at Free Radicals work to preserve the promise of multiracial democracy in the United States, Picciolini worries that the nation's complacency will soon meet a catastrophic end.

I recently spoke with Picciolini by phone about this work and analysis of the current crisis facing American politics.

You recently published an alarming assessment of American politics and culture on your Facebook page, writing, "Everything happening in America and the world right now and for the last decade (rise of neofascism, Qanon/conspiracists, Trumpism, 'America First,' white nationalism, polarization, etc.) is leading me to believe we will face a period of darkness like we've never seen before." Could you elaborate? What specifically has you so worried about this period of history?

Well, what's happened since Barack Obama's election is that we've seen the resurgence of a different kind of white supremacy. Up until that point, professionals, experts and those in law enforcement were touting the supposed fact that white supremacist organizations were either dead or dying. They were claiming that hate groups were going away, no one was joining groups like the Klan or becoming skinheads anymore and we were making great progress in combating white extremism. When Obama was elected, we saw a different kind of white supremacy. It wasn't about joining the Klan or neo-Nazi organizations. It became about recruiting and radicalizing the mainstream.

That's been happening now for a little longer than 12 years. We've seen the Libertarian Party infiltrated, and conservative spaces infiltrated by the same ideology I was involved with 30 years ago. Today we are seeing the effects of it. The fact that we are still in a place as a nation where we cannot agree that we have a problem with white supremacy — there are people who downplay the problem, there are others who are adamant that it doesn't even exist — we are setting ourselves up for a big failure. I think after this administration we are going to see things become more conservative politically, and then government will exercise a stranglehold over how we combat white extremism. It is already tough now. We can't find a consensus on it, which means we can't properly fight it. Imagine how tough it will become when the federal government is under control of less friendly policymakers.

I wish that I could tell you something different, but everything I've seen happen over the last 30 years, and everything I see happening now, leads me to believe that we are in for a period of darkness. That means that law enforcement won't feel that it has the support to do what they need to do to arrest white extremist criminals. White extremist criminals will blossom, and they will feel that they have the leeway to push the envelope. At the same time, we are seeing the institutions we depend on for safety — law enforcement, the military — becoming infiltrated with the same ideologies that affected me 30 years ago. It is becoming more and more part of the mainstream.

What I've seen happen, slowly but surely, over the past 30 years is that words I used to say as a neo-Nazi skinhead, the belief system that I had when I was an avowed white supremacist, are now part of the mainstream discussion. We are seeing people who are not neo-Nazis, or at least not claiming to be, spouting off the same beliefs — politicians, law enforcement officers, police unions. So we're in for a very rude awakening.

It is terrifying that if you compare the rhetoric of contemporary right-wing figures, including Donald Trump, and the rhetoric in your memoir as you look back on your involvement with neo-Nazis, or the rhetoric of Timothy McVeigh, it is difficult to find any daylight between them. Can you specify what language, issues and ideas that are now prominent in right-wing discourse and Republican Party propaganda resemble what you and your associates were saying when you were a neo-Nazi?

First, there is the more blatant conspiracy-oriented language, regarding the "others" controlling the power structure. That is starting to exist in the language of QAnon, in terms of talking about "globalism." But also, more specifically, what's penetrated the right is "replacement theory" or the "Great Replacement." What I mean by that is white supremacists believe that the demographics of the country are changing rapidly, and that soon white people will lose agency and power, because they will be the minority. Whether that is happening statistically or not is a different story, because what white supremacists believe is that it is an intentional process being put forward by global cabals of, in most cases, Jewish people who are trying to upset the balance of white power. White supremacists claim that diversity is genocide for the white race. They believe that the promotion of multiculturalism is a tool of white genocide.

We've started to hear those ideas, and similar ideas, come out of Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host with millions of viewers. It isn't just people like me when I was hanging out in dark alleys reading pamphlets from other conspiracy theorists. People are now getting this theory and hatred from Donald Trump, and various people in his orbit. They are getting it from Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona. These are people with suits and ties. They look like the mainstream, they sound like the mainstream and, in certain cases, they've been elected to powerful positions by the mainstream. And yet they are saying the same dangerous and outlandish things that a 17-year-old Christian Picciolini said when he was sporting a swastika tattoo.

It is the whole notion that if white people don't wake up now, that they will be overrun. If you watch Tucker Carlson, people like David Duke and Tom Metzger, in the old days, said almost the exact same thing. They said, "White people, wake up! Immigration, the religions that they are forcing down our throats, multiculturalism — it's all a conspiracy to destroy our white power." Sometimes they use more palatable language, but they are using fear rhetoric to make white people afraid that they are being overrun by these other people and forces. Whether it is Islam, refugees, crime, immigrants or even the way they talk about outsourcing of jobs, it is all rooted in that same idea that white people have to be afraid.

And there is a certain set of policies that emanate out of that paranoia: "Build the wall," family separation, the Muslim ban, voter suppression. Does this racist paranoia explain why so many Republicans have overtly turned against electoral democracy? They are making a brazen attempt, through voter suppression and partisan seizure of election offices, to undermine democracy. Is that where the paranoia has taken us?

I think so. Voter suppression has been around a long time. Every time there is a push for inclusion, for more people to vote, there is voter suppression. If you go back to poll taxes and literacy tests, that's exactly what the Voting Rights Act was correcting. Yes, it was technically legal for Black people and others to vote, but white people in power made it almost impossible. There has always been a pushback by people who hold power against relinquishing that power. If you look at who is in power, it is mostly white men. Now, as they see it slipping away, or as other people become empowered, they are ramping up the dirty tactics.

As someone who has been on both sides of it, how do you suggest that a civil society with a Bill of Rights that protects speech and the press should effectively deal with hate speech, racist incitement and neofascism? How do we strike a balance between preserving our freedoms but also aggressively tackling this problem? 

That's a tough one. We must do a better job of preventing future generations from finding what you describe as a viable option. All we can do right now is fight our way through it and hope that we survive.

Ultimately, what we have to do is hold people accountable. I'm talking about criminals, not people who are just saying things. We have a hard time holding criminals to account for the crimes they've committed. Just last week, Brandon Russell, one of the founders of a white supremacist terrorist group, Atomwaffen Division, was released from prison after four years, and this is after investigators found illegal guns and bombmaking material in his apartment. There are probably people in prison longer for marijuana, and this guy, for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government with a mass casualty event, is free.

It is hard to cut the head off the snake, because we are fighting this war against extremism the same way we fought the war on drugs. We are arresting and going after a lot of addicts, instead of going against the smugglers that are enabling the problem.

To round that out, we also learned this week that the FBI had been supporting Joshua Sutter, a confidential informant who was a white supremacist for 18 years. They paid him over $100,000. This is a person who still today is publishing white supremacist books and other materials, and those materials are used to radicalize people into joining Atomwaffen Division. So here is our own government actively funding someone who is working to radicalize people. That's a problem. 

How do we expect to defeat white extremism if their coffers are being filled by the people who are supposed to protect us? When I say that we are in for darkness because we aren't taking the right approach to combat extremism, that is exactly what I am talking about. First, we have to take care of that problem. Then we can have the tougher debate on what we do about hate speech.

I am also more of the mind that we need to do a better job of raising our children. Give them all the information that they need to succeed, and when they become adults, provide them with services like health care, like higher education — all those services we make difficult for people to access. In some cases, the only way people feel they can find agency is by joining hate groups, because they are the only ones who seem to pay attention to them, to listen to their problems. It is, of course, a toxic environment, and what they are getting is not positive interaction, but they are gravitating to these groups because they are getting something that they should be getting from society instead. So we should be thinking about how we lay a foundation under young people so that joining a hate group doesn't even seem like an option, and so that what they offer is never attractive.

That brings us to your story, and your organization, Free Radicals. There probably isn't a massive group of people who have a family member or friend who is in a hate group. But many people know someone in QAnon or someone who has taken an ideologically dark turn. For the sake of them, can you talk about what Free Radicals does, and also address the steps to de-radicalize people?

The Free Radicals Project is a nonprofit organization that I founded to help people disengage from hate groups. Yes, you are accurate when you say that there aren't many members of hate groups. Now, most people with the hateful mindset aren't card-carrying members of the Klan. That's part of how things have shifted in the last 20 to 30 years. It is less about the group and more about the movement. There is a coalescence into the general movement. What we do is work with people directly who are in these movements, and we recognize that they don't know how to disengage. Even if they are feeling doubt, they can't discuss that with their comrades.

As someone who has been there myself, I have the ability to listen. We are guides, and we guide them out. It begins with understanding that ideology is likely not what brought them there. It was a search for identity, community and purpose. What I do is I offer people substitutes for the identity, community and purpose that they've found, and replace them with things that are more positive. We work for ways to replace the identity they found or the community in which they feel welcomed and rewarded.

That process begins with identifying the "potholes" in their lives. Potholes are those things we all encounter on our journey. Potholes are trauma. So, what is the pothole — the trauma — that put them on the road to their direction? Without debating about their ideology, we focus on those potholes and find pothole fixers — therapists, job trainers, teachers, life coaches, hobby groups, anything that can work to build a better foundation under them. 

Isn't it true that you received a federal grant, but the Trump administration eliminated it?

My old organization that I co-founded, Life After Hate, applied for and won a $400,000 grant in 2016. We never received the money, because the administration had changed. In December 2016, we were notified by the Obama administration that we won. In the early months of the Trump administration, we were notified that we would not receive the grant. They had reviewed our application and rescinded it. We were the only organization out of 36 that had the grant revoked. We were also the only one that was focusing on white supremacy. All of the others were focusing on Islamist extremism.

That speaks to the larger issue. Earlier, you used the word "terrorist." As you know, FBI statistics show that white supremacy organizations and related hate groups are responsible for more murders of Americans than any other extremists since 9/11. We all watched the gruesome and sad footage of Jan. 6. But it still seems that most of white America remains blasé about the terrorist threat of white hate. 

Absolutely. That is one of the biggest reasons why we can't combat it. We can't even name it. We refuse to look in the mirror and face that it is other Americans, not foreigners, who are the biggest threat to American democracy. We need to get over that hump, and recognize that these people are terrorists. They are criminals. We need to call them out and hold them accountable as such. My concern is that we don't have the will to call it out. 

Is that part of what motivates your new podcast, "F Your Racist History"?

Yes, that was part of it. After 25 years, I've taken it upon myself to try to educate Americans about the world I was part of, because few others were stepping up to do that. I also learned a lot as I was going through my transition. We did an episode on Henry Ford, and I knew about him when I was a Nazi. I knew then that he was a supporter of Hitler. The rest of the world didn't know that. We had a museum about Henry Ford. Every town had a Ford dealership.

So some of the podcast is about things I already knew but few others seemed to discuss, and some of it is what I've learned about American history. It is part of a recognition that if we don't know where we came from, how the hell are we going to measure our progress? And part of it is that if we can't admit that we've been part of this — that we've all been complicit — we aren't going to stop it.

Currently, there is all this hysteria over "critical race theory." Until a few months ago, it was a relatively obscure legal theory taught almost exclusively in law schools. Many polls confirm that most people claiming to have passionate objections to it don't even know what it is. So it is effectively an umbrella term, for those rallying against any instruction of systemic racism and, as you say, "complicity." Why is it important that Americans learn the true history of our country, and why is there so much backlash against that, where they are going so far as to try to ban it in colleges and high schools? 

As Americans, as people who tout our democracy, we need to understand what we are preaching. We need to understand where we come from. We should be proud of how far we've come, but we also have to recognize that there are still many people oppressed and excluded due to institutional racism. Until we address those things, we are creating an ecosystem that is breeding racists. As long as there are people who benefit from racism, there will be people who are attracted to it. If we ever hope to make an equitable society, we have to understand the progress but also the ugliness, and also identify all the things that are preventing us from becoming an equitable society today. 

White supremacists and the right wing are using "critical race theory" to make white people afraid that their society is going to deprive them, and turn everyone else against them. The irony is that is exactly what they are covering up — that white people, for centuries, have divided people and treated everyone else unequally. They are afraid of the mask being torn off. They are also banking that most people aren't going to do the intellectual work to understand what they are talking about. They will just emotionally buy into it.

I talked earlier about identity, community and purpose — and potholes — as they relate to individuals, but I also think the United States as a country right now is struggling with its identity, community and purpose. We have a whole history of potholes that we've not dealt with, and until we deal with them we are going to keep finding ourselves going off onto the fringe. Right now we are dealing with so much uncertainty relating to the pandemic, politics, jobs, health care, so much else. Well, uncertainty is the one ingredient that allows extremism to thrive. So we are in a very dangerous position. We are on a tinderbox. We have to be really vigilant about dealing with it.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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