Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do we deal with Nazis?

It's crazy that we have to ask this question in 2017, but....what do we do about Nazis in America?

Courtesy of Anthony Crider. Shared under Creative Commons 

It's become clear, especially since Charlottesville, that there are a disturbing number of Americans who explicitly support white supremacy, antisemitism, and actual, honest-to-goodness fascism.

How do we deal with these people?

Now, this is a blog about politics, and I’m a political scientist, so the question I’m asking here is how we deal with Nazis politically. 

I'm not going to talk about what to do if a Neo-Nazi or White supremacist or  KKK member is coming at you with a club, or a car, or an armored division. Those are certainly problems, but they're different from the problems that I'm most worried about right now.

What I'm worried about is how we can keep these sorts of people from hijacking our political process. They can vote after all - they're American citizens - and we've already seen that they can convince other Americans to join their cause, or to vote for someone like Donald Trump. It already worked once, how can we stop them from doing it again?

We have two options. First, we can persuade Nazis to stop being Nazis. As preposterous as that sounds, it's possible, and we already know how to do it. But even if that doesn’t work, we can convince the rest of the country to join our fight against them.

Being Nice to Nazis?

When we interact with members of hate groups our goal is usually to try to make them feel as bad as possible, either psychologically or physically. We shout at them, tell them how dumb and evil they are, and try to get them fired from their jobs.

On some level, this seems like the correct way to respond to people who believe such awful things. If we make being a Nazi in America so awful, maybe people will decide that being a Nazis is just too much of a hassle.

But data tells us that this won't work, and might just makes things worse.

Researchers have found that people join hate groups because they are confused, scared, and angry. They may have experienced childhood trauma, or they may simply be terrified of a changing world they don't understand. Hate groups provide people like this with a scapegoat, someone else to blame for all the bad things that has happened in their lives, and a simple, comforting picture of the world. Joining a hate group is a way to stop life from hurting so much.

The more we succeed in "hurting"  these people they more they're going to retreat into the "safe space" that hate and intolerance provides them.  As icky and even immoral as it may sound, the only way to make racists and bigots change their minds is to make them feel better, to take away the pain and frustration that made them become bigots in the first place. 1

We already know how to do this. It involves the same strategies that I've talked about before: be nice, take it slow, and stop trying to “win” arguments.

Studies have shown that these strategies really do work, we're just so bad at using them that we rarely see them in action. 

I’ve given the example of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was convinced through these tactics to leave the homophobic, fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church - an organization that’s in some ways even more extreme and hateful than many white supremacist groups that rallied in Charlottesville.

But the same tactics that worked for Megan also work for actual Neo-Nazis, and for members of the KKK.

We have a choice. Being mean to Nazis feels like the "right" thing to do, but doesn’t actually help. Being nice to them feels bad and unfair, but might actually make them change their minds.

What if persuasion doesn't work?

Obviously, this isn’t going to work every time. Not every Nazi or racist can be convinced to renounce their beliefs by some kind words and rational arguments. That’s OK though, because in America, very few people actually hold these sorts of beliefs.

In America only around 2% of registered voters express any support with the KKK, and only 3% agree at all with the beliefs of white supremacy.

On their own, these groups have virtually no political power. They’re never going to win an election for anything. But the danger is that they can still get other Americans to vote for a candidate, like Trump, who they see as their ally. And in 2016 - it worked. Most Trump voters didn’t consider themselves racists or white supremacists, but they still voted for the chosen candidate of the KKK and the "alt-right."

So if we want to oppose white supremacy in America, the person we really have to worry about is Steve.

Who is Steve?

Steve`s a Republican. He doesn't like Trump all that much but voted for him anyways because he really hates Hillary Clinton. He doesn’t support “white supremacy” or  the “alt-right” movement, but he doesn’t like Black Lives Matter either. He admits that there is still discrimination against Blacks in America today, but he also thinks that Whites get discriminated against as well. In general, he thinks we pay too much attention to race these days.

But Steve doesn’t follow politics all that closely at all. He’s not an activist - he’s never so much as worn a campaign sticker or put out a lawn sign. He doesn’t even know who Neil Gorsuch is! So he's only dimly aware of what's going on in Washington. But when something big like Charlottesville happens Steve hears about it.

Steve isn’t a real person. But public opinion polls tell us that that the typical Trump voter looks a lot like Steve:

Steve is the kind of person that Neo-Nazis have been trying to court for years. They know that Steve doesn’t actually think of  himself as a "white supremacist." But Steve does think that racial justice advocates and Black Lives Matter protesters have “gone too far.” He thinks that Whites experience discrimination too. And he values “free speech.” 

So even though they knew they could never get Steve to support them directly, racist and antisemitic members of the alt-right  tried to play up issues of free speech, "political correctness,"  nationalism, and implicit racial resentment to get Steve to move just a bit further to the right on race, and to vote for Trump in 2016. And it worked.

It’s really important that we make sure that the same plan doesn’t work again.

How can we convince Steve to change his mind?

Ideally, we want Steve on our side. At the very least, we don’t want him drifting any further towards the Nazis and white supremacists that are trying to seduce him. But that means being very careful any time we’re encountering Nazis and white supremacists in a public setting, where Steve can see us.

Pretend Steve is walking down the street and he sees two people he knows, Bob and Joe, arguing. Steve vaguely knows Bob and Joe, and thinks they’re both kind of jerks, but he has no idea what they’re arguing about. So he’s not going suddenly pick a side.

But then, all of a sudden, Bob punches Joe in the face.

Now Steve feels he has to take a side. He still doesn’t know what the argument was about, and he still doesn’t really like Joe that much, but he believes that punching people in the face isn't a nice thing to do. So he instantly has sympathy for Joe, and sees Bob as an enemy.

Now, maybe Joe really deserved it - maybe he did something really awful to Bob - but Steve doesn’t know that, and he might not even care. He just sees Joe lying on the ground with a bloody nose, and Bob standing over him clenching a first. If you saw a situation like that, who's side would you be on?

In American politics, the first side to resort to violence ends up losing the battle for public opinion.

When Neo-Nazis murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Americans were outraged, and even members of the president’s own party, who have no love for Black Lives Matter or liberal “anti-fascists,” felt that it was cowardly for Trump to condemn violence “on many sides.” 

But then a video of "Antifa" protesters beating a defenseless member of the alti-right went viral.

This is exactly what Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists need to get people like Steve on their side. Steve doesn't actually support the alt-right, but it’s hard not to sympathize with someone who’s lying on the ground in a fetal position, getting beaten by men in masks. 

Fortunately, journalist Al Letson put his body on the line to save the alt-right protester from further violence, and made himself the story.

If Letson hadn't stepped in the protester might very well have died. And then the rest of us on the left would be placed  - rightly or not - in the same awkward position Trump was after Charlottesville. We’d have to explain to people like Steve that of course we condemn murder by members of Antifa...but you know there are still “good people” who are protesting fascism....

And then Steve would start to think: maybe Trump was right. Maybe there is violence on “both sides.”

Beating up a bad person usually makes you look like an even worse person

We live in a country where the majority of people, regardless of their political views, tend to think violence is only justified in self defense. So if they see you using violence against someone else who isn’t actively trying to use it on you, they’re probably going to think you are a jerk, and feel sympathy for the person you attacked. 

If this is a problem, it's a good problem to have in America. But it’s something you need to keep in mind the next time you go toe to toe with a Nazi. Because Steve will be watching.


1 Psychologists have long known that there is a deep connection between aggression, including racial animus, and frustration. In other words people act aggressively because they have been denied something they need or want. This view was famously stated in the groundbreaking book "Frustration and Aggression" by John Dollard and his colleagues, and was further developed by psychologist Neal  Miller. Lawrence Bobo has also outlined a connection between racism and "group conflict" over resources. To oversimplify slightly, this research suggests that trying to make a racist feel bad is obviously just going to make them become even more racist, since feeling bad was why they became a racist in the first place.


Bobo, L. (1988). Group Conflict, Prejudice and the Paradox of Contemporary Racial Attitudes. In P. A. Katz & D. A. Taylor (Eds.), Eliminating Racism: Profiles in Controversy. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Dollard, J., Miller, N. E., Doob, L. W., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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