Current political climate in U.S. gives white supremacists carte blanche – fmr neo-Nazi leader

White supremacist movements are back in the headlines in the US. The left is ringing the alarms over the alleged rise of neo-Nazis in America. And our special guest today knows all about the White Supremacist movement – he was part of it. Arno Michaelis founded a hate group that grew into one of the biggest skinhead crews in the US, before renouncing the movement and its message of hate, which he now works against. But how do you contain the appeal of right-wing extreme? We ask the former skinhead and neo-Nazi leader.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Arno Michaelis, welcome to the show, great to have you with us. The recent White Lives Matter rally in Tennessee created a lot of hype: police were on alert, people braced for brawls and bloodshed like that in Charlottesville back in August. But white power protesters were actually outnumbered by counter protesters and bystanders. Are white supremacists going out of fashion? Or is it just the calm before the storm?

Arno Michaelis: I think at any type of white supremacist rally that happens in the States, the white supremacists are going to be outnumbered. They’re ready for that, and it actually helps to fuel their victimhood narrative, that they’re facing this extreme odds to fight for their people. So, whether they’re outnumbered or not, the attention they get is really what they’re after.

SS: At the same time the number of hate groups have been on the rise in U.S. for two years, with over 900 in total acting now in the US - that’s according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Another research suggests hate crimes rose by 20 per cent in 2016. What’s happening? How do you explain this trend?

AM: I think, because of the current political climate, where it’s not only acceptable, but being put in a policy, that immigrants are a threat, that muslim people are a threat, it gives a carte-blanche to disgruntled white people in the U.S. to act out on those same sentiments, which often results in actual violence and certainly fuels the rising membership of hate groups in the United States.

SS: During the rallies in Charlottesville back in August, white supremacists were eagerly talking about their support for Trump. Does he make them feel emboldened? Is this related?

AM: Yeah, absolutely. Since before the campaign, white supremacist groups in the U.S. have been huge supporters of Trump, they feel they have an ally in the White House, his anti-immigrant, anti-muslim rhetoric, at times anti-gay rhetoric, is really the same talking points that groups like KKK and the National Socialist Movement have been using for years. So, as much as he may say otherwise, the policies that he enacts, which include atrocious things like deporting 10-year old girls in hospital, who were there for surgery, back to Mexico - that’s the kind of stuff that white supremacists like to see and I think they really believe they have an ally in the White House.

SS: So do you think Trump has a thing for those kinds of groups? I mean, he refused to specifically shame the white supremacists for the violence in Charlottesville, where an anti-racist protester was killed. Media took that as Trump supporting the far right, do you see it that way as well? Or is it a little far-fetched to say that?

AM: Well, judging from President Trump’s actions, he’s very quick to condemn football players for peacefully protesting, and he calls them sons of bitches and says they should be fired, like, within hours of them protesting. When neo-nazis and KKK members are marching under swastikas, in an american city, and somebody gets killed, it takes him days to respond to that! I think that speaks volumes for how he feels about these situations. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m just going by what he says and does.

SS: Well, he doesn’t really say much, but, like, his actions, the way he didn’t say anything or shamed the white supremacists that day - do you feel like he has an inner affiliation with those people, like, he feels the same way they do? Or maybe, he counts on their support, who knows?

AM: Right… Honestly, I feel like President Trump has some severe psychological issues that have not been dealt with. His actions are those of somebody who has a very drastic insecurity complex. He seems to just be looking for whatever praise he can get, and he doesn’t care where that praise comes from. So, I think he’s well aware that white supremacists are fans of his and I do believe that he doesn’t want to lose their support and that could be a reason why it takes him so long to condemn neo-nazi groups, whereas he has no problem condemning football players of color who want to make a statement.

SS: In all fairness, right after Charlottesville he did sign a resolution condemning hate groups that espouse racism, extremism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, white supremacy - so you feel like he maybe has one thing on the paper and another in his head?

AM: It’s hard to say where he is at, because he’s been very erratic throughout the early days of his presidency and he’s been all over the place. His cabinet has complained numerous times about his tweeting, the people around him which they could get more of a handle on him and obviously he refuses to do that. So, yeah, he’s all over the place and I know that he has publicly condemned hate groups and that’s fine, but when you condemn hate groups and then you enact legislation that deports families just because they are of wrong skin color or they came from Mexico - I don’t think he’s really busy deporting people who came from Eastern Europe or people who came from Canada. It seems that all of his actions are focused on people with darker skin.

SS: So when all that happened in Charlottesville, Trump blamed both the right and the left for clashes. You also felt some animosity towards yourself from the left, right? Are antifa and other similar movements becoming a part of the radicalization problem?

AM: That’s one issue where I do see President Trump’s point and I have also been very frank about my condemnation of the far left and the antifa groups. I do believe that they are a part of this problem. I think the fact that the Unite The Right rally can count on a brawl from the antifa really helped swell their membership, I recall my days as white supremacist, we would drive 6 hours sometimes to go and fight antifa. So, the violent resistance that antifa presents to neo-nazis does nothing but serve their purpose. It also drives people from the political center further right. I think Charlottesville was instigated by the far right, that needs to be front and center, needs to be acknowledged, but the far-left certainly played their part in that melee and unfortunately they’ll continue to do that.

SS: So the far-right and white supremacist groups claim that they are a reaction to movements like Black Lives Matter, to the new, loud, and somewhat radical civil rights groups - do they have a point to stand against them?

AM: Yeah, I think the more radical the leftists groups become and the more they immerse themselves in identity politics, the easier it is for the far-right to recruit. There’s been leaders of the alt-right who make no bones about the fact that they do identity politics for white people and in our universities, in the U.S. and Europe, basically, if you’re a white kid, you can either confess your privilege and condemn your whiteness and kowtow to what you have to do to be an ally to people of color and anyone else who’s oppressed, or you go off to the alt-right. There’s really no middle ground for anyone who existed anymore, and I believe that it is largely because of the militancy of these self-proclaimed radicals on the left. So, what they are doing does serve the purpose of the far right. And vice-versa! Every time the far right rears their heads, the left goes “Oooh, see, that’s why we need to do what we do and we’re going to double down on it” and it becomes a cycle and they both kind of feed each other, while most people in society who just want to live their lives, are kind of caught in the middle.

SS: You know, I also heard that several universities in US have been offering housing and creating learning communities for black students only - like California State, the University of Connecticut. They have explained this down to the need to create safe environments for students of color. Is this the comeback of segregation?

AM: I’m not a fan of that approach, I understand the reasoning behind it, but to me it takes agency away from black students. It’s saying that “you don’t have the ability to exist in the society and have a voice in the society and determined your own future, so here, we’re going to create this little safe-space for you where you’re not going to be subject to white supremacy” - it’s done under this guise of compassion, but what it really boils down to is separatism, and it doesn’t serve the students of color that they’re working with, and it certainly doesn’t help to mend any of the wounds in our society, that we’re definitely still reeling from after 500 years of white supremacy. I truly believe, and I’ve seen this in person, many-many times over the past 8 years, as I’ve been working in peacebuilding efforts, is that people have every capability to come and connect and recognize each other outside of the construct of race, outside of other social constructs, and have the ability to define their relationships about how they see other people. When we retreat and say: “I can’t be safe unless I am around people who think like me, look like me, act like me”, you’re essentially going back to the same mindset that the neo-nazis have. You’re just setting up a different camp, and I don’t think it’s ever a healthy thing for human beings, and I don’t think it’s going to help anybody on these colleges.

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SS: Here’s a poll conducted by The Military Times which says that one-in-four serving US military personnel have seen white supremacism within their ranks and consider it more dangerous than ISIS. Is there a neo-nazi epidemic in the army?

AM: To my knowledge, I believe it’s certainly something that the military needs to pay more attention to. In Milwaukee, I worked with a general called Pardeep Kaleka. Pardeep’s father was murdered by a white power skinhead who was part of the gang that I’d helped to start along with five other people on August 5th, 2012. The murderer whose name was Michael Page was radicalized in the U.S. Army. So he went into the army, non affiliated, average white guy, he came out an affiliated white supremacist, and that lead to his practice of hate and violence for over 10 years, that ultimately ended in a mass murder hate crime. So, I think, the military needs to be accountable for that. In my ways, I work with a ton of brilliant military people who point out all the time that the U.S. military is one of the most multicultural organisation on Earth, and I believe that’s true, but I think that there’s still space within the military for white supremacist ideology and organisation to gain purchase and that is certainly a huge concern that needs to be addressed.

SS: So I was through another survey by National Public Radio and, did you ever know that 55% of white people in America think that whites face racial prejudice? I mean, you have lost your temper with people of different skin color, but have you ever felt racial prejudice yourself, towards you?

AM: I think what we’re seeing in the U.S. with like the survey that you’ve cited, is that as demographics change, as the world changes, change is an inevitable thing, obviously people are going to hark back to a time when white people had blatant power, and those days have passed and they’re never going to return. White people will be a minority in the U.S. within a few decades, and we’ve been a minority on the face of the Earth for many-many years, and that trend is going to continue, to have fewer white people. The question is if we can heal from the wounds of white supremacy and come together as a human species during that process. I believe we can, all the work I’m doing is towards that end, but in order for everybody to get onboard, everyone’s concern, including people on the left, especially people who consider themselves social justice advocates and who wanted to build peace in our society, need to drop this idea of identity politics and stop seeing our differences as something that overrides our commonalities.

SS: Now, you’re someone who knows everything about hate movements, you ran a hate group yourself for a while. How do you recruit people? Were your methods different from the methods they use today?

AM: The messaging is exactly the same and it’s all fear based. In my day, when we were recruiting someone, and my days were pre-Internet, so  it was a lot of in-person contacts and we would actually write each other on pen and paper and send it through the post. But the conversations that are happening today are the same ones that happened in my day, and they’re essentially.. when I would meet a white guy, I would, first of all, I kind of probed to see where he was at. If he had children, then I’d kinda dial on those children, especially if he had daughters. I would say: “Oh, you have a daughter, what’s going to happen to your daughter, when all these blacks and mexicans are all running amok in our society? They’re going to come and get her.” And I would try to cultivate fear, like the primal fear that parent has, when their child is in danger, and if I could just get a whiff of that, I would zoom in on it and keep dialing and keep hitting that until I started pressing the right buttons and this guy starts thinking “I need to listen to this guy, I need to join this group”, and that’s exactly what happens nowadays. Interestingly, it is exact same recruiting process for the far left, for the so-called Islamic State, like all violent extremist groups would find that fear point and then try leading you by the nose via that fear.

SS: Back in those days, you fronted a white supremacist metal outfit. Does music play a big role in recruitment, bring a lot of new people into the movement, or is the white pride scene just preaching to the choir?

AM: The White Power music is actually essential, it’s essentially a means of practicing that ideology wherever you are. I was brought into the White Power skinhead subculture via a White Power skinhead band. I was already into punk and hardcore stuff and then I heard a band that had that same kind of music, but their message was all the themes of the Third Reich, talking about Blood and Soil and Race and Nation, and it was very romantic and seductive and it made me feel powerful, it made me feel like a rebel, it made me feel like I’m fighting for this amazing cause, and so it drew me in, and that’s its first function, it’s to attract you to that ideology. Once you start buying into the ideology, you listen to this music on a daily basis, whether it’s in your headphones or its playing in the car, it’s just like, if I were to have a cassette “Learn How to Speak Russian”, and I’d fell asleep every night listening to this cassette, teaching me how to speak Russian, it would eventually dial the Russian language into my brain, and it would make it easier for me to learn that language. If I’m listening to a cassette every day that tells me white people are different than everybody else, superior than everybody else, and threatened by everybody else, that becomes my reality, because I become familiar with that ideology, which means I’m not familiar with the truth, that diversity is a beautiful thing, and that human beings are basically good and our experiences are basically a good thing. The practice of that music drives me away from the positive truths of life and towards all these negative lies.

SS: Like you’ve said, in 2012, a member of the group  you founded killed six people in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. By that time you were completely on the opposite side, you were no longer in the movement… What did it feel like to you? Did you feel responsible for what happened?

AM: I felt very responsible. I will never forget the day that that happened, I was working as an IT consultant and doing some server maintenance stuff and I saw my social media feed just blowing up, and I’m kind of watching along as new things are coming… Is it multiple shooters? Is it still going on? How many people were killed? And before it was announced that the shooter was an affiliated white supremacist I had a sense that it was. And that evening, they did verify that, but they didn’t announce his name, probably. So I sat and wondered - was it someone that I had recruited? Was this someone that I knew personally? Did I have a direct hand in bringing this person to the ideology that led to this horrific mass murder? And I found out the next day that it was someone I didn’t know personally, but he was very much exactly who I used to be. He was part of the same gang that I helped to start, he was in White Power bands. I would be stunned if he wasn’t a fan of my band, and so I felt then as I do now, that I helped create the environment that he came from. That absolutely drives a very dire urgency for me to try to make a positive impact in society and to make our communities places that are less susceptible to that kind of hate.

SS: When I’m looking at white supremacy movement  today, I can see that it is rebranding itself. It was all about the white KKK hoods or shaven heads before, but now these people take pride in looking very presentable, clean, almost hipster, with mainstream appeal. As someone from inside the club do you think it’s only the image on the packaging that has evolved or ideas too?

AM: I don’t think the ideology has evolved… an ideology that’s based on hate and violence and lies and fear - it’s got nowhere to evolve too. It will never be anything more than that. It will never be anything less than that. So, the ideology is exact same. Nowadays, that these guys are wearing their Topsiders and their polo shorts and their Dockers, look kinda ridiculous, but I understand that the alt-right image has changed, but you’re right, it’s packaging, the product inside is the same, it’s just as weak, it’s just as wrong and it’s just as harmful, not only to society at large, but to the person who’s practicing this ideology as well.

SS: Alright, I feel like also the methods to fight this ideology are pretty questionable, because every horrific massacre in the U.S. by a white supremacist - and we see Confederate flags taken down and monuments to Confederate soldiers being removed as symbols of slavery. If a flag or a statue is removed, does it make some would-be terrorist hate people around him less?

AM: I believe that we need to look at this statues and look at the context in which were erected. In Charlottesville, for sure, the statutes in question was put up in 1920s as part of Jim Crow, basically as a message to black people to say: “Hey, don’t step out of the line, because this is where we are in Virginia and you’re not going to cause trouble and you’re not going to rock the boat as far as status quo is concerned” - so statues like that, that were erected with a direct message of white supremacy and for intimidation of people of color - should absolutely come down. I believe they should be taken down and put into museum, where people can look upon our past and remember those days when that was a government policy. But, I certainly don’t think that this excuse of heritage is a valid excuse to punish the rest of society with such heinous ideas.

SS: There are part of Europe where, you could go to prison for nazi salute or having a swastika tattoo - but in the US, things like that are protected by the First Amendment. Do you think it would help matters if America banned those things, outlawed those things?

AM: I do not. I’m not a proponent of hate speech bans or the bans of hate organisations, and the reason why is because I cherish our First Amendment here in the U.S., I cherish our Constitution and I believe that the purpose of the First Amendment is… in many ways it’s a pressure valve. And if people can speak their minds and they have the freedom to do so, the government isn’t stopping them from doing that, it will deflect them from actually acting out in violence. A great example of this right now is in Scandinavia, I do a lot of work in Denmark, as well as Norway, and I’ve been to Sweden once, but Sweden has a far greater problem with white supremacist hate groups than Denmark does. In Denmark, the far-right supremacist gangs are virtually nonexistent, they’re not a threat. In Sweden there are roving gangs of white power skinheads who attack refugees, burn down refugee hostels, and big difference is, in Denmark, freedom of speech is a priority, just like it is in the U.S.. In Sweden, they have a further left attitude and hate speech is illegal and hate groups are illegal - so they’ve outlawed these things, but these laws have done nothing to stop the groups. As a matter of fact, they have inflamed the groups, and I think that would certainly happen here, should our government defy the Constitution and make such a law, so I’m always a proponent of free speech, and I think anybody who is, needs to exercise their free speech to speak out against hate and violence, when it happens in our society and be mindful to do it in a positive way. Prove why the fears of the neo-nazi ideology are wrong by doing great things in a multicultural diverse setting, raising money for a good cause, coming together to serve people who need it - that sends the most powerful message.

SS: Arno, thank you very much for giving us this unique insight. We were talking Arno Michaelis, former skinhead, now author of “My Life After Hate”, discussing white supremacism in America. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.