Terrorism & Extremism

How White Supremacists Use Soft Power

Laura Daniels
Friday, February 5, 2021, 11:20 AM

Their charm offensive has recruited followers and advanced a racist agenda in a fashion that analysts underestimate at their peril.

"Unite the Right" rally held in Charlottesville in 2017. (Anthony Crider, https://tinyurl.com/16pn1rz2; CC BY 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

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President Biden has taken office amid a serious problem of white supremacist violent extremism. 

The issue is not new for Biden. thatvery reason he decided to run for office

Indeed, a certain sense of urgency about the problem is warranted: White supremacist and kindred hate-based terror attacks have skyrocketed approximately 250 percent in the West since 2014. The hard question is not whether the United States has a serious problem, but how the new team can counter what is an obvious trend. The United States built its post-9/11 counterterrorism toolkit to fight an enemy overseas. At home, though, while this toolkit contains many useful law enforcement instruments, it lacks good tools for deradicalizing Americans. Countering the threat will take understanding all dimensions of this radicalization, including one too often overlooked: white supremacists’ weaponization of soft power.  

At first glance, this claim may seem silly. For one thing, soft power is, well, soft. Since it’s the power to get one’s way through attraction rather than force, soft power seems relatively harmless. It conjures images of embassy jazz concerts and Voice of America broadcasts beaming promises of freedom into Soviet households. It’s hard to picture bad actors wielding it, much less doing so effectively.

But they do wield it much more effectively than policy makers often understand. attracted recruits and garnered support through inspiring music, videos even poetry. And white supremacists exploit soft power, too. They’re actually good at it. Their soft power charm offensive has recruited followers and advanced a racist agenda in a fashion analysts underestimate at their peril.

Soft power comes in three forms: culture, political ideals, and actions that translate those ideals into reality. Culture—which could be anything from jazz concerts to baseball—shapes a country’s or group’s brand, ideally making it look appealing to outsiders. Political ideals, like “freedom,” win over hearts and minds. And actions, which deliver on those ideals, enable soft power to earn trust and support—one reason why U.S. actions that uphold a commitment to freedom at home and abroad are so important. White supremacists are capitalizing on all three kinds of soft power.

Cultural soft power is vast, and white supremacists boast a number of successful examples. Music is an important one. White power music has spurred recruitment for decades. Lyrics spewing hate give aggrieved listeners an outlet for their frustrations and a scapegoat. Ex-white supremacists like Arno Michaelis, founder of Life After Hate, have pointed to white power music as the gateway to their radicalization. Once radicalized, music reinforces the ideology among fans and desensitizes followers to violence.

Another familiar form of cultural soft power is sports diplomacy. This, too, seems laughable in the hands of extremists but is nevertheless a feature of white supremacy’s evangelism. In recent years, groups like the white supremacist Rise Above Movement (RAM) popularized packaging nationalist ideals into adrenaline-pumping mixed martial arts clubs. These attract members heeding the group’s call to fight and “defend” the white race from perceived enemies. As is common in sports diplomacy, groups like RAM have toured abroad in Europe, participating in international tournaments that assemble like-minded enthusiasts and expand their network. matter that

These are just a few of the cultural tools in white supremacists’ soft power toolkit. There are many others: from the classic hard-core fashion style that winks at Nazism, to cuisine, like the purist veganism featured on the German Balaclava Küche series served with a plentiful side helping of white-supremacist Aryan values.

Ultimately, it’s the movement’s cultural narrative that gives it cohesion and a deeper meaning that wins supporters. White supremacist influencers have crafted a cultural narrative that aims to justify their proclaimed superiority. To do so, they’ve cobbled together a romanticized all-white European history that never existed.

While cultural soft power attracts supporters, political ideals are what keep them engaged. White supremacist political ideals, such as protecting “racial purity,” however flawed, have long enjoyed international traction. Today’s digital era has allowed them to spread like wildfire. Memes indoctrinate the masses, while books polish the ideology with a veneer of intellectual credibility. Notorious among these is the a French bookthat immigrants are “replacing” whites and destroying an idealized all-white ethno-state. The book inspired the Christchurch attackerof the Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally—where marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us!”—and it has inspired as well elected officials, including members of European Parliament andin the 2020 election.

The third element of soft power, actions, means practicing what one preaches. Here, too, white supremacists hit the mark. To show they uphold the ideal of “protecting” whites, some groups offer welfare servicesto whites onlyembers group cite this action as what earned their trust and loyalty. Other actions make international headlines. Armed white supremacist vigilantes, for example, have taken to the U.S. border to “guard” against multiracial “invaders.” White separatist Identitarians went so far as to . Such acts win supporters’ allegiance by convincing them that white supremacist groups are the true arbiters of law and justice, and that they will deliver on their promises.“deep state”

supremacist soft power softer. Those leading the charge argue that a softer façade will make the ideology more palatable to newcomers and outsiders. “We need to remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun,” asserts white supremacist influencer Andrew Anglin. Alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer agrees, advocating for a clean-cut appearance and, as his former co-collaborator put it, the “mass seduction” of society. white supremacists’ rebrand as “white nationalists” offer a good example Though the rebranding simply repackages white supremacy’s tenets, itAs does cultural makeover. White power music now features catchy electronica music called “fashwave,” which sounds tame if you ignore the lyrics. Fashion has changed too. Many, including Spencer, sport a tidy prep-school look. Others have earned the nickname “Nipsters,” short for Nazi hipsters.

And, again, it’s working. Recasting hate speech as free speech, or excusing racism with fears of “white genocide,” or dressing in a way that comes off as abe critics. True, white supremacist soft power has had its blunders. But if soft power’s aim is to advance an agenda, white supremacists are succeeding. By dulling the ideology’s sharp edges, white supremacists enable their views to seep into the mainstream. Meanwhile, this softness has not prevented white supremacy from growing more violent. According to the Global Terrorism Index, deaths from white supremacist terrorism and its offshoots have surged a staggering 709 percent in the West since 2014. 

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Understanding white supremacists’ weaponization of soft power helps shine light on how to staunch that violence. Current tactics don’t work on their own. For example, lawmakers are often tempted to squash extremists’ influence through bans and censorship. This may work in the short run, but it raises civil liberties questions and often devolves into a game of whack-a-mole as extremists adapt to avoid authorities. Worse, it can backfire, emboldening white supremacists to rally around their flag.

But taking soft power into account gives U.S. leadership options in the fight against white supremacy. This includes learning from civil society actors that have worked hard to become experienced, credible voices in countering white supremacist soft power. It also means making the most of soft power’s Achilles heel: hypocrisy. By this count, white supremacy’s rebrand is its own worst enemy, as those disillusioned by its misleading image can attest. To erode white supremacy’s glossy exterior, politicians, journalists, and thought leaders should inoculate themselves against “optics,” white supremacists’ term for donning a softer look to edge into the mainstream. This means, for example, not saying “white nationalist” in contexts where it’s just a euphemism for “white supremacist.”400-year

Just before launching the 2011 attack that became a touchstone for today’s white supremacist violence, Anders Breivik called on white supremacists and related groups to “market” the ideology. They are doing just that. Ignoring their soft power expedites radicalization that all too often ends in violence. U.S. leadership will either aggressively counter white supremacist soft power, or Americans will face more extremists itching for violence and duped into seeing it as "hip, cool, sexy, fun."

Laura Daniels serves at the Department of State, where she works on conflict and stabilization. She was previously a counterterrorism strategist and analyst in the intelligence community. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other U.S. Government agency.

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