Neo-Nazi Fathers, Jewish Mothers, and Political Converts

I’ve got a piece in The New Yorker—my first—on political conversions. I look at the case of Derek Black, a white nationalist who is no longer a white nationalist, and Max Boot. With the help of Burke, Arendt, Isaac Deutscher, and Daniel Bell, I try and make sense of why it is that you so often see converts from left to right—and why they have such an impact on the right—but don’t often see converts from right to left with nearly the same impact. (Incidentally, that was a topic—converts from right to left—that I wrote about nearly 20 years in Lingua Franca.)

Anyway, here’s a taste:

Derek Black didn’t become a white supremacist. He was born one. His father, Don Black, was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the creator of Stormfront, one of the most popular white-nationalist Web sites in the United States. Derek’s mother, Chloe, had previously been married to David Duke, America’s leading neo-Nazi and Derek’s godfather. Smart, articulate, and savvy, Derek co-hosted a radio show with his father, addressed conferences, and wrote articles on the Web. From an early age, he knew how to package racism for a crowd that was warm to the message but uncertain about its implications. He didn’t argue for the supremacy of whites. He said that whites were a group, one of many, that had the right, like other groups, to defend its interests and identity. Races weren’t unequal; they were different. White nationalists were the “true multiculturalists.” He had his dad scrub Stormfront clean of Nazi signs and racial epithets. Press too hard, speak too crudely, you’ll lose people. All things in moderation.

A gifted code-switcher, Derek had the ability—strangely not rare among racist demagogues—to understand and relate to people who weren’t like him. That came in handy in 2010, when he enrolled at the liberal New College, in Sarasota, Florida.

And it goes on. Have a read.


  1. lauren coodley January 24, 2019 at 2:21 am | #

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Never fear. I shall not grow conservative with age.”

  2. Roquentin January 24, 2019 at 12:20 pm | #

    I’ve met quite a few former libertarians or people who grew up in evangelical Christian households which are now in the DSA, so perhaps there is something to the idea of people now converting in the other direction. I think the common thread, especially among the formerly evangelical, is the seriousness with which beliefs are taken. I’ve long suspected that no small part of the support for Sanders came from people looking for a left that wasn’t simply part of the thinly veiled culture wars between urban liberalism and rural conservatism, petty geographic prejudices dressed up as something deeper than they actually were. The most positive part is that this joining of forces seems to be moving in from both sides, people in the cities and on the coasts and those in the remainder of the united states or more sparsely populated areas. On a good day it’s managed to bring people together.

    I’ve always found the idea that HRC or centrist liberal types more generally were more electable than Sanders style democratic socialists in the Midwest to be patently absurd. I thought it was ridiculous in 2016 and I think it is now. I

    • James Levy January 24, 2019 at 8:26 pm | #

      The entire Establishment along the spectrum of neoliberalism (from corporate-centered to technocratic) more and more resembles to me Kevin Bacon shrieking “All is well!” as a riot breaks out around them. Collapsing social mobility, debt peonage, and reduced life-chances simply don’t compute for the “best and brightest”. And the emerging fact that civilization as we know it is pretty much doomed without massive interventions that the elite won’t even hear of, much less seriously consider, reminds one all too frighteningly of the the rulers Tainter describes in his book on the collapse of complex societies. Today’s rich are so rich, and their influence so profound, that they are going to have to be knocked from atop their pediment. Question is: will they be felled from the Right, or the Left?

      • Benjamin David Steele January 25, 2019 at 8:28 am | #

        “Question is: will they be felled from the Right, or the Left?” I suspect it will be from the right. Lately, it is the right that has been radicalized. And for decades now, almost all the homegrown and foreign terrorism committed in the US has come from the right. During the Bush administration, the FBI put out an official report that explicitly warned about the rise of right-wing terrorism and,among other groups, specifically pointed to veterans as a threat.

        It is true we are beginning to see a movement develop on the left. We had a half century of Democrats demanding ‘moderation’ and ‘centrism’ based on the claim that the 1960s were a failure of left-wing radicalism and violence. That establishment argument still held sway until quite recently. But is not so compelling to the younger generations who don’t or barely remember the 20th century at all. For decades now, majority public opinion has been shifting left on most major issues, such that ‘socialism’ has been rehabilitated.

        In the short term, it will be the right forcing change. The extent of what they accomplish will depend on how quickly they radicalize in larger numbers and so how violent they become. If the status quo remains fundamentally unchanged despite right-wing reaction, the left will have an opportunity. The position of the left potentially could grow stronger over time, especially as the problems the left warned about become impossible to deny and ignore (e.g., the costs, victims, and refugees of environmental catastrophes). Yet the demands for authoritarian responses will also grow more urgent as crises emerge.

        So, it’s a toss up. But for the time being, I’d bet on the right-wing. We are closer to The Handmaid’s Tale than to any left-wing equivalent, utopian or dystopian. And I’ve wondered about how many Americans look to a story like The Handmaid’s Tale for inspiration than for a warning.

        • Roquentin January 25, 2019 at 11:55 am | #

          I agree, and this speaks to a deep fear I have that traditional center left parties will resign themselves to managing the decline of neoliberalism. This is independent of the fact that no one cheered on the Austrian/Chicago economic program louder than conservatives, who seem to have the sense to understand that the ship is now sinking and are indifferent enough to the suffering of others that they will be the first to the lifeboats. The center-left, through a mixture of double-dealing, ham-fisted good intentions, and resistance to change will be the ones managing the decline and will be the face of pain and austerity that will inevitably accompany it. This is in no small part because they are more invested in “government” as it is currently constructed working and the right’s line has always been that “government” was the problem. Simply put, they don’t give a shit if the system breaks or who gets hurt when it happens. Their political program will mostly consist of making sure the worst and most brutal aspects of the decline hit the most vulnerable and weakest members of society, and if current events are any indication, they will absolutely be able to buy off enough people to make this model viable.

          In short, if things don’t change, the left is going to get stuck holding the bag when the music stops. We can’t, under any circumstances, allow this to happen. Liberals and the left need to wise up to what’s going on. Of course managing the decline of neoliberalism will fly under a rhetorical sheen which flatters their sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t what is happening.

        • Procopius February 1, 2019 at 8:15 am | #

          During the Bush administration, the FBI put out an official report that explicitly warned about the rise of right-wing terrorism and,among other groups, specifically pointed to veterans as a threat.</blockquote It was the beginning of the Obama administration, and the report was from Homeland Security (that sounds so much like Committee for State Security [KGB] to me), not the FBI which I believe would never criticize R$ight Wing terrorists. They have never changed after the death of The Old Queen.

          • Benjamin David Steele February 1, 2019 at 9:57 am | #

            @Procopius – “It was the beginning of the Obama administration, and the report was from Homeland Security (that sounds so much like Committee for State Security [KGB] to me), not the FBI which I believe would never criticize R$ight Wing terrorists. ”

            Here is the 2002 FBI assessment I was able to find. This is a testimony given, but I recall there were reports


            “During the past decade we have witnessed dramatic changes in the nature of the terrorist threat. In the 1990s, right-wing extremism overtook left-wing terrorism as the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat to the country. […] Right-wing groups continue to represent a serious terrorist threat.”

            Here is discussion from a book on the topic where those earlier reports are mentioned:

            Right-Wing Terrorism in the 21st Century
            By Daniel Koehler
            p. 28

            “One critical effect of government (e.g., intelligence and police) assessments of threats posed by this sovereign citizen movement in the United States is the high risk of political backlash and strong opposition. In April 2009, for example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Extremism and Radicalization branch issued a report looking at the risk of violent radicalization within the right-wing extremist movement including sovereign citizens (DHS 2009). Shortly after the report was published, several quotes were used by mostly conservative politicians and public interest organizations to organize strong nationwide critique (Levin 2011; Thompson 2009). Especially relevant for the subsequent debate, were the report’s arguments regarding the increased risk of right-wing radicalization and recruitment through the first African-American presidency, the prospects of firearms restrictions and the potential of returning veterans becoming recruits for terrorist groups or working as lone actors. Although research for the report had already started under the Bush administration in 2008 (Levin 2011) and some of these claims were founded in much earlier assessments by the FBI, the political climate swiftly changed against the DHS, which retracted the report, cut personnel in the domestic terrorism branch, canceled briefings on the issue and held back about a dozen reports (Smith 2011) Eventually the intelligence unit responsible was dismantled in April 2010. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the FBI had already published a number of reports on the same issues and continued afterwards without a similar reaction (e.g., FBI 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011).”

    • Benjamin David Steele January 25, 2019 at 8:37 am | #

      From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, there was a large number of Americans who became radicalized and, in many cases, shifted far left. But ‘left’ in terms of ideology doesn’t necessarily include social liberalism or social democracy. Many socialists and communists were socially conservative or even authoritarian. Not all, but a significant number.

      So it depends on what one means by ‘left’. There is an uneven match between those tending toward authoritarianism and those toward anarchism, ignoring the left/right distinction. No matter what ideological rhetoric they use, authoritarians are always the ones most motivated to seize power and transform society.

      That is why revolutions are so easily co-opted by counter-revolutionaries, as seen in the American and French revolutions. Maximilien Robespierre was as much a reactionary as George Washington. The genuine revolutionaries like Thomas Paine are rarely the voices that win out in the end, instead usually becoming silenced and forgotten.

  3. Benjamin David Steele February 20, 2019 at 9:37 pm | #

    @Corey Robing – In recent years, I’ve been noticing how many liberals and left-wingers get drawn into the reactionary mind. For some, it is intellectual curiosity about the Dark Enlightenment. For others, cultural biases such as racialist thought unconsciously emerging in casual comments they make. And then there are those who become drawn into identity politics and polarization, with one moderate left-winger I know who has suddenly become rabidly Zionist.

    I find this disconcerting. It gives me a feeling that we are on the edge of a precipice. Similar shifts toward the reactionary happened before each world war. There is a creeping instability in the collective psyche, so it seems to me, and the first signs of it are beginning to show. You don’t have to worry as much about the vocal and ideological Nazis and Klansmen of the world. Rather, what turns the society toward madness is when enough liberals and left-wingers begin sympathizing with or being influenced by the Nazis and Klansmen. This is the normalization that some speak of, although I don’t think many fully appreciate it. And eventually that normalization hits a tipping point, a silent agreement in a society to push events to the next stage.

    That is a phenomenon I wish you’d write more about. It is worthy of a book-length treatment. But even some more articles exploring it would be appreciated. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately. It’s hard to understand what is behind it for it goes beyond individuals, even as it is expressed through individuals. At times, I can sense a mood in the air and, unsure of what it means, it worries me. And maybe what worries me more is no one seems to be publicly discussing it. It’s a shift unnoticed, a fault line ready to give way to upheaval. This time around, with far more deadly and destructive weaponry, it could be far worse than anything seen before. Yet humanity shuffles along, seemingly oblivious to where it is all heading.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m being paranoid. It’s a feeling I’ve had and its been growing stronger for years. But it’s not as if I can prove this feeling. The best metaphor I’ve been able to come up with is the feeling of gears shifting, something that can be sensed when paying attention. Am I imagining all of this? Or is there really a shift in the air? According to Strauss and Howe’s generations theory, we are in the part of a cycle when a crisis will push all of society toward a new equilibrium. I’ve long wondered about the predictions along these lines. I sometimes think we’ve been in a continuous crisis since the stolen election in 2000, although the darkening mood first showed up in the 1990s.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 21, 2019 at 6:47 am | #

      It’s that moderate left-winger that has been bothering me. I’ve known him for years. He is quite independent-minded, along with being intelligent and informed. He has a very careful mind and is far from being prone to simplistic thought or groupthink. Yet quickly his mindset changed. He began going on and on about antisemitism on the left, which does exist but not more than any other cultural bias exists in our society, and I wouldn’t say there are a large number of antisemitic left-wingers in the US.

      He was never a radical. He always said he didn’t support revolution. His explanation was that he saw it as being violent and doing more harm than good. It is a fair argument, but I always sensed a bit of the reactionary underneath it as this argument is most common on the political right. It became apparent, though, he would support counterrevolution as long as it supported Zionism. He apparently was conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism, and he would accept no criticism of Israel. His response was to state that only one answer needed to be given in defense of Zionism: Auschwitz. I guess ‘Auschwitz’ is the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for Zionists. No matter what Israel ever does, it will always be justified because, well, Auschwitz.

      It was weird. As I said, he became rabid about it. He declared that, “The world attempted to exterminate the Jews.” There is no monolithic “the world” or monolithic “Jews”. Certain governments attempted to exterminate particular populations of Jews, as certain governments have attempted and sometimes succeeded in exterminating many other populations. That is black-and-white thinking that makes a dualistic opposition between all the world and all Jews, as if every person could be divided into one of these two categories. This dogmatic absolutism is the terrain of right-wing authoritarianism. This guy never before showed any signs of this. It seemingly came out of nowhere.

      I’d even talked with this guy about the reactionary mind many times and in great detail. So, he has familiarity with your ideas. He was able to recognize the reactionary in other people, but apparently not in himself. How does that happen? And why is it so common, way more common than those on the political left recognize?

    • Benjamin David Steele February 21, 2019 at 10:01 am | #

      There are many more well known examples of those on the political left showing their reactionary side: Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Kenan Malik, etc. It’s also extremely common in the population at large. And this pattern unfolds in many areas.

      Some Democrats I know have become ever more reactionary, as the Democratic corruption and failure has worsened and the left-wing is being heard. Two liberals I know, one Democrat and the other independent, have made classist comments about “white trash”, by which they meant normal working class whites, and these two white liberals spent most of their lives as working class, one still is and the other barely above it. The new atheist movement has also followed this path. Many atheists who once were skeptical of everything right-wing have become obsessed with criticisms of SJWs, feminists, etc and been drawn into the sphere of the likes of Jordan Peterson. This shift has happened over the last decade or so, but has become impossible to ignore in recent years.

      The mechanism isn’t hard to understand. There was a study done after the 9/11 terrorist attack. The researchers found that Democrats who watched the event on tv became more supportive of the Bush administration’s war on terror. But this didn’t happen to Democrats who heard about the event on the radio, indicating voice without image is much less emotionally engaging. A visceral experience of anxiety and fear is required to turn a liberal or leftist into a reactionary. This is the shutting down of empathy and the shrinking of the circle of concern. It tends to go along with some form of identity politics and often along with loss, nostalgia, and romanticism in the moral imagination (Auschwitz and Zionism works well for this purpose).

      But there is something important about the violence aspect, sometimes even if only imagined. The moderate left-winger turned rabid Zionist I spoke of has long had a great concern about violence in rationalizing that he wanted to avoid it and yet now it seems fantasies of violence have overtaken his mind, even though this guy is far too young to have experienced WWII, has never been in the military or a war zone, and as far as I know has never visited Israel, much less Palestine. It’s not a personal experience of violence, such as those Democrats didn’t need to be at the event itself as long as the media’s visually repeating it was able to make it real in their minds.

      Irving Kristol made the oft-quoted statement that, a conservative is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There is a truth to it. But whose ‘reality’? To be more accurate: conservatives, in fearful or anxious reaction, are liberals who have become mugged by the dark fantasies of their own moral imagination. I’ve argued that liberalism is the paradigm of our age, ever since the Enlightenment. As such, conservatism is inherently a reaction to the liberal paradigm and can’t be otherwise. Liberals can temporarily fall into reaction. Conservatives, on the other hand, are simply those who get stuck in reaction. The thing is, as uncertainty and stress increases, ever more on the political left fall under the sway of the reactionary mind. It gets harder and harder to fin those on the political left who fully resist the temptation.

      That is why it is in the interest of those on the political right to promote conflict and division, as this is the fertile soil of the reactionary imagination and so wins over converts and allies. Then to seal the deal a solution is offered through nostalgic identitarianism and promises of order. My point here, though, is not about the political right. So much of what can be said of reactionaries on the political right applies to so many on the political left as well. There is a blurred line and mainstream ideological labels don’t clarify anything.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 21, 2019 at 11:45 am | #

      The mercurial and trickster nature of the reactionary mind is most apparent in reactionary times when all of a society falls under its influence. I’m thinking of how reactionaries can co-opt almost anything from their opponents, the borrowed energy. This makes for a murky situation, especially when reactionaries can appear as non-reactionaries and non-reactionaries can become reactionaries.

      It makes me think of Carl Jung’s views on the shadow. I find compelling his theory of enantiodromia, an ancient idea to which he gave a psychological interpretation. I’ve played with the thought that the liberal and reactionary are two sides of the same thing, and so cannot exist in separation. What if counterrevolution doesn’t happen after the revolution but within it? What if the liberal and reactionary are twins born in the same historical moment? Hints of this can be found in precursors of both back in the Axial Age.

      There is another thought that relates in my mind. Arnold Mindell writes about group dynamics and he comes from the perspective of real world experience as a mediator. One idea of his has stuck with me. Groups have necessary roles that need to be played, according to his theory. But when a role isn’t represented by anyone, it creates problems. Sometimes an individual will get picked and the group will project that role onto them. Or else an individual simply feels a compulsion toward expressing that role, often unconsciously.

      What if many reactionaries end up being the conduit for what our society represses, as a way of working out unconscious issues and unresolved conflicts? What does this say about the dynamic within the liberal paradigm and its reactionary shadow? Reactionaries may not even know what they are reacting to. Probably most often they don’t.

    • Benjamin David Steele February 21, 2019 at 12:27 pm | #

      Here is another interesting thought.

      Carl Jung’s theory on personalities had an influence on the anthropological and philological study of cultures, such as Ruth Benedict incorporating his ideas and then influencing E. R. Dodds. Basically, cultures are akin to collective personalities (and there is support in showing distinct measurable personality traits within specific populations, which some have speculated about in terms of all kinds of factors such as specific parasites like toxoplasma gondii causing neurocognitve changes or else parasite load altering social trust).

      So, thinking of liberal democracies, social democracies, and other related societies, what are their cultural personalities? It wouldn’t be hard to figure out. There has already been a ton of research measuring personality traits in probably every major country. This can also be seen in how these traits measure on average differently from region to region, such as comparing higher neuroticism in New England than in the Deep South. What if this would inform us how the reactionary mind will manifest in opposition, depending on specific social context?

      Maybe the reactionary mind isn’t the same everywhere, even as there are some common aspects. Your own book on the reactionary mind mainly focused on the Anglo-American world and somewhat on Europe. But maybe that is only one way of the reactionary expressing. Each society will have its own unique shadow and, with enantiodromia, societies will flip accordingly.

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