The first images of “The Last Battle” seem designed to rile people on the conservative side of the culture wars: public nudity, strippers, children dressed in drag - symbols of a society supposedly in a moral free fall.
Then the online video pivots to more extreme material: quick-cut scenes of attacks on White people, bogus allegations of election fraud and a parade of pictures purporting to show “the Jewish Communist takeover.”
The six-minute video, distributed on gaming platforms and social media, rapidly reveals itself as a visually arresting propaganda piece - a recruiting tool for far-right extremists that draws viewers in with “They’re coming for your guns” and “They’re opening your borders” and then hits them with “They’re humiliating your race” and “Defend your race.”
The far-right groups that blossomed during Donald Trump’s presidency - including white supremacists, self-styled militias and purveyors of anti-government conspiracy theories - have created enduring communities by soft-pedaling their political goals and focusing on entertaining potential recruits with the tools of pop culture, according to current and former members of the groups and those who study the new extremism.
They approach young people on gaming platforms, luring them into private rooms with memes that start out as edgy humor and gradually grow overtly racist. They literally sell their ideas, commodifying their slogans and actions as live streams, T-shirts and coffee mugs. They insinuate themselves into chats, offering open ears and warm friendship to people who are talking online about being lonely, depressed or chronically ill.
The pathways into the kind of extremism that led to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, threats against lawmakers and last year’s armed confrontations at state capitals nationwide are often initially anything but ideological.
“All these people who stormed the Capitol and later said, ‘What did I do wrong? I didn’t think it was illegal’ - they want what we all want: belonging, friendship, cultural meaning,” said Robert Futrell, a sociologist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who studies white-power movements. “We gloss over that too often, but in any movement, there’s a festival atmosphere. They gain a feeling of power from being surreptitiously connected through things they enjoy, like music. This is much more complex than just an ideological movement.”
Before conspiracy theories take root, before people decide to break the law because they think society is somehow rigged against them, there is first a bonding process, a creation of connection and camaraderie that encourages members to believe they will now be privy to answers that outsiders cannot know or understand.
“You have neo-Nazis, eco-fascists, conspiracy theorists, and what unites them is the culture, not the ideology - the videos, movies, posters, memes,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism.
“How many of these people are really reading books about neo-Nazism? Hardly any,” she said. “The far right has its own culture. They have their own world, their own language, their own music. Many of them are completely ideologically incompatible, but they use conspiracy theories and culture to try to create cohesion where it doesn’t exist.”
What the various strands of the far right have in common is the ability to give some Americans a sense of community.
“January 6th was a pep rally for these people, just like white-power music concerts were for me,” said Christian Picciolini, 47, who spent 10 years in the neo-Nazi movement before leaving radicalism behind. “Most people don’t look at it as fun, but they should.”
A generation ago, Picciolini was recruited into an extremist group in Chicago in a face-to-face meeting in an alley. Today, the same kind of overtures take place in digital alleys, especially in chats connected to video games with multiple players.
“They befriend young players,” passing along anti-Black and antisemitic memes, said Picciolini, who runs the Free Radicals Project, which seeks to de-radicalize extremists. “They do the same thing in depression forums and autism communities online. They find people looking for help and they invite them to chat, send them clarny memes. Some kids see those memes and say, ‘Not cool’ and some giggle. Those who giggle get invited to private rooms.”
White supremacists, militias, men’s rights groups, anti-Muslim agitators and other extremist organizers have created a loosely linked network of multimedia offerings, including videos, podcasts, lectures, articles and games such as Black Lives Splatter, which challenges players to drive their vehicles into as many Black Lives Matter demonstrators as they can.
“The pandemic has meant people have more time, more attention span,” Futrell said, “and that time is clearly being directed into extremist spaces. The appeal of a video like ‘The Last Battle’ is that it’s all emotion. At first, they’re pro-Trump images, juxtaposed against a Biden dystopia. But by the end of the five minutes, it conveys a sense of White genocide. Arm up and train up and have babies, it says, or the White way of life is gone.”
Neither Futrell nor The Washington Post was able to identify the video’s creator.
Julia Ebner is an Austrian researcher who studied extremist culture by going undercover, joining American and European racist groups. The extremists gave her full access to their plans and ideology only after she proved her interest by hanging out with them.
“A lot of them stay in the community for the fun,” she said. “I’d see them over and over saying, ‘I don’t want to do anything else on my weekends anymore.’ "
Falling down rabbit holes
To gain firsthand insight into extremists’ recruitment and radicalization tactics, Ebner had to win the trust of an anti-Jewish and anti-Black neo-Nazi group called Men Among the Ruins. The group required her to send a photo of her white wrist with her initials drawn on her skin. Then, she had to submit to genetic testing.
Once admitted, she said, she became privy to a parade of memes that advocated for turning the United States into a White ethno-state.
Using tactics adapted from Islamist terrorists - lurking on gaming sites, reaching out to apparently lonely marks with content about games, music or mixed martial arts - “the strategy is to socialize first,” Ebner said. “Then they add in statistics about demographic change in the U.S., then racist jokes and deeper into the ideology.”
In an analysis of the arrests of people who took part in the Capitol attack, Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, found that about a quarter of the attackers were connected to self-styled militia groups, white supremacist causes or groups pushing QAnon conspiracy notions about corrupt forces within the U.S. government who worship Satan and traffic children for sex.
But that leaves three-quarters of the arrested people who came to extremist ideas without being part of an organized group - those who found each other one by one, mostly online, falling down rabbit holes that led from something entertaining toward an enticingly radical way of perceiving reality.
Joining such groups involves “deep vitriol and hatred, antisemitism, misogyny, racism,” Futrell said, “but members say they got in because ‘there were people who were being nice to me.’ "
The boogaloo boys - a loose collection of anti-government groups that believe the country is heading toward civil war - present themselves initially as something of a fraternity, merry online pranksters who wear Hawaiian shirts and get together to talk about guns, rights and patriotism.
Even among those who become involved in the group, “people’s ideologies are wildly inconsistent,” a prominent boogaloo member who goes by the nom de guerre Magnus Panvidya said in an interview on the online “Jimmy Dore Show.” To win over people who are anti-big business, antiwar, pro-gun and nationalist, Panvidya said, the boogaloos try to appeal far beyond the far-right’s stereotype as “a bunch of fat old White dudes.”
As newcomers become more involved, they discover increasingly explicit insurrectionist memes, videos and messages concluding that liberal democracy is doomed and that an armed overthrow of the government may be needed, researchers have found.
Panvidya, whose real name is Zackary Clark, declined to be interviewed, but he has previously denied that the movement is racist, saying that he worked as a guard to protect Black Lives Matters protesters and that the boogaloos welcome gay members. (“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I’m not the most straight man myself.”)
Panvidya denies wanting to spark a racial civil war, but he told Dore that his group seeks “some form of civil conflict, whether that be a peaceful, singing revolution; whether that be some awful, government civil war; whether that be a second revolutionary civil war; or, to the idiot neo-Nazi types, they would consider it a race war.”
Decades ago, the far right’s media content was created mainly by small, ideologically driven businesses - publishers, record companies, film studios. Now, the material, from nasty or barbed online memes and videos to overtly racist calls for violent conflict, is the product of countless people, operating independently.
“There is a cottage industry of extremists who are pretty good at creating content on their own, from anti-vaxxers to conspiracy theorists,” Segal said. “Memes and videos and snark are the currency to show how badass you are. As you create more content, you’re both radicalizing yourself and influencing others.”
Baked Alaska - real name Tim Gionet - is an influencer who had as many as 5,000 viewers watching his 42-minute live-stream on Jan. 6 as he pushed into the Capitol and wandered through.
“We are in the Capitol building,” he told his audience, adding that “1776 will commence again. . . . Unleash the Kraken, let’s go!”
When an officer asked him to move, Gionet lashed out: “You’re a f------ oath-breaker, you piece of s---.”
He told his audience that everyone who had entered the Capitol that afternoon “is a patriot and a hero. I love everyone here.”
Hundreds of Gionet’s viewers gave him cryptocurrency during the live stream.
“He was putting on a show,” Segal said.
Gionet, who rose to prominence in the alt-right movement via the parody videos he posted on Vine, did not respond to requests for comment. In 2019, he told Will Sommer, a reporter who chronicles the far right, that he had left the movement and regretted “ever contributing anything to that culture. I was just a normal guy who liked memes and I got radicalized.”
Then, in January, he took part in the Capitol insurrection. Nine days later, he was arrested and charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct as well as knowingly entering a restricted building.
The soft-sell approach
When Jared Taylor, the longtime editor of the white nationalist journal American Renaissance first became involved with extremist ideas in the 1980s, “you’d have to write off to obscure P.O. boxes in Olathe, Kansas,” to find like-minded people, he said. “If I hadn’t known a few people personally, I probably would have remained with an utterly conventional view of race.”
The far-right’s shift away from in-person recruitment and radicalization started even before the World Wide Web became widely available. In 1984, Louis Beam, a Texas leader of the Ku Klux Klan, created the Aryan Nation Liberty Net, an online message board open only to people who had a code word. Beam built his online community to foster small cells nationwide that could evade infiltration by law enforcement officers.
Liberty Net became an early version of social media, replete with games, music, lectures and kids’ activities. Mainly through the mail, adherents traded physical artifacts - tapes of white-power music, newsletters, books that no mainstream publisher would produce.
Then came the Internet. By 1998, former Klan wizard and Louisiana politician David Duke could declare that “the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world.”
Said Taylor: “The ideas remain essentially the same from the ’60s on, but our reach has been hugely extended. Up to 2012, we were a print publication with 4,000 subscribers, essentially a newsletter. Now we reach 400,000 people.”
Longtime members of the far right still marvel at the exponential growth in audience that the Internet has provided them, but many have concluded that despite the surge in gross numbers, the level of commitment and quality of community have been diminished.
Music, cartoons and video “are a great thing if it shakes people ever so slightly loose from conventional thinking,” Taylor said, but the cultural tools today’s extremists use to recruit people produce less informed, less connected followers.
“You get these horrifying memes: ‘Gas the kikes,’ ‘Race war now!’ And that is very counterproductive,” said Taylor, 69, a Yale graduate who portrays himself as an intellectual advocate for racist views.
Older extremists say the new movement struggles to bring its followers together in person.
“It’s just wonderfully refreshing to be with people who view the world as you do,” Taylor said. “If you are in a marginalized group such as White advocates and racial nationalists, you might lose your job or get kicked out of school if you go public with your views. So they meet online, anonymously. But it’s not the same: It attenuates any human interaction. It crushes the fun, which is the crucial element, the sense of belonging.”
Don Black, 67, the founder of Stormfront, one of the first white nationalist sites on the Internet, is also nostalgic for the community he found with fellow extremists.
“Retreating into the anonymity and pseudonymity of the Net is not ideal for building a real movement,” Black said.
But he likes a lot of the videos that attract young people to white nationalist ideas now because they embrace the soft-sell approach he finds most effective at bringing in new followers.
“It’s important to be able to talk to people without coming across as a raving Nazi or white supremacist,” Black said. “So if we focus on the border, the economy, whatever’s upsetting people right now, we’re in a stronger position.”
Many extremist leaders say recruits still need to gather in person or their movement will be little more than a many-tentacled chat room. But pressure from law enforcement officials and from their political opponents has made holding meetings and conferences very difficult, according to Taylor, Black and other leaders of extremist groups.
“The only thing I’m grateful for these days is that Trump allowed us to reach a much broader population and to use a gentler way of bringing people into the fold,” Black said. “For years, I was pretty demoralized by the number of people turning out to our Columbus Day demonstrations. Then Trump comes along and gets tens of thousands of people and a certain percentage of them look further into our ideas.”
Video as a recruitment tool
At 14, Picciolini felt alone, the son of Italian immigrants who didn’t know American culture. A leader of a neo-Nazi skinhead group befriended him in Blue Island, Ill., and suddenly, a kid who had been bullied saw himself as part of something larger.
Camaraderie drew Picciolini to extremism, “but it was the music that kept me there,” he said - hard-driving white-power rock with overtly white-supremacist lyrics. Although he had only limited musical training, he became a singer in bands with names such as White American Youth and Final Solution.
Although metal and punk dominated early white-power music, the repertoire has expanded into country, electronica and rap, “an irony for white supremacists,” said Futrell, the sociologist.
Whatever the music’s genre, the purpose was the same, Futrell said: “The music creates this collective we-ness, the feelings of belonging, long before the ideology is introduced.”
At first, Picciolini didn’t perceive the music as political, but he soon learned that “the purpose was propaganda and the side effect was recruitment,” he said.
“Nobody’s born to hate,” he said. “People learn that. I learned to hate. What they’re searching for, like all of us, is identity, community and purpose. The extremists call it family, faith and Volk, but that’s the same as identity, community and purpose.”
Today, white-power music, although it has largely moved from cassette tapes and CDs to streaming services, has been eclipsed by video as extremists’ primary recruitment tool - and moneymaker.
Movement leaders do want radical change, Ebner said, “but some are really focused on the benefits they get from purchases” of extremism-themed T-shirts, concerts, lectures, books and movies.
Although many far-right groups and individuals have been banned from Twitter and YouTube in recent months, their content thrives on alternative platforms such as Bitchute, which says it prohibits material that encourages “violent extremism,” but tells users that “you are responsible for your own actions.”
The audience numbers now are notably smaller than the groups had amassed on Facebook and YouTube.
But that kind of pivot is nothing new for extremist groups. Cycles of public engagement and withdrawals into underground activity have repeated throughout the modern history of white supremacy.
A Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 “was an effort to see what the public acceptance was for those ideas and actions,” Futrell said, “and then they pull back and organize into smaller, less visible groups online, especially when they’re afraid of FBI surveillance and prosecutors. And then they push out again and the cycle starts all over again.”