President Biden has taken office amid a serious problem of white supremacist violent extremism.
The issue is not new for Biden.
Indeed, a certain sense of urgency about the problem is warranted: White supremacist and kindred hate-based terror attacks have skyrocketed approximately
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.
Soft power comes in three forms: culture, political ideals, and actions that translate those ideals into reality. Culture—which
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
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
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
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
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 a
Understanding white supremacists’ weaponization of soft power helps shine light on how to staunch that
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.”
Just before launching the 2011 attack