White Supremacy

How White Supremacists Use Soft Power

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

President Biden has taken office amid a serious problem of white supremacist violent extremism. The storming of the U.S. Capitol cast this problem in stark relief. The crowd brandished hate symbols on banners and clothing, paraded the Confederate flag throughout the halls of the Capitol, and erected a noose at its steps. Many came armed and prepared for violence. While the rioters have dispersed, the threat persists. The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning on Jan. 27 that like-minded extremists could incite or commit violence in the first weeks of Biden’s presidency. The Jan. 13 federal Joint Intelligence Bulletin, which highlights terrorist threats to the homeland, warned of “emboldened” violent extremists and an “elevated” domestic terrorism threat persisting in 2021.  

The issue is not new for Biden. In his nomination speech, he explained that the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville was the very reason he decided to run for office, saying, At that moment, I knew I’d have to run.”

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. The Islamic State attracted recruits and garnered support through inspiring music, videos and 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 that analysts underestimate at their peril.

Soft power comes in three forms: culture, political ideals, and actions that translate those ideals into reality. Culture—which for U.S. soft power 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 clubs 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. It’s no matter that the pandemic—and, in the case of RAM and other prominent fight clubs, legal scrutiny—has curtailed activity in person. These groups have reinvigorated efforts online, where they are capitalizing on the pandemic and the isolation it instills to supply followers with a like-minded community in trying times.

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. RAM plays into this, embedding a crusader symbol into its logo and waving crusader flags at its mixed martial arts events. So, too, does the Blonde Buttermaker, another white supremacist YouTuber vlogging about cooking, who touts the superiority of white European diets of yesteryear. That the Vikings and medieval-era Europeans these white supremacists reference traded with, lived with, or fought alongside Jews, Muslims, and Blacks, of course, doesn’t feature in their telling of the story.

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 Great Replacement, a French book arguing that immigrants are “replacing” whites and destroying an idealized all-white ethno-state. The book’s “great replacement” catchphrase has become a rallying cry for white supremacists who buy into conspiracy theories suggesting a global elite—sometimes explicitly described as Jews—are systematically replacing whites with minorities. The book inspired the Christchurch attacker and leaders of 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 the European Parliament and former U.S. Rep. Steve King, who lost his seat in 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, like the Third Path in Germany, offer welfare servicesto whites only. Members of the 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 charter a ship to block migrants from entering Europe. 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. For those who bought into the belief that the “deep state” was stealing the 2020 election, the violent insurrection at the Capitol further reinforced this view.

Recent years have seen a renewed effort to make white supremacist soft power even 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. Euphemisms and white supremacists’ rebrand as “white nationalists” offer a good example: Though the rebranding simply repackages white supremacy’s tenets, it makes the movement appear benign to potential recruits and deflects the criticism that more blatant racist terms would attract. As does white supremacy’s 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 anice neo-Nazi,” as Nipsters have been called, desensitizes would-be 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. 

The United States is particularly vulnerable to white supremacist soft power for somewhat the same reason jihadist soft power can find fertile ground in many Muslim-majority countries: It is tapping into and abusing deep cultural themes that resonate to some degree with large numbers of people. Much of radicalization succeeds because it draws on deep-seated values and grievances, only to veer toward an intolerant or violent end. By tapping into prejudices, resentments, and cultural fears widespread in the United States, white supremacist soft power can take hold in the homeland well beyond what jihadist soft power ever could have. Its capacity for profound impact in the United States is vast.

Understanding white supremacists’ weaponization of soft power helps shine light on how to staunch that impact and the violence it brings. 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.” In this, Biden is already on the right path. In his inaugural address, he called white supremacy by name and acknowledged America’s 400-year struggle for racial justice. He denounced white supremacy as a threat that we must confront and we will defeat.

Just before launching the 2011 attack in Norway 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."