Foreign Policy Essay
Why Right-Wing Extremists Love the Unabomber
Editor’s Note: Ted Kacyznski, the Unabomber, is having a revival. Although Kacyznski was known for his opposition to modern technology, Georgetown’s Kiernan Christ finds that the far right is claiming him as one of their own and that his reemergence shows how labels like “right wing” and “left wing” are often misleading and ignore how different extremes intermingle.
“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” So begins Theodore J. Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future—a 35,000-word call to arms for a revolt against technology. Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, was an American domestic terrorist whose 17-year bombing campaign killed three people and injured 23 others. Seeking to protect wilderness and destroy technology, he targeted scientists and businessmen. However, Kaczynski’s contemporary influence isn’t strongest among environmental activists. Rather, his manifesto and ideology have found a home on far-right websites, where Kaczynski is cited as a key radicalizing influence and thought leader in spaces generally extremely hostile to modern environmentalism.
Kacyznski’s critique of industrial society as harmful to human freedom has been co-opted and incorporated into a broader yet still explicitly ethnonationalist critique of modernity. On imageboards, Twitter and TikTok, young right-wing extremists create memes and engage in discussion about Kaczynski, referring to him fondly as “Uncle Ted.” Reverence for Kaczynski is one manifestation of a broader trend: right-wing extremists using environmentalist language and perspectives on topics like pollution and wilderness preservation to support violent mobilization. This phenomenon can be understood as an attempt to strengthen the allure of far-right ideology by appealing to popular concerns regarding the destruction of the environment to justify fascist beliefs.
Kaczynski, who is currently serving multiple life sentences at a maximum security prison in Colorado, is a strange inspiration for modern right-wing extremists. Although he has dismissed leftists for being driven by “feelings of inferiority” and for their attachment to “the conventional attitudes of our society while pretending to be in rebellion against it,” he has denounced both conservatives and fascists as well. In Industrial Society and Its Future, he describes conservatives as “fools,” and in his 2010 book Technological Slavery, he describes Nazism as a “kook ideology.” He rejects any sort of politics whose focus is not the “revolution against the technoindustrial system.”
For right-wing extremists, the appeal of Kaczynski’s works originates in their identification of Kaczynski’s narrative about the development of industrial civilization and the destruction of wilderness with their own narrative about what they perceive to be the replacement and disempowerment of white people. Kaczynski’s description of the alienation of people from one another caused by technology aligns with white supremacists’ calls for solidarity among white people to resist what they regard as the threat of oppression and “white genocide.” Kaczynski’s writing reinforces their romanticizing of rural life and traditional values, juxtaposing their ideal society against the “technological society,” which Kaczynski writes “HAS TO weaken family ties and local communities if it is to function effectively.” Kaczynski’s lack of overt racism does not dissuade white supremacists from agreeing with him: In a typical thread about Kaczynski on a far-right discussion board, one poster argues that “if goals of say Kaczynski … would bear fruit, Jewry would be finished one way or another.” By reading a racial dimension into his words, white supremacists have co-opted Kaczynski’s ideology.
The far-right’s valorization of Kaczynski is evidenced by the degree to which his words and ideas have spread both on the broader internet and in right-wing spaces in recent years. While some anarchist admirers of Kaczynski have attempted to live out his ideology by learning survival skills and adopting a primitive lifestyle, Kaczynski as a figure has been profoundly meme-ified by right-wing fans. For instance, their invocation of the phrase “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race” as a response to perceived failings of modern society has spread beyond far-right corners of the internet and begun to permeate mainstream spaces, including YouTube and TikTok. Adopting both joking and sincere tones, documents describing Kaczynski’s ideology to a right-wing audience circulate on spaces like 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” board. In a thread titled “Ted Kaczynski General,” a document that explains Kaczynski’s appeal responds to concerns that the real problem is “International Jewry/Zionism, blacks, diversity and Multiculturalism” by arguing that “nobody is denying” those things are a “net negative” but that those “grave problems are dwarfed when compared to industrial society and its consequences.” The thread also links to a document full of instructions for “prepping” for the inevitable fall of industrial society, including tips on self-improvement, nutrition, medicine and combat. These are just a handful of examples of a broader trend. A search for “Kaczynski” in archives of 4chan’s politics section turns up 17,214 results.
The increasing popularity of Kaczynski in right-wing spaces is one part of a growing strain of thought within right-wing extremism that incorporates environmental concerns as part of a racist and fascist worldview. A reading list shared on right-wing imageboards titled “Deep Ecology: An Introduction for Nationalists” includes Kaczynski’s works alongside thinkers from both left- and right-wing backgrounds. This hybrid ideology has found its way into real-world violent mobilization. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in attacks in Oslo and Utoya in 2011, directly copied parts of his manifesto from Kaczynski’s, substituting words like “multiculturalism” for “leftism.” Environmentalist issues have also inspired right-wing terrorists who did not explicitly cite Kaczynski. Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, explicitly cited environmentalism as one of his primary motivations. In his manifesto, Tarrant wrote that he desires “ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on the preservation of nature” and stated that “green nationalism is the only true nationalism.” Patrick Crusius, who targeted Latinos in a 2019 attack in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, described his anger at corporations that employ immigrants in low-wage jobs and connected this to corporations’ pollution of the environment, arguing that the necessary response is to “decrease the number of people in America using resources.” These arguments dovetail with those of Kaczynski admirers on the right-wing internet that join concerns about the preservation of the environment to concerns about the preservation of the white race.
The incorporation of this environmentalist dimension into white supremacism is an ideological innovation, but so far there is no evidence of related tactical shifts. There do not appear to be operational differences between violent right-wing actors who express support for environmental goals and those who do not. Despite drawing on Kaczynski for inspiration and employing rhetoric emphasizing the destruction of the environment as a central threat facing humanity as a whole and white people in particular, these far-right extremists have not targeted sites explicitly associated with industrial society. Rather than attacking oil pipelines or hydroelectric dams, self-professed “ecofascists” like Tarrant attack the same kinds of people and places as non-environmentalist right-wing terrorists such as Dylann Roof or Robert Bowers.
This may change if climate change and environmental crises around the world motivate more right-wing extremists to embrace Kaczynski and the ecofascist ideology. These actors claim that creating and maintaining spaces exclusively for white people will require both violent action against modern society and its technological elements and against non-white individuals. Though environmentalist concerns are often associated with left-wing politics, this new hybrid ideology demonstrates that concern for the environment is not confined to any one part of the political spectrum. The internet and social media have facilitated the cross-pollination of ideas that may initially appear to be incongruous but that extremists have found ways to integrate into their worldviews. Anticipating and responding effectively to extremist threats requires a nuanced understanding of how actors justify their beliefs and their violent mobilization, and the far-right’s appropriation of Kaczynski’s work is a telling variation in the story some extremists tell themselves.