Cynthia DeFelice’s young-adult novel, Weasel, set on the Ohio frontier of the 1830s, follows an 11-year-old boy’s attempt to protect his family against a deranged back-woods serial killer. The eponymous villain is a washed-up former mercenary, once hired by the federal government to help cleanse Ohio of Indians, who now, lacking anything better to do with his life, has turned to killing white settlers. The plotline begins with one of Weasel’s bear traps ensnaring the main character’s father. The scenario can be seen, on one level, as a straightforward warning that those who use violence to achieve their ends can wind up caught in their own traps. The character of Weasel, though, suggests something darker and more subtle: that when the pretexts of war and politics are stripped away, violence can serve as an outlet for the rage of the loner with no purpose and no place in the world.
A few years after its publication in 1990, the short novel reportedly became a favorite of a quiet and insecure middle-schooler from suburban Columbus, Ohio named Andrew Anglin. In high school, Andrew’s behavior was often erratic, but he devoted himself to alternative social causes such as animal rights, veganism, and anti-fascism; classmates remember him wearing a sweatshirt reading “fuck racism.” He experimented with drugs and with both girls and boys. Sometimes, he provoked fights with friends and flew into rages, banging his own head against walls or sidewalks. His parents, reportedly oblivious to these troubling episodes, divorced. Later in high school, Andrew became an avid listener to right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and started warning his friends about lizard people. After graduating, he drifted, living out of his car and posting frequently on conspiracy-theory websites. Sometimes, he expressed a wish to return to a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
In 2008, Anglin set out to find the stability and belonging that his life had lacked: he flew to the Philippines in search of a tribe to join. Over the next several years, Andrew traveled the country, praising its beauty and decrying the damage wrought by Western imperialism. In 2011, he spent several weeks with the T’boli people, who reside among the remote interior mountains of Mindanao, beyond the reach of electricity. He later gushed online that, “their life was all so beautiful and amazing…. I love these people.” He resolved to build his own hut in a T’boli village and to teach his new tribesmen about agriculture and the dangers of capitalism and Christianity. His online communications went dead for months at a time as he remade his life in the mountains.
Anglin’s dream of a tribal paradise was soon shattered: in 2012, the T’boli rejected Andrew, destroying his “romantic fantasy.” He denounced the tribe as “primitive,” “a bunch of idiots,” and “monkeys.” Instead, he declared, he would return to the bosom of the “European race” – “It is only they who share my blood, and can understand my soul,” he wrote. He returned to Ohio, and in December, launched a neo-fascist website, where he wrote that “a group of people has begun to emerge” from the disorderly conspiracy-theory movement — a group that has “found the truth. We have found the light. We have found Adolf Hitler.” Anglin’s website grew into the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular white supremacist blog, named after the official organ of the Third Reich. Andrew was among the leading organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally last August in Charlottesville, which resulted in violent street fights and one death.
Andrew Anglin’s journey can sound like something out of Gothic fiction. It is difficult to read of the Ohioan’s career without thinking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which Kurtz, a minor colonial administrator, throws off the superficial niceties of Western society and strives to build his own kingdom among the most isolated tribes of the Congo. What is more, after Kurtz dies and the narrator of Conrad’s novel returns to Europe, he meets an avid admirer of the deceased, who praises Kurtz’s rhetorical power and charisma:
“But heavens! how that man could talk. He electrified large meetings. He had faith — don’t you see? — he had the faith. He could get himself to believe anything — anything. He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” “What party?” I asked. “Any party,” answered the other. “He was an — an — extremist.”
Conrad not only anticipates the rise of Hitler, but points to the deep connection between the desire to belong to a small tribe and the appeal of radical politics. Belonging to a tight-knit social group is a basic human need — most of human history has been lived in small interdependent bands — and when it goes unfulfilled, identification with an extreme political group can serve as a heady substitute.
Why, though, did Anglin respond so powerfully to Weasel? Did he identify with Nathan, the pre-teen boy who must summon his courage to protect his kin against the forces of evil? Or did he see himself in the irrational maniac who, lacking a clear mission, reverts to a beast, terrorizing society for sport? It is possible (though only Anglin can know for sure) that the troubled teenager saw himself both in DeFelice’s scrappy young hero and in the deranged villain; perhaps the line between the two is thinner and more brittle than we prefer to think.
Among the frequent readers and commenters on Anglin’s Daily Stormer in recent years was Devon Arthurs, a troubled Florida teenager who dabbled in communism and in online gaming forums before embracing Neo-Nazism in 2013. Following his turn to the right wing, Arthurs moved into a Tampa apartment together with fellow young white supremacists, and co-founded the Florida chapter of a small neo-Nazi group called Atomwaffen. In 2016, though, Arthurs was banned from the Daily Stormer: he had converted to Islam and was advocating for other neo-Nazis to do the same. Some of his white supremacist friends tolerated his new faith; as one of them later pointed out, “he wanted to feel like he belonged to something strong…. National socialism and Islam both offer a strong worldview.” Nonetheless, Devon’s devotion grew more radical — he claimed at one point to have made contact with ISIS — and tensions with his roommates mounted. On May 19, 2017, Devon shot two of them dead. Thereafter, he took hostages in a local coffee shop until police persuaded him to surrender; Devon told police he had killed his roommates for disrespecting Islam.
The harassment and abuse meted out by extremists like Andrew Anglin and Devon Arthurs have appeared in the news more and more frequently since the 1990s, but rarely does one hear any discussion of how they came to their inflammatory views. The sudden ideological lurches that one sees in both Anglin’s and Arthurs’ careers — from left-wing to romantic primitivist to right-wing, from left-wing to right-wing to jihadi — should not be surprising. Each of these young men fits the common pattern found among young male recruits to extremist groups, in that they first embraced their own feeling of alienation and then sought out radical ideas online. A large portion even of jihadi terrorists are converts. Their motivations lie not in deep conviction but in a desire for fame, for a sense of purpose, and for social belonging. Anglin and Arthurs could quickly pick up and drop ideological banners because their overriding desire was to pledge their loyalty to a group or a cause that could give their lives structure and purpose; which cause to choose was apparently secondary.
It may be tempting to label Anglin’s and Arthurs’ ideological wanderings as signs of pathological personalities. However, these cases are in fact the tip of an iceberg: they are symptomatic of the social dislocation that is endemic to modern society. Ideological island-hopping similar to Anglin’s can appear in more benign or even comical forms. For instance, in the spring of 2014, the Front National, France’s far-right anti-immigrant party, recruited a likable and unassuming 22-year-old-medical student, Maxence Buttey, to run on the FN’s ticket for city council in a suburb east of Paris. Buttey won the seat, but his affiliation with the xenophobic party caused concern among his Muslim classmates, who encouraged him to speak with the local imam. Shortly after taking office, he converted to Islam. Still, Buttey made no move to leave the Front National — even after he horrified his colleagues by using the party listserv to send out a video urging the party to join the Islamic fold. Only after a months-long legal battle was he finally tossed from the FN ticket. The soft-spoken Buttey evinces none of the hateful or violent impulses of Anglin or Arthurs. When asked about his surprising conversion, Maxence asserted that the Front National and Islam share important commonalities: “like Islam, the FN defends the weakest,” and both condemn the charging of predatory interest rates, Buttey argued; he acknowledged that many of his voters would feel betrayed, but he declared, “I’m ready to explain to them that Islam has a mission to unite all men and women.”
Despite his very different tone, Buttey’s story sheds light on Andrew Anglin’s tortuous path toward Nazism; the two cases lie along a spectrum. Before embracing neo-fascism, Anglin longed for the close social bonds and shared morality of a tribe. When he found it impossible to join one in the hills of Mindanao, he instead invented one by embracing the delusion of a “white race.” Both Anglin and Buttey see themselves as belonging to embattled groups: Anglin imagined the T’boli as victims of encroaching white imperialism, and white Americans as the victims of secret Jewish power; Buttey asserts that both the Front National and the Islamic faith are misunderstood and wrongly maligned. Persecution, or the perception thereof, is a powerful social glue.
Though their responses were unusually extreme, Anglin and Arthurs were almost typical of young Westerners in the confusion and aimlessness that they felt before their respective “conversions.” Some social scientists have examined the patterns of radicalization among particular groups (almost always Islamist), such as ISIS recruits, but even these cursory surveys do little to turn the mirror the other way — i.e., to examine how social atomization and alienation in mainstream society pave the way for the radicalization of a small minority. The core institutions that used to structure society in western Europe — the church and the plethora of local associations such as trade guilds, clans, and confraternities — have broken down, replaced by American consumerism and mass media. America itself, once the exemplar of associationalism, has seen its great network of voluntary institutions decay, with thousands of union halls and Masonic temples shuttering across the country since the 1950s. Whole towns disappear as the farming base is torn out from under them, and small industrial cities fare little better. The slide in religious affiliation is slowed only by mega-churches selling a greedy, slick “prosperity gospel.” Citizens become consumers, defined by tastes rather than loyalties or relationships.
As concrete social institutions break down, the vacuum is filled by identification with hollow demographic groupings — ethnic, national, sexual, etc. — that can be defined only in opposition to one another. The obsession with “identity” that has engulfed so much academic and political debate since the 1990s serves to paper over pervasive alienation and lack of shared loyalties. In April 2014, an audience member on the popular British debate show, “Question Time,” asked, “what is the future for the British identity,” after that year’s official statistics had shown Muhammad to be the country’s most popular name for newborn boys. A panelist responded that one could be proud of “diversity” as well as “British values,” although she could not articulate precisely what those were. When the host turned back to the audience member to ask, “what were you getting at with the question,” the latter frankly confessed, “I suppose I’m not sure what it is to be British anymore. If my children ask me, what are typical British values, I couldn’t really tell them.” The reply was revealing: when one peels away the mask of identity — in this case, that of a national group — one finds only confusion.
Considering this background, the shrillness of contemporary politics should not be surprising. In some respects, everyone in the contemporary West is a bit like Andrew Anglin and Maxence Buttey. All of us, it seems, imagine ourselves under attack: claims of victimhood on behalf of amorphous social groups (“the war on Christmas,” “the war on boys,” “the war on women’s bodies,” etc.) fly back and forth in the modern media in the absence of actual social cohesion or shared purpose. Paranoia stands in for solidarity.
Political animosity reflects not only institutional breakdown, but also the shallow psychological foundations of modern liberal democracy as such. The primacy of individual free choice, whatever its merits, offers no sense of purpose or belonging. Loneliness is epidemic; street gangs recruit teenagers desperate for a community; despite declining religious adherence, cults led by charismatic tyrants have only continued to multiply, preying on confused young people in search of structure and meaning. In 2007, a college student in Texas heard about an evangelical prayer group at his school, led by a lay pastor named Tyler, who believed that he was engaged in “spiritual warfare” against the Devil; the student was compelled to join because “I was lonely and bored, and I wanted to experience something extraordinary[…]: a mystery to solve, a battle to fight, a romantic quest, like the heroes in the stories I had read. I had always imagined my life in terms of a story, and now Tyler was offering me the chance to be a part of one.” He soon found his life controlled and scrutinized by the group in every detail. Similarly, in Britain, jihadi militants are able to attract young Muslims not by appealing to hate, but by asserting that Islam is a “total” way of life, with a correct response to every situation. (According to one British jihadi, there is even a correct direction in which to fart: “toward the unbeliever.”) The totalitarian program relieves the exhausting burden of making arbitrary individual choices, replacing them with a larger and supposedly meaningful story.
One might still object that these are fringe cases, and that most Westerners are happy with the personal freedom and material comfort of modernity. But are they? As is well known, opioid deaths continue to soar in the United States, where life expectancy has dropped for the past two years in a row — the first time it has done so since the early 1960s — due mostly to suicides and overdoses. Emile Durkheim, in his landmark book on the subject, found that suicide in the West usually results not from misfortunes or suffering, but from anomie — the inability to identify with prevailing social norms and values. Even liberals who embrace the ideals of personal freedom and tolerance are not immune to rising levels of anxiety and isolation. In the United States, mental health has ballooned into a multi-billion-dollar industry that rakes in increasing profits from psychiatric drugs (total spending is now over $200 billion a year, more than is spent on cancer or heart disease). As the liberal political order itself faces severe challenges from polarization and the growing fringe, American liberals indulge in their own form of tribal paranoia.
Of course, most disillusioned and frustrated people do not become violent extremists. If anything, the current addiction epidemic demonstrates that most of us, when driven to despair, will settle for self-destructive behavior. Why a small fraction will turn their rage outward and seek to destroy others along with them is a difficult question entangled with individual psychology. Nonetheless, it is absurd to try, as so many elites do, to isolate “radicalization” from the larger social context in which it happens. Officials and social scientists do not ask how prevailing social conditions create fertile ground for extremism, preferring instead to present radicalism as a foreign virus infecting an otherwise healthy body; a former CIA agent declared, in response to the 2005 London bombings, that “there is a new plague on the streets of London, the pathological virus of the cult of suicide bombing… an enemy that can spring up like a virus from nowhere.” Anti-terrorism programs, such as the British government’s Prevent, focus exclusively on Islamic jihadism, ignoring its similarity to other home-grown extremist counter-cultures. More importantly, they try to isolate sources of propaganda and to “safeguard vulnerable individuals” from groups that would seek to indoctrinate them, as if extremists were unwilling victims rather than active participants in their radicalization. Policy responses involve censorship and spying; the crises of wider society remain unacknowledged.
The technocratic elite refuses to reckon with social decay and atomization. Even the liberal center-left is at a loss as to how to account for the widespread anger and disillusionment in modern society. Last year, a group of researchers from Third Way, a neo-liberal centrist think tank, went on a listening tour of Wisconsin, hoping to make sense of the Trump victory. They met with focus groups of blue-collar workers, teachers, farmers, and other assorted provincials.Tagging along with them was an Atlantic reporter, Molly Ball.When Third Way issued its report on the listening tour, Ball accused them of whitewashing the facts: their paeans to the American work ethic and local pride obscured the many instances of resentment, animosity, and in Ball’s word, “tribalism” that the researchers had encountered on the road and that at points had shaken them to their cores. Blue-collar workers railed against freeloaders and immigrants, unionized teachers against Republicans, organic farmers against urbanites. The researchers responded by pointing to instances where their reports had in fact mentioned some of these episodes. However, neither Ball nor the Third Way bigwigs seem to have considered actually taking the Wisconsinites’ grievances seriously. It did not occur to them that what they dismissed as “tribalism” might be a valid expression of concern over social breakdown and atomization. For instance, in rural Viroqua, Third Way heard from a crunchy organic farmer who praised the generally lefty town as an oasis of sanity, unlike the city where he had grown up: “There was no culture with which to identify, just television, drinking, maybe sports,” he said. “There’s nothing to aspire to. You’re just going through life with a case of Mountain Dew in your car.” According to Molly Ball, the Viroqua group angered and exasperated the Third Way researchers, one of them calling the townspeople, “just another community that had isolated itself;” Ball herself derided them as “separatists, proud of their extremism and disdainful of the unenlightened.”
Both Ball and the researchers reacted similarly to remarks by a school instructor in Chippewa Falls who, though occupying a very different station on the political spectrum, expressed anxiety about social cohesion and breakdown, observing that the “idea of both [parents] working, it’s a social experiment that I don’t know if it quite works,” he said. “If everyone’s working, who is making sure the children are raised right?” Ball understandably abhorred the implicit sexism in his remarks, but did not even consider his explicit point, which concerns relationships between parents and children. Friends of Andrew Anglin noted the distant, uninvolved attitude of his parents, and those of Devon Arthurs pointed to his lack of a father figure. These facts do not, of course, explain or justify these young men’s actions, but they do suggest that these militants are only among the more extreme manifestations of problems that many ordinary people can see in their own lives.
Both the mainstream and the left make the grave mistake of seeing militant extremists as manifestations of a deep, subterranean stratum of “hate” embedded in society. Their extremist ideologies, in this view, must be combated with a counter-ideology of “tolerance” or “anti-fascism.” They fail to see that neither ideologies nor moral beliefs have independent lives of their own, but must be embodied in social practices, relationships, and institutions. When one falls out of society, then one runs the risk of giving in to violent and self-destructive impulses, or of turning to an anti-social group that flouts mainstream morality; the recently deceased Charles Manson demonstrated how easily this transition can be achieved. Because of its demographic surplus of young men, nineteenth-century China was terrorized by roving bands of “bare sticks” — gangs of unmarried males that often raped and pillaged their way through the countryside. The young men that sometimes terrorize the modern West, whether in groups or as loners, are similar; they are foreseeable offspring of social decay. To prevent their depredations, the social fabric must be rebuilt; the modern West needs not only an economic, but a psychic safety net, with social roles, groups, and clear ideals to which to aspire.
How to go about rebuilding the everyday social fabric is not obvious; no think tank is likely to produce a five-point plan to reverse the anomie of modern life. In Weasel, a burning desire for revenge seizes the 11-year-old Nathan, threatening to turn him into a mirror image of what he hates. He sets out to kill Weasel, only to find that an infected bullet wound has beaten him to the punch. Still, Nathan’s nightmares and moodiness persist. What finally gives him relief is not vengeance, but ordinary socialization — a spring dance and musical contest in the village. Nathan resolves to study the fiddle with the local master, so that he can channel his raging emotions into music. DeFelice’s concluding chapters may seem facile or trite, but they capture a basic truth that is easily forgotten in a mass-media age: that civilization consists not in formal authorities nor in written laws, but in everyday social relationships. It is these everyday ties that hold us back from collapsing into our darker natures. It is these bonds that must be rebuilt if the experiment of modern democratic life is to survive.