USC Price School of Public Policy

Far-right extremism scholar Pete Simi explores ‘Hidden Spaces of Hate’

March 15, 2017

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Author Pete Simi speaks at USC’s Doheny Memorial Library. (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

The USC Safe Communities Institute and the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) hosted author Pete Simi on March 7 to discuss his fieldwork studying far-right extremism in the U.S. and how these groups have been galvanized by the recent Presidential election.

Simi, who is an associate professor at Chapman University, coauthored the book American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate.

“Cruising Amazon one day, it was hard for me to pass up a book with a title and image like this,” said Professor Erroll Southers, who is the director of homegrown violent extremism studies at SCI and director of international programs at CREATE. “I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work with some former extremists; however, I’ve never been in a situation – like the one which Pete faced – where people I talked to [for research purposes] told me that if I said the wrong thing, they’d hunt me down and kill me.”

Who is susceptible to extremism?

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Professor Erroll Southers, right, with Pete Simi (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

Simi opened by explaining that the common stereotype of far-right extremists as hate-spewing, heavily tattooed people who couldn’t spell their first name is sometimes, but not often, true.

“The folks attracted to these types of groups are a much broader cross-section than we’d often like to admit, and this is important because it underscores that the recruitment potential that these groups have is much broader than we’d like to admit,” Simi said. “It would be nice if we could write this off as something that only appeals to a small segment of folks who are disaffected and uneducated. But in fact, what we see from the data is a lot of different kinds of folks get involved in these groups. The most educated person can be susceptible.”

Simi got involved in observing far-right extremists as a graduate student at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He reached out to two groups including Aryan Nations, presenting himself as a student interested in showing how the real people involved in these organizations compared to the media’s demonization of them.

He ended up spending seven years in the field exploring their lives, trying to understand their culture and how people became involved. He never participated in their hateful actions, but he led them to believe that he was sympathetic in the view that white race was on the verge of extinction.

For a time, he stayed at the house of Wade Page, who 10 years later killed six people and himself at a Sikh temple.

“As part of the research, you do spend time with folks who in some cases have violent histories, have been in and out of prison, and are very volatile individuals,” Simi said. “To be honest with you, I was scared about 99 percent of the time I was in the field.”

Emerging trends amid the current political climate

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SCI Director Frank Quiambao (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

Simi scoffs at the term “alt-right” being widely used lately.

“Talk about ‘fake news,’ this is fake news,” Simi said. “The alt-right is just far-right extremism that’s existed in various forms for a long time. This alt-right is manufactured by people trying to sound less offensive.”

Simi expressed concern for the Trump administration’s connections with and effect on white supremacists. He noted that during his campaign Trump twice retweeted a twitter account called WhiteGenocideTM filled with neo-Nazi propaganda. He added that Trump senior advisor Steve Miller followed and retweeted David Duke, and that chief strategist Steve Bannon has referenced the white supremacy fantasy fiction novel Camp of the Saints four times.

“Normally, when someone from the Republican party is elected President, they’re probably not going to receive a lot of active support from white supremacists,” Simi said. “White supremacists over the years have become disconnected from mainstream politics. With Trump, it seems to have galvanized them and given them some hope for being able to utilize the system.”

More than 100 Jewish Community Centers across the United States have faced bomb threats since January, Simi noted. He fears Trump’s election could lead to more violence from far-right extremists.

“There’s this pot that’s been simmering, and he pulled the lid off and gave permission in some ways for people to act on their angers, frustration, fears, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and everything else,” Simi said.