White Nationalists Exploit Election Turmoil to Reach Young People

New guidance helps families and caregivers protect vulnerable children and teens from white nationalist targeting

By Western States Center staff

It’s a gross understatement to say that 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges for parents and caregivers concerned with helping young people make sense of the world. First, the COVID-19 pandemic hit; then, news of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We’ve witnessed months of sustained racial justice protests that erupted in response to those killings and deadly backlash to these protests. After a stressful and contested back-to-school season, the 2020 election is now just days away. Families and students are finding no relief from the polarizing tensions gripping the country.

There is another, less visible crisis brewing — one many parents and caretakers may not be attuned to: the increase in political power being built by white nationalist and alt-right groups whose sights are set on recruiting teens and young adults.

Extremist Groups and the 2020 Election

White nationalism is a social movement that emphasizes antisemitism and the creation of all-white ethnostates through violence and policies that would criminalize and remove Black and Brown people and other targeted communities. “Alt-right” is a term coined by white nationalist Richard Spencer in 2008, which gained broader currency with the announcement of Trump’s candidacy for president in 2015, particularly among online activists. It is now a coalition of diverse actors, driven at its core by white nationalist theory and activism.

The alt-right tends to use more coded racist language and to seek to appeal to a broader base than overt white nationalists. While paramilitary groups support a variety of ideologies, most espouse far-right beliefs and trace their historical lineage back to overt white nationalism. These groups, which are heavily armed and characterized by military-style training and culture, function independently of local or state governments, using intimidation tactics and political violence to instill fear and undermine democratic practice.

Groups that use bigotry to build political power exploit moments of social tension and upheaval. And while 2020 has provided many such windows for white nationalists eager to recruit new adherents to their ranks, the impending election may be one of their biggest opportunities yet.

The defining narratives of the 2020 election reference issues that have unsettled the nation for months, most notably debates about the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic and polarization surrounding policing and rule of law. White nationalist, alt-right, and paramilitary groups have intersected both these issues. Heavily armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia protested mask mandates at the Michigan State Capitol dressed in tactical gear; similar so-called “Patriot” groups have wielded assault weapons at racial justice protests across the country. The Proud Boys, a racist and sexist alt-right group, have been menacing residents and protesters in Portland, Oregon, for years. (When asked at a recent debate to condemn such white supremacist and militia groups, Trump instead said they should “stand back and stand by.”)

Online and Unsupervised

Why would the election season be a recruitment opportunity for young people not yet old enough to vote? For one thing, many young people in the U.S. are learning from home right now — and spending more time online, alone and unsupervised than ever. Because young peoples’ identities are often intimately connected to friend groups, long periods of isolation can make them vulnerable, angry and susceptible to ideas they might otherwise view as suspect. White nationalists, extremist and other anti-democratic groups know this; they intentionally prey on people with fragile identities and little social support, targeting social media, chat rooms, gaming platforms and other channels that offer young people a sense of belonging that they may be missing while isolated from their peers. As a result, these channels become an ideal platform to spread racist and xenophobic ideas intended to influence the election and undermine public faith in local and state governments, the news media and other institutions.

A compounding factor is that students’ access to reliable information about the election may be limited or compromised. During a typical election year, students would be engaging in mock elections and learning about the nomination process, the electoral college and the role of current events in the election. But, as many social studies teachers reported in 2016, schools and classrooms may choose to forego such lessons when tensions are high due to parental pushback and even division amongst the staff. A young person who doesn’t have guidance or support processing information about the election (or the social and political issues surrounding it) may reach for easy explanations out of a desire for understanding — even if those explanations run counter to their values or villainize marginalized communities.

With threats from white nationalist, alt-right, and paramilitary groups to “monitor” polling places, intimidating voters and chilling democratic practice, these groups are regularly in the news. While media coverage of these activities is essential, if young people do not have adults in their lives to help them understand what is happening and reinforce inclusive and democratic values, they may turn to online materials that spout white nationalist talking points.

New Guidance for Families and Caregivers

The Southern Poverty Law Center and American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab recently put out a guide to help parents and caregivers identify and counter white nationalist recruitment. “Extremists looking to recruit and convert children are predators,” the authors state. “Like all forms of child exploitation, extremist recruitment drives a wedge between young people and the adults they would normally trust.”

Even if a young person isn’t being actively recruited, the likelihood of exposure to hateful ideas online is at an all-time high. Now is the time for adults to check in with the young people in their lives. To support these conversations, follow these suggestions for how to connect and engage with young people and respond appropriately if they are engaging with bigoted groups or ideologies. To make these suggestions easier to remember, use the acronym SAFER: Schedule, Ask, Focus, Educate and Engage, and Recognize.

(For a more robust list of interventions, download Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization.)

With so much uncertainty in the world, looking for signs of exposure to hate and extremism may not be a priority for most parents. But the benefits of checking in, scheduling activities, and having robust conversations about the state of the world has far-reaching benefits that not only counter exposure to hate, but also reduce anxiety and empower families to stay present to their values and to keep intergenerational lines of communication open.


Racists Are Recruiting. Watch Your White Sons

What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right

What Is the Alt-Right?

Teachers Fighting White Nationalists

● Learn about digital literacy with your children:

● Teaching Tolerance’s Digital Literacy Framework

● ADL’s Hate On Display Hate Symbols Database

● Western States Center’s Confronting White Nationalists in School toolkit

Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.

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