When Christian Picciolini was a neo-Nazi, he heard the term "white power" all the time. It was the term neo-Nazis used as a greeting, as a pejorative, to instill fear, even to sign off letters in lieu of "sincerely."
"It was also a proclamation that distilled what we believed in into two words," Picciolini — who is now an author and founder of the Free Radicals Project, a group that works to prevent extremism — told NPR's Morning Edition.
"It was always used in a way that was a white supremacist manner," he says. "Not in a sense that black power is used as a cry for equity and a cry against white supremacy. White power has always been used as kind of a bludgeon and not as anything other than that."
When President Trump on Sunday retweeted a video in which an alleged supporter yelled "white power," Picciolini didn't want to speculate what the president was thinking. But what struck him, he says, "is that this has been a pattern."
"This hasn't been the first time that the president has tweeted something that has come from a white supremacist or that has had a white supremacist message, whether it's talking about a conspiracy theory that's connected to white genocide or whether it's using pejorative language to describe other people," Picciolini said. "What is intentional, I believe, is the goal to instill fear. We're seeing a lot more language that is racist, especially with the use of social media, and he is emboldening that kind of language through his tweets."
Trump later deleted the tweet, but he has not publicly apologized for it or condemned the racist term in the video. In a statement, Judd Deere, the White House deputy press secretary, said the president "did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters."
In the weeks since protests over police brutality began sweeping the nation, the president has called statues of Confederate generals "beautiful," labeled some protesters "THUGS" and said he would unleash "vicious dogs" and "ominous weapons" against them.
"I think what President Trump is, is a megaphone," Picciolini said. "It's as if Trump kicked over a bucket of gasoline on all of those small fires that have existed for 400 years and created one large forest fire."
Extremism researchers worry that far-right militants and white supremacists are looking for ways to exploit political turmoil in the U.S. as a way to further inflame racial divides. It's a dynamic Picciolini called "absolutely frightening."
"It is ingrained in their ideology that a race war will come one day," Picciolini said. "That there will be civil unrest that they will be able to take advantage of. And they're seeing everything line up, from the pandemic, to unemployment, to disappearing middle class, to a very heated and contested election that is coming up. This is almost a perfect storm for this type of civil unrest that they've been talking about for decades that it seems to them that it's almost a reality."
NOEL KING, HOST:
When he was 14, Christian Picciolini joined a neo-Nazi skinhead gang. More than 20 years ago, he got out. And since then, he's been working to counter the ideology that once mesmerized him. A few days ago, Christian heard familiar words - white power - shouted by a man in a video who appeared to be a supporter of President Trump. The president shared it on his Twitter feed. I talked to Christian Picciolini yesterday, and he told me how he used to use those words - white power - like a weapon.
CHRISTIAN PICCIOLINI: That phrase would have been used every day, multiple times a day, as a greeting, as a pejorative to instill fear, as a way to even sign off on a letter replacing sincerely with white power. It was also a proclamation that distilled what we believed in into two words.
KING: Did you ever hear the words white power used in a non-malignant way?
PICCIOLINI: Never. It was always used in a way that was in a white supremacist manner, not in the sense that Black power is used as a cry for equity and a cry against white supremacy. White power has always been used as kind of a bludgeon and not as anything other than that.
KING: With the acknowledgment that none of us knows what is in President Trump's head or heart, do you think it was intentional when the president retweeted a man saying white power?
PICCIOLINI: Well, of course, it's impossible to tell, you know, what was on the president's mind. But what I can tell you that has been intentional is that this has been a pattern. This isn't the first time that the president has tweeted something that has come from a white supremacist or that has had a white supremacist message, whether it's talking about a conspiracy theory related to white genocide or using pejorative language to describe other people. What is intentional, I believe, is the goal to instill fear. We're seeing a lot more language that is racist, you know, especially with the use of social media. And he is emboldening a lot of that activity through his tweets.
KING: In the United States, when a leading politician says something, a lot of people are like, yeah, sure, these are just words. But it sounds like what you're saying is no, there are neo-Nazis sitting around actually waiting to hear the president amplify language that they want to hear.
PICCIOLINI: And that's absolutely the case, unfortunately. From the people that I work with to help disengage from extremism - because that's how I've spent the last 20 years of my life - the chatter that I'm hearing from these people and from the sites that I monitor is that they are waiting for lawlessness to happen. They are waiting, to some degree, for police to pull off the street because of the protests so that they can go in and instill vigilantism. They're waiting to really kind of go out with their own brand of law and order and take care of business according to their ideology.
KING: Do you find this frightening?
PICCIOLINI: I find it absolutely frightening. I can understand the mindset of the people who are still in that movement. I certainly don't believe it anymore. But I understand how paranoid they are and how they've been wishing for this moment. It is ingrained in their ideology that a race war will come someday, that there will be civil unrest that they'll be able to take advantage of. And they're seeing everything line up, from the pandemic, to unemployment, to a disappearing middle class, to a very heated and contested election that's coming up. This is almost a perfect storm for this type of civil unrest that they've been talking about for decades that, it seems to them, it's almost coming to reality.
KING: In the work that you do, the de-radicalization work, does anyone ever mention President Trump and the way he speaks?
PICCIOLINI: All the time, you know...
PICCIOLINI: ...Certainly it's, you know, there are some parts of this movement who are very happy with the things he's doing and things he's saying. And there are even some parts of this movement that think he's been too soft. And they've lost faith in him because he hasn't really in the four years committed to the things that they thought he was going to do.
KING: When you would sit down with people in these de-radicalization sessions during the years that Barack Obama was president, would President Obama come up a lot?
PICCIOLINI: President Obama would come up as potentially a radicalizing element. It was the fear that was instilled in them through propaganda about a Black president who was going to take away their rights, who was, you know, not born in America, according to them, who was aligned with socialists and communists. So it was the fear of a Black president that led a lot of people into the movement.
KING: In the year 2000, George Bush is president. Did George Bush come up in de-radicalization sessions?
PICCIOLINI: Never, not that I recall.
KING: OK. So wow, so President Bush, not really a part of the conversation. It really is only, in your experience, since President Obama that U.S. presidents have become part of the discourse.
PICCIOLINI: Yeah, and I think that's partly because up until the end of, you know, George Bush's presidency, we had kind of gone with the status quo of presidents. And then all of a sudden, things change. It really wasn't until President Obama when they really started to focus on a particular president. And that also happened with Trump because he was saying so many of similar things that I said 30 years ago and that the movement said.
KING: Do you think that the president's rhetoric is a product of racist extremism that already exists? Or do you think he is helping make it a reality?
PICCIOLINI: You know, this absolutely has existed in our country for, you know, over 400 years. But I think what President Trump is is a megaphone. It's as if Trump kicked over a bucket of gasoline on all of those small fires that have existed for 400 years and created one large forest fire. But what I fear is that these next six months or even up until, you know, January, if we do have a transition of power, are going to be some of the scariest, most intense months in, you know, recent memory for us because I think white supremacists are going to feel that their time is almost up to take action, that they will only have agency while he's in power. This is something that has now come to the surface. And we are going to have to fix this. Our existence really depends on it.
KING: Christian Picciolini, author of "Breaking Hate," thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. We really appreciate it.
PICCIOLINI: Thanks so much for having me, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.