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Reformed Neo-Nazi Discusses President Trump's Controversial Shared Retweet

A demonstrator makes the OK hand gesture believed to have white supremacist connotations during the End Domestic Terrorism rally in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 17, 2019.
John Rudoff
AFP via Getty Images
A demonstrator makes the OK hand gesture believed to have white supremacist connotations during the End Domestic Terrorism rally in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 17, 2019.

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."

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