Something is going wrong—badly, horrifically wrong—with America’s young white men. It’s happening largely online, but it’s seeping into the real world.
Not all of our young white men, of course. Not even a majority of them. But a lot of them, and the numbers are growing. We all not only can sense it, but we can see it with our own eyes. It’s right there in the news. It’s right there in our neighborhoods. In our lives.
Last week, a young white man walked into a bank in Florida, ordered the five women inside to lie down, and then proceeded to terrorize them for several minutes before shooting each of them fatally, most of them in the head and chest. He wasn’t after money. When he was done, he called 911 and waited for police to come arrest him.
Police say they can’t figure out a motive. But people who knew young Zephen Xaver, now 21, back in Indiana say he was a bomb waiting to go off. He spent a lot of time playing computer games and hanging out on online boards. On social media, he favorited Milo Yiannopoulos, the anti-feminist provocateur. Most of all, he hated people and talked about killing them.
Three weeks ago, less than a mile from my home in Seattle, a young man named Buckey Wolfe I had seen from time to time at Proud Boys gatherings in Seattle got into an argument with his brother. He had come to believe this brother was a “lizard person,” à la the crackpot David Icke conspiracy theory. So Buckey took a four-foot sword and stabbed his brother in the head with it, killing him instantly.
There are indications that Wolfe had been receiving treatment for mental illness and may have acted violently under the influence of his delusions. Cases like this become a maze: While it’s unlikely the conspiracy theories caused his mental illness, it’s also reasonable to believe they acted in symbiosis to make it much, much worse.
On his Facebook page, his most recent selfie featured a Make America Great Again ballcap—this one in stylish Proud Boy black-and-gold.
It’s reminiscent of another Northwest case I’ve been covering for the past couple of years: Lane Davis, aka “Seattle4Truth,” a onetime researcher for Yiannopoulos and key Gamergate figure who, one afternoon at the home he shared with his parents in rural Samish Island, got into a horrendous argument with his father. The row, which involved Lane’s accusations that his parents were participants in the supposed global pedophilia ring around which the Pizzagate conspiracy theories revolve, culminated with Lane pulling out a large kitchen knife and stabbing his father to death.
Davis eventually pleaded guilty to murder and is now serving a 17-year prison sentence. His mental health was never in question—though the wild-eyed, angry behavior he exhibited the night of his father’s death was anything but normal.
These are not the only cases. Indeed, the list is already long, and it just keeps growing. A sampling:
- In December 2018, a self-described misogynist named Scott Paul Beierle, 40, who devoted hours to online rants against feminists, and whom women considered “really creepy,” went to a Tallahassee, Florida, yoga studio with a gun and opened fire, killing two women and wounding five more. He then killed himself.
- A Tacoma, Washington, man named Jeremy Shaw, along with his wife Lorena, who had become enamored of far-right “sovereign citizen” theories and neo-Nazism (he named his company Aryan Enterprises) plotted the murder of a man who owned a property in a rural wooded section of Renton. After bludgeoning the man to death, the couple attempted to take possession of his home. They also sold off his Star Trek memorabilia.
- In November 2018, a 15-year-old boy named Gregory Ramos who spent most of his time online in video games and chat rooms strangled his mother, Gail Cleavenger, 46, to death following an argument over his bad grades. Ramos was a devoted alt-righter with a “Kekistan” flag as the chief decoration on his Facebook page.
- A teenager from Santa Fe, Texas, named Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, entered his high school on May 18, 2018, and opened fire with a variety of guns on his fellow students, killing 10 people and wounding 13. It emerged shortly afterwards that he favored neo-Nazi imagery in his social media posts, along with white-power music bands.
- In Parkland, Florida, a 17-year-old named Nikolas Cruz entered his school on Feb. 14, 2018, and opened fire with an AR-15, killing 17 people and wounding another 17. Cruz also devoted hours to online chat rooms, where he was known to obsess about race, guns, and violence, and frequently espoused racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-LGBT sentiments.
- In December 2017, a Virginia teen caught up in white nationalism online entered the home of his girlfriend in suburban Washington, D.C., killed both of her parents, then shot himself, though not fatally. The parents had tried to keep the teens apart because of his racist beliefs. The boy currently awaits trial in Virginia.
That’s just in the past year or so. The list goes back at least to Elliot Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, California, in 2014, and Dylann Roof’s 2015 rampage in Charleston, South Carolina, and includes a significant number of alt-right killings in 2017. Spend some time perusing the Anti-Defamation League’s recent report pointing to right-wing extremism as the source of every single extremism-related murder in 2018, and you will find more evidence of this trend.
What all these cases have in common is not just that the perpetrators are white, and male, and relatively young, and not just that they all are fueled by far-right ideology. The thread among them that may be the most significant is that every one of these young white men has been radicalized online.
They call it “red-pilling,” as though they are the Neos of The Matrix in their own lives and they’re awakening to the reality of a world run by nefarious conspiracies. It’s a conceit with a toxic double bind: Once you believe you see this new reality, then reality itself becomes unmoored.
These theories all tell the same larger narrative: that the world is secretly run by a nefarious cabal of globalists (who just happen to be Jewish), and that they employ an endless catalog of dirty tricks and "false flags" to ensure the world doesn’t know about its manipulations, the whole point of which ultimately is the enslavement of mankind. Each day’s news events can thus be interpreted through the up-is-down prism this worldview imposes, ensuring that every national tragedy or mass shooting is soon enmeshed in a web of theories about its real purpose.
The radical Right itself has little compunction about identifying its target demographic for red-pilling. Andrew Anglin, publisher and founder of the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, asserted last year, "My site is mainly designed to target children." At the annual white-nationalist American Renaissance conference in Tennessee in April 2018, longtime supremacists bragged about their demographic support: "American Renaissance attendees are now younger and more evenly divided among the sexes than in the past," one speaker noted, before gushing over the white-nationalist college campus group Identity Evropa.
When authorities, both in the U.S. and abroad, have talked about online radicalization in the recent past, most of us have tended to think of it in terms of radical Islamists from groups such as the Islamic State, who have been known to leverage the technology to their advantage, particularly social media. A study by terrorism expert J.M. Berger published in 2016 found that white nationalists were far outstripping their Islamist counterparts, however: "On Twitter, ISIS’s preferred social platform, American white nationalist movements have seen their followers grow by more than 600 percent since 2012. Today, they outperform ISIS in nearly every social metric, from follower counts to tweets per day."
“Online radicalization seems to be speeding up, with young men, particularly white men, diving into extremist ideologies quicker and quicker," Berger said, adding that "the result seems to be more violence, as these examples indicate. It is a serious problem and we don’t seem to have any real solutions for it. These cases also show that an era of violence brought on by the internet is indeed upon us, with no end in sight.”
The radicalization process itself often begins with seemingly benign activity, such as spending hours in chat rooms or playing computer games, and these activities provide a kind of cover for the process as it accelerates.
Think of the young men in MAGA hats who surrounded and harassed a Native American man in Washington, D.C., recently. Much of the uproar that followed was undergirded by a general recognition that what many of us saw was a cluster of young radicalized white men—the nascent stages of the process. And the right-wing blowback over that furor, in which liberals were derided as trying to attack innocent young white men, was immense.
Regardless of the political orientation of this radicalization, what we also know is that the red-pilling process has a singularly unhinging effect. In cases of men such as Buckey Wolfe, it’s difficult to unspool the interaction of the conspiracism with pre-existing mental illness. In cases such as those of Lane Davis and Gregory Ramos, the line is much clearer. The conspiracy theories themselves have a powerful effect of socially and politically isolating the people who fall down their rabbit holes, and their content often fuels a hyperirrational anger that eventually expresses itself in violence.
What’s also clear is that it is happening right in front of our eyes. And for some reason, no one wants to talk about it.