Desistance from Right-Wing Extremism

Pete G. Simi, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska

Research Grant, 2012

The research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation provided the funds to conduct intensive life history interviews with an initial sample of thirty-five former North America–based far-right extremists. Interviews for this project were completed between 2012 and 2014, although additional subjects have since been interviewed and the sample is now 102 former far-right extremists. The HFG project focused on examining the disengagement process from far-right extremism, although the design of the life history protocol also meant that unique data regarding childhood and adolescent experiences, the entry process into extremism, and different facets of the person’s involvement were also collected.

While far-right extremism has a long history in the United States and across the globe, the recent resurgence of far-right movements has spurred renewed interest in the topic. The attention directed toward the “alt-right,” the electoral success of populist candidates, and a surge of far-right violence underscore the need to understand the factors that help explain involvement as well as the factors that lead people to leave these movements and what can be done to help facilitate disengagement. The results from the life history interviews shed light on several of these issues and are now being used in partnership with Life After Hate to provide intervention services to assist individuals in the disengagement process.

First, the interview findings helped generate a multidimensional risk factor model for how individuals become involved in far-right extremism (Simi, Sporer, and Bubolz 2016). In short, we found that individuals reported experiencing a number of untreated trauma during childhood, such as physical and sexual abuse, parental abandonment, and family substance abuse. In line with decades of research, individuals also reported experiencing heightened levels of negative emotions such as depression and anger as a consequence of the trauma. In turn, individuals engaged in various forms of misconduct as part of a downward spiral. As such, involvement in extremism provided a mechanism for individuals to address these problems by offering generic solutions such as a surrogate family, protection, and shelter.

Our findings suggest that hate may have addictive qualities and, in some cases, result in potentially permanent consequences that make leaving more complicated than previously thought.

The interview data also produced important findings about the disengagement process suggesting the following: a lack of organizational trust and dissatisfaction with leadership (Windisch, Ligon, and Simi 2017); the importance of anger in the disengagement process (Simi, Windisch, Harris, and Ligon 2018), and the development of positive relationships with individuals from different racial and religious backgrounds (Bubolz and Simi 2015). We also found violence was an important factor in terms of promoting disengagement. In some cases, individuals involved in high levels of violence reported experiencing “burnout,” while other individuals reported experiencing moral apprehension from either direct involvement or vicarious involvement (e.g., watching the television coverage of the casualties from the Oklahoma City bombing).

To examine the long-term consequences of extremism, we discussed the overlap between identity residual and addiction processes in a recent article in the American Sociological Review (Simi, Blee, DeMichele, and Windisch 2017). Our findings suggest that hate may have addictive qualities and, in some cases, result in potentially permanent consequences that make leaving more complicated than previously thought.

  1. Simi, Pete, Kathy Blee, Matthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch. 2017. “Addicted to Hate?: Identity Residual among Former White Supremacists.” American Sociological Review 82, 6: 1167-87.

  2. Simi, Pete, Karyn Sporer and Bryan Bubolz. 2016. “Narratives of Childhood Adversities and Adolescent Misconduct as Precursors to Violent Extremism: A Life-Course Criminological Approach.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53, 4: 536-63.

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