The Pacific Northwest has long been a hospitable home to conspiratorial thinking—often with dangerous results. What leads a person down these dark paths and what might it take to come out the other side? In this episode, we talk with Leah Sottile and Eli Saslow, two Oregon journalists who have gone deep into the world of conspiracy theories, about some of the conditions and patterns that lead people to conspire against the nation they live in and the people they live among.
About Our Guests
Leah Sottile is the author of When the Moon Turns to Blood: Lori Vallow, Chad Daybell and a Story of Murder, Faith and End Times. As a freelance journalist, her features, profiles, investigations and essays have been published by The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone, California Sunday Magazine, Outside, The Atlantic and High Country News. She is the host of the podcasts Burn Wild and Two Minutes Past Nine, produced with the BBC, and the National Magazine Award-nominated series Bundyville. She is an occasional fiction writer and teacher, and lives in Oregon.
Watch our full conversation with Leah, on extremist movements, from March 2021.
Check out more writing by Leah on her Substack.
Eli Saslow is a staff writer at The Washington Post, where he writes narrative stories for the national staff’s enterprise team. Saslow has won numerous journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for Explanatory Reporting. His first book, Ten Letters, was published by Doubleday in 2011. A graduate of Syracuse University with a degree in journalism, Saslow lives in Portland with his wife, two daughters, and son.
Watch our full conversation with Eli, on the culture of White supremacy, from October 2018.
Other ways to explore the topic from Oregon Humanities:
Read "You Are Being Watched" by Joshua Reeves.
Learn about our Conversation Project offering on conspiracy thinking, facilitated by Jennifer Roberts.
Adam Davis: Welcome to The Detour, a show about people and ideas from Oregon Humanities. I'm Adam Davis. Sometimes over dinner, my daughter or my son will say something about how school is just a plot to make kids dumb, or how the taxes laid out in their newly acquired paychecks are just a way for the government to take away money my kids have made for themselves, or how they now know for sure that what most of us think is real is just, in fact, a simulation.
They say these things with confidence, as if they know for certain that they are true, that it could not be otherwise. I generally try my best, no matter how much I think they're leaving out or oversimplifying or getting wrong, to listen and nod. Sometimes I'll gently push back, ask about other ways to think about school or taxes or reality. Sometimes my wife or I will ask about their sources. Where did they get the information they're relying on? How do they know these sources can be trusted? Who else do they know who reinforces this kind of thinking? And my wife will often work her way toward warning them against being taken in by the easy appeal of conspiracy theories.
Occasionally the roles are switched. Maybe I'll come in with the explain-it-all theory, the simple fix, and my kids will smile and nod and gently push back. But whoever drives it, the four of us will usually finish our dinner and go back to our fairly predictable and relatively harmless lives of school and work.
No plots have yet emerged from our theories and conversations. No occupations or bombings or kidnappings or assassination attempts or even media campaigns meant to turn some groups of people against others. But there are plenty of people throughout Oregon and the United States who do much more than consider and briefly entertain conspiracy theories.
There are plenty of people who come to believe not only that there is something profoundly wrong with our state or country or world, but also that there is one group or entity to blame, and one clear and often violent way to make this wrong world, right. Sometimes it's the federal government that's the problem. Sometimes the problem is specific groups of people, often people who aren't White or Christian, who aren't, by the strange logic of this kind of thinking, American. And sometimes it's not completely clear what the precise problem is, except that those who don't see it the same way might themselves be the problem and harming them or getting rid of them might be the fix. Turns out the Pacific Northwest has long been a pretty hospitable home to this kind of thinking— conspiratorial thinking, white nationalist thinking— and often with dangerous results.
In this episode of The Detour, we talk with Leah Sottile and Eli Saslow, two Oregon journalists who have gone deep into this world. Leah and Eli have learned to recognize some of the conditions and patterns that lead people to conspire against the nation they live in and the people they live among. They've done a lot of listening and research and thinking both about what leads people down these dark paths and about what it might take sometimes to come out the other side.
Leah Sottile is a journalist, author of the book When the Moon Turns to Blood and host of two podcasts, Two Minutes Past Nine, where she investigates the Oklahoma City bombing, and Bundyville, which chronicles the uprisings that led to and inspired the occupation of the Malheur Refuge. Leah found herself investigating extremist right wing movements after she began covering that occupation in 2015.
We spoke to Leah as part of our Consider This series Democracy Right Now in 2020. Before we jump into our conversation with Leah, I should give you context on a few people and events you'll hear about in this episode. Maybe think of it as a glossary.
You'll hear about the Bundy family, Cliven Bundy and his sons, Ryan and Ammon Bundy, who led an armed standoff in 2014 over cattle grazing rights in Nevada. Ryan and Ammon then went on to lead the occupation of the federally owned Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Harney County in 2016.
Waco or the Waco Massacre refers to the siege by US law enforcement of a compound belonging to the religious sect the Branch Dividians, resulting in the death of seventy-six people in 1993.
You'll also hear about Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist responsible for the bombing of the Murrah Building in 1995 that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was present at Waco and justified the bombing as a retribution for the deaths at Waco and Ruby Ridge. He had another siege by the US government that led to three people being killed.
Finally, Boogaloo refers to an anti-government extremist movement that formed in 2019. OK, here's Leah.
I want to ask you about the word patriot, which shows up so much, and I just wanna ask, ,like, when you hear that word, what does it make you think about these days? Given all your work, when you hear "patriot," what do you think?
Leah Sottile: It's, I think it's such a great question because, honestly, when I started reporting on this stuff about six years ago now—I can't believe it's been that long— I was sort of motivated by that, that I considered myself to be a patriotic enough person to want to, you know, make America better, for all people.
My dad is a Vietnam veteran, and he considers himself a patriot, and I was very confused by what I was seeing happening within far right movements in the, in this word "patriot" being used in a way that there's been a real, I mean, a true co-opting of that word to mean something that actually is pretty much the opposite of what I think most mainstream people would call patriotic. The Patriot movement is an anti-government movement. It's a movement that has a lot of really radical ideas about race, and I'm not sure that's a word that I would be eager to attach to myself because of this movement. And the movement really, I mean, it's been around for a long time, but it just really gained a lot of steam in the last few years, as we've seen here in Portland and around the country. as people have joined militia groups and proud boys and kind of glommed on to issues of extremism. It's a pretty charged word I think at this point.
Adam Davis: Do you have a sense of why the step from, like, why take the step from "I've been wronged" to the threat of violence and the kind of real deep, like if we take the examples of occupation of the Malheur Refuge or the Murrah building that both Tim McVeigh and Kerry Noble set in their sights. What leads from this "it's not working for me" to this is the way to address it instead of say, get together and get a bunch of people voting or something like that?
Leah Sottile: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think there's probably a lot of ways to answer that, but just in the examples that we talked about, I think with Timothy McVeigh, he was very motivated by what happened with at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and so what he saw as, you know, what the rest of the world saw as, to use Waco as an example, as a group of people who was illegally manufacturing firearms and who there were allegations of child abuse, the story that came out to somebody like McVeigh was that that was all just cooked up anyway. The government cooked that up because they wanted to invade, basically keep people from living too differently. You had too many people living too differently there. People would probably say the same thing about Ruby Ridge, that the Weaver family decided to live on a remote mountain, that they just came to get 'em because they were living too differently.
So there's a conspiracy at the heart of those, of that ideology of that. Make someone go from being upset about what happened at Waco to actually killing because of what happened at Waco. So I think that's one thing is this, you've gotta buy into a conspiracy. You know, you can be upset about something that's happening, exhaust all options, you know, trying to talk to your local legislators or write letters or vote or do those things. In none of the situations of people that I've talked to, has that really been the case.
In the case of the Malheur Refuge, I would not equate what happened there to what happened with Timothy McVeigh. Timothy McVeigh bombed and killed 168 people. That's not what happened in Malheur. At the heart of Malheur, though, was a lot of people who were very upset about what happened with the Hammonds, that they were sentenced and let out and then re-sentenced on these arson charges that came post Oklahoma City. But you also had people who didn't wanna accept the outcome of what was happening. So you had a bunch of people who were very conspiratorially minded and they also just kind of didn't like what was happening, that there was a conversation going on where a lot of people were coming to the table to compromise and to move forward and to make sure that, you know, this guy's not getting screwed, and that guy, is that everybody's, you know, sharing the burden of what's going on, so everybody can benefit. But you had a lot of people who came to that refuge standoff who just didn't like that. So I think that's maybe where things start to get hairy, is when you embrace conspiracy theories. You also just, you don't like that your guy didn't get didn't win the election, so you decide to commit violence. I think these are two things that, when that gets added to the mix, things start spinning a lot more quickly.
Adam Davis: Do you have a sense of the bones of the story that shows up in Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Murrah Building, even if the, some of the contingent details are different? What's the core story there?
Leah Sottile: At the heart of what happened with the Weavers, you know, they had a really radical set of religious views that are called Christian Identity. It's a thing that's, it's not as present as much anymore, but at that time in the eighties there was this sort of ideology being pushed in these right wing circles that, you know, Christians here in America are tribes of Israel, and that Jewish people are the spawn of even Satan. It's a very antisemitic worldview. And they certainly held those views, and they decided to move from Ohio to this top of a mountain in Idaho and live off the land and do their thing.
What's at the heart of the Weaver story, though, is that Randy Weaver was piling around with folks at the nearby Aryan Nations compound, which was also a church of Christian Identity. So you had neo-Nazi skinheads, you know, some of the most racist of racists in America were gathering down the road. And so Randy decided to make friends with them and started illegally sawing off shot guns and selling them to an FBI informant. So this is all to say, you know, guns are at the heart of Waco and they're at the heart of Ruby Ridge. When Democrats have historically been in power in the White House, there are these arguments that Democrats are gonna come take your guns, you know, with any gun regulations. So the spine of the story of American rightwing extremism is certainly firearms, and then the Second Amendment and what you can and can't do with guns.
The other thing that I think becomes a story with Ruby Ridge and Waco is that you have serious violence that happens on the part of the government. So at Ruby Ridge, Randy Weaver's very young son, I think he was twelve and he may have been thirteen, was shot and killed by a US Marshall. His wife was shot and killed while holding her baby. Horrific, horrific violence. Waco happens and you have a ton of people die. Whether or not those fires were set— you know, all intelligence points now that the fires were set by the Branch Davidians, I think people like to question that— but a lot of people died, and there were a lot of trading of bullets between the government and the Branch Dividians. So again, more innocents died, or just American civilians died. And so I often talk about how there's this sort of, this kind of this circle that just keeps happening with this stuff that when the government comes in and someone gets shot and killed, then it fuels the movement to say, "Look, they're gonna come after you. They're gonna come get you." And so then it brings more people out and people go to the Malheur Refuge and then LaVoy Finicum gets shot, and then it just proves the point over and over. So I often say that until one of those parties removes violence from the equation, it's just gonna keep going.
Adam Davis: It's interesting to think, if the initial move towards the kinds of activity we're talking about is a sense of I've been wronged, and then you can have no better example than government violence that results in death, then not only have I been wronged, but we have a symbolic— not just symbolic, but also symbolic— a martyr. A martyr. And you know, I was thinking weirdly about how that translates almost across political movements. That how much mobilization seems to happen if it's the police that kill someone wrongfully, or in this case that it's federal officers of a different kind. I kind of want to ask a little more about the sense of —along with that sense of persecution is the sense of hope. Like, do you have a sense of, let's take McVeigh for a minute, and then we can maybe move closer. What was his hope? What was like the vision of what, If I can ask that in such a drastic move, like what does he think is the good that's gonna come about?
Leah Sottile: I interviewed the two journalists who spent a lot of time interviewing him on death row and then wrote a book about it, and what they said is that McVeigh told them that he believed that by committing the bombing, that it would basically be the thing, it would be the first shot of the New American Revolution, that it would be the thing that would bring the government down. It would bring the government to its knees, and they would have to repent and apologize for everything that happened at Waco. But also that the militias would rise up and become this new insurgent force to reestablish the country in his vision.
I don't know that beyond that you can find much hope in McVeigh's story. He's someone who truly had a life of promise. He was a decorated war veteran and served his country. But it was because of and during his service that he became radicalized and he became really desensitized to violence in a way that he then sought it when he got home. He didn't quite know what to do with these skills that he'd acquired. And so he drove around and around the country and found a community within gun shows and within right-wing militia circles, and within this groups of conspiratorially minded people who believed that the government was just corrupt to the core. So it's always hard. I mean, I always think about McVeigh as, you know, a serial killer who basically made all of his kills in one day. So it's hard to find like any good or hope in that. But I think that was the logic that he had was that he believed that so much in this power of the militias. And, but it didn't. I mean, really the movement fell apart after that.
Adam Davis: But I want to ask the question of you that I was asking earlier about say, McVeigh, and that is, like, what's your hope in paying attention to this theme? Why continue to shine a light here? What do you think might happen because of that?
Leah Sottile: I think my hope initially, especially with covering extremism, was, "Clearly I'll make the best case and then someone will hear or read it and they'll think. 'Why am I involved in this?' And then they'll leave." I know now how naive that was. But I do think that that has fueled my work for a while.
It's just to come to people and say, "Look, I'm gonna give you all the information. It's gonna be long, it's gonna be a long podcast, it's gonna be very long story. But at the end, you'll come away with so much knowledge that you can't possibly want to be involved in this thing." Now I know that was a impossible, that when people have decided to, you know, drink the Kool-Aid of conspiracy theories, that they are much further down the funnel than I can help them. I think that now it's become about offering that will allow people around that particularly, you know, affected person. To say, "Whoa, what?" Okay, what I, a person they will never know, can't change their mind, but their mom or their dad or their brother or their neighbor or their coach can. So it's about arming people with information.
The hope that I think pushes me to continue to cover these is very much the same to when I started in journalism sixteen or however long years ago, is that I've always been interested in people who are living at the fringes of society, whether or not they have been pushed there or they have put themselves there. So I think that by understanding those stories, we can understand a lot about our society and who gets lost.
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour with Leah Sottile.
Leah Sottile: Kerry Noble's a fascinating person. So he, right now, he's a guy in his seventies who lives in Texas and voted for Obama and you know, wasn't a big Trump guy or anything like that. But back in the seventies, he was a high priest in a militia group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, which was one of the most violent paramilitary militia groups during that time.
What we talk about in the podcast is how Kerry joined that group as sort of a kind of off grid homesteading, homeschooling, home birthing kind of community of Christians. And it evolved over time into this group that had really paranoid views. They were motivated by their conspiracy theories about the government, that the government was gonna come take their religion and all kinds of things like that.
Eventually, and we talk about this a bit in the podcast, Kerry was involved with a failed plot to plant a bomb at the Murrah building, the federal building in Oklahoma City that was bombed in 1995. This was much earlier, in the eighties. So this is to say he did serve some time for a variety of things. I won't get into, but I've spoken at length with Kerry about what went into joining the group in the first place, why he stayed as it changed. And then now, you know, being somebody who you would not think that someone who was so involved in the militia movement would be a proud, you know, Obama voter and that kind of thing. But that's where he is now.
Adam Davis: Yeah. And maybe we can, as we keep talking, I'm really curious about how a guy like that changes his mind. Like, what drives him in the first place, and then what moves him? Two Minutes After Nine, the series in which Kerry Noble shows up, is really about Timothy McVeigh and then bringing it up to today. And then Bundyville is about the occupation of the Malheur Refuge and about related strands, largely in the Pacific Northwest. I think the way I want to get into that again, maybe with Kerry Noble in mind. I still have Kerry Noble in my head because I'm really curious about how he changed his mind.
Because it sounded like you said you were naive. You used to think your stories would change the minds of the people. The stories were about, you've realized, not so much. How does someone like Kerry Noble change his mind? Do you have a sense of how he changed mind?
Leah Sottile: A little. He went to prison. That can help change some minds sometimes. Not all times one thing that he said was that people who are— he put this written on a note, and I'm actually, I cleaned up my office, which is the thing I should never do— but yeah, he had said something about how people who are happy cannot be recruited into extremism. That people who are content in their lives can't, but a happy home life, or they're, you know, it doesn't have to be everything, you know. But I thought, gosh, that is, I've been working on this stuff for so long, and when he said that to me, it was so profound that he had to have this experience of going to prison and all these other things that happened where he came out and just said like, I know what's important to me. It's my family and it's not being a part of this stuff anymore. So he said that that's one thing, one piece of feedback that he had for anybody that's trying to combat right-wing extremism, is to think about how to address people's happiness.
Adam Davis: I mean, I do think a lot of the sort of disillusioned Trump voter stories over the last five years were trying to explain what felt like hostile behavior in terms— at least the sense of grievance, which was sometimes tied to a sense of unhappiness. Sounds like Noble's talking about something that's a little deeper than that. Not just external conditions, but something more spiritual almost. You know, it made me think a little bit about more contemporary versions of White nationalism, which it's not about happiness, but it's about a kind of joke.
And now I'm thinking like the Hawaiian shirts of the Boogaloo Boys. The sort of, that there's almost a joy in making other people angry, in making other people feel threatened. So I've been thinking about the weird relationship between what looks kind of ridiculous and what's really serious. I wanted to ask you, do you see that, How do you think about. Yeah your eyebrows went up, so I'll stop
Leah Sottile: I mean, it's interesting that you bring up the Boogaloo, because that was one of these points where, you know, the waves came crashing against the the land for me. And I was like, "Wow, I don't, I'm not sure if I can, I don't know that I have the stomach for this." and I wrote this big story on the Boogaloo last summer and what got me about it was this sense of nihilism at the heart of the Boogaloo, that, you know, everything is a joke. Wear these Hawaiian shirts and you know, we'll be Boogaloo and then we'll be Big Luau, and then we'll be Big Igloo, and it's this kind of moving code target, internet language. The hopelessness of it was hard for me to wrap my head around, in that there is a community of people who are being brought together by their hopelessness. They find belonging in their sort of community-wide nihilism. And that was like, you know, broke my brain a little bit. Like, wow.
I tended to find a lot of people within that movement who were very upset about climate change and were very upset about police brutality and things like that. Things that really surprised me. And then I started to think about students, college students that I've had, who sort of spelled it out to me that they've come up in a world where only Trump and Obama have been president, and they've always been told the world was burning. They've always been told, you know, XYZ things, and that the world has felt very hopeless for them, and they're only twenty years old. So I think, you know, for some people that might, for my students, it pushed them into journalism. It made them want to be very active in their community and in information and things like that. For others, it can push people towards this new violent form of conspiratorially driven extremism.
Adam Davis: Yeah, which is Kerry Noble's point further, to say " Well, if people are happy, they're not going to go in this direction." But it sounds like now you're saying if people have no hope, they're much more likely to go in this direction. And that's, I think that's part of what I was indirectly trying to ask about McVeigh before, was like, what would be the positive hope on the other side? And maybe what you're saying now is there might not have been one.
I want to ask what you said about your students. You said your students also, let's say they've been around for twenty, twenty-five years, and they too have felt like, they feel less than hopeful, but they put that energy into something like journalism. I mean, the problem with White nationalism is not apathy. It's not that they're not doing anything, like they're super engaged. They're more engaged than most of us. Is there a way to take what, you know, is there energy there that can be shifted at some point?
Leah Sottile: I mean, I have to believe that there is. Just, I think it's just not giving up on people. That's the tough part, is that, I think if you just cast off a whole generation of people who are twenty years old right now, those people are gonna be around for a really long time. It behooves all of us figure this out.
Adam Davis: I mean, what you just said is it is both really interesting and really challenging, and it makes me think of what you said before about you were naive back then, naive, that you thought your stories might change the minds of the people. The stories were about, and in a way it sounds like what you've learned is, I need to give up on them and point my energy elsewhere. Can I ask, is there anyone that's fallen into this category of people you've reported on around the White nationalism stuff specifically who have come back to you and said, Leah, that, that story made me think differently?
Leah Sottile: No. No
Adam Davis: Never?
Leah Sottile: Never. I mean, and what was profound for me was I, Ryan Bundy is one of the Bundy brothers who took over the refuge down in Harney County, and I've interviewed him, probably seven hours, seven, eight hours collectively, phone, in person, a couple times in person. Very clear on all of my questions, very clear on where it was coming from, and then presented the story both in a written form and in an audio form where you know, you hear his own voice.
And yet he emailed me afterwards and said, "I'll never talk to you again." Somehow we arrived at different conclusions with the exact same set of facts, and by sitting in the same room having the same conversations, it was not, he seemed to think that I had taken liberties with his story, which was a hundred percent not true.
So that's when I started to be like, Okay, I've interviewed him more than I don't know that anybody else that's interviewed him that much and , if we're still not arriving at anywhere near the same conclusion, that's when I was like, Okay, I, it's probably good to think about other reasons to do this work.
Adam Davis: And, the reasons are, in a way, other people.
Leah Sottile: Yeah I think about, you know, the most extreme of extremists. The leaders, the ones who are saying, "Let's go take over a refuge. Let's point guns at the government. Let's storm the capital." I don't know that those people are the ones that, that can be helped by journalism.
But there's many, many, many circles of people outside of those. Those people that can get sucked up into that world. So I'm more interested in the guy, you know, ten steps away from the leadership position that may read something and say, "I still am not a true believer in this stuff," that I still may have a little bit of skepticism and worry about what I'm doing or what I'm involved in and seeking more information. So if I can reach that guy, then yeah, that's a success.
Adam Davis: Leah Sottile is a journalist and author who lives in Portland, Oregon.
Eli Saslow is a staff writer for the Washington Post and the author of Rising Out of Hatred: the Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. In this book, Saslow explores the story of Derek Black once a prominent young advocate for White supremacy. Derek came to question his worldview after concerted efforts by his college classmates to expose him to experiences history and science that he had previously ignored. We spoke to Eli as part of our Consider This series "Journalism and Justice" in 2018.
Emily Harris: What is this about, this book, this transformation, in your mind?
Eli Saslow: I mean, the very short version is that the book is about Derek Black, who was raised sort of at the top of this very insular world of White nationalism. His father, a guy named Don Black, had been the head of the Klan in the United States for nine years, then started this website, Stormfront, which for twenty years was the largest hate site in the world. Translated every day into five different language. Its own dating site. Everything you could imagine. A huge internet community that had 500,000 active users.
Derek's godfather was David Duke, who I think is the most notorious racist politician of our time. And Derek was raised with sort of the purpose of his life being to continue their work and to mainstream this movement.
And because Derek is really brilliant in some ways and also really ambitious, he invested himself in this ideology and he was disastrously successful for the first twenty years of his life. He, by the time he was eighteen had created a daily radio station for Stormfront. Then he got his own radio show on the mainstream airways in Florida. He was elected to public office before he left for college. He was the keynote speaker at a lot of these White nationalist conferences through the South, telling them that the way ahead for their movement was not through things like the Klan or rallies, but through politics and through trying to mainstream their messages. And Derek did a lot of that huge, real damage in mainstreaming those messages.
And then a little bit later in life, after going to mu to community college, Derek went to college and he went to a college called New College of Florida. It's essentially like the. Absolute opposite of White nationalism. It's a really liberal school where social justice is probably the primary value. They value humanity and diversity above all else. Derek knew that about the school, but was so ensconced in White nationalism that nobody ever thought it was possible that he would have a transformation.
And the book really is about the next two and a half, three years of his life. Not just Derek's story, but the story of all these people on this campus who. Through their own persistence and courage impacted his thinking in various ways. And ultimately the story of how Derek began to question his own ideas and then summon the courage to confront his own family and publicly disavow this ideology, not just once, but again and again and again as he saw it rising all around him.
And that's the book.
Emily Harris: You mentioned the people at the college that persisted in, stuck with him, and let him change. And I wanted to ask about a couple key people and just have you very briefly describe them. A little bit about what they look like so we can get a picture in our head and just like, who was that person at the core?
The first one is Juan.
Eli Saslow: Sure. So Juan was the first person that Derek met at New College. Derek is persistently late to everything, so of course he showed up for his new college orientation late, like three hours late. He got lost on campus. And so did this other kid, Juan Elias, a Peruvian immigrant. He'd come here when he was ten years old speaking no English. These were the first two, you know, for each of them, this was the first other student that they met at college. Derek decided before he went to college and then, you know, increased his commitment to this once he was there, that he was going to be a very public figure in White nationalism on the radio and on the internet, but on campus he would act as a normal kid, and he wouldn't tell anybody about his beliefs.
Emily Harris: And why did he decide that?
Eli Saslow: Because I think he knew that he would be ostracized. That was the biggest thing. And he was aware that the things that he was thinking and the things that he was saying every day, still at that point on the radio, were not things that most students at New College would agree with.
I mean, it was a pretty diverse school and, again, a liberal school, and Derek knew that. You know, what he would do during those first weeks on campus is he would wake up really early in the morning, which like in college is like 9:30, and he would then walk out from his dorm room to like a quiet place on campus and he would call into his daily radio show, which he did with his father. A two-hour radio show. And they would spend two hours sort of railing against the multicultural takeover of the United States, as they saw it. And then Derek would hang up the phone and he would come back to campus and he would befriend sort of whoever walked by. And Juan was one of those people.
You know, Juan would sit with Derek in the area outside their dorm. Derek would play guitar. He's a good musician. And Juan would sit out there and sing with him. And, you know, they started to build the beginnings of a friendship in those first days.
Emily Harris: Another guy I wanted you to describe for everyone is James Birmingham.
Eli Saslow: Yeah.
Emily Harris: This guy did not sit and hold Derek's hand like some of the other friends he made.
Eli Saslow: Not at all, exactly the opposite. I mean, and I think it's probably useful to-- so Derek lived this anonymous life on campus for about six months. Then after his first semester at school, he left and went to Germany.
Still nobody knew who he was. Derek was actually with David Duke in Germany studying abroad there, when these students at New College, one kid who had been in Derek's math class, was writing a thesis about the most dangerous extremists in the United States, and was spending time on this website, the Southern Poverty Law Center, looking at a list of, you know, the most dangerous sort of racist terrorists in the country. And there saw a picture of one of the kids who was in his math class. And that as you can imagine lit the school afire.
At New College, much of the conversation happened on this thing called the Student Forum, which was in some ways similar to Stormfront, except not anonymous. It was a way that one student could send an email message to every other student at the same time. And this was sort of like the, you know, the cultural heartbeat of New College. It was where most conversation took place.
Emily Harris: It's a pretty small place, right? 800.
Eli Saslow: Yeah. Pretty small place. A thousand kids. You know, this student quickly posted on the forum who Derek was, did a little research and said, you know, this is a person who still has a daily radio show, pulled many of the quotes that Derek had said very publicly, saying, you know, terrible things about Jews about people of color. Posted them on the forum.
One of the first people to react was James Birmingham, who, half Chinese, an anthropologist, who had just finished school at New College was really active on the forum, and James very quickly began a campaign of civil resistance. Like we need to do everything we possibly can to push this kid out, to make his life miserable on campus. If you see him walk across the quad, flip him off. If you are in a class with him, drop the class. Tell everybody else to drop the class. James, you know, and many people who felt similarly, managed to shut down the school for a day, they shut down all of New College in protest of Derek's ideas.
The administration, I think, sort of felt like its hands were tied, because Derek had not broken any school rules as they saw it. It's a school that values free speech, although it never imagined that that would be in protection of a famous White nationalist. And so the school basically said, We're gonna let the students figure this out.
And James led the shutdown of campus. You know, I think one of the, one of the myths in some ways of Derek's transformation is that, you know, what happened was students reached out to him and that changed his mind. That's a huge part of it, and I'm sure we'll get to it. But civil resistance also had its own huge role.
I think sometimes in the country now we talk about, you know, civil resistance and civil outreach or discourse as like two totally binary tracks. And it's either one way or the other way. In Derek's case, they actually were mutually beneficial and they worked together. The students pushing Derek out from campus left him more vulnerable socially than he had been before.
He also saw sort of for the first time in the eyes of his peers how terrible these ideas really were and how hurtful they were for all of these people on campus. And then when some students did begin reaching out to him, he was much more open to starting conversations with them because he had nobody else to talk to.
I think one of the things that was really confusing to me when I started reporting the book was sort of, why did Derek go to this school? Like he must have known what was going to happen. And the truth is, I think like the opposite thing is true. Derek was so public and he was so committed to this movement that his parents never could have conceived of a world in which he was not a leading White nationalist.
So the day that Derek left for college, a caller called into their talk radio show and said something to Don to the extent of, you know, aren't you worried about Derek going and living with these commies for four years? And Don on the radio laughed and he said something to the extent of, you know, if anybody at that college is going to be changed, it's going to be the commies. Nobody is ever going to impact Derek's thinking.
Emily Harris: Allison a remarkable character.
Tell us about her.
Eli Saslow: Sure. So the first outreach to Derek on campus happened from these two Jewish students, Matthew and Moshe. They were roommates, and they sort of decided, You know what they were going to do was they were going to try to build a relationship with Derek. Not build a case against him, but just try to build a friendship, hoping that maybe that would help him begin to see sort of past his prejudices to the humanity and to these students that he was spending time with.
So they decided they were gonna invite him over for a Shabbat dinner. And Derek again, because he was like, "Well, like these people are never gonna win me over," but also because it was a Friday, he had nothing else to do, showed up at their house with a bottle of kosher wine and and went to his first Shabbat.
You know, so Derek showed up at this first Shabbat dinner. Matthew and Moshe had a third roommate, Allison Gornik, who thought that this was a terrible idea. She couldn't understand why they were reaching out to him. It didn't make any sense to her. And so for the first Friday night, she locked the door in her room and refused to come out.
And then, week after week, Derek kept coming back to these dinners and, you know, she sort of got normalized to his presence. She started spending time around him at the table. And mostly Allison got intensely curious, like something about Derek didn't seem to fit to her. He was smart, he was nice, he was bringing over the kosher wine. At one point, he invited all of them over to his off-campus apartment and cooked a kosher meal for them. And she just couldn't figure out, Why is somebody who has the capacity to be this thoughtful, think these horrible things.
Emily Harris: And she took a lot of risks to do that. But what struck me the most was how long she was willing to invest.
Eli Saslow: Yeah.
Emily Harris: And I know she, they got closer and they fell in love, but she was willing to invest so much time in that relationship. And I wonder about that, how. really is how often can that happen? Right?
Eli Saslow: Yeah.
Emily Harris: Especially today where we disagree and we bounce off. You know, there is not that, What does it take? Is that what it takes to change someone's mind?
Eli Saslow: I mean, I think if you're trying to change the mind of the, like future heir to the White nationalist movement, where like everything in their life is built on the ideology, that's probably what it takes to change their mind. And I think, you know, in general, we sometimes, like, when we do decide to invest ourselves in changing something, we hope and expect the change will be fast. And that's not often true, at least in my own experience.
Like having, you know, changing our ideas about anything is hard. It's hard to admit you're wrong about anything, much less something that's so central to your sense of self. Not just for Allison, but even for Matthew and Moshe. The fact that they for two years kept inviting him back to this table, even when sometimes in between these Friday night Shabbat dinners, they would see on Stormfront that Derek had spent part of the week in Tennessee sharing a stage with David Duke, who was spreading the Holocaust denial about, you know, a Holocaust that, for Moshe in particular, from a family of Hungarian Jews, had wiped out his entire family. And yet to have the courage to say, "Okay, again, we'll invite him back and buy the salmon for Friday night," it took amazing persistence.
And at some point when, you know, Moshe and Allison and some others were beginning to get frustrated with Derek, like, how is it possible that he still believes this? Matthew wrote a note to them saying, "It's our job to push the rock, not necessarily to move the rock." And that's what they kept at. You know, and for Allison, the social risks for her were huge, because Matthew and Moche and Juan and James and many other people on campus who spent time with Derek, they knew that nobody was going to mistake them for a White nationalist.
You know, Matthew wore a kippa every day. Juan was Peruvian. There was you know, Allison, nobody knew where she was coming from politically. She was from a pretty conservative family. In Ohio, even though those weren't her beliefs. And so when she did start to have these long conversations with Derek, people on campus got suspicious of her and also began to ostracize her. And she had her own tortured feelings about it. Like instead of why, instead of spending time uplifting voices of people of color on campus, am I choosing to spend time trying to change the mind of a White nationalist on campus? And she went back and forth about that again and again over the course of a year.
Emily Harris: Let's just lay out what his beliefs were. What did he believe coming into New College, including the "racial science"?
Eli Saslow: Sure. You know, so White nationalists, like what they believe is their end goal is they think that You know, people of different races and ethnicities should be separated by continent. They should live totally separate from each other. You know, and essentially they do everything possible to work in small steps towards that end goal. So whether that's more segregation, allowing for you know, for closed borders, things like that. That's what White nationalists want. You know, what they think is in the paradigm of White nationalism, they believe that Jews, who White nationalists do not consider to be White, it's an ongoing question in Derek's wing of the White nationalist movement. And in most of it, they do not believe Jews to be White. There are some White nationalists who have changed their mind about that. But you know, for the most White nationalists, certainly on Stormfront, Jews are enemy number one.
They believe that Jews have sort of propagated a scheme of multiculturalism in the United States to hurt European Whites. They think that Whites are superior by IQ and things like that to other races. The science does not in any way hold that up. And also, especially lately, they espouse a language of White grievance that is unfortunately common in many parts of the country, saying that it is in fact Whites that are persecuted against.
Derek was instrumental in sort of giving White nationalism a language for this. They talk about a White genocide being underway. Whites are being replaced in their own country. These are their core beliefs. And you know, I think one of the reasons that Derek was so dangerous as a White nationalist, and you know, really the danger that he, like the damage is still real, is he at one point encouraged his father to scrub Stormfront, this website of all slurs of all Nazi insignia. You know, and instead now White nationalists try to speak to the, you know, consistently polls show that about a third of White Americans believe that they experience more prejudice than people of color. That's insane. And statistically insane. But by speaking to those people in a language, not based on slurs, White nationalists have real purchase in a political conversation. And that is what modern White nationalists try to do.
Emily Harris: After this experience, do you that person to person thing is really the thing that changes people's mind or is it rational evidence? That's what changed Derek's mind in part right? Learning, for example, that the Middle Ages was not all it was cracked up to be as he thought. How crucial is that to have a personal connection or can minds be changed in the world of thought?
Eli Saslow: I mean, I think having a personal connection to somebody, if the connection is not just based on arguing about ideology like that, that is a place where there's real power to change people's minds. I certainly don't think it's the only way. And oftentimes, like it's not something we can do. Right? If you, for one of the reasons you were talking about why people chose different strategies on campus, the people of color on campus, they didn't, for the most part have the option. They felt afraid of Derek, and rightfully so, and they felt afraid of the Stormfront community that was at his fingertips. And it wasn't a logical option for many of them to say I'm gonna build a friendship with him. That was, they were. They had real legitimate fear. Yeah.
You know, but I think in times when we have close relationships with people and those relationships are built on like trust and are well-rounded, then we do have more power to change their minds in interpersonal ways. You know, the interpersonal conversations would not have changed Derek's mind. He would've dismissed them if they were, if they came from people that he didn't in some way care about or trust or admire.
There's a lot of darkness in the book. Like it's in part because this ideology is rising and it's rising in our rhetoric and and that's really scary. I think there also is in the book like an incredibly hopeful personal transformation, and the power and the capacity for personal transformation does leave me really hopeful. So in some ways I hope what the book does is it helps people realize how big the problem is and how how high the stakes are, but also gives people the hope that it is possible in some ways, to push back against it.
Adam Davis: You can find links to both of these interviews as well as links to our guests' work in our show notes at oregonhumanities.org.
The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Our assistant producers are Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Karina Briski. Thanks for listening. See you next time.