Business Insider Edition

Psychologists break down the insecurities that fuel white supremacists

Allana Akhtar , Business Insider US
 Aug 11, 2019, 12:44 PM
White nationalism is on the rise, as seen by the deadly El Paso shooting that authorities say targeted Latinos.

  • White nationalism is on the rise in America - and the recent El Paso and Gilroy shootings prove it can be deadly for minority groups and the general public.
  • Business Insider spoke to experts about what motivates individuals to become white nationalists. They are typically motivated by feelings of "insignificance," and they tend to feel minority groups are responsible for their disempowerment.
  • While identifying whether a person will become an extremist can be tricky, psychologists suspect people who are narcissistic, paranoid, and aggressive are more likely to adopt white nationalism.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.


White nationalism seems to be on the rise in America.

While the movement, which says white people are the genetically superior race, has been around for at least a century in the US, the recent mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, has highlighted its recent resurgence.

Authorities say the man they've identified as the shooter became radicalised in white nationalist ideology via the internet, where they say he posted a manifesto decrying the "Hispanic invasion of Texas." Just days before the El Paso shooting, a teenager who police say fatally shot three people at a food festival in Gilroy, California, reportedly instructed his Instagram followers to read a white nationalist textbook.

White supremacists are spreading their message at record numbers: between 2017 and 2018, efforts to spread white-supremacist propaganda increased by 182%, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Propaganda materials tout white superiority over racial and religious minority groups, and feature a "recruitment element," ADL found.

Business Insider spoke to psychology and sociology experts to gain more insight into the rise of this ideology.

White nationalists are motivated by feeling 'deprived' and 'insignificant' compared to other groups

Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland, said people become white nationalists for three reasons: a desire to feel significant, attribution of their lack of personal success to another group, and a sense of belonging among other white nationalists.

These motivations could stem from feeling "humiliated" or "insignificant" at school, in relationships with loved ones, or by society at large.

People experiencing these feelings may go on to build a narrative around their sense of insignificance by identifying a group of people (or a person) responsible for their disempowerment.

Finally, someone must find belonging among other white nationalists. "Because we are social beings, we depend on validation by other people," Kruglanski told Business Insider. "They tell you yes, this is the way to regain significance."

Kruglanski's findings are in part backed by research carried out by Nikhil Sengupta, a psychology professor at the University of Kent. In his 2019 study, Sengupta analyzed the rise of white nationalism in New Zealand and found that the more white people perceive their own ethnic group to be more deprived than other ethnic groups, the more they "subscribe to a nationalistic ideology."

"When you feel that your group is deprived, it negatively impacts your well-being, but you can buffer that well-being by clinging to beliefs of national superiority," Sengupta told Business Insider.

While experts can see patterns among white nationalists, predicting when someone will become radicalized can be tricky.

Kruglanski explained while there is no one type of personality trait that "predisposes" people to forms of extremism, white nationalists may have paranoid personalities and believe in conspiracy theories, or be narcissists. People who are aggressive by nature may also feel drawn to more violent forms of extremism.

Ravi Chandra, a psychiatrist and writer at Psychology Today, also said narcissistic personalities were more likely to adopt white nationalism. Since narcissists tend to have an inflated sense of self-importance and lack empathy, according to psychologists, they are motivated to view themselves as better than minority groups. Plus, narcissists tend to be insecure, which may result in the feelings of "insignificance" pertinent to white nationalists.

Chandra added a lack of empathy could have been learned from spending too much time on internet sites like 8chan, where the El Paso shooter posted his racist manifesto. "In these days that happened because of too much time spent on hostile internet platforms," Chandra told Business Insider.

Here's why white nationalism is on the rise right now

The current rise of white nationalism may stem from rising inequality in the US, according to Tristan Bridges, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Many experts believe we are currently living in a new "Gilded Age," with the country's economic growth falling mostly into the hands of the wealthy. The top 20% richest Americans owned 77% of total household wealth in 2016 - and the top 1% alone holds more than the entire middle class. Meanwhile, one in five American children live in poverty.

While other developed countries tend to view inequality as a government issue, Americans sometimes blame people struggling financially for their lack of work ethic as a barrier to getting ahead.

Because Americans view inequality as a personal - not structural - problem, white people may blame other individuals for their lack of money, Bridges told Business Insider. White life expectancy has fallen, and more than half of white Americans believe they face discrimination despite being the racial majority.

"Not surprisingly, people who get screwed by economic transformations look for something to blame," Bridges said, "but they're sending their mail to the wrong address."

White nationalism's rise may also be due to a lack of punishment from political leaders. President Donald Trump has made racist remarks toward Mexicans, lawmakers of color, and immigrants, which experts say have led to the rise of xenophobia among Republicans.

"Gaining a political leader who is celebrated by white nationalists and who certainly doesn't condemn them kind of creates this political opportunity for white nationalism, and it takes some of the fear of expressing sentiments openly," Bridges said.

Predicting whether a white nationalist will become violent can be nearly impossible

Experts say figuring out whether someone will act on their extremist, white-nationalist ideology to initiate violence is almost impossible.

Mass shootings in the US far outnumber any other developed nation, yet they are still a relatively rare phenomenon - which makes the sample size for figuring out when someone will commit a shooting very small.

American mass shooters tend to mirror the psychological makeup of white nationalists, who are primarily disaffected young white men, according to Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Psychologist John Horgan, who spent decades analyzing terrorists, concluded that while angry and disenfranchised people commit acts of violence, these beliefs don't always predict behavior.

Read more: Figuring out the psychological profiles of killers isn't going to prevent mass shootings - but gun control could

"There are far more people who hold 'radical' views than will ever become involved in terrorism, and there are plenty of terrorists (who are already small in number - a point we tend to forget) who don't initially hold radical views but drift into terrorism regardless," Horgan said in an interview with Scientific American.

Appelbaum said an easier way to keep white nationalists from committing acts of violence is removing the method they use: guns.

"If you weren't going to try to figure out who was likely to commit a horrendous act of violence, what would you do?" Appelbaum said. "The fact of the matter is if you look around the world at the countries effective at reducing gun violence, they've done it by restricting access to guns."

Drake Baer contributed to this reporting.

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