Tony McAleer: Becoming a Neo Nazi
While I was attending university I met Tony at a meeting of the Atlantic Jewish Council, in which he gave a presentation about white supremacy. Tony McAleer is a former white supremacist Neo-Nazi who became deeply involved in the White Aryan Resistance as a recruiter and leader. However, he turned his life around and co-founded A Cure for Hate, a non-profit organization intent on deradicalization. I thought Tony had an inspiring story, and after hearing him talk we had an opportunity to ask him questions. I asked him what he thought the correct methods were to deradicalize people and bring them back into the fold; he gave a great response, saying that de-platforming people was the wrong response which only led to further isolation and radicalization; rather, people must be engaged within an honest conversation to try to question their beliefs and bring them back into polite society. This answer rang true with me so I invited him to have an interview with me so that we could delve deeper into the discussion around white supremacy and the proliferation of radical ideologies such as white supremacy.
We began with Tony’s childhood, which began seemingly auspicious. Born to a relatively affluent family in a Vancouver West Side neighbourhood, with his father being a psychiatrist, Tony was able to attend an all-boys Catholic School and showed all the early signs of a normal successful child. Perhaps in contrast to many people’s presuppositions of a violent Neo Nazi, he said, “I didn’t come from a broken home where there was violence.” Rather, he detailed how he led a normal life which was abruptly overturned by the realization that his father was perhaps not the man he thought he was when he walked in on his father with another woman. Tony said this incident shattered his trust in authority figures and began his trend of acting up; however, as he made explicit throughout our interview, Tony never blamed his father or anybody else for his actions; he always took responsibility for the horrible things he had done and said, Tony merely told me this to give some explanation of how he became a white supremacist, and understand the lens through which he made his decisions.
Anyway, Tony began to act out, his grades slipped, so the priests at the school beat him. He recalled, “I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.” This led to him attending boarding school where he would make his transition from a normal, if distressed kid, to a hurt outcast associating with the fringes of society, this is where he encountered skinheads and punk rockers. He said, “I went from listening to Elton John and Queen to The Clash, and Sex Pistols and what I was starting to listen to was really a reflection of what was going on inside.” Perversely, Tony told me he was drawn to the skinheads because they terrified him, which was the one thing he didn’t have: toughness. Tony said, “Nobody feared me, and when I was with them, I felt powerful. I felt powerful in a way the exact opposite of the way I felt in that office when 11 getting hit on the end with a metre stick.” This was an important motivator Tony told me as radical groups often skillfully play upon people’s vulnerabilities, which were often what was lacking in their childhood, to draw them into their organization. For Tony that was several things: power, attention, and acceptance. So, Tony told me: “I got power when I felt powerless, I got attention when I felt invisible, and I got acceptance and comradery when I felt unlovable.”
To me this seemed a bit paradoxical, why would you feel safe and powerful with a bunch of violent skinheads? How could you feel acceptance in such a fringe group which is demonized at large by the press and despised by a majority of the Canadian population? To Tony, this was irrelevant, as he explained “none of this is rational, we are talking about deep psychological drivers. I hung out with skinheads because I felt safe, and it’s the last place a normal person would go to feel safe; but I felt that I was around people that terrified everybody else, so it was safe for me…. And growing up in a house where I couldn’t get enough of my dad’s attention, I learnt that I’d rather have negative attention than his indifference, and attention is what I got in the [white supremacist] movement. There’s no question.” Tony went on to explain that when we look deep into a person’s psyche these are reactions to what he calls ‘toxic shame’. To him, just because we don’t see it, or we don’t understand it doesn’t mean people aren’t making a logical choice, whereas, to someone as an objective observer it’s anything but rational; but to him, at that time it made perfect sense.
Despite his explanation of the personal psychological motivators, I pressed Tony to explain how this can withstand the media criticism, and how you could justify hateful ideology when most everybody thinks you are wrong. Tony responded: “it’s ego, and you rationalize all these things and convince yourself you’re doing the right thing and everybody else is wrong. And you know, the whole world is against you. And it becomes like this heroic mythological hero’s journey, and it fits into the hero archetypes. And the use of Viking imagery, the use of imagery of Nazi soldiers, and all these things to put forward a false ideal of what men are supposed to be, all those feeds into, when you don’t have a healthy sense of those things, it’s very easy to choose the ‘fast-food’ alternative.”
This was part one of my discussion with Tony McAleer on how he became a white supremacist. In part two we dive deeper into these hateful organizations and the role that class and ideology play within them. Then, in part three we discuss rejection and redemption, how to deradicalize people and return them into normal society.