Pivotal. A turning point. A venue for strong ideas.
These are some terms that college students I spoke with used to describe the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that claimed the life of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester who died when a man drove his car into a crowd. The man pleaded guilty to 29 related counts, including hate crimes.
Some students, who used these terms during interviews I conducted for a book I’m writing about politically engaged college students, identify with the alt-right, a white nationalist movement.
The Charlottesville rally took place just over two years ago on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017.
Many people across the country were alarmed by the white nationalist rally, rebuking President Donald Trump for failing to condemn it strongly enough and for commenting that there were “fine people on both sides.”
But for college students who identify with the alt-right, one of the biggest regrets they have about Charlottesville is that they weren’t there.
“I wanted to go, to be there. I was still in high school, so I couldn’t,” a 19-year-old male student at a large state school in the Northeast told me. “But now, if something like that was planned? I’d be there.”
Other alt-right students told me how the rally represented a political awakening.
“Charlottesville was the first time I realized that there were other people like me, not in chat rooms and anonymous,” one 20-year-old male student at a small private school on the West Coast told me. “I knew we could change the country if we wanted.”
As a scholar who studies the Holocaust, genocide, and other challenging histories, I’m troubled yet intrigued by the students’ positive perspectives on a rally that began with angry, tiki-torch-wielding white men marching through town giving heil salutes and chanting things such as “Jews will not replace us.”
As a result, I was drawn to learn about the circumstances that lead alt-right students to admire those actions, and what that might mean for the country’s political future. I’ve found that when alt-right college students are engaged in conversation, and even respectful debate, some are open to modifying their prejudiced views.
The way alt-right individuals portray themselves online contrasts to how many present in person. Online, they present as angry, anti-Semitic, and unwavering in their beliefs. I’ve interviewed dozens of these young men in the last several months who attend different colleges nationwide. I’ve found that as individuals, a number of them are willing to be challenged on their political thinking and engagement.
This is not meant to suggest that I believe all viewpoints are equally valid, or deserve airtime. But I do believe that even if we wildly disagree with some of those ideas, even if they go against what we believe, more conversation would do us all some good. Research is beginning to affirm that even brief conversations about hot-button issues can decrease prejudice and encourage people to reconsider their ideas.
And so I’ve begun talking to alt-right students. Thus far, all of them have been young men.
One alt-right student spoke of how he wasn’t interested in politics before Charlottesville because he thought maybe politics didn’t affect him personally. But his viewpoints changed when he saw his dad lose his manufacturing job “and things got tight.”
“I was angry a lot. I didn’t know that there were so many angry people until Trump came down the escalator,” the student told me. “He said what I was thinking, sort of.”
When the Charlottesville rally took place, the student saw “people who were angry, who cared about America, who wanted to say what was on their mind.” That made him realize that “politics wasn’t just for some people.”
“I’d say it was pivotal for me. I could say what I was thinking,” the student said. “I became interested in the economy, in why things were so bad for us. And I came to agree with what I heard from Charlottesville.”
The strong political beliefs of these students are unusual. One in 10 voters in the 2020 election will be members of Gen Z, but most college students are ambivalent about political parties and even the future of democracy. While alt-right students sit outside of the mainstream, all of the students I’ve spoken with have stated that they plan to vote for Donald J. Trump — and, yes, they always use his middle initial.
Some of these students spontaneously expressed that they regretted the violence that took place but placed blame on the counterprotesters.
Yet I have also found that these students are not always entrenched in their beliefs. For instance, one student told me he arrived on campus as “virulently anti-Semitic and a Confederate apologist.” He said he was scapegoating Jews and African Americans for blocking him from his “utopia" — from having a job he loves, blaming Jews in particular for supposedly controlling the media and money in this country.
Then he took a Civil War course and explained some of his beliefs to his professor. Rather than castigate him, his professor pointed this young man on to more credible research.
The student reconsidered his views that slavery was the “first only true way to do things." And if he was wrong about the South and slavery, the student says he thought to himself, maybe he was wrong about other things, too. He began to investigate what he calls “the Jewish question," and started changing his mind.
“I was starting to think violence was the answer,” the student told me. “And then I realized that maybe I had more to learn.”
This student’s experience is consistent with research that has shown how one year of college can lead students to become more appreciative of different viewpoints.
For instance, a 2017 report found that one year after starting college, 63% and 49% of students hold appreciative attitudes toward liberals and conservatives, respectively — an increase of 8 percentage points for each group.
The student who changed his views demonstrates how dialogue — uncomfortable as it may be — opens avenues for people to reconsider bigoted or extremist ideas.
This change can take place even among those who look back at Charlottesville with a sense of nostalgia that the rest of the nation does not share. That offers at least a glimmer of hope to counter the feeling we’re stuck in an impossible divide.