How my son joined the alt-right
Our son fixated on alt-right memes, hacking, and doxxing.
My teen got sucked into an internet wormhole of angry propaganda aimed at disaffected males, said a mother, writing anonymously in Washingtonian magazine. It took our empathy and a stranger’s courage to get him out.
WHEN MY SON Sam* asked me to take him to the Mother of All Rallies in September 2017, I said no. The pro-Trump event was billed as a demonstration to preserve “traditional American culture,” and white supremacists were expected to show up in force. At Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally only a month earlier, a neo-Nazi had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer.
How had we gotten here? The problems had started when Sam was 13, barely a month into eighth grade. In the taxonomy of our local public school, his close group of friends was tagged edgy and liberal: Their group-text chain pulsed 24/7 with observations about alternative music and the robotic conformity of other classmates. Standard stuff for sensitive middle schoolers.
One morning during first period, a male friend of Sam’s mentioned a meme whose suggestive name was an inside joke between the two of them. Sam laughed. A girl at the table overheard their private conversation, misconstrued it as a sexual reference, and reported it as sexual harassment. Before long, Sam was in the office of a male administrator who informed him that the exchange was “illegal,” hinted that the police were coming, and delivered him into the custody of the school’s resource officer. At the administrator’s instruction, that man ushered Sam into an empty room, handed him a blank sheet of paper, and instructed him to write a “statement of guilt.”
At a meeting two days later with my husband, Sam, and me, the administrator piled more accusations on top of the harassment charge—even implying, with undisguised hostility, that Sam and his friend were gay. He waved in front of us a statement from the girl at the table and insisted that Sam would need to defend himself against her claims if he wanted to prove his innocence. He declared that it was his primary duty, as a school official and as a father of daughters, to believe and to protect the girls under his care.
Our son sat pale and trembling as he made his case. I wanted to reach out and hold his hand, but he was at the other end of the large conference table—a raft, it seemed to me, floating unprotected in a stormy sea.
Sam agreed, reluctantly, to write a letter of apology to the girl who’d reported him so that the debacle would come to an end. But no hoped-for resolution materialized. Instead, Sam’s sweet earnestness, his teenage overconfidence, even his tremulous determination in the face of unjust authority drained away, replaced by…nothing. He lost all affect. He couldn’t concentrate, turned in no homework, and didn’t even pick up a pen when it was time to take a test. He didn’t say much to us, but it seemed obvious enough that he felt betrayed by the adults he’d trusted.
MY HUSBAND AND I felt betrayed, too. We agreed that if we’d lost confidence in the administrators in charge, withdrawing Sam was our only option. But the transfer, midyear, to a new school—after he’d been wrongly accused, unfairly treated, then unceremoniously dropped by his friends—shattered Sam. He felt totally alone. I counseled patience, naïvely unprepared for what came next: when he found people to talk to on Reddit and 4chan.
Those online pals were happy to explain that all girls lie—especially about rape. And they had lots more knowledge to impart. They told Sam that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that Jews run global financial networks. (We’re Jewish and don’t know anyone who runs anything, but I guess the evidence was convincing.) They insisted that the wage gap is a fallacy, that feminazis are destroying families, that people need guns to protect themselves from government incursions onto private property.
Who was living upstairs in the room with the bunk beds, surrounded by glow-in-the-dark solar-system decals? I couldn’t understand how this had happened. Teachers and family friends had always commented on Sam’s kindness and especially his gentleness toward the “underdog.” Then an internet chorus of alt-right sirens sang their song of American History X to my kid. The pendulum had swung. And now it was stuck.
The moments where Sam and I found common ground became increasingly rare. Although he had legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved, it was impossible for him to make sense of his situation or to trust that time would heal the hurt.
Soon Sam stopped trying to persuade me to join his brave new world. He was so active on his favorite subreddit that the other group leaders, unaware that he was 13, made him a moderator. The top moderators aimed to approve 100 posts a day, and Sam took it as seriously as a paying job. His grades suffered, he sacrificed sleep, and stress blackened his mood. When he did talk to us, he fixated on topics like hacking and doxxing.
We countered all of Sam’s off-kilter theories with data and introduced him to people whose views might outweigh ours. We also took him to movies, signed him up for rock climbing, bribed him to play with his baby cousins, and insisted he continue to join us at the dinner table—anything to extract him from the echo chamber. The most insignificant outings were preceded by Camp David–level negotiations. Most of the time, we lost.
So when Sam asked to go to the Mother of All Rallies—not just once but over and over, stressing that he’d be an observer, not a participant—I eventually relented. After the catastrophe in Charlottesville, I certainly wasn’t going to let him go alone. Anyway, it was a chance to spend the day together. It had been ages since we’d done that.
The morning of the rally, Sam and I arrived at the Washington Monument around 8:30—more than an hour early because Sam has always been anxious about getting to places on time. We sat on a marble bench and people-watched as rallygoers gradually filled in the plaza.
As we made our way to the makeshift stage for speakers Sam decided he wanted to interview as many people as he could. During the next hour and a half, he approached anti-fascist demonstrators, heavily accessorized neo-Nazis, a man draped in the green Kek banner common in alt-right memes, and a guy who claimed to work for a Republican senator. He recorded the conversations with his phone while I stood a few feet away. He usually asked one question—“Why are you here today?”—and let the person speak until he (they were all men) was finished.
As he debriefed me, he spoke almost as if he were seeing a negative of the person he’d been taping. One neo-Nazi in his early twenties was “internally inconsistent,” Sam said, because he was wearing an Iron Cross as well as an Anarchy pin. Plus the guy was almost totally incoherent. The Kek patriot who had created a uniform and a flag for a fake state, and then marched around in the dust like a toy soldier, seemed to Sam a ridiculous waste of time.
So here they were, the star players from Reddit and 4chan, reconstituted in human form on the Mall, and none were as convincing, witty, or transgressive as they had presented themselves online. Even Sam’s biggest Reddit hero—an African-American Nazi who posed with him for a selfie—wasn’t as personable as he’d expected.
Toward the end of our walk down the Mall, I spotted a middle-aged man who stood alone on the grass, holding a small poster that featured a picture of a smiling Heather Heyer, the demonstrator murdered in Charlottesville. He’d magic-markered the words “A TRUE AMERICAN PATRIOT” and “c-ville” under her photo, above a hand-drawn heart. I asked if I could take his picture, but it was hard to choke out the words because I started crying.
I called Sam over and told him, in front of the man, that standing up for your beliefs among such a large, unfriendly crowd is the definition of courage. Sam seemed to understand. I could tell by the way he shook hands with the man—slowly and deliberately, as if they were each transferring something to the other.
The Mother of All Rallies, 2017
As we walked to the Metro, I thanked Sam for persuading me to go to the rally so I could be reminded of what real bravery looks like. “I never would have believed someone could have the guts to stand alone like that, here of all places,” I told him. “I’m so glad I saw it for myself.” “That’s what you always tell me to do,” Sam said.
In the months that followed, Sam very gradually began to act like the kid he had been before he was falsely accused of sexual harassment. He texted more with classmates than with online strangers, and every few weekends I drove him to sleepovers with other kids. I noticed that when his new group of friends said goodbye to one another, even the boys hugged.
As for me? I was shell-shocked—glad the crisis was over but struggling to come to terms with what had transpired. My cousin, one of the few people I had confided in, suggested that I read Kill All Normies, in which writer Angela Nagle tracks the rise of the online alt-right during exactly the period Sam fell under its spell.
I discovered how expertly extremists have leveraged the web to prey on young people who are depressed. “There NEED to be public warnings about this,” said Twitter user @MrHappyDieHappy, in one piece I read. “‘Online pals’ have attempted to groom me multiple times when at my absolute lowest.”
One night last fall, I left a stack of articles on Sam’s bed when he wasn’t around. The story about how the alt-right purposely recruits depressed kids was on top. Before long, Sam was at my door. Then he was curled up next to me. “Did you hate me when I was hostage to the cult?” he asked. I’d never heard him use that phrase before.
“I didn’t hate you,” I said after a minute. I sensed this was a test, and if I passed, something important was waiting for me. “I was just baffled.”
“I hated myself,” Sam admitted. “I felt trapped. And now I feel so stupid.” He started sobbing, raggedly, struggling to catch his breath. “Why would adults want to do that? Why would they want to fool kids? How could I fall for it?” We talked about it every day for the next few weeks. He helped me understand how his anger and confusion over being falsely accused had fueled everything that happened next.
“All I wanted was for people to take me seriously,” Sam told me. “They treated me like a rational human being, and they never laughed at me. I saw the way you and Dad looked at each other and tried not to smile when I said something. I could hear you both in your room at night, laughing at me.”
I struggled for a moment because I wanted to tell him that wasn’t true. But I couldn’t deny his accusation. Behind closed doors, when my husband and I thought our children were asleep, we had often vented to each other about Sam’s off-the-wall proclamations. So I told Sam simply that I was sorry for making him feel bad.
I still think about his words a lot, especially when alt-right figures headline the news. But mostly, I wonder how I could have tried so hard to parent Sam through this crisis and yet tripped up on something as basic as not making my own kid feel small.
Thankfully, Sam moved on. By the fall of 10th grade, he seemed at peace for the first time since he’d stepped off the bus almost two years earlier, face puffy from crying, to inform me he’d broken the law. That’s why my fears came roaring back when Sam and I heard on the radio one day that another Mother of All Rallies was taking place on the Mall that very weekend—and Sam asked if we could go. Together. My breath caught. He must have seen my face change. “As counterprotesters?” he asked, eyes gleaming.
*Sam is a pseudonym to protect the author’s child.
Excerpted from a story originally published in Washingtonian magazine. Used with permission. ■