Scott Ernest sat on his aunt’s couch in Lakeland, beard overgrown, scrolling Twitter. He’d been stressed — with the pandemic, he has been out of work. A plan to buy a place in his beloved Montana fell through. He’s been forced to lean on family, muddling through until he can, he hopes, get into the University of South Florida’s Master of Public Health program.
The morning of Jan. 6, he turned on MSNBC to watch the votes that would certify President Joe Biden’s victory. He smoked some medical marijuana, craving a moment of peace. Instead, he watched the crowds roil. He flinched at speeches that, in his old life, would have amounted to a battle cry.
He stepped away, and when he came back, members of Congress were being shuttled to hiding places. His phone dinged: Rioters were in the building.
In the mass of far-right flags and clashing bodies, he saw reminders of his too-recent past. That Camp Auschwitz shirt — he was well-acquainted with talk like that. A familiar face storming the Capitol in an Oath Keepers hat — he’d had a drink with that guy once. The “Q Shaman” with his horns and heathen costume — all symbols Ernest knew, twisted into hate.
I enabled that, he thought.
Journeying into extremism
Ten years ago, in the late spring of a strange and anxious year, Ernest boarded a Florida train bound for the nation’s capital. From there, he took Amtrak to Chicago, then rode the Empire Builder, steaming west.
Montana’s peaks rushed into view. Beyond Glacier’s east wall, the tracks wound through ancient mountains. On the other side of the national park lay his destination, the Flathead Valley, and the person who’d invited him to come see the Aryan dream.
Ernest was 32, adrift. He’d been a headstrong Gen X teenager who’d smoked across from the high school before dropping out. He’d recently abandoned college, too, newly agoraphobic and shuttered in his home. His girlfriend had just had a late miscarriage, and he mourned the daughter who would not be. Sleep medications had turned his body into a balloon, heavy and round. In Central Florida, his smoker’s lungs often ached. In the thin, clear air, he could breathe.
He bought a van, parked at a campground and let the daydream wash over him. He’d come to be around those, like him, who logged endless hours on Stormfront, the online hub of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, motto “White Pride World Wide.” He told himself he didn’t agree with everything his fellow posters said, but he found camaraderie there, owning the libs, normalizing hate in the name of championing whiteness.
The forum’s casually violent chatter had been gnawing at him, but he convinced himself he was a force for change. So when he got the invitation from April Gaede, a neo-Nazi trying to build a “Pioneer Little Europe” homeland in Glacier’s foothills, he felt inspired. He packed up his two cats and rescue bunny. And in Montana, he became a recruiter.
‘My job was to normalize hate’
What do we do with people like Scott Ernest?
Will Randall of the Montana Human Rights Network has traded many messages with Ernest over the years. He used to want Ernest to pay: To lose his job and his house, to be exposed. Sifting through Ernest’s 54,000 posts on Stormfront, he found that Ernest treaded a maddeningly careful line: He could deflect the evils of white nationalism and lure in new believers.
“My job was to normalize hate,” Ernest once tweeted. “And I was good at it.”
Randall said he was skeptical of Ernest’s change of heart about five years ago. “But I truly believe that he’s seen the light and the damage he’s caused, and he’s trying to undo that damage.”
What does a nation do with scores of citizens who’ve absorbed and spread racist conspiracies and lies?
Do we absolve? Deradicalization experts stress accountability. Do we listen? They also stress the importance of understanding people’s grievances.
“Honestly, some people in that movement are unredeemable,” Randall said. “I always felt that [Ernest] was different.”
Randall saw white flight to Montana grow under President Trump, with more far-right acolytes hoarding arms in the hills. Post-election, the U.S. is staring down untold numbers of the recently radicalized. Randall believes people like Ernest can help.
Ernest recently got a degree in public health from USF, with a focus in infection control. He also has started a platform to help LGBTQ people like himself out of the world of hate. After years of deflection, he finally understands extremism as an infection.
Drifting down the rabbit hole
His childhood played out in a montage of latchkey independence. His parents worked in health care, moving often. Ernest tramped through the woods, practiced taekwondo. Late in high school, he bristled against teachers’ orders, and when Florida’s curriculum proved stultifying, he bounced.
He tried college but felt too restless. He worked private security, got hired at an auto tool plant in Michigan, booked trips at 1-800-LOW-AIRFARE in Tampa. He tried holing up with friends in a haunted New Orleans apartment but ended up broke. He thought of himself as a wolf, roaming.
In those transient years, politics were far from his mind. But he kept up with his religion, Odinism, which he’d found in adolescence. Followers, who call themselves heathens, embrace a modern Pagan tradition derived from ancient Norse beliefs.
Scrolling one night in his mid-20s, likely studying up on his faith, he came across a threatening blog post. As he understood it, Antifa groups were calling for Black men to rape two young girls, Lynx and Lamb, who sang in a group called Prussian Blue.
Terrible, Ernest thought, looking at a map to the girls’ home. He contacted the FBI.
That the girls sang white power anthems didn’t particularly bother him. That the group was named for the residue left in Nazi gas chambers didn’t strike him, either. The violence — that bothered him.
He connected with the girls’ mother, April Gaede. He’d looked her up, and her beliefs seemed kooky. But she was likable — normal, even. She helped shape Ernest’s disgust for the threat into distrust of Black people in general. They kept in touch.
A bright, white, racist fantasy
On the message boards of Stormfront, Ernest adopted the names of Mjodr and Glacier. The more he ingested, the more normal it felt. He found himself typing, “Well, you make a decent point.”
Ernest echoed fellow posters: He was simply “ethnically oriented toward white people.” Many shared his beliefs, drawn to Odinism’s European roots. They saw themselves as warriors, wielding Thor’s hammer.
For every post, for every taunt lobbed, he felt a dopamine flare.
He didn’t think people of other races were subhuman, like many on the forums, but agreed: Why not be proud of being white? You don’t have to hate people of color to not want them as your neighbors — right?
As Ernest recalled: “What we wanted was a reservation for white people, where we controlled everything and everything would be cleaner and nicer and women would be like in the ’50s, and they’ll give you your shot of whiskey when you got home.”
In recruitment mode, Ernest sought out “low-info” people — uncritical thinkers who might mistake Stormfront’s erstwhile newspaper for a legitimate source. Online, spreading propaganda was frictionless — so much simpler than the Klan’s literature drops of yore. He played Dungeons & Dragons with acquaintances and slowly let his ideology leak out.
Ernest took pride in his ability to normalize the movement. He didn’t use slurs or code words. His charming kookiness was his secret weapon. He started a blog called Fat Guy in Montana — “Sounds a lot friendlier than ‘Angry Militia Member in Montana.’ " When the Obama White House opened a site for citizen petitions in 2011, Ernest wrote calls for Florida and Montana to secede. For that, he won a promotion to Stormfront moderator.
‘The greatest misfits, the especially angry’
The day that far-right extremist Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, mostly teenagers at summer camp, Ernest logged onto Stormfront.
He saw support, everywhere.
Moderators were supposed to ban people espousing violence. Instead, Stormfront leaders were deleting posts, without punishment, to erase evidence. Furious, Ernest chewed out those cheering the killer. That got him temporarily banned.
All along, Ernest had told himself that the “toxoids” were a vocal minority. Even after that day in 2011, he continued to lie to himself. He insisted Breivik did not represent Stormfront, even though he knew Breivik had often tried to post his extreme views.
Ernest’s move to Montana happened that year, after April Gaede called white nationalists to “come home.”
The rugged northwest has captivated white supremacists for decades. A “live and let live” fantasyland of plentiful guns and little diversity, the vast Flathead County has attracted a jumble of extremists, from heavily armed survivalists to anti-government militias.
Upon arrival, Ernest helped Gaede market the vision, which drew from decades of “pioneers” eager to push racial minorities out.
According to the “prospectus” that outlined Pioneer Little Europe, such a community would bring in “the culturally homeless, the berserkers, the greatest misfits, the especially angry, those who refuse to run any more, who refuse to bow and scrape, the doers rather than passive thinkers, the dogs in the cellar.”
By that point, the ragtag few dozen in the Kalispell PLE were best known for screening Holocaust denial films at the library. Ernest thought it would be more effective to coexist, quietly.
He helped shape the marketing, such as a website that highlighted the city’s white babies and sunbathers. On Facebook, he posed with automatic rifles in front of the snow-capped range. He posted videos of the group hiking breathtaking vistas and paddling a choppy Bigfork Bay. One shot lingered on a young girl whose blond braids fell down the back of her life jacket. “Now there, there’s what white nationalism’s all about,” Ernest drawled from the shoreline. “Preserving the white family.”
“It’s paradise here,” he raved.
Ernest worked customer service in a call center and started taking in white nationalists, most of whom were poor, several on assistance. He didn’t press people for rent. There was Mark, the former cowboy working the oil fields; Rose, the line cook and former addict from New Orleans; Stan, the wealthy Neo-Nazi misogynist one suspected could snap; Kent, the agreeable weirdo who ran the group’s Facebook page.
They shared Yule dinners, browsed art fairs and gun shows. From Ernest’s home at the base of Columbia Mountain, he filled his lungs with cool air.
A line, crossed
Depressingly, the white nationalists spent their time complaining online, perpetually between jobs. Ernest struggled to pull them away from their screens. While he was not yet out as pansexual and non-binary, Ernest tried to defend gay people — though not transgender people — against slurs lobbed by his friends.
Ernest took prospective members to Nickel Charlie’s, but met dud after dud. One recruit called Breivik a hero for shooting “commies.” Ernest sent him away. His crew obsessed over their paranoia, convinced they were being persecuted.
“I’m getting sick of white nationalists,” Ernest told Gaede. Then he saw a new recruit post on Twitter threatening to shoot the children of the Brady Campaign’s then-spokesman, as well as local schoolchildren.
It was too much.
He packed up quietly, hoping to disappear into a fresh start at the community college. Then other white supremacists in the area started lobbing death threats at mostly Jewish families and businesses in nearby Whitefish. One target was a 12-year-old boy.
For years — so many years — Ernest had defended these people. Ignored their seething violence. Said they simply wanted a separate way of life.
He contacted the web host over the vile posts. The white nationalists turned on him right away. He remained deep in denial about his own hatefulness, but his old friends, he had to admit, possessed the potential to kill. “Screw being quiet,” he said.
A ‘lifelong work in progress’
After Whitefish, he messaged former opponents to say he’d left. Eventually, he tried to make amends.
With the people at the Montana Human Rights Network, some of whom stayed wary.
With Will Randall, who listened, with caution.
With Christian Picciolini, a former skinhead who Ernest now works with, trying to draw people out of far-right circles.
It’s easy to relapse into the rush of the crusade, the high of martyrdom in a war against the Deep State. However toxic that world may be, there are scraps of community that call lonely people back.
To admit his complicity took time. It took until Charlottesville for Ernest to defriend some old allies on Facebook. For many years, he gave interviews insisting that many white nationalists were decent people with blinders on. He still believes that — and he also doesn’t hesitate to call the Capitol mob terrorists.
He has to believe people can be pulled back.
With another former white nationalist, Ernest started Hands of Eir, a platform to help LGBTQ people and heathens out of hate. Some deradicalization groups operate with a highly professional, research-based approach. Ernest’s is more off-the-cuff, a loose mentor network to build community and hope. He takes calls from academics, lending what insight he can.
He hesitates to reveal people’s stories but said he has brought one person out of a violent far-right group in slow conversations over many weeks. The person went from using slurs to making apologies to being a mentor.
“Getting out is something you have to work at the rest of your life,” Ernest said.
While he believes the Capitol riot represented white supremacy in its death throes, a desperate troupe losing its grip on legitimate power, he admits: “I don’t know if there will ever be an end.”
On Stormfront, he sees calls to hang Nancy Pelosi — threats he would have banned users for in a different era. As QAnon’s elaborate conspiracy fell apart on Inauguration Day, he saw white nationalists go hunting for ripe recruits. He tastes racists’ desperation for civil war, hears their lust for violence.
“Please believe them,” he insists. To his old compatriots, he tweets: “Nobody is ever too far gone.”
Contact Claire McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @clairemcneill.