I have never given much thought to David Duke’s pasta habits. I doubt you have either. Turns out that Duke, generally gluten-free, occasionally indulges in the occasional “cheat day.” He may cheat like this while on something of a vacation in Italy, during which he also walks his dog in the mountains and skis at a resort—all things many people do while on vacation. Of course Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, relaxes like this while his mind mulls thoughts of white nationalism…but hey, who’s to let a small detail like that get in the way of relatability?
This is a minor anecdote in Eli Saslow’s Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakending of a Former White Nationalist, but a telling one; the entire book concerns itself with notions of relatability. Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, tells the story of Derek Black, son of Don Black (another KKK grand wizard and founder of the far-right website Stormfront), who, from a young age, seemed the natural heir apparent to white nationalism’s throne. A charismatic advocate for the cause, he hosted a popular radio show, gave rousing talks urging a new semantics of white nationalism, and won elected office in his home state of Florida by appealing to the same kind of “shadow voters” often credited for electing Donald Trump (you know, the ones who don’t admit their prejudices to pollsters very easily). But then an odd thing happened to young Derek: He headed to school at New College, a liberal haven in Florida, and eventually renounced the beliefs he’d held—and celebrated—his entire life.
I’m not giving anything away to anyone who reads Saslow’s introduction to the book (or, hell, even reads the subtitle), or who read his great Washington Post feature “The White Flight of Derek Black,” published in October of 2016 (you can draw your own conclusions about the timing there). “[Derek] is so unbelievably thoughtful,” Saslow tells me. “He’s incredibly intentional about everything he does….It was clear to him that this thing he’d helped to grow wasn’t going away, and there wasn’t a way for him to run from it. He knew things about it.”
I talk to Saslow in 2018, a much different time from October 2016 and certainly from 2013, when Derek began to publicly disown his past views. Back then, it was easier to imagine white nationalism as a fringe movement made from monstrous people—not people next door to us, who do things like sneak pasta into gluten-free diets.
When I mention the detail of David Duke’s eating habits to Saslow, he calls a moment like that “the primary challenge of the book. I hope the effect of that is that it makes [white nationalism] scarier. It would be nice to believe that people who think these terrible things are a different species.” He adds, “That’s one thing in my journalism that’s important: writing about people in ways that feel textured and real.”
To many readers, I imagine this approach will seem strange—or will, at least, seem to bring out strange characteristics in types of people we want to think we understand. At New College, Derek gradually begins to befriend minority classmates, liberal classmates, and comes to understand that they’re people, just like him. How can he date a Jewish woman when he doesn’t believe in her right to live in his land? How can he wander the campus with a Peruvian student when his beliefs would lead to that student being ejected from the United States? In a way, this narrative—evil changing because of humanity—is familiar, palatable, the comfortable through line in an otherwise uncomfortable story.
But consider the other side for a moment. Derek, called out for being a (in some ways, the) white nationalist before the end of his freshman year, made these connections with other students because they invited them to their Shabbat dinners, because they invited him on a sunset cruise aboard a sailboat, because they decided to listen to music with him and drink with him (though Derek rarely drinks, a sign of composure that ruptures our collective image of what a “maniac” ought to act like). One of the book’s major characters is a young woman, Allison, who decides to date Derek. She finds his beliefs reprehensible: of course she does, of course. But damned if he doesn’t make her laugh and treat her with respect. Damned if she doesn’t like their late night chats or deep conversations while on scenic hikes. Her mom is concerned. “I’m so, so, so comfortable with him,” Allison responds in an email. “It’s sort of crazy.”
These students believe that their actions are in the service of showing Derek, an obviously thoughtful and kind young man, the error of his ways (“If Derek had showed up on campus acting like Richard Spencer,” Saslow tells me, “I doubt anyone would’ve invited him to Shabbat dinner”). Nevertheless, it may seem strange. “A lot of the book was reporting and reconciling actions in moments,” Saslow says. “In retrospect, Allison knows that things worked out, but she still wonders, ‘Wasn’t it naïve of me to prioritize spending time with him over lifting up voices of students of color?’”
At the same time, Saslow tells me, students who opted to ostracize Derek entirely have wondered if they should’ve spent more time reaching out to him. “One of the things I learned from reporting the book is that this debate we often have in this country about whether it’s better to approach somebody through civil discourse or civil disobedience is not actually a binary. In Derek’s case, both were necessary. The students who made him feel uncomfortable helped to make him aware—lonely, isolated, vulnerable. So when other students began to invite him in, the two approaches went together.”
But Saslow keeps himself out of his own book entirely, never weighing in to help guide the reader’s opinion. As he says above, he reports the story. This hands-off approach helps, paradoxically, to emphasize the book’s occasionally disturbing glimpses of character details that run counter to how we may feel—which, really, is the reason this story, told this way, holds tension and power (it’s no mystery, after all, that Derek is actually an okay guy who’s going to change his mind).
Saslow tells me that it’s rare for him to report on somebody and not find some aspects of empathy. “David Duke is a carnival barker,” he says. “He’s not somebody that I experienced any moments of empathy or humanity for. He just hits one note again and again and again.” But on the other hand, there’s Don Black, Derek’s prominent white nationalist father. Saslow spent a lot of time with Don and initially felt on guard, but found his way to see him as a father too—a father who was deeply hurt when his beloved son pushed him away. “[He experienced] something that had felt like a death and had his own regrets about his life,” Saslow tells me. “I experience empathy for those things.”
Or, to point to a passage from late in the book: “everything about white nationalism also reminded [Don] of Derek’s renunciation. There was Derek’s radio show, and Derek’s upcoming third annual Stormfront conference about verbal tactics, and Derek’s ‘white genocide’ magnet still attached to the family refrigerator.” Details like this—of uncanny pathos—fill Saslow’s reporting. (What’s the difference between a “white genocide” magnet and, say, a positive report card pinned to a fridge—except, of course, for what they connote?)
In this way, Rising Out of Hatred walks a dangerous line. “I hope and believe there’s no redemption for Don, for David Duke, or for white nationalism in the book,” Saslow says. “It’s a horrific growing force.” Of course he believes this, of course, but then who wouldn’t? (Other than a frighteningly large portion of the population, it turns out.) But Saslow “also wanted to write about [white nationalists] with the humanity they’ve denied other people. Don has lived an irredeemable life and has caused huge amounts of damage and spread fear and done awful things. He’s also a person who hurts and loves his kid.”
Make no mistake, though: Derek Black, not Don nor Duke nor any of Derek’s friends, is very much the center of this book. If I’ve spent little of this space talking about him specifically, it’s because my feelings about him feel unresolved after reading this book. I ask Saslow whether he thinks Derek would’ve renounced his views if he hadn’t gone to New College. Would something else have come along to make him question his life, or was it a matter of circumstance during his formative years? Saslow, of course, tells me he can’t possibly answer that question. Then, as though he wishes he could answer that question, he asks, “What do you think?”
“I know him so well,” Saslow tells me moments later. “It’s very difficult for me to imagine a world in which he’s still a white nationalist, much less leading the white nationalist movement….I hope that if it hadn’t happened then, it would’ve happened later. But there was a lot for him in white nationalism and the way he made his family proud. It was the bedrock of his identity for a long time.” It can certainly be difficult to pull away from something that gives you so much comfort—especially when 2018 is a pretty terrific time to be a white nationalist.
This is one of the scariest aspects of Rising Out of Hatred: that we’re mostly inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to whatever we’re closest to, whatever looks human to us. Derek was an advocate for white nationalism because he grew up surrounded by adoring friends and family, changing his ways when he discovered a different kind of closeness and humanity. Allison and Derek’s other classmates gave him the benefit of the doubt because they had fun with him—they simply liked him. When you think about it like this, it feels frighteningly random, hate or empathy a matter of coincidence more than anything. We’re not so much rising out of hatred, maybe; we’re just rising toward whatever the hell’s around us.
Benjamin Rybeck is the author of a novel, The Sadness, and general manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston.