Cynthia Miller-Idriss on The Extreme Gone Mainstream

The past decade has witnessed a steady increase in far right politics, social movements, and extremist violence in Europe. Scholars and policymakers have struggled to understand the causes and dynamics that have made the far right so appealing to so many people—in other words, that have made the extreme more mainstream. In this book, Cynthia Miller-Idriss examines how extremist ideologies have entered mainstream German culture through commercialized products and clothing laced with extremist, anti-Semitic, racist, and nationalist coded symbols and references. Required reading for anyone concerned about the global resurgence of the far right, The Extreme Gone Mainstream reveals how style and aesthetic representation serve as one gateway into extremist scenes and subcultures by helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society. Read on to learn more about how the extreme has gone mainstream.

Why did you write this book?
I stumbled across the new forms of commercialization analyzed in this book while I was sorting through photographers’ databases in search of a cover photo for my first book. I was immediately hooked—fascinated by how much had changed in German far right subculture since I had completed my prior fieldwork five years earlier. The skinhead aesthetic that had dominated the youth scene since the 1980s had all but disappeared, and was replaced with mainstream-style, high-quality commercial brands laced with far right ideology, symbols, and codes. I planned to write an article about it, but the project wouldn’t let me go. I literally found myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the codes, trying to disentangle their meanings and wondering whether youth even understood them. I felt compelled to understand it, and that’s what led to this book.

How does the coding work within the commercial products?
The brands and products encode historical and contemporary far right, nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist references into iconography, textual phrases, colors, script, motifs, and product names within products that are essentially identical to other mainstream youth clothing styles. The code deployment carefully toes the line of legality in Germany, sometimes marketing directly to consumers’ awareness of legal bans of particular symbols and phrases.

How could a t-shirt enable extremist radicalization? That sounds like a stretch.
I get that question all the time. People are sometimes skeptical that clothing could be consequential for recruitment into or radicalization within far right subcultures. But I found that the iconography, symbols, and codes embedded in this clothing does exactly that. The clothes send messages about the ideal nation, set normative expectations for masculine behavior, disparage and dehumanize ethnic and religious minorities, and valorize violence as a means to achieve nationalist goals. They establish legitimacy within and provide access to far right scenes, signal political affiliation (allowing youth to find like-minded others) and act as icebreakers for conversations at school, in clubs, at parties, and in stadiums. They also act as conduits of resistance towards—and carriers of extremist ideas into—mainstream society, as youth wear the clothing in peer groups, around siblings, classmates, or work colleagues and help establish what is ‘cool’ or desired within and across subcultures. So yes: far right clothing and style can be a gateway to extremism.

Why do youth join extremist movements?
There is no single explanation for how youth become radicalized. But what I argue in this book is that extremism is not only driven by political or ideological motives but also by emotional impulses related to belonging to a group and resisting mainstream authorities. Traits and emotions like collective identity, belonging, heroism, loyalty, strength, and trust, resistance, transgression, hatred, anger, rebellion, and violence were clearly evident in the messages sent through the iconography and symbols in clothing and products marketed to far right youth. I argue that youth are initially attracted to extremist scenes for their emotional resonance, rather than for ideological reasons alone. Ideological indoctrination and radicalization come later.

You argue that clothes can create identity. What do you mean?
Most people understand that clothes express identity—we all make choices about what we will wear that say something about our personality, even if it’s simply that we don’t care at all about fashion. But for many young people in particular, clothing, fashion, and style is deeply intertwined with their identities and their exploration of those identities, as they play around with various subcultural scenes: goths, punks, skaters and others are all immediately recognizable by their styles. But there has been less attention to the ways in which consumption and style not only reflects identity but also helps to reinforce or even create it. Consumers can strengthen their eco-identities by “buying” green, for example, or their religious identities by buying halal or kosher food. Extremist style works the same way—I argue that the coded messages, symbols, and ideas being communicated not only reflect but also help to create and strengthen far right identity for these consumers.

Why should scholars read this even if they don’t work on the far right?
This book makes a critical intervention into mainstream sociological thought that should be interesting for a broad range of scholars, because the findings challenge conventional thinking about economic and material objects. While social scientists have long known that material objects hold symbolic power for communities (as Durkheim’s work on totemism showed, for example), economic objects have been locked into a narrower view as a result of the seminal influence of Karl Marx’s understanding of commoditization as exchange. I challenge the prevailing way of thinking by contending that commodities—economic objects—are not only the end results in an unequal production process, but are also cultural objects which carry emotion, convey meaning, and constitute identities. Consumer goods and material culture, I argue, are not only important for our understandings of inequality but also for how they may constitute identity and motivate political (including extremist) action.

You’re an American. Why do you study Germany?
I initially studied German as a way of connecting to my own lost family history—my great-great-grandfather emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s.  But once I lived in Germany, I became fascinated with how Germans confront the past and with the deep investments Germans make in combating the far right. But despite years of study, residence, and fieldwork in Germany, as an American I will always be an outsider in ways that inevitably impact my observations of cultural, social, and political phenomena. Any explanatory success I have in this book is due in large part to the formal and informal feedback and support I have received over the years from native German and European experts and colleagues. To my great surprise, they never blinked at this strange outsider who wanted to interrogate one of the darkest aspects of German history and contemporary youth subculture. It is my sincere hope that some of the findings in this book will be of some use to German scholars, activists, and educators who work to understand and combat far right violence every day.


Miller-IdrissCynthia Miller-Idriss is associate professor of education and sociology and director of the International Training and Education Program at American University. Her books include Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany.