“White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world” does sound like the sort of rhetoric a white supremacist might use. But then AP got a quote from von Abele.
“I am not a white supremacist or racist, nor do I subscribe to any views that support that ideology,” he said. “I unequivocally denounce all groups that support racism.” It wasn’t the response one would expect from a Richard Spencer follower or an edge-lord provocateur trying to troll like Milo Yiannopoulos.
That piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know why this Ivy League undergrad embraced the rhetoric of white identitarianism, if only to better understand its rise and perhaps how to arrest its spread. The news media’s lack of reporting on that question left others feeling the same way. “I’m curious what led him to be the person he is right now,” a Redditor posted. “He has information all over the Internet, Facebook, and his own website about physics: no political polemic, no ideological rambling, no outward sign of bigotry, and yet all of a sudden he comes out and snaps I guess in front of random people outside of Butler. What led him to be like this? 4chan? Breitbart? His studies? Trump’s Twitter?”
After a wide-ranging, three-hour interview with von Abele last month, I have some answers.
Julian von Abele comes across as a curious, well-read, and well-rounded person. He grew up in a Philadelphia-area suburb, where he excelled in math, finding in it what he described as an outlet for creative, quasi-artistic expression. He chose Columbia rather than Caltech or MIT because it seemed better suited to his interest in theoretical rather than experimental physics. On arriving in Morningside Heights, however, he was disappointed to find a culture that he judged less tolerant of right-leaning beliefs than anything he had known before.
That isn’t to say he was a lifelong conservative.
Von Abele told me that ever since he was “really young,” he has reacted “against whatever the prevailing conformity is.” He recalls experiencing the aughts, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in the White House and he was in middle school, as a time of reactionary nationalism––he says that he spoke up in opposition to the Iraq War and recalls saying that America was “an evil empire.”
He liked that Barack Obama had been opposed to the Iraq War. But as Obama’s presidency wore on, he turned against it over hawkish foreign-policy decisions in Libya and Syria. In 2016, he believed that Hillary Clinton embodied continuity with “a neoconservative establishment that led us into Iraq.”
Donald Trump struck him as less likely to start new wars of choice.
When he arrived at Columbia, a freshman orientation session felt, to him, like an anti-Trump indoctrination session. In his telling, white men were presented as “the source for most of the problems in American society,” and anyone who voiced objections to the prevailing “identitarian” framework was attacked. “I admire a meritocratic society that is built on principles of equality of opportunity,” he said. “My issue is with the left-wing ideology that seems to be emerging that focuses on identifying people with groups rather than as individuals.”