KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Scott Ernest is not proud of his past, but he also doesn’t shy away from it.
“I don’t want people following in my footsteps,” he said. “It’s much easier get people out if they are never there in the first place.”
Ten years ago, Ernest was living in Kalispell, Montana. He openly wore a swastika around his neck and surrounded himself with people who wanted to create a heavily armed Aryan homeland.
Ernest was a member of Pioneer Little Europe, or PLE, a white nationalist group the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked for years.
“I wanted to try and make the community mine," Ernest said. "I tended to normalize things. You can even argue I was worse than someone who screamed ‘1488’ at the top of their lungs or ‘Heil Hitler,’ because what I tended to do was normalize it.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, a leading anti-hate organization, 1488 is a combination of two popular white supremacist symbols.
The "14" stands for the the what is commonly referred to as the “14 Words" slogan — We must secure the existence of our people and future for white children. The "88" is shorthand for "Heil Hilter."
Ernest told himself that he didn’t agree with everything PLE members said or did, but he stayed with the group because he had found camaraderie.
Eventually, he became a PLE recruiter whose job it was to normalize hate.
“I didn’t want the PLE to be another group where it was a bunch of fringe people doing fringe things, saying fringe things," he said. "I wanted to be a part of the community, and I wanted to spread the ideology within the community. And you can’t do that if you’re scaring people away."
The cauldron of hate he created for himself eventually caught up with him and Ernest left Montana and the PLE in 2016.
He co-founded Hands of Eir, a platform that helps LGBTQ+ people escape from the world of hate and white supremacy.
Ernest, who came out as gay after leaving the PLE, did not grow up in a home where hate was taught. His parents were not white supremacists.
He said he first encountered the extremist views online he would later embrace, which ultimately led him to connect with the PLE.
“In the age of social media, anyone and everyone is susceptible to this,” Dr. Greg Nawalanic, a clinic psychologist with the University of Kansas Health System, said.
Nawalanic said extremism is similar to addiction. The best way to help someone, he said, is to talk to them and remind them of your connection.
“It starts with reminding them of your actual, deep longstanding emotional connection or relation to them,” Nawalanic said.
For individuals who are trying to escape extremism themselves, Nawalanic suggests turning off social media.
“What that does is make it a volitional engagement on your terms and not on theirs,” he said.
To leave Montana and the PLE, Ernest said he had to go offline and unplug.
Now, he uses social media to help others and build a community of hope instead of hate.
“I hope it helps," Ernest said. "It definitely makes it all worth it for me."