The threat of far-right violence is escalating. During the uprising spurred by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, right-wing vigilantes attacked and harassed protesters in hundreds of incidents around the country. In Wisconsin, a teenager who considered himself a militia member shot three Black Lives Matter protesters, killing two of them; in Virginia, a Klansman drove his truck into a crowd of demonstrators; and in Nevada, three Boogaloo adherents were arrested before they could bring Molotov cocktails to a protest. Donald Trump has only stoked the flames, defending the Wisconsin shooter and refusing to condemn white supremacists at September’s presidential debate—a move celebrated by members of the Proud Boys. (He did eventually issue a condemnation, after immense public pressure.) Trump has failed to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and the FBI has identified the imminent presidential election as a “potential flashpoint” for far-right violence.
The rise of far-right violence is linked to online communities, where many of the perpetrators of the most fatal white supremacist terrorist attacks in recent years were radicalized. Even outside of the chats on the messaging app Telegram and the message boards of 8kun (formerly 8chan), where would-be killers congregate, white supremacist ideas proliferate online in right-wing media and on social networks like YouTube and Facebook. Meanwhile, social media companies have shrugged at the role their websites have played in facilitating the spread of hate and continue to permit most right-wing extremist content under the aegis of “free speech.” The next far-right terrorist to carry out an attack will likely have found the movement thanks to its unchecked metastasis online.
Talia Lavin, a reporter and frequent target of the far right, knows these corners of the internet well. For her recent book Culture Warlords, she delved into the white supremacist imagination, examining both the history of the white power movement and its contemporary forms in the online communities where fascists lionize violence.
Lavin makes a case for understanding the tactics, histories, and digital spaces of the far right in order to deprive it of the power that comes from operating in the shadows. She provides a model for unsparing reporting, far from the credulous coverage of white supremacists common in some mainstream press coverage. For Lavin, her subjects’ humanity doesn’t redeem them or inspire pity; instead, she writes, it serves as a reminder that “the hate they promulgate and the violence they desire are the culmination of dozens or hundreds of small human choices.” Those who believe that no one they know has made or could make those choices, she argues, should reconsider—the message boards, dating websites, and chat groups Lavin enters are populated by people from every part of the country with a range of professions and backgrounds.
Ever since she was targeted by ICE on social media in the summer of 2018, an attack that unleashed a torrent of far-right abuse, Lavin has been on the receiving end of antisemitic and misogynstic invective every day. While trawling the depths of the far right’s terrain has exacted a great toll on her, it has also given her the moral conviction necessary to fight back. At the end of last month, hours before Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” I spoke with Lavin about her reporting tactics, the importance of the Jew in white supremacist rhetoric, and the dark days ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nina Zweig: You describe your research as "gonzo journalism-cum-activism." There is a conventional assumption that journalism and activism are very separate, different things. How do you approach the notion of objectivity in your work?
Talia Lavin: There's long been an expectation of "objectivity" in journalism. But recently people have been questioning what that actually means. For instance, what does it mean for me, as a Jew, to “fairly” cover eliminationist antisemites, or violent groups that use racist rhetoric, harassment, and intimidation? Does reporting on them “accurately” require being dispassionate about these groups and the threats they pose? The more I got to know the far right, the angrier I became. But I don't think that anger compromises my ability to speak about the far right, or renders what I have to say any less truthful.
The notion of objectivity also gets used as a cudgel. The right constantly complains of unfairness or bias against conservatives. But in fact, most of what I'm doing is calling a Nazi a Nazi.
NZ: Mainstream pundits engage in a lot of hand-wringing over the use of physical violence against the far right. You write that because “there is a sense in the liberal imagination that antifascists are roughly on the ‘same side’ as liberalism’s stuffiest pundits,” some media personalities seem to feel that “antifascists must be far more heavily policed and chastised than their neo-Nazi counterparts.” What do you think these pundits fail to understand or willfully misunderstand when they criticize antifascist responses to far-right groups?
TL: First of all, though street melees may be the most visible element of antifascist activity, they hardly make up the sum total. In the book, I mention the critical role of research and the ways in which, say, doxing your local Klansmen forms the core of antifascist activity. But that's something that’s hardly ever covered. The image of a nebulous, black-clad horde is much more potent.
For the pundits who condemn antifascist violence, all extra-state violence is equally bad. But I think it's important to draw a moral distinction between violence that's used to further genocidal goals and violence that's employed in a responsive and defensive fashion. There's a moral duty to prevent the far right from gaining power. I tend to agree with the antifascist stance that any power and confidence the far right accrues can and will be used for committing violence.
NZ: Your research involved deceptive tactics and infiltrating far-right groups: You assumed a false identity in the Telegram chat associated with the Vorherrschaft Division, an accelerationist neo-Nazi group, and you were also active on a white supremacist dating site. What do you think of coverage of the far right that hinges on the willing participation of fascists? Does this type of reporting have any value, or does it just give white supremacists a platform to launder their reputations and disseminate their ideas?
TL: I don't think that that kind of reportage is inherently worthless. There's a certain value in listening in when fascists let their guard down, and sometimes you can get that through creating a sort of artificial camaraderie. But I also think there is value in showing that, regardless of how fascists present their beliefs to journalists or the public, anyone who promises you a peaceful white ethnostate is lying.
The danger with coverage of the far right is that it's very easy to sensationalize. The fascinated gaze can sometimes be an enamored one. The fact that I'm Jewish, and that I had been a far-right target even before I wrote this book, helped me retain a moral clarity about the project, such that it could never devolve into simply being fascinated by these people for the sake of fascination.
I also think you have to really know about these people before you endeavor to cover them. Some local news coverage of the far right lacks crucial context. There's one particularly egregious example that I found while doing some research for the book that took far-right spokespeople at their word and called a white supremacist gathering a "white wellness advocacy program." It made it sound like Goop for building a white ethnostate. As I mention in the book, there are spokespeople for these movements, and some of them are good at what they do. The goal of any spokesperson for the far right is to obscure the violence at the heart of the project. When reporters who haven't encountered this subject matter before want to engage while adhering to this idea of fairness, they can end up becoming stenographers for racist movements.
NZ: You write that "racial animus in and of itself, while a powerful and fatal force, demands a broader intellectual framework in which to flourish; the white supremacist requires the Jew to create a holistic system of depravity, against which he is engaged in brave and suppressed struggle." Why is the figure of the Jew such a crucial part of the white supremacist worldview?
TL: If you are a white man, it takes some creativity to assert that you are uniquely oppressed in American society. That doesn't mean that people don't do it; a persecution complex is at the center of the conservative project at the moment. The figure of the Eternal Jew is useful because it's a fantasy of an enemy that's more cunning and powerful than you will ever be, by virtue of immutable racial traits. And because such an enemy is inherently clandestine, it absolves you of the burden of proof.
NZ: In the book, you reference Father Coughlin, an antisemitic radio show host who built a large following in the 1930s. As you write, after he called for the formation of anti-communist militias, his followers formed the Christian Front, a vigilante group that intimidated, robbed, and assaulted Jews around the country. Do you see right-wing discourse about antifascism as drawing upon 20th-century pro-fascist rhetoric?
TL: The most salient example of this is the term “cultural Marxism,” which has attained really mainstream status, all the way up to the White House. On the contemporary right, it has become a synonym for anything that is perceived as leftist. Even an empty corporate gesture at diversity is now cultural Marxism. “Cultural Marxism” as right-wing bugbear has nothing to do with Marxism. It's a watchword for an allegedly subversive, omnipresent, and hyper-powerful leftism. The current mania against cultural Marxism echoes some of Coughlin’s rhetoric: Coughlin was perennially on the watch for Judeo-Bolshevists. In fact, if you look at the history of the US, red-baiting and Jew-baiting are pretty hard to separate.
NZ: The mainstream press often depicts far-right politics as the province of working-class people. How do the activities you witnessed in fascist online spaces challenge this stereotype?
TL: There's this notion of the American fascist as a Cletus with two teeth, living in his mom's basement. But there’s a real danger in saying that people who are part of the organized racist movement are inherently socioeconomically underprivileged or uneducated. There's no socioeconomic or educational bracket in which you can comfortably place organized white supremacists. And the idea that there is, besides being classist, is also dangerous, in the sense that it obscures the true nature of the threat.
NZ: You discuss how the Crusades of the Middle Ages serve as a sort of Lost Cause for some white supremacists. Why have they looked to the Crusades for inspiration?
TL: There's a significant Christian extremist element to the organized racism movement. The Crusades crop up in manifestos by white supremacist terrorists—for instance Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in the Christchurch Massacre in New Zealand, referenced the Crusades repeatedly. Every nationalist movement uses a refashioning of history to create a sense that their movement is a continuation of an eternal and noble struggle. White nationalism is no different. For Christian white nationalists, the Crusades were a noble endeavor of going out to slay the swarthy infidel. Of course, this was before racial whiteness was really a salient category; to view the Crusades as being about whiteness is an anachronistic historical reading. But white nationalism takes that medieval Christian hatred of any non-Christ worshiper and transposes it onto the present, utilizing the robust structure of contemporary Islamophobia and paranoia about migration on the European far right.
NZ: One group that plays a crucial role in far-right recruiting efforts are figures whom you call "launderers"—for example, YouTube personalities like Stefan Molyneux and Ben Shapiro—who reel in viewers with slightly tempered versions of far-right rhetoric, priming them for radicalization. What does that process of gradual recruitment look like?
TL: Launderers make far-right ideas accessible. Feminists are a really popular bête noire of theirs; there's a lot of ambient misogyny in American culture, so it’s an easy hatred to stoke. The launderers say, for example, "Your toys are being taken away from you. Your childhood is being ruined because there are women in Star Wars movies." Then as you continue to watch, YouTube keeps recommending more of those kinds of videos. But it's not only algorithmic. It's also very deliberate on the part of these content creators; they’re in a network with each other. They appear on each other's podcasts and YouTube channels. You start with one launderer, they lead you to another, and then you're on the greasy slope.
Part of what facilitates the launderers’ efforts to mainstream far-right narratives is that so many people feel a lack of meaning and purpose. In the white nationalist movement, there's a feeling that you could be the one to save your race. Doesn't that sound better than sitting around and masturbating and playing video games? How many people just want a sense that they're going somewhere and doing something important? That's where white nationalism has a real and dangerous appeal.
NZ: You wrote Culture Warlords before Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who considered himself to be a militia member, shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Right-wing media and politicians have defended Rittenhouse as a “little boy” who was justifiably protecting his neighborhood. Does the tenor of these defenses of Rittenhouse mark a change in mainstream right-wing responses to far-right terror?
TL: Absolutely. Right-wing media over the past few years has typically done this dance: Talk endlessly about outgroups, vilify them, basically incite violence against them, and then, when violence actually happens, condemn the violence. But in this case, Donald Trump Jr. was defending Rittenhouse. It’s the culmination of an increasing embrace of vigilantism, even within the mainstream US right, which is really worrying, especially leading into such a contentious election. I don't think it's a question of whether there will be another Kyle Rittenhouse. It's a question of when.