Undercover with New York Nazis

An interview with an activist who spent three months infiltrating the alt-right.

Michael McCanne
May 1, 2019
Members of the Proud Boys and the 211 Bootboys pose for a photo on Manhattan's Upper East Side after a gang assault on three antifa protestors.
Shay Horse

In early 2017, a communist activist alarmed by the growing strength of the alt-right assumed a false identity and infiltrated the far-right scene in New York City. He detailed his experiences in an exposé for the newly launched Commune magazine last December under the pseudonym Jay Firestone. The article paints a disturbing tableau of racists and bigots gathering in Irish pubs and hipster bars around New York City, emboldened by the Trump election and confident their views were ascendant.

Firestone started by infiltrating the Daily Stormer Book Club, a meet-up for neo-Nazis affiliated with the Daily Stormer website, and then moved into the orbit of other far-right groups and media producers, including the “Western chauvinist fraternity” the Proud Boys and the podcast network The Right Stuff, which popularized the practice of placing three parentheses around the names of suspected Jews. Firestone eventually attended the New York Forum, an assembly of the decrepit elders of white nationalism and the new generation of meme-savvy racists and right-wing trolls.

The alt-right movement has fractured since the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many of the leaders have been doxed (exposed publicly and fired from their jobs), and the movement’s unity has evaporated in a series of public spats between the leaders of different factions. But Firestone is quick to point out that the alt-right has only receded into the shadows, while its fuel—the emiseration of capitalism, white chauvinism, and the stifling politics of centrism—continues to smolder. The alt-right’s potential to inspire violence also remains a threat, as evidenced by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, among others. I spoke with Firestone about what he learned during his three-month tour of the alt-right. This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Michael McCanne: When did you decide to actually infiltrate the alt-right?

Jay Firestone: When I began to see the alt-right move off the internet and onto the streets. It seemed like the wind was at their back with the election of Trump and specifically with the Trump rally format, which had become these very public meeting places for conservatives and people further to the right. Trump had created this indistinction between the fringes of the Republican Party and outright white supremacists and Nazis, which is an ideal moment for extremist political organizers.

MM: What steps did you take to infiltrate these groups?

JF: I started with a steady diet of podcasts, as much as I could take. Then I started posting on message boards. It took several months to develop enough of a profile to be a plausible character. They have a lot of shibboleths and once you learn those you can just walk right in the front door. It was actually harder than I thought to say all the racist stuff. I’m not easily offended—which is easy for a white guy to say—but the words just tasted really bad in my mouth. So my version of a racist was actually pretty lame.

MM: So it was harder to embody that character than you thought it would be?

JF: Well yeah, especially since when I was growing up I was socialized to make those kinds of jokes and stuff and it was a long process of unlearning that behavior. That’s why I recognized this movement as so potentially dangerous, because it taps into a lot of attitudes that people who don’t consider themselves far right already have, especially in these downwardly mobile white enclaves, outside the cities, where people are generally pissed off and looking for someone to blame.

MM: You recognized this could appeal to people you knew growing up.

JF: Yes. The particular crew that I was really interested in, The Right Stuff, which is a hub for racist podcasts, is based on ’90s shock jocks like Opie and Anthony, The Jerky Boys, and Howard Stern. It’s the kind of puerile adolescent humor that I grew up listening to, taken to this extreme where mean jokes are used to deny the humanity of people who aren’t white men.

MM: So you were most interested in The Right Stuff but started with this meet-up called the Daily Stormer Book Club . . . Are there books at this “book club”?

JF: There aren’t any books. It’s a joke. Being a nerd I was like, “Hey guys, do you want to read The Culture of Critique,” which is the definitive book of antisemitic philosophy. I’ve always kind of wanted to read it and thought it would be far-out to read this book with a bunch of actual Nazis. But they were like, “Whatever dude, just meet us at this bar.” They ended up showing me pictures of their vacations and gossiping about minor alt-right celebrities.

MM: How does the New York scene relate to the rest of the country?

JF: It’s a funny analog to how New York functions in the country generally. People want to be here, so a lot of the events would happen here and people would come from other cities. Mike Enoch [the alias used by Michael Peinovich], who founded The Right Stuff and runs a podcast called The Daily Shoah, is the “cool guy.” He lives in New York and everybody wants to hang out with him.

MM: You mention in the piece that what is so dangerous about Enoch and this new generation of white supremacists is that they are more aware of how they can appeal to average people, and also what turns people off.

JF: Yes. To take one example, there’s the question in the alt-right of whether to use Nazi iconography or wear Nazi uniforms. The slicker, more media-savvy folks of this ilk feel the same way about people waving Nazi flags as the left does about using a hammer and sickle or stuff from the Soviet Union. Like, “Who on earth do you think is going to get down with that besides your internet friends?”

People might not ever want to adopt Nazi iconography, and to the smart strategists, that’s fine. There’s not as much fidelity to the past in the alt-right as there is in the far left. They aren’t trying to recapture the great spirit of what Hitler and Mussolini did. It’s so much more oriented to the present historical juncture. The guys at the Daily Stormer Book Club didn’t even know about George Lincoln Rockwell. They didn’t know there was a massive Nazi party in New York City. I was showing them those famous pictures from 1939 of the swastikas in Madison Square Garden and they had never heard of that shit. I knew way more about history and white power music than any of them, for better or worse.

MM: How active are these groups in real life? Or do they exist primarily on the internet?

JF: Well, this is where we need to be a little bit careful; we’re still in the middle of this moment, as much as I would love to speak about it being over. In the context of individual groups, for the most part they remain stuck on the internet or in private meet-ups, which they have all over the country in small numbers. They had a period from Trump’s inauguration until Charlottesville where they were getting very comfortable with street mobilizations. That period seems to have ended, as have the sideshows that people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos were able to create on college campuses. Antifascist organizers willing to risk assault and arrest played a large role in ending that.

But I wouldn’t discount the slow work of hegemony still being done [by these groups] all over the internet. The strategy is the long patient work of moving the Overton window. Take Richard Spencer. It’s funny to watch him get punched in the face and to make fun of him, but he is a very serious political actor. He’s been at this for a decade, slowly but surely moving the boundaries of acceptable conservatism, inserting himself into the fringes of the Republican Party, and creating ambiguity between the extremist wing of conservatism, people like Pat Buchanan, and outright white nationalism.

MM: Has this worked to some degree?

JF: It’s impossible to overstate how effective antifascists were in making every step of the alt-right’s move off the internet very difficult, and this includes standing up to the alt-right in the streets. When Mike Enoch got doxed in the beginning of 2017, he basically said, a year from now you won’t even need to disguise your identity because you’ll be able to come out and say hell yeah, I’m a white nationalist, so is the president, so is his chief strategist. But that wager was ultimately proven wrong.

On a more profound level, ordinary white people were not as ready for the open ideological expression of white supremacy as these people assumed. Now, are ordinary white people ready for racism’s more subtle structural form? Oh hell yes. And I deliberately included a lot of details in my piece about instances where the alt-right’s politics blend into ordinary practices in white America, like cheering for somebody chanting “build the wall” at a bar, or having restrictive housing covenants. And do many ordinary white people support institutions like the police, who uphold white power? Sure. But average white people didn’t want anything to do with the ideological stuff, and I think some of the far right’s baggage also got in the way. Antisemitism, for instance. If I was an alt-right strategist I’d say, “Guys, we need to make peace with the Jews immediately.” Which is what New York City conservatives learned in the 1960s: make peace with conservative Jews through appeals to anti-black racism, under the banner of “law and order.” But that’s not on the table with the alt-right.

MM: There’s a hard line on antisemitism?

JF: Yeah. I would say it’s essential to their worldview. Without having read very many books, they are grasping towards a kind of third positionism, a fusion of fascism with working-class politics, and antisemitism is their substitution for an anti-capitalist analysis. Without antisemitism, they would end up having to confront capitalism for what it really is. Matthew N. Lyons and Don Hamerquist write about this on the blog Three Way Fight. They argue that if left liberals align with a centrist political project, there is a real danger that the far right might end up being the only anti-capitalists in the room.

MM: And they can turn the resentment against capitalism into racist resentment?

JF: Yes. Into antisemitism specifically.

Alt-right activist Jovi Val (with megaphone) outside Trump Tower in New York, July 2018. Photo: Shay Horse

MM: What is the makeup of these groups for the most part? How working-class are they?

JF: I would say, based on my own empiricism, that the composition of the alt-right skews to what we would call the downwardly mobile middle class, especially among the content producers in the cities. I’d be willing to bet that the people who consume the memes and podcasts are probably further down on the class ladder, but there’s no way to measure that just yet.

A lot of people who read the article pointed to the seeming contradiction between my argument that the economic and political crisis produced the alt-right, and the fact that many of the people I encountered seemed to be doing just fine. I don’t see a contradiction. For starters, the ruling class is always courting cross-class alliances based on race, ethnicity, national belonging, and so forth. And further, you can’t discount the animosity people feel toward society just because they aren’t living paycheck to paycheck. On a basic level, everyone still lives in the hellish world that has produced these politics and given them oxygen. Nobody gets into mean internet-based politics because they’re happy and well-adjusted and they have meaningful relationships with the people in their lives. These politics express a deep disfigurement of humanity. The preponderance of ugly patriarchal beliefs among many of the men in the alt-right is evidence enough of that.

MM: Right. There’s an impoverishment in modern life that doesn’t necessarily track to income.

JF: It’s fashionable to say that the alt-right, and the more mainstream Trump movement, is rooted in white working-class resentment of black and immigrant advancement. This idea gets us absolutely nowhere. It’s based on the economic fallacy that all the jobs and assets lost by white people in the last four decades have gone to black people and immigrants. That’s totally wrong. Things are getting worse for just about everyone. Ironically, by promoting this myth, liberals actually agree with the alt-right, who argue that the decline in standards of living for white people is because their assets have been redistributed to black people and immigrants. It’s bullshit. Most black people are in roughly the same economic shape they were in before the Civil Rights movement, if not in a worse position. To say that white populism arises because American capitalism has enabled black people to advance is really just dishonest apologetics for American capitalism.

MM: And also ignores a complete restructuring of the economy over the last 50 years.

JF: Right. Now you have austerity dressed up in this business-friendly liberalism; you literally have downwardly mobile white people being scolded, being told, “You’re only resentful because black people have a seat at the table,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself, check your privilege.” I mean, if your options are very narrow, you are one health emergency away from destitution, and these self-righteous liberals are saying you need to feel bad for how great you have it, you need to give up a little to atone for the sins of the past, the natural response is “fuck that.” Only very comfortable people would embrace a politics based on giving up what you have so that individual people can succeed in your place. And I can’t think of an easier politics to organize against. Thus the big threat that the alt-right poses is the way they can tell white people, especially downwardly mobile white people: You don’t have to feel bad; you don’t have to apologize to anybody. You can actually feel good about yourself, about being white, and turn your back on humanity.

MM: It seems the real danger is that without any meaningful alternative the people who are teetering are just going to walk off the cliff with these people.

JF: That’s a great metaphor, because there’s a real nihilism to this movement. Anybody who is getting involved now, after Charlottesville, is of a different magnitude than the people who were doing it when it looked like they were going to win. Society hates you. If anyone finds out who you are, you’re fucked. The movement is ugly and dark and mean. It reminds me of what Adorno said about the Third Reich, that death was built into it from the very beginning and that it was always only going to end one way. It mirrors this contemporary sense of hopelessness, that there’s no dignified way forward, no humanist way forward.

MM: What is the alt-right afraid of? What are their weaknesses?

JF: They are afraid of getting doxed, much more than getting beat up. They love getting beat up, they don’t like getting doxed. Another weakness of theirs is that they’ve created this milieu where so many hucksters can show up. Like that guy Eli Mosley, who came out of nowhere and worked his way to the top in a matter of months. He built his whole image on being an Iraq vet, and then the New York Times revealed that he was only in the National Guard and never deployed overseas. Spencer disavowed him and he disappeared. I met him a few times in New York. He was so clearly full of shit.

It’s kind of a cliché but they are afraid of the truth. They live in this very well-curated fantasy world, where basic historical facts don’t hold. Many of them have created these absurd avatars for themselves. Look at the way some of them dress for street demonstrations, like professional wrestlers or Bane from Batman or something. It’s like they think they’re going into this mythic battle with some skinny anarchist who is just going to pepper spray them anyway.

MM: What can people do if they don’t feel comfortable confronting the alt-right directly?

JF: There’s a lot of sleuthing to be done if you think it’s worth doing. You can dox these people pretty easily and you don’t have to do it yourself. Just send the info to whatever local antifa group you can find on Twitter. But the absolute last thing you want to do is argue on Twitter and try to convert them ideologically. That’s just not how politics works. Politics creates real life situations that change people’s practices and beliefs, it’s not about shouting beliefs back and forth at each other.

MM: Do you feel like it’s worthwhile to try to deprogram these people?

JF: I wouldn’t put a high premium on it. Do it if you think it’s going to work, but who you should really think about first are the people who have yet to choose a side.

MM: It seems like what makes this moment so frightening is that there’s more people on the fence than ever before.

JF: Yeah, and picking people off from the alt-right movement in ones and twos won’t be nearly as effective as building a serious left alternative that’s going to speak to the people who are getting activated by this rhetoric. For all the doom and gloom, there are more promising left projects than there have ever been in my lifetime. A massive movement of rank-and-file teachers is working outside their useless business unions. There are self-organized movements against sexual harassment, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia, and for all the talk about the alt-right’s popularity, there are more people in the Democratic Socialists of America alone than there are alt-right organizers nationwide. The trick is to engage with these projects in a way that extracts the working-class core of these issues, and creates a space that doesn’t just tell white people to shut up and feel bad, but allows everyone to fight together for a way out of the waking nightmare of capitalism.

Michael McCanne’s work has been published by Art in America, The New Inquiry, Boston Review, Jacobin, and Dissent.