After a four-year investigation, The Atlantic has released their first feature documentary, White Noise: Inside the Racist Right. By the end of the film, however, one gets the distinct sense that a more accurate title might be The Rise and Fall of the Racist Right. The film is bookended by scenes that warn of a rising white-nationalist movement, but the documentary actually tells a different story — the tale of the alt-right’s brief moment of euphoria, their bitter sense of betrayal at Donald Trump’s presidency, and their disillusionment and collapse.
Interestingly, of the three figures followed by filmmaker Daniel Lombroso, only one of them is a self-described white nationalist: Richard Spencer, the alleged thought leader of the alt-right and one of the founders of AltRight.com. Mike Cernovich, a lifestyle coach-turned Trumpian conspiracy theorist, and Lauren Southern, the Canadian YouTube star who discovered the lucrative nature of being an attractive right-wing American troll, have been dubbed “alt-light” by the truly dedicated racists of America’s white-nationalist underground. Both were willing to flirt with the dark forces to build a following; neither fully took the plunge.
With the exception of the murder of Heather Heyer, a protester killed at the white-nationalist rallies in Charlottesville in August 2017 when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd, much of the alt-right’s battles with Antifa and other leftists isn’t street warfare so much as Weimar Berlin cosplay. The alt-right and the far left feed off of one another. The opposing sides confirm each other’s worldviews and conveniently provide each other evidence for the extreme premises each use to justify violence, racism, and prejudice. White Noise provides one microcosmic example of this: Mike Cernovich informing an audience that the hashtag #killallwhitemen was to justify the alt-right theory that “diversity is white genocide.”
The far left, in response, uses the phrase “white genocide” to prove that the alt-right is engaged in inflammatory blood libel by accusing non-white Americans and immigrants of . . . well, genocide. Genocide, of course, implies widespread and lethal violence, not generational demographic replacement due to rising immigration paired with white America’s stubborn refusal to have more children. “White genocide” is a handy way for bitter white nationalists to avoid grappling with their own failures and instead blame the other — generally, the immigrants and the Jews. Thus, each side accuses the other of being a fundamentally existential threat.
Eagerly amplifying all of this is the breathless media. Some of them want to use all of this as evidence for their conviction that Donald Trump is a genie conjured up by racists transported from America’s dark past, and that every ugly thing uttered by a white nationalist or a troll must be laid at the president’s feet. Others simply have a cynical desire for clicks, ratings, and outrage. Media attention, of course, feeds both sides, giving them an exaggerated sense of relevance and power. Everyone gets angrier and more terrified, and the media feeding us the content get richer in the process. Everyone wins but America.
I’m not saying that the alt-right and white nationalism are not a concern, mind you. I wrote a dozen columns about the poisonous anti-Semitism of the alt-right when they first arrived on the political scene and had the distinction of being condemned by name on Richard Spencer’s flagship site. I’m simply echoing the observation of one wag who noted that the demand for white supremacists in America often outstrips the supply. That, in fact, is why mediocre men such as Richard Spencer, who cannot even get through a speech of boilerplate racist slogans without reading from his notes, briefly soared to prominence. He was evidence that neo-Nazis were a real concern. What? You say Nazis don’t exist anymore? Well, here’s one right here! said the media solemnly.
Indeed, it is impossible to watch White Noise and not be struck by just how pathetic the alt-right is (or was). Spencer, for all his intellectual pretensions (and they really are pretensions) is an awful speaker with almost nothing interesting to say, his leadership being the result of being the cream of a really sad crop. The alt-right conferences are remarkable for their near-total absence of ideas — these people aren’t Nietzsche, they’re losers who blame their circumstances on everyone but themselves. There is no substance to their rhetoric, just recycled stereotypes shot through with testosterone, anger, and bad haircuts. Listening to Spencer and the other alt-right figures, one reaches the inescapable conclusion that there is, as Gertrude Stein once put it, no there there.
Once you see the alt-right up close, it is obvious that Spencer and his comrades needed the media to give the impression that their sad and sparse group of frustrated men was . . . well, a movement. In reality, the alt-right is a perfect case study of what Mary Eberstadt describes in her recent book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Frequently fatherless and lacking the natural tribes of sprawling extended families that grounded men for generations, many young people are angry and adrift in a society that has overseen the mass rupturing of familial ties, depriving them of a genuine sense of identity. The alt-right and their mirror image Antifa are atomized folks desperate for belonging, and these identitarian groups are their gangs. The Proud Boys are actually the Lost Boys.
As the documentary nears its conclusion, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that the subjects of the film permitted the cameramen to stick around. Mike Cernovich sadly tells the camera that all his notoriety hasn’t made him any money, and now attempts — without irony — to market his wellness seminars and lifestyle products. Lauren Southern, obviously disillusioned by the misogynist pigs that populate the alt-right (in one scene, she takes a call from Gavin McInnes, who appears to sexually proposition her after she appears on his show) decides to marry her non-white boyfriend, who has impregnated her. After a year hiatus, she is back pitching a new feature-length documentary about America’s race wars. She tells the filmmaker that she’s sorry if anyone misunderstood what she was trying to say, but takes nothing back.
Richard Spencer, once fêted as the de facto leader of the alt-right, has moved into his mother’s house in Whitefish, Mont. His movement — which was never really a movement — fell apart after Charlottesville, and his speeches are attended by tiny clumps of men that even Spencer appears to have contempt for. He attempts bravado in his final interviews, though, imagining a future ethno-state where his descendants might admire a street named after himself. The levels of delusion are downright hilarious: Spencer is speaking from his mother’s home, and he is currently divorced. His ex-wife accused him of physical abuse (something he denies). He recently endorsed Joe Biden for president.
In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of this documentary is how dated it already feels. Who wonders these days where Gavin McInnes is? What influence does Richard Spencer have left? Once he endorsed Biden, the media could no longer use him as a club to beat the president, and he ended his useful-idiot status. Lauren Southern still has a following and is attempting reputational rehabilitation, but she, too, has obviously recognized that the “alt-right moment,” whatever that was, is over, and that it is time to move on. Their friends are gone, too — Stefan Molyneux, Milo Yiannopoulos, Faith Goldy — it is almost hard to remember how big of a deal they were.
Racism, of course, is still present in society, and after the events of 2020, America in many ways seems more divided than ever. Identity politics have not exactly gone away, and no doubt those attracted to Spencer and his ilk will continue to populate various caverns of the Internet and propagate their conspiracy theories, but any hope they had at achieving real power is gone. Their abrupt rise and fall reminds me of what Kitty Muggeridge once said about David Frost: “He rose without a trace.” The alt-right came, they spewed, they collapsed. Good riddance to them all.