“If we don’t appear like angry misfits, then we will end up making friendships with people who don’t agree with us,” one alt-righter told Hermansson. This technique of not looking like angry misfits, and instead focusing on commonalities, is a textbook method of indoctrination. In my case, these professions of limited sympathy (“I too find the Trinity a confusing element of Christian theology”) have been real, and unlike Hermansson, I have always introduced myself as a writer.
Surreptitious recording of private conversation is, of course, a journalistic taboo (and in some jurisdictions and circumstances, a crime as well), and outright misrepresentation of one’s views often feels, to use a precise ethnographic term, icky. An essay by Roger Homan, who did covert sociological research among Pentecostals, notes that the author (not a Pentecostal himself) considered undertaking false baptism or speaking in tongues, but scruples forced him to back out. These lies would be, he wrote, “inordinately fraudulent,” and an occasion for a “crisis of conscience.” After his research ended, he worried that prolonged dishonesty could cause a researcher to have “serious problems” developing “open and honest relationships” with other people. Of course, a psychopathic sociologist might obtain better data than a conscience-ridden one, and a journalist willing to lie his way into Raqqah would probably have emerged (assuming he emerged at all) with tales to tell.
What strikes me about some of these covert conversations, however, is that they require no covert methods at all. Common ground may be a good start, but in my experience hardened jihadists and racists relish a good debate, and will be mostly truthful if challenged frontally. Indeed, they will say more to a reluctant recruit than to a convinced one.
Hermansson’s report maps out the organization of European and U.S. white supremacist groups admirably, and he gets footage of Greg Johnson, an alt-right leader who (unlike, say, Richard Spencer) avoids journalists. The footage is captivating and accomplishes the most basic goal of documentary film, which is to show things that are real, and that people don’t usually get to see.
But here is what Hermansson calls the “key lesson” of his research: “Allowing these hateful ideas to go unchallenged allows them to become normal. It brings about the creeping acceptance of alt-right and far-right ideas in the mainstream.” Was this lesson, which sounds suspiciously like liberal consensus, worth the moral compromise? To find out, we may have to wait until the next time a researcher attempts an ethnography of the extreme right. Let’s see how the Nazis react to those consent forms.