The Digitally Entangled Lives of Two Christopher Cantwells

A professor who shares a name with an alt-right leader became witness to his radicalization, and to the evolution of a movement.

Christopher Cantwell speaks to a Vice News reporter.
Christopher Cantwell speaks to a Vice News reporter. (Vice News / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Last week, Vice News’s documentary on the violent rallies in Charlottesville introduced the world to Christopher Cantwell, the heavily armed white nationalist who served as the video’s star. His shaved head, foul mouth, abhorrent views, and extensive arsenal distilled for many the most frightening elements of a resurgent white-supremacist movement.

While much of the world met Cantwell for the first time last weekend, this self-proclaimed fascist has tormented my digital existence for years. I share a name with the young man, and our lives have collided online for half a decade. The rush to register usernames on social media first led our paths to cross, while the algorithmic coincidences of simple Google searches have given me a front row seat to Cantwell’s public life. The view not only introduced me to his bigotry, but also made me something of a witness to his radicalization. Though many watching the events in Charlottesville may have been shocked to see white nationalists marching down the street so brazenly, my experience highlights the mechanisms hiding in plain sight online that brought at least one of the marchers to Virginia. And the process by which my namesake came to embrace fascism may shed light on how many of the other faces in Vice’s documentary became radicalized, as well.

In 2012, I was completing my Ph.D. in American history and working at a library where, ironically, I developed a curriculum on religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In advance of going on the academic job market, I wanted to create a website about my work. But when I went to register a domain name, I discovered that this other Christopher, this Alt-Cantwell, had already monopolized every variation of our name online. At the time, Cantwell was an aspiring libertarian comedian. Recordings of his stand-up routines, since taken down by YouTube but still viewable elsewhere, showed him making jokes about the police, government overreach, and minorities. I didn’t find it very funny, and the audiences in the videos seemed to agree. But there was nothing in these early digital artifacts that hinted at Cantwell’s future as an advocate for an ethno-state. To avoid any kind of confusion between the historian and the comedian, I decided to use my middle initial when publishing and moved on.

But in 2014 I came across my digital doppelganger again. By that time, I had left the library world for a position at a university where I taught classes on America’s religious diversity. Alt-Cantwell, meanwhile, had given up comedy to become an activist who specialized in political spectacle. I learned this after a group of chuckling students asked me after class if I had seen the video of the guy with the same name as me. A quick Google search revealed that Cantwell had earned himself a spot on a segment of The Colbert Report by battling the tyranny of parking meter attendants in Keene, New Hampshire, plugging meters and following and confronting them. My mother even sent me the link.

Colbert ridiculed Cantwell and his co-conspirators. As I watched the segment, however, I couldn’t help but notice that Cantwell had acquired a harder edge. One particularly striking scene showed Cantwell firing a barrage of bullets into an American flag. Returning to the URLs I had once hoped to claim, I found that Cantwell had abandoned libertarianism for a far more extreme version of free-market anarchism. His blog, which now came with the tag line “Anarchist, Atheist, Asshole,” decried any form of social order as coercive. This included not only state and local governments, but also, quite tellingly, any effort to accommodate disadvantaged communities through economic equality or cultural sensitivity. Political correctness, in short, was an affront to individual liberty.

It was in 2015 that the Cantwell the world now knows began to show up in my inbox and news feeds. With a handful of publications coming out, I set up a Google Alert for my name in order to see where my work might get cited, reviewed, or discussed. Instead what I got was an almost play-by-play description of Cantwell’s descent into hate. As an activist in Keene, Cantwell co-hosted a syndicated radio show on libertarianism called “Free Talk Live.” That spring, Cantwell ran afoul of the show’s producers after he came to the defense of a fellow traveler who claimed people of color had inherently lower IQs. In the dust-up that followed, Cantwell responded to an African American critic on Twitter with a racial slur; he was subsequently dismissed from the show. Isolated and alone, Cantwell poured his energies into his own podcast. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Cantwell’s show became a favorite among white nationalists who saw him as a martyr who advocated their views. Within the next year, Cantwell began appearing at the growing number of so-called “alt-right” demonstrations, eventually earning himself a spot as a featured speaker at the rally in Charlottesville.

I know all of this because I kept getting Google Alerts as events unfolded. And through the purview of my inbox, I watched as Cantwell’s radicalization developed in a recurring pattern. His abrasiveness seemed to isolate him, which, in turn, may have bred a hatred for the conventions that marked his views as distasteful. In less than a decade, his rhetoric went from crass political humor to political extremism to outspoken fascism. And his personal evolution paralleled the move of white nationalists, fascists, and neo-Nazis from the fringe toward the middle of American political life.

Days after Charlottesville, Cantwell posted video of himself weeping at the news that local police had issued warrants for his arrest. He currently sits in a jail in Lynchburg, Virginia, awaiting trial. The contrast between Cantwell’s early bravado and his post-riot frailty was widely mocked. But to replace Cantwell’s own exaggerated version of himself with another caricature would be to miss the larger point of his story. In the days after Charlottesville, the response to the tragedy that has stuck with me the most has been President Barack Obama’s quotation of Nelson Mandela. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” Obama tweeted. I saw myself in the tweet, and my work teaching my students about the history of America’s religious diversity. But I also saw the other Cantwell in it—and the process of radicalization to which I became an accidental witness.