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.