Editor’s Note: The Atlantic’s film, White Noise, premieres on June 20 at the AFI Docs documentary film festival. Tickets are available on AFI’s website.
White nationalists have always been able to find one another in America, but the recent resurgence of the white-nationalist movement—and the extent to which its ideas have seeped into the mainstream alongside Donald Trump’s political ascent—is stunning.
In November 2016, I captured footage of Trump supporters throwing Nazi salutes in celebration of his presidential victory, a moment that became an explosive story in the days that followed, and set the tone for the Trump presidency. In the nearly four years since then, I have focused all of my journalistic energy on the “alt-right,” documenting the figures leading a swelling, and splintering, movement that centers around racism and hate. I saw far-right rhetoric rising on college campuses and in mainstream American politics, and white nationalists reaching millions online. I found my way into the heart of the movement, witnessing violent protests and wild parties, and sitting in the rooms where populist and racist ideologies were refined and weaponized. Through it all, I wanted to understand: What made white-power ideology so intoxicating, especially among my generation?
This question is deeply personal. Both of my grandmothers are Holocaust survivors. My father’s mother, Shulamit Lombroso, fled Nuremberg in 1939 with the Kindertransport, a rescue effort that saved 10,000 German Jews. She left with only one photo album, never to see her parents again. My mother’s mother, Nina Gottlieb, spent World War II hiding in Poland, losing her sister to the war. Six million Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s total, were killed at the hands of Nazism, an ideology consumed by a belief in the supremacy of whiteness. What began with inflamed rhetoric and scapegoating soon turned into industrialized slaughter.
Meaningful journalism begins with bearing witness. Over four years, I visited 12 states and five countries, and spent hundreds of hours with conspiracy theorists, far-right influencers, and politicians sympathetic to white nationalism. My goal was to understand the movement’s most prominent extremists—those who already had followings in the millions and were shaping the public conversation.
The result is The Atlantic’s first-ever feature-length documentary, White Noise, which focuses on the lives of three far-right figures: Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist and a sex blogger turned media entrepreneur; Lauren Southern, an anti-feminist, anti-immigration YouTube star; and Richard Spencer, a white-power ideologue.
Progressives like to believe that racism is an opiate of the ignorant. But the alt-right’s leaders are educated and wealthy, groomed at some of America’s most prestigious institutions. The more time I spent documenting the movement, the more ubiquitous I realized it was. I bumped into one subject dancing in Bushwick with his Asian girlfriend, and another walking around DuPont Circle hitting a vape. Their racism is woven into the fabric of New York, Washington, D.C., and Paris, just as much as Birmingham, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas.
During a visit to Richard Spencer’s apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, I began to understand how the alt-right works. Evan McLaren, a lawyer, wrote master plans on a whiteboard. A band of college kids poured whiskey for Spencer, adjusted his gold-framed Napoleon painting, and discussed the coming “Identitarian” revolution. Spencer offered a sense of historical purpose to his bored, middle-class followers. In his telling, they weren’t just “white Americans,” but descendants of the Greeks and Romans. “Myths are more powerful than rationality,” Spencer told me. “We make life worth living.”
White Noise is about the seductive power of extremism. Hatred feels good. But the fix is fleeting. As the film progresses, the subjects reveal the contradictions at the heart of their world. Southern advocates for traditional gender roles, but resents the misogyny and sexism of her peers. Cernovich warns that “diversity is code for white genocide,” but has an Iranian wife and biracial kids. Spencer swears he’ll lead the white-nationalist revolution—until it’s more comfortable for him to move home to live with his wealthy mother in Montana. For so many who feel lost or alone, these avatars of hate offer a promise: Follow us, and life will be better.
White Noise shows how empty that promise is.
Toward the end of my reporting, my family traveled to Kielce, Poland, with my sole surviving grandmother, Nina Gottlieb, to retrace her steps fleeing the Nazis. “They had signs: Jews and dogs are not allowed,” she told us, as we gathered near her childhood home. My grandmother spent the war hiding under a Polish Catholic name, Janina Wiśniewski, until she was eventually resettled by HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement organization targeted by the white nationalist who murdered 11 people as they worshipped at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. “We’re all born innocent babies. What happens to us?” my grandmother asked.
Walking through one of Poland’s decaying Jewish cemeteries, I reflected on my grandmother’s question. White nationalists aren’t dumb, or poor. They’re scared of losing power. By 2045, white Americans will become a minority in the United States. This demographic change isn’t a conspiracy—what those in the alt-right call “white genocide”—but a choice. Millions have decided that they want an inclusive society with equality and justice for everyone. As protesters march to fight structural racism against African Americans, it is clear how much work is left to be done. To defeat hate movements as widespread and damaging as white nationalism, we must understand why people are drawn to them in the first place, and what they’re willing to give up in order to belong.
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