Politics

Why the actual energy of the old-right lies within the narrative it sells

One of the unfortunate consequences of the past four years is that ordinary people have heard of many political figures who would once have been relegated to the fringes. There's Mike Cernovich, a self-proclaimed provocateur and meme creator who is a regular InfoWars. There's Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who became particularly notorious during the 2017 violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And there is Lauren Southern, a YouTube personality and anti-immigrant activist who is known to have supported the group Defend Europe, who rejects search and rescue operations for refugees in the Mediterranean.

These three people are at the center of White Noise, an excellent new documentary from Daniel Lombroso, an Atlantic journalist. The film paints a portrait of the last few years of her life, but beyond that it subtly shows how much of the internet old-right is driven by the desire to get rich, get famous and attract acolytes. Lombroso spent several years meeting with Cernovich, Spencer, and Southern, attending their events, letting them speak, and quietly allowing them to unravel their own arguments.

I recently spoke with Lombroso about how he secured this access, what he learned and how it changed him. Our conversation has been slightly edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Students for Western Civilization President George Hutcheson with Lauren Southern in White Noise.
The Atlantic

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you come into contact with these topics?

Daniel Lombroso

I started as a reporter at the Atlantic in 2016 to report on the old right before the numbers in the film were particularly well known. It started with a series of short documentaries. I was actually the guy who caught a lot of people breaking out in Nazi salutes (2016). This was a pivotal journalistic moment that cemented the alt-right as a fundamentally white nationalist – and possibly neo-Nazi – movement.

So I dealt with the old law in a brief documentary form. I created a profile on Richard Spencer before he was essentially synonymous with David Duke as he is now.

Then I went back to my daily job as a video producer on the Atlantic and covered all sorts of topics, but really cut out a niche around fundamentalism. I wrote an article on right-wing Christian media called Church Militant. I wrote a piece about Israeli settlers in the West Bank and spent two weeks there.

Then happened Charlottesville. It was eight months after the Nazis' viral greeting excerpt went viral, and it was a defining moment for a million reasons. In the newsroom we knew we had to do something deeper. So I immediately teamed up with Jeff Goldberg, the editor-in-chief (am Atlantik), and Kasia (Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg), who ran Atlantic Studios. We all always wanted to do a feature. I think we didn't know when it was going to happen or what it was going to be about, but when Charlottesville happened and Trump wasn't turning down white nationalists, we knew this had to be the story.

Alissa Wilkinson

So that was three years ago, and it's evident in the movie that several years go by from start to finish. What was it like to stay with them for so long?

Daniel Lombroso

I covered the film for three years, starting with Richard, then with (Mike) Cernovich and finally with Lauren (Southern). She was the toughest and actually took eight months to negotiate access. And for me it is the most important in the film. She is a feminine face of racism and embodies such obvious contradictions.

The Atlantic was really great to give me space. I basically work alone as a reporter and filmmaker, so I'm a one-man band. I made and directed the film and co-produced it.

I started by reporting and filming with maybe 20 or 30 topics on the right. I realized pretty quickly that I didn't want to just amplify a marginal voice, someone who wasn't relevant, and make them relevant by giving them the credibility of the Atlantic. Together with Jeff and Kasia, I quickly decided that it had to be these three characters because they follow millions and have a huge impact. Cernovich can launch a meme from his Orange County laptop. A few days later, it comes out of (Sean) Hannity's mouth in Fox News and finally out of the President's mouth.

It was a slow burn. After Charlottesville, I spent two or three months across the country. We planned these three (topics) until October or November (2017). And it wasn't until May of the following year, eight months later, for Lauren to sign up.

From there, I just followed their stories very closely. It's a little over three years for Richard. with Mike and Lauren it's more than two. At its core, White Noise is a "follow film". It takes time to get it right. And luckily the Atlantic gave me the space.

Mike Cernovich in the corner of a room in his house, with his computer and an ad for a brain supplement.

Mike Cernovich in White Noise. The Atlantic

Alissa Wilkinson

This film struck me as a portrait of what it takes to be a grifter today, or at least it explains the social and financial rewards associated with extreme positions on the internet.

Daniel Lombroso

They are opportunists, they are Hucksters, and I'd say it's fair to say they are Grifter too. It's difficult because they believe what they're saying – Cernovich a little less than the other two, but they definitely believe it enough to say it.

But they're also there for the fame and the money. I think Cernovich is the most extreme example of this. He starts the film very comfortably with the term "Alt-Right". If that term gets a little more toxic after Charlottesville, it says "Fuck the Nazis" and moves away from them and changes brands. And at the end of the movie, you can see he's selling nutritional supplements and lifestyle programs.

Lauren is really interesting. She knows what her package is. She is very articulate and can use her looks. It's very convincing – and it works on YouTube too. It almost feels like Stalin, like old Russian propaganda material; If you look at the lens barrel and say something that is convincing, it feels true. And she can back it up with pseudoscience that is usually not accurate.

Their motivations are so mixed, and at its core the film tries to uncover this. The real power of the old-right is that if you feel lost or depressed but follow it, they will sell a narrative, that they understand life, and that if you feel lost or depressed, you are connected to the great story of white civilization.

By being able to sit with the subjects for that long, you can see in the film how mixed their motivations really are. You have a legitimate interest. You want to be famous. You want to get rich. And they keep contradicting the things they believe in.

Alissa Wilkinson

One challenge in this era seems to be figuring out how to write about these people without aestheticizing them, without talking in amazement about the "clean" neo-Nazi. The film shows that a lot of what they do is largely based on aesthetic appeal. You present people with a picture of who they could be. Are there any particular challenges in presenting the film, which is a visual medium?

Daniel Lombroso

We didn't want the film to glorify them in any way. That affected everything from scene selection to shot selection. We had very lively conversations about everything from the way we handle the issues to shooting level decisions. We screened for different audiences and built a really diverse team around the film.

What they do is fundamentally aesthetic. They're so obsessed with how they look that it's obviously part of the story. I think it is our responsibility as journalists to treat this ethically and responsibly and to be extremely critical. I think the film does that.

And ignore it, you'll miss the mark, as the alt-right appeal is aimed at highly educated upper-middle-class white kids in New York and LA. It's hardly about white nationalism. It's about the community. It's about a clique. It's about how you look and dress and how you say "hello" – all of your interesting communication codes, different ways of communicating online, but also in the physical realm. That's pretty basic to understanding movement.

Lauren Southern and Gavin McInnes on TV.

Lauren Southern with Gavin McInnes, founder of Proud Boys in White Noise.
The Atlantic

You see it in different ways in the film. At the beginning of the conference, when Richard said: "Hail Trump!" – We're really sticking to the fact that they're young. He says, "Get up when you're under 30" and the whole room is up. Most of these kids went to college – I've interviewed many of them – and they're educated. They have a very clear aesthetic. You could call it the Hitler Youth, the fascism of the 20th century, but it's like a suit and tie and everyone has a haircut they call "the fashion".

Lauren's package is all about her image. I have a story about it; She is very aware of her image and uses it. She uses it very consciously. She's a smart person and knows how to convince, but she knows the package she's selling and uses it to maximize her impact and influence.

There are really dangerous ways to cover this. I mean, there was a botched profile early on – I don't want to say who wrote it – that really aimed at Richard being a dapper white nationalist. We have seen all possible iterations of it. I think it just comes down to being very, very careful, from the choice of shots to the way you talk about the subjects. But their aesthetic is really fundamental to the whole project, just as it has always been for fascist movements.

Alissa Wilkinson

Fascism is so much about myths and legends that its looks are reminiscent of it.

Daniel Lombroso

I agree.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sometimes when I watch a documentary I feel like I'm just reading a magazine article. One thing I love about White Noise is how skillfully you use the visual medium to amplify and undercut what people are saying out loud, or to get at elements that you cannot easily capture in a font. I'll never get over the look on Cernovich's face when he sells skin care products.

Daniel Lombroso

Or in the car wash. He sits depressed and goes through a car wash.

Alissa Wilkinson

Are you looking for these pictures while you take photos?

Daniel Lombroso

When people see a movie, they want to see a movie. What I'm really looking for are quiet, narrative moments that don't require dialogue. What destroys most Hollywood films is saying an exhibition or something in dialogue that you would never say in real life just to build the audience. That's the bane of everything I wanted to do. In editing, I was trying to find ways to set up and say things that are very subtle.

I am always looking for ways to let the topics hang up. For example, in one scene Richard proudly says, "I'm taller than the movement" – which is insane for a million reasons. And then, five minutes later, in the film that was in real life the next day, he's giving a speech at an agricultural school and there are six people there, maybe ten.

This is my first feature, but I'm always looking for visual ways to tell the story and stay subtle. I think this is ultimately much more powerful than a talking head or someone telling you, "This is a racist movement. Cernovich is a Grifter." I think it's a lot more revealing when you see him putting facial serum on and over it speaks how this is its latest linchpin.

Alissa Wilkinson

In some cases, Lauren watches a video of her speaking and she sits with another woman who looks at her sideways the whole time. It felt like this scene embodied something else that the film shows: the kind of bubble your subjects built around them to add meaning. Richard's statement is a good example of this. They know they are influential, but they have also surrounded themselves with people who keep telling them that you are influential.

Did you get a feel for it when you followed them? Have there been times when you said, "Wow, your sense of reality is so far from reality"?

Daniel Lombroso

Absolutely. There is so much disinformation on the far right. People just casually joke about things like Pizzagate which is just wrong. There's not even a basement at Comet Pizza that (according to the disproved Pizzagate conspiracy theory) supposedly had a pedophile ring in the basement.

But everyone has a feeling of over-importance. I think that's because they are very deliberately surrounding themselves with yes men or with people who are playing in front of their ego.

Richard is the most obvious example. He is consistently followed by mostly younger kids in their twenties, college kids, or straight out of college kids who have that outdated but modernized fascist aesthetic. On a typical day, especially when I'm not filming and just sitting with them, they pour him whiskey and buy him dinner, and they do his every command. He has the atmosphere of a cult leader.

A woman in a helmet with a "MAGA" sticker and a mobile phone in a portable camera rig.

Lauren Southern livestreamed a rally in Berkeley, California in April 2017. Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images

It is to a lesser extent with Lauren and Mike. This may come as a surprise to people, but Mike is a kind of father figure to the people in his sphere. In this alpha male alt-right realm called the "manosphere" or whatever it is called, people really trust Mike and turn to him for advice. When Lucian Wintrich – whom we ultimately downplayed a bit, is a far-right provocateur who started the meme "Twinks4Trump" – went through a breakup, Mike was one of his first calls. He wanted Mike's advice. I think that's what sets Mike apart from the other two characters: in his world, people really trust him, and that might be surprising.

Lauren is currently going through a transformation in the movie and ultimately it's incomplete. She always doubts herself. It gets its validation online and I think the moment you mentioned is a really good example. Everything is conveyed through screens. She is in Moscow watching her talk on a screen in London, and then Brittany, who is jealous of her, watches herself.

Lauren gets a lot of her trust from comments and is obsessed with negative comments and things that don't go their way. It was difficult for her and it continues to be difficult for her. I think part of it is just that she was so young when she got around to it and that's all she knows. It's everything she has ever known

Alissa Wilkinson

This attention bubble seems to be disappearing. I felt like watching White Noise, having seen the two Steve Bannon documentaries that have come out in recent years, or reading one of those explosive interviews Isaac Chotiner does at the New Yorker every time. I wonder why on earth would these people talk to a journalist or a filmmaker or be followed by cameras? What do you think is the characteristic trait or quality that leads a person to have a filmmaker follow them for a few years when they know that person disagrees with their views?

Daniel Lombroso

Part of that is narcissism, and that's pretty evident in the film. The other is that I work very small. I shoot alone, I'm a one-man band and that helps neutralize them. You're all ready to sit here and there and give a quote. But it's kind of a misconception that the alt-right want attention – they'll be happy to quote you here and there, or sit for an interview while they're in control. That kind of unvarnished, all-access thing was incredibly difficult to achieve. And I think part of the reason they did it was because I was really curious and kept coming back.

But part of it was their narcissism. I think they thought they could outsmart me if they just portray a positive part of their life – for example, Cernovich's sunny life in Southern California – it could help redeem him or rewrite his public image.

Part of that too, especially with Lauren – I'm a bit older than her, but I'm about her age and we grew up with a lot of the same things. So there are enough common points of reference to talk about when spending hundreds of hours off camera just to spend time in an airport or to have lunch to get them to where they're ready open.

In the movie, you see many of the juiciest moments. But all documentary filmmakers know that you spend hours and hours getting people to this point. The three minutes of Russia in the film was a 10-day journey. It was like that across the board.

Alissa Wilkinson

You said you had reported fundamentalism in the past. Is there an overlap between fundamentalism and this issue?

Daniel Lombroso

There is absolutely overlap. Extremism makes you feel part of a historical narrative. You feel like you are living for the past and for the future and that you are part of something greater than your everyday, even boring, experience.

I don't want to bring these things together because they are different, but you see that with far-right evangelicals. In the play Church Militant, I interviewed a number of interns who worked at this far-right media company, and it was the same story. One of them said, "I was lost for years and wandered around in the dark until I met Michael Voris," the person who founded Church Militant. It's the same story.

Conservative leaders gather for the annual CPAC event in National Harbor, Maryland

Richard Spencer at CPAC in February 2017.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

With Israeli settlers – again I don't want to associate the situation there with white supremacy! – but there is a feeling that with the settlement of the West Bank they are writing the next chapter in Jewish history. In some ways, this is way more fun than just being a person who is going to die and everyone will forget you.

So there is this heaviness. At its core, it's the same stimulus – a deeply emotional or even metaphysical stimulus.

Alissa Wilkinson

So you've spent three years in the world of the old-right. How has the experience changed your attitude towards American politics?

Daniel Lombroso

I don't know that I've ever been naive enough to believe that we lived in a racial America, but I was probably a little bit more hopeful when I got on the project, and now I'm a lot more cynical about the whole thing . The film is an unsympathetic eulogy on the right. You can see the numbers drop in the end, but their ideas are so clearly part of our discourse now. You're on Fox News every night. There are newer influencers out there who are saying things a lot worse. Tucker Carlson is the highest rated person on TV now, and says things Richard said three or four years ago.

It was very depressing to see the extent of white nationalism and conspiracy in both American and European politics, and I just don't see it go away. I think it is wrong to believe that if Trump loses the election, it is done and over because even if part of his base is lost, they are still there. There are still children who find these videos on YouTube and are radicalized by them.

In the way we have talked about radical Islam, for better or for worse, as a defining theme of the late '90s and early' 00s, I think white domestic terrorism and white nationalism are issues with which to deal we will deal a long time.

White Noise can be rented digitally on platforms such as Apple TV and Google Play. Please refer to the website for details.

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