Photograph by Yonit Lavin

Journalist Talia Lavin has experienced no shortage of abuse online from hate groups. In 2018, their harassment drove her to quit as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, after she mistakenly implied on Twitter that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent had a Nazi tattoo. When people pointed out that the tattoo could represent something else, she deleted the tweet and explained why—she didn’t want to spread misinformation. She didn’t start the tattoo rumor—only, briefly, perpetuated it—but far-right media entities, including the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, continued to peg the mistake as hers alone. Lavin quit her job to avoid attacks on the reputations of her colleagues. 

But she didn’t stop writing about these hate groups. In outlets such as GQ and The Nation, Lavin—who is a Jewish woman and therefore a prime target for misogynistic, anti-Semitic white supremacists—examined why these groups exist and how they inspire acts of domestic terrorism. In response, white supremacists sent threats of violence to her and her family to scare her into silence. But even then, she didn’t stop writing. She doubled down.

The journalist spent the next two years undercover, gaining entry to some of the darkest places on the Internet. Posing as “Ashlynn,” a single, gun-loving, racist woman from Iowa, she infiltrated an online dating site for white supremacists, where she exposed how deeply entangled white supremacy is with misogyny. As a young man named “Tommy O’Hara,” she witnessed firsthand how incels—a group of radicalized men who claim to be “involuntarily celibate” and express sexual frustration through hateful rhetoric aimed at women—are pressured by other members of the movement to escalate their words into action.

Those investigations and others are supplemented by rigorous research on the history of hate groups in the US in her new book, Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. The book sheds light on the ideological make-up of online hate groups—which is far more complex than perhaps many people understand—how members of these groups find and communicate with each other, and what draws people to these groups in the first place.

The book is more than a primer for understanding online hate, however. It is also a call to action. “I hope that this book is a weapon in the arsenal of people who want to combat this ideology,” Lavin told me. “Because this movement’s sole goal is violence.”

Lavin spoke to me over the phone about her book and why she decided to write it. We also discussed the increasingly porous borders between the rhetoric of online hate groups and that of the highest political office in the nation. Just days before this interview took place, six men were arrested for an alleged scheme to kidnap the governor of Michigan. Two weeks earlier, President Trump had refused to condemn white supremacists during a televised debate, going as far as to tell them to “stand back and stand by.” The governor and others have argued that the arrested men were galvanized by Trump’s words, interpreting them as a rallying cry.

Amy Brady for Guernica

Guernica: Why did you decide to write a book about online hate groups?

Talia Lavin: My first article about far-right groups was about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The event felt very personal because it put anti-Semitism front and center—it shattered [my] undue calm. It was one of those moments where I suddenly felt ashamed that I had been asleep to the creeping metastasis of hate groups in the US.

After writing about [those groups], their response was hatred toward me as a Jew, a woman, as a person. Their harassment and the sexual violence inherent in their responses were such that I felt that the abyss was already gazing at me—and commenting. But I am a very stubborn person. I wanted to look deeper. My choice was to turn towards them, not away.

Guernica: As you looked deeper, what kinds of people did you see participating in these groups?

Lavin: Almost everybody in those groups is white. Many groups are male dominated, but that’s where the ability to make generalizations ends. If there’s one message I want people to take away from the book it’s that no one type of person makes up these groups. There’s no set of stereotypes that apply to people who join, propagandize, publicize, or commit violence on behalf of white supremacy. The myth of Toothless Cletus in the South is really a myth of self-absolution for people who might fit in the demographic of, say, Guernica readers. People from all over the country with comfortable jobs, families and wives, are part of this movement. If you think about it, engaging in the types of things that require obtaining weapons or doing serious field training requires resources. So the idea that white supremacy is born from economic misery or is confined to one geographical region are myths that give comfort to people who think they’re isolated from these toxic ideas.

Guernica: That point seems to have found new relevance. Just hours earlier, my social media feeds were obsessed with a circulating photo that’s allegedly of the home of one of the militia men who were plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. The original poster suggested that it’s the home of a poor person, implying that there’s something about poverty that radicalizes people.  

Lavin: That’s a common belief. Something memorable that didn’t make it into the book was that one of the personas I created to enter an online hate-group chat looked like a delivery driver from West Virginia. I recall very vividly discussing “my” occupation in one of the chats, and a response from one of the guys in there was, “we find that tradesmen are inherently sympathetic to our ideas.” This was totally fascinating to me, because it sounded like, honestly, a lot of the bourgeois communists I’ve encountered on social media. There’s this hypothetical idea that people who live in poverty are inherently sympathetic to white supremacist ideas. But again, to drive home the point, there’s no socioeconomic, geographic, or educational level that insulates someone from these ideas.

Guernica: What does draw people to these groups?

Lavin: Like any form of nationalism or ideological extremism, white supremacy is very good at telling myths about itself. It’s very good at telling a narrative in which, by joining these movements, you become a savior. You become someone who’s fighting for something bigger than yourself. All kinds of people feel alienation, loss of purpose. That has applied to me, I imagine that’s applied to you, and it applies to many, many people who could be reading this interview. The white power movement has a series of answers that are quite compelling to people seeking a purpose. The only unifying factor among them is that they are people who feel lost in life.

Guernica: Let’s dive deeper into this idea of myth-making. In one chapter you write about how many white supremacists identify as Christians, but others identify as pagans who worship the pantheon of Norse gods. And they do so for anti-Semitic reasons: Jesus was a Jew.

Lavin: For many in the movement, these religious identifications—pagan and Christian—are often more aesthetic than tradition-adherent. They take the elements of both traditions and mix and match. Someone might carry a Templar cross at one event, while wearing a Celtic rune. Often, these affiliations are just motivators for puerile and surface-level infighting more than anything else. But when I looked at extremist Christians, I found that one thing that was really common was an embrace of the Crusades. As one medieval historian I spoke to put it, the Crusades have become a sort of lost cause in the neo-Confederate sense for the pan-continental white race writ large. There’s this deification, quasi-religious, fairly consistent embrace of the Crusades as essentially a war between Europeans who are anachronistically racialized as white—back in the actual Middle Ages, [white] wasn’t really an extant category—and the “other.” That ties in neatly to broad themes of Islamophobia, and the ideas of migrants and refugees as existential threats to the survival of Western civilizations.

But the thing about the pagans is interesting. Contemporary worship of the Norse pantheon dates back to at least the 1960s and 70s. I mean, such worship is of course very old, but the contemporary practice of it dates to the mid-twentieth century. That community is not uniformly racist. In fact, there are anti-racist pagans who are quite pissed off about the fact that something as cool and as potentially meaningful as worshiping the Norse pantheon is so extensively embraced by racists.

But anyway, one reason for such worship is dissatisfaction with Christianity, which has a pan-ethnic appeal and has millions and millions of adherents who are people of color. And as you mention, and as I mention in the book, Jesus was a Jew. There’s this idea that Christianity has a Judaic taint, that Christians have a priori been “cucked” by Jews, to use their parlance. I have to say that one of the things I found morbidly funny was that you could literally be Jesus Christ and that’s not enough for anti-Semites.

Guernica: I appreciate how you make distinctions between different factions of hate groups, because before reading your book, I tended to lump them all together. Incels, white supremacists, racists on 4chan or 8chan—to my mind, they were all the same thing. But by making distinctions, you help to clarify, to shed light on, who they actually are—and that helps, I think, to take away some of their power.

Lavin: The reason I felt compelled to learn more, and inform readers, is because these people really love the idea of being boogiemen. That’s why they adopt scary iconography, like the skull mask, and show up with long guns. The point is fear and intimidation. And they’re a real threat—I’m not diminishing that. Fear and loathing to all of that are appropriate responses. But I also believe that the way to disarm a boogieman is to know what’s driving them. It helps to understand their ideology. In this instance, knowledge is a form a power. For me, the past couple of years have been consumed by coming to understand these movements better with the explicit goal of undermining and dismantling them. I hope that readers come away with a similar conviction.

Guernica: I also find it very scary that some of their rhetoric has reached the highest political offices in the country.

Lavin: Just last night, a militia plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan got foiled, and the President essentially said, well…he didn’t even say “this is bad.” He basically said, “better luck next time.” Continually asking him to condemn white supremacists at this point is silly because he has so consistently demonstrated that not only is he sympathetic to white supremacist groups—he is one of them. And he views them as his foot troops. They don’t all view themselves as his foot troops—there’s a lot of anti-government sentiment in these movements—but he’s certainly willing to view them that way. He has never tried to put distance between him and the most violent fringe because he views their violence as his opportunity. So, yes, this is a very dangerous moment, and that danger can’t be undersold.

I hope that this book is a weapon in the arsenal of people who want to combat this ideology. Because this movement’s sole goal is violence. There is no benign white power, no matter what those people try to say with the cooperation of the media, which has proven to be entirely too credulous with white supremacists again and again. This is a cancerous movement and one that must be fought with everything we have.

Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books, deputy publisher of Guernica, and the co-editor of House on Fire, an anthology of personal essays about climate change forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing on art, literature, and the environment has appeared in O, The Oprah magazine, Slate, The New Republic, the Village Voice, the LA Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places. She's won awards from the National Science Foundation and the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference, and is a recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Research Fellowship at the Library of Congress. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and lives in the New York City area.

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