Richard Spencer is sitting in his mother’s grandly appointed home in snowy Montana as he muses on his idea of utopia — an ethnostate he believes may not happen in his own life but that his grandchildren will experience, where a magnetic levitation train will fly down a boulevard named after him to a world art museum. In its mix of nationalism, narcissism, vague and gimmicky, paint-by-numbers images of civilised culture and progress, the outlandish vision says a lot about the mindset of this trust-fund poster boy of a new era of neo-Nazism. He’s one of the alt-right’s three most visible figures profiled in Daniel Ambroso’s White Noise, which is screening at the IDFA, and which is the first feature documentary from US publisher The Atlantic.
Also profiled, which seeks to explain the resurgence of white supremacist ideology and the way in which every online advocates of hate have fuelled its popularity, is Lauren Southern. A Barbie-blonde Canadian YouTuber who likes to affix «It’s OK to be white» stickers to things, she’s known for promoting the Great Replacement, a conspiracy theory falsely claiming the white European population is being wiped out by non-Europeans through mass migration and demographic changes. Thirdly, we spend time too close for comfort with Mike Cernovich, a former anti-feminist or «men’s rights» blogger, who peddled the fake theory Hillary Clinton had a seizure disorder to discredit her during her 2016 presidential campaign, has claimed diversity is «white genocide,» and who now markets mental strength lifestyle products.
The film highlights the loose, incohesive nature of the alt-right movement, and its ability to subsume varied fringe figures under its umbrella while side-stepping and denying responsibility for the violent consequences of the hatred it stirs. Southern and Cernovich have endeavoured to distance themselves somewhat from the overt Nazi rhetoric of Spencer and a backlash they regard as bad PR after footage emerged of a November 2016 alt-right conference in which he used propaganda terms such as «Lügenpresse» («lying press») to a room of attendees giving Nazi salutes and shouting «Sieg Heil,» and after he lead the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville at which alt-right groups chanted «Jews will not replace us!» and counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered. Footage from these events, while still as shocking as ever, has been widely shared already in the news media, and the most insightful aspect of the film the more intimate access into the three’s personal lives. It’s also the most problematic, as while the three are not portrayed with any special sympathy, it’s exposure that risks normalising them. Certainly, and to the film’s credit, it reveals their hypocrisies, and the lack of much in the way of observed, coherent principles behind their provocative, disruptive race-baiting, trolling practices. Cernovich is married to and has a child with a daughter of Iranian immigrants, and Southern becomes engaged and pregnant to a man she, with reticence, admits is not white towards the end of filming. Spencer is not shown with his now ex-wife, who an intertitle at the endnotes has accused him of domestic violence in a court proceeding.
While Southern may not be seen using overt Nazi gestures, her extreme, anti-immigrant views are very much out in the open. She has moved more from the trolling politics that made her famous into more real-world xenophobic actions. Footage shows her trying to block NGO search-and-rescue operations assisting migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, and later shooting footage for her campaigning propaganda film Borderless, which stokes fear of a migrant crime wave undermining European culture, and which she screened to the European Parliament in 2019. According to her warped reasoning, democracy only functions in a mass of the likeminded, and a gang rape scenario of nine against one is a worst-case «democratic process.» The far-right filmmaker working with her, Caolan Robertson, explains how YouTube’s algorithms aid the alt-right in growing, in that associated links take the curious surfer down more extreme paths. Views that are only a single click away soon became less «fringe.» Opportunism in trying to leverage a personal brand from provocation also seems to define Cernovich, whose drifting interests across a range of issues with incel-appeal have roots, it’s suggested, in a traumatised childhood where his bipolar mother underwent a church exorcism for demonic possession. He has distanced himself from belief in a concrete historical past, asserting instead that imagination can rewrite memories and one can «brainwash oneself» — a dangerous denial of any sense of collective responsibility.
The film highlights the loose, incohesive nature of the alt-right movement, and its ability to subsume varied fringe figures under its umbrella while side-stepping and denying responsibility for the violent consequences of the hatred it stirs.
Other alt-right figures, such as Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, a self-declared «western chauvinist» dripping with arrogance who says he will not apologise for, as he puts it, «creating the modern world,» are afforded smaller screen time, but suggest the presence of Spencer, Southern, and Cernovich in today’s global mediascape is far from anomalous. As Spencer says of this new age of right-wing nationalism: «We have entered the mainstream, and are not going away.» Trump may be ousted from the White House for the next four years, but complacency over a new generation of web-savvy influencers in the propaganda of hate mustn’t be an option for the incoming President Joe Biden, and all who support a fair and inclusive world.