Not long ago, with advocates including such luminaries as former presidential adviser and now-indicted Steve Bannon, the white nationalist movement could boast of a spurious intellectual credibility. Now it has degenerated into pseudo militias of lumpen thugs plotting to kidnap and murder a sitting governor and overthrow a state government.
Daniel Lombroso’s first feature documentary, the fascinating, outrageous, and disturbing “White Noise,” takes us into that time when young demagogues could hide their opportunism, hate, and cynicism under smug glitz and sophistry. Up close and personal, it profiles three young stars of the movement — Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern.
Spencer, you might recall, first coined the term “alt-right.” It is an ideology based on a sense of entitled grievance — “to understand the alt-right,” he says, “you have to understand our lived experience being a young white person in 21st-century America. Seeing your identity being demeaned.”
That experience for him has included staying at four-star hotels while touring and spreading the word. Overjoyed by Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Spencer addresses a gathering of alt-righters (Lombroso was one of the few to film this revealing event) and his speech includes “Mein Kampf”-ian talking points about the “lügenpresse” (lying press). He exclaims, “We willed Donald Trump into office!” and leads a zealous crowd of young white men sporting chic Himmler high-and-tight haircuts in a chorus of “Heil Trump!”
On his podcast Cernovich calls Spencer to task for this Nazi posturing. It’s bad for the brand, he observes.
Cernovich is less an ideologue than a pragmatic opportunist. He first came to fame online as a men’s rights activist, featuring topics such as “How misogyny gets you laid” and “What is rape?” During the 2016 presidential campaign he became a master of promoting false news stories, a highlight being his viral claim that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease. With Trump’s election Cernovich felt empowered, as Spencer did, promoting himself and scoring profiles in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He has reached millions online and dazzled and manipulated the mainstream media with his unabashed disregard for facts or consistency.
Southern, in her early 20s, is a Canadian YouTuber, activist, and investigative journalist. She first enters the film arriving at a hipster Manhattan soiree wearing a Dracula costume, her fake, elongated canines disconcertingly realistic. She pushes an anti-immigrant, anti-feminist, anti-gay-rights agenda, bemoans the culture of Toronto, where she is “persecuted for her skin color and sexual orientation,” and in one of her podcasts joins other volunteers in a stunt trying to block a rescue ship from bringing castaway refugees to Italy. “If the politicians won’t stop the boats,” she declares, “then we’ll stop the boats!” (They don’t.)
But because of hubris, hypocrisy, doubts, or greed, each has, at least temporarily, withdrawn from the fray or fallen from grace.
Emboldened by the rush of Trump’s triumph, Spencer organized the disastrous 2017 Unite the Right event in Charlottesville, Va., which featured a night-time tiki-torch parade of hundreds of followers with Nazi regalia chanting “Jews will not replace us!” The next day a participant in the rally ran down a counter-protester with his car, killing her. Though Spencer denied any responsibility for the murder, and Trump gave him credence by declaring that the violence came from “many sides,” the tragedy dogged him and resulted in a lawsuit. He withdrew from the limelight and moved in with his mother in Montana.
Cernovich, who claims that “diversity is white genocide,” is shown at home with his Iranian wife and daughter. Though a self-proclaimed alpha male, he says he has no qualms about being supported by alimony from his first wife. Later he complains that all the celebrity and exposure he gets from his political activity “doesn’t make a dollar.” He says he has lost enthusiasm for the cause and intends to return to selling books and video courses, doing seminars, and pushing Gorilla Mind, his line of cosmetics and health products.
Though Southern boosts patriarchal values, she’s dismayed when a drunken alt-right “hero” propositions her. She admits that she experiences and fears sexual harassment from her male fellow activists. While shooting her anti-immigration documentary “Borderless” (2019) she is moved by the stories from refugees who fled death and persecution in their homelands and now live on the streets of Paris. She doesn’t want to talk much about her non-white boyfriend and father of her child; and when they marry, she takes a sabbatical from public life.
The first documentary produced by The Atlantic magazine, “White Noise” is an expertly edited, four-year immersion into a phenomenon that has shaped the volatile politics of our time. It’s an auspicious debut for both Lombroso and The Atlantic, and its intimate and empathetic approach might be a more potent way of countering those who promote such toxic ideas than blunting confrontation.
On Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play beginning Oct. 21.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.