The path to Wednesday’s pro-Trump mob attack on the Capitol has been planned and engineered for four years. I know, because I witnessed its genesis first hand.
Two months before President Trump’s inauguration, I captured on video a roomful of his supporters break out into Nazi salutes blocks from the White House. This wasn’t a playful jest. It was a call for armed insurrection.
“To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror,” said Richard Spencer at a far-right conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2016. Spencer coined the term “alt-right” and became the movement’s de facto leader. “For us, it is conquer or die.” Two hundred men and roughly a dozen women rose to celebrate the new president-elect with calls of “hail Trump” and “sieg heil!”
Over the next few years, I reported inside the so-called alt-right for The Atlantic’s debut film, “White Noise.” I quickly realized that this crusader-style rhetoric wasn’t some flashy or ironic distraction, as it was often described. The movement’s goal was to preserve a white majority rule in the United States — by any means necessary.
Lauren Southern, one of movement’s most prominent women, framed her quest to me as a “fight for dominance” over nonwhite cultures. Her boyfriend at the time, a Canadian white nationalist, put things in starker terms. White men have one biological duty: to wage war.
The record of the last four years shows that the far right’s vile fantasy has come to life. Since Trump’s presidency began, far-right extremists have killed 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, 51 Muslims in New Zealand, and 22 people in El Paso (in an effort to target Mexicans). There have been hundreds of smaller attacks by white nationalists worldwide. Many of these terrorists echoed rhetoric around white “replacement” and a migrant “invasion” that’s common on far-right social media accounts.
I repeatedly asked my subjects if they accepted responsibility for this surge in violence. “Yeah, I’ve said a few dodgy things over the years,” laughed Mike Cernovich, a conspiracy theorist. One of the dodgy things he pushed, the “pizzagate” conspiracy, led a far-right activist to fire a rifle at a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., in search of a nonexistent pedophile ring.
Spencer — who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, in which a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 1 and injuring 19 — somehow couldn’t see how his rhetoric of calls to “conquer or die” caused violence. “If anything I’ve said has contributed to that, it was because they misinterpreted me,” he said to me in an interview. Like all demigods, the far-right’s leaders love the energy of the mob — until it hurts their brand.
Today, Spencer lives at his mother’s mansion in Montana, publishing far-right propaganda from the basement. Southern has retreated to Australia, where she’s been awarded a contributor gig on Comcast’s Sky News. Few of the marchers in Charlottesville have faced anything more than a slap on the wrist.
While these far-right figureheads have gotten off without consequence, the insurrectionists in Wednesday’s attack shouldn’t escape accountability. They are the foot soldiers of a modern-day crusade, one that will only worsen if it isn’t confronted.
There are clear legal grounds for mass arrests. The far-right mob in Washington stormed and destroyed federal property, erected gallows to “hang all congressmen,” planted two explosive devices, and injured at least 14 police officers, one of whom died from his injuries. The crowd was filled with supporters of QAnon, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory akin to the medieval blood libel. One wore a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, while others sported shirts saying “6MWE,” meaning “Six Million Wasn’t Enough.” As the mob was escorted out, one yelled: “Next time we come back with rifles.”
As of Friday morning, only 82 people have been arrested for the riot, most of whom for violating a citywide curfew. Jake Angeli, the bare-chested and horn-headed mobster who has become the face of the Capitol siege, is bragging to journalists that he’s “not worried” about prosecution and is on his way back home to Arizona.
President-elect Joe Biden says he wants to “heal” the nation’s wounds and “lower the temperature” of our political discourse. That’s a noble pursuit. But, to enact real change in this country, the federal government first must show that it’s serious about confronting white domestic terrorism — the defining threat of our age. That begins with prosecuting everyone who engaged in illegal behavior in Washington to the fullest extent of the law.
On Wednesday across from the Capitol, Nick Fuentes, 22, a white nationalist who marched in Charlottesville, went on a long-winded tirade about how immigrants and Jews were stealing America from whites. He then urged his college-aged followers to illegally storm the Capitol. Some overtook House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office while others waved “America First” flags in the Senate. Fuentes tweeted: “The Capitol Siege was fucking awesome.” Well, it’s time for the fun to stop.
Daniel Lombroso is a filmmaker and journalist based in New York City. He is the director of White Noise, a feature documentary that goes inside the so-called alt-right. Previously, he was a staff producer at The Atlantic.