There is a fundamental and very dangerous problem at the very heart of almost every “journalistic exposé” of the so-called “alt-right.” While ostensibly aimed at taking the air out of the movement, the vast majority of these documentaries and articles serve merely as advertisements and recruitment vehicles for the cause.
White Noise, the first-ever feature-length documentary from The Atlantic, falls squarely, damnably, into that trap.
The film’s director, Daniel Lombroso, says he spent three years and “hundreds of hours” embedded within the alt-right, and made White Noise to “show how empty” the promise made by its most prominent figures — “follow us, and life will be better” — really is. In reality, he made a film that fans the embers of a pathetic, disjointed, nonsensical ideology and its narcissistic, attention-hungry icons. It may even give them new life.
Before I go on, a very relevant autobiographical detail: I went to graduate school with Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who coined the term “alt-right” and one of the film’s three primary subjects (the other two are Lauren Southern and Mike Cernovich; more on them in a minute). And not only did we go to graduate school together, but we were good friends for several years, until I realized that what I’d always mistaken for irony was, unequivocally, nothing but Richard’s very sincere xenophobia, misogyny and racism. In 2017, I wrote about our friendship and its dissolution for The Point, a journal of ideas founded by graduates of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where Spencer and I met in 2002.
I mention this because I have tracked Spencer’s career since long before he became famous, following Trump’s election in November 2016, when he was filmed giving the “Sieg Heil” salute to a roomful of his minions. That’s when most of the world learned of Spencer, because the video, also shot by Lombroso, went viral: It shows an entirely male audience, mostly young and entirely white, saluting back at Spencer, clearly enthralled by the man on stage with a tailored vest and a Hitler haircut. “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Spencer shouted before taking a sip of whiskey.
For years leading up to that moment, Spencer was already in the news, giving speeches and posting them on YouTube, and writing his own, ridiculous blog attacking immigration under the pretense of “cultural journalism,” Alternative Right. “In other words,” as Frum Forum noted at the time of the webzine’s founding in 2010, “they’re going to be white nationalists, but by God, they’re going to be a little fancy about it.”
Like everyone else who knew Richard in grad school, I figured it was just another outlet for him to spew his pseudo-intellectual bullshit and didn’t pay it much attention. But over the next few years, we saw that Richard’s bullshit was attracting flies, and not just a few. And as he gained more and more followers, he gained more and more press. From a 2013 profile on Salon to being quoted in the New Yorker in 2015, Richard went from the fringes to the national stage. All he had to do to make this happen was keep laying on the bullshit, the steamier the better.
In this way, Spencer is not at all unlike Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign strategist who has worked tirelessly to prop up far-right nationalists around the world since leaving the White House in 2017. Love him or hate him, Bannon is a genius at playing journalists like a fiddle. “There is no bad media,” he’s said, a lesson he learned directly from his former boss, Donald J. Trump. One reporter after another has lined up to “expose” Bannon for the “dangerous lunatic” he is, and Bannon has almost never turned them down. Why would he? It’s free publicity. And it’s worked wondrously well for him.
This brings us back to Lauren Southern, Mike Cernovich and Richard Spencer — as well as the handful of B- and C-list alt-right figures featured in White Noise. Lombroso says the film “reveals the contradictions at the heart of their world,” by showing Southern struggle to reconcile her leadership role with her anti-feminist views, Cernovich with being married to an Iranian woman and having a biracial child, and Spencer with fronting a “revolution” from the comforts of his mom’s spooky mountain castle in Montana surrounded by creepy wooden dolls. It does no such thing.
To those who already think they’re dangerous, or hypocritical, or just plain crazy, sure, White Noise affirms that feeling. But to the untold numbers of people who like Southern, Cernovich and Spencer, it only further valorizes them. And, unfortunately for Lombroso and The Atlantic, an ominous-sounding cello over the end credits isn’t nearly enough to counter what essentially amounts to 90 minutes of alt-right propaganda.
Yes, they say some insane things: Southern compares the “threat” of Muslims migrating West and establishing Sharia law in Western communities to gang rape, saying both are “inherently democratic” processes. Cernovich calls diversity “white genocide.” Well after the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, at which a woman was killed by an alt-right proponent, someone at one of Spencer’s rallies asks him what he has to say about the violence waged in the name of the “alt-right.” Spencer rolls his eyes, laughs sarcastically and shouts back at her, “What are you referring to?”
This is Lombroso’s fatal error: He seems to think that by filming these moments, he’s showing the world just how demonic these people really are. On the contrary, he’s simply contributing to their marketing materials. I initially made the same mistake when I started writing about my friendship with Spencer in 2017. I called him for the first time in seven years and we spoke for hours about his beliefs. I quoted him at length in my early drafts of the piece, guided by that old journalistic maxim, “Let them hang themselves.” The problem was, he was happy to take the rope. That’s because Richard knew something I didn’t: The more I gave him, the larger the lasso he could make to gather new followers. I ultimately edited those quotes out and focused instead on our shared history. It was the right call to make. It revealed him as the insecure, angry, pseudo-intellectual he really was.
Nevertheless, that was then, and this is now. Spencer has become a punchline, if anyone talks about him at all. But that doesn’t mean he or the other two figures in White Noise have lost their power. Even though each has, to varying degrees, moved on from where they were just a few years ago — Southern has retreated from public life and married a man who is not white, Cernovich is hawking junk health products and Spencer is beset with legal bills he can’t pay — their followers are still out there.
As The Atlantic itself noted just last week, whoever gets the Republican nomination in 2024 will likely be a Trump acolyte. That’s because while Trump won’t be in office forever, the hatred and division he’s sown are here to last. He’s given legitimacy to xenophobia and racism, and never before in my lifetime has either been as loud and as threatening as they are today.
Likewise with yesterday’s alt-right leaders. They may fade away, change their tune or simply go bankrupt. But they created a movement, and it’s not going away. Sadly, White Noise will only help to ensure it.