American white supremacist Robert Rundo’s last known whereabouts was Bosnia and Herzegovina, after he was kicked out of Serbia by local authorities back in March. He’s claimed to be on the “no-fly list” and has boasted that, as a result, it took him “a few months” to make his way from the U.S. to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, he’s waiting to find out if the Supreme Court will hear his last-ditch appeal to avoid jail time for federal rioting charges.
Though nobody knows where Rundo is, his latest pet project—a network of far-right, locally-operated MMA groups dubbed “Active Clubs”—are cropping up in the U.S. and beyond.
Through his new organization, Will2Rise, Rundo has sought alliances with more-established outfits like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front by appealing to their glorification of masculinity, youth, white nationalism, and violence.
Two centralized Telegram channels for Will2Rise and “Active Club” gives Rundo and other leaders in the movement the platform to tout their highly-stylized, neo-fascist aesthetic through propaganda videos and images, many of which are generated through their own “media outlet” Media2Rise.
The main “active club” channel cross-pollinates propaganda from nationalist fight clubs around the world, such as images of muscled white men with their faces covered, doing pull-ups, boxing, or graffitiing white nationalist slogans or symbols. The channel also helps direct subscribers toward smaller, locally-focused channels that facilitate real-world meet-ups.
In Rundo’s own words from a blog post on Media2Rise, he wants “Active Clubs” to “awake[ing] the racial bonds between kin” through “engaging in shared fitness activities, sweating, and bleeding together.” He complains that Boy Scouts “no longer teach boys to be men,” and that fitness centers like the YMCA are “far removed from white neighborhoods.”
Rundo hopes to lure new recruits through the promise of belonging to something. This isn’t unusual for extremist groups, explained Cynthia Miller-Idriss, author of the book “Hate in the Homeland,” and director of American University’s Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab, who points to some of the slogans featured on T-shirts sold via the Will2Rise website.
“Messaging that comes across in these nationalist expressions are also about aspirational qualities like solidarity, honor, courage, trust, loyalty, and brotherhood,” said Miller-Idriss. “I think that’s a really important part of why people are attracted to these movements. People think it's just because of hate, but often they are attracted to the idea of being part of something.”
For years, Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, has been a mainstay of the far-right in Europe, and Rundo’s made no secret of his admiration for key players in that scene. He’s close friends with Russian neo-Nazi football hooligan Denis Niktin, who co-runs Media2Rise and owns a neo-Nazi lifestyle brand “White Rex”. The two men record a podcast, broadcasted via their outlet, in which they cover “the highs and the lows, from underground MMA events to FBI house raids.” (When authorities searched Rundo’s home in 2018, they found a large framed portrait of Adolf Hitler.)
Experts say there’s reason to be concerned about Rundo’s new strategy. He appears to have learned from some of the mistakes made through the Rise Above Movement (RAM), a white supremacist street-fighting gang that he founded in 2016 in Southern California. Like “Active Clubs,” RAM was building on the European far-right’s emphasis on physical fitness and hyper-masculinity. Members of the group traveled at least once to train with the neo-Nazi–aligned Azov Battalion in Ukraine.
On multiple occasions, RAM members showed up at protests in California and at the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville with their faces uncovered and brawled with leftists, which left Rundo and others open to criminal prosecution. With charges looming against Rundo and three other members of RAM in 2018, the young white supremacist fled to Central America, where he was later arrested by the FBI, and brought back to the U.S.
A judge dismissed the charges the following year, concluding that their activities were protected by the First Amendment. This year, a federal appeals court reinstated the charges. (He was briefly wanted by authorities, and then he bought time by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, who have not ruled on whether they will hear his case.)
“Whereas RAM was a group, there is the claim of plausible deniability in the active club movement model,” said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a terrorism researcher at the Counter Extremism Project. “Rundo can tell people to go out and organize, train, and spread propaganda, but he is not necessarily the functional leader of active clubs around the country.”
In a blog posted to his site, Rundo himself says he hopes to achieve a “brush-fire effect” by encouraging supporters to mobilize others in their communities and form their own “Active Clubs.” “The system and media will waste tons of energy and resources to put out one small fire as another catches a spark elsewhere,” he wrote. “Even if the system and their dogs manage to put out one fire, it will lead to minimal results because these clubs are generally small and local, helping to shield it from infiltrators and broader law enforcement actions.”
What’s more, when Rundo first created RAM, the modern far-right was still in its nascent stages. Five years later, right-wing extremism has spilled over into the mainstream. White supremacists, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and MAGA devotees have commingled on alternative social media platforms like Telegram and Parler, or at protests against COVID-19 restrictions or the 2020 election results. Groups like the Proud Boys show up to mainstream political events and are cheered by the people there. And while bloody brawls between ideologically opposed groups may have made the national news back in 2016, these days casual political violence is just another weekend pastime in America.
A new report by Advance Democracy Inc., a public-interest research group, looked at how Rundo, through his media outlet, was hoping to tap into a broader base of possible recruits in the U.S. When the right-wing Parler app went offline in January, supporters of former President Donald Trump flocked to Telegram en masse, creating a feeding frenzy for the far-right extremists who already had an established presence on that platform—Rundo included.
“Rundo seems to be attempting to expand his reach. Rundo has indicated that he sees many white, male Trump supporters as potential new recruits into militant white nationalism, due to the disillusionment and persecution they feel under the current U.S. administration and mainstream cultural climate,” Advance Democracy Inc. wrote. “Media2Rise’s content is already being shared by channels on Telegram which appear to cater to a highly conservative U.S. audience.”
Experts say that Rundo also seems to understand how he can exploit divisions within the far-right spectrum, build coalitions, and reach a broader pool of potential recruits.
“This kind of coalition-building is not surprising to me. Because Rundo appears to be trying to build a broad decentralized movement and not a single group, it makes sense to try to involve other groups that might have a presence in specific regions,” said Fisher-Birch. “It’s troubling in that it means there are more potential recruits for this movement.”
For example, Rundo has been playing to the punch-happy, explicitly white supremacist wing of the Proud Boys who seem to be growing increasingly frustrated with their leaders’ obsession with optics and hunger for political legitimacy. Though, on the face of things, the Proud Boys have remained very active by inserting themselves into local politics, one large Telegram hub that’s linked to the Proud Boys, “Western Chauvinist,” has been promoting “Active Club” content and meet-ups.
(Fisher-Birch notes that it’s not clear whether any bona fide Proud Boy members have joined active clubs, though he wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. However, joining an active club could put Proud Boys at risk of violating their “Constitution and Bylaws” laid out in a 2018 document: They are not allowed to be part of organizations that promote “the supremacy of any one race over another.”
Researchers who have monitored “Western Chauvinist,” whose admins claim to be high-ranking Proud Boys, say the channel has become more brazenly white supremacist over the past year. The channel currently has over 50,000 subscribers. (The admins did not respond to a request for comment.)
The other key alliance Rundo has made is with Patriot Front, which emerged as a splinter faction out of its neo-Nazi predecessor “Vanguard America” in the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Patriot Front caters to white men under the age of 35, and the group thinly disguises its white nationalism through red-white-and-blue Americana. They’re prolific propagandists; their fliers and stickers have been documented in all 50 states plus D.C. (with the exception of Hawaii). While Proud Boys are known for being sloppy, swilling beer, and getting into fistfights, Patriot Front could be considered their more uptight, affirmably white nationalist, cousin. Patriot Front’s rare public appearances are usually meticulously crafted: Members mobilize like a small army, with their faces completely covered, seemingly with the sole purpose of getting videos and photos that they could later turn into propaganda.
Somewhere between the Proud Boys and Patriot Front (with a sprinkling of other smaller groups, such as Nationalist Social Club) sits Rundo’s “Active Clubs.”
It’s not clear how big the clubs are, or how many have cropped up. Fisher-Birch has identified at least seven in the U.S. and one in Canada, plus affiliated groups in Europe and Australia, and notes that, like any extremist group, “their propaganda will overstate their size and effectiveness.”
The other notable aspect of Will2Rise and the “Active Club” trend is its aesthetic. In videos posted around his media site, Rundo doles out advice for budding white supremacists for how to make their lifestyle seem appealing and enviable to others, like keeping fit and eating healthy.
The Active Clubs rely heavily on symbolism and code as a way to draw in potential recruits and other adherents. Like other modern far-right groups, the active clubs eschew Klan hoods and swastikas for a slightly more nuanced aesthetic, which is best defined by the merch sold via Will2Rise’s website. Some of the T-shirts incorporate symbols associated with RAM or Nitkin’s brand “White Rex,” or color schemes associated with either the Proud Boys or Patriot Front.
“The clothing relies on in-group slogans and iconography, like the use of “XIV” symbolizing the fourteen words (a white supremacist mantra), or WWII fascist slogans, rather than explicit use of white supremacist logos,” said Fisher-Birch. “The idea is that those who wear Will2Rise gear wouldn’t appear out of place at an MMA event, hardcore show, or skate park.”
Another T-shirt sold via the website features an image of a recording screen, and on it, a masked man throwing a Molotov cocktail while cars burn behind him. The text on the T-shirt reads “No Face, No Case.”
“There’s nothing coded about that,” said Miller-Idriss. “That’s just flat-out legal advice. That to me is striking to see the overt recommendation to cover face, in what seems to be a direct attempt to offer supporters of the movement free legal advice.”
Though Rundo has stayed mum on his current whereabouts, he’s offered some hints through podcasts. During a podcast recorded by a far-right group in New Zealand, he talked about how it was easier to stay off the radar in Eastern Europe because renters can often lease an apartment through a verbal agreement with a landlord instead of having to turn over the extensive paperwork that’s generally required in the U.S. He said that he’d traveled around somewhat, attending various events in Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Hungary.
In that podcast, the host remarked that they were surprised the government hadn’t come looking for him yet. “I would have thought they’d be wasting time and resources, like hunting you down,” they said. These days, Rundo says, he avoids flying—he claims he’s had at least two experiences where local intelligence officers were waiting to meet him as he got off the plane.
(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)
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