From the Inside, the White Nationalist Movement Looks Like a Total Mess
A journalist who spent seven years embedded with the American far-right talks about how to get under their skin.
Members of the National Socialist Movement face off against Antifa in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Vegas Tenold
Vegas Tenold is a tall, bald Norwegian who blends in just fine with neo-Nazis. He found his calling as a journalist in 2010, when he emailed every address on the National Socialist Movement's (NSM) website looking for an interview. A paranoid dude who called himself Lieutenant Duke Schneider of the SS invited him for pastries near Ground Zero in New York City, and, eventually, to a rally in Trenton, New Jersey.
The march—now known as the Battle of Trenton in far-right circles—descended into chaos when Antifa-style activists showed up, a preview of the violent clashes that would come to define the resurgence of the white nationalist movement in America. It also had a pretty big influence on Tenold's life—he spent the next seven years embedded with fringe groups like the NSM, the Hammerskins, and the Ku Klux Klan. He also watched Matthew Heimbach, who became infamous for starting a White Student Union at Towson University, try to make his toxic ideology palatable to average, disaffected Americans in Appalachia and beyond in the lead-up to Donald Trump's election.
Tenold's book about the experience, Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America, came out this month. I called Tenold up to ask what changed in between the Battle of Trenton and the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last August, why young men in America are attracted to right-wing extremism, and the best way to get under a neo-Nazi's skin.
Here's that conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: What did you learn about what attracts foot soldiers to this movement?
Vegas Tenold: I think a lot of it is that old chestnut: that people want to belong to something. People want to feel that they're part of something bigger. The world is a confusing place these days. There are a lot of reasons for unemployment, for the lack of social mobility. There are a lot of big, big issues we are dealing with that are many-faceted. And so if someone comes in and says, "Well, no, it's because of the Jews and the Mexicans," that's a very alluring, tempting solution to buy into. It's also a higher purpose. If you believe that your race and you are persecuted, then all of the sudden you're not just some hapless guy without a job, you're a warrior.
Do you think white nationalism would lose its appeal if politicians addressed some of the problems of working-class people who've become increasingly desperate in the past decade?
It will exist regardless, because selfishness is such a profound force in driving people. I'm from Norway, which is arguably the richest country in the world, and we still have our fair share of nationalists and other assorted assholes. But I do think that the devastation of the middle class [in America], the lack of social mobility that's possible now, the lack of the social safety net, it makes it easier to say people: "You don't have much now, but here come the Mexicans to take what little you have." That makes it easier for nationalism, for hatred, for bigotry to spread. I think in an ideal world where education and healthcare were taken care of, it would be easier to [contain].
So you argued a couple of times in the book that Antifa was more of a unifier for the right than Matthew Heimbach himself. Should we be having a serious conversation about whether or not they should stop kind of martyring these guys by attacking them?
I think so. First of all, I don't think Anitfa is a homogenous group. But I think that a major moment in the last couple of years for the far right in America wasn't the election of Donald Trump, or the inauguration. It was Richard Spencer getting punched. And you know, sure, I get the temptation to punch Richard Spencer. Who doesn't want to punch a Nazi? But it really made them all feel that they all got punched. It allowed Richard Spencer to rebrand himself as a kind-of warrior priest of the far right. It really did rally the troops.
Right—people thought he was a dandy, and now he had street cred. So what gets under these guys' skin, then? If the move is not physically threatening them, is it just not showing up to their protests at all?
Now, when he does a talk, he'll roll up the sleeves of his shirt. It let him rebrand himself into this performer, this leader of men. When he used to be a glorified blogger.
I think there are much better way to deal with these guys than violence. If you listen to what Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach say, their arguments aren't that good. We can defeat them with words and with rhetoric. We don't we don't have to elevate them by presenting them as an existential threat to civilized society, which is kind of what we do when we attack them. We need to show them that we are stronger than them that our ideas are better, that we can do that through peaceful protest. We don't need to stoop to their level of violence.
If no counter-protestors showed up at Charlottesville, would all the neo-Nazis really just have gone home?
That's hard to say, because I do think we should make it abundantly clear that we don't accept that kind of rhetoric. I don't claim to have the answer to that, but one episode I'm very fond of is, I was have having coffee with Richard Spencer in DC at a coffee shop at one of the college-y parts of town. And we're in this little room, and Richard speaks fairly loudly, and he was talking about something awful, something like, if it were up to him, that women shouldn't be allowed in university. And as I'm sitting there, I see there's a table of young students, a few of them women, and they're kind of listening in. And as he goes on, one of them, a young woman probably about 20, just comes up and says, "Excuse me but who the hell do you think you are? You can't say things like that." And she just tore into him with arguments and with words and the guy shrank to nothing in front of my eyes. And then, after like, three or four minutes, she said, "I'm done with you. I don't want to talk to you anymore." And we were just sitting there, and we were going to leave anyway to go put money in the meter, and I said to Richard, "Do you want to go?" He said, "Well, no, we can't go now. She'll think she won."
And I saw that the second a person just stands up to these people and just calls them on their bullshit—I think it's particularly powerful that a woman did it because they such have outdated views of women and gender. It was like the thing in The Wizard of Oz when someone pours water on the witch and she melts. He melted, and no one got hurt other than his ego.
A lot of the of the book is Heimbach kind of drifting slowly to the right over the course of your reporting. Why do you think that happened? Do you think he grew more extreme in his beliefs because he's kind of spending more and more time with people like the Hammerskins, or because he just wanted to form a coalition with whoever would be willing to join him, no matter how extreme?
There are two reasons. I think [your] last point hits pretty close to home. When you're on on the far right, you have no other way to go than further right. I think it's naive to think that you can form a coalition of like, in America at least, the ultra nationalist far-right people and then try to grow the pie outside the traditional far-right movement. I think Matthew tried for a long time to do both. He believed that he could [get] people to see that the neo-Nazis weren't so bad. I think he misjudged that, yes, people did elect Donald Trump, but out-and-out Nazis is still a bridge too far for most people. And there's a lot of ego in this scene. So if you want to be a leader of a large group, then the easiest way is to take the low-hanging fruit on the right. It takes a lot of skill to persuade people who aren't nationalists or far-right activists to join a group that is.
I almost wonder if there's another world in which Heimbach didn't become disillusioned with Trump over, like, the Syrian airstrike and some other things. Like, he could have become more of an almost credible politician. Right? I can see the reverse being the case.
He totally could of. And I don't think he's planned on this, but his life has been been a steady right-wing trajectory. So it's not as it started when I met him. He started out as a socialist. So he's kind of been heading in that direction all the time. So I know that's just the way he went. And you know he has some opinions that I would say that were incompatible to mainstream politics, but one [politician] in Wisconsin, Paul Nehlen, I mean he's pretty much the same guy ideologically. I think he had an idea of what he wanted to do, and I still think that he feels he succeeded. You know if you ask him, he'll tell you, "I did what I set out to do." And in a way he did. He did build a far-right coalition, which not many people have done that before him. But you've got to say: A coalition of what? Like, what's the point? Yes, you managed to gather the most extreme elements of the far-right, but to what end?
Obviously, you spent seven years hearing these guys out, and I enjoyed reading your book. But yes—these people have no actionable plan. Are we giving them too much attention?
Yes and no. I do think that there are more insidious forms of racism in this country, which is founded on the notion of white supremacy. But I think it's important that we understand [all] racism, that we understand bigotry, and fear. To do that, I chose to seek out its most extreme incarnations. You know, Jeff Schoep, the leader of the NSM, told me years ago that he believes that their ideas expressed by the right person could could get elected into office. And I thought he was huffing glue, I thought he was fucking nuts, but he basically described Trump back then, and I didn't see it coming.
Learn more about Vegas Tenold's book here.
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