A journalist who spent seven years embedded with the American far-right talks about how to get under their skin.
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.
“Wisconsin goes to Trump! Everything you love will burn! LOL”
This is the text journalist Vegas Tenold received at three o’clock in the morning on November 9, 2016. Just a few hours earlier, what had seemed impossible had happened: Donald Trump was elected to be the next president of the United States. The author of the text was Matthew Heimbach, a likable and intelligent white nationalist who Tenold followed and wrote about for six years.
So how did we get here? Where the victory on election night is not the satisfaction in having won over your fellow countrymen to your vision for the future, but rather a gleeful joy that your opponents might suffer?
For over half a decade, Tenold immersed himself in the world of the white nationalists, and the ways they looked to grab political power (or not). His primary subject was Matthew Heimbach himself, a former socialist turned white nationalist whose goal is to unite the factions of the movement into one cohesive group, reformed to be palatable to the average American. It isn’t easy, and Heimbach spends half his time trying to get Klan members to leave their robes at home and skinheads to put away the swastikas.
The white nationalists are not one cohesive group. In fact, the different sects dislike each other. To the skinheads, the KKK is a depressingly sober, stodgy remnant of days gone by, while Klan members find the skinheads to be a little too, well, Nazi. Meanwhile, the Hammerskins just want to turn up the music and get into a fight… usually with their own members. Then there’s Art Jones, the octogenarian leader (and sole member) of the America First Committee, whose rambling speeches no one likes. Not every group is political or has any intention of becoming so.
But there are a couple things these groups had in common. They all believe they are members of an army in an eternal battle against the “reds”– defined as being anyone they don’t like, and whom they imagine were lurking around every corner. They are allergic to logic and facts, finding that the absence of proof is often in fact all the proof they really need.
This book was certainly informative, but in my opinion, it spins its wheels for the middle third, and it took me a while to read it. The author bounces from one white nationalist faction to another, meeting a colorful cast of (racist and also sometimes kind of crazy) characters along the way. But I wasn’t sure what it was leading up to. Is this just a look into white nationalists, or is there a point to it all? I’m still not sure. What this book is not, is about Trump. Not really. Tenold devotes little space to the Republican’s courting of key white nationalist players, including Matthew Heimbach. About one white nationalist’s support of the then candidate, he writes:
“He supported Trump with the aloof enthusiasm of someone who wanted to set fire to something just to see what happened but also didn’t really care one way or the other whether it burned. He didn’t really mind Hillary and didn’t really like Trump that much but seemed to have gone with the candidate who would piss the most people off.”
Of course, this didn’t stop this same person from declaring after Trump’s inauguration: “We’re president now.”
In the end, the author concludes that the alt-right movement is unlikely to succeed because they don’t have a policy platform so much as a series of gripes and offensive jokes.
“Freed from the burden of political correctness, white frat boys could now explain to the world how white frat boys were the true victims of feminism, affirmative action, and other forms of anti-white persecution and could, with a straight face, stand up in public and rejoice in someone finally fighting for their rights as white, affluent college guys.”
I think after 2016, it might be dangerous to write off the altright as trolling, although there certainly are strong elements of that on social media and through internet memes. But I’m confused as to why Tenold’s ultimate conclusion is about the so-called altright “basement dwellers” when the focus of his entire book is about organized white nationalist groups. Those frat boys are not in the KKK, which Tenold well knows, since he went to their BBQs, where they’d be lucky to have a dozen attendants.
This book was between 3 and 4 stars for me. I went with the higher rating because of the importance of the information in the book. But, really, what I think Tenold had here was a long article. I know that’s not what an author wants to hear after six years of research, but this is a stretch in book form. After reading this, I feel like I know white nationalists better than before, but I can’t say it was a step toward understanding them.