The Atlantic’s first documentary, White Noise, is directed by Daniel Lombroso, who also did the camera work. It was Lombroso who captured the images in 2016 of white nationalist Richard Spencer (“a kind of professional racist in khakis,” says the SPLC) chanting “Hail, Trump!” at an event, and members of the audience giving Nazi salutes and shouting, “Sieg Heil.”
White Noise follows three influential alt-right personalities in the Trump era: Spencer, Mike Cernovich (conspiracy theorist and professional misogynist), and Lauren Southern (anti-feminist and anti-immigrant YouTube star). Cernovich comes across as a Richard Spencer from a discount outlet, and Southern as a young woman striving to be like Ivanka Trump. All of them crave influence, even as they deny responsibility for violence that erupts from their “movement.”
With astonishing behind-the-scenes access, Lombroso portrays this trio individually making the rounds, flogging overlapping material, and cynically grabbing for more attention. They do not get along and are almost always shown alone in the messes they help make. Delusional (they constantly refer to what they do as “being in politics”) but not without power, they are proud of carrying water for hatred. They have no substance themselves. Their ideas are vapid to the point of being nonexistent, and they are shown to be divorced from reality, naïve, provincial, and stupid. When the flash of fame fades, they burn a little in personal hells of narcissism.
The documentary starts 16 days after Trump’s 2016 election victory. “The alt-right just won!” Richard Spencer shouts into the camera. He says he is sick of white youth’s culture being demeaned. “I’ve lived in this multicultural mess my entire life. And I’m trying to get out of it.”
“Ultimately there has to be a political expression of what we’re about,” Richard Spencer says in voiceover, as the Charlottesville rally begins in August 2017. When it goes bad, and Heather Heyer is killed, Spencer is asked if he has blood on his hands.
“Absolutely not,” he says, unconsciously wringing his hands like Lady Macbeth.
He foresees, in “imagining something that’s not possible yet,” the utterly ridiculous existence of a white ethnostate, inhabited by Russians, Italians, and white Americans. He says he thinks his grandkids will live there, and there will be a Richard Spencer Drive, with a magnetic train taking them to “an amazing world art museum.”
“I am an artist before I am a politician,” he says at one point.
He also describes himself as a trust-fund baby, and by the end of the documentary, in early 2020, when “the movement” has splintered, and he has been left behind with lawsuits over Charlottesville and accusations of domestic violence, he is shown alone at mom’s stone mansion in Whitefish, Montana, heading out to go snowboarding, playing piano, and hanging ornaments in the utter silence.
“To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror,” he says earlier.
Mike Cernovich says he wants to be famous and that he learned from pro wrestling that “people like the bad guys more than the good guys.” Some of the bad-guy behavior he promotes includes the “Gorilla Mindset Model” for “predatory conquest of women.” In snippets of audio he talks about dominating women and using them as sex objects, and he questions what rape might mean.
A talk at Columbia goes poorly; protestors chant and hold signs that say, No rape apologists at Columbia! He gets into it with them over the fantasy of white genocide. Afterward his Uber driver asks him what his agenda is, if he is in politics as he claims, and Cernovich answers, “Good question, what is my agenda? Mischief making?” He seems to think he is cute.
Cernovich is shown often with his wife, an Iranian from a secular Muslim family, who says he is not a monster. He talks about how “Alpha” it is to get alimony from his first wife. In his seminars on being a winner, his psychobabble is painful. He admits, “People view me as this really inspirational cultural movement leader or whatever; I don’t really feel that way. I’m not someone who likes himself particularly much.”
By the end of the filming for the documentary he makes his living mostly from supplements and skin creams with unverified claims. The portrayal is of a deep loser.
Being contrarian “gets you clicks,” Lauren Southern says. “People have to understand, there’s a lot of show business in politics.”
Taking her cue from Internet “influencers,” she goes to a manor house outside Paris to work on a project with a young far-right filmmaker. They talk about making things beautiful, because, he says, “We want to maximize the reach of what we’re doing, and we want to make sure that it looks good as well. If you convey your message…in that mainstream polished environment, then it will sterilize it, and it’ll make it more palatable.”
He describes exactly how social media can be used for radicalizing the right, how a softer video on Trump not being so bad takes viewers to a video that describes Muslims as a cancer.
“Those fringe views don’t seem so radical anymore,” he says, “because they’re one click away, on YouTube.”
Lauren Southern also uses her fame to speak of how democracy isn’t always good. She warns against “surrounding yourself” with people—Muslims—who you cannot trust.
“I mean, gang rape is an inherently democratic process,” she says, amusing herself with the analogy. “It’s nine people voting against one on what they want to do.”
She makes and shows her anti-immigrant “movie,” and people thank her in comments for her top-notch journalism. It is not journalism. It is a white nationalist influencer asking loaded questions with straw-man answers.
Southern especially has put herself into a contradictory position. She wants to be a leader, wants to be seen having power, but she is also anti-feminist, and she competes in a boys’ club of misogyny and hatred. In one scene, she sits off-camera and half-smiles as Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes talks about women ruining everything, including the movement. The next morning she has to field a sexual call from McInnes and tells him her “moral compass” will not allow her to have sex with him because he has a wife and kids.
“If it makes you feel better, you’re a very handsome and successful man,” she tells him.
She ends the call and looks into the camera. “Help,” she says.
(Lombroso asks McInnes to comment, and he replies, despite the evidence, “As a married man I have never sexually propositioned Lauren Southern or any other woman.”)
Lombroso then asks Southern about her anti-feminism. She waffles then admits sexual assault is real, and that power dynamics in business are a problem, because “you are your own first and last line of defense.”
Southern says Internet likes are like a drug, so she keeps going. “I feel a little bit guilty, to an extent, because I constantly have people telling me, ‘Oh, Lauren, that girl she’s going to achieve so much. She’ll be changing the world, she’s only 23, look what she’s done so far, the stuff she’s gonna do in the future is just incredible,’ and so many people just believe in what I do.
“But my entire adult life has been in politics. My entire adult life I have been an Internet figure, or social media character. Since I was 19 years old [four years earlier] I haven’t gotten to be a person.” Her eyes well with tears, as if on cue.
By the end, she is pregnant, and despite all her focus on “traditional” roles, she is unmarried. She talks often about white people being in the minority, and the need to preserve the race, but her boyfriend is not white. When the filmmaker asks about it, she gets defensive.
“I don’t think it would be endearing to put such an emphasis on that,” she says.
These three characters come across so blank and dumb that the main impression is that they are simply pathetic. Despite Richard Spencer crowing, at the start, that their self-perceived role in “willing” Trump into office is “an amazing feeling of power, of winning,” everything they say sounds like nothing more than white noise.
“Let them call you racists,” Steve Bannon says to an audience near the end of the documentary. “Let them call you xenophobes. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day we get stronger and they get weaker.”
White Noise can be seen on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play.
Read more by John Griswold here.