By Oliver Lee Bateman
I’m eating an Isaly’s chipped chopped ham sandwich on a bench outside a convenience store in Pittsburgh. A racist sits across from me. We are both from the Midwest, yet thousands of miles distant in terms of worldview.
The racist goes by the online handle “Metacom Berg,” because, well, he’s a racist and you still can’t say the things he says under your given name.
“Not yet, but we’re getting there,” he tells me.
Berg, who served our country with distinction in Afghanistan, counts himself among the so-called “alt-right” movement that I started covering in 2015.
They were, my talking points went, the irreverent new politically incorrect wing of whatever the staid and unfashionable Republican Party had become. They had cut their teeth battling it out on internet forums, knew their way around meme culture, and offered proof that conservatism wasn’t just for goofy evangelicals and rich old men.
But really they were just a bunch of unapologetic racists.
“I grew up in black neighborhoods in Dayton and Cincinnati,” Berg told me. “I don’t have any problem with black people. But the blacks have a black party, and other groups naturally come to want their own parties. That’s what this election is about. I’m saying I want my own party.”
Cleveland, he hoped, was where this white party would coalesce.
[blocktext align=”right”]The thing about the alt-right, I kept saying to anyone who would listen, was that nobody had actually spent time with them.[/blocktext]The thing about the alt-right, I kept saying to anyone who would listen, was that nobody had actually spent time with them. Of course, all I’d done was talk to them on Twitter. The people I talked to, who also shielded their identities behind anime avatars, seemed to know their stuff–their stuff being the politics of white racism. They cited modern racist scholars like Jared Taylor and the various contributors to Taylor’s American Renaissance online magazine. Their Twitter hashtags, like the #cuckservative one they had used to help bury the candidacy of ineffectual establishment politician Jeb Bush, elicited chuckles even from hardline leftists like myself.
I noted all this and filed my stories. While that was happening, more people began to examine the alt-right. Each bit of coverage gave them added credence; instead of an amorphous mass of anonymous 4chan/8chan trolls, they were now a “movement.” They had an actual activist at their head, the gadfly Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopolous, who had achieved great fame by repeatedly telling women upset by online harassment to leave the internet.
Even so, I didn’t know any actual people who identified as alt-right. Who would possibly want this mantle? I’d never heard anybody publicly own the “troll” designation, particularly when the subject matter being trolled was so controversial.
Then I found myself drawn into a long conversation with Metacom Berg, who wasn’t then known to me by that name but was instead just a regular person I knew, about his support for Donald Trump.
I mentioned the pieces I’d written about Trump’s support among the alt-right, and he quickly situated himself among them, and shortly thereafter added me to his anonymous Facebook account.
Prior to this I’d largely ignored the alt-right on Facebook. In my blindness, I’d come to view Twitter as the only social media service that mattered, the marketplace of ideas where millennial thought leaders came to build their lifestyle brands and visit discursive vengeance upon their foes. Facebook, by contrast, was a slightly seedy and down-at-the-heels neighborhood where your elderly relatives and forgotten high school acquaintances shared stupid memes from pages maintained by local radio stations and quasi-public figures like George Takei.
It was a glaring omission. Facebook was where I encountered the real alt-right, which was just as batshit crazy as the old far right it had allegedly supplanted.
So I made a plan. I would go to Cleveland and meet some of these racists face to face.
When it comes to this sort of thing, most people have no idea how bad it can get. I do. My father, who died in 2014, was exactly this kind of maniac. He lived in Montana, owned a bunch of guns, thought the earth was flat and the moon landing was a hoax, and despised every group of people except for WASPs (though he didn’t care for most of them, either).
My mother, who was the daughter of immigrants from the tiny Central European town of Kysucké Nové Mesto in present-day Slovakia, was his bête noire. He hated her and all of the other “hunkers” who resided in the coal patches of Western Pennsylvania, my childhood home. Over the decades, this hate grew into something more than hate, eventually impelling him to flee to the wilds of Montana.
I spent most of my early life studying that madman, and when I finally arrived in grad school, my attention turned to the various classes of conspiracists, paranoiacs, and outright bigots who comprised one discolored patch of the American quilt. When I considered the work of scholars such as Richard Hofstadter and Michael Kazin, I always felt there was something missing. There was nothing wrong with their research or writing, not at all–but they certainly weren’t internal to the subject they were studying.
I had come of age amid this nastiness and was now diving back in of my own accord.
This group of alt-righters, the group to which Metacom Berg belonged, called itself “the Lair” – when it wasn’t calling itself other things usually associated with Nazi Germany. They had hundreds of members, but only a core group of twenty or so appeared to be active at any given time. Of that inner circle, five–Berg included–lived within a day’s drive of Cleveland.
[blocktext align=”right”]”They’re good kids, I think, book smart and whatnot, but they’ll post about how the Holocaust didn’t happen and then tell gas chamber jokes.”[/blocktext]For several weeks, they had been trying to coordinate their schedules so that they could meet up around the convention. At 30, Berg was the oldest, and, as an ex-Army NCO with a pension, the only one who had any sort of guaranteed income stream. The other four were dealing with parental-managed finances, broken-down cars, and all of the other inconveniences that come from being young, homebound, and jobless.
Their backgrounds and living conditions didn’t particularly interest me. As Berg explained it, they were white, middle-class college students who were stuck at home during the summer. Berg hadn’t gone to college until after his stint in the military, so he had little tolerance for their excuses and equivocations, but he did view himself as a mentor, a role that in this case meant constantly reminding them that spamming soft drink flavor naming competitions with Nazi propaganda or telling Holocaust denial jokes wasn’t the way to build a sustainable ideological movement.
“They’re good kids, I think, book smart and whatnot, but they’ll post about how the Holocaust didn’t happen and then tell gas chamber jokes,” he explained. “But we need them if we’re going to build this movement that Milo has popularized.”
The point of the movement, as Berg saw it, was to fashion a white nationalist party that would win elections and keep the United States involved in an endless war against Islamic populations around the world. Having fought overseas, he had come to believe that conflict fostered creativity and provided a sense of unity.
“I want to talk to them about order and discipline, having a common goal and thinking about something bigger. People like Jared Taylor and even Milo recognize that you need to cast a wide net to gain popular approval. Trump is a start, not an excuse to share Nazi memes,” he said.
Only in the context of what I discovered on Facebook could Berg come off sounding like the voice of moderation. The Lair, or whatever it was named that week, specialized in two activities that had nothing to do with serious political organizing: “shitposting,” the practice of wallpapering other social media feeds with politically incorrect and vulgar images, and “raiding,” which entailed hacking, trashing, or otherwise compromising Facebook pages and Twitter accounts maintained by individuals they disliked.
Of “shitposting” little needs to be said. Most of us have encountered this kind of offensive imagery, or at least some PG-13 rated variant of it. But their raids warrant further explanation. Raiding, as practiced by the Lair or some other soundalike group, could follow any one of a number of possible avenues.
The simplest method was a brute force takeover, which involved marshalling the hundreds of less-active members (and their numerous secondary and tertiary social media accounts) for a full-force assault on a page belonging to some ideological opponent. They also had a few individuals with rudimentary hacking skills, who could access an opponent’s passwords and personal information, then vandalize their account. Finally, a few members prided themselves on their catfishing skills, and tried to seduce admins of despised pages in order to get them to reveal damaging information with which they could be blackmailed or (more commonly) mocked. One notable catfishing effort by the group was directed at a gay male admin of a pro-Bernie Sanders page and encompassed three months of exchanging provocative texts and nude photographs (the two Lair members involved in this “black op” proudly revealed that they had used images of their own private parts to win the admin’s affection).
This work was carried out largely in a private digital landscape owned and created by Mark Zuckerberg, against whom they directed a great deal of vitriol. (((marty zucc)) or (((marty cuck))), as they referred to him (the multiple parentheses being Twitter shorthand indicating he was Jewish), represented an ideal target for a brand of anti-Semitism that I assumed had long since passed into the dustbin of history. Even as they used Zuckerberg’s service, group members spun elaborate conspiracy theories about how he was planning to take over the world and eliminate “true” white people. This grand scheme revealed that Zuckerberg was a cuckold at heart: he wished to relinquish sexual control of “his” women to African-Americans and other minorities.
Cuckoldry informed nearly every conversation the group had, and was almost as ubiquitous as the anti-Semitic epithets and insults always being bandied about. When I had first noticed the #cuckservative hashtag, I assumed it had been devised primarily as a way of highlighting the contrast between the warmongering neoconservative politics and bland self-presentation of establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush. And perhaps it was, at least initially. But for the members of the Lair, terms like “cuck” and “bull” (the person who ravishes the cuck’s partner) had no great symbolic significance. They meant what they meant: our world was one made up of cucks and bulls, and if you weren’t one, you were the other.
[blocktext align=”right”]While these criticisms had merit, they failed to acknowledge the sexualized and sexually precarious nature of the universe inhabited by these youthful bigots.[/blocktext]People involved in consensual cuckoldry took umbrage at the far-reaching usage of this term by the alt-right, and while these criticisms had merit, they failed to acknowledge the sexualized and sexually precarious nature of the universe inhabited by these youthful bigots. Everyone was a split second away from being cucked, and only pathological, misguided masculine self-assertion could shield a person against such depredations.
Now, after several days of tedious negotiations, I was going to meet two of these racists.
“He’s not a Jew,” Metacom Berg had assured them. “He’s OK.”
My day began with chipped chopped ham and will end with Skyline Chili on the outskirts of Cleveland. Only the Rust Belt’s finest slop can settle my queasy stomach.
I drove to Skyline on July 19 with the intention of meeting these low-tier white supremacists and thereafter proceeding to the main event at the convention. All of the top names–Milo, Richard Spencer, Alex Jones–would be at my disposal. I would drink deeply of the nastiness; I would have my fill.
As I drove, Metacom Berg shared his hopes and dreams. The movement would purge or reeducate these unrepentant, atavistic racists. In their place would emerge a loud majority of atheistic nationalists bent on working together to destroy Islam, radical or otherwise, before proceeding to campaign against the rising Chinese state. Outdated anti-Semitism, Eastern European racism, Viking-themed paganism, and intense homophobia would go out the window.
[blocktext align=”left”]The mood is deeply uncomfortable, surely worse than even the most ill-considered Craigslist casual encounter.[/blocktext]“The Overton window has opened, and we can talk about some of these things, but we have to be careful about what we say,” he said at one point. “You wouldn’t want to offend people; you can’t afford to lose your audience.”
When we arrive, two reedy kids with Hanson Brothers hair are waiting for us. Their billowing T-shirts extend below their elbows. Berg and I are hulking presences, each over 230 pounds, and for a second I ponder the cuck/bull dynamic and feel bad for them.
Berg buys a dozen cheese Coneys and we take our seats. The mood is deeply uncomfortable, surely worse than even the most ill-considered Craigslist casual encounter. Berg has a crewcut and looks like an undercover police officer; I have the thick, heavy brow and other Slavic features I know from their “shitposts” that these white supremacists despise.
But I want them to talk. For the sake of what I’m trying to accomplish, I need them to talk. It’s 7 pm and the place is nearly empty. Let it rip. Let it all hang out.
“I’m a historian and I’m interested in recording what you have to say,” I tell them. “What is the alt-right to you? What does it mean for you? Say whatever comes to mind. I’ve heard all kinds of stuff over the years. This won’t bother me.”
“I mean what do you want to know,” says the first kid, who was one of the two architects of the Lair’s gay catfishing raid.
“That raid you did was interesting. Tell me about that.”
He shrugs. “Like, we fucking nailed that guy.”
“Yeah, you think when you have a page, a popular page, that you’re immune, but you’re not,” his friend adds.
“I ran that raid for a couple months,” the kid continues. “It was a really good op. We had him going and he was just giving it all up.”
“He wanted your alpha seed,” his friend jokes, his eyes scanning across the table to see if the two of us will follow suit. We don’t.
Metacom Berg looks puzzled. “I know I’ve asked you this before, but isn’t that just gay sexting?”
“Going off that, do you have a problem with gay people?” I ask. “For example, with Milo”–I catch myself saying My-lo, like the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth, then quickly amend it to “Mee-lo”–“Isn’t he one of your main guys?”
“Milo”–the first kid says it wrong, says it Phantom Tollbooth-style–“is alright. I mean, I think it’s funny that a Jew is getting his colon creamed by a [black person].”
“Yeah,” his friend piles on, “At least he’s not spreading his Jew seed.”
“He’s not Jewish,” says Metacom Berg wistfully. “Like not really.”
“He has one drop of that seed,” says the first kid.
At that point, I stop taking notes and focus on the Coneys. The Coneys are always surprisingly good; surprising because I go in expecting the worst and they’re not. I have a terrible sinus infection, but I could taste the chipped chopped ham in the morning and these chili dogs right now.
It takes a little while to finish the meal. The dogs are slop, but the conversation, which continues unabated, is garbage. Berg came all this way, even paid for the food and gas, for an opportunity to preach to the converted, and he’s making the most of his time.
When it ends, the two kids ask me what we’re doing over the next two days. I answer that we’re doing nothing; we’re going home. I suppose I could hang around and see one of the leading lights of America’s hot new racist movement, but why? For what possible purpose? I was, to use the parlance of the alt-right, “redpilled” (i.e., given a truth serum) and made aware of “reality,” of the “real world.” There was nothing else to learn.
As we drive back in darkness, Berg ruminates about the meeting. “They’re just kids,” he tells me.
“I guess,” I say, and then we proceed to talk about anything that wasn’t what just happened.
Later that night, I call my best friend and tell him I’m done with this assignment. I don’t have anything left.
I wanted so very much for this to be the ne plus ultra of writing about the alt-racists. I know that it won’t be; I know that it can’t be. Publications like Vox will continue to feature them in their “explainer”-style features for the same reason that a dog chases its tail. The alt-racists are newsworthy because they’re covered, and they’re covered because they’re newsworthy.
But I can offer one thing by way of peroration: no scholar will ever successfully explain them or any of these other ugly American pathologies. Their chaotic histories lack coherence and even our sharpest minds, people far brighter and more promising than me, can’t properly order them. My formative years had been lost to this nastiness. I was held prisoner to the nastiness, far more a part of it than most others are or ever should be. I’m done with it forever.
[blocktext align=”left”]“Love trumps hate is a load of crap,” Metacom Berg told me repeatedly. “What I saw in Afghanistan is that hate trumps hate. Hate wins.”[/blocktext]The alt-racists aren’t some benighted rabble or hopeless lumpenproletariat. They can’t arouse our empathy and their activities don’t warrant our sympathy. They have chosen to perpetuate an especially pungent brand of toxic discourse, transforming those pockets of the anonymous virtual world they inhabit into the cesspool Xanadus of their fever dreams. The miasma of despair that emanates from their Facebook groups and Twitter feeds is inimical to one’s psychological well-being.
“Love trumps hate is a load of crap,” Metacom Berg told me repeatedly. “What I saw in Afghanistan is that hate trumps hate. Hate wins.”
With regard to his alt-racists, Berg isn’t far from the mark. They should be denounced. They should be shouted down. And finally, as they slink away into the distant corners of cyberspace still open to them, they should be ignored and then forgotten.
Some of the alt-racists went to Cleveland to be seen, but there was no there there, no reason to rubberneck or dawdle on their behalf.
As I once had with my father, I believed I could eventually begin to understand what they were trying to accomplish. But they are sick people who have chosen to stay that way, and all I got for my effort was a lot of ignorant bullshit.
So let’s let the racists bury the racists, while the rest of us work to ensure the future is a better, kinder place in which to live.
Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist who lives in Pittsburgh. You can read more of his work at www.oliverbateman.com.