Oct 9, 2016

'Call me a racist, but don't say I'm a Buddhist': meet America's alt right

They present themselves as modern thinkers of extremism. But the US far right, discovers Sanjiv Bhattacharya, have the same white supremacist obsessions


Every few weeks, William Johnson, the chairman of the white nationalist American Freedom Party (AFP), holds a lunch for members, the goal being to make America a white ethnostate, a project that begins with electing Donald Trump. This week, it’s at a grand old French restaurant called Taix, in Echo Park, Los Angeles – an odd choice on the face of it. Echo Park is a trendy hood. It’s hipster and heavily Hispanic. In fact, given the predominance of Latino kitchen staff in this city, it may be wise to hold off on the Trump talk until the food arrives.

“About three months ago,” Johnson begins, “I was talking to Richard Spencer about how we need to plan for a Trump victory.” Spencer is another prominent white nationalist – he heads the generic-sounding National Policy Institute. “I said: ‘I want Jared Taylor [of American Renaissance] as UN Ambassador, and Kevin MacDonald [an evolutionary psychologist] as secretary of health and Ann Coulter as homeland security!’ And Spencer said: ‘Oh Johnson, that’s a pipe dream!’ But today, he’d no longer say that, because if Trump wins, all the establishment Republicans, they’re gone… They hate him! So who’s left? If we can lobby, we can put our people in there.”

Around the table five young men, roughly half Johnson’s age (he’s 61), nod and lean in. They all wear suits and ties, address the waiter as “sir” and identify as the “alt right”, the much-discussed nouvelle vague of racism. “Are you guys familiar with the Plum Book?” Johnson asks. “It’s plum because of the colour, but also because of the plum positions – there are 20,000 jobs in that book that are open to a new administration.”

“So we need to identify our top people!” says Eric, one of the men at the table.

“Just anyone with a college degree!” Johnson says.

“Right.” Eric is practically bouncing in his seat with excitement. “We need to get the word out. We are the new GOP!”

It’s not every day that a brown journalist gets to sit in on a white-nationalist strategy meeting. But these are strange times. Racism is trending. Like Brexit, Trump has normalised views that were once beyond the pale, and groups like the AFP have grown bold. Their man’s stubby orange fingers are within reach of actual power, so maybe it’s time to emerge from the shadows at last.

I first met Johnson in May after he signed up as a Trump delegate before being swiftly struck off by the campaign when the press found out. He’s a surprising figure. An avid environmentalist, fluent in Japanese and, in person, not the bitter old racist I’d expected but rather a jolly Mormon grandfather, bright eyed and chuckling, a Wind in the Willows character. Eric is even more unexpected. Tall and impassioned, he came to racism via hypnotherapy, of all things. He sells solar panels for a living and practises yoga. Together with his friends Matt and Nathan, who are also here at lunch, he runs an alt-right fraternity in Manhattan Beach – “a beer and barbecues thing”. They’re called the Beach Goys. “We’re starting a parody band,” he beams. “We’ve found a drummer!”

Between them they represent two poles of a racist spectrum, young and old. And judging from this lunch, it’s the millennials who are the more extreme. Johnson wants white nationalists to appear less mean and he finds the “JQ”, the Jewish Question, archaic. But Eric loves the meanness of the alt right. “We’re the troll army!” he says. “We’re here to win. We’re savage!” And antisemitism is non-negotiable. In fact, he’d like to clear up a misnomer about the alt right, propagated by the Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos, who is often described, mistakenly, as the movement’s leader. Milo casts the alt right as principally a trolling enterprise, dedicated to attacking liberal shibboleths for the “lulz”– there’s precious little actual bigotry. But Eric insists otherwise. Yes, they like to joke, they have memes, they’re just as funny as liberals – have I heard of their satirical news podcasts, the Daily Shoah and Fash the Nation? But make no mistake, the racism is real. Eric especially enjoys The Daily Stormer, a leading alt-right news site, which is unashamedly pro-Hitler.

What unites Johnson and Eric is what they describe as “the systematic browbeating of the white male” – namely all this talk of privilege, the Confederate flag, Black Lives Matter and mansplaining. But beyond that, it’s the “looming extinction of the white race”. This is the language they use. Also: “Diversity equals white genocide.” The alt right loves to evoke genocide while harbouring Holocaust deniers. Their point is that white people are melting away like the icecaps, and they have a primal drive to stop it. In 2044, non-Hispanic whites will drop below 50% of the US population. “The generation of the white minority has already been born,” Eric says. “Look at South Africa and Rhodesia. That’s where we’re headed. Total disenfranchisement.”

I want to reassure him that his Brown Rulers will be gentle and that slavery isn’t so bad when you get used to it. But it’s not me they want to hear from, it’s white people. This is the white nationalist’s burden – the very people they’re trying to save are the ones who most fiercely oppose them. “The only group I cannot get along with is white people,” says Johnson. “Because white people hate white people who like white people.”

A couple of days later, Johnson is at his cluttered desk in downtown LA, nattering merrily in Japanese to a woman in Tokyo. He gets lots of media requests these days, but especially from Japan. There’s an uncanny connection between Japan and white nationalism in America. Jared Taylor, white nationalism’s foremost intellectual, is another fluent speaker. “It’s an ethnostate and it’s deeply nationalist,” he says. “And they have resisted the pressure to admit refugees. I say: ‘God bless them!’”

For his part, Johnson’s racism was shaped in Japan. He grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a state founded as a white utopia, in a modest Mormon home, back before the LDS church gave black people the priesthood in 1978. But it was his two-year mission to Tohoku, Japan, that turned him. As he went from door to door, locals would opine on the greatness of white America. “They had an inferiority complex after the war, so we were treated like celebrities,” he says. “Oh, it was just the funnest time!” A few years later, while working in Japan as an attorney, he wrote a book advocating the repatriation of all non-whites with appropriate reparations, because “I thought America was going to collapse unless I did something.” When he returned to LA, he sent a copy to every congressman. He was 32.

Clearly things didn’t work out as planned. His forays into politics floundered and then his offices were bombed. So he retreated from activism for nearly 15 years, only returning in 2009 to form the AFP – just in time for the rise of the alt right.

We head to his 67-acre ranch near Pasadena, a hilly lot backing on to a national forest. I asked to meet his family, but his wife refused, so we tour the farm instead – his persimmon orchard, his horses and ducks. And there on his pick-up truck is a stencil of Jimi Hendrix. “My daughter likes to paint,” he says proudly. None of his five children are white nationalists, though they have promised to marry within the race.

“You’re a white supremacist with a black artist painted on your truck,” I tell him. And he flinches. “That’s the meanest, most hurtful swearword there is. Just because I say different races have different strengths doesn’t mean I think I’m superior.” He doesn’t like “racist” either. “It’s a pejorative. I prefer ‘race realist’.”

“But it’s not my reality, Bill. I’m sticking with racist.”

“Well, OK. But people who embrace ‘racist’ are mad at everybody. I get along with people. You cannot function in Los Angeles without encountering other races, so I look for areas of similarity and agreement. It’s important to treat everyone with the highest respect on a micro level.”

On a macro level, however, darkness falls – multiculturalism is doomed, the different races will never get along, and our only hope is Balkanisation: separate territories for separate tribes. And whatever accelerates that transition is welcome, even racial strife. “I don’t think friction is a good thing,” he says, “but it would help facilitate the split that is necessary.”

We stop to feed his alpacas. There’s a brown one, a black one and a white one, standing peacefully together against the chicken wire fence.

“See Bill, they’re getting along.”

He laughs. “I wish people were like alpacas.”

I’m with Eric at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan Beach where he lives, an upscale, white neighbourhood in the South Bay. He clears space on the table and grins. “OK, you ready? Your first tarot card reading with the Hitler Youth!”

It’s been an odd afternoon. We walked along the beach and I asked about his gmail address which includes the number 1488, a potent number for white supremacists. The “14” stands for the 14 words coined by the late David Lane of the group The Order: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” And the 88 refers to HH (H being eighth in the alphabet) – or Heil Hitler. Eric sighed. “OK, but this stuff’s hard to talk about,” he said. “It depends how red-pilled you are.”

Alt-righters love talking about the red pill. It’s a reference to The Matrix – blue-pilled people bumble through a life of illusion, while the red-pilled have seen the truth and there’s no turning back. Like all conspiracy theorists they see the hidden hand that guides all things, but for the alt right that hand is Jewish. The red pill is classic antisemitism, rebooted for a younger generation. As we walked, he laid it out – the banking, the media, the globalism. We passed games of beach volleyball and family picnics, while he explained why the Holocaust was exaggerated and Hitler got a bad rap.

“Have you noticed that kombucha isn’t as fizzy as it used to be?” he asks, along the way, because Eric isn’t your average Nazi. He trained as a spiritualist. He has taught meditation. He brought his tarot cards in case I wanted a reading.

“Don’t tell me – it’s the Jews,” I tell him. He laughs. “You said it, not me!”

In the late 70s, the Klansman David Duke swapped his hood and robes for a suit and tie, and took white supremacy out of the cross-burning fields and into the boardroom. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center describes the alt right in similar terms, as Racism 2.0, “a rebranding for the digital generation”. It’s a trendy reboot – “alt right” makes white supremacy sound like an art collective. And Eric, the kombucha Nazi, just takes it a step further – into the aisles of Whole Foods. He’s a locally sourced, wild-caught bigot high in omega-3s and antisemitism. It makes him more sinister in some ways, and more harmless in others. As Nazis go.

“Hmm, Nazi.” Like Johnson, he’s squeamish about terms. Warriors against political correctness can be awfully sensitive. “It’s such a slur,” he says. But come on – he’s a Hitler apologist. “OK, fine,” he says. “Just don’t say I’m a Buddhist, because I’m actually more into Norse and Celtic mysticism now.”

It’ll come as no surprise that someone who’d rather be called a Nazi than a Buddhist has a strange story to tell. Originally from a well-off white suburb of Chicago, he moved to Las Vegas to pursue music. Then one day, in the gym of his condo building, he met a guru figure we’ll call Frank. A spiritualist and businessman, Frank introduced Eric to New Age mysticism and Japanese Buddhism. And it was under Frank’s guidance that Eric moved to LA to study hypnotherapy and began a career giving readings and tarot shows at a psychic bookshop. Frank, he says, was his “mentor and best friend”. But then Eric took a turn. He radicalised himself. He left the New Age life, finding it too feminine, and spiralled down a sinkhole of conspiracy theory. He and Frank have been estranged ever since. Frank is black.

Today, Eric still meditates and practises yoga. His weeks are spent like David Brent, as a travelling salesman, driving around meeting his solar energy clients. His weekends, however, are all about the Beach Goys, which now has 15 members. Last week, they went on a hike to the Murphy Ranch in the Pacific Palisades, a decrepit old property that was originally built as a refuge for Hitler after the war. Next week is their first band rehearsal. Eric’s going to play guitar and sing. And this is the future he wants – not a plum job with the Trump administration. “I don’t see myself as a bureaucrat,” he says. “I want to take the Beach Goys national. I want to inspire people.”

It could happen. Trump has unleashed something in America. Johnson won’t reveal the AFP’s membership numbers – “Maybe we want to appear bigger than we are?” – but Eric insists the alt right is on the march. “We’re growing with every hashtag, every BLM protest, every city that becomes a Detroit, or a London,” he says. “We’re everywhere! We’re the guy next to you at yoga, the barista at Starbucks...” It’s like Fight Club for supremacists, a deeply unsettling thought (which is why Eric loves it).

But his delight in being a secret Nazi detracts from the seriousness of it all, the white genocide stuff. He’s having too much fun. And I wonder, as we finish our beers, if it will pass for Eric, this Nazi phase. He just doesn’t seem that threatening. Then he starts up about a race war, that old white-supremacist chestnut. Because behind the trolling veneer, the alt right is more traditional than alt. What Eric believes is vintage racism, the same old wine in a new ironic cask. And Tony Benn’s words ring as true as ever: “Every generation must fight the same battles again and again.”

“Our civilisation is at war and we need to secure our people,” Eric says. “We must seize power and take control. And the idea that we can do this peacefully is probably not realistic.”

We get along well enough, Eric and I, but he has the same micro/macro discrepancy as Johnson. And at a macro level, there is only despair and division. “I do not advocate violence, but I will give my life for my blood… and for the honour of my ancestors.”

He thrums the tarot cards in his hands, his voice getting more animated. “We accept the game that’s being played. We accept that the lion and the gazelle are competition. But they don’t have to hate each other. That’s just how we view it.”

He shrugs. “It’s scary. The world is scary. This is not a game for children.”



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