This Author Infiltrated Racists Spaces Online. Then Wrote a Book About It.

Political columnist Anjali Enjeti speaks to Talia Lavin about her debut, ‘Culture Warlords’

Photo illustration; Image source: Westend61/Getty Images

President Trump’s nod to the Proud Boys, a hate group, coupled with his refusal to condemn White supremacy at the first presidential debate, would have come as no surprise to Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.

New York-based Lavin began writing about the world of White supremacist organizations a few years ago. In 2019, she decided to take the plunge to go deeper. To infiltrate virtual racist spaces, an impossible task for a Jewish woman to do as herself, Lavin first invented online identities that would enable her acceptance.

Enter Ashlyn, a chaste, blonde, gun-toting Nazi from Amber, Iowa, who knows all about hunting season, and introverted, never-been-kissed Tommy O’Hara, an “involuntary celibate,” (“incel”) who hates women because they won’t have sex with him. Through these personas, Lavin seduces bigots to gain a larger understanding of the ideology, methods of recruitment, and the origins of the violent rhetoric White supremacists use against Jews, Muslims, Latinx, Blacks, immigrants, and women.

What she uncovers will make your stomach churn.

Culture Warlords unspools a frightening, though necessary, narrative about how virtual communities foment and galvanize terrorists whose massacres in the past five years have spanned two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, an El Paso Walmart, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, to name only a few. In some ways, the book is also a plea to White people to take a closer look at those who live among them, who may appear to be model citizens, but spend their time alone hating others online.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Talia Lavin. Photo: Yonit Lavin

ZORA: Did your family’s experiences during the Holocaust influence your decision to do this kind of investigation into racist organizations?

Talia Lavin: The Holocaust is such a touchpoint. It’s a constant presence in White supremacist rhetoric. My grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust. They had a baby who died in the war, so my mother lost a sister and I lost an aunt. The dangers inherent in genocidal rhetoric have directly affected my family. It runs in our blood. This ups the emotional ante for me, and has led to my wellspring of inner defiance.

The advantage of having this family history is that I never fell into a certain trap that other journalists fall into — which is to view these White supremacist communities as fascinating, to get immersed in the spectacle of it all. The fact that whole branches of my family tree were obliterated during the Holocaust helped me retain a certain moral clarity on the whole thing. But doing the work for this book, being marinated in this kind of vitriol, day in and day out, for a year, was not an emotionally easy experience.

You write, “the process of far-right radicalism rarely starts with overt Nazism.” Can you talk more about what the process looks like in reality?

Most people don’t start out waving swastikas. They are being led to this place by “launderers,” people who seem reasonable and who introduce racist ideas subtly, and give people permission to engage in hate that is more socially acceptable. The launderers can be YouTubers and right-wing influencers. They may start out saying there are too many women in Star Wars movies, or that lady Ghostbusters have ruined their childhood. It soon becomes easier and easier for them to say that feminism is harmful garbage that has caused them to be unhappy. From there it’s not a long journey. The slope is greased by people with high production values and a lot of money behind them.

What are some of the myths that circulate about who these White supremacists are?

They are not weird toothless masturbators living in their mothers’ basements. Every member of the organized racist movement that I surveilled, spoke to, and catfished was a person — a human being with complexity and dimensionality who has made amoral choices. Their humanity is an integral part of the portrait but it does not absolve them. They make the choice to disseminate evil. It makes them more worthy of condemnation. They have chosen to spread hate and fear. They have chosen to follow an ideology that makes them feel like heroes for hurting people who are already hurt.

What I hope to refute in the book, and what became viscerally clear to me, is that there is no socioeconomic class, no level of education attainment, and no geographic region that has a monopoly on White supremacy. These people are well-spoken, wealthy, with country club level money, and are highly educated. The architects of White supremacist ideology have attended the most prestigious schools in the U.S. They serve as elected officials. The myths about them cause a lot of nice White middle-class people to absolve themselves from their own racism.

“Establishment Republicans are wildly racist but not yet advocating for ethnic cleansing on American streets… yet. ”

How do they feel about Trump and the GOP?

The MAGA movement is a White supremacist movement, and Trump is a White supremacist. But members of the organized racist movement position themselves as skeptics of politicians, who they deem “the establishment.”

In 2016, Trump positioned himself as an anti-establishment figure. But White supremacists felt betrayed by him because of his administration’s friendly relationship with Israel, as well as the fact that he had Jewish members in his family and Jewish staff in his administration. A White supremacist utopia is a White ethnostate. White nationalists want to overthrow a system. Establishment Republicans are wildly racist but not yet advocating for ethnic cleansing on American streets… yet. It’s hard to satisfy these extremists unless there are rivers of blood.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your book?

We need to adopt anti-fascist mindsets and methods as a community defense. The social cost of racism and anti-Semitism has steadily been eroded because of who is in power. We need to do what we can to drive White supremacy into the shadows. It is incumbent on all of us to make it part of our social contract to reject both explicit and implicit racism, such as multifamily zoning. We as a collective have to work together to recreate and reimpose the social cost of racism. Racism should cost someone everything.

I have put my identity, my safety, and my sanity on the line to get a clearer understanding of the White nationalist movement. I would hope that readers of the book would realize they need to fight, and put their back into it. This work is worth doing.

Journalist, critic & columnist at ZORA. Essay collection SOUTHBOUND (UGA Press) & debut novel THE PARTED EARTH (Hub City Press), spring ’21.