Transcript

626:

White Haze
Transcript

Originally aired 09.22.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/626

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, this thing happened last month at our radio show, where, I'm sure you remember the rally of white nationalists and offshoots of the alt-right who descended into a kind of white haze on Charlottesville, marched with torches, one woman was killed. The president spoke about it several times. Anyway, when that story first broke here at our show, we realized that the guy who organized that rally in Charlottesville, Jason Kessler, was a member of this right wing men's group that one of our producers, Zoe Chace, had been following for months, like, since the winter.

The group has since disavowed Kessler. This was a group founded on the premise that they are not racist. The group's leader denounced the rally. But it's confusing, right? Like, all these groups that you hear about these days, like the groups at Charlottesville. All these little groups that stand for slightly different things in this movement that's shifting, and slippery, and hard to get a grasp on. And often the things their leaders say in public seem like a whitewash, if you'll pardon the expression, of what they really believe. Not that the leader of this particular group necessarily was whitewashing anything.

Anyway, today we have the story of a guy who stumbled upon that group that Zoe was following and got involved with them. And this is, like, long before Charlottesville, long before Trump was president. And this guy is not exactly who you'd expect would end up with a group like this. He's a liberal black guy, a relationship expert, and a comedian named Dante Nero. He makes part of his living giving advice to guys on how to pick up women, like this. This is from a podcast.

Dante Nero

Ask me to consult you, the first thing I would tell you to do is, I do this thing where I go lay five bricks a day. I tell a guy to speak to five women every day. They don't have to be pretty. They don't have to be somebody you wanna [BLEEP]. But you just say "beautiful eyes," "oh, I like your glasses," "your makeup is impeccable." So five a day every day for eight weeks. That's 285 women. Look, you learn things about that interaction between men and women. And--

Ira Glass

Dante Nero became the spiritual leader of sorts for this right wing group that Zoe was following. He was drinking with the guys. He was giving them pointers about women. And he saw the group's evolution, and he was really surprised when a couple of the guys in the group ended up in Charlottesville. Surprised and disturbed. Well, today on our program, the fuzzy boundaries between these right wing groups and how guys who do not think of themselves as racist end up sharing opinions, and hanging out with guys who definitely are. Where does that lead?

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And let's just jump right into Act One.

Act One. Lost in the Proud.

Ira Glass

Act One, Lost in the Proud. Quick warning before we start. There's some strong language in this story. Nothing graphic, but some slurs, and men referring to the existence of sex. Or, actually, to the nonexistence of it. Here's Zoe. Her story about Dante Nero starts earlier this year.

Zoe Chace

I only met Dante after months of hanging out with these guys, these new right, alt-right, alt-light Twitter trolls. I started meeting up with them right after Trump's inauguration. Even though their guy won, they were still acting like insurgents, not like winners. Like their revolution wasn't over yet.

Man 1

Take charge of your own life, take charge of the country.

Zoe Chace

I'd go to one party at some clubby leather seat whiskey bar in DC or in New York. That would get me invited to another and another. And then finally, at this one bar crawl near Trump Tower in March, I met the group I've been following for a few months now, the group this story is about.

Zoe Chace

So who's coming? Like, who are these guys?

Sal

A lot of them are Proud Boys.

Zoe Chace

What do you mean, they're Proud Boys? Can you just say what that is?

Sal

Proud Boys is a fraternity. It's a fraternity. That's all. It's a fraternal organization.

Zoe Chace

Can you just say a little more about that? What do you mean it's a fraternity?

Sal

It's a fraternal organization. I mean, I just don't understand how to describe it any other way than that. I mean, that's pretty much the clearest way.

Zoe Chace

This is Sal. He's 29. Huge beard. His head is a circle of hair, like that wild thing from Where the Wild Things Are. He's got a sharp tongue. It's hard to tell when he's joking. Here's how he'd introduce me sometimes at bars.

Sal

This is Zoe. All right, Zoe is single. She needs a fucking man as soon as possible, and she needs to start having kids, OK?

Zoe Chace

It was hard at first to get people to explain exactly what the Proud Boys were about, and Sal gets impatient. Even though he founded the Long Island Proud Boys chapter, there are chapters all over the country.

Sal

We're not allowed to talk about these things. I'm just-- I can give you like, we were drinking, we did cocaine, we got tattoos. That's pretty much it. I mean--

Zoe Chace

Sal's roommate, Cameron, put it differently.

Cameron

Proud Boys? What drew me to it is the value we place on family. Especially, like, fatherhood. That's a big deal.

Zoe Chace

The Proud Boys have these rituals, degrees.

Zoe Chace

What's second degree?

Cameron

I-- I can't talk about that. I mean, you'll probably find out soon, but--

Zoe Chace

OK, first degree is declaring you're a Proud Boy. Second degree is getting punched while you try to name five breakfast cereals, like, to show you can focus your mind while under attack. The third is getting "Proud Boy" tattooed on your body. The Proud Boys have special greetings. Like, they yell "proud of your boy," or "uhuru" at each other. Which is this pro-Africa socialist slogan. It's kind of an ironic thing. They have theme songs.

Men

(SINGING) Proud of your boy. Bad as I've been, ma, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

Zoe Chace

That's from Aladdin. It's not in the movie, but it is in the Broadway musical. What interested me in these guys was this thing they believed that I'd been hearing since the beginning of the presidential primaries, that they were feeling marginalized and depressed. This feeling came up so much with guys I talked to during the Trump campaign it seems like one of the driving forces that got him into office. For a lot of people, "Make America Great Again" was about "make men great again." I kept asking guys to tell me how were you marginalized? Like, what happened to you personally that made you feel like this? But every time I asked, I'd get these grand statements. Like it's the whole culture that's against them.

Man

Men are very marginalized. I mean, in a lot of systems too. Especially white males. White males are the most-- white male Christians are the most marginalized group in the United States.

Man

We're seeing more women getting degrees in universities. We're seeing less boys graduating from college. We're seeing-- we're seeing a switching of the roles, and I think it should be equal.

Man

Men serve a purpose. You know, we're biologically different. We're biologically a binary. Women are magical and beautiful things in what they do. And men are, you know, good at what they do. So I think what it is, being cast into, like, a non-- not a second class citizen or role, but like a subcategory.

Man

What about this compulsion to have women in action movies from Ghostbusters to Charlize Theron, she should be James Bond, and--

Zoe Chace

What's bad about that?

Man

That's women saying they want to take over male roles. They want to be men.

Man

There's no day for men besides Father's Day, and who cares about that. And those are just fathers.

Zoe Chace

But as I got to know them, what surprised me the most was the foundational principle of the Proud Boys, the thing that caused them to band together. Here it is.

Franklin Wright

We do not masturbate except once a month, if you want. But I personally do not and don't encourage people to do so.

Zoe Chace

This is Franklin Wright. He works at Proud Boy Magazine.

Franklin Wright

And if you do, you have to be within 10 yards of a lady, and it has to be with her consent.

Zoe Chace

OK.

Franklin Wright

The whole no-wanks.

Zoe Chace

A quick heads up to listeners. People are going to be saying the word "wank" and its synonyms a lot for the rest of the story. Because the Proud Boys were founded, in part, as a group of men who refrain from masturbating.

Franklin Wright

It's more of a religion. Like, you can be a first degree Proud Boy, and no wanks is not a requirement. So you can be a Proud Boy and masturbate all you want. No problem. When you become initiated within the second degree, then you must adhere to no-wanks.

Zoe Chace

Which brings us finally to Dante Nero, the relationship expert comedian who got involved in this world. Dante was the mastermind behind no-wanks. It started for him as a personal life choice.

Dante Nero

I decided not to watch porn anymore. And I just made a-- I made a statement saying "I'm not watching porn anymore, and I'm not masturbating anymore."

Zoe Chace

Dante is striking. He's 51, bald-headed, lots of tattoos. He has a huge bone stuck through one of his ear lobes. He has his own podcast, the Beige Phillip Show, about relationships. "Beige" because he's a light-skinned black guy, "Phillip" for "Dr. Phil." Like this is his version of Dr. Phil's show. Dante used to be a male stripper. He's had sex with lots of girls, and so his sex advice comes out of those experiences. And he felt like no-wanks was a good idea for a lot of the guys who listen to his show.

Dante Nero

That focus on the screen, and masturbating, and watching porn gave an unrealistic idea of what intimacy is, what it is to be a woman. And then when they got the rejection, they started to withdraw from the whole idea of social interaction. And they didn't even want to date anymore. This is guys who don't even want to date. And it's insane.

Zoe Chace

Dante believed that these guys weren't going to get women to sleep with them unless they turned off the computer, got out of the house, talked to women in real life, listened to what they said, and got to know them enough to charm them into bed.

And one day, back two years ago now, he explained this theory to the guy who would latch on to the idea and go on to create the Proud Boys, a guy named Gavin McInnes. Gavin helped found Vice Media long ago. He's kind of a libertarian punk, but now he hosts a right wing TV show on the internet. And Dante went on Gavin's show and started telling him and his viewers about how he doesn't masturbate.

Dante Nero

And he goes "why?" And I said, "well, I find, for me, it mutes me. It mutes my masculinity to a certain extent." And he challenged me. He said "let's do a month."

Gavin Mcinnes

Write that down. Starting today.

Dante Nero

I will commit to once a month.

Gavin Mcinnes

Whoa, all right. I'll meet your once a month and raise you nothing. Once a month. Let's do it.

Dante Nero

Once a month.

Gavin Mcinnes

Agreed?

Dante Nero

Agreed.

Gavin Mcinnes

Agreed?

Dante Nero

After I got off the show with Gavin, he was still-- it affected him in such a way that he constantly was talking about it. Like, every day, he was talking about no-wanks.

Gavin Mcinnes

Zack from Seattle, you want to know about no-wanks with a pregnant wife?

Zack

Yeah, yeah. How am I supposed to commit to no-wanks with a pregnant wife that is in no mood for sex.

Gavin Mcinnes

Yes, what you're discussing, and we should probably--

Dante Nero

And because I was the guy that talked about it and explained it, I think that they propped me up as the guy, the pope, of no-wanks. And this whole thing was happening on its own. This whole monster was just growing about this. And I could see. I would see tweets. And every once in a while, somebody would say the pope with no-wanks. And then I got a picture of a picture of the pope in the pope garb with my face on it. They superimposed my face. Guys had t-shirts, and it just became this thing.

Zoe Chace

Gavin kept inviting Dante on his show. And Gavin's show is pretty popular. Dante figured he'd get more listeners to Beige Phillip. Like, Dante is a successful working comic, but it's not full time for him. He still works a day job at the phone company. Gavin's take on no-wanks was a little different from Dante's. Gavin's show is political, and he took no-wanks and added it to the stew of right wing ideas he was talking about already.

It was more than just helping guys pick up chicks. Gavin wanted the guys to stop masturbating, go out, talk to women, and then marry them, procreate, be strong American family men, help restore the natural order of things that had been knocked out of whack by feminism. This was all before the group even had a name. And when Gavin McInnes finally announced the name in May 2016, no-wanks was right in there.

Gavin Mcinnes

I'm glad we had that no-wanks caller, because it brought me to a name for this movement I've been thinking about. We are called-- you ready for this? The Proud Boys. The Proud Boys are over race. We don't talk about-- we talk about race if you want to talk about it, but we don't have any guilt. No guilt whatsoever. No cis male guilt, none of that stuff. We're pro-gun. We want to end the drug war. We want-- we're libertarians, except when it comes to immigration. We are pro-dude. We think most women would be happier at home. We don't beat off. Well, we beat off once every 30 days. We watch porn once every 30 days. We are traditionalists. We're sort of like the alt-right without the racism.

Zoe Chace

The alt-right without the racism. If you think about it a certain way, it's an ingenious sales pitch for his products. The names and affiliations of these right wing groups keep shifting around. Today, the alt-right is straight up racist, like white supremacist and anti-Semitic. Whites should have their own ethno-state. Now, Gavin's version of right wing nationalism kept some of the feelings and ideas that animate the alt-right, how affirmative action and feminism have marginalized white men, made them powerless. He kept that part. But he'll say explicitly "we're not racist." "We're not the alt-right." "We don't think white people are superior." "What we think is the West is superior. Western civilization. The West is the best."

The Proud Boys aren't the only group like this. They keep some of the supremacy without the whiteness. It's a step removed from race. That's how he sells it, anyway.

Gavin Mcinnes

Let's talk to Jack in Texas. Jack, are you there?

Jack

Uhuru.

Gavin Mcinnes

Uhuru.

Zoe Chace

Like, listen to how he answers this question from a caller shortly after he founded the Proud Boys.

Jack

So I was wondering, do you see Proud Boys being a-- because it's about more than just no-wanks. Do you see it being a subset of the alt-right?

Gavin Mcinnes

Sure, sure. My problem with the alt-right is, it rules out Wayne Dupree.

Zoe Chace

Wayne Dupree is black, a right wing blogger.

Gavin Mcinnes

I'm a Western chauvinist. I'm all about the culture. Now, part of that is recognizing that white males seem to be the ones who made it and respecting that, but it doesn't mean you're not invited to the party.

Zoe Chace

It's ingenious, because clearly there's a market of guys who don't think of themselves as racists, and who don't want to suffer the social costs of their coworkers, and family, and friends finding out they're part of a racist group, but who do feel aggrieved, and marginalized, and under attack as white guys. Those are Gavin's boys, though Gavin says the focus is more on beer than aggrievement.

It's worth mentioning at this point that Dante Nero was not down with all these ideas. He's never watched Gavin's show. But his audience of guys who wanted to pick up girls and Gavin's audience of right wing guys who wanted to pick up girls overlapped. So we joined along for the ride. He became first degree. Obviously, no-wanks made him eligible for second degree. Often at these events, people would be getting punched and yelling out the name of five breakfast cereals. Dante skipped that, progressed straight to third degree, the tattoo.

Dante Nero

I have it on my neck, which is--

Zoe Chace

Oh, you do. It says "Proud Boy" on your neck.

Dante felt like he understood these guys on a couple of different levels. He shares a lot of their views on men and women, that all men are essentially the same, all women basically want the same thing. And he agrees with some of the anti-politically correct "dudes are being shut down these days" stuff. "Guys can't say anything anymore without being attacked," Dante told me. Whenever they complain about it, they're called sexist.

One big difference between Dante and these guys, though, they mostly turned into Trump supporters. Dante is pretty liberal and doesn't like Trump. But this was before Trump became the place to put your resentment over political correctness. Anyway, they didn't talk politics with Dante much. They asked him for relationship advice.

Dante Nero

I would just sit there and talk. Like, they would go "I have this girl. I really like her. Should I approach her? She's liked my Facebook pictures." Just you know-- or maybe a guy who's 36 years old and has been with one woman in his lifetime, and he doesn't have a girlfriend, and he's going-- I never made fun of those guys, you know? I never. Empathy. Because how do you get people to come out of their shell if you're beating them into the shell about what their shortcomings are? We all have shortcomings. So empathy was one of the things that I just assumed would be a part of it. Because that's what I practice.

Zoe Chace

Dante was into it. He says being in a pope-like position wasn't weird for him. He explained it like he's used to being a figurehead. He helped organize the male strippers of the Bronx. He also managed a strip club and its escort service. Now he's a union steward at the phone company. And if he noticed things that alarmed him about the Proud Boys, he ignored them. It's only now, with a little hindsight, that he points to things he wishes he'd taken more seriously at the time. Like the time he brought his nephew to a Proud Boy meet-up.

Dante Nero

He probably-- was probably the only black kid there. And he said to me that they would go, "yeah, man, it's your uncle. Cool, cool." My nephew was going to school for music. And they were like, "you know, it's great that you got out of the ghetto, and you were able to go to school." And he was like, "who said I was in the ghetto? I never said that." It was like, "it's great that you got out of a bad situation, and you were able to make it, you know, to college." And he was like, "Like, I live in Midwood, Brooklyn, which is a pretty--" Like, that's where Brooklyn College is.

Zoe Chace

Right.

Dante Nero

It's pretty upscale. But their perception-- And I remember him telling me after, it was weird that their perception of what he was, was this stereotypical black guy that kind of made it out.

Zoe Chace

He told you that?

Dante Nero

After.

Zoe Chace

Uh-huh.

That was a red flag, Dante says, as was the Holocaust denier video one of the Proud Boys sent him later, disputing how many people had actually died in the Holocaust. Or this other meet-up he went to.

Dante Nero

It was like a really kind of crappy bar. And I was like, "why did you choose this bar?" And the reason why they had chosen the bar was because the bar had got really bad reviews on Yelp, because the bartender called somebody a faggot. And this is why the-- like, I didn't--

Zoe Chace

Was there part of you that found that funny?

Dante Nero

No.

Zoe Chace

Dante wasn't necessarily getting more listeners to his show, but he also has a relationship consulting business. He thought maybe the Proud Boys would become customers. He seems like he was probably having fun sometimes, though he won't cop to that. He had a million other things going on too, his own show, his day job, bit parts in movies. And, he says, he liked the idea that when he was in the mix he could push back on some of their ideas.

Zoe Chace

Like, you thought of yourself as a black ambassador almost.

Dante Nero

Yeah, I guess. I mean, I thought that I could-- I would-- I thought that I could give-- that it wouldn't be this echo chamber, if I was part of it. Honestly, I don't even know what "uhuru" means. I knew it was their call. I noticed it was very important. I know that they looked up to me. I knew that I could-- that if I was part of this, that I could be a voice that they weren't getting from anything else.

Zoe Chace

And then something happened that really freaked him out. Warning, this involves a racial slur. He got an invite to the Proud Boys' Facebook page, and he went on there.

Dante Nero

And there was nigger this and nigger that, Nazi this. And there was, like, this white supremacist stuff. And I'm like, "I'm the pope. You're talking about black people like this." There's pictures of, you know, the old cartoons with the black dudes with the big lips and the bone. Like, there was all this stuff on it, and I was like "yo!" I even said this to Gavin. I go, "man, I'm not really comfortable with this at all. Because they're talking about me!" And Gavin actually screamed on them and said, "listen, the pope doesn't want to come on anymore, because all this racist stuff needs to stop."

So he actually took a stand with it, but you've already done everything to kind of get these guys to that point already. Like, how do you make a left turn off of that once they're already there?

Zoe Chace

I guess that's what I wonder is like, did you have a theory in your mind as to why all this racist stuff was showing up on a Proud Boy's Facebook page?

Dante Nero

It was the natural progression. I think it was the natural progression in terms of "OK, we're the greatest. We're this." You're not! You're 22 years old. You haven't done anything. I'm not saying that they don't have the potential to be great, but who's great at 22? And your whiteness doesn't make you great. Neither does my blackness make me great. It's the content of what I do on a day to day basis, and how I operate on a day to day basis. But when you are in this vacuum and everybody's jerking each other off-- I mean funny--

Zoe Chace

I mean, maybe not.

Dante Nero

Right, maybe not, but socially jerking each other, "we're great, we're the best," where is growth? If you're already great, where is the need for growth?

Zoe Chace

Dante did not see Gavin's show in mid June of this summer, when the guy who organized the rally in Charlottesville, Jason Kessler, joined Gavin and invited the Proud Boys to come down.

Gavin Mcinnes

We've got Jason Kessler on the line, right? Is he still there? He's over there in Virginia, near Washington DC. Where are you?

Jason Kessler

Yeah, I'm here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we're going to have the Unite the Right rally on August 12th. It's going to be international news, so you won't forget it. Charlottesville, Virginia.

Gavin Mcinnes

OK, we will not forget Charlottesville, Virginia.

Zoe Chace

Jason was just getting to know the Proud Boys chapter in Virginia. He and Gavin talked about that and some ideas they have in common.

Jason Kessler

I want to stand up for white people. I want to stand up for Western civilization. I want to stand up for men. I want to stand up for Christians.

Gavin Mcinnes

I'm against immigration.

Jason Kessler

These are the kind of speech that are outlawed.

Zoe Chace

Shortly after that it seems Jason became a Proud Boy himself, second degree. Punches, breakfast cereals.

Gavin Mcinnes

Thanks for coming on the show. I like you more than a friend.

Jason Kessler

Good to be with you, Gavin.

Zoe Chace

That's what Gavin always says at the end of an interview for some reason. He was unsure whether to endorse this event or not.

Gavin Mcinnes

He's a nice boy. I go back and forth on that thing. It has Confederate flags on it and stuff. On the one hand, I'm not-- I'm not scared of being associated with Richard Spencer. On the other hand--

Zoe Chace

Richard Spencer is a famous white nationalist leader.

Gavin Mcinnes

On the other hand, I want to get back to what we're really about, which is beer.

Zoe Chace

We know now, of course, how that rally turned out. Tiki torches, actual Nazis, and white supremacists, and then a woman was killed. After it happened, Gavin McInnes insisted that event had nothing to do with the Proud Boys. He did not go. As it got closer, he told the Proud Boys not to go, because it seemed like white supremacists were going to be involved. They were.

According to Gavin, any Proud Boy who went to the event-- we know there were at least two-- got kicked out of the Proud Boys. And Gavin now says the guy who organized the rally, Jason Kessler, is not a Proud Boy, never was, and was spying on them. But Kessler has told us he was a member of the group. He was going to meetings, and there's video of him going through the second degree initiation-- getting punched and yelling out breakfast cereals. In any case, Gavin had him back on the show to yell at him.

Gavin Mcinnes

And I think this blood, the blood of this girl, I mean, it's obviously on the hands of the guy driving the car, but it's also on your hands!

Jason Kessler

No, that's absolutely not! And you're trying to cuck and save your own ass!

Gavin Mcinnes

No, I'm not! When the mayor said no permit, you knew a fight was going to go down!

Jason Kessler

You cuck yourself for people to save your marriage or your reputation, whatever. And it's just not right, man. You brought me up here to be a patsy for you, just like the Charlottesville government.

Gavin Mcinnes

Oh, I'm saying the exact opposite. I'm suspicious of you--

Zoe Chace

Gavin accepts absolutely no responsibility for some of the guys in his group turning alt-right or white supremacist-esque. Even Sal from the beginning of this story, that Long Island Proud Boy I met at the bar, he went to Charlottesville. He took a selfie with David Duke and tweeted it. He's out of the group now.

Gavin Mcinnes

The Proud Boys have zero culpability, not just with his drift right but with the far right in general. And I would argue, if you're looking for someone to blame, that's the leftist media constantly crapping on these young men and telling them that they're evil and that they suck, and I think that the liberal media banding around the word "Nazi" to where it means 50% of the population, is making a lot of young men revolt and go, "Yeah, you know what? I am. How's that, bitch?" I'm not talking to you, calling you a bitch, by the way.

Zoe Chace

I know.

Fact is, there's overlap between what the Proud Boys espouse and what white supremacist groups believe. I ran through the list for Gavin.

Zoe Chace

"Our culture is better than yours. Our women need to stay home and make more babies. Our country has no more space for immigrants. We are being persecuted." Those are your ideas. Those are ideas I see in white supremacist groups. Do you see that you guys have those same ideas?

Gavin Mcinnes

Yes, I do. And that's the plight of the right in many ways. This is why William F Buckley had to struggle hard to get Nazis out of National Review. They get attracted to this. But to sort of glom on all this pattern and try to suck everyone into Charlottesville, including the president, is insane. It's an obsession. It's a compulsion. You're falling into the logical fallacy of all cats are mammals, all dogs are mammals, all cats are dogs.

Zoe Chace

I think what I've documented is that when you have a group that is founded in part around male resentment and aggrievement without racism--

Gavin Mcinnes

It's not founded around male resentment.

Zoe Chace

Some people are skipping the "without racism" part. And that's what I'm seeing.

Gavin Mcinnes

I know that's your thesis. And I'm telling you you're totally and utterly wrong. I'm telling you, Zoe, your entire angle is wrong. Because you found some similarities, because you want to link this to Charlottesville. There was no Proud Boys contingent at that thing. I'm afraid there's no angle here. And the angle of the Proud Boys is not resentment. It's not this animosity. It's just another men's club!

Zoe Chace

Dante didn't know that the guy who organized the Charlottesville rally had been a member of the Proud Boys, and that he'd gone on Gavin's show promoting it. I was the one who told him that during our interview. He had a hard time with it.

Dante Nero

That makes my stomach kind of queasy. Really. Like, man. Well, the first thing I'm thinking about is, I gotta get a cover-up for this tattoo. That's got to happen immediately.

Zoe Chace

Just because there's a Jason Kessler or there's a Sal, like, does that mean that there's a slippery slope with all these Proud Boys gonna tumble down it?

Dante Nero

I think a lot of them could. I think it could. I think they're susceptible to it. I think given the right combination of things happening and the right timing, yeah.

Zoe Chace

Well, what is it about that group that created that slippery slope?

Dante Nero

The perception of being disenfranchised. Not even the reality of it. The fact that you can't just do-- just being a mediocre white dude gets you certain things.

Zoe Chace

I did talk to guys who were in it for the beer and the friendship and the no-wank solidarity, but also obviously, guys who were in it for "the West is the best." And as Dante says, that's not such a big jump over to "white people are the best." Which really upsets him. He told me this story, that the very first time Dante had Gavin on his podcast, like back two years ago now, they sat down, he and Gavin, and started talking about politics.

Dante Nero

I said, "you know what's interesting is how confident you are about your ideas." And I go, "in general, white dudes that have these ideas, you're so confident about this, but you've never been right on the ethical side of history ever, in the course of history. Coming here and taking the land from the Indians and genocide of Indians, when you talk about the Atlantic slave trade, then when you talk about the intern-- Japanese internment camps. You have Jim Crow. Then you have the mass incarceration. You have police brutality."

And I go, "every time you come up with one of these ideas, you always think you're right, but you're wrong every time in history." I go, "just like this Muslim ban thing that you guys, or deporting the Mexicans, you're sure about this. But you are never right. Never in history have you been right. And history has always shown that because of your lack of-- your insensitivity, your lack of empathy, you don't see it from the oppressed position. You think you're right, and you have the confidence of somebody who is always right when you're always wrong, just never been right."

And he kind of was like, "yeah, that's a good point." After that, we never really talked about politics.

Zoe Chace

This is basically the opposite of "the West is the best," obviously. Dante is definitely upset about Charlottesville. He's upset someone died. He's upset about Nazis. But in the mix of what's frustrating Dante right now is, he feels like the guys misunderstood no-wanks. And the thing they misunderstood about no-wanks is the same thing he thinks they misunderstand about history. They leave out the empathy. No-wanks, as Dante saw it, was supposed to lead to a friendlier, more understanding, and more inclusive world. Or kinda.

Dante Nero

I would say "empathy." I would talk about empathy. I started to talk about empathy, understanding the need to see, see it from a woman's perspective. Because how do you-- how do you-- how do you get a woman and have a real intimate relationship if you don't have empathy for what she's going through? Look, I think the anti-pc culture is-- I think that that's a reasonable thing. I think it has gone nuts. I mean, I'm a comic. I want to be able to say what I want to say.

Zoe Chace

Yeah.

Dante Nero

But to the same token, you cannot not have the empathy to know that there are historical references to the reason why you can't say the things that you want to say.

Zoe Chace

Maybe those Charlottesville guys should have stayed at home wanking, Dante says. Then they wouldn't have taken the initiative to go show up at a Nazi rally.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our program. Coming up, a grudge match between two men, one black, one white, and where that leads. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, White Haze. We try to make sense of all those overlapping groups that marched in Charlottesville, the fuzzy mix of alt-right and alt-light, and all the others that were there, and how people who say that they are not racist and not white supremacists have ended up in a melting pot with people who are.

One of the things that we wondered here on our show after Charlottesville is why are there so many of these little groups? Like, why are there a lot of them? Why are they small? Like, why isn't there some big umbrella organization to advance their interests? And we were surprised to learn that for decades in the white power movement, this was a strategy. It was an actual strategy. And it was put into place in the 1980s. The strategy was called "leaderless resistance." And the white power movement adopted it because the FBI and federal law enforcement were successfully planting informants and covert agents inside the ranks.

Kathleen Belew

So leaderless resistance is a model of cell terrorism in which each activist and cell is supposed to act without direct communication with any other cell or with movement leadership.

Ira Glass

Kathleen Belew is a historian at the University of Chicago, and she's written about this period in the '70s and '80s and the white power movement for a book that's coming out next year. She says with leaderless resistance, people all over the country were reading the same propaganda, the same kind of playbook, if you will. But they all acted on their own. They were uncoordinated.

She says the idea for leaderless resistance was popularized by a man named Louis Beam, who was in the Klan and in the group Aryan Nations in 1983. She says we know how he sent out the memo to the rest of the movement on this.

Kathleen Belew

There's an essay called Leaderless Resistance that's published in a collection of essays called Essays of a Klansman. So it was printed in '83, '89.

Ira Glass

So he publishes it in a book. Is there also, like, a meeting where they all come together, and they discuss, and they take a vote, and they're like, "yes, that's what we're going to do."

Kathleen Belew

So whether there is a vote is not clear, but there is a meeting. There is a meeting called the Aryan Nations World Congress. And this had been happening since the 1970s at the Hayden Lake compound in Idaho, which is where Aryan Nations is located. And the World Congress is both a political meeting and a social meeting. So there are fiery speeches about any number of causes important to this movement, and then there's also a big spaghetti dinner and volleyball games. At the meeting--

Ira Glass

Can we just pause? What do we know about the spaghetti dinners and the volleyball games?

Kathleen Belew

People talk about the spaghetti dinners. The spaghetti dinners turn out to be a really important part of it, because it's sort of how the social life of the movement is maintained. And one of the interesting things about this is that to have the spaghetti dinners, you really need to have the participation of women. And Mrs. Butler, who is the wife of the leader of Aryan Nations, is in charge of the spaghetti.

Ira Glass

It's interesting thinking about, like, they're celebrating their white heritage. It makes me think about how for a period in this country Italians weren't included in that heritage, were they?

Kathleen Belew

Indeed. And actually, yes, there are a number of recipes that turn up in the women's publication of this movement that are similarly eyebrow-raising in that way. So for instance, one of the major, major women's circulars that has columns in it called From the Mouths of Little Aryans, and is a pretty apocalyptic magazine, actually. Like, that magazine argues that women will actually have to fight in a race war. They also have recipes for a taco pizza.

Ira Glass

OK, we digress.

Belew says the FBI believes leaderless resistance was actually discussed at this event. Several people from the movement testified that it was. Others denied there was a real plan like this.

Kathleen Belew

But what is clear is that after this meeting in July of 1983, something changes. Because their strategy changes very notably. They spend a lot less time on coordinated public rallies and political campaigns, although that activity continues. And the violence and underground activity immediately ticks up.

Ira Glass

Out of that come incidents like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, in which 168 people died. Which Belew says is often mistakenly thought of as the work of a lone bomber, Timothy McVeigh and a co-conspirator, but fits entirely the sort of thing that an activist would do as part of leaderless resistance. And this is the way that the white power movement worked for decades, small groups, people staying below the radar to avoid attention and avoid prosecution. And that is what is changing today.

Talking to people who are knowledgeable about what's going on with white nationalist groups today, including researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, what they say is that what's happening today is that leaders are stepping forward. They are becoming public figures. And the separate little groups, they are, in fact, trying to band together. Maybe not to become one big organization, but to work together when it's helpful.

The name of the rally in Charlottesville, after all, was "Unite the Right." This was a public rally where groups came together in common cause, where they were proudly visible. And that's what's different about this new incarnation of the white nationalist movement today. That's what's different from the last few decades.

Act Two. Phone Calls to an Undisclosed Location.

Ira Glass

And now we have arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, Phone Calls to an Undisclosed Location. OK, so remember back during Act One, during Zoe's story, when the guy who organized the rally in Charlottesville, after the rally, he went on to Gavin McInnes's show, and the two of them argued over who was to blame for the death of that woman who was killed at the rally. And Gavin McInnes was pretty direct.

Gavin Mcinnes

I think this blood, the blood of this girl, I mean, it's obviously on the hands of the guy driving the car, but it's also on your hands!

Jason Kessler

No, that's absolutely not. And you're trying to cuck and save your own ass.

Gavin Mcinnes

No, I'm not!

Ira Glass

The organizer of the rally, Jason Kessler, said he could not be blamed for that death. And one of our producers, Robyn Semien, saw this quote that Kessler gave somewhere else, where he talked about the same thing, about who was to blame. And the quote was really interesting. In that quote, Jason Kessler put the blame on somebody else, somebody very, very specific. Here's Robyn.

Robyn Semien

I read about it in an article days after the rally. When asked what prompted him to organize the rally, Jason Kessler said, "I didn't do it. Wes Bellamy did." Wes Bellamy is the vice mayor of Charlottesville, and the only black member of city council. Jason Kessler put the blame on him, not the mayor, not city council, not the police. Wes Bellamy.

I knew about Wes Bellamy before I read that quote, because I saw him on TV that Saturday, after the president's Many Sides press conference. Was Bellamy was doing interviews. He's handsome, black, young, and memorably, he was in a white t-shirt that said "Menace 2 Supremacy" on it. The "to" like the number two in Menace 2 Society. He stood out. I liked it.

Kessler lives in Charlottesville, and it seems like he's had a maniacal focus on Bellamy for almost a year. It started with the statue. Bellamy wanted to remove it. Kessler got pissed. Then a bunch happened. When Bellamy and others protested racism outside an Italian restaurant, Kessler showed up and ate pasta in their faces.

Kessler exposed scandalous tweets from Bellamy's old Twitter account, which cost Bellamy his jobs at a high school and at the State Board of Education. But Bellamy's supporters didn't seem to care. Back and forth, many failed attempts by Jason Kessler to undo Wes Bellamy, including, last December, Kessler showing up at a council meeting to look Bellamy in the eye while blaring Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down from a portable speaker. So I wanted Wes Bellamy to talk to me about all that.

Robyn Semien

I want to talk about Jason Kessler.

Wes Bellamy

JK.

Robyn Semien

Are you on an initial basis?

Wes Bellamy

No, I mean, I don't really talk about that gentleman. He's free to do what he wants to do.

Robyn Semien

I had told him I wanted to talk about the rally and the events leading up to the rally, but I only realized sitting in front of him that I assumed he knew that meant talking about the man who organized the rally and his history with him. I ran that Kessler quote by him, or where Kessler said he organized the rally because of Bellamy.

Robyn Semien

He said, "I didn't do it. Wes Bellamy did it."

Wes Bellamy

All right. I didn't see that. I don't really, again, pay attention, a lot of attention to what he says, but--

Robyn Semien

Why would you say that?

Wes Bellamy

They, he and his posse, they firmly believe that I am-- I mean, they've said this on several occasions. I'm a huge threat to the quote, unquote, "white race." I'm a threat to them having what is theirs. Like, I'm taking it away. I'm a threat to what they believe to be the pure white race and Western civilization, and the way in which they do things. I'm a black male, who's 30, who is very vocal, who is in this position, who has a lot of support. And if that scares them, if that makes them believe this is my fault, that just, like, shows what kind of people they are. You have to take accountability. Wes Bellamy didn't plan an alt-right rally.

Robyn Semien

He was candid and had lots to say, until I mentioned I'd be talking to Kessler for my story, and then his whole body changed. He looked annoyed, stopped looking me in the eye.

Robyn Semien

I'm talking to Kessler tomorrow, and that's fine.

Wes Bellamy

You're gonna put us in a story together? You didn't tell me that. OK. So we got 10 minutes. That's it.

Robyn Semien

Can I come back to you after, if I have more questions after him?

Wes Bellamy

Probably not, probably not. It's no disrespect intended. I just-- yo, this is way bigger than Kessler. This is way bigger than, like, Kessler. And I normally don't even spend-- I don't give him, like, that time. I don't think you quite understand. When you give these individuals that kind of time, that legitimizes them. That's what they want is the attention.

Robyn Semien

I get that. But ignoring Jason Kessler isn't going to make him go away. And I don't have the same job as Wes Bellamy. He's a politician with a political vision for Charlottesville. It makes sense for him to avoid talking about Jason Kessler. He's not going to be derailed by one guy. But I'm in Charlottesville because Jason Kessler wrote the blueprint for the rally. And at this point, he's in hiding somewhere, presumably planning something. I wanted to know what's coming and how dangerous he is. And if this story was true, that Jason Kessler's beef with this one guy motivated him to organize this rally, I wanted to understand that too.

Before I spoke to Kessler, I went back and forth on telling him I'm black. I really chewed on it, wondered what was more honest. Tell him or don't tell him? Maybe he'll look me up. Maybe he'll ask me. I didn't know. It'll come up, I thought. And I don't usually start interviews with "hi, I'm black Robyn from This American Life." So I didn't do it with this one either.

Robyn Semien

I've been reading that you're in hiding.

Jason Kessler

Well, I'm not announcing where I'm at. [CHUCKLING] I mean, when you have a government which won't protect you, you know, from mob violence, you can't just announce where you're going to be every moment.

Robyn Semien

Are you saying you've been getting threats?

Jason Kessler

Yeah, I've been getting constant death threats, constant lewd stuff, constant, you know, abuse from people.

Robyn Semien

I wanted to ask him about Wes Bellamy, but we got on the phone and he just started going. He talked for 40 minutes, mostly about how he did have a plan for the rally, but it was thwarted by the state of emergency.

Jason Kessler

--the Constitution does not apply to me.

Robyn Semien

His First Amendment right to free speech was violated. There was a lot of First Amendment talk.

Jason Kessler

Our First Amendment rights--

Robyn Semien

He was rambly and excitable, and he talked over me a lot. And when I finally got to ask him about Wes Bellamy and that quote, he was even more hopped up. Bellamy is against him, but it's not just Bellamy. It goes all the way up to the highest levels of Virginia government.

Jason Kessler

I don't believe that it was the police that were trying to mess up the rally. I think that it was--

Robyn Semien

You don't?

Jason Kessler

--government officials, including mayor Mike Signer, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Robyn Semien

I asked him more questions about Wes Bellamy until it became clear-- there wasn't much there. Kessler's resentment of the vice mayor didn't prompt him to organize the rally. That's just something he said. But we did talk about the rally, and his plans and expectations, which eventually led to something that was new to me, something specific about his beliefs that felt important to know.

When President Trump stood before the press after the weekend in Charlottesville, he said not everyone at the rally was a neo-Nazi. Not everyone was a white supremacist.

Donald Trump

Believe me, Not all of those people were white supremacists.

Robyn Semien

But even the guys who don't call themselves white supremacists believe all sorts of things that sound very close to or exactly the same as white supremacy. Jason, for instance, explained to me he's not a white supremacist. He's pro-white, fighting for white rights. And he organized one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in recent memory. And he said things to me like, "each race has something to be proud of. Black people's thing being--" mhm-- "basketball."

Robyn Semien

Were you on Friday night, on the Friday night before, were you out with that crowd marching, the guys with the torches?

Jason Kessler

Yes.

Robyn Semien

You were marching with them?

Jason Kessler

Uh-huh.

Robyn Semien

And that was, like, a good representation of the group who you wanted at the rally the next day?

Jason Kessler

Well, not all of it. I mean, there are elements of the online community which are into edgy humor. And I would say that some of the chants and stuff that they did were a little bit-- were in bad taste.

Robyn Semien

Yeah, what was the edgy humor?

Jason Kessler

Well, I think when people say "Jews will not replace us," I think that they're taking an unhappiness with the disproportionate influence and power of Jewish people at the elite levels of power in American society. They're vastly overrepresented.

Robyn Semien

So when the media was reporting that people with white nationalist or white supremacist symbology were carrying torches and shouting "Jews will not replace us," you were thinking, "the media's getting it wrong because they're just-- it's a joke."

Jason Kessler

What is the principle on which you oppose using torches? It was a form of protest. It was legal. It was permitted by free speech. And it is a good optic. It looks interesting at night.

Robyn Semien

Kessler's a UVA grad. He's 33. He voted for Obama. And when he talks about what set him down this path to pro-white activism, he points to a single experience. I was surprised what a common experience it was, something that happens to people all the time, and they do not end up organizing rallies with torches. He didn't get a job he wanted. Here's what happened.

He didn't come from money. His parents didn't go to college. He graduated with a psych degree and student loans, and started looking for a job. He says he'd been working some. Says for about a year he was a counselor in a mental health facility.

Jason Kessler

So I had experience, and I tried to apply for a job at Region 10, which is the health care provider around here.

Robyn Semien

Mhm.

Jason Kessler

And there were two positions. There was one position, which was full time, and one which was as-needed.

Robyn Semien

The full-time job went to someone else.

Jason Kessler

So they hired me for the as-needed thing. And I was happy about that at first, because I'd been applying for these jobs for years after I graduated, and they wouldn't even give me interviews. So when I showed up to the orientation, I met the woman who had been hired over me, you know, for the full-time position. And we were all talking in this big orientation session about our experience.

She said that she had no experience in the mental health care field. She had worked as a dental hygienist. So at that point, I was pretty angry. Because I felt like I had been picked over for reasons not having anything to do with my qualifications, but having to do with identity variables. Why did I think this? Because most all the people working at this mental health care facility were white women or black women. I mean, there was no-- nothing else. It seemed to me like there was a discrimination that was happening there.

Robyn Semien

Was the woman who was picked over you, was she white or black?

Jason Kessler

She was white. So I think-- I mean, the affirmative action stuff is not just about the race. It's also about the gender issue.

Robyn Semien

I suggested, maybe it wasn't discrimination. Maybe the woman was a better interview, or some other thing you didn't know about. But he decided-- discrimination, something fishy, even though he admitted he didn't have proof.

Robyn Semien

OK, so you became convinced that that was, like, an injustice. And then you went on to work with her, right? How was she?

Jason Kessler

No, no, I didn't work at that job, because I found out that the hours weren't what I thought they would be. It was only like five hours a week. That's not enough to do anything. And there was no health care, no benefits. So I declined. I wouldn't work a job where, you know, I was clearly more qualified than somebody but had been discriminated against because of some variable outside my control.

Robyn Semien

Of course, even if he were right, this is a story that happens much more often to women and people of color than white men. But years later, this is what Kessler points to as the beginning of a real shift. Slighted as a man, feeling like women and blacks get all the breaks, this story about being pushed out made sense to him, and it stuck. And this brings me to the thing I learned from this conversation. From there, he made a leap I truly can't understand, a leap from that experience back then to this conclusion.

Jason Kessler

We are being replaced culturally and ethnically.

Robyn Semien

You think there's, like, a government conspiracy to replace white people culturally?

Jason Kessler

No, I didn't say it was a conspiracy. It is something that is happening. It's a genocide by replacement. That's part of the UN definition of genocide, is replacing a people. And that is what they are doing. They created policies starting with the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, which gave--

Robyn Semien

The Hart-Cellar Act is the immigration policy that ended preferential treatment for certain European countries. It got rid of the old policy, which favored white immigrants. He's wrong, by the way, about the UN definition of genocide. It's not replacement. Genocide, according to the UN, is violent. It's the physical destruction of a people. But the way Kessler sees it, there's a genocide of white people, because America allows immigrants from countries all over the world.

Jason Kessler

This kind of thing doesn't happen in Africa, or Latin America, or Asia. It's only in the white countries.

Robyn Semien

I don't consider America a white country?

Jason Kessler

Why wouldn't you? It's been traditionally 80% to 85% white. Our first immigration policy, you know, said that in order to be a citizen you had to be a white person of good character, right? So it was explicitly a white country. Like, there are traditional demographics. And when you don't respect those, you destroy a people.

Robyn Semien

"Destroy a people," "genocide." I'd never heard that before. I couldn't have guessed it. This is the new thing I learned from this conversation. But apparently this is something lots of these groups believe in. It came up 2 and 1/2 hours in, and it kind of washed past me when it happened. But later I'd mention it almost immediately to every person I talked to about him. The man who organized the rally in Charlottesville believes there's a genocide of white people in America.

White civil rights, discrimination against white people, white oppression-- Kessler is constantly stealing the language of the truly disenfranchised to talk about his feelings of white disenfranchisement. He calls people racist all the time. He calls Wes Bellamy a black supremacist. He calls me a racist toward white people. I have no idea if he knew I'm black, by the way.

That language is designed to have power. It took black Americans centuries to exact, black people who needed to communicate a message for our own survival, that we are not partial people, we are not a threat, we are not marginal, we are not invisible. We're people. Those words have power, the words Jason has co-opted. And they get results. I bet they'll get results for his movement too.

We talked for four hours in two conversations. Jason Kessler says he's not a white supremacist, but he believes in white genocide. And that's just as terrifying, because it takes you to the exact same place. Namely, taking back what's yours. I told Jason as much.

Robyn Semien

The reason that it's scary is that I don't think that even you are sure how far in over your head you are. And you're kind of being coy about-- like, you know the definition of a white supremacist, but you're not totally separating yourself from white supremacy.

Jason Kessler

Was Heather Heyer completely innocent?

Robyn Semien

And white supremacy has a history of murder and killing.

Jason Kessler

White supremacy, blah, blah, blah. That's a BS liberal term that you have been indoctrinated with. That "white supremacy, white supremacy!" This is our country!

Robyn Semien

After talking to Jason Kessler suddenly this past year in America looked different to me. I thought for lots of people "Make America Great Again" and white attachment to Confederate symbols was about white power, white people trying to maintain their power. Just a way of saying "remember the hierarchy. Don't forget who's on top." But Jason Kessler is a guy who does not believe he has power, and he wants it. Which is frightening, because it's unclear what he'll do to get it.

He's tweeted about a coming civil war and being one of the first to go. There was one question that I wanted to ask Kessler that I never got to, because he cut the conversation short. So I called him back one more time to try and ask him.

Answering Machine

At the tone, please record your message. When you've finished recording, you may hang up or press one for more options.

[BEEP]

Robyn Semien

Hey, Jason. It's Robyn. I didn't get to ask you what you wanted, what your movement was looking for in the future. Is what you're hoping for a civil war, like a race war? OK, let me know. Bye.

[CLICK]

He didn't call me back. When I sent an email following up this week, asking, "Do you want a race war? What will that look like?" He responded, quote, "Ridiculous. Just run what you have. I'm not a cartoon villain." I never thought he was.

Ira Glass

Robyn Semien is one of the producers of our show.

Our program was produced today by our senior producer, Brian Reed. People who put our show together include Elna Baker, Elise Bergerson, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Stephanie Foo, Michele Harris, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, Mariya Karimjiee, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, BA Parker, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he just finished learning to speak Japanese. He picked up the language in just three months, because of all the spare time he had. So much spare time. You know why?

Dante Nero

I decided not to watch porn anymore.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.