Culture Warlords, Talia Lavin’s debut, does not ease readers in. Less than 10 pages in, the author opens a far-right chatroom to discover members discussing whether she is too ugly to rape. It is a stark, powerful introduction to the combination of misogyny, anti-Semitism and white supremacy to follow.
Similarly to Julia Ebner’s excellent Going Dark, Culture Warlords relies heavily on undercover work in extreme-right spaces to draw out the poison which dwells there. While efforts to explain the alt-right proliferated throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, Lavin’s work — started after she was targeted by the very neo-Nazis who she set out to undermine — has a raw and deeply understandable anger.
That is not to its detriment. All too often, analyses of white nationalism and the far-right have devolved into anodyne stories of “Nazis buy milk too”, or else created false equivalence with counter-protesters. Culture Warlords is a compelling read, combining the historical narratives of the far-right and anti-Semitism with an exploration of the individuals who follow such ideologies.
Her undercover work in far-right groups points to the banality of most extremists, a point which Lavin highlights. “[These men — and they are mostly men] choose . . . to create alternate identities that embrace the swastika and the skull mask and the Totenkopf, the worst of history and the worst of the present melding seamlessly”.
And her cat-fishing on these sites does much to reveal what they truly think when they feel comfortable. Posing as a huntress who grew up in a white nationalist compound in Iowa, she asks them for love letters to their “future white wife”. One begins, “The world will not forgive us for this, it will not forget”. Given the long and bitter history of white nationalist terror, such screeds are a reminder of what lies beneath the endless optics and prevarications such groups often use when dealing with the press.
A chapter in which Lavin reels in a Ukrainian neo-Nazi fighting in the Donbass region — a man responsible for translating and disseminating copies of the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto — also points to other aspects of these figures who seek to portray themselves as both remorseless and bound in camaraderie against the modern order.
After being told that he is about to be exposed, the last message she receives from the man who had previously sent death threats to journalists is “I’m scared”. His colleagues’ response to the expose — booting him from their Telegram chat — also speaks wonders to the loyalty the movement engenders.
The segue into a forum for incels (or involuntary celibates, men who believe they are being unjustly deprived of sex) makes for another wearying but worthwhile read. In the community made infamous by the Santa Barbara mass shooting and Toronto van attack, Lavin emphasises that explicit and violent misogyny can prove a disturbingly effective pathway to equally virulent racism.
Culture Warlords is not purely based on Lavin’s infiltration, however. The more traditionally academic sections — including explorations of the long history of anti-Semitism, the fantasies of Europe which pervade both Christian and pagan white nationalists and on the alternative influencer network which mainstreamed far-right thought — are succinct but punchy. Even for those familiar with the events, they effectively draw together the disparate narratives which led to 2016 and beyond.
Another particularly moving chapter is centred on a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia — the city where in 2017, counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi at the far-right “Unite the Right” rally. Lavin speaks to those who pushed back against the forces which made it a byword for white nationalist violence.
“The overwhelming consensus from the activists I spoke to was that they refused to yield their small city to the forces of hate,” she says.
Though Lavin’s work was published before the last presidential election, the “Stop the Steal” campaign and the Capitol Hill riots, the lessons it offers are certain to remain relevant in the Biden era.
The forces of the far-right are already using Trump’s defeat as a prime opportunity to recruit his disillusioned supporters. Vigilance and proactive work to counter these groups are worth far more than merely spewing out platitudes on how close American democracy came to the edge — it is still teetering there.
Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, by Talia Lavin, Hachette Books, £19.87 hardback, 273 pages
Siddharth Venkataramakrishnan is the FT’s European technology correspondent