Nick J Fuentes, the 23-year-old founder of the America First Foundation, wants there to be no more immigration to the US. “White men founded this country. It wouldn’t exist without white men and white men are done being bullied … Genocide is being perpetrated against the white man.” He thinks women should stay in the home. “They have been convinced it’s dignified to abandon your children – literally out of their womb – and go work in an office, go work for a corporation. How sick is that?” He thinks they shouldn’t have the vote either, “but that’s probably not going to land soon”. Articulate, charismatic and convincing, he has built a substantial following, beginning with the online gaming community, and now, spreading outward from there, holds his own rallies. He also wants to be president.
The most terrifying part of this opening episode of Louis Theroux’s new three-part documentary series, Forbidden America (BBC Two), is that by the end of it you can see no reason why he could not be. Theroux’s latest outing is – for all the compelling interviews that abound – really about the tentacular reach and spectacular, unprecedented power of the internet (alongside whatever else it has brought us); its ability to politicise, radicalise, give voice to would-be demagogues and hatemongers who would once have had their influence naturally curtailed by time and distance, encourage the worst in humanity and then unite people on that basis.
Theroux – more carefully and slightly more forcefully than usual – interviews Fuentes and other prominent figures of the latest incarnation of the far right in the US at length. It builds, as the best of his work does, into a vision of the whole that is more revelatory even than its individual parts. And when the individual parts are as forthcoming as the likes of Fuentes, Anthime Gionet (more commonly known as livestreamer and self-described internet troll Baked Alaska) and Beardson Beardly (real name Matt Evans, and considered by the movement to be Fuentes’ “general”), that’s some bar to hit.
There is a maelstrom of sentiments such as: “You think [immigrants] really like white people? They want to kill you”; “Stop acting like a Black woman. Black women are obnoxious”; and “Brittany, if I ever see you, I’m gonna rape you in person”. Combined with footage of anti-semitic chanting, signs emerge of the group coalescing round certain valuable – to them – goals. Moving the window of acceptable political discourse is one of them, so they flinch at any suggestion from Theroux that they are white nationalists or neo-Nazis. Far right? “Probably, yes,” says Baked Alaska. Because, he explains, white people should stand up for themselves and the US should stay majority white, but he doesn’t support slavery. Beardson Beardly twice gave something that looked indistinguishable from a Nazi salute as he left a rally with Fuentes but “I’m not a white nationalist … I’m a gamer”.
They still have work to do on themselves and their comms. When Theroux pushes them on their far-right politics, they almost always retreat first behind humour (there’s a reason “irony-bros” has become a recognised term), then become defensive, verbally abusive and frequently take to their shows or YouTube channels to denounce him as a “pretentious” member of the mainstream media with “a gay agenda” and so on. But if they are individually fragile, together they are increasingly strong. Which is, one presumes, a large part of the attraction.
Ever since Theroux in effect made the Westboro Baptist Church famous – on his most recent visit, he met people who had been prompted to join the notoriously and aggressively homophobic sect after they saw his documentary about it – the question of whether he (or anyone) should be drawing attention to extremists and potentially giving them access to new audiences has been particularly pertinent. For my money, in the case of the far-right movement (or the rise of neo-fascism, or whatever else you want to call it, depending on how gay your agenda is, I suppose), increasing general public awareness of how it’s gaining ground – and Theroux gave more context and analysis to his interviewees’ practices than usual here – and how far it has got, is likely to do more good than harm. But maybe “likely” is doing too much work there.
When Theroux interviewed Brittany Venti, one of the rare women involved in the bros’ work and the recipient of the above rape threat, she said she had assumed most of what they said was tongue-in-cheek. But when they turned on her, she realised the misogyny (“They say all women are whores”) was real rather than ironic. She has not yet extrapolated further, still making light of anti-semitic footage and although mixed race herself, apparently unperturbed from the beginning by the racism that is central to the cause. It makes the question of whether documentary-makers should amplify the far right’s message both harder – and more pressing.