Talia Lavin, a self-professed agoraphobe who collects swords, spent about a year embedded deep in the online world of white supremacy. She was baffled by the fervor with which far-right trolls have targeted her over the past few years. Who or what merits this kind of hate? In Lavin’s case, being a proud Jewish “loudmouth” on Twitter and writing about far-right activities in The New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and Huff Post was enough. “To be publicly Jewish and female, and engaged in antifascist rhetoric—even in the form of caustic tweets—rendered me a vivid character in the imagination of extremists,” she writes in her book, Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, out October 13.
Her own tipping point—the reason she chose to immerse herself in the world of her tormentors—was Charlottesville. The chants of “Jews will not replace us” shook her out of her previous “quiescence,” she says. Instead of turning away, she felt compelled to investigate how deep the rot went. The answer: “None of this was new, none of this started with Trump, none of this will end with him,” she says.
Previously a fact-checker at The New Yorker, Lavin maps in Culture Warlords a blueprint of all the online places where white supremacists, white nationalists, Christian extremists, and incels thrive and multiply. She researches and carefully formulates identities vivid enough to thrill any white extremist. And then she infiltrates. She’s Ashlynn, an Aryan princess wielding guns and deer blood who asks for love letters from her would-be Nazi suitors on the dating website WhiteDate.net. “The results were like a car crash between Nicholas Sparks and Mein Kampf,” she writes. She’s also Tom, a short, depressed incel angry at feminist bitches, his cystic acne and weak wrists showcased on Incels.co, where membership requires listing your reasons for being an incel. In an American and European chat room hell-bent on a race war (Vorherrschaft Division), she’s a seductive Nazi darling coaxing information out of a Ukrainian Nazi (screen name: Der Stürmer)—a great admirer of Hitler and the Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant.
Was it worth it? “My mother’s parents were refugees, I lost an aunt during the Holocaust, and so the forces of history seem closer to me than perhaps someone without that family history. When I think about, What was I doing during the rise of fascism in the United States? And if the answer is, Doing my best at great personal cost to ensure that the gravity and the depravity of this movement was exposed, then, yes, I think it was worth it. In retrospect and even now,” she says. She endured personal trauma to expose the pervasiveness of the white supremacist movement—not in dank basements but a mere degree removed from our lives. She’s preparing for a “bloody month” in November, currently investigating QAnon and militias, and finding hope in camaraderie with others doing similar work.
Vanity Fair: Do you worry about the reaction to your book?
Talia Lavin: You mean am I worried I’m going to be murdered?
I think anyone who engages with the far right journalistically or as an activist worries about being murdered. But I worked on an operating principle of not letting these people steal my right to speak out of fear, and that’s how I’m continuing to operate. On the balance of things I’d prefer not to be murdered, but if I have to go somehow, I guess standing up against Nazis in 2020 America isn’t the worst reason.
What was the hardest part of the reporting process?
It was a psychologically taxing experience. When I opened up the chat room I was monitoring, in absentia, I found an active discussion about whether I was too ugly to rape and whether they would rape me with a handgun. There was a cumulative corrosive effect of being overwhelmed with vitriol, day in, day out, for months after months after months. Makes you feel shakier in your body and in your spirit.
How much do you think the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the current election cycle has done for white supremacy?
I think people forget that the [deadliest deliberate attack] between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh. And that is often misconstrued as a lone wolf event. It was not. It was directly an outgrowth of his involvement in the white-power movement, which aided and abetted the terrorism. And I think when people say all this started with Trump, what they’re saying is, “I became aware of it when I started paying attention.”
The 2016 election was a major shot in the arm for white nationalist groups. It was a huge locus of recruitment, it was a moment when they felt political triumph. White nationalists online, who are like the meme army of Trump, accelerated his victory or aided in it.
What did you think of Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand by” during the debate?
I’ve been watching the Proud Boy channels on Telegram, watching their triumph unfold. But it’s not just them—there are tons of militia groups, paramilitary, violent neo-Nazi groups, that have taken this as a call to arms, as a sort of endorsement of their potential to influence the election, to influence American politics. Which is what it was.
I have serious worries, and I think I have reason to. Elections are sites of great civic passion, and they are also occasions for accelerationists. Accelerationism is a very popular mindset on the far right with a goal to facilitate civilizational collapse in the United States in order to subsequently usher in their ethnically cleansed white ethnostate. So when you have an election that’s as contested as this one, when you have a moment when democracy is faced with real precarity, that moment can seem like a ripe opportunity for accelerationists.