A recent profile about a former colleague of mine, Katie McHugh (a now-repentant white nationalist), has me asking myself some difficult questions. Could I have done more to stop her from falling prey to the fever swamps of the alt-right? Did I unwittingly enable her fall from grace? And what responsibility should I shoulder going forward?
In case you missed it, Katie McHugh was briefly a minor celebrity among the alt-right for her inflammatory and racist tweets.
Her story began in 2011, when an affinity for Catholic columnist Joe Sobran helped her land a fellowship with the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), which, in turn, helped fund her internship at the Daily Caller. After stints writing at National Review and returning to the Caller as an editor, McHugh worked at Breitbart, where she was fully empowered to unleash her racist tweets—until she wasn’t (she was ultimately fired for anti-Muslim tweets). During much of this time, she befriended (and, in one case, dated) unsavory (to put it kindly) characters in the white nationalist movement.
“Where do you go once you’ve become too toxic for Breitbart News?” writer Rosie Gray asks in the profile. Apparently, the answer is GotNews, a site run by right-wing internet troll Charles Johnson. At least, that’s where McHugh landed.
Where do you go after that? Apparently, into hiding, because right now her whereabouts are unknown (except to Rosie Gray).
I met Katie that first summer, when she was part of a large summer intern class at The Daily Caller—but I didn’t notice any red flags until it was too late. At the end of that semester, I took each intern out to lunch. Katie and I sat outside at P.J. Clarke’s for fried calamari, iced teas, and her unofficial informal exit interview, one summer afternoon. It may sound hard to believe in light of the hatred that she later spewed on Twitter, but she was an incredibly soft-spoken young lady. The Katie I had lunch with didn’t look like a stereotypical angry white nationalist, either.
But then, we had a disturbing exchange that went something like this:
“So who are your political heroes?”
“I like Pat Buchanan.”
“Hmm. I met him a few times, and he’s super-nice, in person. But why is it that so many people think he’s an anti-Semite?”
“Well, that’s because the Jews control the media.”
“Check, please!” (OK, this part wasn’t verbatim—but things were pretty much over at that point.)
Was she just making a joke (in extremely poor taste) or was she being serious? I wasn’t sure, though I was obviously shocked by her comment, which seemed so discordant with her then-demure persona. But hey―this was her last day at the office. She was just an intern. I figured that I’d never hear from her again. (Later, she was hired by The Caller as an editor, where we worked in the same office before she moved to Breitbart.)
In the ensuing years, McHugh’s transformation into monster served as a microcosm of “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline.” I tried, and failed, to fight this trend at the macro level. The question I keep wrestling with is whether any of us so-called adults might have been able to intervene on the micro level. The truth is I never once pulled McHugh aside and tried to talk sense into her. I never once told her that new politics clashed with her—with our —Christian faith. Nor did I try the more practical argument, telling her that she was engaging in career suicide. I was busy—and I didn’t really care enough to meddle.
Now, that’s not to say that I sat by and quietly watched the conservative movement metastasize. Publicly, I fought against it. As far back as 2013, I wrote a column decrying the anti-amnesty movement’s underbelly, and this cause would dominate the next three years of my career. For all this, I was called a “cuck” (and worse) by racist sites like the Daily Stormer.
But while I was publicly setting a positive example, and while I was always available to mentor interns and young staffers who sought advice, what I did not do was approach McHugh and check in on her after she returned to the Caller. I didn’t confront her or challenge her about her comments at lunch that day. I didn’t invite her to church or try to help network her with the many decent conservatives I know. And once she left for Breitbart and started sending those racist tweets, I never emailed her and told her to knock it off (not that—at that point—she would have listened). In other words, I didn’t demonstrate moral leadership. After all, I was never her boss or direct supervisor. It was none of my business—unless, you believe, you are your brother’s keeper.
That is my biggest regret where she is concerned.
During McHugh’s time at The Caller, I also had a busy career, a wife, and two small children. The truth is that there are a million excuses and rationalizations. But while I was busy policing the national conservative movement, I wasn’t keeping an eye on my own backyard. I wasn’t the only one who failed her in this regard, but I also wasn’t doing what adults are supposed to do in a community.
Would she have listened? There is an incentive structure right now in right-wing media that leads people down these paths. A Balkanized media landscape on the right, the rise of Trumpism, and the enabling elements of YouTube and Twitter were all working against my efforts (however minuscule they were). Once upon a time, William F. Buckley could essentially read someone out of the conservative movement. Technology has made that virtually impossible. So we have learned to tolerate the extremists in our midst. Indeed, it’s safe to say the inmates are now running the asylum. It’s impossible to know whether Katie would have listened to me had I attempted an intervention. I suspect it would have had to happen early on. I dropped the ball at lunch that summer day.
To be sure, she’s responsible for her own actions. Still, I can’t help thinking the so-called adults also failed her. They say you should think globally and act locally, but I was focused on the former at the expense of the latter.
Clearly, I wasn’t able to stop the Republican Party from going off the rails these last few years. But had I tried harder, maybe I could have saved Katie from herself. As noted in the profile, at the young age of 28, McHugh “has made herself unemployable.” It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who said such hateful things, but McHugh’s story is now a cautionary tale—a warning for people like her, and for people like me.