Talia Lavin, a self-described “schlubby, bisexual Jew living in Brooklyn,” was disguised as Ashlynn, a hot, gun-toting Aryan blonde, on a chat group for white supremacists when she attracted the attention of David, a Ukrainian Nazi who was big on terror against Jews, Blacks and Muslims. The duo flirted online for months, until David sent a photo of his car, its license plate plainly visible, and revealed his real name. Lavin used that information to find David’s home address, then contacted a journalist covering the white supremacist movement and passed along the information.
Before the journalist decided to go public with a story about David and a terror group he belonged to, Lavin contacted Mr. Nazi to tell him what she’d done. “I was talking to him weekly or daily for months,” she told The Daily Beast in an interview, “then I found out where he lived and was able to pass it along. And I told him, ‘I’m an anti-fascist, and you’re fucked.’ And he said, ‘I’m scared,’ and you know, that felt fucking good.”
Lavin, who has become something of a bête noire in the online white supremacist world, does not mince words when it comes to the racists and their allies who have been in the news way too much lately. So it’s no surprise that her new book Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy is filled with solid reporting, plenty of invective, and lots of fearless infiltration exposing how the internet has helped expand a far-right culture of hatred and violence.
“There is no economic class, education level, or geographical region that is not part of the organized racist movement,” says Lavin, who has written about the far right for The Nation, GQ, MediaMatters, and other outlets. “These people are from every walk of life. There are a lot of reasons for anger, and the people I have reported on take natural feelings of loneliness and turn them on vulnerable and marginalized people. And that’s what makes me angrier. They are human people making human choices to do evil.”
To track down these evil types, Lavin has taken on more disguises than most of the characters in the Marvel universe. She’s used her Ashlynn persona to check out a whites-only dating site; pretended to be an ‘incel’—an involuntary celibate virgin—to find out more about the toxic world of violent misogyny, where incel mass murderer Elliot Rodger is known as “Saint Elliot”; infiltrated a neo-Nazi terror cell; attended a conference for alt-right YouTubers; and gone online to discover people talking about ways to rape her.
“I logged onto a chat room and they are discussing raping me with a gun,” says Lavin, who describes this as her scariest personal moment while researching the book. “That was a moment when I thought, ‘oh, boy,’ and I realized I was on the radar of some really serious folks. These are people who want to kill me because of who I am, and what I have said in public. I could have turned away and said, ‘I’m not gonna write this book,’ but I just doubled down.”
At one point, Lavin joined over 90 far-right chat groups, and found out that, thanks to The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist site, she is the top Google search for ‘fat greasy kike.’ Not that Lavin can’t give as well as she gets, when it comes to over-the-top invective. She refers to a racist faction of the GOP as “odorous and pustulent,” and calls white nationalist and senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller an “odious Nosferatu figure” (Come to think of it, that description seems freakishly accurate).
Invective aside, Culture Warlords is a sober and downright scary look at how right-wing media, racist police, and especially Silicon Valley have enabled the expansion of far right toxicity.
“Silicon Valley has long operated on a libertarian, reckless ‘move fast and break things’ ethos that is far more conservative about reining in hate speech than allowing it to reverberate in the public consciousness unchecked,” Lavin writes in the book.
Using as an example billionaire and Facebook board member Peter Thiel’s brief flirtation with white supremacy, Lavin says, “I think there are also part of the Silicon Valley elite who are sympathetic to the white supremacy cause. I don’t think they are taking this threat seriously; they are relying on journalists to tell them militias are organizing on their platforms. That’s ridiculous; they have billions of dollars; they can put their resources into content moderation.”
And then there are the police and military, some of whose members are a bit too tight with far right groups, as evidenced in recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police thanked armed militia members.
“Dozens of members of the military have joined the white supremacist movement, and certainly members of police departments are members of racist groups,” says Lavin. “There is no coincidence that The Proud Boys [the far-right group which President Trump refused to condemn] have organized pro-police rallies.”
Possibly the scariest fact in Lavin’s book is a report by the Anti-Defamation League that over 70 percent of murders related to extremism in the U.S. between 2008 and 2017 were committed by far-right extremists (that number increased to 90 percent last year ). Although Lavin acknowledges that not all white supremacists commit violent acts, she points to Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the largest terrorist incident in the U.S. prior to 9/11, as an example of the immense damage a few individuals can perpetrate.
“What we have is a precarious situation where we have this sort of widespread para-military acceleration of the movement of people who are ready to do violence, and they are getting cozier with government, and there are incidents where law enforcement has seen these groups as deputies,” she says. “You can be skeptical about an actual putsch, but more than that you have the possibility of mass casualty events.”
So the obvious question here is, “What is to be done?” Lavin isn’t sure that education is the answer, and given the recent survey which found that 10 percent of Americans under 40 have never heard of the Holocaust , her lack of faith in the educational system might be spot on. She does, however, think that the amorphous group known as antifa could be one way to fight back, and devotes the last two chapters of her book to the movement.
Noting that right wing media seems to be obsessed with antifa (as well as BLM), even though it is primarily a non-violent movement without leaders or even specific membership, Lavin says the group’s mission is essentially to dox far-right activists, infiltrate their groups and counter-protest their rallies (think Charlottesville). And as far as she’s concerned, “what I want people to come away with from the book is not just a sense of fear. I don’t think law enforcement is the answer; I hope more people come away from the book with a sense that this is something to fight, and something I can fight. These [white supremacists] are your neighbors, your drinking buddies, and it is your responsibility as an American to find out and publish your findings. We need a lot more anti-fascists out there.”