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A grad student spent 12 months undercover in Europe's alt-right movement

"They see this as a culture war — and they believe they’re winning.”

Neo-Nazis Commemorate Rudolf Hess
Participants of a Neo-Nazi demonstration are seen holding nationalistic flags at a gathering point prior to an extreme right mass demonstration , on August 19, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.
Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images

“These people feel emboldened. They see this as a culture war — and they believe they’re winning.”

That’s what Patrik Hermansson, a Swedish graduate student who spent twelve months undercover in the European alt-right movement, told me. Hermansson was part of Hope Not Hate, a UK-based organization established in 2004. The group is known for combating racist and fascist organizations with unorthodox methods like infiltration.

With the help of Hope Not Hate, Hermansson fabricated an identity — replete with an elaborate backstory and a host of social media accounts — and penetrated one of Europe’s most influential white supremacist “think tanks,” the London Forum.

Over the course of twelve months, he developed relationships with some of Europe’s and America’s most prominent alt-right figures. He attended their events, gave speeches at their conferences, and documented their leadership structure, organizational network, and plans for future events. He even spent much of last summer in the United States, hobnobbing with alt-right leaders and eventually marching at the Charlottesville rally in August.

I called up Hermansson via Skype to talk about what he discovered during his time undercover with the European alt-right. How serious is this movement? How quickly is it expanding? What do these people believe and how far are they willing to go in pursuit of their aims?

What he told me was disturbing.

“A lot of people underestimate how serious this is. They think national socialism is a relic of the ‘30s,” he said. “I can tell you that it definitely isn’t. These people are committed, and racism and anti-Semitism are absolutely at the core of what they believe and do.”

Hermansson also explained that the alt-right is best understood “as a cultural movement above all else.”

“Their goal is to change the culture, and that means making their ideas mainstream,” he told me. “They want it to be okay to hold their opinions in public. They want to be able to express their racist ideas in the public square so that they can be openly talked about.”

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.


Sean Illing

How did you get involved with this project?

Patrik Hermansson

Well, I’ve been engaged in anti-fascism work for a long while and in a lot of different ways, mostly in Sweden. But then I moved to the UK and wanted to continue what I was doing, which was writing, reporting, doing research. Things are different in the UK — they have a longer history of anti-fascist activism, and infiltration is not a new thing. They’ve been doing it for a hundred years.

Sean Illing

So what happened when you got the UK?

Patrik Hermansson

When I got to the UK, I asked what I could do and hooked up with the organization Hope Not Hate. What they needed was someone to help them understand this specific UK-based hate group called the London Forum, which is an odd ideological group that manages to bring in a lot of different far-right types. The far-right has tended to be fractured, but the London Forum was part of a broader movement to consolidate all of these alt-right racist groups under a single umbrella organization.

So we wanted to know how this happened. We wanted to know specific details about their organization — how they’re funded, how they recruit, where they’re going next. And the best way to do that is to get inside the organization, so that’s what I did.

Sean Illing

How did you go about doing that?

Patrik Hermansson

It’s easier than you’d think. I set up an elaborate backstory, a social media account, and just educated myself on the movement so that I could converse with these people and answer questions they might ask. I developed a whole personal history — where I came from, what I believed, why I became political. I made it as close to the truth as possible but obviously had to invent most of it. But I told everyone, for example, that I was from Sweden so I could talk convincingly about the place I grew up.

Once my story and online life was in place, I just engaged with these people. I became active on their forums and websites. I asked questions. They’re always hunting for new recruits, so it’s not that hard. They come to you. They pitch you. I’d play the part of a naïve but committed follower, and slowly I built up trust and relationships. Eventually, I was getting invited to drinks and gatherings and events.

Sean Illing

How long did it take you to get your foot in the door?

Patrik Hermansson

That depends on where you think the door is, because there are so many levels. It doesn't take long. I mean, the backstory and stuff, that takes a bit of time to build, so that's a couple of weeks, a month maybe. And honestly, it didn’t take long to get my first sit-down meeting. Basically, these groups want to grow, they want to attract more people, they’re eager to bring new people in.

Ultimately, it took about two months to get invited to my first meeting at the London Forum. Once that happened, I was getting invited to all kinds of social functions outside the actual forum. I was meeting with various leaders for drinks or coffee, picking up speakers at the airport — that kind of thing.

Patrik checks his recording equipment, hidden in one of the buttons of his shirt, before walking into a London Forum gathering.

Sean Illing

Once you were on the inside, what did you learn about this movement? How big is it? How serious?

Patrik Hermansson

I learned a lot of little things about how they’re organized and what they’re doing, which is helpful to us but not super interesting to the broader public. I’ll say this, however: A lot of people underestimate how serious this is. They think national socialism is a relic of the ‘30s. I can tell you that it definitely isn’t. These people are committed and racism and anti-Semitism are absolutely at the core of what they believe and do.

They really believe in their Aryanism, in their “master race” theories. They believe in racial purity. They believe in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They think everything in society is wrong, and that the Nazis had it right. I didn’t quite understand how central these core beliefs were, but they absolutely inform everything that they do.

Sean Illing

At what point does this move from theory to practice? At what point does violence become a central tool in this movement?

Patrik Hermansson

I can tell you this: They really believe in the need to use violence to set the world right. They believe that we’re in a degenerative cycle where everything is getting worse and worse because the people who are in charge are not people who are meant to be in charge. It's not white men in charge anymore, they believe, and that's a problem because white men are the only people with the constitution to be able to lead. That's how they think, so they believe that everything is just tumbling down into destruction and they believe that we need strong white men and violence to set that right. That's quite scary.

Sean Illing

How many of the people you encountered started in this direction with legitimate political or economic grievances and, over time, embraced the racism and anti-Semitism as the centerpiece of their worldview?

Patrik Hermansson

Some might actually start with grievances over actual issues, but hanging out in these groups and online forms pushes you towards these fundamental explanations and conspiracy theories. After a while, you start to see the world through that prism, and it all suddenly falls into place.

Sean Illing

How sprawling is this movement? You’ve written about how hard these groups are working to globalize this movement, to go beyond a European alt-right or an American alt-right and make this a truly organized international effort.

Patrik Hermansson

I would say they’ve already accomplished this. It’s hard to say, and no doubt they still have particular concerns about particular countries, but what social media has allowed them and us and everybody to do is connect internationally. The internet has really changed everything in that sense. They see themselves more and more as an international movement, and they actively engage with people across the globe.

Again, this is why the racist and anti-Semitic ideology is so central: It’s the universal narrative that connects all of these grievances. It’s their organizing philosophy.

In this picture, taken with Hermansson’s hidden camera, Stead Steadman, one of the leading figures behind the London Forum, partakes in a Nordic drinking ritual.

Sean Illing

There’s a lot of debate right now, certainly in the US, about how marginal or mainstream the alt-right is. White supremacy isn’t new; fascism isn’t new; but these groups do seem to be elbowing their way more and more into the mainstream.

Patrik Hermansson

You have to see this as a cultural movement above all else. Their goal is to change the culture, and that means making their ideas mainstream. They want it to be okay to hold their opinions in public. They want to be able to express their racist ideas in the public square so that they can be openly talked about.

This is why they focus so much on the media, because media is how we change culture. That’s why they’re so active and so savvy on the internet, on social media, on all these alternative sites. That’s why they’re starting their own book publishing companies. They want to spread these ideas like a virus, and they’re succeeding at it.

What we saw in Charlottesville (and I was on the ground there) was young people, many of them university age — meaning they have their whole lives in front of them — and they weren’t afraid to openly associate with Nazis and the KKK. That says something significant about where we are, about where they think they are.

These people feel emboldened; I know that because they told me countless times. They see this as a culture war — and they believe they’re winning.

Sean Illing

A cultural revolution inevitably becomes a political revolution. They want to change the culture because they want to change the power structure. There are a couple ways to do that: You can work within the system or you can throw off the system altogether.

Patrik Hermansson

I agree completely. Those are the two ways. It’s basically revolution or evolution — one is radical and immediate and the other is gradual and delayed. I’d say the alt-right is more radical in their orientation. They want a revolution. They don’t believe in liberal democracy. They’d prefer a racial dictatorship.

There is the so-called “alt-light,” people who share some of these goals but aren’t quite as radical. I’m thinking of [President Donald] Trump, [Stephen] Bannon, and sites like Breitbart. These elements have a lot of overlap with the truly radical groups, but there are distinctions in terms of beliefs and tactics. I’d say the alt-light wants to change things more peacefully or gradually.

Still, for all these divisions on the far-right, they share a common fundamental agenda.

Sean Illing

You mentioned that you were at Charlottesville a minute ago. Did you spend a lot of time in the US undercover as well?

Patrik Hermansson

Yeah, I spent a lot of time here during the summer, but during the rest of the year I was in London. I went to a lot of demonstrations in the US. I was in Washington, DC, in June when Richard Spencer held an event. I opened a white nationalist conference in Seattle with a speech. I was able to meet a lot of the behind-the-scenes people involved in these groups here in the states.

Sean Illing

Did the people you met here believe that this is a moment for them? That they’ve got real political and cultural traction?

Patrik Hermansson

Yes, they have that feeling. They see what we see. They see that Trump got elected, that there’s an audience for this stuff. They know that their platforms are expanding, that their numbers are growing, that the traffic on their websites is growing.

They look at Trump’s victory and conclude that the winds are on their side. They feel like they can be more open with their ideas now, and that there won’t be as much pushback as before. I think you’re going to see more and more of these people come out of the shadows.

We should be prepared for that.

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