The Atlantic is a proper bastion of good journalism. One of our oldest and most respected platforms, when they release a good story, we lean in and pay good, close attention. When they release a documentary, we also must be here for it. From any source, we must wonder what the implicit need would be, in telling the story of the alt-right. There are many ways we can drain the organization’s power from the moment. Deplatforming is one foolproof method and totally works. Another is letting them speak for themselves and seeing just how foolhardy and errantly silly the extremist wing of American conservatives can be. Following three key proliferators of the movement — Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern, and Richard Spencer — White Noise is a four-year journalistic commitment to tracing the rise and fall of a movement about White Nationalism.
Mike Cernovich is an author broadly associated with the alt-right. In White Noise, his emphasis (not the film’s) is that he is here to sell books and lifestyle products. When his associates trend toward Nazism, throwing literal Sieg Heils for Trump, he says it’s too much. Not for the fact that they are Nazis, especially, but because that divides an audience. The film does an interesting job of profiling his family, his marriage to an Iranian wife, and secluded lifestyle. Could he move away from politics and just live a normal life and sell his brand? His wife suggests this is the only way forward. For each of the subjects, it seems that they are populist pundits, not terribly concerned with reputation or the outcomes of what they preach, but particularly with selling an image and product to a fractured political system. For Mike Cernovich, it is about raising a public platform and attempting to make the alt-right more accessible to the American public. But first and foremost, it is about selling male supplements to a vulnerable userbase. We know him by the staggering falsehoods of his Twitter-sphere, his popularization of Pizzagate, that precarious predecessor of QAnon whackjob theorizing.
Richard Spencer is a Neo-Nazi and proponent of white supremacy. This is not an exaggeration but a self-actualized truth. 2016 found him at the height of his influence as an online culture developed around the extremities of the alt-right trend. His four-year journey may be the most interesting of all. First, he stands too proudly among a crowd of like-minded people, preaching monoethnicity. The staggering and painful idea presented throughout is that we have suffered through diverse inclusivity, and that once a country like America becomes properly diverse, it’s negative attitudes about its white people will then be struck down upon future generations. His campaigns and speeches unravel more quickly than slowly. He is soon met with protestors crashing his events, chased off public streets. The film so aptly captures a descent from both influence and power. It shows exactly how we can get rid of a problem like Richard Spencer. He wanted to be an entertainer and was interested in theater but took on absurdist political theater instead. By the end we find him retreated to his mother’s cabin in Montana, reduced to a slight internal life, now admitting the Trump experiment was a grand failure, and pledging support to Biden, who, in turn, has refused his support.
Lauren Southern is a Canadian extremist activist and political influencer. Like Spencer, she buys into the same white genocide conspiracy theory and proposes familiar theories about white supremacy. Her shallow journey is shown through a series of video-blogs where she plays out as a pawn in a larger message. She is continually met with contrary information. It seems throughout White Noise as though the opposition is connecting with her, that she has thoughtfully considered an alternative. And then she triples down on harmful rhetoric. The documentary finds her to be the most active and interesting of the participants. She sits down for a radio show with a fellow pundit, politely demurs as he rants against women, then shrugs when he, a married man, tries to prompt a sexual relationship. It’s all in a day’s work, among white nationalists. She is faced with such blatant evidence against her own claims and conspiracy theories. While making a short documentary, she goes to Europe and films refugees who’ve had a bad time changing their lot in life. It seems like a reflective campfire moment, a broadening of purpose, and something that would signal change. She then manipulates the footage to support an anti-immigration agenda. We constantly see in her a visible disagreement with everything she says and does. By the end, she has entered into a relationship with a man of color and is pregnant with his kid. The documentarian asks, does that conflict with her high-brained theories of white nationalism? For once, she says the truth, that it should not matter.
The hardest kind of documentary to watch is one that feels like watching the news. White Noise is anything but fun to watch. What would be harder than watching it is to look away and ignore what it’s saying. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely to inspire any new beliefs from anyone or to reach someone who does not already agree with the premise. The Atlantic’s first documentary continues its penchant for quality journalism. We get to explore the full and futile journeys of the worst our society has to offer. It damns the subject through their own lens. They speak for and against themselves freely, offering the birth and death of a movement, likely not realizing how contradictory their own journeys were to the entirety of their purpose. The alternative is that they want what they have always wanted, the eyes and attention of Americans, to espouse truly caustic and difficult viewpoints, because when there is so much white noise, it’s becoming harder to hear real voices with something to say. The only hope it offers is that their time is already up.