The rise of the alt-right can in part be tracked along with the rise of social media. Once sites like YouTube and Twitter got a foothold offering just about anybody on the planet a chance to spout their ideas freely, it was only a matter of time until more odious people would rise to fame as YouTube stars and ‘influencers’. The Atlantic’s first documentary production White Noise, directed by Daniel Lombroso, closely follows three such rabble rousers for a number of years as they tried to define themselves after Donald Trump, perhaps the most notorious social media influencer in history, won the 2016 election.
Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi who sounds and looks the part even if he denies being one, first rose to fame shortly after Trump’s election. Spencer gave a speech in Washington that he concluded with a heartfelt “Hail Trump,” prompting several in the audience to make the Nazi salute. Spencer, a 40-something man who at least for part of the film lives with his mom, is followed as he attends infamous rallies such as the fatal one in Charlottesville. When questioned if he has blood on his hands after that, he instinctively goes on the defensive, claiming that violence is not what he is after, a defense he will stick to for the rest of the film. Of the three white nationalists portrayed, Spencer seems the most convinced of the incendiary nonsense he spouts, but he also seems to be the most insecure about himself. Confessing to have dreamt about a career as a theater director (his Springtime for Hitler would probably be an earnest play), this is also a man who declares that he is “bigger than the movement.” To quote Game of Thrones‘ Tywin Lannister, “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”
The bullshit artist of the bunch is Mike Cernovich, an Illinois native who first gained notoriety as a misogynist anti-feminist whose work included such lovely titles as “How to choke a woman during sex” or “When in doubt, whip it out,” and who claimed that rape didn’t exist. He branched out from male supremacism to white supremacism as the alt-right wave started to wash over the United States. The definition of an internet troll, Cernovich is mostly an opportunist, a grifter who now tries to use newfound fame to sell skincare products to his loyal followers. He seems to be believing the least in his message, using it as a vehicle to self-promote and make a quick buck. This feeling is strengthened by the fact that he is married to an Iranian-American woman whose family is Muslim (secular, she stresses) and with whom his interactions are more those of a loving family man who frequently does what his wife tells him to. Why any woman would like to be with such a man is anyone’s guess, but hey girl, you do you.
The final and perhaps most complicated member of the troublesome trio is Lauren Southern, a Canadian-born blonde in her early twenties who for some reason has a keen interest in the European immigration crisis. Her first big claim to fame came when she was part of a French nationalist group that tried to block the passage of an NGO ship on a search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean. Before that her schtick was mostly anti-feminism, but her white nationalism is what made her popularity balloon. As a woman though, her position in this male-dominated field is somewhat different than the other two. Following her on a date with a fellow white nationalist, her shock when he declares that it is the duty of whites to procreate is palpable. Later she is propositioned over the phone by Gavin McInnis, the hipster co-founder of Vice Media and easily the sleaziest man in the film (and that’s saying something), which visibly grosses her out. “Send help,” she pleads to the camera. She is learning that while she is celebrated by her male partners-in-crime for what she does, she is still viewed as a member of the inferior sex. The film shows her going through a crisis of faith, and near the end of the film she is pregnant. “Isn’t the father of your child non-white?” asks Lombroso, and the situation has Southern squirming to get out of the conversation.
What White Noise lays bare the most, apart from the fact that all seem to inexplicably identify with Europeans (as a European, sincerely: please don’t), is that they all are very savvy in how to play the social media game to their advantage by stoking outrage, both with supporters and with haters. What they say is mostly empty rhetoric, designed to provoke and draw attention. The scary part is not Spencer yelling “Hail Trump” but the fervor with which some in the audience react to that. And that is the danger of these charlatans: they take calculated risks with the lives of others by inciting hatred, no matter how much they want to play down their roles when things really go south, like they did in Charlottesville.
The main problem with White Noise is that it is rather flat. We rarely get any insight into the minds of its three protagonists because it shows what they do without really investigating the why. This leaves the viewer mostly with preconceived notions being confirmed, as we shake our heads at yet another slur or incendiary remark to the point of it becoming, quite frankly, rather boring. White Noise does a good job of exposing especially Spencer and Cernovich as being dishonest, but remains too much on the surface of its subjects, almost feeling as if it was only designed to cause outrage. In a way it becomes white noise itself.