The first of many disconcerting moments in Daniel Lombroso’s White Noise gives us a good look at the glee of Trump’s Alt-Right supporters following his unexpected victory in 2016. The enthusiasm generated that night does not bode well; what will extremists’ reaction in 2020 be if Trump loses or charges into a battle mode? The documentary is the first production of the Atlantic, a publication that has contributed some of the year’s best political writing. This is also the first film for Lombroso, the Jewish American grandson of two Holocaust survivors, who is a journalist and former staff producer for the magazine. He followed three early stars of the Alt-Right Movement for four years: Richard Spencer, Mike Cernovich, and Lauren Southern. In contrast to the Sieg Heil madness and bad haircuts of the mob in the opening sequence, these profiles offer a slicker frame of reference on the racist right. This is the first detailed look, on film, of these figureheads. Uncomfortable as White Noise is to watch, these personalities thrive in the muddy heart of America, whether we like it or not.
Spencer has been called “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old.” He comes from money, appears well spoken, and draws crowds for his orientations, whose topics range from global conspiracies to white supremacy. He was the key speaker at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed. Spencer denies any blame and offers skeletal disclaimers in the wake of that and other racist tragedies. He is known for giving his supporters the Sieg Heil salute. His anti-Semitic, proto-Nazi ramblings are still coming but Spencer has mostly been marginalized today. He claims to be anti-Trump. The reason? He likes “winners.” Ironically, Spencer’s ex-wife has set up a Go Fund Me page to defray legal expenses to help her “leave an abusive marriage for good.” Spencer is a shiny snake in the grass, charming and lethal.
Following a disagreement over the use of Nazi salutes at rallies, Cernovich broke with Spencer. His trajectory is no less chilling. A conspiracy theorist and busy troll, Cernovich claims to be a free speech advocate, a “political commentator.” His jaw-dropping social views are brutally misogynistic and racist, parlayed through a calm tone. His depraved viewpoint is evident in this quote from his male supremacist website, Danger and Play: “Next time, don’t settle for the make out. If possible, at least pull out your d***. If you can get her to touch it, even better. If not, just let her know that your c*** is too swollen to go back into your jeans and that, ‘either you’re taking care of this, or I am.’ Masturbating will set your anchor nearer the desired destination.” Cernovich boasts a law degree and is currently shilling vitamin supplements, hoping for a political career.
It took the filmmakers a year to gain access to Lauren Southern. She is in her early 20s; her chattering on YouTube has made her a poster child for Alt-Right views. Hailing from Canada, the blonde social media star proclaims half-formed ideas that are self-consciously designed to further her reactionary image. The anti-feminist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic Southern has spoken not only here but also in Europe, where her opinions are welcomed by anti-immigrant leaders. In the words of J.J. Hunsecker (in Sweet Smell of Success) she’s a “cookie full of arsenic.” Her organization, Borderless, has produced several films that aim to extend her YouTube presence. Criticizing multiculturalism and immigration, she declares: “Democracy is not always a good thing. You actually have to make sure the people you surround yourself with are good people if you want to live in a Western free nation. Gang rape is an inherently democratic process. It’s nine people voting against one about what they want to do.” She may speak gibberish, but she assumes she will be taken seriously by many — and she may be. Southern removed herself from the spotlight for a bit, but she is currently staging a comeback. In one peculiar moment, the pregnant Southern sits for an interview in Paris. Off-camera, the filmmaker says: “Your current boyfriend is not white.” Looking both confused and mildly offended, she responds: “I don’t think that would be endearing (sic) to put such an emphasis on that, you know? It doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that he’s the best person I’ve ever met. It doesn’t matter.” A long and awkward silence follows. That is as close to editorializing as White Noise gets.
The merit of White Noise is that it shows the sly seduction of white nationalists. You can’t help but admire Lombroso’s patience and ability to hold his tongue. He is content to give his subjects enough rope to do the job for him. White Noise is neither a polemic nor an exercise in agitprop: it is a journey into the dark center of a reprehensible movement that is growing more vocal every day, aided and abetted by our increasingly desperate president. Whatever the outcome of this election, seeds have been planted. Part of an often-cited quote by Sun Tzu provides the film with an apt conclusion: “When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”