Vice News released an illuminating and horrifying video last week of the recent Charlottesville white nationalist rally that showed just how vile these people are.
Central to the video is a white nationalist named Christopher Cantwell.
In the video, Cantwell appears to support the killing of 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer, allegedly murdered by a white nationalist terrorist. Cantwell brandishes weapons while explaining why even more people might have to die for his cause. He calls Jared Kushner a “bastard” for being a Jew who married Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka.
He’s a real scumbag. Yet his name is one I had been familiar with long before a national audience heard it this week.
I’m a libertarian, and unfortunately, Christopher Cantwell used to call himself one too.
Cantwell is best understood as the most extreme example of a certain personality type I have long noticed both within the liberty movement I belong to and in other ideological movements across the spectrum. They are people who are drawn to non-mainstream or contrarian ideas first and foremost, which can be healthy and intellectually exciting on its own. Yet when those ideas combine with a cantankerousness outlook and day-to-day embitterment, these sorts of people can veer in unhealthy directions.
When the Vice video was released, I saw many libertarians, many of whom might have once liked Cantwell, and many reasonable people say, ‘What happened to that guy?’
It’s obvious to me what happened to him.
But he’s not the only example.
Before Charlottesville, there were some — too many — who identified as conservative or libertarian were inclined to defend the alt-right.
Jonathan van Maren wrote at the conservative pro-life publication Life Site News in March, “For those of you wondering why I’m writing another column about the alt-right, the reason is simple: Every time I do, people comment to explain why I’m wrong.”
Van Maren continued:
Those people, some of whom I used to know, are starting to buy what the alt-right is peddling. Some of them are brazen enough to inform me that I, as an active social conservative, should be “smart enough” to realize that “the Jews,” whom they somehow believe to be a homogenous and monolithic group, are responsible for all of the evils Western civilization faces. One of these people even wrote that Richard Spencer had “opened his eyes.”
I can sympathize with van Maren. While human punching bag Richard Spencer today has become the most prominent face of white nationalism, that didn’t happen overnight. The popularity of Donald Trump led to it, without question, but the president may not have helped do this intentionally. However, there were some who were very intentional about putting the alt-right phenomenon into context with Trump and then connecting the dots to white nationalism.
In May 2016, as Trump continued to ascend, I worried that Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was helping lead young conservatives and libertarians down the path to white nationalism via the alt-right.
I wrote at The Daily Beast:
I’ve never met Milo Yiannopoulos and am not really that concerned with whether he’s a racist or not. Such accusations are what the left does ad nauseam and part of what Yiannopoulos rightly fights against.
But I do think he flirts with racism: “The alt-right openly crack jokes about the Holocaust, loudly — albeit almost entirely satirically — expresses its horror at ‘race-mixing’ … [but] They have no real problem with race-mixing…” writes Yiannopoulos.
My worry is that passionate, well-meaning, but still intellectually curious young libertarians and conservatives might wander too far into what the alt-right is peddling. Particularly in an election year when Ron Paul isn’t running for president, Rand Paul’s campaign did not live up to expectations, and the alt-right’s favorite candidate, Donald Trump, is the likeliest Republican nominee.
Even the most non-racist, liberty-minded person accustomed to intellectual pursuits could be attracted to shiny and popular new objects. Sometimes out of boredom.
And that’s exactly what happened.
I will not names as to not further risk damaging their reputations, but I watched too many young men and a few young women begin to talk a lot less about the dangers of big government and the importance of individual rights — basic Tea Party and libertarian issues — and more about ‘Western values,’ ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘cucks.’ I began to notice that some libertarians who once followed Ron Paul weren’t so much into it for the liberty but more because it gave them a way to rebel combined with a sense of community that was part of an exciting new trend — which is basically what also happened to many older Republicans in 2016 with the Trump campaign.
It wasn’t really about ideology for some of the young, right and wayward. They were mad as hell and were being given a voice, whether through the alt-right, Trump or both.
Regular conservatives and libertarians could now rationalize becoming racist, because it was simply part of fighting the left, which Milo and even more mainstream conservatives have always preached is the right’s primary mission.
This mentality presents a slippery slope: it’s one thing to say you’re not afraid of political correctness and are willing to discuss racial issues. It’s another thing to embrace racial hatred in the name of being politically incorrect. For the genuine racists who lead the alt-right, it is to their benefit that most people don’t know the difference.
I watched some young people flirt with the alt-right for a short while, finally recognize its explicit racism for what it is and move on — ironically, Milo finally came to this realization too, even before his comments about pedophilia that brought him down.
But the angrier people, those who seemed as if they had a deep-seated bone to pick with the world or void to fill within themselves, clung to the alt-right as their new identity. A few of these unfortunate cases I knew personally, however minimally, and they have turned into completely different people than they used to be a year-and-a-half ago. Many of our shared friends have also lost contact with them. They have gone off the grid, or at least found a new one.
For most of them, their transformation began with Milo. My message regarding Milo and the alt-right at the time he was their standard-bearer was that you should be concerned where going down this dark path might take you.
Yiannopoulos and I had a three part exchange last spring in The Daily Beast and Breitbart. My essential message was: beware extremism. Milo’s message was this: “There is no path to redemption once you’ve fallen foul of the politically correct consensus. The only effective approach is to double down instead of backing down and show them that you are not afraid. But that, of course, takes courage. And intellectual integrity.”
Milo was responding to me and my racially-controversial radio past, which I explained at length in a mea culpa at Politico in 2013. Yiannopoulos said I should have never apologized for anything.
So, if you’re a young rightist and have “courage” and “integrity,” why would you ever back down when it comes to the alt-right? Even now, avowed white nationalist Richard Spencer is seen by most as the leader of the alt-right, a man Milo once described as part of an alt-right “renegade” crew of leaders who are “intellectual” and “dangerously brilliant?”
If you’re a young person already trending in this direction, do you see Spencer’s explicit racism and reject it? Or do you move forward, as even Milo said you should (but didn’t himself).
That depends far more on what kind of person you are than it does on ideology.
After the Charlottesville event, some of the young men who attended the rally alongside white nationalists were outed on social media and fired by their employers.
If you read some of their reactions, they generally fall into ‘I’m not really racist’ and ‘White Power!’ How someone thinks standing next to guys with swastika flags does not make them accessories to racism, or that being an unapologetic white nationalist might not be an attractive quality to one’s employer, certainly boggles the mind.
But in reading their individual stories, it was not hard for me to understand how some of them arrived in Charlottesville that day to help promote anti-Jewish and anti-black views. Even Milo used to think Holocaust jokes were all in good fun.
Similarly, Christopher Cantwell wants to “f*****g gas” the Jews — though, unsurprisingly, he used a racial slur in his statement.
Before he became a fascist, not surprisingly, Cantwell’s shtick was to be the most extreme libertarian on social media.
You might recall a hilarious Stephen Colbert segment in 2014 in which he lampooned a handful of libertarians in Keene, N.H., who regularly chased down and harassed meter maids.
In their minds, this was their libertarian battle against the state. Seriously.
Part of this brave battalion of freedom fighters was, you guessed it, Chris Cantwell.
“I find that when I carry a gun, people are very unlikely to hit me,” Cantwell tells the Colbert reporter in 2014 while pulling out his weapon. Some things never change.
Before he was trying to make a name for himself as a libertarian ‘activist,’ Cantwell worked with another libertarian who had become something of a national figure by also pulling extreme stunts.
In 2013, self-identified anarchist pundit Adam Kokesh called for a pro-Second Amendment march on the national mall in Washington, D.C., and was arrested for having a shotgun at the Freedom Plaza — he ended up spending what, in my opinion, was an unfair and unusual amount of time in jail for the stunt. Some of you might remember those headlines. Before that, Kokesh and other libertarians organized dancing flash mobs at the Jefferson Memorial.
Kokesh’s business model was to say and do extreme things to get attention — and his right hand man was Cantwell. Eventually, Cantwell decided he could do extreme things and get an audience of his own. And he did.
Cantwell was not the kind of libertarian I paid much attention to, because it was obvious he was a self-promoting exhibitionist more than anything else. He cared far more about sensationalism than ideas or policy. Also, with figures like Sen. Rand Paul, Reps. Justin Amash and Thomas Massie making waves in Washington, and groups like Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty making a significant dent in American politics, I felt the minority of the movement attracted to people like Cantwell was not really ever going to be helpful toward libertarian ends. I wanted the liberty movement to move beyond such childish antics.
As the alt-right began to gather steam in 2016, someone eventually told me that Cantwell had transformed from a libertarian anarchist into a hard right fascist. This person was surprised that someone like Cantwell could go from a hyper-individualist philosophy to one of hardcore collectivism — because there’s nothing more anti-individualist and collectivist than racism.
I wasn’t surprised at all. This change isn’t about philosophy for someone like Cantwell. It’s about narcissism. It’s about mental and emotional instability. It’s who he is and always has been.
Again, it’s about being the most extreme thing out there. And the newest, most extreme thing out there for the past year or so has been the alt-right.
I would have been more surprised if Cantwell didn’t end up a fascist.
Cantwell is just the most extreme version of some of the young men and women I watched drift in an alt-right direction over the course of the election, and some remain there today — eager to lash out, desirous of a megaphone and desperate for community or identity of some kind. White nationalism can also become an easy community to be a part of; if you’re white, you literally don’t even have to do anything.
These personality traits are separate from the racism, but it shouldn’t be shocking that they led some young people to such a putrid ideology. These people are angry, but they are also pitiful.
The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney writes of the man charged with killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer in Charlottesville:
James Alex Fields grew up without a father. He was kind of from Kentucky, kind of from Cincinnati and lived in the outlying suburbs of Toledo. As far as we can tell, he didn’t go to church. He was neither Midwestern nor Southern. He tried to join the military but couldn’t cut it.
Fields, as far as we can tell, lacked the community, the tribal ties, the identity in which most people find their sense of purpose and of support. And so he donned the identity of white nationalism.
Fields, Cantwell and others like them to varying degrees are sad and unenviable souls. The problem for us is that they are also dangerous people whose hate-filled hearts seek vengeance against the society that they, deep down, feel has ignored or rejected them.
But such antics are part and parcel of how he became the monster you see today. There’s something really wrong with him and people like him who went down the alt-right path.
Obviously, people can become radicalized in different ways, and other white supremacists become such because they were raised that way or had jarring life experiences that led them down that path. But Cantwell’s example is instructive, in that it is clear to anyone who has observed these types for any significant period of time they are personality types first and ideologues second. You could see it coming. They were bound to end up in a bad place of some sort — it just happened to be the alt-right.
When all you have left to be proud of is your skin color, it’s usually because you never had much to begin with.