As It Happens

Meet the Swede who spent a year undercover infiltrating the far-right movement

In our feature interview, Patrik Hermansson tells us what he learned from spending a year undercover investigating far-right extremist groups.
Patrik Hermansson adjusts a hidden camera he used to film extreme right organizations for the British anti-racist group Hope Not Hate. (Patrik Hermansson/Hope Not Hate)
Listen27:35

This article was published on Oct. 9, 2017.


Read Story Transcript

Richard Spencer took his tiki torches back to Charlottesville on Saturday.

The Virginia community was the scene of deadly clashes in August after Spencer led an far-right protest against the removal of a statue honouring Robert E. Lee. The white nationalist leader said that he and his followers had returned to show that "our identity matters."

"I was what they wanted. I fit into the more-white category" — Patrik Hermansson 0:46

It's the kind of statement that Patrik Hermansson wanted to understand when he decided to go undercover.

A year ago, the Swedish graduate student took on a mission: to infiltrate the extreme right and gain their trust. Hermansson spent the past year befriending and then travelling with key far-right organizers, first in the U.K. and then in the United States.

He did it all under an assumed identity, while sending information to the non-governmental organization (NGO), Hope Not Hate

Patrik Hermansson marched undercover with multiple white nationalist groups as they marched with torches through Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Mykal McEldowne/The Indianapolis Star/Associated Press)

Hermansson spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he learned from infiltrating the extreme right organizations. Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Hermansson, how did you do it? Was it easy to become a member, to infiltrate the world of the extreme right?

To become a member is not super difficult. But to get into the centre, and to be part of vetting people and speaking at the conferences, like I did — that takes some work. Basically, you're spending a lot of time with them, being consistent with your identity, so everything fits together so you're believable. 
Hermansson spent the past year infiltrating extreme right organizations for the British anti-racist group Hope Not Hate. (Patrik Hermansson/Twitter)

How did you sell yourself? What was your way of talking your way into that centre? What appealed to them about what you were selling?

Several things, I think. First of all, what you have to understand, is that these groups are incredibly racist. This idea that white people are better than other people is very ingrained and part of the whole ideology. And building on that then, they believe that white people's origin is basically Scandinavia, northern Europe. Since I was from there I was considered an attractive good type of member that they wanted. Whiteness is not a binary. There are multiple levels of whiteness. You can be more- or less-white, and I fit into the more-white category since I have blue eyes and am from Scandinavia.

You're the gold standard of white supremacy.

Basically. It's a bit of a scary idea but it works to our advantage in this case.

Who did you meet? Who were the key players with whom you eventually made contact and eventually earned their trust?

Well, we started in London Forum, which is not publicly known but it is one of the most influential far-right organizations in Europe. Then, in the U.S., I was in touch with and spoke at conferences organized by Greg Johnson, who is one big ideological leaders of one section of the alt-right. Then I met with people around Richard Spencer. One is the editor at his organization, Alt-Right Corporation — his name is Jason Jorjani. 

"They talk about a coming race war" — Patrik Hermansson 0:18

People will know Richard Spencer because he's the man infamous for his Nazi salute and rallying people around him in a very public forum after Donald Trump was elected.

Exactly, so I've been to several of his rallies around the U.S. this summer and met many of his top people.

When you met these men, and men are almost exclusively what you met, what were their goals? What did you learn about their ideology and what their objectives are?

The objective, or what they are fighting against, is what they think is the destruction or the downfall of western society, western culture — or, in some of the most extreme cases, the white race. They believe that left-wing ideology, mass immigration, feminism, are threats that will undermine the western world and that's what they fight against. So they do that by trying to shift politics and culture in a way where white people are considered better than other people. It's basically a separation between races as they see it but also male and female. Women have very specific traditional gender roles and men have the opposite roles. 

What did you learn as to how they would achieve these goals should they find themselves in a position to do so? What would they do with the people who they don't consider to be part of the world that they believe should exist in Europe, or the United States or Canada?

A common way to argue for them is a repatriation — that's kind of a first step. So that's sending people that are not white away. This includes citizens as well.

So ethnically cleansing those who are not part of the white race and sending them back. In some instances they have used the word "exterminate."

In some cases they go so far. They talk about a coming race war. Others argue that we will have to institute concentration camps in Europe and in North America again. So there are different ways to argue about this but they are all kind of horrific ideas. 

Do the people with whom you met all subscribe to these ideas?

To a varying degree, most, yes. There are exceptions but the most extreme ones that I hung out with this year, basically all consider that each country should be inhabited by one people, as they say, and one people is defined by skin colour.

There's people like Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi, of the Daily Stormer. He states quite clearly that the goal of the movement is to ethnically cleanse white nations of non-whites and establish an authoritarian government. They also believe that Jews should be exterminated.

Yes, anti-Semitism is rife through the whole movement. It goes through everything. Everything that is wrong about society, for them, is explained through different ideas of Jewish world conspiracies and therefore they argue for those types of ideas. 

But this ideology of the extreme right, you could have learned from reading what they publish. They don't hide their views, especially not anymore, since they've become so, well, I won't say popular, but almost mainstream. What did you learn that you didn't know by infiltrating their ranks?

It's easy to get the impression that we did this just to get a collection of really horrible, racist quotes. But that's not at all why we do this. We're out to understand these people, to understand how they recruit, what kind of people they recruit and why those people connected with them — what they are going to next. So their plans, and these plans we want to know in detail. We want to know where exactly, what city and what towns they are organizing in and so on.

We want to know this so that we can mobilize against it. So Hope Not Hate, which has released this report, has also organized different types of grassroots movements and campaign movements across the U.K. and now soon in the U.S. as well. So those are always informed by the research we do and some part of that research is infiltration.

When you were undercover there were a number of things that happened during that year. There were terrorist attacks, the U.S. elections, the Brexit vote — how did they respond? What were the high points for them in the events of the past year?

Well, of course, Trump's election. Many people in the alt-right believe that they were playing a significant role in getting him into office. That was a big motivator for both the European and North American alt-right because they felt they had an influence on politics that they could do something.

The whole movement goes back and forth between supporting him and being very disappointed in him. We have the intervention in Syria, for example, making them very disappointed. But when he disappoints them it's usually blamed on an outside force, like the Deep State or another Jewish world conspiracy. But there are also moments where he has regain their favour. For example, after Charlottesville, where he kind of equated the violence on both sides saying the "alt-right" and what he called the "alt-left." 
U.S. President Donald Trump says the groups protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., were "also very violent." Trump called those protesters the "alt-left." 17:02

You were at the event in Charlottesville and as a member of the extreme right. You were part of them. So looking at that, from their side of it, what did you see? What was it like to be there?

It was a very tense day. I was right in the middle next to Richard Spencer and these main people — David Duke, etc. We were surrounded by police and it's this large group of mostly very young men. They have shields, helmets, gas masks, some have firearms. So they're clearly expecting violence and the language is extremely hateful. They talk about blood baths and Jews and it's quite horrific. Of course, they expected violence and there was violence. 

Were you there when the car drove into the alternative protests, killing Heather Heyer? Were you around for that?

After the demonstration had been shut down I kind of turned back to myself for a couple of hours. I just walked around town. I saw this counter demonstration and I stood there right on the corner when that car crashed straight into the front of that demonstration. I didn't really understand it at first. I saw it kind of at the side of my vision and then it stopped right next to me in this crossing. I saw a shoe fly in the air. But it took me a couple of moments until I realized what happened. That's when the crowd kind of erupted and panicked and run away. It took a couple of moments, I think, for most people there to really figure out what happened unless you were futher up the street and really saw it from the start. 
White nationalist Richard Spencer, centre, and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

What was it like for you to be there?

It was terrifying, of course. It came out of nowhere and it's so violent and gruesome. So that's a difficult experience, yes.

But you returned to the ranks afterwards. How did they talk about what happened that day?

I didn't meet them in person that evening but online we were following them closely online in the forums and private chatrooms. They were obviously in panic because they didn't want their movement to look bad. But at the same time, they supported this guy that did it. They called Heather the most awful things — sexualizing her, of course — and all these nasty things.

There were some reports of people in the movement saying she wasn't valuable anyways because she wasn't of breeding age. She wasn't having babies so it's no loss to society.

Exactly. They used all sorts of ways to justify it — she wasn't valuable, it was her own fault, and so on. 
Flowers surround a photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacist Unite the Right rally. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

How could you stay there? When you're in the midst of that it must just be sickening.

It is. Many times it is. When you are in these horrific moments and contexts, and people express themselves in certain ways, and it's threatening, you just have to think about why you're there and what you're trying to achieve.

And then when you heard President Trump's response to Charlottesville how did the people you had infiltrated response to President Trump's message?

Well for them it was a validation of their entire cause. After that he really came back into favour again. People became more pro-Trump again from having been a bit disappointed in him. So that really spurred the movement on as well, and that's the type of comments that really normalize these ideas.

You said you were there to try to figure out how they organize, what their reach is, how they are going to recruit. Do you think you have the information you need to counter the movement or do you think it is something that is far more powerful and fast-moving then you initially thought?

We have information about certain parts of the movement. We focused here on a few organizations but there are so many groups. They organize online and we can't even estimate the size of the movement in an accurate way. So we've done what we can in one section of it but it's so vast that just one infiltration cannot take down the whole alt-right — absolutely not. 

Has this changed you personally?

If anything it's motivated me. During this year I've had moments of a bit of a political depression and a realization that these people are very dangerous and that they organize very broadly. So that was scary, but now in the long term it's motivated me.

You've said in a few places that as you listened to all this language — this hateful, Islamophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic language — that eventually you heard so much of it that it almost became normal. You became kind of inured to it to some degree. Did that worry you?

Of course, I've said that and I stand by that. It's very tearing to listen to these things in the beginning. But, after a while, it just becomes normal. There are very few things that would surprise me now or shock me now — and that, itself, I find scary. If it can do that to me, which is not super strange because I was so deep inside of it, but if it could do it to me it could do it to society overall. We can't let this type of language be normalized because it dehumanizes large groups of people and that leads to violence against them.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, please listen to our full feature interview with Patrik Hermansson.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.