Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 28, 2019, at 6:00 a.m. ET
VERONA, Italy — Brian Brown made his name fighting against marriage equality in California, and his National Organization for Marriage once had a budget in the millions. But his stock plummeted as the Supreme Court allowed same-sex couples to marry nationwide with the support of the majority of Americans. His annual “March for Marriage” in Washington was so poorly attended that progressives gleefully shared pictures of empty grass around its rallying point on the National Mall.
But now he’s back.
This weekend Brown will be in the spotlight again, as the World Congress of Families (WCF) conference that he organizes heads to the Italian city of Verona. Billed as a gathering to “defend the natural family as the only fundamental and sustainable unit of society,” the event will be held over three days in a 17th-century palazzo. Brown is due to speak on the same program as one of Europe’s most influential — and divisive — politicians, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party, who has become infamous for anti-immigrant rhetoric and his bullying Facebook persona. Other speakers include a minister of the far-right Hungarian government, a Nigerian anti-LGBT activist, and the Russian-aligned president of Moldova.
Behind all this is an alliance of conservative activists that connects a group of Russians close to Vladimir Putin with far-right Italian politicians and major players of the United States’ religious right. At a time when the fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has some questioning whether concerns about Russian interference in Western politics were overblown, the WCF is a reminder of the many ways Putin has helped turn the politics of the West on its head. A social conservative movement that has lost much of its popular support has looked to Moscow to find new channels to power.
After a few years of meetings in small former communist capitals, the meeting in Verona gives the WCF a chance to return to the West with the backing of a party that is at the forefront of a right-wing European alliance. The location is significant: The small city an hour west of Venice has become ground zero for a new assault on women’s rights under Salvini’s Lega party.
Verona’s local government recently declared the city to be “pro-life” and diverted funding to anti-abortion groups, a measure that has since been introduced by local governments across Northern Italy. The former deputy mayor of Verona, who now serves as Italy’s family minister, wants to undo language in Italy’s constitution guaranteeing the right to an abortion, and is seeking new measures to prevent gay couples from becoming parents. Another local lawmaker has proposed that people be allowed to adopt fetuses as a way to stop women from getting abortions. And a senator from a neighboring region is seeking to overhaul divorce laws to weaken protections for women and abuse victims.
All these initiatives have been made possible by the political earthquake that made the Lega party Italy’s dominant political force in 2018. Salvini is not a committed social conservative — in fact, he’s a divorced former communist. But he was seeking support from the same Moscow circles that were cultivating ties to the Western religious right, and he has since welcomed Catholic fundamentalists into his party as he seeks to unite the Italian right behind him. Italy is the clearest test of whether the same formula that brought the religious right back to influence in the White House can work in Western Europe.
But former members of the Lega party view Salvini’s courting of the religious right as a calculated and cynical move. Flavio Tosi, a former mayor of Verona and one-time rival to lead Salvini’s Lega party, told BuzzFeed News that Salvini recognized that neofascist groups had been “orphaned” by Italy’s major parties, and went after their supporters.
And so, just like immigrants, Salvini finds feminists and other social progressives to be useful political targets.
“He understood he had to find the enemy.”
When it was first launched in the 1990s by a trio of obscure historians and sociologists, the World Congress of Families styled itself as an academic conference focused on reversing declining birth rates in the West. Over the years, its biannual forums featured everyone from early childhood education experts to anti-pornography crusaders to wannabe European royalty.
It also drew a number of major figures from the US religious right as it grew into a hub for anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups around the world. Its importance grew during the years that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were promoting LGBT and women’s rights around the world. It was especially helpful to Brown — just as he was being defeated in his years-long crusade to stop marriage equality in the US, he began plotting to go international. Brown did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brown’s organization chose Verona after it passed unprecedented anti-abortion legislation in 2018. Known by the name of its sponsor, Alberto Zelger, the legislation funds what are known in the US as “crisis pregnancy centers” to divert women away from having abortions. While these centers are common in the US, they broke a taboo in Italy. Italians voted overwhelmingly to keep abortion legal in 1981, but now government money was being used to stop women from accessing the procedure.
The Zelger law, which has already been introduced in dozens of other local governments across Northern Italy, is especially alarming to reproductive rights advocates because Italy’s strong legal protections for abortion access are also being undermined by a growing movement among doctors to refuse to perform the procedure on religious grounds. Earlier this month, the leader of an Italian gynecological association warned that the shortage of abortion providers was reaching crisis levels because so many universities were now refusing to even teach the procedure.
Italy’s courts have also recently dealt some shocking blows to women’s rights. Earlier this month, a court reduced a man’s sentence for killing his wife, citing his “anger and desperation” about her relationship with another man. In another, a rape conviction was tossed out in a case where judges had doubted the alleged victim because she appeared “too masculine” to be an attractive target.
On the national level, women’s rights activists are especially alarmed by a revision of the divorce laws proposed by a senator from the Lega party, which a United Nations human rights official has warned could dramatically reverse protections for women and victims of domestic abuse.
“It’s just a way to put women back in their place,” said Giulia Siviero, a journalist from Verona who is also a spokesperson for a feminist coalition called Non Una di Meno that is organizing protests against the WCF meeting.
Siviero sees Italy as a proving ground of what happens to women’s rights when an opportunist nationalist wins power. Salvini was elected in 2018 with a campaign featuring Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, but he gained just over 17% of the vote and was forced to partner with a larger party to take control of government. He is now the most popular politician in Italy with his party supported by 1 in 3 Italians, and his best path to power is to consolidate as many factions on the right as possible.
“It’s common ground in ideology. They come together on immigration issues and on women’s bodies — they fit together ideologically,” Siviero said. “It’s as if Lega created a sort of tank where all these parts could come together in one big pot.”
When asked whether he was trying to defend the “Christian family” during a right-wing forum last summer, Salvini responded, “Not for me — I’m divorced.” But he’s also happy to portray himself as a champion of Catholic fundamentalists. When he was sworn in as deputy prime minister last June, Salvini held a rosary in his hand, a gesture that shocked even some members of his own party for crossing well-established rules in Italian politics about the boundaries between religion and politics.
He is now one of the greatest heroes to the global right and the greatest villains for the left. “Italy is now the center of the universe of politics,” Steve Bannon has said of Salvini’s rise to power.
The unofficial leader of Lega’s religious right is a former deputy mayor of Verona and member of the EU Parliament, Lorenzo Fontana, who asked Salvini to be a witness to his wedding. Fontana’s longtime spiritual mentor is reported to be a priest who believes homosexuality is “a rebellion against God” caused by the devil.
“I know that Salvini doesn’t give a shit about the rosary — I told you he’s cynical,” Flavio Tosi, the former Lega mayor of Verona who was once Fontana’s mentor, told BuzzFeed News. Tosi said that the Lega wasn’t interested in fundamentalist causes until Fontana got close to Salvini.
Salvini’s spokesperson, following questions about allegations that he was backing social conservative causes out of political expediency, said in a WhatsApp message: “Non-existent controversies. We protect Italian families. But divorce, abortion, equal rights between women and men, freedom of choice for all are not in question.” Fontana’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Salvini, whose favorite way to communicate with the public is by livestreaming on Facebook, excels at the kind of chauvinism that excites people who hate feminism. In 2016, he mocked one of Italy’s most senior women politicians by saying a sex doll was her “double.” Italian police are now conducting an investigation of another incident, in which a 22-year-old woman received hundreds of insulting messages after Salvini posted a picture of her online carrying a sign during a protest against Salvini that read “Better a slut than a fascist.”
“What a lovely lady 😂,” he tweeted.
“Is Salvini a convinced fundamentalist Catholic? Absolutely not. He is a sexist,” said Siviero, the feminist coalition spokesperson. “But he goes along with people who represent that other world that he does not completely believe in, and so seals the relationship between the extreme right and Catholicism.”
WCF leaders have been thrilled to embrace Salvini despite his often abusive rhetoric toward women and immigrants. “Proud to be in #rome with Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini,” Brown tweeted after a meeting late last year.
What’s scary, Siviero said, is that these ideas are “contagious.” Whether or not the more radical proposals from Lega to roll back women’s rights become law, they’re “planting a seed” that is giving marginal right-wing factions new life. These include neofascist groups in a country where the ideology has been outlawed since World War II.
But at this conference, unlike the ones held in Eastern Europe, Siviero said the WCF will face a backlash. Non Uno di Meno is holding four days of protests, including an international conference featuring the founder of the Argentinian feminist organization that inspired them. And the leader of Lega’s coalition partner in government has denounced the conference, saying the group has “medieval views on women.”
At the center of the web of alliances that connects the WCF to Italy sits a little-known Russian named Alexey Komov with connections to major powers in Moscow.
Komov first became known to Western religious conservative circles about a decade ago, billing himself as “a Christian family advocate and professional marketing and real estate consultant and entrepreneur.” Komov was “very eager” to play a leading role in the WCF, a former American member of the organizing committee named Austin Ruse told BuzzFeed News, but his first bid to bring the conference to Moscow was rejected because it was half-baked.
The group accepted his bid for the 2014 WCF when he returned with the backing of some powerful Russian oligarchs, including an investment banker named Konstantin Malofeev. They started planning a 2014 summit to be held in the Kremlin, which they promoted as the “‘Olympics’ of the international Pro-Life movement supporting the Natural Family.”
The Moscow summit came at an extraordinary moment. All eyes were on Russia, with the Winter Olympics due to be held in Sochi in January 2014. The lead-up to the Games was upstaged by a global showdown over LGBT rights. Putin, who had been in power since 1999, had begun to cast himself as the defender of Orthodox values against the hedonistic West, namely through a campaign to demonize homosexuality, epitomized in the passage of a law banning so-called gay propaganda. Major players in the US religious right — who came of age with a Cold War mindset that saw Russia as godless enemy — were suddenly wondering if Putin were the counterweight to the Obama administration they’d been waiting for.
Soon, Komov began pushing the limits of even what some American organizers were comfortable with. Ruse said his organization and other prominent WCF sponsors nearly walked out of an October 2013 planning meeting because Komov wanted to include Scott Lively, an anti-gay activist from Massachussets who played a key role in inspiring Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill and the author of a book that suggested gay people were responsible for the Holocaust. Komov also went on a spectacular rant during a press conference in Washington in early February 2014, suggesting hundreds had been murdered to cover up the true story of John F. Kennedy’s assasination and questioning whether al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
When Russia seized Crimea in February 2014, it suddenly seemed like a bad idea to be openly aligned with the Russians. The US government slapped sanctions on Malofeev, who was funding seperatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine at the same time he was backing the WCF. The WCF ultimately took its name off the Moscow conference, but many of its key players attended the meeting, which was hastily rebranded.
A spokesperson for Malofeev declined to comment for this story, writing, “We do not comment on rumors and conjectures distilled from unknown resources to us by journalists.”
Dozens of Komov’s emails about the meeting were leaked in 2014 by a group of hackers, which showed that Komov was involved in another one of Malofeev’s major projects — building relationships with far-right groups throughout Europe. In one note, Komov called one of Italy’s best known neofascist leaders a “friend.”
The leak included an email from Brown, in which he told Komov, “the Forum was amazing and all of this press will work to the greater benefit of the pro-family worldwide movement if we respond properly."
Komov forwarded this email to Malofeev with the note, “The empire strikes back :)”
Brown has denied that the Russians held sway over the WCF, telling BuzzFeed News in the summer of 2018 that he had “absolutely never been asked by [his] Russian associates, friends, or Alexey Komov to do something that would undermine the United States.”
“I think it’s sad there’s an attempt to paint all Russians as somehow anti-American and not united with us on family,” he said. Komov did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Komov had begun courting Lega from the moment Salvini took control of the party. He was invited to address the 2013 convention in which Salvini was selected as party secretary. And he has a leadership role in an organization that was instrumental in brokering a meeting between Salvini and Putin in 2014. Salvini has since proved a key ally to Russia in the EU, working to undo sanctions imposed by the bloc. There are also new allegations from the Italian magazine Espresso that the Russian state oil company was looking for ways to funnel cash to Salvini’s party.
The Verona conference brings these relationships full circle.
Verona is a “perfect match” for the WCF, Brown wrote in a fundraising email last year, shortly after the event was announced. “Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini will welcome us to his wonderful country with arms wide open.”
“We’ve never been more effective than we are right now,” he continued, “and we intend to do even more in the coming year.”
Last updated on November 10, 2018, at 12:21 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 10, 2018, at 9:32 a.m. ET
RIACE, Italy — Domenico Lucano just wants the world to leave him alone.
Lucano is the mayor of a tiny medieval village, near Italy’s southern tip, that he saved from extinction by welcoming hundreds of refugees. Today he’s in demand from progressives around the world, a symbol of the resistance to the global rise of the far right and anti-immigration sentiment. On Saturday, he was a star speaker at a rally of tens of thousands of people against anti-immigrant legislation in Rome.
But he's not enjoying the attention.
“Enough! Everybody wants my attention — I might as well kill myself at this point!” Lucano shouted through a scratchy apartment building intercom when BuzzFeed News tracked him down one evening last week. “Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
Lucano’s town, Riace, started welcoming the refugees sailing to Italy more than 20 years ago. But he really grabbed international attention at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016. He was celebrated by Fortune magazine as one of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” visited by countless reporters, and praised by the pope. More than 300 communities in Italy and beyond now run their own programs to integrate immigrants on what’s become known as the “Riace model.”
“Everyone is using me... Nobody ever cared about the refugees and now, here you are. I am bitter. About everything.”
But his life’s work is about to be erased by the star of Europe’s nationalist movements, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Salvini became Italy’s dominant politician by using social media to turn the country’s politics into a constant shouting match over immigration, and has permanently cut off funding for Riace’s programs. He’s on the verge of passing sweeping anti-immigrant legislation that could gut similar initiatives across Italy and lead to thousands of deportations.
Salvini pounced on Riace in October, just after prosecutors presented charges against Lucano including mishandling town contracts and “facilitating illegal immigration.” Lucano’s allies say the prosecution is politically motivated and a judge tossed out the most serious allegations. But the court barred Lucano from entering Riace, using a provision usually reserved for cases of Mafia corruption or harassment.
“I wonder what … all the do-gooders who want to fill Italy with immigrants are thinking now,” Salvini said when posting the news on Twitter.
Italy’s left was shattered by the last election, and there are no credible politicians on the national stage who can take Salvini on. Many are looking to Lucano to fill that void. But Lucano doesn’t want to be a martyr for the left. And he couldn’t out-shout Salvini if he tried — the minister has more than 3.5 million followers on Facebook, while Lucano has scarcely posted to social media in the past three years.
When he finally sat down for an interview, the calls only stopped coming when his cellphone died. He lost his temper with one caller, who wanted him to attend a rally later this month 300 miles away.
“I am not angry with you — I am angry with myself,” he quickly apologized. “I am just sick of it all… I know everyone is trying to help, I understand who you are.
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Lucano briefly slept in his car after being sent into exile, and is now staying in a bare-bones apartment in a nearby town.
His office is a kitchen lit by naked lightbulbs and his desk is a dining table covered by a cloth decorated with farm animals that seems to be straight out of the 1950s. The only food in sight when he spoke with BuzzFeed News was a partly eaten tray of cookies and a bottle of greenish-white citrus liqueur, which — ever the good host — he offered even as he vented his frustration in a mix of Italian and the local dialect.
“I am tired... You see how I live — my bedroom is a disgusting mess,” he said. “I am ashamed to show it to you. This is it, what you see. I have no means.”
“I am called elsewhere, but Riace is failing.”
Riace is in even worse shape. A crowdfunding campaign is underway that has raised almost $350,000 for the town, but it needs more than $2 million to avoid bankruptcy. And hundreds of immigrants relying on the program have no money for food or rent. Their children have stopped going to school because there is no gas for the school bus.
Lucano spoke to BuzzFeed News just after returning from a rally in Milan, an event he’d forgotten about until just hours before he had to be at the airport. The rally had left a sour taste in his mouth, even though he seemed moved that it had brought together factions that hadn’t come together for 20 years. He didn’t say what had upset him, but it might have been that Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala of the center-left Democratic Party, hosted Lucano and then immediately posted an interview on the party’s website saying Italians become racist when “immigrants touch our needs and opportunities.”
He was missed while he was gone. One of Italy’s most respected anti-racism activists showed up in Riace after driving six hours from Sicily. He’d come to invite Lucano to the big protest against Salvini’s policies in Rome. A pair of vacationing environmental activists from Germany also wandered into town to offer their support. Even Lucano’s 92-year-old father, Roberto, said he couldn’t get his son on the phone after he abruptly canceled a lunch date when he remembered he had to fly out the day before.
Roberto is proud of his son, saying he’d always had a passion for social justice. As a teenager, Roberto remembered, the boy had turned down a soccer prize because he believed credit should go to his entire team.
When asked about this story, the mayor said that his morality was shaped even then by a feeling that “we were close to a global revolution.” He keenly remembered the US-backed coup that overthrew Chile’s socialist president in 1973, when he was just 15. Lucano said he is still guided by the words of Che Guevara, “We, unfortunately must feel on our own skin any injustice and humiliation that may happen to any other human being.”
He initially hesitated when asked whether he was so tired that he thought he could quit.
“I do not know — I don’t know anything,” he said, slumping over a pile of folders containing reports of the investigations against him. “I involuntarily became the symbol of the Italian left.”
But he soon recovered his energy and his composure, and his thoughts began to come out in long speeches that referenced radical priests, Malcolm X, and the Beatles. He explained that though Guevara’s words had given him his mission, he had always worried he might not be strong enough to bear the burdens of others.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Calabria, the region where Riace lies, has always taught people to treat migrants with empathy, Lucano said, in part due to the long tradition of Calabrians crossing oceans looking for work. The numbers who settled in the US helped popularize a regional dish, spaghetti with meatballs. Calabria is said to have been visited by Homer’s Odysseus and at various times sheltered wandering sailors from Greece, Africa, and the Middle East.
There was no grand plan when he decided to begin working with refugees, he said. “I did whatever came naturally to me.”
One of the newer arrivals now depending on Riace is Evelyn Samuel, a 28-year-old from Nigeria’s Delta State, part of a region that has seen decades of fighting over the region’s oil supplies. She spent six years working in Libya before it became too unstable and she decided to get on a boat for Italy with her months-old baby. She was settled in Riace 10 months ago after being rescued at sea by a boat operated by an NGO.
“I don’t know where to go,” Samuel said tearfully in English, calling Lucano by the Italian word for mayor, sindaco. “Salvini don’t like sindaco. Salvini don’t like black [people]. And sindaco like black [people]… Salvini now is chasing us away. ”
Confusion has spread as the program collapsed, and some of the immigrants believe Lucano is to blame for the funding being shut off. Many direct their anger at his partner, a refugee from Ethiopia, believing she manipulated Lucano into playing favorites among the refugees, putting the whole program in danger.
With Lucano in exile, “It’s kind of a desperate situation — no one can fill that void,” said Bahram Arcar, who arrived with the first group of refugees in Riace 20 years ago. He now works for the collective Lucano created to run refugee programs. But with the program out of money, he too will have to leave since he has no way to support his family.
“It was such a beautiful project and in the past two years it’s gone to shit,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”
Arcar arrived in Riace with a group of around 200 refugees in 1998, on a boat that landed on a nearby beach after a dangerous eight-day voyage from the southern coast of Turkey.
They were part of an exodus from Kurdistan, fleeing a civil war between Kurdish factions and efforts by Saddam Hussein to retake a region of northern Iraq that became independent after he was defeated in the Gulf War that ended in 1991. Their arrival in Europe sparked a crisis inside the EU that has many parallels with the one faced by the bloc today, but the players were reversed. Italy, with urging from the Catholic Church, championed the cause of the refugees, while Germany questioned whether a southern European country with such a porous border should be allowed into the EU’s newly created free travel zone.
Lucano, then a teacher in Riace’s school, said the geopolitics were far from his mind when he first heard about the Kurds’ arrival from the local bishop. When the Kurds lost their shelter at a local church, Lucano called his aunt in Argentina and other relatives overseas to ask for permission to put them up in the houses they’d left behind. He’d lined up shelter for 100 people within a few hours, sometimes in houses that had stood empty for 50 years. They sometimes had to break in — keys had disappeared from hiding places on rotted windowsills or crumbling walls — and they scrounged candles for light.
It felt like fate had brought them there, Lucano said. He recalled one of the Kurds telling him, “We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
“We are people without a home, and we arrived in a place made of houses without people.”
Most of the Kurds eventually left to join family in Germany. But Lucano, Arcar, and a few others decided to create a collective, called Future City, to welcome other refugees. They planned to restore buildings, set up apprenticeships with artisans in local workshops, and run small hotels they hoped would draw visitors interested in “ethical tourism.” Soon they got the town involved in a national program called SPRAR focused on vulnerable refugees — like families with children, people with illnesses, and women at risk of being forced into sex work — that specializes in integrating them into communities.
“We wanted this project to become more famous,” Arcar said. “We thought it was important because it would attract tourism, too, because we wanted to make outside money come in. But I thought — and [Lucano] thought too — that it was going to cause problems.”
Images of Afghans, Ethiopians, and Nigerians saving Italy’s ancient heritage seemed to embody all the best of what immigration could be. Projects like Riace were a welcome alternative to Italy’s main refugee system, CARA, in which immigrants are warehoused in isolated camps and often exploited by organized crime.
It seemed to benefit the town’s original residents, too. The school was saved from closure by an influx of new students, historic buildings were restored, and restaurants and grocery stores reopened. Because state money came irregularly, they created a system of IOUs to circulate in town, printing up a town currency with the faces of Nelson Mandela, Guevara, and local activists killed by the Mafia.
Lucano was elected mayor in 2004 on a nonpartisan slate, and he was reelected in 2009 and 2014. Riace first attracted international attention in 2008, when a famous German director made a short film inspired by its immigrants, and in 2010 Lucano was included on a list of the world’s outstanding mayors.
But he became an international symbol at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, when stories began appearing about him in English. Lucano’s fans always mention his inclusion on Fortune’s 2016 list of the “World’s Greatest Leaders,” where is ranked in between a minister of Africa’s largest country and the philanthropist Melinda Gates.
As Lucano and his allies in the refugee rights community see it, this international publicity painted a target on Riace even before populists took power in Italy in 2018. Inspectors first arrived to audit the program in the summer of 2016, just as the then-ruling center-left Democratic Party was getting spooked by an anti-immigrant backlash. The national government soon moved to tighten restrictions on the NGOs rescuing people from leaky boats trying to reach Italy’s coasts, and it sealed a deal with Libya that it hoped would stop immigrants attempting the crossing.
The audit produced a vaguely worded report implying Lucano may have been playing favorites with government money, though it noted that open bidding was difficult in regions where many contractors are in league with the mob.
A follow-up report found no wrongdoing and praised the program as “a model of hospitality,” but the Interior Ministry kept that report secret while a criminal investigation was underway. It also froze payments to the program in 2016, forcing the town to go into debt to keep the program running.
Lucano told BuzzFeed News they had made mistakes as they expanded the program, allowing new groups to run projects that included “people taking advantage.” But Giovanni Maiolo, head of an alliance of communities modeled on Riace called the Network of Townships of Solidarity, told BuzzFeed News the government’s response was like giving someone who ran a red light a life sentence.
“I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
By that time, a prosecutor had also brought sweeping charges against Lucano and 35 others for offenses ranging from corrupt contracting arrangements to “facilitating illegal immigration.” Wiretap recordings of his phone were leaked to the press in which he discussed arranging the equivalent of a green-card marriage for a young Nigerian woman, though full transcripts of the conversation also showed he rejected the idea when the proposed husband demanded she have sex with him.
Requests for comment about the investigation sent to Salvini's office and local investigators were not returned.
All this was hanging over Lucano’s head when Salvini entered office in June this year. Just after he took power of the Interior Ministry, Salvini posted a video saying Lucano is worth “zero.”
Alfonso Di Stefano of the Sicilian Anti-Racism Forum, an organizer of Saturday's protest against Salvini’s anti-immigrant legislation, told BuzzFeed News, “Everything is in danger now.”
Salvini is claiming there is a national emergency to bring the legislation to Parliament under special rules, though new arrivals are way down from their peak in 2016. It would dramatically restrict the grounds on which immigrants would be allowed to petition to stay in Italy, and includes a number of other measures to weaken Italy’s asylum laws. Sounding a lot like Donald Trump, Salvini at one point promised the bill would include a provision to impose a curfew on “ethnic stores,” which he called the “haunt of drug dealers and drunks.” He has also pushed legislation making it easier for Italians to buy guns.
“We [have] never reached such a low point,” Di Stefano said. “I would have never imagined we would fall into barbaric racism as such only 80 years after the racial laws of the fascist dictatorship.”
The legislation passed the Senate last week, and it will likely spell the end of programs like Riace by drastically restricting the number of new immigrants eligible for the SPRAR system. Instead of getting support to integrate into the community, even more refugees would be pushed into isolated holding camps. In southern Italy, Di Stefano said, this would be a gift to mobsters, who have embezzled money from camp administrators and profit by serving as brokers who arrange labor on the region’s commercial farms.
If there’s any silver lining, said the Network of Townships of Solidarity’s Maiolo, it’s that Lucano’s arrest has given civil society someone to rally around at “such a black time for human rights.” Though their efforts have only pulled in a fraction of what Riace needs, $350,000 is an unusually successful crowdfunding campaign by Italian standards. And there are other signs of grassroots support for immigrants in Italy. When Lodi, a small northern city, cut many immigrant children from a school lunch program, an online effort raised tens of thousands to feed them for the rest of the year.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people,”
Lucano is grateful for the support, even though he hates being cast as a David taking on Salvini’s Goliath. But he recognizes that Riace does provide a counter to the “industry of fear for pure political gain” taking hold across the world.
At one point, Lucano broke into a gap-toothed smile and wondered whether Salvini had ever truly listened to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “John Lennon was one of our heroes back then,” Lucano said, and reminisced about how easy everything was back when they first turned empty houses into shelters.
“Considering how Italy has become today, I would like to try and go back to that simplicity,” he said.
Back when the Kurds arrived in 1998, Lucano had just helped put on a play that imagined Riace down to its final residents in 2020. The town painted a mural of the sea along a road renamed “Utopia Street,” dreaming that those who’d left would one day sail home again. For Lucano, the Kurds appeared as if they were the long-lost residents of Riace who’d simply returned wearing different skins.
“Their faces were different, but it didn’t matter — they were people."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on September 8, 2018, at 10:21 a.m. ET
CHEMNITZ, Germany — “That is what they’re actually saying: They want you all dead!” the speaker declared, waving his hand in the air for emphasis. “That’s what it’s about!”
He didn’t use the word, but he was implying that a kind of genocide was coming for the German people, engineered by left-wing parties that support Muslim immigration. The speaker’s name was Marc Bernhard, a 46-year-old member of parliament from the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) who had been invited by the city’s local AfD branch for a discussion on the question, “Losing control — can Germany be saved?” He spoke at a breathless pace, as if his mouth could barely keep up with the urgency of his words.
“Their declared goal is to get rid of Germany and the Germans — that’s what their leading politicians are more or less saying,” he said, again aiming his harshest words at the country’s left-wing parties.
Bernhard spoke before an audience of around 150 people, a majority of them men and nearly all over 50, gathered inside a run-down meeting space on the outskirts of Chemnitz. After outrage over the killing of a local man turned into violent protests, the city has unexpectedly found itself at the center of Germany’s immigration debate and an international outcry about a rising far right.
Many Chemnitz residents saw the killing, for which two immigrants were arrested, as evidence that the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have moved to Germany in recent years were a time bomb waiting to explode. And a new analysis of crime data in the local press does suggest a spike in crime in the city’s center, with young immigrants overrepresented among the perpetrators. The more that politicians like Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as the press, focused on the neo-Nazis who joined the protest, the more immigration opponents nationwide argued that crying “Nazi” was simply an excuse for elites to continue ignoring them.
And so for many across Germany, Chemnitz has become a national symbol for people worried that Germany was falling apart — but Bernhard and his party saw a chance to build a movement to make Germany great again.
The events in Chemnitz may be rewriting the rules of German politics, allowing more radical voices into the mainstream and sapping Nazi allegations of their power. The AfD, which has long battled the perception that it is racist and authoritarian, has the most to gain from the crisis. And it knows it.
When Merkel announced this week that she would visit Chemnitz, the leader of the AfD parliamentary bloc, Alice Weidel, posted a video on Facebook demanding that the chancellor fire a spokesperson who first criticized the protests on behalf of Merkel's government. “Stop smearing your own people with dirt, get rid of the spokesperson, and say sorry to the citizens of Chemnitz and Saxony.”
Otherwise, “you don't even have to show up in Chemnitz at all,” Weidel said in the video.
The outcry started with concerns about security, but the AfD wants its supporters to understand that much more is at stake. “We’re also losing control of our culture, our traditions, our heritage!” Bernhard said that night in Chemnitz. “It can’t keep going on like this! We have to stay in control of our country.”
The danger is clear, he said. Judges were removing crosses from courtrooms, the festival of St. Martin was being rebranded as a “festival of lights,” and kindergartens were replacing pork with halal meat, he said. Soon, he said, “we won’t be the majority anymore!”
“The only thing you want is ... us — the AfD!”
The AfD only won seats in the Bundestag — Germany’s national legislature — for the first time last year, but the 13% of the vote it captured with its campaign against immigration was enough to make it the largest party in opposition to Merkel’s government.
Next year’s elections for Saxony’s state government will give the party its first real chance to enter government. It is now polling at 25% in the state, nearly tied with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and it has a real chance to become the largest party in the state parliament.
The AfD’s rise in Saxony is driven by voters like Bettina Rehnert, one of the most enthusiastic people in attendance for Bernhard’s speech.
Rehnert leapt to her feet to shout down the lone audience member who dared to tell the panelists “there’s too much hatred in your speeches.” She was effusive when she got her own turn at the mic, telling Bernhard, “I’ve followed your speech and I have to agree with you. … We’ve only been taking pointless hits for 3 years. ... I know so many people that now want to see action!”
Rehnert, a 57-year-old with blonde bangs falling into her large glasses, told BuzzFeed News that she knew what it was like to be a refugee. Her parents came to East Germany at the end of World War II after being forced to leave modern-day Poland. She took part in the protests that toppled communism in 1989 and began voting for the center-right CDU. She earned a comfortable living in the new capitalist system, running her own architecture business and helping with her husband’s construction firm.
But, she said, she saw that those years were not good for everyone in Chemnitz. The old communist factories were closing, and the city lost much of its population. One of the city’s most striking features today are the stretches of decaying buildings from several long-forgotten boom periods of Chemnitz’s past — socialist apartment blocks, art deco mansions, and 19th-century train stations.
Rehnert became convinced something was wrong as unemployment climbed in the early 2000s, and she thought the refugees who began to arrive in Chemnitz in 2014 — not the economic crisis — were a sign those hard times were coming back.
Official crime statistics don’t show that the city became radically more dangerous in those years — assaults increased some while petty street crime declined — but downtown suddenly began to feel unsafe to Rehnert. She said she remembered a group of immigrant men shouted at her, “Hey, madame ... you want to fuck?”
If that’s what they want in Berlin or West Germany, Rehnert said, let them have it. “West Germans feel that the refugees are not so bad as we do because they always had a lot of families of foreigners over there.” They’d had foreigners in Chemnitz under communism, guest workers from Cuba, Vietnam, and Russia, but they mostly kept to themselves and left after a short while.
But she worried the people now coming through Saxony from the Middle East would drain money for schools, and other social services would be diverted to support the new arrivals. And she didn’t understand why they seemed to be mostly men. When her family was forced to leave Poland, they all came together.
“No father would leave his family behind,” she said. “I have to have doubts how desperate [they are] to come here.”
She no longer trusts the news, and said that the television is so filled with propaganda it sounds just as bad as it did when it was controlled by East Germany’s communist government. So she gets most of her information from Facebook.
This brought her deep into a world of conspiracy theories, though she said she is confident she can “self-evaluate” and “draw her own picture.” AfD lawmakers visited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and didn’t show any pictures of war, she said, so she questioned “how big the war over there is.”
Rehnert was at the protest on Aug. 27 that stunned the rest of Germany and the world, with far-right protesters overwhelming the police. She was also at a demonstration that the AfD led the following Saturday, which had been called as a silent march.
But it nearly spun out of control after authorities halted the march to stop clashes with a blockade by left-wing protesters a few blocks away. But even more militant groups gathered on the margins of the march, and participants in the AfD march joined them as tensions mounted. Before the authorities forced the group to disperse, dozens of protesters rushed police and attacked journalists, shouting slogans like “Free, Social, and National,” the motto of a neo-Nazi party called the Third Way.
Renhert said that she had heard that chant before and saw nothing wrong with each of those words on their own. But when reminded that it was an allusion to the Nazi Party — which was officially called the National Socialist Party — she dismissed the comparison.
“I don’t think like that,” she said. “It’s over the top.”
Like a growing number of Germans on the right, she was tired of being reminded of the country’s Nazi past. She’d even read a book — widely dismissed by historians — that claimed Germany wasn’t really to blame for World War II at all. East Germany, unlike the West, never had a youth movement that demanded answers from their elders about what they did in the war.
As far as Rehnert knew, she said, she didn’t know any elders who’d been Nazis when she was growing up, and said, “I don't know any bad people.” At the protests, the only person she’d seen doing a Hitler salute “was completely drunk” and “doing it by accident,” she said. She’d heard others were “undercover” leftists.
She didn’t feel she or the AfD should have to answer for it regardless of what really happened, she said. She didn’t know a lot about Nazis, she finally admitted, but she didn’t think she had to.
“It’s not our problem, because we are not Nazis,” she said.
The AfD has pressed its advantage as Merkel and Saxony’s leaders have stumbled over each other to respond to the events of the past two weeks.
The head of Saxony’s state government, Michael Kretschmer, has denounced extremists at the marches, but he also tried to appease locals who feel their concerns about immigrants and crime are being ignored. He made headlines again this week by suggesting that media reports exaggerated the size of violent factions in Chemnitz’s anti-immigrant protests, and disputed reports of widespread violence following right-wing protests.
“One thing is clear,” he said in an address to the state parliament. “There was no mob, there was no hunt, and there was no pogrom in Chemnitz.”
This directly contradicted comments Merkel made last week: “We have video footage of the fact that there [were people hunted down], there were riots, there was hatred on the streets.” The chancellor doubled down on her condemnation of the anti-immigrant protests as she promised to visit Chemnitz soon.
These remarks prompted the video from the AfD’s Bundestag leader Weidel, calling Merkel’s comments “a fully grown government and media scandal.”
The controversy centers on whether the videos posted online from the original round of protests show hetzjagd, a word probably best translated as “hunting people down.” There were several other reports of mobs chasing immigrants and leftists in Chemnitz, and reporters wrote about several others that were not captured on video. Chemnitz police did not release arrest numbers from the first day of protests, but referred to the violence as “rioting” and asked people to submit evidence of specific incidents. Eleven people were charged with assault on the second day and 20 people were injured. Authorities in the state capital, Dresden, say they are investigating 120 complaints filed during the protests, though those range from assault to doing the Hitler salute; it also could include charges against left-wing counterprotesters.
The claim that reports of mob violence were fake news got an unexpected boost late Thursday from Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of the Constitutional Protection Office, a body created by Germany’s postwar constitution to police extremist parties.
“After my cautious evaluation, there are good reasons for the fact that it is targeted misinformation in order to possibly distract the public from the murder in Chemnitz,” Maaßen told German tabloid Bild, citing the fact that one of the most widely shared videos was posted by an anonymous YouTube user. The incident it showed, however, had separately been reported, and a website run by one of Germany’s most important newspapers posted an interview with an Afghan refugee who said he was the victim.
The Interior Ministry quickly announced that Maaßen had received no special information on the incident, and the Saxony state prosecutor said the video was believed to be real and under investigation. Some left-wing politicians called for Maaßen’s resignation, his comments taken as the latest signal that he was inappropriately sympathetic to the right. He is also facing allegations that he coached party AfD leaders on how to avoid an official investigation following revelations that he had been secretly communicating with party officials.
Andreas Nick, a CDU member of the Bundestag who leads Germany’s delegation to Europe’s top human rights body, told BuzzFeed News that it was past time for the Constitutional Protection Office to step in. The delay was especially alarming in Saxony, where a neo-Nazi terrorist group called the National Socialist Underground drew on a support network as it undertook a series of shootings and bombings across Germany from 2000 to 2007.
“Given both the German experience in the 1920s and the [National Socialist Underground] case, turning a blind eye on the far right by law enforcement authorities is unacceptable,” he said. “AfD has been largely taken over by right extremists for a long time; this can be neither ignored nor denied.”
Even before the events in Chemnitz, the AfD had already accomplished something that Germany hasn’t seen since the Nazi Party first began winning elections in the 1920s.
No other nationalist party since World War II had managed to really expand beyond a base of working-class, far-right voters, said Robert Grimm, a political scientist who leads the German office of the polling firm Ipsos. These voters have defected to the AfD in droves, but so have middle-class voters from Merkel’s center-right CDU, the center-left Social Democratic Party, and the modern descendent of the former East German communist party, the Left Party.
The AfD’s support has only grown, even as it’s moved steadily to the right. It was initially known as the “party of professors,” led by conservative economists opposed to the euro and Germany financing a bailout for Greece’s economic crisis. This faction was pushed out in 2015, and the new leaders rode an anti-immigrant backlash to win seats in the Bundestag in 2017, though the party remained concerned about becoming too close to groups that could have branded it as too extreme.
The events in Chemnitz appear to be pushing the party into a new phase, where it’s now seemingly unafraid to stand shoulder to shoulder with groups it once kept at arm’s length. The anger about immigration is outweighing warnings about extremism for many Germans, and the AfD has learned to deflect criticism by crying “fake news” or — as its members loudly chant on the streets — “lying press.”
The first sign of this new boldness was the AfD demonstration on Sept. 1, which was co-organized with the anti-Muslim protest group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident). One of its local leaders once called for migrants to be shot, and the AfD’s former national leader forbade party members from working with the group last year.
The decision to work openly with Pegida was just “legalizing something that was happening anyway,” said the state party’s current vice chair, Siegbert Dröse, in an interview this week with BuzzFeed News.
Dröse added that he’d actually opposed the idea of the party marching in Chemnitz because he thought the situation was volatile. But even though the march ended with near-riots and neo-Nazi slogans, the party emerged stronger.
“It didn’t hurt us at all — we’re growing in popularity,” he said.
Dröse said calls for the Constitutional Protection Office to monitor the party only helped it, making its opponents look hysterical.
“So far, all that has done nothing but helped us,” Dröse said.
Although he believes the party needs to focus on gaining moderate support and already has “everyone that we want on the right,” it is not going to shy away from getting support where it finds it.
“I’m certain, by the way, that we’ll succeed next year in Saxony at grabbing the political power,” he said. “Obviously we’re going to [continue to] look for allies.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 31, 2018, at 10:23 p.m. ET
CHEMNITZ, Germany — It didn’t take long for the rumors to spread.
Just hours after a man was stabbed in a small east German city last weekend, thousands of people began sharing accounts on social media that he had been killed by immigrants involved in a rape attempt. Within no time, it was being said there were two dead. Pictures were shared of a group of women said to have been beaten by immigrants.
It didn’t matter that there was no attempted rape, or that much of the rest of these accounts wasn’t true. The anger soon transferred to the real world. Over the next few days, Chemnitz, a town of around 250,000 people in the state of Saxony, would become the center of anti-immigrant protests that produced shocking images of people raising Hitler salutes, and mobs chasing people through the streets.
On Monday, around 7,500 people gathered to protest the death of Daniel H., a 35-year-old German citizen of Cuban descent, in a rally that saw people chant “Chemnitz to the Saxons, foreigners out!” and “We are the people.” This part of Saxony, long a hotbed for anti-immigrant groups and a neo-Nazi underground, had seen right-wing protests and occasional violence before. But this time felt different.
What seemed new — and alarming — was that such a broad range of far-right groups had come together alongside overt neo-Nazis. Much like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it shook many Germans’ faith that certain lines would never be crossed. When authorities and the mainstream press attempted to counter online rumors with facts, many people became convinced there was a coverup — the truth was what they knew from their Facebook timelines.
Local police were quickly overwhelmed on Monday evening and the city center descended into chaos. Many of the town’s 20,000 immigrants hid in their homes, scared to go outside, as gangs stalked the streets.
A Syrian refugee who works at a local kebab shop told BuzzFeed News he was chased by a group of 10 or more thugs as he was leaving work. He said his pregnant wife, who wears a hijab, is afraid to leave the house even to go to the doctor. He said he didn’t want his name used because he was afraid, and that he now wanted to move out of Chemnitz to somewhere in Germany’s west.
A pizza shop owner, who goes by the nickname Momo and moved to Germany from Tunisia 30 years ago, said he even recognized his own customers in the crowd.
“They treat us like [sacrificial] lambs before Eid al-Adha,” he told BuzzFeed News, adding that he also didn’t want his real name to be published. “They play with us for some years and are all nice, but when the day comes, they have no problem to sacrifice us.”
Pictures of these protests made headlines around the world. But what shocked many was the number of average citizens who rallied behind the protesters, saying they were expressing a righteous fury against immigrants that Germany’s politicians have tried to sweep under the carpet. Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested the violence was a threat to Germany’s post-war constitution, which included provisions designed to ensure Nazism could never return to Germany. “We have video footage of the fact that there was [hunting people down], there were riots, there was hatred on the streets, and that has nothing to do with our constitutional state,” she said on Tuesday.
The furor continues to build into this weekend. Police have been deployed from across the country to prevent more violence, with four separate protests scheduled for Saturday alone. One is organized by Alternative for Germany (AfD), the far-right party that now leads the opposition in Parliament. The party’s deputy leader defended the rioting by saying, “It's legitimate to go berserk after this kind of crime.”
The events of the past week may yet mark a turning point in Germany — a before and after. The left hopes that Germans will recoil in horror at the images of Hitler salutes and thuggish street violence. On the other side, the AfD senses an opportunity: They hope these crowds demonstrate a broader public appetite for their anti-immigrant rhetoric, opening the door for them to make further democratic gains. Crime rates are falling in Germany according to official police statistics, but spokespeople for the AfD push wild exaggerations of the number of murders committed by immigrants, then say that the government is lying about it. Several messages to AfD representatives seeking comment were not returned.
If the German state won’t protect its people, they say, then they will have to take matters into their own hands. Many mainstream politicians, fearful of losing voters to the far right, have either stayed quiet, or offered only limited criticism.
During a town hall in Chemnitz on Thursday, the deputy leader of the state government challenged an angry crowd: “If you realize who you’re actually standing next to, and at last when hatred, fear-mongering, and violence are involved, every single one of you has to decide whether you’re still standing on the right side of the street.”
“How long will this [violence] go on?” shouted back someone from the audience. Another yelled, “Your voters are sitting here — think about it!”
Under Angela Merkel, Germany welcomed more than 1.2 million refugees in 2015 and 2016. Many Germans felt a certain pride in this openness, a stark contrast to rising nationalist movements across the continent. There were even jokes that it was a surprising third act in a global play, in which — after two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust in the 20th century — Germany was riding to the rescue of liberal democracy.
But, after the events of the past week, there is a growing fear that the backlash against these immigrants could rapidly push the country back toward its darkest past. And this could happen faster than ever before, because false reports whip up fear online at a speed almost impossible to stop, playing into the fears of many voters. It doesn’t seem to matter that the rumors are often broadcast by neo-Nazis and far-right groups that would have repelled the average German just a few years ago.
At the town hall in Chemnitz, many complained that they were being tarred with the brush of Nazism, simply for standing up for their fellow Germans — as they see it. “I was at this demonstration and I was called a Nazi,” said one man. “8,000 people were not Nazis, but the press called those 8,000 people and all Germany Nazis!”
Saxony’s premier, Michael Kretschmer of Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union, began his remarks that evening by addressing voters just like this man.
“I’ve met so many people who feel misjudged and come up to me to say, ‘But we’re no Nazis!’ And I know that,” Kretschmer said.
Though he criticised the protests, which he conceded had “got completely out of control,” and pleaded with the audience to wait for the police to release the full account of Sunday’s killing, Kretschmer told BuzzFeed News he felt obliged to respond to people’s perceptions — even if they weren’t based in reality.
“For me it’s the fact that when you walk through the city center, or you go home after work as a [woman] shop assistant, some people say they feel unsafe,” he said. “That wasn't the case three or four years ago. And now it’s not about the question of what actually is or isn’t, but how people perceive the situation.”
Official statistics say most violent crime is down in Chemnitz, as in the rest of Germany. It’s true that more people are being charged with sexual assault, but that’s because the sexual assault laws were tightened in 2016, not because the country has grown more dangerous for women.
Social media is partly to blame, said Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer who brought a landmark lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of a Syrian refugee smeared online. His litigation helped lead Germany to pass one of the world’s most aggressive laws targeting hate speech last year, but even now false information can still whip up hate online at blinding speed.
“People don’t trust the media; they only believe what they see in their timeline,” Jun said. “Until we get control back of our timeline, people will keep believing fake news. There’s no point in having fact-checkers in the regular media, because people don’t believe them.”
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
One of the engines for pumping out false information about the Chemnitz killing was the Facebook page of a group called Pro-Chemnitz, which has three seats on the local city council and organized the protest on Monday that ended in mob violence. In calling for the protest, it claimed the victim in Sunday’s stabbing was “a brave helper who lost his life trying to protect a woman.” The post is still online.
The group knows just how important Facebook is to its political fortunes. “We are completely social-media based,” said Benjamin Jahn Zschocke, the group’s spokesperson. “If our Facebook page were to be deleted, we would disappear completely.”
Even in death, Daniel H. has become caught up in a vicious online battle.
Nationalists have tried to turn him into an anti-immigrant symbol. But as a Cuban German, he is a poor poster child for the far right’s cause, and in another time might have been held up as a product of multicultural Germany.
Daniel H. — German media customarily does not name victims to protect their privacy — appears to have stopped updating his Facebook page some time ago, but it suggests his politics leaned left. One of his last posts was about a protest that began on Turkish social media, in which men wore miniskirts to protest the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman. He shared posts endorsing decriminalizing weed and mocking critics of Chancellor Merkel. He once shared a post that said, “Nationality doesn't matter, an asshole is an asshole.”
After he died, people took to Facebook saying they were his friends and pleading for others not to heed the far right’s message. “I'm asking you for one thing: Don’t let your grief turn into anger and hatred,” one wrote. “Those rightists using this as a platform are the ones we got into fights with because they didn’t consider us German enough. Everyone who has known Daniel H. knows, that this can’t possibly have been his will. Don’t let yourselves be instrumentalized, just mourn.”
The police have released information slowly, but many people have wanted answers at the speed they’ve grown accustomed to online, forcing officials to play a kind of game of whack-a-mole.
Daniel H. was one of three people injured in an altercation early on Sunday morning, they confirmed, but was the only one who died. There was no sexual assault. Two men in their early twenties, one from Syria and the other from Iraq, were arrested on manslaughter charges later that day.
It quickly emerged that one of the accused had been due to be deported because his asylum application was denied, but he was still in the country while this decision was under appeal. One of the accused also had a criminal record that included assault charges and narcotics violations, the German newspaper Die Zeit reported.
Their full names are also publicly known, though only because a prison official in the state capital leaked them illegally. Right-wing figures including a member of the AfD and Pro-Chemnitz immediately posted them online.
No one knows what will happen next in Chemnitz.
Federal authorities and neighboring states have sent police to Saxony to deal with the next protests organized by both the right and left. The showdown in Chemnitz could continue into next week with a concert organized by a left-wing band on Monday night.
But an AfD march on Saturday evening may be the most politically significant, with the party poised to make big gains in Saxony when the state holds elections next year.
In the statement announcing the march, the AfD called Daniel H. “the next, avoidable victim of an irresponsible government policy that accepts the multiple deaths of natives with icy coldness.”
The statement continues, “we want to mourn for Daniel H. and all the dead of forced multiculturalization in Germany,” instructing participants to march silently, dressed entirely in black.
“The cartel media have tried to make Chemnitz, the city of the victims, into a city of the perpetrators,” the statement said. “They will leave no stone unturned to discredit the peaceful protest. Do not give the press representatives the pictures they are waiting for.”
Florian Franze contributed reporting from Chemnitz.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 10, 2018, at 12:00 p.m. ET
KRAKOW, Poland — Tadek spent his teens scouring record stores for albums by the Wu-Tang Clan and other hip-hop artists in Poland’s medieval center, Krakow.
Tadek, whose full name is Tadeusz Polkowski, discovered rap in the ’90s when it was still a new import to Poland; communism kept the country closed to Western pop culture until 1989. He started recording his own tracks at 16 under his nickname and became nationally known in his twenties as part of a wannabe gangsta rap–style group that recorded songs with names like “The Hard Life of a Street Rapper.”
So there was an outcry from the mainstream press when Tadek was invited to perform at the presidential palace in 2017 to mark the National Day for the Polish Language, a day historically used to honor Poland’s greatest writers.
The performance looked awkward for everyone involved. Tadek had traded the hoodie he often wore in his videos for a pair of chinos and a mustard V-neck sweater, both of which looked several sizes too large for his willowy frame. He kept his eyes tightly shut, as if trying to block out the rows of dignitaries in suits stiffly watching on.
But Tadek was given this platform precisely because he was no longer the man who’d tossed around phrases like “fuck the police” in his youth. That day he performed a song addressed to his wife — but it turned out to have a surprise message.
“We are getting stronger, the family is getting bigger, without man and woman — the final extinction. Our sons are so great that I want another child,” he rapped, before apologizing at the song’s end, “You have one rival, forgive me — it's Poland!”
“Everyone who wants to control Poland ... wants us to be weaker, wants us to be not proud of ourselves.”
Rappers like Tadek reflect just how deeply the past divides Poland today. He’s reinvented himself in recent years as part of a booming nationalist rap scene. His songs pay homage to the Poles who fought the Nazis in World War II and the communist government that followed, while taking jabs at the mainstream media, liberal politicians, and the European Union. His videos sometimes rack up millions of views on YouTube, and he plans to put out three new albums this year, now supported with a fellowship from the Ministry of Culture.
His trajectory reflects just how much nationalism has transformed Poland in recent years. The 2015 elections were won by an aggressive far-right faction, the Law and Justice Party, known as PiS for short. The PiS government has undermined the courts, refused to accept the refugees required under EU rules, and opened a culture war by claiming Poles have long been fed lies about their history.
Earlier this week, the president enacted a law that makes it illegal to say Poland shared any responsibility for the Holocaust. In World War II, the country lost 6 million people, half of whom were Jews. Lawmakers want Poland to be recognized as a victim of the Nazi invasion, but critics say the law would silence discussion of the way some Poles contributed to the Jews’ deaths.
One of the biggest tests of democracy in Europe is now playing out in Poland — and a drive to rewrite history is at its heart.
“Everyone who wants to control Poland ... wants us to be weaker, wants us to be not proud of ourselves,” Tadek said in an interview with BuzzFeed News last month at his apartment overlooking the industrial valley that keeps Krakow smothered in a blanket of smog. “Pride gives people power to do something for your country.”
The night that Tadek’s parents brought him home from the hospital in 1982, he slept through riots outside their front door in which pro-democracy activists clashed with communist paramilitaries.
Shortly before Tadek was born, his father, a poet named Jan Polkowski, was imprisoned for seven months for his role in the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. After communism fell, Polkowski went on to serve in Poland’s newly democratic government and then a right-wing party that ultimately became part of PiS.
Tadek grew up surrounded by the memories of ancestors who’d fought for Poland. His parents hung a portrait of an ancestor who fought in a failed 1863 uprising against imperial rule by Russia. Tadek was told stories about his great-grandfather, who fought the Soviet Union after Poland became independent in 1918. He heard about his grandfather, one of thousands of Polish soldiers who fought the Nazis only to be sent to Soviet gulags by the Red Army as it established a communist puppet government at the end of the war.
So, Polkowski told BuzzFeed News, he was dismayed when Tadek grew into a rebellious adolescent drawn to “the way of expression that was used by black people in slums.” The music “did not talk about the reality he lived in,” he complained, and it seemed like a foreign subculture that “cuts you off from your roots.”
“It was also a rejection of my past,” Polkowski said.
Within a few years Tadek had started a group called Firma, rapping about weed and vodka and girls.
He saw Tadek as emblematic of a generation of young Poles raised under the liberal governments that ran Poland in the ’90s and brought it into the EU in 2004. He said Poland’s liberals only wanted to speak about the dark side of the country’s past and believed that “Polish identity should be dissolved into an EU identity.”
While his father wanted him to learn about Poland’s history, Tadek dedicated himself to mastering the audio equipment he’d inherited from an uncle. He recorded songs to cassette using samples from his PlayStation, recordings for children, and classical composers like Brahms and Beethoven. He was still in high school when he began performing live shows.
“I was fucking scared,” he said when recalling his first performance. “Everyone told me that I was really white in the face onstage.”
Within a few years Tadek had started a group called Firma, rapping about weed and vodka and girls. By the mid-2000s, they were playing around 50 concerts a year.
But everything changed for Tadek as he approached his thirties, when he decided to go on a self-improvement kick — to fight “not to be an idiot,” he said. His father had a library of more than 10,000 volumes, so he asked for some recommendations. And his father gave him books about Polish history.
Recounting this moment in his living room, which is decorated with the emblem of the uprising of Polish rebels that expelled Nazi troops from Warsaw at the end of World War II, Tadek grew angry about how much he hadn’t known about Polish history.
“Jewish people use the Holocaust for a lot of business.”
He discovered a past full of heroes who fought for the country’s independence — and decided their memory should be a resource for Poland today, not something to be ashamed of.
“What’s wrong? Why don’t we use it?” he said. Poland could have followed the model of the Jews, he said, who “built a lot of success on tragical history from years of war.”
“Jewish people use the Holocaust for a lot of business,” he said, like how “when you say something wrong about some Jewish people, it’s [called] anti-Semitism.”
For Tadek and many others, an example of the distortion of Polish history concerns the 1941 massacre of Jews in a village called Jedwabne. That July, a group of Poles herded the town’s Jewish residents into a barn and set it on fire as Nazi soldiers looked on.
Jedwabne was one of dozens of pogroms that broke out as the Nazis marched east across Poland, but a 2001 book by American historian Jan Tomasz Gross about the incident forced the first widespread discussion about how some Poles contributed to the death of Jews. A monument was built in Jedwabne, and two presidents apologized at commemorations a decade apart. But a government examination of the incident concluded in 2003 that Gross overstated the number who died and how many Poles participated. Many nationalists have since dismissed the book as a hit job designed to make Poland look bad.
Tadek claimed that Gross said, “Poles were the biggest killers of Jewish people during the war … that Polish people only wanted Jewish blood during the war.” In reality, Tadek said, thousands of Poles risked a death sentence by helping Jews escape the Nazis.
World War II wasn’t just a Jewish tragedy, he said. Around 2 million of the 6 million people believed to have been killed in Poland were ethnic Poles, and both Hitler and Stalin sought to destroy the Polish state. The Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in 1944 was the largest underground revolt against German forces in any country during the war — there were plenty of stories of heroism, too.
“We were fighting during the Second World War,” Tadek said. “We were the biggest losers.”
Tadek came to believe that powerful interests were trying to keep the truth of the past from Polish citizens.
He pointed to members of the old Communist Party who’d become part of the center-left party that led Poland into the EU, who he believed were trying to keep the party’s crimes buried. Other former communists have become powerful in the media, like Jerzy Urban, who was the press secretary for Poland’s last communist leader and now edits a weekly paper. Many foreign companies are now big players in the Polish economy, including German firms that profited during the Nazi era, such as Allianz insurance.
“If you want someone to be your slave, you don’t want him to be intelligent, smart,” he said. “How the fuck did it happen — people don’t know about the biggest World War II heroes?”
It’s not just the memory of World War II and communism that divides the Poles.
In 2010, President Lech Kaczyński and several other top officials died when a plane crashed in the Russian city of Smolensk as they were traveling to the site where the Soviet army massacred Polish officers at the end of WWII. Competing accounts of what happened that day are so far apart that they exist in entirely separate universes.
The official investigation by aviation experts and the government of liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk established that it was an accident caused by a rushed landing attempt in bad weather. But the leader of PiS — the dead president’s identical twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński — was convinced it had been an assassination by Russia and that Tusk was covering it up.
PiS hammered on the claim, organizing monthly vigils calling for the “truth” about Smolensk, while a new network of right-wing media outlets spread the conspiracy allegations. They claimed Tusk was a pawn of a hostile power, and charged him with treason when he later left Poland to become president of the European Council. By 2015 nearly a quarter of Poles believed there was a cover-up of Smolensk.
That’s the year PiS won a majority in Parliament promising to restore Poland’s pride and to keep out Muslim refugees. And it solidified its power with what opponents say is sustained assault on the media and the historical record.
If you think that the previous government covered up a Russian assassination of Poland’s president, then it’s not a stretch to believe that authorities will lie about anything. And there was a new network of right-wing news sites and social media accounts to convince the public they had long been duped.
“We were fighting during the Second World War. ... We were the biggest losers.”
For PiS members, the Smolensk cover-up was part of a much wider conspiracy by pro-European governments to lie about Poland’s history so the country would be ripe for foreign exploitation. They claimed liberals wanted Poles to be ashamed of their past so they would not fight back.
PiS’s Andrzej Duda, who is now Poland’s president, said his liberal predecessor’s apology for the Jedwabne pogrom “destroys historical memory.” A former PiS parliamentary candidate organized a nationwide hunger strike when the education ministry rolled out a more flexible curriculum in 2012 that required fewer hours of history.
Tadek’s first historically themed album came out at the height of this furor. He called it An Inconvenient Truth, because, he said in the title song, it carries a message for “those scumbags that destroy this country from the inside.”
“There is no consent to rob young Poles of knowledge of their ancestors,” he said in lyrics addressed to then–prime minister Tusk in a song about the curriculum overhaul. “Maybe he forgot that he is the prime minister? ... Do they love their country or Brussels more?”
The album’s biggest single was about the so-called Cursed Soldiers, Polish units who fought the Nazis and hid in the forests when the Soviets occupied Poland in 1945; they fought until the Red Army finally wiped them all out. It immediately racked up thousands of views on YouTube, and today it has been watched more than 4 million times in various versions. That number is more than one-tenth of Poland’s entire population.
One track told the story of Danuta Siedzikówna, who joined the Polish resistance as a nurse and supported the Cursed Soldiers with medical supplies until she was arrested and executed by communist forces. Another told the story of Witold Pilecki, a soldier during World War II who spent two years organizing a secret resistance inside the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He escaped in 1943 and fought with Polish forces during the 1944 uprising in Warsaw, before being arrested and executed in 1948 as a Western spy by the communist regime.
“Why did they not teach me about you in school?” Tadek lamented. “Today, the media and political elites — as if they are Polish — are constantly striving to deceive history.”
This led to the busiest time of Tadek’s career, when he was playing around 100 concerts a year. He also began working with a Krakow museum dedicated to Poland’s homegrown World War II resistance, and the city’s symphony orchestra organized a concert of classical arrangements of his music. Then came government honors.
Promotional copies of Tadek’s An Inconvenient Truth were distributed by Magna Polonia, a publication that is now a Breitbart-esque online portal run by a group called the National Radical Camp. Known by its Polish initials ONR, it takes its name from a right-wing group that sought an ethnically pure Poland in the 1930s.
ONR members have been convicted under Poland’s anti-fascism law for making Hitler salutes. But in 2010, a procession the ONR co-organized in Warsaw to mark Poland’s Independence Day became the focal point for the growing nationalist fervor and drew thousands.
“You have one rival, forgive me — it's Poland!”
Tadek endorsed the march in 2012, and said he believed that mainstream media coverage of the event was propaganda by left-leaning stations to make nationalists look bad. Last year’s march saw organizers describe themselves as “racial separatists,” openly use banners with slogans like “All Different, All White,” and give prominent speaking spots to self-proclaimed fascist leaders from other countries.
Tadek distances himself from the overtly racist parts of the movement but seems unaware of its reach. He said he’s never attended the march, but was certain that “most of the people who go ... are just normal people.” He seemed surprised when told that its organizers described themselves as “authoritarian” and that some marchers had used racist slogans and banners with a Nazi emblem. These “are things that should never happen,” he said.
The country’s right-wing media, which now includes the state-owned public television network as well as a broadcast empire owned by a powerful Catholic priest, seems to ignore or denies these facts. These details are emphasized by Poland’s major independent broadcaster, TVN, which is owned by a US company and dismissed by the right as a foreign agent.
Some nationalist rappers have zealously embraced their role as propagandists; some even call for violence. A group of rappers from the industrial city of Łódź were reportedly arrested in 2016 with a cache of weapons after releasing a video calling for a “Polish jihad” against Muslim immigrants.
Despite Tadek’s disavowal of the nationalist rap scene’s racist elements, he can’t escape them. When you watch Tadek’s videos on YouTube, the site algorithm quickly suggests tracks by one of the more extreme right-wing rappers, Basti, whose songs include “Stop Islamizing Europe” and who titled one of his albums Hate Speech.
“Our main role is to build good feelings about Poland, not bad feelings about the others,” Tadek said.
But the transformation of history into a weapon by the nationalist movement has helped Poland’s far right radicalize faster than seemed possible even a few years ago, said Dariusz Stola, director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
When the museum opened five years ago, he said, “I didn’t expect that you would see neo-fascists ... marching in the main street of several cities or present in church with their flags.”
Nationalists were very shrewd to turn every discussion of history into a test of patriotism, he said.
“It’s horrible and it will bring violence sooner or later,” he said. “Someone will die.”
Last updated on December 27, 2017, at 3:02 p.m. ET
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 26, 2017, at 10:00 a.m. ET
PARIS — The man the alt-right claims as its spiritual father is a 74-year-old who lives with four cats in a Paris apartment around the corner from a Creole restaurant, a West African clothing store, and a Peruvian supermarket.
His name is Alain de Benoist, and he has published more than 100 books in his nearly 60-year writing career that encompass topics from anthropology to paganism. As the leader of a movement begun in the 1960s known as the “New Right,” he won one of France’s most prestigious intellectual prizes, was a columnist for several of its leading newspapers, and helped build the canon of fascist and radical writers familiar to political players ranging from Richard Spencer to Steve Bannon.
His core arguments are at the heart of many nationalist movements around the world, echoed even by those who do not know his name. His work helped give an aura of respectability to the notion that European “identity” needs to be defended against erasure by immigration, global trade, multinational institutions, and left-wing multiculturalism.
Today, de Benoist generally avoids social media and remains very much a man of the printed page. His Paris apartment is a refuge from the country home where he keeps a personal library of more than 200,000 volumes, a collection so vast he says it has become a burden. His study houses an art collection that includes a modernist portrait of de Benoist with his face encased in what appears to be a mask of metal. A poster for a talk he once gave in Turkey hangs on the bathroom wall, opposite a poster featuring different breeds of cats.“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons.”
He now sees himself as more left than right and says he would have voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 US election. (His first choice in the French election was the leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.) He rejects any link between his New Right and the alt-right that supported Donald Trump.
“Maybe people consider me their spiritual father, but I don’t consider them my spiritual sons,” he said.
De Benoist’s views have changed a lot over his career, and he has written so extensively and in such dense prose that it can be hard to figure out what he believes today. (For English speakers, his challenge is complicated further by how little of his work has been translated.) He’s denounced racism but opposes integration. He rejects demands that immigrants assimilate or “remigrate” but laments “sometimes-brutal” changes they bring to European communities. He says identities change over time but wants them to be "strong." He disavows the alt-right but collaborates with some of the most prominent people associated with the movement.
Over the course of an afternoon, he grew frustrated with questions about how his ideas link to today’s politics, saying, “You treat the New Right as a political subject, but for us it is an intellectual subject.”
It wasn’t the far right that brought de Benoist’s writings to the United States. A left-wing journal called Telos, which was drawn to de Benoist’s critique of US foreign policy, first published his work in 1990s. Telos translated his Manifesto for a European Renaissance in 1999, in which he laid out a philosophy that has become known as “ethnopluralism” — arguing that all ethnic groups have a common interest in defending their “right to difference” and opposing all forces that threaten to erase boundaries between “strong identities.”
Whatever his intentions, this argument caught the eye of a new generation of white nationalists, in whose hands ethnopluralism became a kind of upside-down multiculturalism. They were not white supremacists, they claimed, but they believed that everyone was better off in a world where ethnicities were separate but — at least theoretically — equal.
De Benoist came of age following the war over independence for Algeria, which sparked a debate about whether Muslims could ever really be French, and whether France had made itself vulnerable by inviting them in.
After 130 years of French rule, Algeria had increasingly become part of the French republic, and Muslims increasingly a part of France. Algeria’s split from France in 1962 sparked tensions about whether French values could transcend differences of race, ethnicity, and religion. And the hundreds of thousands of Algerian residents — both ethnic Europeans and Muslims — who moved to France in its aftermath fueled a bitter debate over who could truly be French.
The New Right began as a cadre of young men once aligned with Nazis and fascists who believed these questions were life-and-death for the future of Europe. But they broke from the far right in the late ’60s, reinventing themselves as intellectuals, drawing on both the right and the left as they worked their way into mainstream debate.
It’s no accident that ideas de Benoist first formulated in France in the mid-20th century are now upending the politics of the 21st. And it is perhaps inevitable that the people laying claim to de Benoist’s legacy are dragging him back into the kind of far-right world he tried to escape.
De Benoist was born in the Loire Valley west of Paris in 1943, when France was under Nazi occupation. His parents moved him to Paris as a child, where he attended elite prep schools before entering the Sorbonne, one of France’s most prestigious universities.
He began his writing career at just 17, publishing a couple articles with an editor, Henry Coston, who’d been in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. Coston had been a leader of the Association of Anti-Jewish Journalists during the German occupation and published works like the pro-concentration camp pamphlet I Hate You. De Benoist said he was not aware of Coston’s anti-Semitism — he met him because he was friends with Coston’s daughter — and thought of Coston as someone who “mainly wrote about economics and banks.”
De Benoist calls his brief work with Coston a “footnote” in his history; the Algerian War was the conflict that defined his early career.
He entered politics in the early ‘60s as a leader of a group called the Federation of Nationalist Students. That group lent support to something called the Secret Army Organization (OAS), which united former soldiers, fascists, and champions of the French empire in a desperate campaign to block Algerian independence. As independence became increasingly inevitable, the OAS unleashed a terrorist group that killed almost 2,000 people and nearly assassinated the president of France.
De Benoist became close with an OAS member named Dominique Venner, who in 1963 helped launch a magazine with De Benoist as part of the team. Europe-Action became a key voice on the right trying to define what it now meant to be French.
Before the war, France had gone further than nearly any other European country in making colonial residents full citizens, according to historian Todd Shepard. Algeria elected 55 Muslims to the Parliament, including a vice president of the National Assembly. The leader of the Senate — and the first in line of succession to the president — was a black man from Guiana. France had also taken special steps to erase differences between European and local communities in Algeria, including affirmative action for Muslims in government jobs and a campaign to help Muslims “modernize” by casting off the veil.
But France’s rule was brutal, using torture, assassination, and collective punishment to crush calls for independence — tactics that made France a global symbol of the evils of colonialism. Even many in France embraced the cause of Algerian independence because they’d come to believe keeping the territory betrayed France’s egalitarian values.
The right took a different lesson, Shepard said in an interview. For people like Venner, the war proved that it was foolish to include “Arabs” in a European country, and that France was too weak to defend itself from the countries now rising in the ashes of France’s former empire. And with nearly 1 million people moving to France from Algeria in the war’s aftermath, they believed the question of identity would determine if France — or Europe — could endure.
“France and Europe must accomplish their nationalist revolution in order to survive,” Venner wrote from prison in a manifesto that cited Lenin, Hitler, and Mao as models. Force alone was not enough to accomplish this, he argued. The right must also win the battle of ideas, formulating a “new doctrine” to be “a rudder for thought and action.”
In this moment of crisis, Venner and de Benoist’s Europe-Action called for the West to unite as “the community of white people.”
Instead of the kind of nationalism that had led Europeans to fight against one another, de Benoist argued that they should unite around race.
“Race constitutes the only real unit which encompasses individual variations,” de Benoist wrote under a pseudonym in 1966. “The objective study of history shows that only the European race (white race, caucasoid) has continued to progress since it appeared on the rising path of the evolution of the living, contrary to races stagnant in their development, hence in virtual recession.”
And so he endorsed the kind of racial science that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust. “Replace natural selection,” he recommended, “with a careful communitarian eugenics policy aiming to reduce the flawed elements and the flaws themselves.”
De Benoist now disavows this essay and other work from these years, saying he “said a lot of stupid things before” growing disappointed “not only with the radical right, but also with politics.”
“For me, my intellectual life started in 1967, in 1968,” de Benoist said. “This is where I completely changed.”
In reality, the journal he started around that time published continued to write about “biological realism” for many years after. But during this period, he joined with former Europe-Action and Federation of Nationalist Students colleagues to form the New Right, which would gradually stop emphasizing a racial hierarchy and instead focus on “identity” and “human diversity” as social goods that must be carefully preserved from homogenization.
De Benoist went on to develop a philosophy that draws on — and challenges — both the right and the left. But his work’s key preoccupations would echo Venner’s revolutionary manifesto for the rest of his career: the beliefs that politics can be reshaped through the spread of ideas, that Europe needs to return to its cultural roots, and that identities must be forcefully defended from erasure.
He also dined once a year with Venner, de Benoist said, until his death in 2013. Venner died still trying to shock Europe into a nationalist revival. He shot himself in Notre Dame Cathedral, a gesture he said was intended to awaken “French and European memory of our identity” before France falls “into the hands of the Islamists.”
Like the alt-right, de Benoist’s New Right wanted to craft a new right-wing ideology to break into a debate they believed was controlled by the left.
In some ways, de Benoist was very much in step with his French generation in rebelling against authority. In May 1968, left-wing student protests at Paris’s universities sparked a political uprising that transformed France. Clashes between students and police in the streets of Paris were followed by a nationwide general strike, which brought the country’s economy to a halt for two weeks and ultimately forced President Charles de Gaulle into retirement.
De Benoist was in Paris for most of May and “shared the enthusiasm of ’68,” he said, adding, “I didn’t share the reaction of the rightist people who said ‘this is horrible and anarchist.’” He even dropped out of university in 1965, he said, believing getting his degree would be “some kind of collaboration with the system.”
He admired the tactics of the left, and it inspired him and other former far-right activists to undertake a long-term battle of ideas waged through a new think tank.
They called this project “metapolitics,” borrowing a term from the communist thinker Antonio Gramsci. They called themselves as the Group for Research and Study of European Civilization, or GRECE.
They were kind of a group of right-wing hippies. They organized solstice parties and sold spiritualist trinkets in their magazines. They declared themselves pagan because “the European peoples must draw from the origins of their spiritual identity.” The group, which was nearly all men, also embraced an ethic of free love in which “wife swapping” was common, former members said.
Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.
At one point, de Benoist even came to the defense of an author who celebrated pedophilia, writing, “Can one not have the right to prefer to stroke the hips of high school girls[?] … It seems to me, according to my scale of personal values, that it is more ‘scandalous’ to watch TV shows, to play the lottery, than to have a passion for fresh buttocks, nascent emotions and burgeoning breasts.”
De Benoist’s biggest enemy became liberal capitalism, which he saw as an all-consuming force bent on assimilating the whole world into a universal market.
But de Benoist’s writings from this period often stood the logic of the left on its head: Egalitarianism was the true racism because it sought to erase difference from the world. Democracy was the true totalitarianism because it insisted undemocratic systems were illegitimate. Individualism was robbing people of their identities because it weakened community bonds.
GRECE advanced its ideas through seminars, conferences, and an annual “summer school” that covered topics from the Italian fascist writer Julius Evola to neo-fascist alliances with postcolonial movements. The group had as many as 2,000 members by the late ’70s who organized local clubs around France, according to historian Anne-Marie Duranton-Cabrol. Outside of Paris, they were strongest in Mediterranean towns where the pieds noirs, the ethnic-French community who’d lived in Algeria for generations and militantly opposed independence, had settled.
The group’s journals, Nouvelle École and Éléments, did not initially sound that different from Europe-Action, and a lot of the same writers — including Dominique Venner — were early contributors. But by the mid-’70s, de Benoist had developed a new rhetoric of identity that challenged the left on its own terms.
De Benoist’s big idea from these years — one now finding new life today — became known as “ethnopluralism.” Instead of claiming Europeans were superior to nonwhites, GRECE championed the notion that all groups had a “right to difference,” and sought to appropriate leftist rhetoric about diversity. Whenever white nationalists today claim not to be racists — just people who believe that everyone is better off living with their own kind — they are invoking this framework.
“The diversity of the world constitutes its only true wealth, for this diversity is foundational to the most precious good: identity,” de Benoist wrote. He declared himself of the right because he applauded the differences between people and the inequality that creates. He accused the left of promoting the “homogenization of the world” in the name of egalitarianism.
“Nations are no more interchangeable than people,” he asserted.
In this way, de Benoist declared himself “against all racism” in 1974 and denounced “xenophobia, generating prejudice, discrimination, hatred, and dishonor all those it reaches.” He claimed common cause with anti-colonial movements and Black Power, arguing that leftist anti-racism was actually racism of a different kind. Erasing differences between groups would lead to what he termed “ethnocide,” “the disappearance of ethnic groups as ethnic groups.”
In that same essay, he lamented interracial sex because it would lead to a homogenization of humanity just as the world was filling with “the same cities, the same buildings, the same stores, the same products, the same way of life.” And he still defended research claiming black people had lower IQs, though he asserted that “all races are superior” because, in essence, each race is special in its own way and only its own members can master the best attributes.
De Benoist spun together right and left, taking positions that seemed counterintuitive so often that his critics sometimes suspected he was doing so just to avoid being pigeonholed. GRECE even co-opted left-wing lingo by rallying around “the right to difference,” historian Todd Shepard said. Shepard traced the phrase's origins to a group called the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action, which celebrated the right to sexual difference with a manifesto titled Three Billion Perverts: The Big Encyclopedia of Homosexualities.
This intellectual reinvention helped de Benoist break into the rarefied circle of intellectuals who drive debate in France. His 1977 manifesto calling for Europe to rediscover the “roots” of its identity, View From the Right, won an award from the French Academy, and in 1978, he and others associated with GRECE were hired to create a new magazine for the major center-right paper, Le Figaro.
This was greeted with outrage in France, especially from the left wing.
“A vigorous group of right-wing thinkers is now challenging the left’s longstanding intellectual hegemony, proclaiming ominous theories on race, genetics and inequality rarely heard since the dark days of the Third Reich,” wrote Time magazine in 1979. The French edition of Playboy began an interview with de Benoist, “They very nearly compare you to [Nazi Propaganda Minister] Joseph Goebbels. Are they giving you too much credit?”
De Benoist survived these attacks for over a decade. He began to lose his prominence in the 1990s, though, after a dozens of intellectuals launched a campaign implicitly targeting the New Right as a tool for “legitimizing the extreme right” and threatening “both democracy and human life.”
Some in his own circle believed the opposite: that he was so invested in pleasing the mainstream that he refused to follow his ideas to their logical conclusions — calling for the removal of immigrants. Some GRECE members defected to the National Front, whose then-leader, the openly racist and anti-Semitic Jean-Marie Le Pen, represented exactly the kind of old-school nationalism GRECE wanted nothing to do with.
One of his most bitter fights was with Guillaume Faye, who split with de Benoist in the mid-’80s as Faye began taking the kind of overtly racist positions de Benoist wanted to leave behind.
An unlikely hero in his own right to the new nationalist movements, Faye spent years as a radio humorist and occasional porn actor before penning a series of books calling for a “reconquest” of Europe from Muslim immigrants. Today, Faye told BuzzFeed News, he is a “drunk,” but he is still working on a book about Europe’s impending collapse titled The Future Civil War.
“I am racist, yes, of course.… It was a dangerous racism for the others" in GRECE, Faye said.
Almost as soon as de Benoist had formed his ideas about the “right to difference,” Faye wrote that this principle meant rejecting “a multiracial society” and forcing immigrants to “consider their return to their home country.” Faye began calling for “all-out war” in the ’90s, and de Benoist denounced him to the press while Faye was on trial for hate speech for his book from 2000, The Colonization of Europe.
Now, Faye sees de Benoist essentially as a cuck.
De Benoist “is a man of the system, not a revolutionary,” Faye said. “What I said at that time was get rid of [immigrants] first, and then we’ll do ethnopluralism.”
In short, Faye said, “I believe in the civil war.… He is against the civil war.”
De Benoist may deny paternity of the alt-right and the nationalist revival, but his would-be children are scattered throughout the West.
A new generation of white nationalists — including many in the US alt-right and like-minded groups growing quickly throughout Europe — have signaled their debt to the New Right by calling themselves “identitarians.” They want to be seen as standing for “ethnopluralism” rather than the kind of white supremacy once championed in Nazi Germany or the American South. Even some more old-school white nationalists have adopted the name, recognizing the power of rebranding.
De Benoist rejects their calls for removing immigrants and demonization of Islam — but the nationalists have used the ideas he championed to justify their agenda. And from the US to Europe to Russia, his name is a kind of touchstone for those claiming to belong to a better class of white nationalist.
In the US, one of de Benoist’s most influential followers is Richard Spencer, who, like de Benoist, had passed through elite universities. Spencer said he discovered de Benoist in 2003, when he was on a fellowship to study in Germany. At the time, he aspired to be a director and put on “crazy intellectual productions” of operas by Richard Wagner.
From the US to Europe to Russia, his name is a kind of touchstone for those claiming to belong to a better class of white nationalist.
Spencer recalled mail-ordering the translation of Manifesto for a European Renaissance and then repeatedly reading de Benoist’s only full-length book then available in English, On Being a Pagan. This led him to the other white nationalists that helped form his vision to create a whites-only “ethnostate.”
Spencer said he sees de Benoist, essentially, as a personal role model of how to make toxic ideas more palatable.
“It’s a lot better for these ideas that Richard Spencer becomes the icon of quote ‘racism’ in America in the [21st century] … instead of people who are goofier, not as intelligent, not as presentable or so on,” Spencer said. “Richard Spencer is a meme — I don’t think you’re being too narcissistic to say that … I need to take on that burden.”
By the time Spencer discovered the French New Right, there were like-minded New Rights in Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe reinterpreting their own fascist traditions. In a direct nod to GRECE, the Italians called their journal Elementi, and the Germans called theirs Elemente. In Russia, philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, who dreams of a Eurasian empire and once held a position close to President Vladimir Putin, called his first journal Elementy and listed de Benoist on his editorial board until de Benoist asked to be removed.
The spread of these ideas was limited, however, because no one was translating his work into English. That changed about ten years ago when publishing firms including California’s Counter-Currents and Sweden’s Arktos Publishing made it their mission to popularize the New Right in the English-speaking world. Their creators also launched websites that were early incubators of ideas picked up by the alt-right.
Arktos CEO Daniel Friberg said he discovered the translation of the Manifesto for a European Renaissance online as he was looking to push his movement from the radical fringe. Previously, he’d distributed "white power” heavy metal records and sold Nazi paraphernalia, but he shifted to create several websites dedicated to “metapolitics” that helped give Sweden an “alternative” media scene heavily resembling the US’s alt-right.
Through de Benoist, Friberg said, “I really realized what a treasure of ideas the right wing was sitting upon. It was there and then I really formed my ideological orientation.” Arktos is now de Benoist’s primary publisher in English, with seven titles in print.
De Benoist’s inspiration could also be found on a boat in the Mediterranean this summer, when a group called Generation Identity raised more than $200,000 for a mission intended to “defend Europe” by disrupting migrant rescues.
This group was sometimes covered by mainstream outlets simply as “hipster right” anti-immigration activists, but they trace their roots directly back to de Benoist, Guillaume Faye, and others who created the New Right.
Generation Identity began as the youth wing of Identitarian Bloc, which was founded by members of a far-right group that was banned in 2002 after a member tried to assassinate then-president Jacques Chirac. Around this time, de Benoist told BuzzFeed News, Identitarian Bloc cofounder Fabrice Robert sought him out to discuss “our respective political views.” Another former GRECE member, Robert Steuckers, told BuzzFeed News that Robert had attended an institute he’d created on the GRECE model in Belgium.
(Robert did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Generation Identity’s debt to Faye is clear from the call to action on their website.
“Our ideal is Reconquest, and we will see it through to the end,” the group wrote, borrowing Faye’s term. “In the face of the homogenization of nations and cultures, in the face of the tidal wave of mass immigration, in the face of a school system that hides the history of our nation from us to prevent us from loving it … Generation Identity is the first line of resistance.”
Generation Identity now has more than 250,000 Facebook fans split across several countries, and they are now making a push to expand. Several members have joined the National Front, including one of the cofounders of the Identitarian Bloc. Others hawk a conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement” — believing Europe’s population is being supplanted by immigrants — and has made their “remigration” its top priority.
And while De Benoist may have distanced himself from remigration, Generation Identity’s most visible leader on the international stage, Austria’s Martin Sellner, insisted, “We’re taking the ideological and strategic action of Alain de Benoist.” It was de Benoist’s writings, Sellner told BuzzFeed News, that “got me out of the old-right scene and into the New Right.”
De Benoist is weary of being asked about the identitarian movement.
“What I think is they’re really small tendencies, extremely small tendencies of the lunatic fringe, desperately looking for legitimacy because they don’t have anyone to look toward,” he said.
He points out that only a handful of his books, most decades old, have been translated into English, and not the ones he considers to be the most important. “We don’t talk about the subjects I write about.”
“What he did was crystalize in a really cunning and deliberate way … a fascism that doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck — it looks like high-grade intellectual activity.”
But he also helps give them this legitimacy. He spoke to Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute in 2013 and continues to work with Spencer and Friberg even after the two men participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed. He has done interviews with Russian Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin and the American white nationalist Jared Taylor. Spencer’s Radix press will even soon publish a book that includes an essay newly written by de Benoist, alongside one by the anti-Semitic author Kevin MacDonald.
Many of de Benoist’s critics on the left, like the British historian of fascism Roger Griffin, believe his philosophy is an elaborate Trojan horse to smuggle his true beliefs into polite conversation.
De Benoist understood better than most that the far right’s path to victory was not to “shoot politicians and seize power — we need to take over book clubs,” Griffin said. “What he did was crystalize in a really cunning and deliberate way … a fascism that doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck — it looks like high-grade intellectual activity.”
But the anti-extremist scholar Jean-Yves Camus, who lives near de Benoist in one of central Paris’s most diverse neighborhoods, thinks the truth is more complicated.
“I do believe that he is no longer a racialist,” Camus said. “He’s the only one on the rightest part of the political spectrum who’s worth reading. And not just reading — you can sometimes agree with him, his criticism of postnational society, globalization.”
But de Benoist’s “kind of intellectual extreme right is dead,” Camus said. “There is a second generation, but this second generation is Identitarian Bloc, and it’s totally different.”
De Benoist is, above all else, eager to see his worldview live on — and doesn’t feel responsible for the people who are helping to make that happen.
“There are many people who find inspiration in what they read in ... my books,” de Benoist said. “But that's the fate of any writer, of any theoretician — he cannot control the way in which ideas travel."
When asked if he’d considered withdrawing his books from the white nationalist press that is his primary English translator, he said, “Sure I could, but who will publish me?”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 3, 2017, at 7:27 a.m. ET
STOCKHOLM — The white nationalist Richard Spencer is partnering with two Swedish outfits to create a company they hope will become a media giant and keep race at the center of the new right wing.
It is envisioned, one co-creator said, as a “more ideological Breitbart.” Called the AltRight Corporation, it links Spencer with Arktos Media, a publishing house begun in Sweden to print English-language editions of esoteric nationalist books from many countries. The other Swedish partner is Red Ice, a video and podcast platform featuring white nationalists from around the globe.
It was natural for Spencer to turn to Swedes as partners in the new enterprise, given the country’s history as an exporter of white nationalist ideas. But forging formal bonds between nationalists across the Atlantic makes even more sense today, when the politics of Northern Europe is heavily driving the politics of immigration and Islam in the United States.
Sweden has been a key center of white nationalism for decades. In the 1990s, it was a world capital of “white power” heavy metal bands; today, it teems with websites and podcasts promoting a new language of white identity. Nationalists have built this network in a country that immigration opponents worldwide have been closely watching with the belief that it will be the first Western nation to collapse beneath the weight of Muslim immigration.
“It's almost like Sweden is the most alt-right.”
With a population of just under 10 million, Sweden accepted around 240,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 and 2015, the largest number per capita of any nation in Europe. Sweden also has one of the fastest-growing nationalist parties, the Sweden Democrats, which grew out of skinhead and neo-Nazi circles in the 1990s and is now polling as Sweden’s second-largest party.
Spencer would not discuss details about the AltRight Corporation’s funding, but told BuzzFeed News he was devoting all of the resources that once fed his National Policy Institute to the project, totaling “six figures.” The National Policy Institute’s longtime backer William Regnery II — a member of the family behind conservative company Regnery Publishing — said in an email to BuzzFeed News that he had made the largest contribution to its startup capital.
For Spencer, this is partly a play to reclaim his place in the nationalist vanguard that helped elect Donald Trump but has since kicked him to the curb. Spencer coined the term “alt-right,” but he has always been small-time compared to outlets like Breitbart and Infowars. He lost what little cachet he had among more mainstream fellow travelers when The Atlantic captured video of him leading a Nazi-esque “Hail Trump” salute in November. By the time an AltRight Corporation board member formally unveiled its creation at a February conference in Stockholm, many Americans thought of Spencer as the racist who got punched on camera during Trump’s inauguration.
Spencer, who now wears what he calls “Clark Kent glasses” to avoid being recognized on the street and punched again, told BuzzFeed News that the immediate goal of the new company was to “displace the conservative movement” in favor of his brand of nationalism — which aims to create a white “ethno state.” Though it would look like a news site, he said, the new Altright.com would “create a consciousness that something like an ethno state would be possible when the contingencies of history allow.”
And why Sweden? In all of Europe, Spencer said, “It's almost like Sweden is the most alt-right.”
Sweden’s leaders and major news outlets were caught completely off guard when Trump said at a February rally, “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. … They took in large numbers [of immigrants]. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”
There had been no terrorist attack the night before, Trump clarified on Twitter the next day. He was instead referring to a segment on Fox News with an American discussing his film claiming Swedish police were covering up a wave of immigrant crime.
Swedish politicians and newspapers scrambled to disprove Trump’s assertion, but nationalist outlets were more than ready for a moment like this. Sweden had become a well-established punching bag for the American right, who view it as the pinnacle of progressive smugness and who delight in mocking trends like transgender-friendly restrooms and gender-neutral pronouns. When Sweden’s leaders welcomed refugees in 2014 and 2015, it offered the perfect laboratory for the American right to prove that progressive idealism would inevitably cause disaster at the hands of Muslim immigrants.
“There is a sort of sick interest there, but there is also, I believe, an unconscious desire among many in the Alt-Right for them to be made an example of,” said Andrew Anglin, of the unapologetically racist website the Daily Stormer, who had been describing this refugee policy as genocide against Swedes as far back as 2013. “Sweden is set to be the first white country to commit suicide through immigration. ... The Islamic revolutions in Europe are going to be very painful, and they are going to be bloody, and I think that after one has taken place, the populations in the rest of Europe and in the diaspora will be ready for reevaluating what we are doing to our countries and why we are doing it.”
Most anti-immigrant conservatives would repudiate Anglin’s brand of trolling racism, but even they often single out Sweden as a warning to the West.
Breitbart has produced hundreds of stories about Sweden in the past several years, with headlines like “Sweden ‘Facing Collapse’ Thanks to Migrant Influx, Foreign Minister Warns” and “Europe’s Rape Epidemic: Western Women Will Be Sacrificed at the Altar of Mass Migration.” Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and then-representative Mike Pompeo (who is now CIA director) published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal after a visit to Scandinavia in 2016, writing that Sweden’s “radical policy occurred with little debate because political correctness pervades Sweden” and that “Sweden’s failures have been repeated in Germany, France, Austria and elsewhere.”
Breitbart has produced hundreds of stories about Sweden in the past several years.
Some in Sweden shared their views and felt their opinions were deliberately censored by the major news outlets. So, like the American alt-right, they started building communities online. The Reddit-like platform Flashback had forums on immigration as early as 2007 with threads to highlight immigrant crimes and to denounce mainstream journalists as “racists who hate Swedes.” A recent study found that half of Swedes get their news from what are known as "alternative" sites, and 1 in 5 say they don’t trust the traditional media at all. (That’s about the same level of distrust as the Pew Research Center found in the US last July.)
The problem for those who had been certain Sweden would implode is that neither law enforcement nor news outlets ever reported a crisis. Swedish officials and mainstream newspapers say that’s because there isn’t data showing that immigration had caused a major spike in crime. Immigration opponents say there is a cover-up — they claim trends in the same statistics actually show a spike in crime. And they see the fact that the police don’t report the national origin of criminal suspects as evidence that officials are intentionally hiding the problem.
This turned the debate into a fight of anecdotal reporting. Mainstream newspapers didn’t pay a lot of attention to isolated crimes — whether car burnings or sexual assaults — because they don’t see them as part of a bigger news story. News outlets also don’t routinely report a suspect’s ethnicity or national origin, in keeping with ethics guidelines that say not to include such information when it is "irrelevant." So alternative sites started writing about them one by one, feeding the idea that the mainstream media has been covering up the truth.
One of the biggest of these alternative outlets is called Avpixlat — which means “unpixelated” — a name that takes a dig at what immigration opponents say is a key tactic in covering up immigrant crimes: News outlets generally pixelate the images of alleged criminals, a practice intended to avoid libeling someone who might turn out to be innocent. Critics say they’re trying to hide skin color, which might reveal a suspect's ethnic background.
“The media establishment in Sweden is totally liberal-left,” said Avpixlat publisher Mats Dagerlind during a March interview in his apartment overlooking downtown Stockholm. His shoulder-length blonde hair and earrings give him the look of an aging rocker — he plays bass and has a home recording studio — and he wears a Hammer of Thor around his neck, a symbol used by revivalists of ancient Nordic religion and an emblem sometimes used by white supremacists.
“We accuse establishment media for spreading fake news and they throw the accusation back at us,” Dagerlind said.
Avpixlat has published some unquestionably fake news, most recently when it ran a photograph of someone it claimed was the Uzbek man who crashed a truck into a crowd in central Stockholm in an April 7 terrorist attack that killed five people; the photo was of someone else entirely. It also recently published a column outlining a widespread anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews conspired to promote multiculturalism in the 1960s so that Sweden would no longer be Swedish.
Dagerlind said he felt Trump’s comments about Sweden and the international scrutiny that followed had helped them get the upper hand in the fight over whose news is fake. He felt they’d been painted as peddlers of a “big conspiracy theory in Sweden that the media isn’t reporting fairly,” but now that the debate has spilled over to the English-language media — whether it’s major TV outlets or Breitbart — it's impossible for them to be dismissed.
But Sweden’s leaders — and major media outlets — think this assertion is ridiculous.
“They're painting a picture of, 'No one is listening to us, our agenda is not being referred to,' and so on — it's their way of treating themselves as victims in the debate,” Sweden’s immigration minister, Morgan Johansson, told BuzzFeed News. “Well, that's their narrative ... [but] no other issue has been more covered in the past years.”
The leaders of the new right-wing media in the US and UK have been sending help to bolster like-minded Swedes. In the hours after Trump’s rally in February, Paul Joseph Watson, a popular British anti-Muslim YouTube personality and editor with the US site Infowars, offered to pay for any “journalist claiming Sweden is safe” to visit the country’s “crime ridden migrant suburbs.” Former Vice reporter Tim Pool took Watson’s money and used it to jump-start a crowdfunding campaign he’d launched for a project called “Investigating Swedish Crime Wave.”
Right-wing sites from Spencer’s brand-new Altright.com to Breitbart closely watched Pool’s daily dispatches, which at first showed Sweden’s immigrant suburbs to be pretty calm. Pool finally gave them a video to cheer about when the police stopped him from recording and escorted him from a Stockholm suburb — off camera, Pool said, men were beginning to put on masks and the police warned the situation could turn violent.
Pool was being guided that day by Chang Frick of an alternative site called Nyheter Idag. Pool did not disclose that Frick had once been elected to a local office as a member of the nationalist Sweden Democrat party, or that Frick was asked to start Nyheter Idag by a senior Sweden Democrat member of Parliament named Kent Ekeroth. (Pool told BuzzFeed News these were facts he didn't know.)
The alternative media infrastructure in Sweden today is as big and fractious as the new right-wing media is in the US. It ranges from Nyheter Idag, which is less reflexively anti-immigrant and does real reporting on things like car burnings in Stockholm’s immigrant suburbs, to the more ideological and sensational Avpixlat. (The two sites often feud even though the MP Kent Ekeroth is directly involved in managing Avpixlat’s finances.)
The largest of these sites today is called Fria Tider (Free Times) — which was created by a faction that broke from the Sweden Democrats after the party dropped its call for non-European immigrants to be removed from Sweden.
The diverse alternative-media landscape has created an ecosystem where the most extreme ideas can flourish and break into the mainstream.
Take the case of Ingrid Carlqvist, whom Fox Business presented as a “Swedish columnist” in a segment on Feb. 21 after Trump’s Sweden remark. She once worked for mainstream papers, then moved on to “counter-jihadist” projects and collaborated with an editor of a Sweden Democrat–funded magazine.
Carlqvist told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview from her home in southern Sweden that she is also compiling evidence that “Jewish leaders” were on the front lines of “changing Sweden from homogenous to multicultural society.” She also recently questioned the Holocaust on Twitter and was a guest on a podcast produced by a self-proclaimed Nazi organization.
“We have to get as many Muslims as possible to want to move from Sweden,” she said in that broadcast. “After that, all politicians, journalists, organizations, and groups who contributed to making this possible will be put on trial ... for treason.”
She also is also producing a “Norse News” video series with Red Ice creator Henrik Palmgren, who serves as the AltRight Corporation’s media director.
It’s not hard for Swedish alternative media figures to get their message into the international conversation, Palmgren told BuzzFeed News.
“There are simply so many people on the international stage, America included, that are interested in what is happening in Sweden and why…you realize that even talking about the subject is going to give you an amount of listener and viewership that maybe another country wouldn’t do,” Palmgren said via Skype from his studio near Gothenburg, sporting a side-shave haircut like Spencer’s and a Hammer of Thor necklace like Dagerlind’s.
The alternative media is fighting an “information war” against their government in the international press, he said.
“It’s part of the strategic battle, if you will — the war of ideas,” Palmgren said. “We’re a media outlet that provides a service, which is to give people an idea of what many of these, you know, ‘horrible evil people’ actually think and what they say.”
One of the original “horrible evil people” of the Swedish internet, Daniel Friberg, is co-editing the new AltRight Corporation site with Richard Spencer.
In a career spanning two decades, Friberg helped reshape the landscape of Swedish nationalism from a fringe world of skinheads to a multimedia movement that has transformed national politics.
“Media organizations are the new structure of the [nationalist] scene — it’s not political parties, and it’s not record labels, and it’s not music magazines,” said University of Colorado professor Benjamin Teitelbaum, who charts the modern history of Swedish nationalism in his book Lions of the North. “You can trace the history of the radical right of the North just by looking at what [Friberg’s] done.”
Today, Friberg runs Arktos Media. He began his publishing career when he was just 18 years old, putting out a magazine under a pseudonym borrowed from a former leader of Sweden’s fascist party. But in the mid-2000s he embraced a new vision of white nationalism and discovered the power of the internet to get around established media.
“I’m kind of the Bill Gates of the Swedish alt-right,” he quipped during a phone interview from Budapest, where he now lives.
Swedish nationalist circles of the 1990s were mostly a fringe world of street gangs that openly displayed their Nazi and fascist sympathies. Friberg founded his first company, the Nordic Press, in 2001 to publish books, but its lifeblood was selling the “white power” records popular among skinheads, who saw themselves as the “foot soldiers” for the Sweden Democrats, a former leader told BuzzFeed News.
But Friberg came to believe that skinhead fashion was, in his words, “retarded” and that neo-Nazis’ “obsession with the second world war and the Third Reich” was “totally counterproductive.” He wanted a more intellectual kind of nationalism, one framed in a way that could gain traction in modern Sweden. Before nationalists could take political power, he believed, they first had to win the battle of ideas. And he arrived at this view just as the world was realizing the power social media had to upend public debate.
Friberg’s political transformation came in 2004, when he discovered the same school of thought that shaped Spencer’s worldview in the US. Called “identitarianism,” its founders said they rejected racism and recast nationalism using the logic of multiculturalism turned inside out. They argued that Europeans — like everyone else — have a “right to difference” that is threatened by waves of immigrants.
“I don’t believe in white supremacy — I believe in ethnopluralism,” Friberg said. “It means that every people and every ethnic group in the world has a right to self-determination and autonomy without anyone being superior or trying to force their will upon them.”
Identitarians also put winning at what they called “metapolitics” — changing the debate — ahead of politics. Friberg made that his mission in the mid-2000s by launching several websites in quick succession. There was a social network called Nordisk, dedicated to “Nordic Culture,” that grew to 25,000 members before being supplanted by Facebook groups. There was a Wikipedia-style platform called Metapedia — with entries like one on the German Nazi party that omits mention of the Holocaust — that’s now published in 18 languages. He also started an “online think tank” called Motpol — a name translating to “antithesis” — which was read by at least some Sweden Democrat leaders, who started talking about “metapolitics” themselves.
Mattias Karlsson, who now heads the Sweden Democrats in Parliament, has said that he liked early Motpol slogans, like “100% identity — 0% hate,” and shared the site's articles with the party’s top official. Karlsson is one of the leaders who helped the Sweden Democrats win its first seats in Parliament in 2010 after the party rebranded itself as a “social conservative party with a nationalist foundation.” This vision leaves open the possibility that people of immigrant backgrounds can fully assimilate if their numbers are kept down. This is far more flexible than Friberg’s “ethnopluralism,” and Karlsson called Friberg a “fascist” during a spat in 2015. But Friberg helped teach the movement how to hijack the language of diversity to rebrand nationalism.
The Sweden Democrats are now number two in the polls. Their meteoric rise owes much to real-world events; even the most left-wing parties agreed the borders needed to be closed and new immigration restrictions adopted in 2016. A poll released after the Stockholm truck attack in April showed the party would get 19% of the vote if the election were held today, giving them a shot at being part of the next government.
But the party learned important lessons from Friberg. It saw that its rise was helped by the alternative media’s assault on the mainstream press, and even got into the game itself by funding a number of outlets of their own.
Friberg’s impact has been such that even the Nazis, who saw Friberg as a traitor for adopting the watered-down nationalism of identitarianism, have learned to speak his language. Magnus Söderman — who led Sweden’s largest Nazi organization, the Nordic Resistance Movement, in the mid-2000s — told BuzzFeed News that he had “a real concern: [The identitarians were] going to take all these young people and put themselves in front of their computers — how will they be able to stand up for themselves?”
But now Söderman, who left the Nordic Resistance Movement in 2012, has become a creature of the internet with a website and podcast of his own. The Nordic Resistance Movement itself has not entirely abandoned old-school street tactics — several of its members were arrested in connection with bombing a refugee center in January — but it is now often known best by the name of its website, Nordfront.
“I’m kind of the Bill Gates of the Swedish alt-right.”
In December, Palmgren invited two of Nordfront's leaders onto a Red Ice podcast to promote their first podcast in English, which they say is intended to “normalize National Socialism.”
“The globalists have done everything they can over the decades now to keep people away from ... this ideology,” Palmgren said during that broadcast. But Palmgren and his guests were hopeful that new media outlets worldwide were finally giving them the chance to be heard. “You can’t just politically change things in one country and then turn around. … They need to be shown the truth.”
Just before Spencer was punched on Inauguration Day, he’d been asked, “Are you like the hipster version of the neo-Nazi movement?” Spencer wants the alt-right to be seen as something entirely new; he said, “Neo-Nazis don’t love me; they kind of hate me, actually.” Friberg has the same concerns and said he was uncomfortable with Palmgren’s broadcasts with the Nordic Resistance Movement.
But, Friberg said, “The alternative right is kind of a big-tent movement.” His plan with Spencer and Palmgren for the AltRight Corporation is to provide a hub that can bring white nationalists together worldwide.
“We wanted to create something global,” Friberg said. “Who better to do that than us?”
DENIZLI, Turkey — A group of 12 queer Iranians in hiding in Turkey had gathered for a small party on Tuesday night when someone spotted the report that President Donald Trump planned to stop resettling refugees in the United States.
Several of those there that night had been waiting for their US visas, their cases having been referred to the US by the United Nations. Some had already been turned away from other countries. Others were still waiting to find out if they would ever get a ticket out.
All felt their dreams crushed as they heard the news.
“I’m going to die here,” said Hamid, a 36-year-old gay man who fled his home in northern Iran in 2014 and was referred to the US for resettlement in August 2016. He is one of many queer Iranians who have camped out in Denizli, a small textile manufacturing city in southwestern Turkey, to endure the years-long wait for a ticket to the West where they hope to build a new life.
“We are all gonna end up in this fucking Turkey,” said Soheil, a teacher also from northern Iran whose case is under review with the US, in a text message after the news had sunk in the next day. “Trump is signing the law that literally prevents all Iranian asylum-seekers from entering states except religious minorities. It’s hell. It's fucking hell.”
News of the order was first reported by Reuters earlier in the week, but the full details were not clear until President Trump imposed the rule on Friday. He did it through an executive order — not a law — that froze refugee resettlements for 120 days and then will admit only people from countries where cabinet officials certify “sufficient safeguards are in place” to vet refugees. It also suspends resettling Syrian refugees indefinitely, requiring Trump to personally sign off on resuming the program. It also cuts the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the US in 2017 to 50,000, less than half of the 110,000 allowed under a cap set by President Obama.
The new rules makes clear that Trump could bring an end to the international cooperation that helps refugees reach safety. The US is not just one among many countries that resettles refugees; it has a special role because it resettles far more refugees to its shores than any other country. In 2015, it accepted 60% of all refugees resettled worldwide, according to the UN. Other countries allow much greater numbers of people to remain within their borders who arrive under their own steam, but no country voluntarily resettles more people than the US through the international refugee process.
There had long been bipartisan support in the US for refugee relief until Republicans began objecting to resettling refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East under President Obama. This backlash helped propel Trump into the White House. Now he is shaking the foundations of the international system that help people fleeing war and persecution reach safety.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to ... provide safety to asylum-seekers.”
And it comes as this system is already stressed to its breaking point, confronted with more people seeking shelter than ever before in human history. Almost 65 million people worldwide had fled their homes as of 2015, according to the latest numbers published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Trump’s order also signals a major shakeup in priorities for the US refugee program if it does resume. Under Obama, the US made a priority of resettling people who were persecuted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The order from Trump, however, makes a priority of resettling those claiming refugee status on the basis of “religious-based persecution.” This appears to prioritize Christians, allowing for the continued processing of religion-based refugee claims during the freeze on resettlements only in cases where “the religion of that individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.” In other words, a Muslim from Iran might not qualify even if their claim is related to their faith.
The news caused anxiety among refugees throughout Turkey, where around 3 million people are now living after fleeing their homelands. Many who spoke to BuzzFeed News — including some who were in the process to be resettled to the US — appeared to be in denial. It seemed unthinkable to them that one man could bring a process to a halt that had been in the works for years under the auspices of the UN. Many believed Trump would only take action against undocumented immigrants.
“Those things concern the illegal immigrants, not the refugees like us,” said Ana, a lesbian from northwest Iran who was forced to abandon her then 7-year-old son and flee after her brother discovered her in bed with her girlfriend in 2014.
(All of the refugees who spoke to BuzzFeed News asked to be identified only by their first names or nicknames because they feared violence for being identified as LGBT or because they worried about retaliation from migration officials for criticizing the process.)
Nienose, a 32-year-old gay Iraqi who came to Turkey in 2015 and is now in the final stages of being resettled to the US, said, “It seems [Trump] is doing something for which he doesn’t know the consequences.”
Nienose now lives in Sakarya, a city about 100 miles east of Istanbul. It’s the second place he’s sought shelter in Turkey; he said he had to leave Manisa, a city near the Aegean coast, after his Turkish neighbors discovered pictures on his Instagram revealing he was gay “and they attempted to kill me.”
“Maybe Trump would think I ran away because I’m a terrorist or want to do bad things in the USA,” said Nienose. “If I am here [in Turkey] any longer and the USA rejects my case, I believe I may kill myself.”
“Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Neil Grungras, executive director of ORAM, an NGO that assists LGBT asylum-seekers, said he believes threats of suicide are credible. There have already been instances of refugees harming themselves after losing hope during the confusing and bureaucratic process to qualify for resettlement. He’s especially worried about refugees like Nienose, who were approaching the end of the process and were expecting to leave for the US very soon and now have no idea about their future.
“Refugees who have just been hanging on waiting to be resettled ... are going to become absolutely despondent — I expect people will commit suicide,” Grungras said.
A major slowdown in resettlements to the US could also have much wider consequences, Grungras warned. Turkey and the EU have been working very hard to try to shut down the sea routes to Europe that have brought more than 1 million people into the EU without permission. In March 2016, Turkey reached an agreement that allows the EU to deport migrants to Turkey, in exchange for cash payments and a commitment to resettle qualified asylum-seekers through legal channels.
But this has increased tension over migrants inside Turkey, and would-be refugees need some level of faith in the legitimate asylum process in order not to attempt the increasingly difficult sea crossing. Even if someone doesn’t want to go to the US — and most LGBT refugees say they prefer Canada or Europe because they fear gun violence, think the US is not LGBT-friendly, and want easier access to health care — most know another refugee who’s gone or in the process of going there. These resettlements were proof the process could work; if that stops, it could cause asylum-seekers to lose faith in the system.
“Turkey is ready to explode, and the refugee program is the pressure release valve — and the US led the system,” Grungras said.
The system is already bursting at the seams, derailing the cases of even the refugees who had the greatest reason to believe in a reliable process.
Two of those in this situation are a couple in their mid-forties from Iran named Alireza and Saeed. They had a comfortable life in the capital, Tehran, living together for 10 years in the building where they ran a graphic design and printing business. Then, around October 2013, Saeed’s brother hacked Saeed’s cell phone and attempted to blackmail him with a private sex video.
They first tried to pay a smuggler who promised to get them British visas, but he skipped town with their money. They then tried to get a Greek visa, but were rejected by the consulate. Finally they decided they needed to take the route familiar to many LGBT Iranians. Most know someone — or at least know about someone — who’s gone to Turkey, claimed asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation, and been resettled in the West, usually to Canada. The whole process usually takes two years, and Alireza and Saeed came to Denizli to wait.
They registered with UNHCR in March 2014, and learned in April 2015 that they had been referred to Canada for resettlement. They heard nothing else for more than a year, though they sent hundreds of emails and called each week trying to get an update. Finally, Alireza said, a UNHCR worker called him in November to say Canada was “closed”; they would not accept their cases after all. Instead, their case would be forwarded to the US, where Trump had just been elected president.
Trump didn’t worry them, they said in an interview on Monday just before news of his planned refugee order broke. “We knew Trump was the new president but that did not do anything to us,” Alireza said. “We are legal immigrants — that does not concern us,” Saeed added.
They were shocked when they learned of the report on Wednesday.
“We've been waiting so long the only hope that if Canada is closed, there was US. What can we do?” said Alireza.
“We feel like unwanted guests,” said Saeed. “Whatever I may do, however good a person I may be — a good citizen — the hosts still do not like me.”
Alireza and Saeed are not the only ones in this situation. Saghi Ghahraman, director of the Iranian Queer Organization, a Toronto-based group that supports asylum-seekers in Turkey with the resettlement process, said she has received more than 30 reports from people whose cases were pending with Canada who were informed their cases would be referred to the US instead.
With Trump in office, Ghahraman warned, “I think they are trapped there in Turkey.”
Neither UNHCR nor Canada’s immigration agency responded to questions about these cases. But migration experts say the global scramble to find spots for the overwhelming population of Syrian refugees has meant it is becoming harder for non-Syrians to be resettled.
“I would not be surprised if Syrians were crowding out Iranians in 2016 as the government was clearly prioritizing Syrians over everyone,” said Howard Anglin, who was chief of staff to Canada’s immigration minister before Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015.
LGBT Syrians have actually had a relatively quick path to safety in recent months. Many countries have given priority to resettling Syrians in response to public outcry as refugees of a war that’s estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people and displaced almost 5 million has reached European shores. And UNHCR considers LGBT Syrian refugees at particular risk of violence in Turkey, especially after a 23-year-old named Wisam Sankari was found decapitated in Istanbul in July.
Since then, ORAM says it has been able to help clients facing threats of violence access a small number of spots UNHCR reserves for “emergency” resettlement that can get them out of the country in less than a year, while the process for people who are not deemed high risk can take many years. Most of these fast-tracked cases go to European countries, because the US’s extensive legal and security reviews are generally considered too slow for urgent situations. The US already maintains some of the most extensive vetting procedures of any resettling country.
But even the European countries that resettle the largest number of refugees take far fewer than the US, which resettled 98,873 refugees from countries around the world in 2016, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration. The UK, which resettled the most refugees of any European nation that year, took just 5,213, and many European countries stopped accepting new cases in 2016, according to ORAM, while there are 1,500 self-identified LGBT refugees in Turkey registered for resettlement.
The best-case scenario for those awaiting resettlement under the Trump order is that the US fully resumes its resettlement program after the 120-day freeze. But even then, there will be 60,000 fewer slots to the United States at a time when millions of people are hoping to be resettled from conflict areas around the world. Canada, which resettled 44,741 refugees in 2016 making it second to the United States in the number of refugees it resettles, was already refusing new cases from Turkey in late 2016.
Australia was the recipient of the third-largest group of refugees in 2016, taking 11,388. The country’s internal politics make it unlikely for it to increase resettlements to pick up the hole left by the US. The issue of resettlement is highly controversial there as well, and the country is locked in a years-long battle over a couple thousand asylum-seekers who are confined to remote Pacific islands after attempting to reach the country by boat.
A US retreat on its refugee commitments could have a domino effect, worries Begüm Başdaş, who works on asylum issues for Amnesty International Turkey.
“If the US turns its back on refugees, then other countries might cite this as an excuse to shirk obligations under international law to provide safety to asylum-seekers," Başdaş said.
And if asylum-seekers lose hope in getting to safety through the official resettlement process, she believes more will risk their lives by crossing the sea in smugglers’ boats.
“If these [international] commitments [to shelter refugees] fail, the refugees who need a better life will do whatever it takes to reach areas where they think it will be safe and a future for their children,” she said. “People will die — that’s what it means in plain English.”
This story has been updated following President Trump signing the executive order on Friday.
Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon laid out his global nationalist vision in unusually in-depth remarks delivered by Skype to a conference held inside the Vatican in the summer of 2014.
Well before victories for Brexit and Trump seemed possible, Bannon declared there was a “global tea party movement” and praised European far-right parties like Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front. Bannon also suggested that a racist element in far-right parties “all gets kind of washed out,” and that the West was facing a “crisis of capitalism” after losing its “Judeo-Christian foundation,” and he blasted “crony capitalists” in Washington for failing to prosecute bank executives over the financial crisis.
The remarks — beamed into a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican — were part of a 50-minute Q&A during a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute that BuzzFeed News attended as part of its coverage of the rise of Europe's religious right. The group was founded by Benjamin Harnwell, a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva, to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics. The group has ties to some of the most conservative factions inside the Catholic Church; Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis, who was ousted from a senior Vatican position in 2014, is chair of the group’s advisory board.
BuzzFeed News originally posted a transcript beginning 90 seconds into the then–Breitbart News chairman’s remarks because microphone placement made the opening mostly unintelligible, but we have completed the transcript from a video of the talk on YouTube. You can hear the whole recording at the bottom of the post.
Here is what he said, unedited:
Steve Bannon: Thank you very much Benjamin, and I appreciate you guys including us in this. We're speaking from Los Angeles today, right across the street from our headquarters in Los Angeles. Um. I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. And it's really the organizing principle of how we built Breitbart News to really be a platform to bring news and information to people throughout the world. Principally in the West, but we're expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.
It's ironic, I think, that we're talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we're talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind's history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.
That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.
But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
"I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Now, what I mean by that specifically: I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.
I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist. I was trained at Goldman Sachs, I went to Harvard Business School, I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get. I specialized in media, in investing in media companies, and it’s a very, very tough environment. And you’ve had a fairly good track record. So I don’t want this to kinda sound namby-pamby, “Let’s all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around capitalism.”
But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing.
One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.
The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States.
However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom."
"Look at what’s happening in ISIS ... look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism ... at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook."
The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.
Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.
If you look at what’s happening in ISIS, which is the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, that is now currently forming the caliphate that is having a military drive on Baghdad, if you look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism. If you look at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook and modern ways to fundraise, and to use crowdsourcing to fund, besides all the access to weapons, over the last couple days they have had a radical program of taking kids and trying to turn them into bombers. They have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they've took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.
That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly.
So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.
They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it's going to come to Western Europe, it's going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we're now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.
"With all the baggage that those [right-wing] groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially— but we think that will all be worked through with time."
Benjamin Harnwell, Human Dignity Institute: Thank you, Steve. That was a fascinating, fascinating overview. I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated. Before I turn behind me to take a question —
Bannon: One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians' faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
Harnwell: Over the course of this conference we’ve heard from various points of view regarding alleviation of poverty. We’ve heard from the center-left perspective, we’ve heard from the socialist perspective, we’ve heard from the Christian democrat, if you will, perspective. What particularly interests me about your point of view Steve, to talk specifically about your work, Breitbart is very close to the tea party movement. So I’m just wondering whether you could tell me about if in the current flow of contemporary politics — first tell us a little bit about Breitbart, what the mission is, and then tell me about the reach that you have and then could you say a little bit about the current dynamic of what’s going on at the moment in the States.
Bannon: Outside of Fox News and the Drudge Report, we’re the third-largest conservative news site and, quite frankly, we have a bigger global reach than even Fox. And that’s why we’re expanding so much internationally.
Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.
The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos. A group of kind of — we're not conspiracy-theory guys, but there's certainly — and I could see this when I worked at Goldman Sachs — there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they're going to dictate to everybody how the world's going to be run.
I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don't believe that. They believe they know what's best for how they will comport their lives. They think they know best about how to raise their families and how to educate their families. So I think you're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that.
"Putin’s ... very, very very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of."
Now, with that, we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better. However, like I said, there’s two strands of capitalism that we’re quite concerned about.
One is crony capitalism, or what we call state-controlled capitalism, and that’s the big thing the tea party is fighting in the United States, and really the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left, because we’re not there yet. The biggest fight the tea party has today is just like UKIP. UKIP’s biggest fight is with the Conservative Party.
The tea party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things. And, quite frankly, it’s the reason that the United States’ financial situation is so dire, particularly our balance sheet. We have virtually a hundred trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities. That is all because you’ve had this kind of crony capitalism in Washington, DC. The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition. And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories.
On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we're winning victory after victory after victory. Things are turning around as people have a voice and have a platform of which they can use.
Harnwell: The third-largest conservative news website is something to be extremely impressed by. Can you tell for the people here who aren’t within the Anglosphere and they might not follow American domestic politics at the moment — there seems to be a substantial sea change going on at the moment in Middle America. And the leader of the majority party, Eric Cantor, was deselected a couple of weeks ago by a tea party candidate. What does that mean for the state of domestic politics in America at the moment?
Bannon: For everybody in your audience, this is one of the most monumental — first off, it’s the biggest election upset in the history of the American republic. Eric Cantor was the House majority leader and raised $10 million. He spent, between himself and outside groups, $8 million to hold a congressional district. He ran against a professor who was an evangelical Christian and a libertarian economist. He ran against a professor who raised in total $175,000. In fact, the bills from Eric Cantor’s campaign at a elite steak house in Washington, DC, was over $200,000. So they spent more than $200,000 over the course of the campaign wining and dining fat cats at a steak house in Washington than the entire opposition had to run.
Now, Eric Cantor, it was a landslide. He lost 57–43, and not one — outside of Breitbart, we covered this for six months, day in and day out — not one news site — not Fox News, not Politico, no sites picked this up. And the reason that this guy won is quite simple: Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor who say they’re conservative selling out their interests every day to crony capitalists.
"That center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India."
And you’re seeing that whether that was UKIP and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, whether it’s these groups in the Low Countries in Europe, whether it’s in France, there’s a new tea party in Germany. The theme is all the same. And the theme is middle-class and working-class people — they’re saying, “Hey, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I’m getting less benefits than I’m ever getting through this, I’m incurring less wealth myself, and I’m seeing a system of fat cats who say they’re conservative and say they back capitalist principles, but all they’re doing is binding with corporatists." Right? Corporatists, to garner all the benefits for themselves.
And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi's great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.
Harnwell: I think it’s important to understand the distinction that you’re drawing here between what can be understood as authentic, free-market capitalism as a means of promoting wealth that [unintelligible] involves everybody with a form of crony capitalism which simply benefits a certain class. And we’ve watched over the course of our conference, we’ve watched two video segments produced by the Acton Institute about how development aid is spent internationally and how that can be driven away from — it damages people on the ground but it also perpetuates a governing class. And the point that you’re mentioning here, that I think that you’re saying has driven almost a revolution movement in America, is the same phenomenon of what’s going on in the developing world, which is a concept of government which is no longer doing what it is morally bound to do but has become corrupt and self-serving. So it’s effectively the sa—
Bannon: It’s exactly the same. Currently, if you read The Economist, you read the Financial Times this week, you’ll see there’s a relatively obscure agency in the federal government that is engaged in a huge fight that may lead to a government shutdown. It’s called the Export-Import Bank. And for years, it was a bank that helped finance things that other banks wouldn’t do. And what’s happening over time is that it’s metastasized to be a cheap form of financing to General Electric and to Boeing and to other large corporations. You get this financing from other places if they wanted to, but they’re putting this onto the middle-class taxpayers to support this.
"I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that [right-wing parties] have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial ... My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?"
And the tea party is using this as an example of the cronyism. General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism, and the Acton Institute is a tremendous supporter of, and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.
Harnwell: Thanks, Steve. I’m going to turn around now, as I’m sure we have some great questions from the floor. Who has the first question then?
Bannon: First of all, Benjamin, I can tell you I could hardly recognize you, you’re so cleaned up you are for the conference.
Questioner: Hello, my name is Deborah Lubov. I’m a Vatican correspondent for Zenit news agency, for their English edition. I have some experience working in New York — I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers auditing investment banks, one of which was Goldman Sachs. And considering this conference is on poverty, I’m curious — from your point of view especially, your experience in the investment banking world — what concrete measures do you think they should be doing to combat, prevent this phenomenon? We know that various sums of money are used in all sorts of ways and they do have different initiatives, but in order to concretely counter this epidemic now, what are your thoughts?
"For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a [financial] bailout."
Bannon: That’s a great question. The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson. He was secretary of Treasury. As chairman of Goldman Sachs, he had gone to Washington years before and asked for those changes. That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity. And so the crisis of 2008 was, quite frankly, really never recovered from in the United States. It’s one of the reasons last quarter you saw 2.9% negative growth in a quarter. So the United States economy is in very, very tough shape.
And one of the reasons is that we’ve never really gone and dug down and sorted through the problems of 2008. Particularly the fact — think about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks' balance sheets.
In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. So I think it’s a whole area that just — and I will tell you, the underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.
Questioner: Thank you.
Bannon: Great question.
Questioner: Hello, Mr. Bannon. I’m Mario Fantini, a Vermonter living in Vienna, Austria. You began describing some of the trends you’re seeing worldwide, very dangerous trends, worry trends. Another movement that I’ve been seeing grow and spread in Europe, unfortunately, is what can only be described as tribalist or neo-nativist movement — they call themselves Identitarians. These are mostly young, working-class, populist groups, and they’re teaching self-defense classes, but also they are arguing against — and quite effectively, I might add — against capitalism and global financial institutions, etc. How do we counteract this stuff? Because they’re appealing to a lot of young people at a very visceral level, especially with the ethnic and racial stuff.
Bannon: I didn’t hear the whole question, about the tribalist?
"One of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department, 35 [bank] executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on."
Questioner: Very simply put, there’s a growing movement among young people here in Europe, in France and in Austria and elsewhere, and they’re arguing very effectively against Wall Street institutions and they’re also appealing to people on an ethnic and racial level. And I was just wondering what you would recommend to counteract these movements, which are growing.
Bannon: One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.
And that all trickles down to the man in the street. If you look at people’s lives, and particularly millennials, look at people under 30 — people under 30, there’s 50% really underemployment of people in the United States, which is probably the most advanced economy in the West, and it gets worse in Europe.
I think in Spain it’s something like 50 or 60% of the youth under 30 are underemployed. And that means the decade of their twenties, which is where you have to learn a skill, where you have to learn a craft, where you really start to get comfortable in your profession, you’re taking that away from the entire generation. That’s only going to fuel tribalism, that’s only going to fuel [unintelligible]… That’s why to me, it’s incumbent upon freedom-loving people to make sure that we sort out these governments and make sure that we sort out particularly this crony capitalism so that the benefits become more of this entrepreneurial spirit and that can flow back to working-class and middle-class people. Because if not, we’re going to pay a huge price for this. You can already start to see it.
Questioner: I have a question, because you worked on Wall Street. What is the opinion there on whether they think bank bailouts are justified? Is there a Christian-centered [unintelligible] that they think should be bailed out? The crisis starts earlier than 2008. What was the precedent then? What was the feeling on Wall Street when they bailed out the banks? How should Christians feel about advocating or being against that?
Bannon: I think one is about responsibility. For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a bailout. I think the bailouts in 2008 were wrong. And I think, you look in hindsight, it was a lot of misinformation that was presented about the bailouts of the banks in the West.
And look at the [unintelligible] it. Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.
The bailouts were absolutely outrageous, and here’s why: It bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management. And the management team of this. And we know this now from congressional investigations, we know it from independent investigations, this is not some secret conspiracy. This is kind of in plain sight.
In fact, one of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department 35 executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on. Because even with the Democrats, right, in power, there’s a sense between the law firms, and the accounting firms, and the investment banks, and their stooges on Capitol Hill, they looked the other way.
So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.
And I think that’s why you’re seeing — when you read the media says, “tea party is losing, losing elections,” that is all BS. The elections we don’t win, we’re forcing those crony capitalists to come and admit that they’re not going to do this again. The whole narrative in Washington has been changed by this populist revolt that we call the grassroots of the tea party movement.
And it’s specifically because those bailouts were completely and totally unfair. It didn’t make those financial institutions any stronger, and it bailed out a bunch of people — by the way, and these are people that have all gone to Yale, and Harvard, they went to the finest institutions in the West. They should have known better.
And by the way: It’s all the institutions of the accounting firms, the law firms, the investment banks, the consulting firms, the elite of the elite, the educated elite, they understood what they were getting into, forcibly took all the benefits from it and then look to the government, went hat in hand to the government to be bailed out. And they’ve never been held accountable today. Trust me — they are going to be held accountable. You’re seeing this populist movement called the tea party in the United States.
Harnwell: Okay, I think we’ve got time for just one or two more questions for Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media, third-largest news organization in the States. I know you’re a very, very busy man, so we’re very grateful for the time that you’ve agreed to put aside for this, to close this conference.
"I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?"
Bannon: I’m never too busy to share with a group that can do as much good as you guys can.
Questioner: What do you think is the major threat today, to the Judeo-Christian Civilization? Secularism, or the Muslim world? In my humble opinion, they’re just trying to defend themselves from our cultural invasion. Thank you.
[Question restated by Harnwell]
Bannon: It’s a great question. I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?
If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.
But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act [unintelligible].
"The way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States."
Questioner: Thank you very much. I’m [unintelligible]. I come from Slovakia. This is actually the source of my two very quick questions. Thank you very much for the work that you do to promote the Judeo-Christian values in the world. I really appreciate it, and I also feel that the danger is very high. I have two minor questions, because you have mentioned, in terms of UKIP and Front National [unintelligible]. From the European perspective, listening to the language which has become more and more radical from these two parties, especially before the European Parliament elections, I’m just wondering what are your plans on how to help these partners from Europe to maybe focus on the value issues and not with populist? And also it goes in terms — you have mentioned the involvement of state in capitalism as one of the big dangers. But these two parties you’ve mentioned, they actually have close ties with Putin, who is the promoter of this big danger, so I’d like to know your thoughts about this and how you’re going to deal with it.
Bannon: Could you summarize that for me?
Harnwell: The first question was, you’d reference the Front National and UKIP as having elements that are tinged with the racial aspect amidst their voter profile, and the questioner was asking how you intend to deal with that aspect.
Bannon: I don’t believe I said UKIP in that. I was really talking about the parties on the continent, Front National and other European parties.
I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.
I believe that you’ll see this in the center-right populist movement in continental Europe. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with UKIP, and I can say to you that I’ve never seen anything at all with UKIP that even comes close to that. I think they’ve done a very good job of policing themselves to really make sure that people including the British National Front and others were not included in the party, and I think you’ve seen that also with tea party groups, where some people would show up and were kind of marginal members of the tea party, and the tea party did a great job of policing themselves early on. And I think that’s why when you hear charges of racism against the tea party, it doesn’t stick with the American people, because they really understand.
I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.
"Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand."
Question: Obviously, before the European elections the two parties had a clear link to Putin. If one of the representatives of the dangers of capitalism is the state involvement in capitalism, so, I see there, also Marine Le Pen campaigning in Moscow with Putin, and also UKIP strongly defending Russian positions in geopolitical terms.
[Harnwell restates, but unintelligible]
Harnwell: These two parties have both been cultivating President Putin [unintelligible].
Bannon: I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he's got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what's called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.
One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he's trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don't believe in the centralized government in the United States. They'd rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.
"You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that."
I'm not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he's talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it's what can see us forward.
You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you're facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I'm not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.
Questioner: One of my questions has to do with how the West should be responding to radical Islam. How, specifically, should we as the West respond to jihadism without losing our own soul? Because we can win the war and lose ourselves at the same time. How should the West respond to radical Islam and not lose itself in the process?
Bannon: From a perspective — this may be a little more militant than others. I think definitely you’re going to need an aspect that is [unintelligible]. I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.
If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places... It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.
And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you've taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?
Because it is a crisis, and it's not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.
Bannon during his speech referred to Russia as an "imperialist power." A transcription error in a previous version of this story had Bannon referring to Russia as a "perilous" power.
Bannon and Harnwell refer to the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank based in the United States. This was mistakenly transcribed as Aspen Institute, a different think tank, in a previous version of this story.
Bannon says in the recording that the West is in the "very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." A previous version of this story read "end stages," due to a transcription error.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 14, 2016, at 10:12 a.m. ET
GAINSBOROUGH, England — If the 25-year-old had been born with a penis, he likely never would have been charged with sexual assault.
The events that brought him before an English judge in December 2015 began four years earlier, when he was 21 and going under the name of Joey Crislow in a Facebook profile. In the summer of 2011, he struck up a relationship online with a 23-year-old woman named Carol.
In an interview this spring, Carol recalled Joey’s profile picture showed a man who was tall and buff — “like an Australian surfer.” Joey initially said meeting in person would be difficult because he lived an hour away. But over the course of the next year, their relationship grew from chats to text messages to calls that would last until they both fell asleep. They traded “explicit” photographs, according to court records. At the time, Carol was three months pregnant and had just been dumped by her partner of four years, and Joey sent her pictures of his own daughter and said his ex wouldn’t let him see their child.
“How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?”
Sitting at her mother’s kitchen table as her child climbed in and out of her lap, Carol described how quickly she had fallen in love. “It was the most stupidest love,” she said. “How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?” (Carol spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that her last name not be used.)
Joey went to great lengths to avoid meeting. One time when they’d made a date, Carol said, she got a text from a strange number telling her Joey had had an accident and was in intensive care — but she called all the hospitals in the area and none had a patient called Joey Crislow. He avoided meeting her a few more times before she gave him an ultimatum: “You’ve got till next weekend to come down — and if you don’t come down … I’m not going to keep doing this.”
When Joey finally pulled up outside her mother’s house in October 2012, Carol realized why he’d been hiding — he looked nothing like his picture. The person behind the wheel was chubby and baby-faced, trying to conceal his features inside a puffy jacket and a floppy hat. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes when she climbed in. As he started to pull away from the curb, she jumped out in fear and ran back to her mother’s.
Carol didn’t speak to him for about two weeks after that, but eventually gave him a chance to explain. He fed her a story about creating the Joey Crislow profile as a scheme to help catch a friend’s cheating girlfriend. He told her his name was actually Kyran. He thought she wouldn’t have been interested in him if he’d shown her a real picture of himself.
It probably sounds crazy, she said, but she forgave him.
“I’d fallen for this person … That’s why, even then, I met up with them and I gave them a chance.”
Their relationship only lasted for a few more weeks but it was very intense. “Everything just came together,” Carol said of that fall of 2012. “It felt like I knew this person my whole life.” The lies were in the past, she thought, and now they “knew everything about each other.”
Kyran doted on her baby and he started sleeping over at her house almost immediately. But he was painfully shy about his body, sleeping in boxers and a tight top he said was to hide an embarrassingly large gut. They had sex just once, and both remember it as quick and awkward. Kyran kept his clothes on and pushed Carol’s hand away every time she reached for his penis.
At the time she just chalked the weirdness up to nerves: “You know when you get embarrassed the first time and you’re like, ‘Oh fuck,’ and you just roll over and you’re like, ‘I’m sorry.’”
But there were still some things Kyran hadn’t told her.
A week later, Carol’s mother caught Kyran in another lie: She spotted him working at the drive-thru window at a local McDonald’s when he had told them he worked miles away. Carol rushed to confront him and saw Kyran running out the back of the restaurant as she charged in the front.
The manager told her that the person wasn’t called Kyran, Carol remembered: “She’s Fiona Manson, and she’s a lesbian.”
As soon as Carol recovered from the shock, she went straight to the police.
Kyran told BuzzFeed News his story in May 2016, sitting on the couch in a row house off a fading commercial strip on the outskirts of Gainsborough, a town of around 20,000 in the countryside about two hours north of London.
Kyran said he met Carol just as he was fully coming to terms with being trans, and he remembered the weeks he and Carol dated as being one of the happiest times in his life so far.
Before Carol, he said, the only place he could be the man he felt himself to be was in online profiles, and their relationship was so easy precisely because she never knew he was raised as a girl. He seemed to speak forthrightly about much of what happened, though he glossed over some key details. But in his mind, one thing he never lied to Carol about was his gender.
“She was the first person I could be with in the same [physical] place and actually be myself,” Kyran said. “I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
He was in the middle of his medical transition, having recently recovered from his second chest reduction surgery, and was looking forward to having bottom surgery. But he said that it took many years to learn that transitioning was even an option.
“I had no idea that people like me existed — the only [trans] people I ever saw on TV were men turned into women,” he said.
“I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
Then he discovered the videos of Aydian Dowling, a trans man who became a YouTube star documenting his transition in a series of videos beginning in 2009. But once Kyran knew transitioning was possible, he said he was still afraid to take that first step — he chickened out on several doctors' appointments he booked in early 2012.
“My first thought was like, ‘How do you tell people?’... If I had got over that hurdle quicker, I would have done everything so much earlier,” he said.
Kyran said he’d planned to tell Carol after New Year's; she was so looking forward to Christmas that he didn’t want to risk upsetting her and ruin the holiday. During his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor described how Kyran came up with many excuses to avoid having sex — once claiming he’d “found a lump ... down below” — and the judge accepted Kyran’s story that he only gave in after she threatened to break things off. (Carol disputed this account in her interview with BuzzFeed News.)
In Kyran’s version of events, Carol’s mother was the one who called the police about him, omitting the fact detailed in court records that he tailed Carol from McDonald's to the police station on November 28 and was warned for harassment. Kyran described turning up at Carol’s mother’s house in January 2013 and refusing to leave when Carol wouldn’t speak to him, but he didn’t mention that he threatened to kill himself on her doorstep, according to court records, while “holding a knife as blood dripped down her [sic] arms.”
When prosecutors finally brought charges against him, he was stunned to learn that he was accused with assault by penetration — just a step removed from rape — which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
On June 6, 2013, Kyran pleaded guilty. He says his lawyers told him the prosecution’s case was ironclad and fighting the charge would only doom him to a stiffer sentence. And he was petrified of going to jail — he didn’t know whether he’d go to a men’s or women’s prison, and both seemed likely to leave him deeply scarred.
He pleaded guilty, but was still shocked that what he'd done was classified as sexual assault.
"It sounds like you’re going to pin someone down and do some horror to her, and it wasn’t that," Kyran said. “I’m getting done for something I didn’t even know I was doing."
British tabloids sensationalized the cases with headlines like: “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror.”
The British tabloids covered this case with headlines like, “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror” and “Mum Duped into Sex with Lesbian Using Fake Penis Vows to Get On With Her Life.” A similar case sentenced months before Kyran’s garnered equally sensational headlines, and one that came months after was summed up with phrases like, “Woman Used Rubber Penis to Pretend to Be a Man to Lure Girls Into Sex.”
There have been at least six prosecutions for so-called gender fraud in the UK since 2012, and they’ve mostly been reported as sex crimes that are so outlandish it can be easy to forget they involve real people. But they’re complicated personal stories when looked at more closely.
Most of the defendants in these cases have not identified as trans, or at least not tried to defend themselves against the charges on that basis. The courts have mostly seen these as cases of lesbians tricking women into homosexual sex. (None of the gender fraud cases have so far involved cisgender men or trans women.) But some of the other defendants appear to have been young women who seem to have been genuinely exploring their gender identity. And the prosecutions raise a fundamental question about the law of sexual consent: How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Britain’s legal system is also struggling with the questions of gender identity they raise.
On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ordered a new trial in the most widely covered of the recent gender fraud cases. The same day, the Court of Appeal rejected a request to reduce the prison sentence of more than three years in a separate case concerning Jennifer Staines, who pleaded guilty in March to eight charges related to three relationships she had between 2008 and 2014. The first of these relationships began when she was still a minor, and her lawyer said during sentencing that this was a time when she was also googling “transgender” and other terms that suggested she was "a confused young woman who is trying to come to terms with who she is."
How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Staines was 17 when she befriended a 12-year-old girl online. They met and “snogged” after the young girl had turned 13, but they never had sex. During sentencing, the judge said three months of her total jail time was to punish this sexual touching, and there were additional counts for possessing explicit pictures that the young girl had sent to her. Staines also pleaded guilty to having sex repeatedly with another girl closer to her own age whom she dated for more than a year beginning in 2012, and a third girl who she dated for several months in 2014.
Her attorney, Stephen Mooney, told BuzzFeed News that he believed the judges were somewhat sympathetic. Though Staines now identifies as a lesbian woman, Mooney presented evidence that Staines' gender identity questions were real and that the sex grew out of emotional relationships. But in general, the courts are more concerned with the impact on the victims rather than the defendants’ situations.
“The court of appeals understood that this wasn't a girl who's a predator, who was anything other than confused,” Mooney said. But the bottom line was that the complainants “had sex with her without a full appreciation of the circumstances,” and the court put “more emphasis on the deceit than why the deceit was perpetrated.”
Carol wanted Kyran prosecuted for the fraud of creating a false persona, but fraud is only a crime in England if done for financial gain. But the fact that Kyran’s persona was male and his legal gender was female cleared the way for a sex crime charge.
As Carol put it, “I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
“I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
These crimes have become known as "gender fraud" even though they're actually prosecuted as cases of sexual assault. The basis for these charges is a little confusing because there’s no law that specifically says that it is illegal to lie about your gender to a sexual partner.
The principle grew out of a premise that no one argues with: that a person has a right to consent to sex with full knowledge of all the information that would affect their decision. The Sexual Offences Act that applies in England and Wales nods to this idea by requiring someone to “reasonably believe” a partner consents before sexual contact. (Five of these cases were prosecuted in England; a sixth was prosecuted under a different charge in Scotland, which has a separate criminal system.) If that consent is based on a lie, it follows, the consent doesn’t count.
But critics say that the courts have selectively enforced this principle, ruling out prosecutions for people who lie to a sexual partner about things including their real name, marital status, or wealth. Many legal experts contend that this reflects the bias of the largely male legal system, turning a blind eye especially to the kinds of things men routinely lie about to get women into bed.
In one recent high-profile case, prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against a group of undercover police officers who had sex with women without revealing their true identities — including two cops who fathered children with women who believed they were in an ongoing relationship.
The courts have mostly held that the only kind of lies that can nullify consent are about the nature of the sexual act, such as breaking promises not to ejaculate inside someone or to wear a condom. Misrepresenting who you are generally isn’t a crime.
The gender fraud cases have put gender identity in a very special category, and the pattern is alarming to transgender rights advocates. They create a precedent that means trans people could risk prosecution if they don’t out themselves before even light sexual contact. But disclosing their gender identity could have life-or-death consequences. There’s a long history of what’s known as “trans panic”: A number of trans women have been murdered by sexual partners who discovered they’re trans during or after sex.
It’s notable that these cases are now happening in British courts, because they come as lawmakers are deliberating reforms that would make Britain one of the easiest countries in the world to change your legal gender.
In January, a House of Commons committee issued a transgender equality report, which essentially recommends allowing people to have total control over their legal gender designation, removing requirements that transgender people must submit medical evidence to a government panel before changing their legal records.
“It’s a central part of who we are as a country that we treat people with respect, people who have the courage to think about their sexuality, to think about their gender,” Conservative MP Maria Miller, who chaired the committee, told BuzzFeed News in an interview in May 2016. (The matter is now on the back burner in the uncertainty following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.)
Miller said she was unaware of the gender fraud prosecutions, but said “there are always going to be anomalies” when changes are made “in these sorts of areas,” and that shouldn’t mean the country should be “limiting people’s rights to be able to determine who they are.”
The gender fraud cases are partly a reflection of a general shift in approach to gender identity, said Stephen Whittle, a professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University and a specialist adviser on Parliament’s transgender equality report.
“The idea that you can adopt a transgender identity is much more pervasive today — there’s not the fear that my generation had, and we have lots of young people exploring these issues for themselves,” he said.
But, he said, the courts are falling behind. He pointed out that the judges who decided the defining gender fraud case were three men in their sixties all educated at Oxford, and they are “making judgment about the lives of people on things like they’ve never experienced.”
In England and Wales these gender fraud cases have been prosecuted under a precedent set in the Court of Appeals in a 2013 ruling.
The defendant’s name was Justine McNally, a girl from Glasgow who was going by the name Scott Hill on a social networking site called Habbo in 2007. She was just 13 at the time, and befriended a girl about a year younger living in London — whom the court calls “M” — and they developed a relationship over the next three and a half years, speaking on MSN messenger and by phone.
Many of the details of the case have not been made public, but the summary of events presented in the Court of Appeal judgment makes it sound like they could have been two teenagers falling in love. They talked about getting married, having children, what they’d do together in bed.
(McNally declined to be interviewed for this story through an attorney, but directed BuzzFeed News to refer to her with female pronouns.)
M alleged they had sex just once, the first time McNally visited her in London in March 2011, when McNally was 17 and M was 16. (Sixteen is the age of consent in England.) But their relationship carried on for several visits, during which “there were lots of occasions of oral penetration and occasions of digital penetration,” the court wrote. “They wanted to engage in sexual activity all the time.”
On McNally’s fourth and final visit, M’s mother found a bra and a strap-on in McNally’s bag, a discovery M testified made her feel “physically sick.” McNally confessed everything to the two when confronted — and showed them her Facebook page under her given name that pictured her wearing a pink dress and heels. She “kept talking about wanting a sex change” and begged to keep the relationship alive, according to the court.
It’s not clear what M wanted at this point, but M’s mother called McNally’s school to complain, and the school reported the sexual contact to police.
The appeals ruling suggests McNally never told police, her lawyers, or a judge that she wanted to undergo medical transition. She initially intended to fight the charges by claiming that M had known about her gender for about two years before they met in person. But in a turn that appeared to mystify her defense attorney, she withdrew the claim and decided to plead guilty to almost all the charges against her.
In March 2013, when McNally was 19, a judge sentenced her to three years in prison for six counts of assault by penetration using her fingers and tongue. In a deal with prosecutors, a seventh charge for penetrating M with a dildo was dropped — McNally maintained throughout the proceedings that this never happened.
McNally appealed her sentence, and her new lawyers hoped they could get the Court of Appeal to throw out her conviction altogether in part by arguing that the conviction got the law wrong: A lie about gender shouldn’t invalidate sexual consent.
There were only two relevant cases in which the courts had ruled consent could be invalidated by a lie, they said; both concerned violating an agreement about the sex act, not a misrepresentation of identity. One concerned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in which the court decided that it could be a crime to break a promise to wear a condom; the second involved a man accused of breaking a promise to pull out before ejaculating. In essence, McNally’s lawyers argued, a lie about gender was more like lying about your wealth than lying about exposure to semen.
The three-judge panel agreed to reduce her time in prison, but rejected that she had committed no crime, saying her attorneys’ argument defied “common sense.”
“Thus while in a physical sense, the acts of assault by penetration of the vagina are the same whether perpetrated by a male or a female, the sexual nature of the acts is, on any common sense view, different where the complainant is deliberately deceived by a defendant into believing that the latter is a male,” wrote Lord Justice Brian Leveson for the three-judge panel.
“Some deceptions (such as, for example, in relation to wealth) will obviously” not be the kind of lie that would invalidate consent, Leveson wrote. But gender could be fundamental to consent, Leveson continued: “M chose to have sexual encounters with a boy and her preference (her freedom to choose whether or not to have a sexual encounter with a girl) was removed” by McNally’s misrepresentation.
The Crown Prosecution Service — the agency that oversees all prosecutions in England and Wales — issued guidelines following this judgment urging prosecutors to consider factors including whether the offense “occurred as a result of the suspects [sic] uncertainty or ambivalence about his/her gender identity” and what steps a defendant “has taken to acquire a new gender status.” CPS senior legal adviser Neil Moore told BuzzFeed News in an interview that trans people were not being “targeted” for prosecutions.
But the McNally precedent creates tremendous uncertainty for transgender people, said Tom Wainwright, who represented McNally during her appeal. The ruling says “there’s no consent in some circumstances,” if someone is judged to have misrepresented their gender, “but we don’t know what those circumstances are.”
Because “sexual assault” encompasses a wide range of acts, the courts may have opened the door to gender deception prosecutions for sexual contact far short of penetration.
“That has huge implications for the trans community,” Wainwright said. “That definition of consent applies not just to sex; it [also] applies to sexual assault — which can include a kiss.”
It creates serious problems for the court to get involved in personal relationships on this level, Wainwright said. "My view generally on these things is, 'buyer beware.'"
By the time the sentence was handed down in December 2015, the person who had been charged as Fiona Manson was officially known as Kyran Lee.
Sentencing was delayed for 18 months because another woman came forward after Carol’s accusation made the news, saying Kyran had similarly deceived her. Kyran fought the charges and won, his lawyer said, because there was insufficient evidence he and the other woman had ever had sex.
During those 18 months, Kyran had begun to medically transition. He said he first requested hormone therapy from his doctor around July 2012, but it took until 2014 to complete the psychiatric and medical reviews required by the National Health Service to start hormone therapy. He had his first chest reduction surgery shortly before being sentenced.
You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do as a trans man.
The evidence of transition that Kyran presented to the court helped keep him out of jail. Judge Michael Heath said he would commute Kyran’s two-year prison sentence so he wouldn’t go to prison unless he commits a serious violation of his probation. The judge said he was lenient because he was convinced that Kyran wanted to “have a relationship as a man with a woman ... it was not a [ruse] to practise lesbian behaviour.”
Kyran is, however, now a registered sex offender. But when he spoke to BuzzFeed News in May his life had seemed to be getting back on track, including recently getting engaged to be married. And he still thinks it's unfair that if he’d been raised a boy and done the same thing — created a fake male persona and had sex with a woman — he likely wouldn’t have been prosecuted.
"You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do [as a trans man],” he said.
Carol also feels let down by the justice system. She was shattered when Kyran escaped jail, and now suffers anxiety so severe that she generally won’t leave the house alone. She questions nearly everything Kyran told the court, and now she lives a few blocks from the person she feels raped her.
Kyran “violated me, as far as I’m concerned,” Carol said. “People should be who they want to be, and nobody should have a right to tell them who they are … [but] I think what that person had done was completely in the wrong.”