Days before the events in Charlottesville, Harper’s published the cover story from their September issue about the prominent women of the alt-right: Women who want to bring others into a movement that is misogynist at its very core. In the piece, “The Rise of the Valkyries,” Seyward Darby profiles Lana Lokteff, the “queen bee” of the alt-right who David Duke has described as a “harder-hitting” Ann Coulter with a “movie-star quality.” Lokteff finds likeminded women online and promotes them via Red Ice, a white nationalist media company she runs with her husband. But for women to have a voice in the alt-right, let alone be prominent in the movement, is its own paradox, as Lokteff admonishes women to give counsel to men and embrace classic notions of femininity. I spoke with Darby about what it takes to interview a subject whose very existence appears to undermine her own claims.
I was listening to an interview with Elle Reeve, the Vice News Tonight correspondent who embedded herself with the white nationalists in Charlottesville, and she says that shared misogyny, usually online, is often what brings white supremacists together — that misogyny is a kind of gateway to white supremacy. How does Lokteff understand the role misogyny plays in the alt-right?
I think Elle did a great job in that Charlottesville segment; I was impressed with her access and poise throughout. The question you pose is the one that drew me to this story in the first place: How can alt-right women exist — or, going a step further, be vocal advocates — in such a misogynistic movement? The answer isn’t simple. Lokteff and other sources provided several different responses, revealing complicated — or confused — views of gender dynamics.
First, they do not agree that the rhetoric uttered by movement leaders like Richard Spencer is misogynistic. (I quote him in the story as saying that women should not be able to make foreign policy because “their vindictiveness knows no bounds.”) They insist this language is merely cognizant of biological, predetermined, symbiotic differences between men and women: Men are strong and assertive, while women are soft and emotional; men should lead and women should follow, providing their men with support and counsel. To protect the white race, men should run countries, make policy, and fight wars, while women should perpetuate bloodlines, nurture family units, and inculcate new generations with pro-white beliefs. I remember one source telling me what people outside the alt-right might find misogynistic she thinks is “just true.”
The corollary to this answer is that these women detest feminism. Many of them came to the alt-right as anti-feminists first, not unlike the men you mention. Their reasons were myriad, but at base I think a lot of them felt ostracized by, angry with, or otherwise disappointed in feminism, which they would define in caricature: an ideology that celebrates man-hating, racially diverse, fat, ugly women demanding whatever they want from the world. The women I examined believe that the progressive feminist agenda castigates traditional wives and mothers and depicts the white man as public enemy number one. (They would call that real racism.) They argue that feminism, which they see as the spawn of washed-up, Marxist, lesbian, and/or Jewish women in the early 1900s has perverted the natural gender order by convincing women to be more like men and men to be more like women.
When I described to Lokteff my personal concept of feminism — very roughly, it advocates women having the same rights and opportunities as men to choose to be what they want to be and do what they want to do — she told me that white women already had that before feminism came along, because white men have “propelled us like crazy.” Which, of course, circles back to the whole men lead, women follow thing: Women succeed thanks to men giving them the platform to do so.
Another answer I heard is that men’s rights activists (MRAs) and men going their own way (MGTOW), the most virulent of internet misogynists, aren’t really alt-right. Lokteff told me that to be alt-right, a man cannot disdain women; he must love and cherish them, because otherwise how will the white race reproduce and thrive? This raises all kinds of questions about who gets to claim the alt-right mantle, which was forged in the depths of the internet with minimal organization and maximum self-amplification. I don’t think men who identify as MGTOW and alt-right would be thrilled to hear a woman tell them, “You’re not one of us.” I’ve seen as much — but said far more crudely and cruelly — in some comments sections attached to Lokteff’s videos.
The last thing I’ll say about this question is that my sources insist that the mainstream media intentionally depict the alt-right as misogynistic in order to degrade it, to make it seem like it isn’t and couldn’t ever be a real political force. They want white women to know that the movement has their true interests at heart, that it’s a sorority where they can feel safe and accepted. Any which way they spun it, the responses boiled down to, “You’re wrong about us.”
So much of what you describe with Lokteff reminds me of the character of Serena Joy, as she is rendered in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Serena is as much of an architect of the new government that her husband is, but when the revolution comes, she finds herself forced to live the life she preached — one of subservience — shut out of the political life she aspired to. How does Lokteff understand her own place between femininity and power?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I started working on this story in January, and over the next four months I read The Handmaid’s Tale and watched the Hulu series. It was a bizarre experience to see everything I was researching dramatized in a worst-case scenario. In the episode about Serena Joy’s backstory, I had to hit pause on my remote because all I could think was, “Oh my gosh, that’s Lana.” The parallels were eerie.
I put the question of femininity versus power to Lokteff and she said a few things worth noting. First, she described herself as having “guy brain,” or masculine tendencies toward assertiveness and leadership, which makes her unusual among women. On the whole, she thinks most white women want to be beautiful, adored, married with kids, living in a nice home, and maybe fulfilled in a career. (But that’s secondary.)
The other thing she said is that the alt-right believes it’s currently fighting a war for the soul of Western civilization — a grand sociopolitical battle to save the white race from destruction. All hands are needed on the frontlines promoting the cause and recruiting acolytes, including women. The implication, I think, is that women who are outspoken today would take a step back once the white ethno-states that many in the alt-right wish to create finally exist. They would shift back to the natural position that they want — or say they want — to be in anyway.
Lastly, the women I examined view femininity as a form of power in its own right. Lokteff talked about white women — namely, their sexuality and vulnerability —as inspiring men to fight for and protect them. This is one of the reasons alt-right women place a high premium on aesthetics: The more beautiful you are, the more likely men will be to take care of you, personally and existentially. I heard several women say that they can get away with saying things that alt-right men can’t; they think that femininity makes racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise offensive ideas more palatable.
You describe an alt-right podcast hosted by a white nationalist couple (“Good Morning White America”) as having calculated “bubblegum” tone. It’s a tone that’s similar to Lokteff’s physical presence: equal parts cheerful and hateful. How did this come across as you interviewed her? Did it affect the kinds of questions you asked?
Another reason I did this story is because I wanted to sit down face to face with people I don’t agree with. It’s easy from a distance to dehumanize such people as thoughtless, malevolent, and not worth an ounce of your time. I wanted to challenge myself to see women of the alt-right as fully-formed people, no matter how much I found what they said to be abhorrent.
The women I spoke to were friendly, articulate, and accommodating. Lokteff offered to pick me up from the Charleston airport, to drive me back to my hotel after our interview, and to appear in a debate on Red Ice. (I declined all three.) I didn’t hide who I was, save briefly divorcing my husband on Facebook because he is half-Jewish and I wanted to maximize the chance that women would talk to me — not a foregone conclusion at the start of this research. They were aware that I am liberally minded and do not support Donald Trump. I was told that some of the women who declined to speak to me or never responded to interview requests did so because they saw on Twitter that I support refugees, which I guess was a non-starter for them.
I tried to be cordial and measured in my interviews. One rule I had was to not get into arguments. I knew there was no way they would change my mind, nor was there much chance I could change theirs. I also knew that I would be pointing out what I disagreed with — or letting repugnant views speak for themselves — in the final article. So I endeavored to keep the dialogues going for as long and into as much depth as I could, in order to wrap my head, and hopefully my readers’ heads, around their zeitgeist. That kept the combativeness on a pretty low burn, even if on the inside I was angry or alarmed (which I was a lot of the time). This approach only affected my questions insofar as I tried to pose them anthropologically, for lack of a better word. And because I didn’t get into fights, I was able to ask more questions than I think I otherwise would have.
The perverse side of all this is that the women’s friendliness is, to a certain degree, calculated. If they want the alt-right to have a real civic future, which many of them do, it’s in their interest to seem normal and reasonable. It’s also in their interest because, from a recruitment perspective, they want to make potential converts comfortable with the idea of becoming alt-right. They promote themselves as being on the side of truth and light on matters of race, gender, and nationality. They depict their critics as aggressive, nasty, and violent — hence all the rhetoric about antifa and other leftists post-Charlottesville.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that there are exceptions: There are online female pundits and trolls who are crass, sarcastic, and impatient with “normies” (people outside the movement). I certainly encountered some of that, though it came mostly from anonymous pundits.
You include in your piece a short history of women within white extremist groups. It seems like they fare best within tight organizational structures like the Klan. Does Lokteff see her role in the alt-right as an organizer? Or is she more interested in adding women’s voices to the movement’s purposeful disorganization?
She demurred about this when I asked. I don’t think she would ever outright say, “I’m a leader of the alt-right.” But she would say that among women in the movement she’s more vocal and deeply involved in generating propaganda. I think she knows that the more female voices she can harvest from YouTube, Twitter, Gab, and other platforms to promote via her media company, Red Ice, the better. Not to create purposeful disorganization, but to convey momentum. The alt-right is concerned with showing that it has strength and numbers. Its shrewdest leaders realize that a critical piece of the project is proving that they aren’t just a bunch of slovenly white guys on their computers in their moms’ basements. They want to seem like smart, virile white men and smart, beautiful white women who’ve finally realized what’s in their best interests.
As for the historical comparisons, I found these very striking. No, the alt-right isn’t a tightly organized structure like the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. It’s an umbrella term for a motley cluster of hate groups, internet personalities, quasi-intellectuals, and trolls — all of whom believe in the cause of white nationalism. But the way that believers talk about women’s roles in their movement today is very similar to how predecessor groups talked about the same topic. I found myself underlining and highlighting bits of speeches and articles from nearly a century ago because they rang so familiar to what I was reading online or hearing said in interviews.
You say that the alt-right is notoriously cagey when it comes to talking to the mainstream media. When Lokteff agrees to meet with you, she invokes a sense of female empathy—that you wanted to hear her out—and then immediately revokes it. (“It’s not because you’re a woman.”) How did this play out in your interaction with her?
She rejected female empathy, but then invoked it again when she compared herself to me, saying we’re both vocal women who are interested in politics. So her line on the issue wasn’t a straight one. One of the things I found most striking about how she approached the interview was that she showed up with her husband, without mentioning in advance that he’d be there, and recorded me at the same time I was recording her, on equipment that was much more sophisticated than mine.
I gathered that there were two reasons for this: First, she wanted to make sure she had a precise record of everything she and I said, so that she could call me out on any discrepancy in what I published. (Several people I asked to interview said they would only do so if they could get questions in advance, record me simultaneously, or respond in writing.) The second reason is that she sees herself as a journalist just as much as I see myself as one. One with an agenda, to be sure, but a truth-teller and muckraker all the same, out to upend the mainstream media narrative.
The majority of white extremists at the Charlottesville march were men — men who were willing to show their face in public, who were emboldened to transform their talk online into the public space. Do you get the sense that Lokteff and the women she mentors want to enter a public sphere? Or would they rather remain online?
Some do, and some don’t. Some want to do so now, others claim they aren’t ready. Some insist that they can’t go public because they risk their careers, reputations, and so on; this is a piece of a broader narrative they try to spin about the alt-right being the new counterculture, the renegades of the 21st century. But to me, the bottom line is that the internet is a fertile space for this ideology because it offers anonymity, room for hate speech, and connections across wide geographies. (The alt-right is a transatlantic movement, with a strong presence in parts of Europe.) Many alt-right acolytes feel emboldened by Trump’s election and are stepping out into the world, as we saw in Charlottesville. The internet, though, is home base.