In “White Noise,” Daniel Lombroso’s lively and disturbing documentary portrait of three alt-right influencers, there’s a riveting scene in which Richard Spencer, one of the rock stars of white nationalism, is getting ready to give a speech at Michigan State University. Spencer talks like a noodgy corporate assistant, and he has meticulous gelled hair that’s supposed to be his designer version of a Hitler fade (though Hitler didn’t have James Garner’s sideburns). In the white-cinder-block green room, he goes into a panic when he learns that there’s a riot taking place outside, with hundreds of students protesting his appearance.
You’d think he might welcome the publicity; Steve Bannon certainly would. But Spencer, who is basically an overblown trust-fund kid, is terrified. He thinks he’s going to be blamed for another disaster like the one that happened in Charlottesville, Va., when Heather Heyer, who was protesting against the Unite the Right rally that took place there on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017, was killed by a white supremacist who rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Spencer was one of the speakers at Charlottesville. For months afterwards, he was asked if he thought he had blood on his hands. No wonder he’s upset. “Do we have another fucking Charlottesville?” he says, stuttering the words with visible anxiety. If so, what’s he going to get blamed for this time?
His attitude might be summed up like this:
Yes, I’m a proud white supremacist, anti-Semite, and neo-fascist. Yes, I think America is a nation of “Europeans,” and should continue to be so. And yes, I’ll go out and speak this truth to my fellow alt-right activists and to all the MAGA faithful. But riots? Violence? People getting fucking killed? Hey, it’s not like I meant to hurt anybody!
The subject of “White Noise” is racist white nationalism and the people in America who believe in it, but the characters at the film’s center aren’t neo-Klan knuckle-draggers from the heartland. They’re hip, attractive, relatively young social-media-friendly self-promoters. They’re people who have turned their hate into a brand. They are also, as the film reveals, deeply shallow and self-deluded hypocrites.
In addition to Richard Spencer, the film follows the activities of Lauren Southern, a Canadian-born alt-right rabble-rouser who, at the time the film was shot, was in her early twenties; with her silky and highly personable demeanor, she suggests the Gwyneth Patrow of the ’90s playing Ann Coulter’s little sister. Rounding out the roster of rage is Mike Cernovich, who started off as a men’s-movement aggro guru like the Tom Cruise character in “Magnolia,” then morphed into a conspiracy theorist and “meme mastermind” (he’s the one who launched the fake-news trope that Hillary Clinton, in 2016, had Parkinson’s disease and other mystery ailments) and now, like Alex Jones, uses alt-right paranoia as a vehicle to sell lifestyle supplements.
In “Masculin Féminin,” Jean-Luc Godard famously called the youth of the 1960s “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” If so, then these are the children of Trump and YouTube. Call them “White Power Trek: The Next Generation.” If Bret Easton Ellis were to write an incendiary novel with three rotating protagonists, and they were media manipulators who had become alt-right celebrities, and he swam around in their heads to see what was inside, the book might look a lot like “White Noise” — which isn’t a work of fiction, though on some level you watch it thinking: It takes reality to create characters as rivetingly contemptible as these.
By that, I don’t mean to make light of the subject. The people at the center of this movie are vicious fanatics, with a “philosophy” that represents nothing less than an assault on the humanist spirit of the Western world. Yet they’re also fools, charlatans, and transparent hucksters. They don’t just turn hate into a brand. They hawk it like a product.
The talk that Spencer gives at MSU is to a very sparse crowd (it includes several scraggly-bearded ancient hippies who look like the ghost of Hal Ashby), and when it’s over he walks down the street and gets pestered by MSU students. “I’m being stalked and harassed,” he says, ducking into a parking garage. Ah, the perils of preaching eugenic racism! But the film also includes far more disturbing clips, like one of the speech Spencer gave in Washington right after Trump’s election. We see him take on the media (Spencer: “Perhaps we should refer to them in the original German, lügenpresse“— Hitler’s word for “lying press”) and conclude his remarks with a shout of “Hail Trump!,” which inspires a number of Nazi salutes from the audience. Off camera, he says, “I’ve lived in this multicultural mess my entire life, and I’m trying to get out of it,” as if that explained something. In a way it does: He’s trying to escape America by killing it.
Mike Cernovich, for one, is critical of Spencer’s extremist vibe, because he thinks it marginalizes the cause. Cernovich is closer to being a bro version of Steve Bannon, working to make white nationalism presentable to the mainstream. But the fact that he’s less dogmatic about it makes him seem like an opportunist who has latched onto the alt-right as a marketing ploy. His wife is Iranian-American, a fact that would appear to contradict much of what he stands for. Then again, part of the sickness of racism in the Trump era is how removed from reality it is.
“White Noise,” the first documentary to be produced by The Atlantic, has a loose anecdotal structure, but Lombroso did his homework, embedding himself with these people for several years, so that he won their trust and became privy to their private lives. Between the lines, he catches what vulnerable pretenders they are — even Richard Spencer, a former wannabe theater director who declares, “I’m bigger than the movement,” but what a piece of theater that is! Without this movement, he’d be nothing. He’s a barnacle with great hair posing as a leader.
The most complicated person in the film is Lauren Southern, who came to prominence doing Fox News-level denunciations of feminism, but we see the way she paints herself into a corner. Early on, she gets taken out to dinner by a far-right activist, and when she brings up the subject of wanting to have children, and he declares “Kind of all of us Europeans, we have the responsibility to reproduce,” she gives him a curt smile and says, “That’s a very cold way of putting it.” It’s like a date-from-hell episode of “The Alt-Right Bachelorette.” You think: What did she expect? She also has a prickly encounter with Gavin McInnes, the bushy-bearded hipster co-founder of Vice Media who went on to become one of the founders of the Proud Boys. Lombroso’s verité camera catches him in a compromising phone call to her.
But Southern, for all her neo-traditional ideology, isn’t joking about her passion to become a mother. Late in the movie, it’s revealed that she’s pregnant, by a boyfriend she winds up together with. (They got married and have a son.) We never see him — but we’re told, and Lombroso asks her about the fact, that he’s not white. For once, she’s tongue-tied. “White Noise” is a deadly serious movie, but it is also, in a certain way, a funny one, because it captures the comedy of how much trouble even the influencers of hate now have squaring their horrific belief systems with their lives.