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  1. Monday 1 March
  2. I don’t even know if it needs explanation why I’d decided I needed to make a programme about the new underground of far-right Trump-supporting Internet trolls. If you’ve followed my work, you’ll know I’ve done stories on white nationalists of different stripes many times over the years. The very first segment I made on TV in 1994 entailed a visit to a trailer in western Montana in which two men in Nazi-style outfits explained God’s cosmic plan for different races to be banished to separate planets. Nearly thirty years later, I’m ploughing the same furrow, though thanks to the web and the rise of nativism, you don’t have to travel nearly so far to hear similar views. More customer-friendly versions are being peddled on laptops and phones in bedrooms around the world and there is a generation of young people for whom the idea of embracing edgy far-right content and tongue-in-cheek and not-so-tongue-in-cheek racism carries a countercultural cachet as a break from the brainwashed boredom of Normie-dom.
  4. Nick Fuentes is the avatar of this movement. He was at Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Unite the Right rally where a parade of white racists marched with tiki torches and chanted ‘You will not replace us’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’ and where the anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer lost her life after a deranged white nationalist drove his car into a crowd. In the wake of Charlottesville, with the movement discredited in the eyes of anyone remotely mainstream, Fuentes rebranded himself an ‘America First’ nationalist. He discouraged followers from using imagery that was too explicitly Nazi-tinged, impressing on them the need to be ‘optical’, while on a nightly streaming show he continued to express coded – and not so coded – white-nationalist ideas about there being a problem with Jewish power and black crime. Gradually, he cultivated a large following of maladapted teenagers and twenty-somethings who call themselves ‘Groypers’ and who loved Nick for his cheeky persona, modelled on popular YouTubers, as much as for his politics.
  6. And so to Orlando, to commence filming on what we are calling the ‘dissident right’ project, also known as ‘radicals’, which, like the Florida rap one, we had been forced to put on ice nearly a year ago by the sudden onset of a global pandemic. It was a short shoot, only three days, and the occasion for it was a conference Nick was hosting at a hotel. The event – called AFPAC, for America First Political Action Committee – was happening at the same time and in the same city as CPAC, which is the big Republican conference. Trump is attending that one. It was a bit like the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe. Except, in the case of AFPAC, it was the extremist fringe.
  8. The night before I left, Nancy and I watched a horror film called Sinister, with Arthur, not with Ray – we’re pretty lax though I’d like to think not actively sociopathic. It’s about a struggling writer who finds a box of old tapes, which prefigure the daughter becoming – spoiler alert – possessed by an ancient Babylonian deity called Bughuul and killing the rest of the family. It may say something about Covid times that the scenario did not seem that far removed from reality.
  10. The following morning, knowing I had to leave, I came down with Ray, and denying him his iPad heard in return his new catchphrase: ‘Aagh! You’re the worst!’ Nancy emerged a bit later.
  12. ‘Good morning, angry lady,’ I said.
  14. ‘I am angry. Fifteen years of this, Louis.’
  16. ‘I don’t want it to go on like this any more than you do. I’m making a commitment. I want to be around more.’
  18. ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’
  20. From the airport, I wrote to Art: By the power of B’ghoul, eater of children, I command you to be good for Mum. He replied: It’s spelled Bughuul.
  22. After the eight-hour flight – arriving in Miami in the evening – I had a four-hour car ride to the hotel in Orlando. In the back of the car, as I was being driven, I caught up on some reading on Fuentes and America First. Then the phone pinged. Messages coming in from Nancy saying she and Ray were awake. It was three in the morning in London but Ray had worms and they were preventing him from sleeping. I commiserated, then tried to help by googling chemists in NW6 to find somewhere they could get the medicine, Ovex, noticing for the first time in my life that there seem to be no twenty-four-hour chemists anywhere in London. Then I tried Amazon and other mail-order options. Nothing doing. I felt like ground control trying to repair a leak on the space station – Nancy and Ray slowly running out of oxygen. Eventually, she rang off and close to midnight I arrived at my hotel.
  24. The event turned out to be a gathering of the tribes, for pale young men in suits, college Republican types, a handful of full-bore misfits dressed up in outfits from another era, like barbershop quartet singers in straw boaters with oiled moustaches, about five women, three black people, and a smattering of alt-right celebrities. The term of art for many of the attendees would be ‘incel’, the portmanteau derived from ‘involuntary celibate’, the self-designation used by denizens of the darker parts of the Internet who are unable to find female companionship.
  26. Fuentes presided over his group, godlike amid the beta hordes, skinny but handsome, like an undernourished gamer-nerd JFK tribute act, with a Cheshire Cat grin so broad that it narrows his eyes. I’d bumped into him crossing the lobby of his hotel. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, in holiday mode, accompanied by a young, college-age friend called Jaden. Jaden was a fellow Groyper. He’d been kicked out of college, I’d been told, for sending a tweet in the wake of the BLM movement, saying, ‘Congratulations to George Floyd on one month drug free.’ I fell into step with them, then spent the afternoon in Fuentes’s retinue as he inspected the preparations for the event in the Hilton banqueting hall: pale young guys in masks were setting up, laying tables, putting out promotional stickers of the Groyper logo – a fat cartoon frog. Their faces were hard to read, they were mainly wearing masks, but they had the air of conservative gamer boys in T-shirts.
  28. I interviewed as we went. Fuentes enjoys debate and the challenge for me was to hold off getting too deep in the conversation. I was there to follow the action and not disappear into the weeds for a discussion of his views on US foreign policy and big tech deplatforming – there would be plenty of time on future shoot days to push harder on his track record of extreme statements and his real beliefs. In fact, he is adept at positioning himself as vaguely mainstream, an old-fashioned conservative who tells it like it is. Over everything was the looming shadow of 6 January and the attack on the Capitol. The FBI was investigating him, he said. He’d been there but had stayed outside – the man in the congressional office behind Baked Alaska, depicted in a widely shared photo, who looked like Nick, was someone else. The media had overhyped the whole occasion, he said. It was a simple protest, not that many people had got inside, and anyway, why shouldn’t they be there, it was ‘the people’s house’.
  30. This was all delivered with a little twinkle of deniability.
  32. We had lunch together, off camera, in an open-air mall in the shadow of a huge Ferris wheel, passing the time with conversation about food and Chicago, where he was born and raised, and other people in ‘the movement’. Loud music was playing and every fifteen minutes or so a colourful toy train carrying kids would pass by.
  34. ‘We should film you on that,’ I said. ‘Good optics.’
  36. ‘Bad optics,’ he said.
  38. Late in the day, just before we called it a night, one or two of Nick’s more fringe beliefs peeped out. He’d prefer if women didn’t have the right to vote, he said. Civilization had started its decline with female suffrage. Women in general couldn’t be in the inner circle of the movement. This was followed by a random reference to the evil bigwigs who were, as he saw it, screwing up society. ‘They’re not all Jews,’ he said, again with an air of naughty humour.
  40. Then the following day – the main event. In the morning, Nick was hard to summon on the phone so we slunk into the venue having arranged an interview with one of his satellites, a Hispanic filmmaker named Stephen Martinez, then loitered in the vicinity picking off interviews with other attendees. Through the afternoon, the venue filled up, many of them dweeby guys, none too keen to speak to – or even be filmed by – a member of the liberal lamestream media, but there was an undoubted May Ball energy to the occasion. Fuentes emerged late afternoon, his time taken up posing for photos with fans who had paid for the privilege, in a manner a little reminiscent of Pooh Sheisty on his bus at the car show or indeed L. Theroux on his Australian tour. I stalked about trying to find consenting interviewees. A handful of people in the audience – three or four – recognized me. ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen your documentaries. Wacky Weekends?’ One, referring at random to an old programme I’d made about trophy hunting in Africa, said without preamble, ‘Why didn’t you shoot the warthog?’
  42. When the time came for speeches, the auditorium darkened. Slick introductory packages had been prepared. Fuentes, the headliner, was preceded by a stylish hype video showing him speaking through a bullhorn at rallies and Stop the Steal events. There were fast cuts and loud music – the look they were going for was latter-day Che Guevara, shot from below, striking street-fighter barricade-storming poses. Then he took to the stage to wild applause, launching into his variation on themes Trump popularized in 2016 – closing borders and decrying globalists and Washington elites – combined with moments of edgelord provocation. Fuentes has made his career out of out-flanking Republicans from the right, and he spent much of his time making fun of right-wingers for not being right-wing enough. But what was maybe most striking was his poise, his relaxed insouciant air, and his command of the crowd, his ability to activate them with red-meat moments. ‘White people are tired of being bullied,’ he said at one point. Chants of ‘America First’ and ‘Christ is King’ went through the audience like electricity. In the background was a feeling that this was the insurgent army of a radical Trump base. A coalition of religious zealots, incels, gamers, conspiracy theorists and lost boys.
  44. What was also in my head was the sense of being back in the saddle. A campaign that had been planned more than a year earlier, and that was a distant lineal descendant of an idea I’d worked on in 2017, about the far-right Internet edgelords who claimed to have memed Trump into the presidency, was now in effect more than four years later. I was back in the fray.
  46. I was conscious, too, of how old I was – a fifty-year-old amid the gamer boys. There was a time when I’d been the young one and the stories had been populated by the middle-aged. Now it was the reverse. And the world had changed so much. Not just from Covid, but from the other viruses: populism, nativism, misogyny, and by their antibodies: progressivism, wokeness, sensitivity. And where did I stand? A white person telling a story about white tribal identity? And what was my responsibility, giving airtime to people who were something between Froot Loops and legit, as they pirouetted on the edge of white nationalism, no longer in trailers in Montana but in homes near you and in palaces of government? I imagined a backlash to the film, whenever it came out. I might have to stay off Twitter for a bit. Weather the storm. No point playing it safe, dodging controversy. And, then catastrophizing in typical style, I thought: If it’s the end it’s the end.
  48. On the last day, with scant minutes to spare, we shot a sequence of Nick driving up in a convertible sports car, parking outside the hotel where they are hosting CPAC – the more mainstream though in fact still very right-wing political convention from which Nick’s been banned for extremism – and stepping out like an incel Alain Delon. His stereo was playing Jay-Z at loud volume – his love of rap, and Kanye especially, is one of Nick’s more confusing and disruptive bits of political signalling. A rapture bordering on ecstasy was legible on the faces of the twenty or so America Firsters who were there to greet him and they proceeded to stage a slightly limp guerrilla protest, ‘attempting’ (not very hard) to enter the CPAC conference, stomping on a surgical mask, being turned away, and driving off.
  50. And that was that. I was due at the airport and there followed an overnight flight back to Heathrow, and an interminable near-stationary queue at immigration that took an hour or more to move through. I passed the time on a long call about our Joe Exotic project and fixes and how we structure it. We have been in a phase of thinking it should be two hour-long programmes, given that we have a complicated mix of material – the archive from my visit in 2011, the new stuff we shot, news footage to explain what happened in the interim with his murder-for-hire case, then the strange twist of having the Tiger King production team trying to spike our guns. It’s a lot to deal with, but now it seems likely it will work better as a single ninety-minute film, which is also what the channel appears to want, so having lobbied hard in one direction I am now in the position of reversing course.
  52. Midway through discussing this, still stuck in the queue, my battery died.
  54. Taxi back to north-west London. Kissed and hugged Nancy, thanked her for holding the fort, and made tea for both of us. When Ray arrived back from school, we played Roblox together – an online platform with user-generated games where the avatars are weird blockmen like the Honeywell advert from the eighties. The user names all sound like SoundCloud rap names: Trecherous999 is Ray’s, his friend’s is DarkAngel5000.
  56. In other news, Marce texted to say he’s had the Oxford jab. Thank you, NHS, he wrote on the family WhatsApp. Where is my jab? He is only two years older than me. Does my status as the Dame Vera Lynn of Lockdown Podcasting™ mean nothing?
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