But she doesn’t leave it at that, and one of the marvels of this furious book is how insolent and funny Lavin is; she refuses to soft-pedal the monstrous views she encounters, and she clearly takes pleasure in cutting them down to size. She is aided in her mission by the fact that the language of extremists tends to occupy the space between risible and profoundly dumb. Contemporary white supremacy is a mishmash of old anti-Semitic tropes, racist pseudoscience and bizarre fantasia — what Lavin calls a “bigot’s pastiche.” The people who promulgate it often toggle between cruel, inane jokes and a fastidious humorlessness. “Anything,” Lavin writes, “an errant wind, a dumb tweet, a conspiracy theory invented from whole cloth — can drum up the forces of white grievance.”
So Lavin went undercover, not just as Tommy but as Ashlynn, too — a blonde, gun-toting Iowan looking for love on a dating site for white supremacists. Lavin got to know the subculture to the point where she became fluent in its language, with its self-important feints at Norse mythology and a rudimentary numerology. (Neo-Nazis famously love to use “88,” because the eighth letter in the alphabet is H, and 88 signifies “Heil Hitler”; I learned from Lavin’s book that some enterprising Christian neo-Nazis have also started using “83,” for an oxymoronic “Heil Christ.”)
Radicalization often happens online nowadays — something that Lavin used to her advantage. She describes herself as a “schlubby, bisexual Jew” who grew up Modern Orthodox in Teaneck, N.J., and whose politics are now “considerably to the left of Medicare for all.” Her maternal grandparents escaped the Nazi death camps by hiding in the Galician woods. Online she could be anyone else — Tommy, Ashlynn or “Aryan Queen,” entering a chat room of American and European “accelerationists” who are trying to incite a race war.
In order to connect with accelerationists on the other side of the world, she used her foreign-language skills, recording messages in Russian in a “sexy-baby timbre and a heavy American accent” to convince a Ukrainian neo-Nazi that she was a milk-fed Midwesterner trying to learn new languages for the cause. She gathered enough information to reveal his identity, and then sat back to enjoy the mistrust and chaos she had sown in the white supremacists’ ranks. They knew that someone had betrayed them; what she knew was that she had turned their own florid, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against them. “I had made their worst nightmares come true,” Lavin writes. “Behind the beautiful Aryan they desired was a fat, cunning Jew, biding her time.”
Unlike Andrew Marantz’s “Antisocial,” in which Marantz covered right-wing extremists as a journalist-observer, “Culture Warlords” expressly melds reportage with activism. Lavin justifies her methods by explaining that “bigotry and Nazism should have a social cost.” That social cost relies on shame — a dwindling commodity these days, as extremists have been delighted by an explicitly anti-immigrant White House, Lavin says, and a cadre of “launderers” who repackage far-right ideas into edgy-but-not-quite-bannable videos that get them clicks and converts on YouTube. At a Philadelphia conference that was supposed to be a celebration of “tolerance” and “free speech” but turned out to be a safe space for the alt-right, Lavin met an attendee who said he was impressed with the “diversity of opinion” there. She asked if he had actually met anyone whose views differed substantially from his own. “Yes,” he told her. “I met an ethnonationalist. But I’m a civic nationalist.”