Patrik Hermansson, a gay anti-fascist activist, would seem like an obvious target for the white supremacists, far-right populists and neo-Nazis who make up the alt-right movement.
Yet the 25-year-old was able to successfully infiltrate the alt-right’s ranks as part of a year-long undercover investigation for Hope Not Hate, a UK-based organisation that monitors hate groups.
Posing as a graduate student researching censorship of right-wing political speech, Hermansson documented the alt-right’s growing influence in the US and Europe.
The report that followed – The International Alt-Right: From Charlottesville to the White House – exposes the movement’s connections to the administration of US President Donald Trump and the impact of alt-right ideas on far-right European political currents.
Hermansson’s findings detail a movement rife with racism, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazism and conspiracy theories.
Richard Spencer, a white supremacist activist who heads the Virginia-based National Policy Institute, is credited with first coining the term “alt-right” in 2008. The alt-right advocates for a white ethno-state based on shared European heritage.
The movement became a household name in the US owing to its vocal support for Trump’s campaign and electoral victory.
The alt-right has been the subject of widespread public backlash since August 12, when it held the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest against the city’s decision to remove a Confederate statue.
During that rally, alt-rightists clashed with anti-racists, anti-fascists and local community members.
By the end of the day, a Unite the Right participant, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, had been charged with second-degree murder for ramming his car into an anti-racist march and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Hermansson witnessed the day’s events, including the fatal attack.
Hermansson’s investigation also delves into a more moderate group known as the “alt-light” that promotes several similar ideas. The alt-light, however, generally eschews the openly white supremacist politics of the alt-right. Instead, the alt-light has focused on cultivating broader support for Trump and promoting American civic nationalism.
Although both political movements have participated in clashes with anti-racists and anti-fascists across the country, in the months leading up to Charlottesville, the two camps grew increasingly at odds with one another, often engaging in public quarrels over their political differences.
Al Jazeera spoke to Hermansson about his experiences and observations while embedded in the alt-right.
Al Jazeera: How did the alt-right evolve over the year that you were undercover?
Patrik Hermansson: The broader far right developed in several ways. Brexit, Trump’s election and terrorist attacks in Europe have all been significant drivers of recruitment for the broader far-right movement.
Trump’s election has been the strongest driver for the alt-right. They really perceive themselves as having brought Trump into the White House and have been emboldened. Many of them feel that their ideas have been normalised.
They feel like their ideas are gaining influence in the mainstream. There is a range of different opinions towards Trump, and it is quite interesting. There are online forums that will call him Emperor Trump, but there have been periods in which he’s fallen out of favour with many of them over the “deep state” or various conspiracies.
But after Charlottesville, he gained much more support again after he compared the “alt-left” (a widely disputed term the president used to characterise anti-fascists) to the alt-right. Generally, although they disagree with his policies at times, they usually blame the disagreements on outside influences.
You can listen to YouTube or read their articles and they say very racist things, but I can promise you what they say behind closed doors is much worse.
Al Jazeera: How did your own perception of the alt-right change from the time you started your investigation?
Hermansson: I learned a lot about them. I wasn’t aware of how internationally connected they are. I’m more afraid of them now than when I started. Their opinions behind closed doors are genocidal in many cases. You can listen to YouTube or read their articles and they say very racist things, but I can promise you what they say behind closed doors is much worse.
Their perception of their opponents [leftists and anti-fascists] differs from person to person. They like to be victimised and portrayed as the underdog. They like to say that the left is there to repress their freedom of speech.
Al Jazeera: You mention in the investigation that an influential member of Sweden’s alt-right was present in Charlottesville. How much do we know about the international connections of American alt-rightists?
In different ways, we know that Nordic Resistance Movement [in Sweden and elsewhere] members go to some of the same conferences [as alt-rightists] and speak on the same podcasts and interview each other. I’ve met people in the US who know a lot about the Nordic Resistance Movement and follow them closely as well as their news. It is widely read by American far-right activists, who are not necessarily National Socialists [like the Nordic Resistance Movement, or NRM] themselves. They communicate regularly. National Action (a neo-Nazi outfit), which is labelled a terrorist group, in the UK is in direct contact with some of the people in the alt-right.
Al Jazeera: Were there any instances in which you thought your cover had been blown?
Hermansson: I was using a fake name and filming undercover. It really put a lot of stress on me. I had a constant sense of paranoia that they would find me out, or that I would accidentally say my actual name. They are suspicious, and they’ve always been suspicious. You’re sort of always afraid you’ll be found out.
Actually, I accidentally once said my real name as instinct. I was afraid for a few days that they would kick me out, but I managed to get away with it through some creative explanations.
Al Jazeera: What was it like to be undercover and witness the violence during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville?
Hermansson: I was standing there at a crossroad on a corner … I saw shoes flying in the air, people falling. You don’t really understand what you’re seeing in a situation like that. My immediate reaction was to wonder why the car came there, why shoes were flying in the air. It was terrifying, and the whole crowd panicked.
Yet, people came together and helped. They used protest banners to give shade to injured people. They were bringing water. Everybody did practical small things to support each other, and that was powerful to see.
Al Jazeera: Will the alt-right be able to recover from the backlash following the deadly attack in Charlottesville?
Hermansson: I think that in the long term, Charlottesville won’t have a [lasting negative] impact on the alt-right. Even though the divisions are clear between the alt-right and the alt-light … If you look at social movements, there is usually a more extreme radical side and a more moderate side. They work together even though they may not do it in a formal sense. The moderate side helps normalise ideas. So, the alt-light is probably more dangerous because they are normalising these ideas and bringing them into the mainstream … and they have the ear of politicians.
Al Jazeera: Do you expect to see them back in the streets of the US in large numbers? And should we expect more violence?
Hermansson: Predicting the future is always difficult. I wouldn’t be surprised by more violence. When you have these groups with young men and violent ideologies, the group dynamic means they need to prove themselves [to each other] and distance themselves from the left. It leads to dehumanisation of their opponents. There will always be people in the alt-right who will take that to its logical extreme like they did in Charlottesville.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_