Jurisprudence

Why the Nazis Are Treating Their Trial in Charlottesville Like a Joke

It’s part of the strategy, perhaps even the ideology.

Alt-right protesters holding Tiki torches surround counterprotesters around a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
The night before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

You would not be faulted if, tuning in this month to the Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right trial, you found yourself confounded about whether you were watching a formal judicial proceeding or an elaborate performance piece. The federal civil trial of the 20 alleged organizers of Charlottesville’s 2017 Unite the Right rally features a grab bag of white supremacists, some of whom are representing themselves in court. This has meant that from the first day of opening arguments, we’ve heard white supremacist Chris Cantwell, the “Crying Nazi,” hold himself out as a purveyor of a podcast “product” (sign up now!), cite Mein Kampf, and use the N-word. He’s described himself as a “professional entertainer,” “talented,” and “good-looking.” As part of his opening statement Cantwell told the jury he’d dabbled in stand-up comedy, then read out the URL for his website, urging the jury that, “I hope you can all become diehard fans, and together we can save the country.”

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Calling into a podcast (not his own) after his opening statement, Cantwell explained that he “considered it a spoken word performance, you know, and I take that kind of thing seriously, especially once I found out that people were going to be able to listen. … I saw this as a tremendous opportunity both because of the cause at hand and because I knew the world was listening.”

Cantwell, who is currently incarcerated for an unrelated extortion incident, would watch Tucker Carlson’s show with a group of fellow white supremacist prison inmates to prepare for trial, according to BuzzFeed News. Indeed, a central component of the white supremacist end game here lies not in prevailing at trial, but in using the trial to feel famous and to become more so. By that metric, some might say that the white supremacists are succeeding. An article in the Washington Post this week illuminated the problem, noting that “some of the defendants have been ousted from social media such as Facebook and the dating site OkCupid, but in this courtroom, they’ve found a new platform to amplify their racist views, put on performances they boast about on podcasts, radio shows and in live during-the-trial chats, and to attack their opponents.” As Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League put to the Post, “This is the Star Wars bar scene of extremism in that courtroom … and they know who’s watching.”

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The very nature of any such politicized hate speech trial is that listeners will hear hours of racist slurs and threats as white supremacist supporters attempt to dox anti-racist organizers named in the proceedings, all while—again, according to the Post—“Neo-Nazi fans celebrated in far-right chatrooms,” listening in on the court’s public phone line. They have unmuted themselves during the trial’s breaks to “troll the court—saying the n-word multiple times, declaring ‘Make America Great Again’ and promoting a white supremacist podcast on which Cantwell recently spoke.” Michael Hill, another defendant who testified last week, called himself “a white supremacist, a racist, an antisemite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe” on the stand, then called into a far-right radio show to tell listeners he was “very pleased” to share his testimony, knowing the court was “a public forum” where “a lot of people were listening.”

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One of the tricks for getting famous is to be entertaining. Another is to be funny. Defendant Matthew Heimbach, founder of the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, certainly knows the drill—in one court exchange, he cheerfully described the alt-right leader Richard Spencer as “bougie,” saying, “I kind of always viewed you as a bit of a dandy,” to which Spencer retorted, “Did you ever see me wear boat shoes?” Good fun all around. Cantwell at one point asked Heimbach to tell his “favorite Holocaust joke.” He asked Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses on the symbols of antisemitism, if it was ever OK to tell Holocaust jokes.

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These joking little exchanges are all part of the “we were only kidding” defense, already deeply entrenched in the alt-right, as is the “we were just trying to trigger the liberal snowflakes” defense. Spencer has already testified that the use of torchlight, the Nazi chants and Hitler symbology, and the comments about gassing people and “portable ovens” are all simply a “subcultural thing of being outlandish and stupid.” The point here, testified Heimbach, is to tweet and say “the most outrageous things we could do to troll and create outrage in the media and get reaction.” The more the rest of us react, goes their calculus, the bigger their win. “They absolutely fell for it,” Heimbach said of the media, in his testimony.

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The last expert witness called by the plaintiffs on Thursday, Day 14 of the trial, was Peter Simi, an associate professor of sociology at Chapman University. The defendants had sought to exclude him from the trial, but they failed. Simi and fellow sociologist Kathleen Blee have produced a 63-page report showing the defendants in this trial had engaged in coordinated efforts to obscure their real intentions by hiding behind these claims of humor, coded speech, and other rhetorical tricks. The researchers pored over thousands of Discord messages and defendants’ emails to conclude that, yes, white supremacism is a violent racist ideology rooted in antisemitism, hostility toward immigrants, minorities, and feminism; that yes, white supremacism also uses new technologies and coded double-speak, and that white supremacists engage in what they characterize asfront-stage” and “back-stage” behavior. What that means, Simi testified, is that “people present themselves differently when they are seeking to make an impression on others than they do in private.” Perhaps most importantly Simi reported and testified that white supremacy encourages and celebrates violence. Simi testified that white supremacists cultivate plausible deniability by deploying a variety of linguistic winks and tricks. So for instance, the white supremacist publication the Daily Stormer’s “Style Guide” has cautioned:

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Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, nonironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor - I am a racist making fun of stereotype of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.

Elsewhere, defendant Andrew Anglin has written that “It’s illegal to promote violence on the Internet. At the same time, it’s totally important to normalize the acceptance of violence as an eventuality/inevitability.” Thus, Anglin advised that “whenever someone does something violent, it should be made light of, laughed at.” According to Simi and Blee, “In our opinion, readers would have understood that such use of humor was intended to ‘normalize,’ approve of, and encourage violence without explicitly promoting it.”

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Simi’s testimony was devastating. No part of it was hilarious. He explained, in the most academic terms possible, the degree to which the performance artistry of the white supremacists is not accidental. It’s deliberate stagecraft, constructed to promote both violent spectacle and plausible deniability. The cross-examination of Simi was, as a result, neither spectacular, nor funny.

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James Kolenich, who represents Jason Kessler, Nathan Damigo, and the hate group Identity Evropa, tried to get Simi to testify that all free speech is protected. Simi testified that he believed it was not. Kolenich tried to get him to testify that he could not be a good witness because he was not neutral as to white supremacy. Simi replied that he is a researcher, and that just as cancer researchers are interested not just in researching cancer but also helping prevent its spread, he can do research on violent white supremacy without feeling neutral about it. (Kolenich was upset that the witness was comparing white supremacy to cancer.) Defendant Richard Spencer asked a lot of questions about how famous he is: “Was I a public figure at the time—I hesitate to use the word celebrity?”  Simi’s answer was some version of, “No, I don’t read everything you write.” Chris Cantwell asked Simi how dare he venture an opinion as to whether Cantwell was joking in his tweets. Simi replied that the issue on which he is an expert is not whether Cantwell was funny but the use of coded language. Cantwell seemed unable to comprehend the difference between Simi’s definition of “front stage” and “back stage,” perhaps because for the Cantwells of the universe, all the world’s a front stage.

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There is a big impossible question looming over the Unite the Right trial, about what is to be done when white supremacists turn sober judicial proceedings into a forum to promote yet more virulent hate. Simi’s testimony felt like the cure. It turns out that when you turn the sweater inside out and examine all the knots, and broken threads, and missed stitches, it’s not all that interesting at all. It might not even be a sweater. The virulent performances of hate, unpacked by an expert, is neither funny, nor triggering, nor coded, nor clever, nor interesting. It’s just a tawdry little party trick, easily decoded, and depressingly formulaic.

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