Serena Tarr, sociologist and professor at Kirkwood Community College, stands behind a podium at the Englert Theater. A screen behind her reads, “Among the Bogeymen: a Year With the Alt-Right”. At least one hundred people fill the seats in front of her, immediately captivated by the story she begins to tell.
Serena became so upset and confused and intrigued by the voters who chose Trump, she explains, that she decided to meet with them. “I wanted to talk to them, I wanted to watch them. I wanted to figure them out.”
The ‘them’ she refers to is not the voting population in general, but specifically white women who voted for Trump as well as the Alternative Right, colloquially known as the alt-right.
When the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia killed Heather Heyer, the strength of Serena’s desires heightened.
So despite her friends’ worries, talking and watching and understanding them is just what she did.
Serena briefly speaks about her experience at conventions with women who voted for Trump, but then gets to the story for which her presentation is titled. She decided to get into contact with a leader of the alt-right movement, the executive director of the National Policy Institute, to ask if she could go to one of their conventions.
After a short interview to “make sure she wasn’t Antifa,” she was in. She headed to Alexandria, Virginia for her first convention with the “alt-right 2.0,” a political ideology framed by white supremacy, deemed “2.0” because of the group’s status as well-educated, well-dressed, in-shape, occupationally accomplished (mostly) men.
The convention’s routine for retrieving her was rather “cloak and dagger,” as she met a white van at a flagpole and was told to put her phone into a bag the moment she stepped in the car door. They couldn’t afford to let leak the location of this convention of supremacists.
These men also feared doxxing, a term created after a protest in Charlottesville and used to describe the act of being “outed” as members of the alt-right; this often results in ostracization from friends and acquaintances, being fired, and even estrangement from family.
Following her first convention, Serena is ready for more. After all, she is a sociologist. For her observational study, she becomes fully immersed in the life of these alt-right members. After one convention is kicked out of their meeting place when their purpose is discovered and out of the dive bar they went to as a plan B, they end up at Richard Spencer’s apartment.
Spencer, an openly alt-right activist, is often credited for the resurfacing of this ideology. (It should be noted that although it hasn’t always been visible, the alt-right has always been present in the United States). Serena begins to talk to the participants, explaining that she must gain their trust through signing NDAs—which provide stipulations for both them and her.
Ultimately, however, the unapologetically misogynistic ideals of the group allow her to conduct interviews. Since she is a married woman, she is not taken as a threat because she is “another man’s property.” It feels comfortable to speak, she says, when “assured by anonymity and treated with the decency of human beings.”
An acquaintance sees Serena with Spencer and other known members of the alt-right and begins asking questions. She explains the purpose of her association, and when she refuses to share her research findings with him until she finishes the study, citing the NDAs as a major cause, he doxxes her. This puts her safety at risk and her study in jeopardy, but she continues.
After another convention called CPAC, heavy because of the views expressed and further dispiriting because of the “gratuitous and endless use of the n-word,” Serena falters. When she gets into an Uber to head home, the Black man driving asks her how she’s doing. Though she initially responds thatshe’s okay, she immediately retracts the statement by telling the truth. The whole truth.
In the back of the car, Serena breaks down. The driver pulls over and holds her as she cries and vents about the people and ideologies with which she is associating for her study. The two exchange numbers, and the man reasonably hesitates when he drops her off at her destination of the loft, the unofficial NPI headquarters.
He checks on her that night, and when she becomes nervous again, he reminds her of the importance of her work. “What you are doing matters. What you are doing matters to me and my babies.”
Serena goes to another convention. The attendees gather at a Staples, waiting to be ferried to the actual location. Serena and another woman pick up four men, two of whom are college-aged and two of whom are older. A younger man, whom Serena describes as looking like Ron Weasley, is an economics major at a university. An older man proudly states his family’s three-generation involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.
Approximately 150 attendees eventually convene at a house, the meeting point for this convention. When Spencer gives his speech, the house booms in proclamations of “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” After the speech is over, while Serena speaks with a man making sexist and lewd comments toward her, the mood of the party suddenly shifts. People put on black masks and arm themselves as they flood out the door. Antifa discovered the meeting location.
Serena goes to two more conventions and even meets Spencer’s estranged wife and mother in Montana before ending her research. She creates a dialogue between members of the right and left but calls it only “a small success.”
The presentation ends with Tarr’s informed insights. The alt-right is not a cohesive ideology, just as conservatism and liberalism are not. There are internal contradictions within the group.
Young men, millennials, educated persons from middle-class families who are well-traveled, including disenfranchised Bernie Sanders supporters, are the fuel for this alt-right resurgence. However, they are “a symptom of the crisis, but not the cause.” “Failing to engage with them,” Serena reminds, is to be “complicit in racism.”