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The BBC’s Mike Wendling explains the history of a message board subculture and discusses his book, “Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House”

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

What is 4chan and 8chan? Why does so many of the right-wing terrorists post their treatises on their sites? Is this an organized national and international movement or is it really just decentralized and we don’t know what it is? How much do Trump’s tweets, his language, exhortations and presence galvanize this movement? Or how much was he created by it, in essence? When did this modern formation, a right-wing supremacist presence, come about to life and why? How dangerous is it really?

We talk with Mike Wendling. Mike Wendling is the Editor of “BBC Trending,” a podcast, and author of Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House. And Mike, welcome. Good to have you with us here on The Real News.

MIKE WENDLING: Thanks. Thank you.

MARC STEINER: I’m glad you’re here. I really enjoyed your book. It was really well done and sorry I didn’t get a chance to interview for that when it came out, but we can make amends to that later. So let’s just begin. Talk to us a bit first about 4chan and 8chan. They’re not the same thing. They’re separate. So just describe a bit who they are and where they came from.

MIKE WENDLING: Yeah, sure. So I mean it’s a very unusual story in that they were not meant to be breeding grounds for white nationalism. Let’s put that out there to begin with. Really they come from online culture. Specifically, Japanese anime culture was the inspiration for 4chan and it’s basically a freewheeling message board. Pretty much anything goes. Crucially, all users are anonymous. All threads, all discussion topics have to start with an image and that means people have to produce a lot of images and make them very popular because another rule on the site is that the threads, the discussions go away very quickly, in a matter of hours sometimes if they’re not popular. So really, the premium is on getting lots of people to respond and react to your really grabby images really, really quickly.

4chan began in the early 2000s and it got popular. It was associated with other online movements, most notably Anonymous who did raids against Scientology. And then in the past few years it has basically been, I suppose, overtaken or dominated to a large part, particularly one very specific discussion board devoted to politics called the Pol, or Politically Incorrect board. And that has become sort of synonymous with what we think of it as today— as a white nationalist rallying point.

8chan, pretty similar in the way it functions, but a lot newer, was conceived as a spin off or rather a sort of rival because the founder, a guy named Fredrick Brennan thought that 4chan was becoming too centralized, too restrictive. He wanted individual users to be able to come up with their own topics and come up with their own boards and moderate themselves. And to that end, he created something that fulfilled that need. It also meant that it was a lot more extreme. It was a lot more, sort of—It had a lot more calls to violence, doxing. This sort of stuff was really rife, still is on 8chan. And it has led to what we see today in terms of it, again, being a very crucial rallying point for extremists and white nationalists.

MARC STEINER: And 8chan works out of the Philippines, we should say as well, and Congress is trying to get him to come to DC, but I doubt he’ll do that. Of course, just as a disclaimer he said, “This has nothing to do with me. We had nothing to do with any of these things.” So the question is, these aren’t necessarily right-wing sites, they’re sites used by the right-wing because of how they were created, is that what you’re saying?

MIKE WENDLING: Essentially, yes. I mean, and Fredrick Brennan and also the creator of 4chan, the original creator of 4chan, they no longer have anything to do with those websites now. Fredrick Brennan sold it to an American named Jim Watkins— who also lives in the Philippines— a few years ago. And Fredrick Brennan has been very vocal about how he abhors what’s going on and how he just wishes that his creation should be killed. But yeah, I mean what you say is essentially true. It’s not that these sites were created for the far-right or with any real far-right intentions. It’s just the mechanisms that were put in place and made them very popular and very useful for political movements, became very useful for the far-right.

MARC STEINER: So I think in some ways, I mean this is where people post their ideas, but even more important in some ways is something I’m about to show everyone and you. This was put together by Brendan Friedman, who is a columnist for The Daily News in New York. It shows the man who committed the mass murders in El Paso, what he wrote originally on the chan sites, but also how they’re tied to these various tweets and messages sent out by different people, including Donald Trump. So let me just read a couple and let’s talk about what this synergy might mean and why it exists.

All right. Let’s start with this. So Donald Trump tweets, “The US is ill-prepared for this invasion and will not stand for it.” And the killer put into his piece, “The attack is in response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Trump to The Sun says, “Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think that it changed the fabric of Europe. And unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.” The killer writes, “The natives didn’t take the invasion of Europeans seriously, and now what’s left is just a shadow of what it was.”

And finally, Republican Senator John Cronin tweeted, “Texas gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident last year. The man who did the murders said, “The heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democratic stronghold.” Now, I could go on and read dozens and dozens more of these, but I didn’t want to do that. I just want to kind of jump into what this means. What does this synergy mean? What does it tell us? How do you analyze it? I think it’s too simplistic to say, “Well, Trump did this.” Do you know what I’m saying? But there’s a synergy here, and describe how you would describe what that means.

MIKE WENDLING: Yeah. I think that would be very simplistic to say that, overly simplistic. Throughout his campaign in 2016, Donald Trump consistently showed a – he didn’t show in most cases an outward or a blatant courting of these types of people. I mean, there were a few incidents; for instance he blamed faulty microphone for him not being able to hear about a question whether he would condemn a KKK leader or reject his support, this kind of stuff. But in some ways what is really happening here is that there is a common language, I suppose, that results in all sorts of beliefs. And some of them are not necessarily violent. Some of them are fairly mainstream in American society. And this is where the commonality is coming out.

Now, I mean, I think if you look at Trump and you look at his record, what you have is a series of really inconsistent sorts of, I guess, moves and strikes. You know what I mean? Everything from, I guess, Syria to taxes and the economy. He kind of vacillates between being a new, more extreme right president and an establishment Republican who for instance wants to cut the taxes of businesses, right? That’s a pretty mainstream and notably one of the few legislative achievements that he has actually managed in his term.

It’s clear though that at times he has veered towards this type of language. It was clear that when he appointed Steve Bannon who has links in this kind of world that was a different style of Donald Trump. And then it’s also clear, I think that at least now, he is pushing these identity issues as a key plank in his campaign. So of course, whether he does that next year, we don’t know. But that kind of explains what’s going on here in terms of where these ideas are coming from.

MARC STEINER: I’m curious though, talk a bit about here just for a moment before we look at some of the things from the real conservative media and how they play into this. There’s Donald Trump and you have this growth of this kind of alt-right, the white supremacist right, people call it by many names or describe it many ways, but the modern history of this in the 21st century – where it came from. And I think what an interesting analysis to explore would be how Trump played into that, why they support Trump, what they see in him, how he feeds into that, and just where it came from? In post 9/11, Obama’s election, the growth of this movement and how it exploded through 4chan and 8chan and other places. This, to me, that history is really important to figure out where the future might be going.

MIKE WENDLING: Yeah. And so I think that the history is complicated, but it kind of boils down to fringes that have always been there on the right in America. Pat Buchanan for instance, has a lot of these same ideas. A few really fringe academics, bloggers, radicals kind of kept that flame going throughout the early part, the Bush years, the Obama years. It kind of exploded with Trump. And Trump’s success was to hang on to enough establishment or mainstream Republicans and then tap into this well of discontent that was underneath the surface, that was not afraid of some of these ideas, including the white nationalist ideas of the alt-right. Now, let’s remember that the alt-right and people like Richard Spencer who’s probably shot to prominence— he’s probably the biggest, most well-known white nationalists in America today— really welcomed Trump, but then quickly became disillusioned with him as he didn’t 100% tow their line, right?

Now, it’s interesting to see whether he might come back in their favor and what that means. And now that, I guess this movement, there’s been coverage about it. My book is one of a few books that are on the shelf under the alt-right label these days. Whether that will make any difference, not only in the governance that Donald Trump does, but his reelection prospects.

MARC STEINER: Well, I have a question about that, a push a bit on that, but let’s show these clips first because I think they’re connected. These are clips – the first is a montage we put together from Fox News that I think is important to watch. And then what happened last night, we’re going to watch right after that, is Tucker Carlson and what he said. Let’s watch this.

MARK STEYN, FOX NEWS GUEST: The white supremacists are American citizens. The illegal immigrants are people who shouldn’t be here.

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: Your views on immigration will have zero impact and zero influence on a House dominated by Democrats who want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens.

STEVE CORTES, FOX & FRIENDS GUEST: Illegal immigrants are burglars, are thieves who are there to harm your security and steal your prosperity.

BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX & FRIENDS CO-HOST:      What’s happening at the border is a flat-out invasion. We are being overwhelmed every day.

JESSE WATTERS:            As the illegal invasion at our southern border intensifies. … It is an invasion.

STUART VARNEY, FOX NEWS HOST:        And I’m going to call it an invasion, like it or not.

LAWRENCE JONES, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR:   You have a group of people that are invading the US border, right? And they’re being held in facilities.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: Their political success does not depend on good policies, but on demographic replacement.

RET. COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR, FOX NEWS GUEST: The more of these people that can be brought in illegally as well as legally, the better it is for the Democratic Party because their goal is to transform the United States.

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: And I think calling it anything but an invasion at this point is just not being honest with people.

TOMI LAHREN, FOX NATION HOST: Any citizen of any nation should be upset and outraged when there is an invasion by foreigners into their country.

MARC STEINER: So that’s just one piece and let’s play this other piece. This is just from last night with Tucker Carlson.

TUCKER CARLSON: But the whole thing is a lie. If you were to assemble a list, a hierarchy of concerns or problems this country faces, where would white supremacy be on the list? Right up there with Russia probably. It’s actually not a real problem in America. The combined membership of every white supremacist organization in this country would be able to fit inside a college football stadium? I mean, seriously, this is a country where the average person is getting poorer, where the suicide rate is spiking. White supremacy, that’s the problem. This is a hoax, just like the Russia hoax. It’s a conspiracy theory used to divide the country and keep a hold on power. That’s exactly what’s going on.

MARC STEINER: So if I combine this, and you can tell me if you think we’re making too much of this Mike Wendling, but if I combine what I see on Fox News, which is a major news outlet that has tens of millions of viewers. Watching this, coupled with the tweets that we’ve seen and statements by the President of the United States because he loves to do things that are extreme. That’s part of – always been his raison d’être for his entire existence most of his life and has been doing that and throwing these things out.

And then you have this alt-right movement and just this right-wing movement. We know in our country here in United States that almost all the terrorist acts that have been committed to internally, have been committed by people who identify with this movement. And then whenever you see these things, whatever movement’s on top, there are many, many more people beneath that and around that who support it even if they don’t act the way these men and women act. So the question is, to me—I’m just pushing that a little bit because I think it’s more complex and perhaps even more insidious than we’re talking about here.

MIKE WENDLING: Look, I mean, this is not an issue of— as terrible as it is— the number of people who are dead. You know what I mean? This is not a matter of people, “Oh well they only killed X dozen people thus; car crashes kill more.” That’s just crazy talk to be frank. It’s not a matter—After the Orlando shooting or the San Bernardino shooting, it wasn’t just the number of people who are dead, but the fear. That’s why we call it terrorism. The terror that is meant to create, the way it’s supposed to divide society and make individuals fearful. That is the point of these attacks.

So to say that, oh well it’s small-scale or to play it down is just not really a credible position take. Clearly, the authorities and not only in the US, in New Zealand for instance, here in the UK, around Europe are taking this as a serious and growing threat. Counter-terrorism officers who’ve spoken in this country say the same thing. The FBI looks at conspiracy theories and comes out with reports about how they’re growing and how they’re dangerous. So the real conspiracy theory is actually shown by some of the clips that you played before that clip, which is this idea. It goes by the name of the “great replacement” or the white genocide conspiracy theory, an idea that there was somehow a grand plot by the government, the elite, if you get to the extreme— anti-Semitic, it’s the Jews, to somehow replace the white race with a combination of immigration, interbreeding, depressed fertility, abortion, whatever, you can throw whatever that goes in there. This is a conspiracy theory. This is a far-right conspiracy theory. It has its origins in a book called The Great Replacement

MARC STEINER: Renaud Camus.

MIKE WENDLING: … And the alt-right groups in Europe and it’s based upon the racist idea that a child of a mixed-race couple is non-white. And it is a fear-mongering tactic that has been used by white supremacists long before the alt-right was ever a thing.

MARC STEINER: So, but we have to conclude here, I mean, because I was thinking about the book, I was thinking about Renaud Camus and many Americans don’t even know who that is or the author’s name. But he is the philosophical founding father in many ways of this whole idea of replacement, right?

The question I have though is that even if you can look at these movements as something smaller than an entire society, they’re fueling an entire populous movement across Europe, across India, across the Philippines, in Brazil, in the United States, in the UK. This is, to me, we’re looking at this, is looking at the alt-right like they’re some kind of fringe maniacs, but more of what they say about a larger trend of the fears in this planet and how they fit into that.

MIKE WENDLING: I mean there is if you like international-nationalist movement. These ideas, and given it’s fueled by social media, it’s fueled by sites like 8chan and 4chan, it’s easy for these ideas to spread. It’s not the case anymore that somebody who is a demagogue in one place will have no influence in another. You can bet that the people in Oregon are really aware of the people in Manchester, in England and are really aware of the people in places like Germany and France who are advancing these ideas. It’s coming together. I mean, I don’t want to sort of overstates the, I guess, a meeting of minds here because there are definitely some differences—

MARC STEINER: Oh absolutely, right.

MIKE WENDLING: … In philosophy and approach and how they play out in national politics, right? Which is very different still. But it’s very clear that there is a greater coalescing of these, you mentioned, there are a whole bunch of nationalist movements and far-right movements around the globe. They’re increasingly coming together.

MARC STEINER: Well, Mike Wendling, A, I appreciate your work at “BBC Trending.” Thank you so much for joining us here at The Real News today. I look forward to continuing our communications and conversations. Thank you so much.

MIKE WENDLING: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.