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Q&A: Daniel Lombroso, Uncovering the Alt-Right

Daniel Lombroso is a Video Producer at The Atlantic magazine in Washington, D.C. where he produces, shoots, and edits documentary films…
Q&A: Daniel Lombroso, Uncovering the Alt-Right
Daniel Lombroso interviews Richard Spencer in the conference hotel room.
Daniel Lombroso

Daniel Lombroso is a Video Producer at The Atlantic magazine in Washington, D.C. where he produces, shoots, and edits documentary films. Since beginning at The Atlantic in 2015, he has produced dozens of videos, including his recent piece on Richard Spencer and white nationalism.

Rebranding White Nationalism, a short documentary by Daniel Lombroso and The Atlantic.

Storyhunter: In November, you shot a documentary on Richard Spencer and the alt-right, an excerpt of which went viral. Can you tell me about how the idea for the documentary initially came about?

Daniel Lombroso: I started following Richard about six months ago when he first appeared in public at the Republican National Convention. He was holding a sign that read “Who wants to be a racist?” That’s when he first made headlines, appearing in a New York Times story in July. I started looking into his background and found out he runs what he calls a think tank, the National Policy Institute. They were holding an annual convention in November, and I was looking for a piece that embodied the themes of the election: identity, race, and ethnicity. Richard speaking at the convention seemed the most extreme and concentrated version of those themes.

So I reached out to Richard and we spent a month or two negotiating access and figuring out how I could cover the event.

S: How did you make those negotiations?

DL: First we talked to Richard on background to learn more about him and his so-called think tank. And we had a good conversation, though he obviously has extremely troublesome views.

But he’s a great talker, he’s extremely well read. He’s a good conversationalist and you almost forget that you’re talking to a hard line white nationalist. He’s very guarded, but he’s very good at spinning things and making them sound palatable.

You understand his true intentions when you read about what he stands for. Basically, Richard Spencer wants a white ethno-state, which means a state where whites are more than 90% of the population, control all the major institutions, and control power.

But you’re never going to get him to say that on the phone or in an interview. Our conversations consisted of getting to know him and what he stands for, along with figuring out how I could cover the conference in a way that everyone there felt comfortable with. Even though the alt-right’s views are objectionable, I had to go about it in a way that is ethical, fair, and journalistically responsible. Eventually I got access and spent about two and a half days embedding with him at the conference — it was quite an experience.

S: I’m sure. So what did you tell him about the documentary before hand? Did he ask for it to be presented in a certain way?

DL: As a journalist at The Atlantic, I can’t promise any kind of coverage, and I didn’t. Of course he tried to push me many times into presenting him or the group in certain ways. At one point, he brought up a term sheet for coverage, but dropped it because I told him it just couldn’t happen. Eventually, he consented to being in the piece as did everyone else in it. He had no control over the product.

S: What was it like when you first met him at the conference?

DL: I actually first met him outside his apartment in Arlington, Virginia. Like I said, he comes off as cordial, we had a handshake, we talked about politics. I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. Then we commuted over to NPR, where I got those two scenes: him in the back seat of an Uber talking about the media attention he’s gotten lately, and him going into NPR. That was the first day.

Things started to get a whole lot more uneasy on day two when I was in Richard’s hotel room. We started with a sit down interview and that went well — he speaks well, he frames his ideas in a way that doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. But later on, other conference participants started coming in and out and they were much more uninhibited, openly talking and joking about ethnic cleansing, extermination, kicking out immigrants, and how Jews need to either move to Israel or assimilate completely.

S: Did they know you’re Jewish?

DL: I never brought it up to Richard, and I don’t think it would have been an issue. For him it’s like a transaction — he wants media attention, and we wanted to film the piece. He says in the video that all press is good press. He wouldn’t risk that by starting off with clearly anti-semitic beliefs.

But one guy I interviewed, Millennial Woes, a Scottish YouTube blogger, is very straightforward in his anti-semitism. He believes that the Holocaust was a myth or that at most 10–15,000 people died. At the end of that interview — he’d already signed the legal contract — he asked a little bit more about my background. At that point I had nothing to lose, so I told him I’m Jewish. He literally fell over in his chair and said “I wasn’t talking about you, I was talking about those other Jews.” I’m still not sure who those other Jews are.

S: Was there anything else that Richard, Millennial Woes, or others said that didn’t make the final cut?

DL: There were hours in the hotel room that got cut. A group of people were talking about how the Syrian refugee crisis is actually a mass invasion and that Muslim refugees were coming to take over Europe — like a reverse crusade. One dude who spoke at the conference said Syrian refugees are mass raping women and white men have to be aggressive, force Muslims out of the way, and powerfully take back their women.

S: Oh my god. Were there many women at the conference?

DL: I think the conference was roughly 80–85% male. There were probably about ten to twenty women, including a couple prominent alt-right journalists. There was also a black couple and a few latinos who claimed they’re ‘allies of color in the white struggle.’

S: Did you get any of them to go on camera for you?

DL: Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any of the women to speak on the record. Off the record, a couple of them told me they agree with what the alt-right stands for and don’t see it as a gender issue. But it’s clearly a male dominated movement, and the majority of people there were in their 20s to 30s. It’s also important to note that the majority of people I talked to were from the North, West, or Midwest, and every single person I talked to had a college degree. At least a third or half had master’s degrees.

S: That’s definitely not what I would have expected.

DL: Yeah, so it’s not like your ‘grandaddy’s racism.’ It’s a totally reinvented form of white nationalism that is reaching people we don’t typically associate with that ideology or movement.

S: So when you in the hotel room with these people for hours, was there ever a moment where you felt unsafe?

DL: I never felt unsafe at the conference hall where all the speeches were because there was a lot of press there. But since I had the best access of any journalist, my assistant and I were alone for the most part in his hotel room and that was the one time I did feel unsafe. Not in the sense that someone would actually physically assault me, but the things they uttered in general were so xenophobic that it was just not a great environment to be in. I guess a better way to phrase it is that being in the hotel room was uncomfortable. But that’s when you have to go into documentary filmmaker mode and capture whatever you can because getting that access was one of a kind.

S: Was it hard to experience all of that?

DL: When I came home at the end of the third day, I finally began to process what I heard. In an influential white ethno-state, Jews are the first to go. And I’m Jewish, both of my grandmothers are Holocaust survivors. But I somehow found a way to separate that from my journalistic self for two and a half days. It was the most dedicated I ever felt to the mission of being a journalist. Usually I hate my projects two days after I put them out, but this one I’m still pretty proud of.

S: You should be, it’s a fascinating piece. Did Richard Spencer or Millennial Woes react to it when it was released?

DL: I haven’t heard from Richard. Obviously, the ‘Hail Trump’ excerpt that we released in advance of the documentary blew up online. I think it was broadcast on 50+ networks around the world.

‘Hail Trump’ excerpt released before the documentary.

It’s wild to say, but that excerpt sort of ended the alt-right as it existed in November. After we got that clip of Richard leading Nazi salutes, everyone to the left of him in the movement completely distanced themselves from him. They say they want nothing to do with the alt-right. Richard himself had to put out a bunch of videos explaining why he led Nazi salutes at the rally. So that immediately had a ton of impact and really shaped everything he’s done in the past few months.

In terms of the documentary as a whole, I got a lot of reactions from people in the alt-right. Somehow they found out that I’m Jewish and there was some trolling online about that.

The better story is that Millennial Woes came up to me at the conference after our interview, shook my hand, and told me to keep in touch. I sent him the documentary about a month later and he invited me onto his show to talk about the ‘Jewish question.’ I’m not sure what he meant by that, but he said he wanted to talk to me in detail about what it’s like to be an American Jew. I told him I was going to have to politely decline.

S: That’s wild. Was this project like anything you covered before and would you do it again?

DL: It was completely a one of a kind project. I’m working on two pieces of similar scale right now, but I don’t think I’m ever again going to work on something that’s so fraught and aligned with this zeitgeist and uncomfortable and politically significant all at the same time. It’s like the stars aligned on that project in a really uncomfortable and awful way, and I’m really proud of the way I was able to make an impact on the public discourse, the way people perceived the movement of the alt-right, white nationalism, and its relationship to the Trump administration.

Daniel Lombroso working on a new documentary about Jon Ossoff in Georgia.

S: Sure, so this question might be more difficult, but did you ever feel like you were giving them a platform to speak in a way that was problematic?

DL: I’ve actually been asked that question a lot and it’s a very legitimate question. If it was any other year, any other election cycle, I would have had absolutely no interest in covering the alt-right, Richard Spencer, or the National Policy Institute.

My argument, and it’s one that a lot of people in the media have echoed, is that these people already have a platform. They’re already reaching millions on social media and gravely affected the conversation around the election. In November, the alt-right was on the offense and was growing. As a journalist, I think you have an obligation to really grapple with the questions of the day and the ideologies that are present in American society. It’s important to help expose groups like that and to inform American citizens of the more fringe elements in society, especially ones that are having as great an impact like Richard Spencer and the alt-right.

S: Thank you for answering that and for the interview.

By D. Simone Kovacs, Writer at Storyhunter