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lunes, 9 de octubre de 2017
Birth of a White Supremacist
Mike Peinovich’s transformation from leftist contrarian to nationalist shock jock.
By Andrew Marantz
Mike Enoch’s political conversion was both quotidian and unsettling.Illustration by Brian Stauffer
This summer, after a loose coalition of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Confederate apologists announced that they would hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, promotional flyers began to circulate on the Internet. The flyers included a list of names: the self-proclaimed thought leaders who planned to speak at the rally, arranged, Coachella-like, in order of prominence. At the top of the list was Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” almost a decade ago, and who has been so successful at making himself the poster boy of the movement that he was once sucker punched while standing on a sidewalk in Washington, D.C. Farther down the list were Jason Kessler, the Charlottesville resident who organized the rally; Matthew Heimbach, who has been called “the affable, youthful face of hate in America”; and Christopher Cantwell, who would later star in a Vice documentary about Charlottesville, unpacking a small arsenal of guns and saying, among other things, “We’re not nonviolent—we’ll fucking kill these people if we have to.”
The second person listed on the flyers, immediately below Spencer, was a white-nationalist shock jock named Mike Enoch. The name might have been unfamiliar to most Americans, but, to an inner cadre of Web-fluent neo-fascists, Enoch is an influential and divisive figure. In May, David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted, “Hate him or love him—Mike Enoch is someone to pay close attention to.” Just three years ago, Enoch could be heard mocking Spencer (“talks like a fag”) and Cantwell (“a dickhead turtle”), criticizing their ideologies as too extreme. But that was before his radicalization was complete. These days, Enoch routinely refers to African-Americans as “animals” and “savages,” and expresses “skepticism” about how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Apart from interviews with Spencer and Cantwell, who are now his close friends and ideological allies, he largely eschews attention from the media. He prefers to speak—voluminously, articulately, and with an uncanny lack of emotion—on his own podcast, “The Daily Shoah.” (The title, a pun about the Holocaust by way of Comedy Central, reflects the overall tone of the show.) “The Daily Shoah” is the most popular of more than two dozen podcasts on the Right Stuff, a Web site that Enoch founded in 2012. Once an obscure blog about “post-libertarian” politics, the site is now a breeding ground for some of the most florid racism on the Internet. One of its pages is set up to accept donations, in dollars or bitcoins; another is devoted to “fashy memes,” songs and images that extol fascism in an antic, joking-but-not-joking tone. The podcasts—meandering, amateurish talk shows hosted by bilious young men who make Rush Limbaugh sound like Mr. Rogers—are not available on iTunes, Spotify, or any other major platform, and yet collectively they draw tens of thousands of listeners a week.
The Charlottesville rally, on August 12th, immediately erupted in violence, and the police shut it down before any of the speakers could take the stage. A few of them reconvened in a park two miles away. Enoch, surrounded by small concentric circles of reporters, protesters, and counterprotesters, stood on a wooden riser in the shade of a dogwood tree. A tall, stout man with a husky voice and a grim, downturned mouth, he wore aviator sunglasses, a slight beard, and the unofficial uniform of the day: khakis and a white polo shirt. “We’re here to talk about white genocide, the deliberate and intentional displacement of the white race,” he said. “Have we heard this conspiracy theory of white privilege? This is a concept that was brought to us by Jewish intellectuals, to undermine our confidence in ourselves.” He finished his remarks and introduced the next speaker, David Duke. An hour later, James Alex Fields, Jr., wearing khakis and a white polo, drove a car into a crowd of people, killing Heather Heyer, a local counterprotester.
Enoch’s father, who is also named Mike, spent that Saturday at home. He lives in an upper-middle-class New Jersey suburb that is often listed among the most progressive towns in the country. “I made breakfast, and at some point I mowed the lawn,” he said recently. “Then, as I do every day, I sat down to read the New York Times.” He saw a photograph of a torch-wielding mob taken in Charlottesville the previous night. “I looked at the picture for a while, and I couldn’t find Mike anywhere,” he said. He scrutinized other photos online, and still didn’t see his son. “I said, ‘Thank God,’ and I went about my day.”
On Sunday, after he got home from church, he saw that a relative had e-mailed him a YouTube link. He clicked on it: his son and David Duke, standing shoulder to shoulder. “It turned my stomach,” he said. “Until that moment, I had imagined that, whatever had caused him to go down this path, it could somehow be reversed, and he could come home again.”
Most of the bloggers and commenters on the Right Stuff use pseudonyms—Sneering Imperialist, Toilet Law, Ebolamericana, Death. “Mike Enoch” is a pseudonym, too. Over the years, on “The Daily Shoah,” he occasionally dropped hints about his identity, though he was careful not to reveal too much. He said that he lived with his wife in New York City—“which narrows it down to me and eight million other people”—and that he worked at a “normie” day job, which he would surely lose if his employers ever learned about his alter ego. As a child, he had attended church camps and public schools, where he’d been “programmed” to believe in universalism and equality. Most members of his immediate family were still “shitlibs”—committed liberals who had not yet seen the error of their ways.
In January, a group of anti-fascist activists dug up his personal information and released it against his will—an Internet-specific form of retribution known as doxing. Mike Enoch was actually Michael Enoch Isaac Peinovich, a thirty-nine-year-old computer programmer who worked at an e-publishing company and lived on the Upper East Side. As predicted, he lost his job. Someone printed out color photographs of his face and pasted them to telephone poles on the corner of Eighty-second Street and York Avenue: “Say Hi to Your Neo-Nazi Neighbor, Mike Peinovich!” The dox revealed that he had an older sister, a social worker who treated traumatized children, and an adopted younger brother, who was biracial and cognitively impaired. Perhaps most baffling of all, Mike’s wife, who was also identified in the dox, turned out to be Jewish.
At first, Enoch tried to insist that he wasn’t Peinovich, but he soon put up a post on the Right Stuff confirming his identity: “I won’t even bother denying it.” On white-nationalist message boards, including the Right Stuff itself, a few commenters accused Enoch of being “controlled opposition,” or demanded that he divorce his wife. (“I can’t believe all you fags still support this Jew fucker!”) Some held out for more information (“How Jewish? Because if 1/4 or less, I don’t give a shit”); others changed the subject (“I’m more disappointed by how fat he is than anything”).
A few days later, on “The Daily Shoah,” Enoch and his co-hosts read dozens of notes from listeners who were remaining loyal to the podcast, some of whom had donated money to Enoch in his time of need. “My heart goes out to his wife,” one fan, a long-distance trucker, wrote. “If she is married to Mike, she must be a good individual.”
“That is a really nice thing to say,” Enoch said. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.” He didn’t mention that his wife had gone to stay with her mother in the Midwest.
Also included in the dox were two e-mail addresses, both purportedly belonging to Enoch. In general, I am opposed to doxing—I worry about vigilante mobs, false positives, slippery slopes—but not opposed enough, apparently, to overcome my curiosity. I e-mailed both addresses.
Enoch responded right away. He said that he didn’t want to talk—“I have a platform to tell my story that is bigger than yours”—and yet, every time I sent another e-mail, he sent one back. I made no secret of the fact that I found his views repugnant, but I added, truthfully, that I wanted to know how he’d ended up in this predicament and what he planned to do next. At one point, I wrote him a long note trying to persuade him to talk to me. His entire response was “You seem kinda mad.” We went back and forth for a while, but I had no real success in drawing him out, and eventually we both lost interest.
He later read our full exchange on “The Daily Shoah.” To his credit, he didn’t edit his responses to make them sound smarter, but he didn’t have to. According to the rules of online debate in the Right Stuff’s “Essential T.R.S. Troll Guide,” which I hadn’t read at the time, Enoch had won our exchange by default, because he had written fewer words and maintained his ironic detachment, whereas I had committed the greatest possible faux pas: letting myself be “triggered” into displaying emotion. After the podcast aired, a few of Enoch’s fans sent me nasty messages on Twitter. I figured that was the end of it.
Then I heard back from the other e-mail address. “I am not the Mike Peinovich to whom you addressed this email, but I am his father,” it read. “Until two days ago, I was totally unaware of his ‘alt-right’ activities. . . . I am struggling to understand how Mike E. (which is what we call him to distinguish him from me and my father who was also Mike Peinovich) could have said, posted or tweeted the things that are attributed to him.”
I called Mike, Sr., and we talked for a long time. It was the week of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, and he spoke in the tone that a lot of liberals were using then—weary and a bit dazed, as if struggling to shake a bad dream. “We tried to give our kids good values,” he said. “Mike E. went to good schools, and he loved being part of his church youth group. We knew that he was an outspoken Trump supporter, and he was very much the only one in the family, so we agreed, at a certain point, not to talk about politics.” He had listened to the podcast for long enough to recognize his son’s voice and profane sense of humor, but lasted only a few minutes before turning it off.
Four days after the rally in Charlottesville, I went to meet Mike, Sr., and his wife, Billie, in New Jersey. They live in an Arts and Crafts house on a tree-lined block near the center of town. Mike, Sr., answered the door. He was taller and thinner than his son, with silver hair and rimless glasses, but I saw the resemblance right away: the square jaw, the downturned mouth.
Billie and Mike are retired, and they spend several months a year travelling. They gave me a tour of the house, pointing out items they’d collected: Persian rugs, Mexican pottery, a floor-mounted globe. Mike was once a professor of Old English at the University of Pennsylvania, and his study contains several dictionaries and translations of “Beowulf,” along with contemporary books such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” We sat in armchairs in the living room, and he talked at length about his ancestors. “My grandfather helped drive the K.K.K. out of North Dakota,” he said. “My other grandfather came from Yugoslavia, fleeing religious persecution.”
Billie, who was a psychiatric social worker for many years, spoke in the language of therapy. Mike E.’s parents broke up when he was three, and Billie married into the family a few years later; as far as she was concerned, she was as much Mike E.’s parent as anyone. “I feel shock and anger,” she said. “I also feel shame, which is irrational, because I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. I think he brought this on himself because he wants to distance himself from us, from everyone, as a form of self-protection.” Then, more quietly, she said, “He must be so lonely.”
Billie wondered aloud how to tell their friends and family about Mike E. “What do you do?” she said. “Send a letter to your cousins—‘Haven’t spoken to you in twenty years, hope you’re doing well, and, oh, P.S., our son’s a Nazi now’?” She worried that people would wonder what she and Mike, Sr., had done wrong as parents. “Everyone wants it to be simple, to know who to blame,” one of Mike E.’s relatives told me later. “But lots of kids have parents who get divorced when they’re young. Lots of white kids have difficult personalities. They don’t all become Nazis.”
A few people around town had already heard the news, mostly through Facebook, and some of them were talking about Mike E. as if he had been abducted by a cult, or tied down and injected with a serum of pure hatred. Other people assumed that there must be some key biographical fact—a chemical imbalance, a history of abuse—that would neatly unlock the mystery. But Mike E.’s conversion was more quotidian than that, and therefore more unsettling; somehow, over time, he had fallen into a particularly dark rabbit hole, where some of the most disturbing and discredited ideas in modern history were repackaged as the solution to twenty-first-century malaise.
As a child, Mike E. suffered from severe asthma and eczema. In most old photographs, his face is red and swollen and his shoulders are hunched, a sign that he is straining to catch his breath. The Peinoviches spent one summer at a lake house in Ohio, where the air was fresh and Mike E. found it easier to breathe; still, he went swimming with his shirt on, because his skin was covered with scratches and open sores. “When we walked through an airport or a mall with our younger son, we would get stopped and told what a beautiful child we had,” Billie said. “Not with Mike E.”
He was so allergic to so many things—dust, pollen, nuts, wheat, shellfish—that he carried an EpiPen almost everywhere he went. At birthday parties, while the other children ate ice cream and cake, he ate saltines. “A few months ago, for some reason, it became a joke on the alt-right to talk about drinking milk,” someone who knew Mike E. as a child told me. On Twitter, “his bio said, ‘Lactose tolerant’—as code for, you know, white power. But the funny thing was, anyone who knew him knew that any exposure to dairy would make him sick.”
In 1980, Mike E.’s mother left Mike, Sr., and she later moved out of the state. The divorce was ugly, and for many years she rarely saw the children. Mike E. was sent to a series of therapists, who mentioned potential disorders, but nothing definitive. One therapist, instead of giving a diagnosis, said that Mike E. was “as vulnerable as a peeled grape.”
Gradually, he learned to insulate himself with jokes and insults. He was clever, and found strength in contrarianism. His ideology shifted over time, but his approach was always the same: exposing and attacking the flaws in commonplace arguments, often without any sense of proportion. Even when he agreed with someone’s opinion, he still loved to engage in rhetorical battle—not to advance any particular agenda, one of his relatives told me, but “to stir up resentment. He strikes me as someone without a core, who only knows how to oppose and who chooses his positions based on what will be most upsetting to people around him.”
He grew up listening to the Jerky Boys, virtuosos of the scatological prank call, and to Opie and Anthony, a pair of afternoon-radio comedians who always seemed to be daring their station managers to fire them. Opie and Anthony, in particular, revelled in boundary-pushing for its own sake. For several years, they held a “Most Offensive Song Contest.” Crowd favorites included “Baby Raper” and “Stuck in an Oven with Jews.” Such songs were not actually calling for genocide, of course. The point was to flout as many taboos as possible. Anyone who didn’t find it funny was urged to grow a thicker skin.
This aesthetic now thrives on forums like 4chan and the Right Stuff, where the dominant modes of self-expression are trolling and “shitposting”—transcribing the motley contents of one’s id, the more bizarre or abhorrent the better. But, compared with terrestrial radio or network TV, the Internet offers fewer direct boundaries to push against; there are no station managers to thumb your nose at. If “Stuck in an Oven with Jews” was shocking before social media, the race to the bottom has since accelerated into free fall.
Mike E.’s high school was diverse and academically rigorous. (His sister’s classmates included Zach Braff and Lauryn Hill.) He had the sort of grades that are common among smart but disobedient kids: A’s in classes that interested him, D’s and F’s when he was bored or felt that the teacher didn’t deserve his respect. He went to Ohio University to study graphic design, but dropped out after the first quarter. He studied at two Rutgers campuses, then took computer-programming classes at Pace University, but left without a degree. “Mike E. took his fourth run at college and finally faced the fact that he is not suited to academic life,” the family’s 2006 Christmas letter read. He moved to Bushwick, in Brooklyn, taught himself how to code, and eventually got a lucrative job as a back-end programmer at AOL. His supervisor there was a blond woman from the Midwest, a musician and photographer who shared many of his interests—sci-fi movies, medieval history, recondite Internet humor. They started dating. Her father was born Jewish and her mother had converted to Judaism, but Mike E. hardly found this remarkable; half the people he grew up with were Jewish, including his high-school girlfriend. The Christmas letter continued, “Though he commutes into Manhattan to a corporate job, he’s still the non-conformist that he always was.”
He and the supervisor got married and moved to a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. (Their wedding ceremony was mostly secular, but they recited a prayer and stomped on a glass.) She maintained a blog, reviewing local rock concerts and drag-queen shows, and she often talked about a fantasy novel she hoped to write. To get his eczema under control, Mike E. ordered large doses of prednisone, a prescription steroid, from an Indian Web site, and took it without medical supervision. Prednisone’s side effects include depression, agitation, weight gain, and vision problems. He gained so much weight that he was almost unrecognizable, and he went temporarily blind in one eye, necessitating emergency cataract surgery.
Gradually, he and his wife stopped going out with their friends from Bushwick, then stopped going out much at all. Instead they stayed home, playing video games or reading on their laptops. Mike E. spent hours in political-debate forums on Facebook and Reddit, where he let his contrarian side run wild. Online, no one was keeping track of his opinions. No one even knew his name, or what he looked like. It felt like another video game. Sometimes he would stake out a seemingly indefensible position, then see if he could invent an argument to back it up.
It was obvious to him that the country was profoundly off track, and that both major political parties were morally and intellectually bankrupt. The only question was which utopian system should replace the current one. He read books by Noam Chomsky and articles on antiwar.com, which published critiques of American foreign policy from the far left and the far right. He dabbled in leftist anarchism, but discovered glaring flaws in the ideology; after that, he became a Trotskyist. One Saturday, he later wrote, he found himself at a meeting “in a run down YMCA in Brooklyn with a group of middle-aged Jewish public school teachers.” They were discussing what stance to take on Islamic terrorism. “An overwhelming sense of loathing washed over me like an awesome wave,” he wrote. “The people I was around suddenly seemed twisted and horrible. A revelatory religious experience is the closest thing I can compare this experience to.”
He began reading books by Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, the grandfather of libertarianism. For a few years, he was an enthusiastic and doctrinaire libertarian. He started a blog called the Emptiness, where he wrote posts such as “Socialism Is Selfish” and “Taxation Is Theft.” Through online debate forums, he met a few like-minded friends—a painting contractor from upstate New York, an E.M.T. from Virginia, a devout Christian from Tennessee. They called themselves “post-libertarians,” though they weren’t sure what would come next. In a private Facebook group, they debated the merits of various micro-ideologies—paleoconservatism, neo-reaction, radical traditionalism—and made jokes that were too self-referential or too offensive to share with the wider public. Each time Mike E. adopted a new world view, he was able to convince himself that his conversion was rational, even inevitable.
Within a few years, he started to wonder whether libertarianism was too tepid. After all, its premises pointed toward a starker conclusion: if the state was nothing but a hindrance to freedom, why not abolish the state altogether, leaving only the unfettered market? From there, he went even further. What if you couldn’t account for people’s behavior without considering their cultural background, and even their genetic makeup? “Slapped in the face by the reality of human bio-diversity,” he later wrote, “I had to come to grips with the fact that libertarianism isn’t going to work for everyone, and the people that it isn’t going to work for are going to ruin it for everyone else.” Human biodiversity: the idea that people are different, that they differ in predictable ways, and that some people—not just individuals but groups of people—might be inherently superior to others.
He thought he had carefully examined each of his beliefs, reducing them to their most fundamental axioms. But here was an axiom so fundamental that he hadn’t even articulated it to himself, much less subjected it to logical scrutiny. Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure why he should assume that all people were equal. Maybe they weren’t. If this was a textbook definition of racism, then so be it—maybe racism was true. “They’re fucking religious fanatics,” he said later, of liberals like his former self. “They believe in the equality of human beings like a Muslim believes that he has to pray five times facing Mecca, or like a Southern Baptist hates the devil. . . . If you’re a liberal, you’ve never thought twice, you’ve never reconsidered, you’ve absorbed what you were taught in the government schools and by the TV.”
The idea of racial hierarchy seemed to hold enormous explanatory power. As a liberal, he had dealt with troubling facts—the achievement gap between black students and white students, say—by invoking the history of racial oppression, or by explaining why the data didn’t show what they appeared to show. As a Marxist, he had attributed unpleasant facts to capitalist exploitation; as a libertarian, he had blamed the state. But all those explanations were abstract at best, muddled at worst, and they required levels of context that were impossible to convey in a Facebook post. Now he was free to revert to a far simpler explanation: maybe white people had more wealth and power because white people were superior. After arguing himself out of every previous position, he had finally found the perfect ideology for an inveterate contrarian—one that presented such a basic affront to the underlying tenets of modern democracy that he would never run out of enemies.
“I thought getting bigger rocks would make us happier, but I guess I was wrong.”
He felt the urge to explain what he was learning to his co-workers, his parents, and his sister, but he knew that they wouldn’t understand. He stopped haranguing his family about tax policy and the Federal Reserve. They assumed that he had lost interest in politics, and he didn’t bother to correct them.
In December, 2012, with friends from his post-libertarian Facebook group, he started the Right Stuff. “We’re right wingers,” the About Us page read, “but we welcome comments from intelligent and civil people across the political spectrum.” A few months later, the About Us page was edited: “While unabashedly authoritarian, fash-ist, and theocratic, we welcome comments from intelligent and civil people across the political spectrum.” In 2016, the page was amended yet again: “Even though you are wrong, we are open to outside opinions. . . . Also we’re white and we’re not sorry.”
The Right Stuff’s podcasts are laden with acronyms, abbreviations, and inside jokes. (At one point, the site published a “T.R.S. Lexicon,” a glossary for newcomers.) Some of the neologisms are unique to T.R.S.; others would be familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time in certain parts of the Internet. A person who takes on an overly theatrical identity, for example, is “larping”—live-action role-playing. A “red pill” is a transformative bit of knowledge that is supposed to subvert left-wing brainwashing. (“Red-pill me on that, goy,” one “Daily Shoah” co-host might say to another, asking to be brought up to speed on the latest white-nationalist thinking.) The tone of a discussion can swing, sometimes within a single sentence, from sincerity to sarcasm to reverse sarcasm. These distinctions are so subtle and ever-shifting that the co-hosts sometimes have to tell one another, on air, “I actually meant that,” or “I was just doing a bit.”
Bigots these days often claim that the bigoted things they say are ironic, or quasi ironic. Part of what makes this feint so disorienting is that it is sometimes true. When “The Daily Shoah” started, in 2014, its title was not, or not primarily, meant to be earnestly anti-Semitic. “At first, it was a joke,” Enoch explained on Chris Cantwell’s podcast, in May. “It was just a funny pun. But we kinda put ourselves in a box.” The Right Stuff launched other podcasts, each with its own parody logo: “Fash the Nation,” “Nationalist Public Radio,” “Good Morning White America.”
In the early days, “The Daily Shoah” reserved most of its firepower for its neighbors on the political spectrum, mocking those on the alt-right who reduced all geopolitical issues to a simple Zionist conspiracy. With each episode, though, the co-hosts’ anti-Semitism sounded more sincere. Allusions to gas chambers and ovens became almost a verbal tic. Whenever the co-hosts mentioned a Jewish journalist or politician, they would emphasize the name, pronouncing it in a nasal accent and using a reverb effect. This invention—the Echo, they called it—became one of their signature memes. They approximated it in writing, in the blog and on Twitter, surrounding Jewish names with triple parentheses.
Then, in January, 2015, Enoch read “The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements,” by Kevin MacDonald, a former psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach. The book—published in 1998, heavily footnoted, and roundly debunked by mainstream social scientists—is a touchstone of contemporary intellectualized anti-Semitism. On “The Daily Shoah,” Enoch called it “important and devastating, something I urge everybody to read,” and then offered even higher praise: “It triggered me so hard.” From then on, he began to express his anti-Semitism more frankly. He sometimes spun his Northeastern upbringing as an advantage: having grown up around Jews, he understood the enemy. “You’ll talk to white Americans today, and they don’t actually know if someone’s Jewish or not,” he said. “I have very honed Jewdar. I can tell.”
Enoch still lived with his wife, in the one-bedroom apartment where he recorded “The Daily Shoah.” His wife—they separated in January and are in the process of divorcing—declined to be interviewed for this piece, and no one I talked to, including people who were in a position to know, could fully explain how a Jew and a professional anti-Semite stayed together for so long. “They always talked about everything,” one person told me. “She was his best audience. It’s possible that they never talked about this, but it’s hard to imagine.”
After the dox, Mike E.’s parents spoke to his wife, and she told them that, although she was aware that their son hosted a podcast, she didn’t know anything about its contents. This was false. On December 22, 2015, she appeared on “The Daily Shoah” ’s annual Christmas episode to recite a poem, a parody of “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” “She wrote this,” Enoch said, by way of introduction, “and she’s really proud of it.” The poem betrayed a deep familiarity with the show’s tone, and with several of its inside jokes:
’Twas a T.R.S. Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even my spouse
The cucks were all prepped for the ovens with care,
Just waiting for morning to pop ’em in there. . . .
Out Communists, out Socialists, out left-libertarians!
Out betas, out allies, S.J.W. contrarians
Out beaners and dindus and Muslim jihadists
Spare us your Syrian-refugee problems
Just fash away, fash away, fash away all!
Somehow, Enoch’s wife must have convinced herself that the words she was repeating were empty signifiers. She was an aspiring writer, and she presumably wanted to demonstrate to her husband and his friends that she, too, could excel at their game. In the poem, she referred to herself as a troll. Maybe she imagined that she was indulging in a bit of victimless, anonymous humor, another edgy joke that went too far.
During one of my visits to Mike, Sr., and Billie’s house in New Jersey, I met their adopted son, who asked to go by his middle name, Joshua. Before the dox, he and Mike E. had had a good relationship. Every once in a while, Joshua would take a train to New York, they would see a super-hero movie together, and Joshua would sleep over.
After Mike E. was doxed, Joshua said, “I was a big target.” Some of Enoch’s followers, apparently upset that he had a nonwhite family member, found Joshua’s Facebook page and sent him threats and obscene images. “I just deleted them, just blocked the people,” Joshua said. “I didn’t even want to acknowledge it.” Joshua has a brain injury, and he tends to express his thoughts simply and flatly; still, it was clear that this had been a harrowing experience. The two brothers haven’t spoken since.
Mike, Sr., told me that after he found out about his son’s online persona, in January, he’d seen him only once, in Manhattan, where they met to put a modest inheritance from Mike E.’s grandmother in a trust fund. As they waited in the lobby of a bank, they made awkward small talk. “He told me he’d been going to the gym and not eating carbs,” Mike, Sr., said. “He didn’t say where he was living, or what he was doing with his days, or how he was feeling. It felt like talking to someone I hardly knew.” Before he left, Mike, Sr., made one request: that Mike E. legally change his last name to Enoch, or Paine, or anything, really, other than Peinovich. Mike E. agreed.
The day after Charlottesville, Mike, Sr., texted him, reminding him of his promise. “Whatever,” Mike E. wrote. He had changed his mind. “This is my final decision. Perhaps if you had shown more sympathy and interest in fairness, my decision would be different.”
One Friday afternoon in September, Mike Enoch called my cell phone. “I hear you’ve been talking to my family,” he said. I told him that I’d been hoping to speak to him, but that it would have to wait; I was in the middle of lunch. “What are you having?” he asked. I didn’t want to tell him the real answer—a bagel and lox—so I lied and said I was eating a salad. As if we were on his podcast, he went on a comedic riff about a takeout chain called Just Salad: “I’ve always thought that that was a nice little double entendre, to appeal to social-justice-minded white people.” He was about to board a train to Washington, D.C., so we agreed that he’d call again that night. I assumed that he would record the call, troll me for a few minutes, and then play the audio on his show, as he’d done with other reporters.
In the end, we spoke for more than two hours. He was surprisingly forthcoming. “My family always larped as Wasps, even though we’re not Anglo-Saxon,” he said. “My dad wore tweed jackets, that whole thing.” His biological mother, he said later, “was always a bit of a race realist on this point. She’s completely Norwegian, while my dad is half Norwegian and half Serbian.” He added, “My mother always said, ‘Your temper comes from your Serbian side.’ I’m quite sure she meant that in a racial sense. And I think there’s something to that.” (His mother, a retired college president in New York, clarified that she meant this “in a cultural sense” and that she is not fully Norwegian.)
I asked him whether he regretted the violence in Charlottesville. “You’ll have to ask Antifa,” he said. “The violence wasn’t initiated by our side.” He described his current ideological position as “white nationalism, or the alt-right, or whatever you wanna call it.” In hindsight, he now says, he was always more wary of African-Americans and Jews than he let on. “I noticed these differences, even when I didn’t necessarily put emphasis on them or think that they were socially deterministic,” he said. He spoke freely about his “intense, personal antipathy for Jews,” but insisted that he did not hate black people: “I just feel sorry for them and see them as a social problem.” I asked how to square this with the fact that he had a black brother. “He’s only a quarter black,” he responded.
A few times, I tried to ask another obvious question: If you never liked Jews, why did you marry one? The first time, he sighed and then said, “I don’t really know.” The next time it came up, he said, “Jews have certain physical features that I don’t think are particularly attractive. She didn’t have those. I thought she was very pretty.” Nor did she exhibit what he considered typical Jewish traits: “The pushiness, this absolute inability to empathize with others, an exploitative personality. She didn’t have any of that.”
Why did he work so hard, for so many years, to keep his normal life separate from his online alt-right persona? “My wife,” he said without hesitation. “For a long time, I wanted to have it both ways, by just being anonymous on the Internet. But then we got popular.” In 2015, he attended a conference hosted by Richard Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute. Enoch’s identity was still secret, and audience members were asked not to take his photo; still, everyone he talked to recognized his voice, and several people told him that they had bought a ticket because they were hoping to meet him. “At that point, it was, like, O.K., this is getting out of control,” he told me. “I kept saying, ‘It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.’ But I knew that I was just delaying the inevitable.”
We talked about “The Culture of Critique,” the anti-Semitic text that he’d found so formative, and I mentioned that I’d just ordered a copy. “Well, don’t red-pill yourself too hard,” he said. Then, after a pause: “You’re not Jewish, are you?”
I am. I don’t put triple parentheses around my name on Twitter, as some Jews do, in defiance of T.R.S.’s Echo. But I have never made a secret of my identity. I have written for Jewish magazines. My face looks Jewish. My name sounds Jewish.
“Yep,” I said.
“Interesting,” he said, sounding a bit flustered. “Fully Jewish, or half Jewish?”
“Fully,” I said. “Your Jewdar must be broken.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve got red hair,” he said. “That threw me.” He encouraged me to read MacDonald’s book nonetheless. “I would hope that you would be able to look past any dissonance and at least examine the argument,” he said. “Maybe do some internal—not that I expect you to hate yourself . . .” He trailed off.
At one point, without prompting, he said, “You wanna know the first thing my dad asked me after Charlottesville? He didn’t say, ‘Are you O.K.?’ or ‘How are you?’ He said, ‘Change your name.’ ” His birth mother had asked about his safety—“Mothers are mothers,” he explained—but not his father. “He didn’t care about that,” he said. “All he cared about was his good name.” I couldn’t be sure, over the phone, but it sounded as if he was holding back tears.
On my last visit to the Peinoviches’ house, Mike, Sr., flipped through a photo album that Billie had brought up from the basement. One photo sparked a pleasant memory: a twenty-fifth-anniversary trip to Hawaii, in 2008, with the three children. “We were all in good spirits that week, even Mike E.,” he said. “We went out to these long dinners and ordered a bunch of cocktails, which probably helped. Mike E. had brought along this computer program he’d made—”
“The Bergman Plot Generator,” Billie said.
“He somehow figured out how to randomly generate plots of Ingmar Bergman films—”
“ ‘A dark knight encounters death on a lonely road,’ that kind of thing—”
“And he left it running, in the condo we were renting, and all day it would be spitting out plots,” Mike, Sr., said, chuckling. “We’d come back inside and read them out to one another, and we’d fall down laughing.”
Mike, Sr.,’s smile faded. “I still love him, in spite of everything,” he said, his voice catching. The sun started to set, casting shadows across the living room, and Mike went into the kitchen to open a bottle of wine. Billie said, “All I keep thinking is that, if we were Jewish, we’d be sitting shiva right now.”