Author Tenold discusses "Everything You Love Will Burn" Friday at La Grua
Halfway through "Everything You Love Will Burn," the riveting and disconcerting new book by journalist Vegas Tenold about six years he spent embedded in America's White Nationalist movement, a principal character named Matthew Heimbach tosses off a weary and exasperated observation: "Why can't our people just not be crazy?"
At the time, the incident seemed almost comical. What Heimbach didn't realize was that perhaps HE needed to be crazier.
Heimbach, leader and co-founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, whose vision is that the fractured and various white power groups in the U.S. would be far better served putting aside their differences and uniting, is the prism through which Tenold steers "Everything You Love Will Burn." As arguably the most genial of white supremacist leaders — the Southern Poverty Law Center described him as "the affable, youthful face of hate in America" — Heimbach was happy to serve as Tenold's tour guide through an all-you-can-loathe buffet of outfits ranging from the Ku Kux Klan, the National Socialist Movement and the Aryan National Alliance to the Hammerskins, the American Nazi Party, and so on.
For a long time, as Tenold's book demonstrates, the many or recurring ways in which these groups short-circuited their own efforts were high points in ineptitude. It was after one such fiasco that Heimbach uttered his "why can't our people just not be crazy?" plea.
"At the time he said that, I thought it was interesting and spoke to what he was trying to do," says Tenold, on the phone from Brooklyn before a lecture appearance at 6 p.m. Thursday in Stonington's La Grua Center. "Matthew was trying to clean up yet another momentum-busting incident. But, two weeks ago, Matthew was arrested on this crazy domestic abuse charge. That's the thing. These are not the best people; they're always doomed to (screw) up in these spectacular and embarrassing ways. It's an occupational hazard for them."
In conversation, the quick-witted and genial Tenold, a native Norwegian who lives in Brooklyn and has written for Rolling Stone, New Republic and the New York Times, among other reputable publications, seems remarkably unscathed for someone who spent over half a decade voluntarily surrounded by white supremacists. Perhaps more incredibly, Tenold never attempted to pass himself off as a racist or wannabe. Everyone he met and spoke with for six years knew he was a journalist. And maybe an inherent desire by these hate groups for media attention — any media attention— gave Tenold a bit of a comfort zone during the process.
"I had no problem humanizing these people because that's how you work as a journalist," Tenold says. "If you go in thinking you're going to be interviewing monster, you miss a lot of nuance. It's an interesting dynamic because you do develop a rapport. If you met Matthew and didn't know who he was and didn't talk politics, you could have a pleasant conversation.
"But after all the time with him, we're not friends in any way, shape or form because I have serious fundamental issues on his views of humanity. In a strange way, it becomes uncomfortable to think of them as humans like us. They can sound and talk and act like the rest of us, and it's really hard not to go full-on into a sort of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' paranoia."
Early in his experiences, Tenold sees moments that are hardly intimidating: Klansmen stumbling drunkenly around a rural homestead preparing for an in-group wedding, or a racist Congressional candidate blathering incessantly from a booth in his own Tennessee "family restaurant" while his kids scurry about bussing tables.
But as "Burn" moves in real time and the various white nationalist groups are emboldened by a post-Trumpian seal of approval (perceived or otherwise), the discord between these organizations starts to smooth over and a gradual coalescence in the movement starts to happen.
The narrative arc of the book leads to Charlottesville — and Tenold was on site when a riot broke out between white power protesters and Antifa groups at an Embrace the Right rally. Despite the almost cuddly name, a murderer's row of alt- and extreme right leaders were on hand to speak in the town where, in 2015, Dylan Roof had massacred nine African-American church-goers. More recently, tension escalated with the removal of Confederate statues.
Tenold, who'd taken a bit of a much-needed break away from the movement, casually assumed the event would be an exercise in posturing, similar to several of the other protests he'd attended. But when Tenold arrived in Charlottesville, something had changed. The atmosphere was charged and the level of animosity had heightened. Tenold was warned away. The gathered white nationalist protesters, ranging from Klan members to skinheads, had a grim sense of unity and were armed with shields and makeshift weaponry.
Heimbach, Tenold says, was no longer the easygoing debater. He had, over the course of their relationship, "become a completely different person ... someone who believed he was at war. I'd had to step back to see it."
At Charlottesville, in addition to violence between white nationalists and Antifa members, white supremacist Richard Preston fired a gun into the crowd and Nazi enthusiast James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into anti-right protesters and killed one and injured over a dozen more.
Charlottesville was a disaster and a tragedy on a new and brazen scale and Tenold says it surprised him. "I think for the past couple of years it HAD been percolating. But I didn't see it coming. When (far-right spokesman) Richard Spencer got punched the day of Trump's inauguration, it gave everyone on the far-right a commonality. And slowly you could see the anger and tension ratchet up. If this all keeps going, we're going to be in real trouble. It worries me."
"The Rise of White Nationalistm" with Vegas Tenold, 6 p.m. Thursday, La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington; $5; (860) 535-2300.
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