There have only been a few times that Louis Theroux has had the cameras turned on him whilst making his documentaries. When he met America’s Most Hated Family, the Phelps made one of their trademark ‘hate signs’ with Theroux’s face plastered across it. An infamous episode with disgraced PR guru Max Clifford saw Louis the focus of newspaper spreads that Clifford had fictionalised. His feature-length film, Scientology and Me saw the tables turned when he got wind that the Scientologists he was desperate to film had actually been making a film about him!
Another exchange I remember vividly came in Louis & the Nazi’s when a group of skinheads, who had invited him over to spend the day with them, suddenly demanded to know if he was Jewish. It was one of the few times Theroux seemed genuinely uncomfortable. The mood in the room is always controlled to some degree by the people who agree to take part in the programmes, but here the mood changed and Theroux has said in subsequent interviews that the exchange did make him really uncomfortable. Theroux’s style is non-threatening and passive no matter who is interacting with.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the first episode of his new three-part series Forbidden America starts with another angry white man berating Theroux and turning his camera on him. Extreme and Online, is, as you might expect, an uncomfortable watch. Reminiscent of his documentaries on Nazi’s and the Phelps family it features ordinary Americans who are so full of vitriol and hatred and acts as an indictment on the damage done by the Trump era and the dangers of online propaganda. Trump’s name is only mentioned a handful of times over the course of the hour but his shadow looms large over everyone here.
Theroux manages to stay calm throughout, even as cameras are pointed at him. “Why are you so triggered?” he asks one man who claims that Theroux ‘hates white people. The documentary spends time with a new incarnation of the far right. A group of White Americans who believe America should be a nation of White people. One of the group assures Theroux, “it’s not a racist thing or a bigoted view thing” but as they chant things like ‘America First’ and ‘You will not replace us‘ it’s hard to view them as anything other than a hate-filled and deeply racist group. They don’t stop at racism, they’re homophobic, misogynistic and deeply distrustful of anyone who doesn’t share their twisted outlook of the world.
He begins by meeting 22-year-old Nicholas J. Fuentes. A fan of Donald Trump who is banned by the right-wing of Trump’s Republican Party who view him as too extreme. That is quite a statement in itself. It is telling in the age, of online radicalisation, that someone as young as Fuentes could spawn such an avid following for his ‘America First’ agenda. Nick sets up events for like-minded people to get together and share their views, and to radicalise those on the verge of tipping over into his agenda. It’s clear quite quickly that as disgusting as the group is, they’re a group of people trying to find their place now that Trump has left office. All of the men at Nick’s event greet Louis with a Covid-friendly fistbump and don’t seem overly concerned that a documentarian from the BBC is there to oversee things. As is often the case with the people Louis meets, these people are more than keen to show off in front of the camera and seem to relish the fact that someone is paying attention to them.
Unsurprisingly, Nick’s group consists of angry white men of differing ages. “Women tend to crack under the pressure and cause friction within the group“. Given Nick’s views on women, the most plausible reason for there being no female members of the group is that they wouldn’t want to be associated with him and his stone-age view of where women fit into modern society.
Whilst the majority of the attendees fit the profile you’d probably expect, a lot of the young men, some of them still in university, have stumbled across Nick through their love of online gaming. Nick would speak to them during games of Fortnite, he found like-minded people, big Trump supporters who latched onto him. America First B***h! It’s a movement that exists predominantly online, where nobody is policed for their hate speech, in-jokes, spreading of propaganda or outright lies.
At the forefront of Nick’s belief system is the notion that if America loses its core European white people and its faith in Christ it will cease to be America. This negates the fact that those white European people he speaks so highly of were themselves immigrants to the country. No one in America is truly an American outside of the Native Americans, an idea that is totally lost on Nick and his legions of brainwashed and easily influenced followers. His idea that “White people founded this country” sees the crowd erupt in applause. The idea, as with all of these groups, is that the white race is the minority. That they’ve been pushed out of their own communities and they’re being bullied. One look at America’s statistics on crime, homelessness and poverty would put their mind to rest. What Nick is doing with his America First movement, is nothing new. He’s using the same lies, playing on the same fears and stoking the same racial bigotry that was at the heart of Trump’s successful presidential run. The people who lapped up his white privilege rhetoric are still desperate to hear the ‘hits’ again and they are happy to latch onto anyone who is of that viewpoint.
One of Nick’s avid followers, Louis’s next contributor, who goes by the online name Baked Alaska, fits the profile of a far-right extremist at every turn. He proudly live-streamed from the January 6th insurrection on the Capitol building, he antagonises people with this camera and is currently facing assault charges. It’s the first time Louis finds the camera pointing at him. ‘Baked’ and his associates don’t trust journalists, the irony again being, that they’ve allowed Louis and his crew in with the hopes of gaining more exposure.
A former Buzzfeed employee, ‘Baked’ is just as extreme as Nick, but seems not to be able to separate the seriousness and inflammatory nature of his comments with ‘jokes’ He’s almost gleeful when he shares his music video, “Twitter is gay’ with a bemused Louis Theroux. The video isn’t a big political statement, but more a puerile response to the fact that he was kicked off the social media platform after tweeting his views on Muslims. In an infuriating way, ‘Baked isn’t to blame. All of his actions can be traced back to Donald Trump.
It is perhaps because of this that he describes Nick as “the most genius political mind I’ve ever come across” and believes that Nick will be president one day. On the face of it, the idea is ludicrous, but people said that when Donald Trump announced he was running, and if anything, the documentary proves time and time again that the appetite for Trump’s way of thinking and for lack of a better phrase, ‘ideals’ are still very much thriving in big underground sections of American society.
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To Theroux’s credit, he manages to stay calm. Telling Nick that he fundamentally disagrees with what he stands for but that he’s there because he’s curious about him. The hate-filled live streams that are viewed by thousands of people every night are recorded in front of a green screen in his parent’s basement. Nick is a dangerous figure who uses his underground celebrity to further his ‘old school’ agenda on everything from the Jews, mixed-race relationships and White Supremacy. Everything he says, however hateful and hurtful comes with a frustrating smile or the idea he’s speaking ironically. That’s a defence he hides behind but like Trump before him, if people act on the things he’s promoting, he can get away with saying, it’s just the way I see things. I didn’t make them do them do anything. It’s the same reason Trump has yet to see any true comeback from the January 6th riots.
His final contributor, an allie of Nick’s, Matt Evans meets Louis wearing a T-Shirt covered in Theroux’s image. Initially, he appears more jovial, even surprised at the idea that Theroux would want to talk with him. He could be viewed as someone who has been taken in by the group. He’s the boy in the playground who relishes playing with the older boys because it looks or feels cool but it means he has to adjust his behaviour to fit with their agenda and belief system. He describes himself as more of a gamer than someone truly interested in changing things politically. He’s a ‘punk rock kid’ who has always gone against the grain. In Matt, it appears that Louis has found someone with who he can have a steady debate on the issues, but when Louis questions whether Matt was caught on camera performing a Nazi salute the interview turns on its head and the affable persona fades away. The expletive-filled rant that follows acts as another reminder that people like this are thin-skinned and unable to exchange in reasonable debate. Once again, Theroux stays calm.
Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America: Extreme and Online showcases Louis Theroux at his very best. He remains calm and measured throughout. He doesn’t paint his contributors as monsters. He gives them a chance to answer for themselves and lets them dig the holes they inevitably find themselves in. It’s a difficult and anger-inducing watch. These people are horrible. Devoid of humanity or proper decency but also emboldened by four years that saw their kind of rhetoric become normalised in American society. However uncomfortable it might be, it’s clear we live in a society where people can form these little societies in the dark recesses of the internet. They might be blocked by Facebook and Twitter but they, like Nick Fuentes, don’t need the big boys in the game to support them because their followers will always find them. In a world where it is easier to surround yourself with like-minded people and ignore or shout down those who don’t think the same way you do, it’s not hard to see how the people Theroux speaks to have found themselves in ‘power’. There used to be some comfort in Theroux’s documentaries looking at subjects that seemed to be ‘America’s problem’ but there are themes here that feel worryingly true to life here in the UK too.
Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America: Extreme and Online airs Sunday 13th February on BBC Two.