Editor's note: This piece was originally published in our Seattle-based sister paper, the Stranger.
Back in January, I e-mailed Dr. Greg Johnson, organizer of Northwest Forum, Seattle’s hottest closed-door white nationalist convention, asking for an interview on the latest in regional racism. He turned me down. Thanks to the internet, the far right no longer needs the mainstream media to get its message out. Print, television, and radio lose their relevance when everybody’s just a click away from Pepe the Frog, Disney songs dubbed with racist lyrics, and pseudo-intellectual essays that somehow try to bring ancient Rome into all this.
Also thanks to the internet, it only took me about an hour to change my identity from David Lewis, Seattle historian, to Dave Lewis, Neo-Nazi film editor and aspiring book critic from Charlottesville, currently living in Los Angeles. This Dave Lewis has never been to Seattle, but has always wanted to attend Northwest Forum.
My film editor persona dangled a giant chunk of cheese in front of Dr. Johnson. In addition to being a racist, Johnson is also a huge cinephile who has published two books of “pro-white” movie reviews wherein he rants against Zootopia as “pure evil” but surprisingly enjoyed 8 Mile. The role of film editor also worked to my advantage because, despite a recent fundraising spike, the white nationalist movement still has a hard time attracting people with artistic or technical talent.
Dr. Johnson bit the cheese. Entry into Northwest Forum typically requires “extreme vetting,” which means meeting in person and getting a beer with one of the Northwest’s white separatist organizations like True Cascadia. But I didn’t even have to send in a photo after mentioning that, as a Charlottesville native (actually from Ballard), I was writing an essay titled Tear Down Lee and Put Up Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln, World’s Greatest White Nationalist. The essay actually wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. One of Abraham Lincoln’s main objections to slavery was that it led to miscegenation, and he believed in deporting all the freed slaves to Haiti or Liberia as soon as the war was over. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglas put it, African-Americans were “at best only his stepchildren.”
My e-mail invite listed the forum for August 26th at noon, the same day Black Lives Matter activists planned a march to Lake View Cemetery to protest the Confederate Civil War memorial. Only the stated location aroused my suspicions, since the invite said we would be meeting at the Queen Anne Public Library, and policy dictates that library events have to be open to the public. A white nationalist convention definitely wasn’t the kind of thing you’d want Joe Seattle to stumble in on after he finishes pirating CDs onto his laptop. Nevertheless, as I got closer to the library, I noticed several young white dudes sporting the “fashy” haircut, previously known as a “Macklemore.” A lookout Nazi in a white polo shirt stood on the front lawn, twirling his curly tech-dick mustache. He noticed my white polo, which like the “Macklemore,” is now associated with white nationalism. Just to scrub out any doubt, I was also carrying a copy of the 1958 Neo-Nazi classic The Lightning and the Sun. “Are you here for the thing?” He asked. They were really going all out on the secret agent stuff. I nodded and he pointed me across the street to an early-20th century Masonic Lodge with dozens of other white nationalists heading through the doorway. Dr. Johnson said he told the Masons this was a writers group.
Originally built by the telephone company in 1900, the lodge was refurbished by the Masons in 1927. Upon entering, a woman who looked like a grizzled waitress from a black and white movie hit me up for a $40 admission fee (not mentioned in my invitation). Women, it turns out, are only slightly more common than black people at white nationalist conventions.
Of the 70 to 80 people in the lodge, only about four were female. By far the one who creeped me out the most was a five-year-old girl in white dress clomping around in pink boots with her blond hair in a pink ribbon who played Beethoven on the piano. When she walked by in her white dress eating a white Top Pot donut, the fawning look of admiration she received from Dr. Johnson seeing the next generation of white supremacy made my jaw drop. One of my new friends noticed the look on my face:
DL: Sorry, I’m just not used to seeing kids at these things.
NAZI: You wouldn’t see her if this was an Antifa rally.
DL: Yeah, she’d be wearing a little black bandana.
NAZI: No. She’d be a fucking abortion.
Virtually every time I use the word “Nazi” I’m using it as an insult. In the world of millennial white nationalism, there aren't a ton of people who actually self-identify as Nazis. Despite usually agreeing with everything the Nazis did and believing the Holocaust is just “anti-white propaganda,” they always claim a technical reason for why they aren’t “National Socialists.” None of these reasons would ever make sense to anybody outside the community and “I’m not a Nazi, but” is one of the most common white nationalist recruitment tricks to have people hear them out.
White nationalists generally don’t want to look like characters out of American History X anymore. Fashion choices at the convention ranged from Ruby Ridge to Mad Men, but most of the people there looked like you might run into them on Capitol Hill or in the U-District. That said, there is a type. According to my observations, the standard Seattle Nazi is a white male under 30 who either works in the tech industry or is going to school to work in the tech industry. “You’re also a coder? Do you mind if I send you something I’ve been working on?” I heard that more than once.
Nobody at the convention looked less like a Nazi than organizer Greg Johnson in his sports coat and open-collared shirt. Before the forum I didn’t even know what the former philosophy professor Dr. Johnson looked like, as he is extremely good at keeping pictures of himself off the internet. Before an undercover Swedish activist working for Hope Not Hate secretly filmed him as part of a yearlong investigation into international white nationalism, the only picture of Johnson anywhere on the internet was a heavily blown up photo of him from his professor days on a Neo-Nazi website accusing him of being gay, calling him “Grinder Greg Johnson.” (The owner of the website is apparently unaware that Grindr is spelled without an “e”.) Whether he is actually gay and whether that’s an issue are among the more divisive questions in the white nationalist community.
When not fighting for the white ethno-state, Dr. Johnson lives an extremely NPR lifestyle filled with world travel, visits to art galleries, and opera. Talking to him, his college philosophy professor background comes out. He even recommended a better translation of Giambattista Vico’s New Science to me, and discussed Vico’s influence on James Joyce. If not for sprinkles of racial and anti-semitic slurs, he looks and acts exactly like someone you would run into at the Hugo House. While most white nationalists think Johnson keeps his identity secret because they think he is gay, he probably just doesn’t want to be recognized during intermission at the Seattle Symphony.
People attend the forum to meet the visiting blue chip racists that Dr. Johnson flies in. Notable guests have included Identity Evropa founder Nathan Damigo and anti-semitic professor Kevin MacDonald. The forum I attended featured Jared Taylor, founder and editor of the online white nationalist magazine American Renaissance, fresh from his VICE interview with Eddie Huang. One of the world’s leading advocates for scientific racism, Taylor is unique among white nationalists in that he believes East Asians to be objectively superior to whites. He signed some copies of his books in Japanese, having grown up in Japan to missionary parents and developing fluency in the language.
Visiting speakers have been surprised by the turn out in Seattle. Taylor told me that the meeting was actually bigger than similar events he has attended around the country. In a podcast following an earlier forum, Kevin MacDonald said he was impressed by both the turn out and superior quality of the attendees. Originally, Dr. Johnson planned on having a forum in Seattle on the even-numbered months and a forum in New York City on the odd-numbed months, but recently decided he might pull the NYC forum because it is much harder to fill a venue in New York than in Seattle, despite the Big Apple having almost 8 million more people. The surprising number of racists in liberal cities first occurred to Johnson years ago. He was working for a “highbrow” white nationalist magazine and noticed that many of their readers lived close to one another without knowing they had neighbors who shared their racist interests. Johnson set out to bring these people together in private. Seattleites, even the ones who love Hitler, hate confrontation.
Speaking of Hitler, while at the bar getting coffee and Top Pot donuts, I noticed Seattle’s Hitler tea-pot guy, Charles Krafft, stood right behind me. In 2013, the art critic Jen Graves revealed in The Stranger that Krafft’s Nazi-inspired ceramic art might not be ironic. While Krafft does not identify as a “National Socialist” or believe his work to be pro-Nazi (he also does teapots of Kim Jong Il, Charles Manson, and Amy Winehouse), he is also a Holocaust denier who puts stock in conspiracy theories about elaborate plans for Jews to control the world. So the short answer is he is a white nationalist. As a result of his views, art shows that would formerly have been honored to have Krafft 86ed him, including one in London that cancelled on him right before the convention. What cred he’s lost in the art community he has more than recovered among white nationalists. He has become a staple at Northwest Forum, known for holding before-parties at his house, which he rents from a Chinese-American landlord.
Unlike Dr. Johnson, Krafft has no problem openly giving interviews about northwest white nationalism. I’d spoken with Krafft for a podcast two years earlier, so he was the only person at the forum who could possibly identify me. My first thought upon seeing him was how I had to stay as far away from him as possible, but my second thought was how much white nationalism has changed in the Northwest since two years ago.
When I’d asked Krafft back in 2015 how many white nationalists resided in Seattle, he responded “not many.” The only local voice for white separatism was the laughably uncharismatic Harold Covington of Northwest Front, who according to Krafft, asks people for money immediately upon meeting them. Surprisingly, some white nationalist circles now hold Harold Covington in high regard. That's especially true among younger followers (including the church shooter Dylann Roof). His “racially aware” Northwest sci-fi novels are required reading among convention attendees. Some have read all of them. To prep for the forum, I planned on reading Covington's best-known works. I started with a young adult novel about a delinquent and his cheerleader girlfriend in the Seattle race war, but gave up after forty pages because the book is unreadable.
Enough mingling! It was time for the speeches on the second floor. Dr. Johnson announced that everything we were about to hear was totally off the record and not to be shared with anybody outside our circle of racists. Did this mean I would have to turn off the tape recorder that had been running in my backpack for the last 3 hours? Better not ask.
The first speaker to come up was Taylor (who during the break had performed a stunning act by using the ladies’ room after all the bullshit I’d been listening to about how gender-neutral bathrooms are destroying America. Though, to be fair, having a ladies’ room at an event like this is superfluous anyway). Unfortunately, the super-secret, closed-door Nazi plan didn’t turn out to be nearly as titillating as you’d want. Speakers encouraged followers to take the Gandhi approach and continue getting punched in the face a la Richard Spencer. The media will have no choice but to turn to its side, their reasoning went. Taylor, Dr. Johnson, and the other speakers are all pretty married to this strategy. They also disapprove of their followers using ethnic slurs in public because it gives the media soundbites to latch onto.
Much bleaker is Dr. Johnson’s Seattle-suitable, “secret agent” racism plan. Basically, white nationalists meet in secret at conventions like Northwest Forum while paying “lip service to diversity” at their day jobs. They move into positions of power where they can hire other racists and keep non-whites from getting into the company. Two years ago, this method would have seemed like a total joke, but these guys really do mostly work in tech, and they were doing a lot of networking. When talking about the people he has counseled on the “secret agent” method, Dr. Johnson has written that they include “college professors, writers, artists, designers, publishers, creative people working in the film industry, businessmen, and professionals, some of them quite prominent in their fields.” When I told Dr. Johnson I was reluctant to use my super film editing skills (I can’t even work iMovie) for the movement because I was afraid I would be outed in Hollywood he said, “You know, you can always be a secret agent, there's no shame in that.”
I was never more aware that I was dealing with Seattle racists than when it came time for questions and people were asking the same kind of self-righteous, rambling, statement-questions you encounter at Town Hall. One of the questions came from an East Indian-Canadian. I don’t remember what he asked because I was too busy sharing confused looks with the Neo-Nazis. Right guys? WTF?
At the break, I asked the questioner if being brown-skinned ever interferes with being a white separatist. It led to a lengthy conversation that made no sense, and I was glad when the break ended to get back to the speeches.
Without checking my recording, I wouldn't even have been able to remember who the other speakers at the forum were or what they said. It was actually kind of a letdown, and by the time the convention ended, the voyeuristic novelty of sneaking into a Nazi meeting had worn off. I was just bored in a Masonic Hall on Queen Anne. My interest picked up when Dr. Johnson, seated on a Masonic throne, announced that we would all be going to dinner at Buca di Beppo. When I called one of my emergency contact friends about the change of location she said, “Buca di Beppo? Do Nazis need to carbo load?”
He’d reserved two large tables and a smaller one for the duds. Showing up late, I got stuck at the dud table along with the Wise Old Man, a 91-year-old Holocaust denier who went to Hollywood back in 1952 for a songwriting career. When that didn’t work out, he started waving anti-Israel signs at the Oscars for the next 40 years. Krafft was really wowed by him, but nobody else cared.
“I’m cold,” the Wise Old Man said. “You’re young… can I borrow your coat?”
“... Yeah… I guess.” I took off my cardigan and handed it to him. Ewwww gross. He’s tucking it into his pants. Without my cardigan, the air conditioning was freezing and made my nipples stick out on my white polo. I hated being a Nazi then more than ever. It also made me super uncomfortable having a black guy refill our water glasses, because it was like we were suddenly in The Man in the High Castle.
“That movie Hidden Figures was bullshit,” a guy dressed like John Goodman in The Big Lebowski said out of nowhere. “We never went to the moon, Stanley Kubrick faked all of it.” Water almost squirted out of my nose and it was the closest I came all night to breaking character.
“You’re going to have to run me through this,” I said, not being familiar with this particular theory.
After explaining the theory, he added, “And if you think that’s nonsense you should look into the Holocaust. This is science.”
“I was raised Christian Scientist,” the Wise Old Man chimed in. “Must be the reason I’m so healthy now.” The best I can figure is he heard the word “science” at the end of the sentence and his mind went from there. He amused me in the same way the little blonde Nazi-tot at the other table creeped me out. John Goodman then continued with a whole range of conspiracy theories from Waco, to the Bible, to how TV broadcasts were designed to give him anger issues.
Unfortunately, the table I sat at was not the norm. What I could overhear from the other conversations consisted of coding, Game of Thrones, Tolkien, how Rashomon relates to cultural relativism, etc. The sorts of things regular white people talk about at similar gatherings. For a second, I got a vision of what Seattle would be like with zero ethnic diversity: It would be dull, like being at one of those bougie, middle-aged white person parties minus the talk about which countries their kids are teaching English in.
From a clinical viewpoint, I was sort of impressed by Dr. Johnson’s recruitment approach. Former skinhead movements fizzled out because, in addition to requiring fanatical racism from their followers, they also required severe lifestyle changes like going off to live in survivalist compounds or being a Nazi 24/7. The Johnson Seattle approach to racism is more like, “let’s get a cake for Hitler’s birthday after picking the kids up from soccer practice,” making it more compatible with the way a lot of these people already live and the way they grew up.
Twenty minutes after we finished eating, it was time to go and the Wise Old Man looked around confused. “When is the food coming?” He can remember all kinds of Zionist conspiracies, but he can’t remember that he ate 15 minutes ago. By sitting at the table with him, I had missed out on all kinds of invaluable far-rightwing gossip blurted at Dr. Johnson’s table. By the time I got there, most of the blue chip guests had left and Johnson was sitting alone with the ticket woman, doodling flowers and smiley faces on his paper menu. We made plans to meet for coffee or lunch the next day, but when the location was changed to Charles Krafft’s house, I made up the excuse that I was going to Wild Waves that day.
At the time, I didn't realize I wasn’t the only undercover reporter at Northwest Forum. At the June forum they’d let in a much better looking, better funded, Antifa activist all the way from Sweden, equipped with James Bond-quality cameras and sound equipment.
Originally, I’d gotten into this because I’m working on a Seattle history book and wanted a chapter on Northwest racism. It definitely did not occur to me that a local news story about white nationalists who want to take over America but can’t screen out reporters would have international appeal. Nevertheless, Greg Johnson became the top story in the New York Times when the paper revealed that the Swedish spy had actually filmed him, the only thing in the Northwest harder to get on camera than Bigfoot. Dr. Johnson actually has a WAY bigger following all over the world than I ever would have thought. In the two years since I’d interviewed Charles Krafft, Seattle had somehow gone from virtually no open racists (although I’ve worked retail at places with pretty open whites only management policies) to being the kind of place to which you’d travel all the way from Sweden to study a new style of racism. The city’s really changing.