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October 20, 2020
News Politics

Why the Alt-Right’s Most Famous Woman Disappeared

Editor’s Note: White Noise, the debut feature film from The Atlantic, is in theaters now and will be available to rent in the U.S. starting October 21. Find more information here.

Gavin McInnes took a swig of whiskey from a bottle on his talk show’s on-set bar before bringing Lauren Southern onstage. It was June 2018, in Washington, D.C. Southern was only in her early 20s, but she had already emerged as the alt-right’s most influential woman. Her fellow guests were all men: an Army veteran, a Washington think tanker, and a radio shock jock. There was no chair for her. The men rushed to reshuffle. “This is the patriarchy right here,” Southern bantered. “Men get seats at the table.”

McInnes is a founder of Vice magazine and of the Proud Boys, an all-male, neofascist group that promotes violence against its political opponents. Last month, debate moderator Chris Wallace asked President Donald Trump to condemn the Proud Boys and white-supremacist organizations. “Proud Boys—stand back, and stand by,” Trump replied, only semi-ambiguously.

[From the November 2020 issue: Right-wing militias are bracing for civil war]

McInnes watched stonily as Southern joined the men. “Are you ever gonna have kids, give birth, are you going to be a mother?” he asked her. “Then I’ll give them my seat.” The men laughed, and Southern, submitting to the last-minute ministrations of a makeup artist, laughed along—just one of the guys, with long, stick-straight blond hair and an off-the-shoulder, floral-print dress. McInnes wasn’t quite finished yet. “If you’re not making humans, then fucking stand up, bitch.” Southern, who was joining him to talk about her documentary Farmlands, which focuses on the alleged persecution of white farmers in South Africa, gasped in faux horror.

Southern’s reporting for Farmlands had rippled through right-wing media—Trump would order Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study” the issue—and McInnes, now finished with his commentary on gender roles, had Southern discuss her revisionist history. In the 19th century, the Zulu people took the land that is now South Africa from another ethnic group, she said, and therefore Blacks are just as responsible for apartheid as whites. When McInnes brought the conversation closer to home, noting that white “self-hatred” is so rampant that he can’t even find South African wine at his local bar, Southern nodded. “The word racist just means nothing to me anymore,” she said. “It’s been so overused, I just have no respect for the term.”

Southern finished on set and ordered an Uber to the airport for her flight home to Toronto. Partway through the ride, her phone rang. It was McInnes. Southern listened to him closely for a few seconds.

“We shouldn’t be talking about this at all,” she said, laughing uncomfortably. Then her face tightened. “See, the thing is, because my moral compass tells me you have a wife and kids, it’s not even in my realm of consideration.” McInnes, according to Southern, had just reiterated an offer he’d made the night before, when she’d been out with him and a group of other far-right friends: “You know you want to fuck me; I’m your childhood hero.”

(When reached for comment, McInnes stated, “As a married man, I have never sexually propositioned Lauren Southern or any other woman.”)

With a grimace, Southern hustled him off the phone. She was speechless for a moment. “Send help,” she said feebly. “Help.”

By the time Southern went on McInnes’s show, I had been following her for nearly a year. I was making a documentary for The Atlantic about the white-nationalist movement, called White Noise. I’d already become accustomed to the accommodations Southern made to stay within a movement whose hatreds are prolific. (Southern denies being a white nationalist.) And I’d already become her confidant of sorts, too—I kept feeling compelled to remind her that I was a reporter. “Hey Daniel, in your honest opinion am I a little crazy?” she texted me once. “Do you think I’m irredeemable and can’t go back to a normal life?”

[Read: Four years embedded with the alt-right]

I did not know the answer. It wasn’t the first time she’d expressed disenchantment with the alt-right, or at least some parts of it. But it was always hard to know what Southern was really thinking, or how deeply committed she was to anything at all. Her misgivings mostly revolved around the harassment she received from other members of her movement. Signs of empathy for others flickered only intermittently. “You have to keep playing the game until you’re out of it, keep up the charade,” she said the day of the McInnes taping. But it seemed likely that she was trying to play me, as well.

When I first got to know her, Southern was among YouTube’s most effective and sophisticated extremists—an alt-right propagandist who masqueraded as a run-of-the-mill influencer. In one June 2017 post titled “Ad Friendly Makeup Tutorial,” she walks viewers through her skin-care routine, as electro-pop plays over cherry-colored graphics. “You want to use a beauty blender … and cover up all of your face’s imperfections,” she says. “All right, we’re looking gorg.” As she applies the finishing touch, red lipstick, her hand drifts from her mouth to her right cheek. “F … U … C … K,” she slowly writes. She switches to the left: “I … S … L … A … M.” She tosses back her blond hair and smiles: “You’ve got this cute, ad-friendly makeup look, it’s super flirty.” Her 7,000 commenters were thrilled. “Omfg. This girl is on fire!” gushed a faceless avatar. An admirer who went by “Hubert” jumped in: “Trolling level: Elite Grandmaster.”

Southern, I came to learn, was also an adept troll in person. In another YouTube video viewed nearly 3 million times, she pushes to the front of a crowd of sexual-assault survivors and activists in June 2015 in downtown Vancouver and lifts a Sharpie-painted placard: “There is no rape culture in the West.” As the marchers protest, Southern screams back, “Go to Africa and you will see a real rape culture!”

Janice Atkinson, a former far-right British member of the European Parliament—which Southern would be invited to address seven months after her appearance on McInnes’s show—told me that the young woman’s tools, among them a quick wit and good looks, made her the best spokesperson for the nationalist cause. “She can sell it better to my sons than I can sell it,” Atkinson said. Richard Spencer, the neofascist writer who coined the term alt-right and is known for, among other things, parsimony in praising his comrades, was also a fan of Southern’s videos. “They’re touching on that hot stuff,” he told me once.

[From the June 2017 issue: How Richard Spencer became an icon for white supremacists]

Southern was born in Surrey, British Columbia, one of Canada’s most racially and ethnically diverse cities. In her private Christian elementary school, many of the students were ethnically Chinese, she told me, though back then she didn’t pay much attention to race. Her father, though, began to feel like an outsider in his community, she said. While Southern called her dad “the least racist person I know,” she said he felt frustrated walking into coffee shops to find that his Asian neighbors wouldn’t address him in English. So when Lauren was in middle school, her father moved the family, which included her mother and her older sister, to Langley, one of greater Vancouver’s whitest towns.

She had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. One of her Bible-study friends, Kenzo Nishidate, who is half Japanese, described her as both nerdy and popular. She’d go to weekend house parties with the cool girls from volleyball, then show up at school on Monday in a Marvel graphic T-shirt, excited about the latest League of Legends update. Southern never cared much about her education. She spent much of her free time reading the fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan. “My grades were garbage,” she said. “I was always more interested in whatever book that I had picked up from the library than the one I was assigned in class.” She says she was diagnosed with ADHD, but her parents didn’t want her to go on medication. She planned to join the military after high school.

But then, as she described it, she found a fight worth waging, right at home. One day in her social-justice class, the teacher asked everyone to separate by race and gender, according to Southern: white kids on one side, Black and brown on the other; boys on one side, girls on the other. The teacher turned to the female students of color: “You’re oppressed.” She pointed to the white kids—including Southern—and said two words that changed the course of her life: “You’re privileged.” (Her teacher denies that this ever occurred.)

Southern told me she was incensed. Her paternal grandfather had immigrated to Canada from Scandinavia with little money or knowledge of English. Her maternal grandmother was an orphan. Sure, her parents had raised her in one of Vancouver’s wealthiest suburbs, but they had earned it through “hard work” and “assimilation.” Plus, she was surrounded by “rich Asian kids,” who she believed enjoyed far more privilege than white girls like her. Southern felt scapegoated when the class discussed topics like slavery or the ethnic cleansing of indigenous Canadians.

Around the same time, her father turned her on to right-wing radio on their morning drives to school. She heard the American shock jock Michael Savage say things like Barack Obama was “the most divisive, hateful president in American history. He has isolated and marginalized the white male like never before.” Southern began to read more widely, devouring books by Ann Coulter and Ayn Rand. At night, she watched McInnes on her favorite late-night show, Fox’s Red Eye, where he expressed particular animus toward those who say they are victims of sexual harassment. “If your boss grabs your ass, and it doesn’t hurt, and you don’t like it, quit,” he asserted on one panel, which featured another guest, future National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Southern started to challenge her teachers about feminism, immigration, and Islam. She gave an anti-global-warming presentation. For a class assignment, Southern and a Jewish friend dressed up as Hitler and Mussolini, respectively, and afterward they went over to his house in full dictator regalia. “Good times!” she recalled, laughing about this incident with another childhood friend. Southern found that she loved being a contrarian. She didn’t necessarily believe the things she said or did, she told me, but the power of making her teachers squirm was intoxicating.

Her rise to social-media stardom was meteoric. Trump’s nativist presidential campaign coincided with the explosive expansion of the far-right media ecosystem. The premier outlet at the time, Breitbart News, was run by the future White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and the Canadian media executive Ezra Levant had set out to create an equivalent site in his country. He called it Rebel Media and asked Southern to audition after meeting the young firebrand at an energy conference where she peppered the speakers with questions.

Southern, struggling at college while working as a cocktail waitress at a casino, seized the opportunity. She raced back to her high school, paid a student from A/V class a few hundred dollars, and worked with him to record her first viral hit: “Why I Am Not a Feminist.” Sporting the red lipstick and fake lashes that became her defining aesthetic, Southern asserted, “Despite popular belief, feminism is not, in fact, a synonym for equality.” To her shock, the four-minute video took off, reaching 1.2 million viewers on YouTube and another 30 million on Facebook.

Southern dropped out of college and relocated to Toronto, where Rebel’s offices were located. Each week, her videos seemed to grow more inflammatory and offensive. She converted her state-registered gender to male as a critique of Canada’s “lax” policy toward gender transition; she traveled to a refugee camp in France to prove that the asylum seekers there were “economic migrants,” not Syrian refugees as the mainstream media reported. Mike Cernovich, a far-right activist and fake-news purveyor whose maxims—Conflict is attention and Attention is influence—form the bedrock of the alt-right philosophy of provocation, told me that Southern’s videos were more extreme than he was used to seeing, even among denizens of his world. Southern will “end up, you know, probably getting killed,” he predicted after she visited a town in England with a large Muslim population to hand out flyers claiming, “Allah is gay.” This particular stunt caused the authorities to ban her from the United Kingdom.

Lauren Southern sits for an interview with Gavin McInnes in 2018. (Daniel Lombroso / The Atlantic)

A few weeks after McInnes’s show, in July 2018, I went to visit Southern in Toronto, where she lived in a high-rise in the city’s downtown district. Her spotless one-bedroom condo looked more like a showroom than a home—the walls were bare, except for a YouTube plaque congratulating her on gaining 100,000 subscribers.

We were sitting together in her living room, while she scripted a video, when her new boyfriend emerged from the bedroom. George Hutcheson, who was 30 at the time, runs a Canadian group called Students for Western Civilization, which works to “advance the interests of European peoples.” Her most recent boyfriends had also been adherents of far-right ideologies. She had nearly gotten engaged to a prominent conspiracy theorist, and had had an on-again-off-again fling with a Croatian neo-Nazi. “Maybe I’m too picky,” she’d mused before Hutcheson joined us on her IKEA couch. In appearance, Hutcheson is the caricature of the Aryan ideal. His undercut haircut, known in the alt-right as the fashy (short for fascist), and his fit, thick, soldier-like frame give him a Teutonic air. He and Southern decided to go out to dinner, and to let me film them. Hutcheson refuses to eat food originally from nonwhite countries, such as ketchup, whose origins are in China, so the two, facing limited restaurant options, chose the British-style Oxley Public House in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood.

[From the December 2017 issue: Angela Nagle on the young men of the alt-right]

Boisterous diners were enjoying one of summer’s first long evenings on the restaurant’s patio, but Southern and Hutcheson mostly sat in silence, scrolling on their phones. Southern dipped into a red sauce next to Hutcheson’s burger. “That tastes non-European, are you allowed to eat that?” she asked sardonically. “Yeah, tastes non-European,” he confirmed, without a hint of irony.

After a drink, the couple loosened up a bit. Southern told Hutcheson that she dreamed of graduating from short videos to feature-length films. Sure, her direct-to-camera videos offered strong arguments and reached a lot of people, she said, but they were starting to feel derivative. If she could pursue longer narrative projects—brought to life with Hollywood-level soundtracks, sweeping drone shots, and high-resolution cameras—she thought she could tell more powerful stories.

Hutcheson looked uneasy as his girlfriend continued to talk about her career ambitions. “All of us Europeans have the responsibility to reproduce,” he interjected.

Southern looked down at her plate. “That’s a very cold way of putting it,” she responded. “Do you want to have a family for the sake of love or just because it’s a duty thing?”

“Motherhood is to women as war is to men,” her boyfriend replied stolidly. “I want to serve my nation.”

Southern’s eyes glazed over as Hutcheson kept talking. Finally, the waitress arrived with the bill. Hutcheson gestured for Southern to grab it. “Okay, cool. I’ll make it a business expense,” she whispered. Earlier, she’d told me that her boyfriend leaned on her financially. (Hutcheson did not respond to our request for comment.)

In the condo the next day, Southern was subdued. She was feeling burned out, professionally and personally, she told me. Two months before, I’d trailed after her to Moscow, where she’d planned to interview oligarchs, Kremlin sycophants, and other far-right influencers for a documentary she hoped would be a corrective to what she saw as America’s irrational fear of Russia. But to her consternation, she found Putin’s Russia to be alienating. The food was unappealing, the taxi drivers invented rates depending on their mood, and people on the street had little interest in being interviewed. And few of them spoke English. She spent most of her nearly two weeks there in her hotel, drinking lattes and refreshing her Twitter feed.

Back in Toronto, she sounded almost wistful about her past, recalling the days when she and her far-right friends had stayed up all night eating burritos and making videos for Rebel. “I discovered it gets much darker and much scarier when you stay in it long enough,” she said.

Southern had a Phyllis Schlafly problem. Her ostensible allies frequently attacked her as a “tradthot”—an alt-right term for single women who support “traditional” values but don’t live them. (If you look up tradthot in the Urban Dictionary, the first thing you see is a video clip of Southern.) She seemed to sincerely share her movement’s views about the female temperament and women’s rightful roles; at the very least, she was adept at parroting them. She told me that “women biologically hate the stress of work” and that “it sucks being a girl in a feminist world.” “We’ve got an ambition problem as women in politics—we’ve seen so much and experience so much, will we be able to be a housewife?” she said another time. Still, she felt so besieged by the insults directed at her by the alt-right men that she made a response video called “Why I’m Not Married.” She was 22 at the time.

Video: An excerpt from White Noise

Lauren Southern opens up about misogyny in the far right.

While the alt-right’s men were forever putting Southern in her place, they simultaneously venerated her as a goddess—although this often collapsed into crude come-ons on social media and in person. The movement grew, in part, out of the “manosphere,” epitomized by Cernovich, a onetime sex blogger. The headlines on his website ranged from “What Is Rape?” to “How to Cheat on Your Girlfriend” to “When in Doubt, Whip It Out.”

[Read: To learn about the alt-right, start with the ‘manosphere’]

Then there was Spencer, who was accused of verbally and physically abusing his now ex-wife. “The only language women understand is violence,” he told his former spouse, according to their divorce filings. (Spencer denied the allegations.) One of Spencer’s colleagues, Matthew Heimbach, co-founder of a fascist organization called the Traditionalist Worker Party, squeezed his wife’s cheeks until they bled after she confronted him about having an affair, according to a police report.

In 2016, I’d attended a Spencer-led conference, in Washington, D.C., where a speaker described women as “reptilian” animals who should be left to hang naked in the public square should they ever have sex with a Muslim man. We need to “flush disloyalty from our gene pool,” he announced to the roughly 200 men and 10 women in attendance.

Southern’s attitude about her own sexualization was convoluted and contradictory. She knew her audience would respond to a cleavage shot. “Like you see girls that do a political video, and if they put their boobs up and out, they’ll get 500,000 extra views. It’s clickbait. It works,” she told me. She didn’t do that, she added, but she also rarely appeared on camera without being fully made up. Still, she would express anxiety, if not fear, about the ugliness and aggression of the men who were drawn to her. She told me about an email folder labeled “nutjobs” where she deposited notes from fans asking for sex. Her mother had discovered deepfake porn videos juxtaposing her daughter’s face onto a body being penetrated, she said, and one man messaged her saying he hoped she was “raped” to the point of having her “face destroyed,” so she could never benefit from her looks again.

[From the May 2018 issue: The era of fake video begins]

I asked Southern in Toronto what advice she had for women entering the alt-right world. She hesitated. “Don’t,” she said.

Left: Lauren Southern live-streams during a 2017 rally for free speech in Berkeley, California. Right: Southern speaks to a crowd at the rally. (Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty; Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

Southern decided to abandon the Russian documentary, but by the fall of 2018 she had a new project: Borderless, about the migrant crisis in Europe. When I joined her in October, she had already been on the road for more than a month. We met at a chateau an hour outside Paris, which she’d booked to recharge while her crew was off shooting around Europe.

Thanks to the proceeds from her work, Southern could afford this retreat in the French countryside. She was bringing in more than $6,000 a month in donations. Her father printed and sold Lauren Southern–branded merchandise, and her mother ran her email and accounting (for a fee).

At the chateau, it was eerily quiet. Behind 15-foot gates, the vast estate’s only other inhabitants seemed to be horses, goats, and a Polish guest worker. We chatted in one of the chateau’s bedrooms as Southern gave herself a manicure. “This is the small luxury I get on the road, and I just can’t get it perfect,” she said, blowing on her fingertips.

In the evening, we decided to set out in search of a restaurant that served French fries with hamburgers or steak—she wasn’t a culinary white supremacist like Hutcheson, but she was a picky eater. She didn’t say much as we passed a series of bucolic dairy farms. Then she began to cry. A former fan had become a sex-crazed stalker, messaging her numerous times a day and posting personal information about her family and friends on social media. She was so worried about getting hit on by far-right figures that she refused to attend fund-raising meetings without a chaperone. Even McInnes had not stopped sending flirtatious messages to her, she said. She didn’t know what to do, or whom to tell. If her father found out, it would “break him,” she said. He was a huge fan of conservative pundits like McInnes.

If everything was so awful, I asked, why had she embarked on this new film? She offered the same explanation I’d heard many times before: She didn’t want Europe to be overtaken by Islam. I responded with familiar arguments. Europe’s Muslim population, for example, was a mere 5 percent and was expected to increase to only about 11 percent by 2050. Even in France, where right-wing philosophers warn of a grand remplacement of whites, Muslims don’t make up more than 10 percent of the citizenry.

By the time we sat down to dinner, she was calmer and told me she had some exciting news. She’d met someone special. Catholic. Tough. He made her feel safe. She smiled with what looked like genuine pleasure. And then, with some hesitation, she told me her new crush wasn’t white. “Race isn’t everything,” she said, as I strained to keep a poker face. “What matters is happiness, not race.”

The next morning, as we walked the empty chateau grounds, Southern still seemed jittery, and kept tugging at her beige trench coat. “We have almost the same symptoms as addicts,” she declared, apropos of nothing, clutching her phone. I thought back to an interview I had with her in Russia, where she first mentioned her “addiction” to celebrity. “You get a little high when you get all those likes on YouTube, when you get all those shares when all these people are talking to you. It’s a crazy sensation and feeling that I never had psychologically prepared for.”

She vowed again that she was going to quit YouTube, as soon as she finished Borderless. Her new boyfriend gave her a real reason to get out.

Several days later, at an Airbnb closer to Paris, Southern’s video team reassembled, including two Brits: Caolan Robertson, the director, and George Llewelyn-John, the cameraman. The two were partners—another surprise for me—and had dated for five years. Soon we were joined by Southern’s latest man. Shirtless and clutching coffee, he conferred with her in whispers, before turning to me: He wanted to remain anonymous. Southern chimed in to add that I was prohibited from reporting on his specific ethnic identity, trying to manage a detail she’d already revealed. She later clarified over text that she didn’t want him used as a prop to accumulate “not racist” points. This was true love, after all.

With the assistance of Robertson, a marketing man by trade, Southern was making good on the aspirations she’d outlined to the grumpy Hutcheson: The DIY aesthetic of YouTube was no more. Southern had revamped her wardrobe, purchased Netflix-quality documentary gear, and stopped making references to white nationalism on her Instagram account. Instead, her crew helped her use the platform to release slow-motion videos of her posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, as if in an ad for French Vogue. This pivot away from explicit alt-right propaganda seemed to be having the desired effect. She had gotten word that the European Parliament wanted to premiere Borderless once it was complete.

[Read: Instagram is the internet’s new home for hate]

The team climbed into a gray van and headed toward Paris’s infamous migrant neighborhood, Porte de la Chapelle. But migrants were thin on the ground. Southern checked her Facebook in a familiar nervous twitch. “‘Hi Lauren, you’re hot, tell me if I can fuck you please?’” she read out. “Go on, Lauren, give him that blow job,” Llewelyn-John deadpanned.

After more than an hour of hunting, Southern ordered her driver to stop. She had spotted a campsite under a highway overpass. We would all go in together, she said, but her security guard, who had served in the military, stopped her. To gain genuine access, they should first try to build some kind of rapport with the people living there. He would do it, he said. He entered the cluster of makeshift dwellings alone, and eventually emerged to beckon us in. He had lied and told the migrants he was a Chechen asylum seeker who had met some well-intended journalists interested in their stories. He warned us that the men were hungry, so things might get tense, but it also gave Southern a little leverage. “Half the pizza now, half after the interview,” Llewelyn-John said, only partly joking. (He and Robertson have since renounced their association with the far right and expressed regret that their skills were used to further Southern’s anti-immigrant agenda.)

[Read: The women behind the ‘alt-right’]

We ran across a highway, through some bushes, and settled under the overpass. The migrants graciously made room for us closer to their fire. “Hi, I’m Alex,” Southern introduced herself, using one of her stage names. She started to pass out chocolate and cigarettes. “I want to know your story. I want to know why you came to Paris for a new life.” As the men warmed their weathered hands over the flames, they told of fleeing bloodshed and gang violence. Mostly from Mali and Sierra Leone, they had escaped via a treacherous route across the Mediterranean that has left an estimated 19,000 people dead or missing since 2013. When they had finally made it to France, they discovered that they were prohibited from working and could wait nearly a year to have their asylum claims heard.

Their chances of ever being admitted to any country in Europe were shrinking. In 2015, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was the first leader to shut his borders, calling the migrant crisis an “invasion.” But in Europe as a whole today, close to two-thirds of asylum applicants are rejected, according to the Eurostat.

Before we left, one of the younger men, hiding beneath a shy grin and layers of dirty overcoats, raised his hand to speak. Maybe something good could come of telling his story to the world, he said. He had crossed from Libya to Italy, and then into France, which he imagined to be “El Dorado” for a French speaker like himself, he told Southern. “We didn’t come here to steal,” he emphasized. It had been six months since he’d arrived, and not only couldn’t he find work, but the French shunned him, and the police destroyed his temporary encampments, keeping him on the move. “I have no hope left,” he said, as rats scampered near our feet.

Southern walked back to the van contemplatively. “There’s no denying they had shitty lives,” she said. “I can have cookies with these people and hear their life story. That doesn’t mean we suddenly—just because I feel bad in that moment—we need to destroy all borders and allow everyone to come in here.”

The finished documentary would portray asylum seekers generally as opportunists looking to get rich, and would pluck from this campfire interview quotes that emphasized the migrants’ failure to assimilate into French culture rather than the dire circumstances from which they had fled. That night, coming back from filming, I asked Southern if she was proud of the work she was doing. A smile broke out on her wind-chapped face. “I’ve really come a long way,” she said.

In January 2019, Southern screened excerpts of Borderless at the European Parliament in Brussels, and was feted like a visiting head of state. Junior staffers rushed to take pictures with her. Right-wing parliamentarians extended invitations to upcoming events, or asked to feature Southern on their social-media accounts. With nearly a quarter of the European Parliament now controlled by the far right, and much of its center pandering to that group’s anti-immigrant base, Southern faced no opposition inside the hall. “Lauren is beautiful,” David Coburn, a Scottish politician who was then a member of the Parliament, told me twice. “[She] makes me feel that the future is maybe in safe hands.”

Southern considered her appearance a rousing success, but five months later, she finally did what she had told me she was going to do so many times. She quit her life as an activist. In the post announcing her decision, titled “A New Chapter,” Southern announced to her hundreds of thousands of supporters that she needed space to focus on her “soul.” Her departure fueled intense speculation in the alt-right community. Milo Yiannopoulos claimed in an “exposé” that Southern ran a fraudulent operation trading sex for professional favors and wanted to escape accountability. Internet sleuths guessed that she was locked up in Turkey or had settled down with a “sugar daddy.” The real story is more mundane.

[Watch: Rebranding white nationalism]

I met Southern in Vancouver’s Stanley Park shortly after her retirement. Waves crashed against the peninsula’s rocky belt. Southern greeted me wearing a large knitted sweater and a floral top, much looser than her usual attire. I set up my camera and prepared to roll.

“Well, we haven’t even established that I’m married yet,” she announced, turning to face me and revealing a slightly protruding belly. She was about five months pregnant by the boyfriend she’d introduced me to in France. They’d wed about a month before I arrived for this visit—the alt-right’s avatar of femininity had conceived a child out of wedlock. “I got married and, um, now my husband and I are expecting our first little one,” Southern said, with the careful cadence of an actress working through her lines for the first time.

She told me about her life in Vancouver. It was idyllic, she said. She had re-enrolled at the University of the Fraser Valley to study philosophy. She was particularly taken by Saint Augustine and his treatise The City of God, which criticizes a society consumed by vanity. In the evening, she played in a community volleyball league. Her new friends had no idea about her past, and Southern, it appeared, didn’t dwell on it much herself. Clutching a book on Christian spirituality, Thirsty for God, Southern was eager to tell me about how she had embraced her partner’s Catholic faith. Most nights were spent cooking with “hubby” and watching Netflix. “I couldn’t be happier,” she said.

I had seen Lauren Southern challenge sexual-assault survivors, turn back refugee boats, exploit desperate migrants for political gain, and rake in considerable cash—all to the benefit of an insurgent racist right. The day after I landed in Belgium to see her give her speech at the European Parliament, I’d learned that my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, had died. As my family gathered in Israel to lay Shulamit Lombroso to rest, I’d watched the parliamentarians applaud their brightest young star. Now Southern was acting like none of this had ever happened. Having thrown her bombs, she had, indeed, simply gone back to a normal life.

The 2010s saw dozens of lethal terror attacks by white nationalists, including Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 of his fellow Norwegians to protest Europe’s growing diversity, and the American extremist Dylann Roof’s killing of nine black worshippers in hopes of igniting a race war. Between the time Southern entered politics and the time she left, far-right extremists had murdered 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, 51 Muslims at a mosque in New Zealand, and 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas (in an effort to target Mexicans). More than a hundred smaller attacks had occurred worldwide. Many of the killers were radicalized on YouTube, and some echoed the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric Southern liked to use.

I asked Southern if she took any responsibility for this surge in hate. She responded briskly: “If anything I’ve said has contributed to that, it was because someone misinterpreted me.” What about her ridiculing of rape culture? “I still stand by the points today.” And what about her partner, who is part Asian—what does he think of her politics? Southern started to speak, then stopped, before recasting my question: “My arguments about family and focusing on community, I believe it’s true. It’s just, it’s hard to personally follow something that is, quite frankly, an ideal.” She kept telling me she had grown more “compassionate,” but whenever I asked her pointedly if she regretted her past work, I got obfuscation and tactical apologies. “I regret letting myself get as cold as I did” is the most she would offer during our last in-person interview.

This past summer, Southern moved with her husband and her son to Australia, where she has returned to activism. She is working on a new documentary called Crossfire, which she promises will bring “nuance” to political discourse. It is centered on “policing, brutality, [and] race,” according to the trailer, and it will “expose the reality for those caught in the crossfire of lawless protest and crime.” She also frequently appears as a commentator on the country’s Sky News channel, inveighing against COVID-19 restrictions and “cancel culture.”

There was never going to be a reckoning. No accountability, only retreat. It’s chilling how much damage one young person with a knack for social media can do.

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