Imagine spending a year undercover among the alt-right in the United Kingdom and United States. That's just what Patrik Hermansson ( a young gay Swedish activist who used the pseudonym Erik Hellberg ) did for HOPE not hate.
One of the places Hermansson found himself was at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer where Heather Heyer was killed.
"I think witnessing an attack on defenseless people can only be traumatic," said Hermansson. "What I saw after Heather and the others were attacked was probably the best humanity has to offer. Everyone came together to help with some using their banners to give shade to the ambulance personnel and while others took care of those who were psychologically traumatized. That gave me hope."
Hermansson, who grew up in Stockholm, recently got his Master's degree in political science and currently works for HOPE not hate as a researcher. His boss is senior researcher Dr. Joe Mulhall.
HOPE not hate was founded in the UK 14 years ago by its Chief Executive Nick Lowles to fight against fascists and extremists that were becoming an electoral threat there.
Prior to moving to the United Kingdom, Hermansson volunteered for Expo, the Swedish anti-racism group, as their newspaper photographer and researcher.
"I am quite left-wing, and the alt-right belief system is the opposite of thatincluding being anti-egalitarian, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT and anti-Democratic," said Hermansson. "When I was in Sweden, I did HIV and LGBTQ activism at first and then moved on to anti-racist and anti-fascist activism and that's how I got involved with Expo."
Hermansson noted that right-wing extremists of all stripes are fixated on Scandinavia and Sweden specifically for different reasons. He said they are obsessed with Scandinavia because of the pagan gods Thor and Odin and what they represent, which is white supremacy.
"Sweden internationally, especially on the far-right, has come to epitomize left-wing society including high taxes for social programs which they are against," said Hermansson. "The Pride March in Stockholm and other Swedish cities have gotten attacked by far-right groups who stand at the side of the road with anti-LGBTQ banners with some trying to provoke the marchers in recent years and people have come to expect that this will happen. In 2015/2016 Sweden had a lot of refugees from places like Syria so now the far-right sees the country as failing due to our socialist policies and open immigration policy."
Hermansson explained that he was asked to do this assignment because he was trusted and fit the profile in terms of his demographic makeup and credentials ( a university education ) that are desirable among far-right leaders. He noted that these groups are always looking to grow and renew themselves with new members. The goal, Hermansson said, was to show the public what they were doing at the local level, where they were campaigning and their future plans.
"People underestimate them and we need all the tools possible to mobilize our campaign team on the grassroots level to counteract their message," said Hermansson.
"We don't take sending people undercover lightly because of the risk it involves," said Mulhall. "Many groups on the far-right try to portray a false or more moderate image to the public. By going undercover we can reveal how extreme and dangerous they really are. Patrik was incredibly brave and did amazing work that will really damage the far-right."
Using a hidden camera, Hermansson documented everything and the footage, along with other information, was turned into a documentary HOPE not hate will be releasing soon.
Hermansson started out by telling these groups he wanted to be a part of their movement. Over time, Hermansson needed to gather more information so he told them he was writing a master's thesis about the suppression of right-wing speech. This allowed him to expand his network without anyone getting suspicious and gave him access to leaders such as reclusive Counter-Currents Publishing Editor-in-Chief Greg Johnson and AltRight Corporation Co-Founder Jason Reza Jorjani ( American white nationalist Richard Spencer is another co-founder ), among others.
"After all those months with them, I became desensitized," said Hermansson. "I learned to listen for hours without raising an eyebrow to ideas that I initially reacted to viscerally. Bit-by-bit it became normal to me and even if you are fundamentally against these ideas you learn to live with them. I was told that bringing acceptance of far-right ideas in the mainstream is an explicit strategy by some of the leaders of these groups. That is what is so frightening.
"I learned that these groups are getting more confident in their ideas and expressing them in public. They are less concerned with how they are perceived by people, especially in the U.S. The key takeaway for me is to challenge them and their hateful messages everywhere we can to show these types of ideas are unacceptable and will come with a social cost. It might not stop those who are already convinced but those that are on the edges might be deterred."
Hermansson said the groups he infiltrated are very hostile toward anyone who is not a white, straight, cisgender person and traditional binary gender roles are a core component of how they see the world. He explained that they also talked about white people being under attack which they call "white genocide." One of their messages, Hermansson noted, was to have as many white kids as possible to ensure white majority status in the Western world.
"They blame LGBTQ people because we supposedly cannot have children and due to this are contributing to the downfall of western civilization," said Hermansson. "There were times when I wanted to argue with them but of course I could not do that because I had a bigger project to accomplish."
Mulhall noted that they have a preoccupation with hierarchy and male-only spaces and that has created a complicated relationship with sexuality. The alt-light ( the moderate wing of the alternative right ), Mulhall explained, has embraced white gay people such as Milo Yiannopolous and Lucian Wintrich ( Twinks4Trump photo series creator ) among others to prove they are better than Muslims when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
"Deep-rooted angst at their own masculine ranking, exacerbated by the homoeroticism found in some male spaces, has led to a virulent homophobia in the alt-right, with gay men placed at the very bottom of the male hierarchy," said Mulhall.
Lowles said Hermansson going undercover gave them invaluable information about "the structure of the alt-right, its funding, its aims, how it recruited new people and the methods it employed to 'get under the radar' in terms of mainstreaming its opinions.
"Patrik being on the inside allowed us to capture the true face and beliefs of this movement. Simply put, a camera or a notepad would have changed the person in front of it. Many of their views are published online, however, certain topics are discussed only behind closed doors and can only truly be captured when you are on the 'inside'."
Mulhall noted that HOPE not hate is in the process of establishing a presence in the US, setting up a research operation to monitor these international links among far-right groups and will be launching on the ground political campaigns in the coming year.
HOPE not hate recently released a report, "The International Alternative Right: From Charlottesville to the White House" ( alternativeright.hopenothate.com/ ) that outlines what it learned over the past year, including the information Hermansson provided to the organization.
"Our message is that those who foment and stoke the flames of ethnic and sectarian hatred must be opposed and exposed, in the interests of peaceful co-existence," said Lowles.
Hermansson's plans for the future include continuing to work for HOPE not hate as a researcher "looking at the far-right but with a little bit of distance."
See hopenothate.com/ for more information .