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14 February 2022

In Forbidden America, Louis Theroux eviscerates the far right

Theroux is braver than he used to be, flushing out his interviewees' politics and reducing them to tantrums.

By Rachel Cooke

Remember Boaty Mcboatface? Well, in Kentucky, there’s a far-right activist called Beardson Beardly whose luxuriant facial hair makes him look (though I’m not sure he fully grasps this) more like a hipster baker than a guy who (allegedly) likes to use the Nazi salute. Beardly’s politics may be viler than his cute name suggests (he’s a rabid supporter of Nick Fuentes, the founder of the America First Political Action Convention, who disapproves of interracial relationships and believes the US should be white majority and that no group is more protected than “the Jews”), but he’s a total baby. “My country’s better than yours!” he shouts at Louis Theroux when the two of them fall out about five minutes after first meeting. “I’m cooler than you!” It’s like listening to a ten-year-old who’s drunk too much Sunny D. Time for a little lie-down, Beardly!

I wonder. Does the rank inadequacy of Beardly and his associates (we’ll get back to those goons in a sec) make them more, or less, terrifying in political terms? In this, the first documentary in his new series, Forbidden America, Theroux performs what I can only describe as a precision evisceration on them, and yet I still can’t convincingly answer this question. Surely they’re too thick to achieve anything close to real political power, for all that Fuentes’s pal Baked Alaska – an alt-right troll who attended the Capitol Riot in person – believes he (Fuentes) will one day be president. But then again, neither their stupidity nor their inadequacy is likely to prevent them from influencing large numbers of other stupid, inadequate people. Clips from Fuentes’s three-hour evening show, streamed live from his home in Chicago, reach millions online. There’s a reason some experts believe the far right now poses the greatest terrorist threat to the US.

Theroux is braver than he used to be – or rather, he’s less happy to play the innocent. First, he flushes out his interviewees’ politics (not hard), and then, with almost equal swiftness, he reduces them to a kind of nappy-state (a diaper-state, if any of them are reading this), all neediness and tantrums and wobbling lips. All this takes is the smallest contradiction. Ostensibly, the internet has given these gamers (“Fortnite is the new golf course,” as Fuentes puts it) everything they could possibly want: for their generation, a support base – like sex or fast food – is only a click away. But no amount of anything can truly sate their ineffable existential hunger.

When they chant “Christ is king!” or rant about how white people are “done with being bullied”, what they’re really expressing is their broken-heartedness. The world is big, and they’re tiny, and however many likes they get, still they remain, in essence, invisible. We never meet, you notice, any wives or girlfriends. People on the right talk of the politics of envy, meaning the taxation-hungry left. But it works the other way round, too. When Fuentes calls Theroux “pretentious”, some part of him, we sense, is envious; he wants what he purports to loathe.

We’re a long way now from Theroux’s encounters with, say, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. There’s no mutual delight here. Trapped in Fuentes’s basement as he recorded his extended rant, Theroux looked like he longed to stuff his ears with string cheese, or whatever else his adolescent interviewee might have had in his refrigerator. Baked Alaska’s house in Phoenix, Arizona, came with a joyless Mc-swimming pool, surrounded by dun-coloured walls and the kind of brittle sun loungers that leave ugly weals on a body; Theroux stared at it disconsolately, a prisoner in a yard.

The film reached its climax in Tampa, Florida, where Alaska really did look baked – what a sweaty Betty! – as he paraded the streets with his camera, blasting out 1930s German marching songs in exchange for a few dollars from the pathetically small crowd watching online. There was shouting in a car park, and the weird spectacle of Theroux refusing to apologise for being white (Alaska said that he should, for this is what white people must do in liberal America). Oh, the bleakness, the desolation. Next time, when Theroux investigates “rap’s new front line”, there’ll be lots of guns, and I will be watching… hopefully something cosy with Roger Allam on BritBox.

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War