If That's Alt-Right with You: Racist Conspiracy Through the Lens of My Paranoid Roommate
On a Sunday night in January, my former roommate accused me of being a secret agent working for the FBI and threatened to kill me.
He was pacing, sweating, and fidgeting with his hair. Stopping, then starting, he muttered phrases, restarted with the hopes of finishing, and then abandoned the attempt entirely. He was, quite simply, gripped with fear.
This, however, was not any fear I’d seen before. I’d felt friends as they crumpled back into me at the sight of colossal crowds. I’d heard friends tell me they needed to leave a building because they felt the walls of it closing in on them. I’d seen friends hide and cover their heads at violence on movie screens that resembled violence they’d suffered.
I hadn’t seen this fear before me. I’d seen where this ended at rallies, city corners, and the last act of American History X. Nonetheless, I hadn’t seen it directed at me by a man who in the previous weeks had made no noise louder than walking on the squeaky floorboard.
Fritz’s paranoia appeared over the course of a weekend, even if it might’ve taken three months to incubate.
On Friday, he followed me into the kitchen after I got home. While angling toward the fridge that held the bottles of Hennessey he’d purchased, he boasted of the “big things happening” to him. He wanted to play his music loudly to celebrate. I thought he’d gotten a promotion.
For months, Fritz had been docile, staid, and, if anything, boring. Although describing himself as “left-leaning,” he’d told me before moving in that he wasn’t “especially interested in politics.” He didn’t know Sam Seder, Noam Chomsky, or Chapo Trap House. He’d seemed perplexed when I mentioned Merkel not seeking reelection. Nonetheless, when I told him that he’d share this apartment with a bisexual trans woman, he proclaimed that he was “universally tolerant.”
“What, is he a Nazi?” joked a friend of mine when I told him my new roommate was German.
“Oh please,” I said. “If anything, they have fewer Nazis there these days than we do here.”
“And that’s why he wants to come here,” said my friend.
It was a bad joke. Fritz had described himself as “open-minded,” after all. Hitler had the gall to call his corporatist, union-busting party “Socialist,” but “open-minded” lay beyond his reach.
On Saturday, I realized I couldn’t live with Fritz for much longer.
That day, Fritz left the apartment every half hour to look for a package. When it didn’t arrive, Fritz accused me of stealing it, then of telling others to intercept it, and finally of obstructing the mail from sending it. He said that I needed to stop talking to the other people in the apartment complex about him.
He also elevated those “big things” he’d bragged about to me into grand fame, whereby he’d become the next Drake even though he couldn’t rap along with slow Die Antwoord songs. Ferrari liked his Facebook page, porn stars wanted to party with him, and Rolex was sending him a free watch. At this point, he claimed that people had given him the Hennessey because they appreciated his craft and wit.
Because of his supposed ascendance, he’d promoted his enemies from jealous haters to complex saboteurs. The only explanation for why Cardi B hadn’t asked him to provide guest verses was an elaborate conspiracy undertaken by shadowy organizations.
Fritz said all the black men he saw outside—and it was always black men—were working for the deep state. He didn’t mention who told him about the deep state, and while the term has some academic usage, the vague foe intent on menacing him sounded far more like something found in a speech from Bannon or Breitbart rather than a treatise on Propaganda Due or the Black Hand.
Ultimately, he was quoting a deeply American conspiracy, one peddled by Trump himself to his followers, as my roommate mentioned when talking about the great things in America. In contrast, a search for “deep state” in Der Spiegel returns twenty-six results, the first of which is nearly a year old and uses the phrase “deep state of crisis.”
This deep state, perhaps unsurprisingly, contained the FBI and CIA. Fearing these organizations is shorthand for paranoia, the easiest trope for writers to show a character has lost touch with reality. However, many people have a right to fear them: Black Lives Matter activists targeted by COINTELPRO-style tactics, democratically elected socialists in foreign countries, any foreigner standing in the wrong place for long enough to get dragged into the FISA courts.
Middle-class, twenty-something white men who listen to the same trap songs on repeat, however, fear those organizations because Alex Jones tells them to.
On Sunday, Fritz feared me because he associated me with that deep state. My actual job as a video game producer was a sham. I’d hidden my cloak and dagger from him, which is why people didn’t come to his parties, why his Twitter wasn’t taking off, and why I was always talking to my friends on Discord. Then came the threats: he would end me, he would be the police against me, he would have his revenge.
I fled with my bare necessities.
When I returned on Monday with five friends to collect my things, he’d devolved into something violent, something vile, and yet something uniquely American.
What I saw first were the ransacked items, the haphazard mess, and the general destruction expected of domestic violence. The sink was a pale sludge, the compound of Soylent, medication, milk, protein powder, and the bottle of Moet I’d promised myself not to open until I wrote a piece that said something meaningful. He’d scattered my clothes, knocked down most of my books, and clutched my violin like it was the Ring of Power, meant to make him invisible in the living room where he cowered. He’d taken my socks and elected to wear them. (He never did explain why he hadn’t matched them.)
But what he said was the ugliest of it all: both the cause and the effect of his fear. Although Fritz claimed to have millions of dollars, the ability to track me down even if I left the country, and the power to “delete” anyone who came into the apartment, our entry, it seemed, would allow the deep state to defeat him. This deep state still contained the FBI and the CIA, but it also contained the last cliché in this extremist paranoia: the Jews. This was the climax of his craziness, the nadir of his descent.
As with many paranoid people, Fritz both feared and loathed, and his rant that began with “fuck the Jews” concluded with other forms of violent exhortation. He claimed to have put LSD in the water, to have tampered with our cars, and to have the power to use the Force to suffocate us.
I’m not writing this because I expect him to organize another Charlottesville but because his actions are emblematic of a nation that has events like Charlottesville in the first place.
America, of course, isn’t the only country with neo-Nazis. One of Italy’s Deputy Prime Ministers has argued for “mass cleanings” that are done “the hard way.” Marine Le Pen got a third of the country to vote for economic nationalism, barriers to immigration, forced deportations, ending “globalism,” and opposing the “Islamification” of French society. And Bolsonaro’s immediate removal of LGBT concerns from the human rights ministry, for being a “gender-based ideology” opposed to Brazil’s “Christian values,” echoes the slurs of “degeneracy” and “Untermensch.”
Antisemitism doesn’t ipso facto imply fascism. Consider, for instance, H.L. Mencken regarding the Jews as “a most unpleasant race” yet criticizing the Nazis for persecuting them, or any race-based comedy routine that’s dated by at least two decades. But antisemitism does have a unique history of inspiring illogical conspiracy theories centered around a singular race: the Jewish financiers, the Jewish banking elites, international Jewry.
These theories stoke the fears of invasion, corruption, and defeat. Cultural Marxism, quite distinctively, is not the white man’s burden or the Confederate defenses of slavery. It imagines not a racial group so uncivilized and inept that superior whites must subjugate them but a race so devious and treacherous that everyone else must strike preemptively.
After seeing Fritz break his headphones to prove no bugs were placed in them and hearing him shout that a third FBI vehicle had passed by the apartment this hour, we might dismiss the concept of fear as emotional weakness. But as far back as antiquity, people saw fear’s value, such as when Aristotle encouraged us to have it in the correct amount and from the correct causes. Women, in particular, are told to pay attention to their fear, to understand it, to know the violence it might portend. My roommate’s threats seemed trifling when I had five people to defend me, but I feared them when I was alone, shoved against the door, and hearing how Fritz would be my “judge, jury, and executioner.”
I feared that my landlord might contend that I didn’t properly vet Fritz (even though their screening process also raised no red flags) and name me in their eviction procedure against him (even though the joint and several liability provision left to their discretion which parties on the lease to sue). I feared that my parents, if they heard about this while it was happening, would track down Fritz and do something rash. I feared that my justice system would not recognize what I’d suffered, would doubt Fritz had threatened me, would suggest not legal remedies but self-defense classes.
In contrast, fearing the Jews is obviously racist, but like fearing the FBI and the CIA for listening to your first drafts of hip hop songs, it’s also irrational. It is a terror built on contradiction. It attributes unstoppable power to one of the most persecuted groups in history. It is another of Fritz’s delusions, in which he claimed to have the power to delete me, and yet feared what was in the medications I left in my room.
In Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco said that “by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies [of fascists] are at the same time too strong and too weak.” Hitler assured his people they were an unstoppable force in a campaign against an immovable, existential threat to their very existence. Millions of Germans joined his party thinking themselves the inevitable rulers of the world yet also near a total and unmitigated defeat. Is it any different today when the alt-right talks of how the master race is under immediate threat of white genocide?
Is it any different from my roommate who claimed to have enormous wealth and influence yet feared me entering my own apartment?
Although these fears are not rational, this doesn’t mean that they are the same as mental illness. When we say the alt-right is crazy, we’re talking about bad assumptions and inconsistent logic, circuitous fallacies like in my friend’s joke. We don’t mean that they believe their roommates are secret agents. Richard Spencer would consider the man who fears the FBI is tapping his phone lines to listen to his rap music to be just another Untermensch.
I don’t suggest that my roommate was a Nazi because he was mentally ill. I don’t know the nature of his mental illness, although based on the abruptness and magnitude of the change I witnessed, I’d wager it was quite severe. Nonetheless, mental illness made it easier for Nazis to corrupt him, especially in a climate where the far-right shouts vague conspiracies and the President calls them fine people. As T.M. Luhrmann said of schizophrenic patients in different countries, voices heard in India were “considerably less violent” than those in America, often commanding the listener “to do domestic chores - to cook, clean, eat, bathe.” Is it any wonder that after coming to this country, Fritz’s insanity might manifest as alt-right paranoia?
There is, of course, the chance that all of this existed before he came here. Perhaps he lied about his tolerance, open-mindedness, and liberal sympathies. But that only raises the question of why a paranoid, racist anti-Semite would want to move to America.
As I contemplate that ruined bottle of Moet, I consider what fear ought to mean. We should not fear the Jews, a nebulous idea of the deep state, or that intelligence agencies want to disrupt our debut on Soundcloud. This is the irrational fear.
Powerful, established men are likelier to be conservative and hence more susceptible to fear, including the irrational fear that frames equality as a threat, as it means they must relinquish the reins they hold over their marginalized subjects. That irrational fear also targets some of their same subjects: the mentally ill, the confused, the people without their faculties.
The rational fear should be of the powerful, the dangerous, and the exploitation of the downtrodden.
We should fear the strength that landlords hold over tenants, even when other tenants have threatened them. We should fear how society expects women to bear the weight of men’s aggression, such as when those same landlords told me: “I suggest you try to pick better roommates in the future.” We should fear how Nazis bring fascist ideology to debates and get treated as people whose ideas we need to hear and discuss. We should fear how this ideology might target those who can’t get treatment for their mental illness because a broken healthcare system doesn’t permit it. We should fear that a man like Fritz can devolve into antisemitism after three months in this country.
Fear let me write this article, because I wanted to express my solidarity with all those who also combat the paranoid bigotry they see developing around them.