If you remember Katie McHugh, it’s probably because of the tweets.
A short selection: “British settlers built the USA. ‘Slaves’ built the country much as cows ‘built’ McDonald’s. Amateur…”
“The only way to strike a balance between vigilance, discrimination, (& terror) is to end Muslim immigration.”
"Funny how Europeans assimilated, unlike Third Worlders demanding welfare while raping, killing Americans."
There are many more examples, but this is the big one, the one that ultimately triggered her firing from her job as a writer and editor at Breitbart News in 2017: “There would be no deadly terror attacks in the U.K. if Muslims didn't live there."
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If you look at her Twitter feed now, you’ll see that it’s changed. It’s locked, and her bio is blank. Where is McHugh? I can’t tell you, but I’ve seen her lately. The first time we met was late last summer, on the stoop of a house where she was then living in Washington, DC. She looked gaunt and anxious. When I shook her hand, it felt tiny and frail. We sat facing each other across a patio table on a hot, sticky day. She smoked.
I didn’t know what to make of her. This was someone whom I’d known to be a bigot, someone who freely threw around the “cuck” slur and who represented the kind of ideology I have devoted much of my career so far to explaining and exposing. It was a little over a year after Charlottesville. The bad things from the internet had started to come to life, with terrible, violent, and real consequences. It was bizarre to see in person someone who had existed for me only as an online symbol of the very worst parts of contemporary politics.
She was saying she wanted to leave it all behind: her years as a far-right media figure and tweeter, and someone who close observers of right-wing media knew was one of Breitbart’s most obvious connections to the white supremacist core of the alt-right. McHugh had dated Kevin DeAnna, the founder of Youth for Western Civilization, a now-defunct right-wing campus youth group that billed itself as promoting “the survival of Western Civilization and pride in Western heritage,” but was entwined with the white nationalist movement; Jared Taylor, the self-described “white advocate” founder of American Renaissance, once fundraised for the group. Her disparaging tweets about people of color and Muslims made her stand out even at Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, which had launched Milo Yiannopoulos’s career, had featured a “black crime” tag for stories, and had been described by Bannon himself as a “platform for the alt-right.”
After McHugh’s public dismissal, she had gone on to briefly contract for infamous troll Charles C. Johnson’s GotNews site. That didn’t work out, either. A difficult relationship had left her isolated, and she was on the outs with her former friends. She was going broke and could barely afford the expenses incurred by her Type 1 diabetes. Her time in Washington had ruined her life, and not in just a bump-in-the-road kind of way. She had been to a place you couldn’t really come back from.
She wasn’t sure about going on the record but later decided to. I met her again in September in a town a few hours outside of Washington where she was staying. As I approached her in a coffee shop on a Monday morning, she looked well enough. Her makeup was neatly applied, her nails were painted, and she was wearing a navy-and-white dress with coordinating white cardigan and loafers. Her skin had previously looked mottled and gray but now shone with a new vitality. She shook my hand with a firm grip and we started talking.
Her story is fascinating, and sometimes frustrating. She wishes she had never said the things she’s said or did the things she’s done, but when I first met her, she still insisted that they were often jokes gone wrong and that, on some level, she’d said these things because she’d been egged on by others. She seemed unable to face her full complicity in her own behavior. Unlike Derek Black, the son of Stormfront founder Don Black and to date one of the most significant defectors from the white nationalist movement — he’s even the subject of a recent book by the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow — McHugh wasn’t raised in the movement. Although Black represented the old guard of white nationalism — his godfather is David Duke — McHugh was part of the vanguard. Her set took the emerging own-the-libs ethos that animated the online right and combined it with the new iteration of white nationalism, which called itself the alt-right.
Where was McHugh radicalized? Her story is about support systems and pipelines. It's about how an angry young conservative with reactionary views got herself involved with a small coterie of ideologues in Washington and prepped for a conservative media career in the crucial years before the rise of Donald Trump, as extremism became more popular on the right and as people could optimize themselves for success through attention on social media. It’s about how the organizations she worked for either turned a blind eye to or were genuinely ignorant of the fact that one of their young stars was leading a double life among hardcore racist activists. And it’s about how the cultlike atmosphere of the so-called alt-right helped people make more and more harmful decisions.
Her story is also about something that has ended. The events she described to me took place mostly between 2013 and 2017, a span of time in which the alt-right rose and fell dramatically as it attempted to go mainstream. “There was a move to have people in the system who were our guys, so to speak,” said Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader who has made himself the poster boy for the alt-right. “I think that’s failed on a number of levels.” All they’d gotten, he said, were “just a lot of people who just hang out in the conservative movement and don’t accomplish anything.”
But the legacy of this period — the racism, the spread of white nationalist ideas online, and the murder in Charlottesville, Virginia — will affect American politics for a long time to come.
“I take responsibility for all my actions,” McHugh says now. “Everything I said that was terrible was my fault.” She says she knows she was a racist. She says that she has changed. And she’s ready to tell everything she knows.
In the spring of 2011, Katie McHugh was a student at Allegheny College. She grew up in western Pennsylvania and was attending the region’s oldest private college but wanted to make it to Washington and join the conservative movement. She was a quiet young woman who hadn’t ventured very far from where she’d grown up. Her reading had taken her to some unusual places, however, for a young person.
She’d become a devotee of Joe Sobran, the late Catholic columnist who was fired from National Review after falling out with William F. Buckley and whose writings deeply influenced the paleoconservative movement, which emphasizes nationalism and noninterventionism. Over the course of his career, Sobran’s writing on Israel and Jews became extreme, and he associated with Holocaust deniers and questioned Holocaust history. McHugh had liked Ron Paul, for whom she was slightly too young to vote in 2008, so a friend at church had told her to read Sobran’s “The Reluctant Anarchist.” In the piece, written in 2002, Sobran describes how he moved away from the ideology of mainstream conservatism and toward becoming a “philosophical anarchist.” Sobran opposed the concept of the state as a unifying force of government; he opposed the very idea of so-called constitutional government. The argument made sense to the budding young libertarian in Pennsylvania. “That was my step into the right,” she said. “I think I’ve read every single thing Sobran’s ever written.” Sobran’s death was also her introduction to even further-right media; when he died in 2010, her online search for obituaries led her to the VDare and American Renaissance websites, she said.
By the time she arrived at Allegheny, things were changing on the right. The victory of the first black president — an unapologetic liberal with roots in the community organizing so hated by conservatives — had catalyzed a shift on the right toward conspiracy theories, a penchant for victimhood, and an increasing emphasis on winning at all costs. On Allegheny’s small 2,000-student campus, McHugh said, “I made it more difficult on myself by being a raging conservative.”
She felt herself on the wrong side of a class divide. Allegheny’s students seemed wealthy; she wasn’t. She couldn’t join a sorority because she couldn’t afford the dues, she said. Her sense of outsiderness gave her a bold pen, and she was already going to extremes. She published reactionary opinion pieces for the campus newspaper, such as one arguing that the “homosexual movement, a liberal sub–faction, proliferates like melanoma.” “I could have tempered my message, things like that,” she told me. But she didn’t.
In 2011 she applied for an internship with the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), a nonprofit connected to George Mason University that promotes “classical liberalism” and libertarianism on college campuses and grants fellowships to students.
“I reviewed your application,” wrote John Elliott, the IHS journalism internship program’s director at the time, in an email to her in February of that year. “You are the first applicant to ever list Joe Sobran as an influence. Joe was a friend. He had the same influence on me. I was delighted to find a young journalist who has profited from his work.”
Elliott wrote that he had moved her to the second round and that they would arrange a phone interview. He also offered some advice: “Reporting on student council meetings or power outages may not be as ‘fun’ as a column. But it will teach you the skills to find a job in journalism and eventually write the columns.” Elliott placed McHugh in an internship at the Daily Caller. It was under this aegis that McHugh went to Washington as a cub reporter for the first time.
“John essentially selected me to come to DC as part of the libertarian–alt-right pipeline,” McHugh said of Elliott.
“I chose Katie to mentor as a libertarian, not as a member of the ‘alt-right,’” Elliott said in an email. “The ‘alt-right’ didn’t exist in 2011, and I’ve had no connection with the ‘alt-right’ since it was invented. I tried to be a mentor and a friend to Katie for a decade, even as she went down some of the dark paths of those fringe groups. But her decision to go down those paths had nothing to do with me. I truly feel bad for her.”
When she returned to school, she successfully made some noise as a campus journalist, getting her first taste of the conflict and controversy that would define her career. In 2013 she wrote a story for the College Fix, a campus conservative site, about how a sex-education seminar titled “I Heart the Female Orgasm” had been held in the school’s chapel. The story caused a stir and briefly entered the bloodstream of the conservative media.
So she was well prepared for the kind of work that was the coin of the realm for a young journalist trying to make it on the right during Barack Obama’s second term. She couldn’t wait to leave college. “Andrew Breitbart described his undergraduate degree as his release papers from prison,” she said. “That’s how I looked at my degree.”
McHugh already had a job waiting for her. According to her, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a college conservative group, gave her a $20,000 fellowship to work at the Daily Caller, the then-fledgling conservative news site founded by Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel. The Caller added $10,000. Famously, Carlson had given a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2009 about how conservatives needed to create a true alternative to the mainstream media by producing accurate journalism and modeling themselves after the New York Times. Carlson had a polyglot vision for his outlet, and the leadership of the Daily Caller cultivated a laissez-faire attitude toward its culture, which helped the Caller produce journalists from all over the spectrum. Some have gone on to well-regarded mainstream or conservative outlets and launched successful careers. But others have veered much further toward the fringe.
McHugh was at the Caller for about 10 months. This kind of arrangement has for decades been a common way of launching a career in Washington. Nonprofits all over the ideological spectrum fund journalism internships and fellowships for a variety of outlets. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it at all, which contributed to McHugh’s ability to fly under the radar.
Concurrently, she began dating Kevin DeAnna. The two met in July 2013, according to McHugh, at a going-away party in Alexandria, Virginia, for a mutual friend leaving a conservative group. Her double life was already developing because of her relationship with DeAnna and her connection to Elliott, who invited her to a dinner with the British Holocaust denier David Irving in 2013.
“David irving is in Washington. I had lunch with him in the Archives. He is speaking at 6:30 near Du Pont Circle. Are you interested?” Elliott wrote to her in an email in November 2013. (It was the first of three dinners she would attend with Irving over the course of her time in DC, though she claims she did not know who he was before the first one. Elliott, in an email, said he’d met Irving when he worked as a researcher and attended dinner with him because he’s “interesting and controversial,” not because Elliott endorses his views.) A group of committed fans attended these dinners, held at the Nage restaurant, when Irving passed through DC. People would ask pop history–type questions about Hitler, like whether he had one testicle, was gay, or had syphilis. McHugh says she mostly wanted to ask about Irving’s research into Nazi Germany’s attempt to develop the atom bomb.
“I was a white nationalist,” McHugh told me in a recent text message. “I wasn’t completely aligned with Irving’s anti-Semitism, but I was compelled to his ideas for the wrong reasons. Ideas which now horrify me.”
In December 2013, she corresponded with Chuck Ross, a blogger who freelanced at the Caller and later went on to a staff job at the Caller. At the time, Ross mused on his blog about politics and current affairs; years later, he apologized for the blog’s racism and misogyny. The exchange with Ross that McHugh provided me shows how brazen she was at the time.
“Like, how tolerant is DC about neo-reactionary type thinking?” Ross wrote to her, referring to the Daily Caller. “Neoreactionary” refers to a relatively new, mostly online far-right ideology that has developed over the past several years, based on the concept of an anti-democratic Dark Enlightenment. The movement has some crossover with white nationalists. Its most prominent thinker, Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, was reportedly read by Steve Bannon in the early days of the Trump administration.
Ross asked about a photo of McHugh with several of her friends — including Tim Dionisopoulos, a former staffer at the conservative media-watchdog Media Research Center and a former Youth for Western Civilization activist; the activist Devin Saucier; and her boyfriend, DeAnna — at the Daily Caller’s office. “Do any of the [Daily Caller] people know who they are?”
She responded: “Our enemies and their sympathizers are lazy and are weaklings for the most part. ... Kevin's my boyfriend and Tim is one of my best friends. We were celebrating my birthday at one of our happy hours in that picture. No one was going to say anything even though Kevin obviously has his very own SPLC page and Tim is all over One People's Project and the like. Devin commandeered my laptop to update AmRen in the office.” McHugh wrote about how it wasn’t “a game, but it’s not war yet,” either. “We don't advertise it, let alone wave red flags in front of the bulls.”
She also demonstrated a flair for self-protection and an arrogant attitude toward criticism.
“But it's good not to tiptoe around everything,” she wrote to Ross. “Posting photos like that implies a certain boldness, like we're not going to have a heart attack and immediately start apologizing at the first hint of a thoughtcrime accusation. The best first response is reframing the scenario with a ‘What?’ or ‘So what?’”
In an email this week, Ross said the email was his attempt as a Daily Caller part-timer who worked remotely to understand what he saw in the photo.
In February 2014, Scott Greer, a former WorldNetDaily writer who had written for Campus Reform, a right-wing college media program, joined the Caller. “Scott is joining us as an associate editor, working the 2:30 to overnight shift alongside Katie McHugh,” an editor wrote in an email to staff.
McHugh forwarded it to some of her friends in her circle of activists, including DeAnna, Saucier, Dionisopoulos, and Taylor Rose, a former top official at Youth for Western Civilization who went on to run for a seat in Montana’s legislature in 2016.
Rose responded, “Sieg heil.” (“I was clearly joking and being satirical,” Rose said in an email to BuzzFeed News. “It does not reflect my beliefs or values.”)
Dionisopoulos did not comment beyond stating that he is no longer with the Media Research Center and has not been for months. Saucier and DeAnna did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
During his time at the Caller, Greer wrote racist screeds under a pseudonym for Richard Spencer’s website Radix Journal. Under the byline “Michael McGregor,” Greer weighed in on everything from supposed antiwhite bias in football to supposed Jewish responsibility for anti-Semitism in Europe. (Greer resigned from the Caller last year to write a book, and months later, when I wrote about his pseudonymous work, he ended his status as a contributor for the Caller. “As the political situation has evolved in recent years, so have my views,” he said in a statement at the time. “That said, I do not apologize for honestly stating what I believed to be correct at the time, unless everyone must apologize every time they change their opinion.” Greer did not respond to a request for comment about this story.)
McHugh wasn’t producing anything especially exciting at the Caller, but she was clearly ambitious and liked to mix it up, and she attracted the notice of Breitbart News. She started there in April 2014. The company lacked the fratty, laid-back atmosphere of the Caller. Under Bannon, who heavily involved himself in editorial matters, Breitbart writers worked around the clock. Her health care situation was precarious — Breitbart offered her a capped reimbursement for health expenses but did not offer her health benefits — particularly after she was diagnosed with diabetes in October 2015. McHugh also has alopecia, a condition which causes people to lose their hair, which she says was diagnosed with at age 14. Though her hair grew back at one point, she says she lost it again in 2013.
McHugh tried to leave in August 2014 to work at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, but Breitbart kept her by threatening to enforce the noncompete clause in her contract, she said. She had signed a three-year contract.
While she worked at Breitbart, McHugh got deeper and deeper into the world of white nationalism. When protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, became national news, McHugh says she was in Connecticut — at the home of VDare's Peter Brimelow. DeAnna was close with them, and McHugh would sometimes spend time there, even babysitting his children, she said. Brimelow, a former financial journalist, was once a mainstream conservative and National Review writer; he had gone further and further to the right over the years, eventually founding the website VDare, named after Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in North America. Just a year after first coming to DC for a full-time job, she was weekending at Brimelow’s home.
At that point, in 2014, most political reporters were covering Republicans like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, the new class of conservative political leaders who were broadly expected to take more moderate positions on immigration and criminal justice. Meanwhile, parts of the right’s response to Ferguson and the rise of Black Lives Matter became intensely racialized and outright racist. Gamergate, an online movement purporting to concern ethics in games journalism, brought scores of the disaffected into an online culture war primed for politics.
And then, in 2015, Trump announced he was running for president.
“It was when Trump ran that the whole world started to change,” McHugh said. “And Breitbart developed a rather different culture. … There was a noticeable change. And the thing is, I think Breitbart — and let me preface this by saying I take responsibility for all my actions. Everything I said that was terrible was my fault. However, I think that people’s flaws were encouraged. I think Milo’s fame should not have been encouraged — it was very bad for him. And my vindictiveness and my capacity for cruelty were encouraged.”
It’s not that McHugh’s tweets were edgy; they were racist and anti-Muslim. “Funny how Europeans assimilated, unlike Third Worlders demanding welfare while raping, killing Americans,” she tweeted in September 2015. That same month, she offered the thought that “British settlers and their descendants built civilization. Indians never bothered to build more than a few teepees.” Or: “Another Crusade would do a lot of good. Let’s turn Mecca into a strip mall!”
Inside the company, some took notice. On Aug. 15, 2015, Breitbart Texas editor Brandon Darby emailed McHugh, copying Bannon, Larry Solov, and Alex Marlow — Breitbart’s leadership.
“Katie, You just retweeted 9 times in row retweets from Adolf Joe Biden, an open member of the American Nazi Party,” he wrote. “They were tweets defending you. I am very concerned with your racially-tinged tweets, the fact that most of the American Nazi Party members follow you and commune with you, and the fact that most of the Ku Klux Klan accounts follow you and do the same. What is going on here?”
“WTF,” Bannon wrote back within minutes. “Katie call me ASAP.”
“I think you are a white supremacist. Am I correct?” Darby wrote. “He is not a parody account at all and you know it.”
“Brandon stop,” Bannon responded.
But McHugh had a keen sense of how to play the situation to her benefit.
“Dropping Brandon,” McHugh wrote back nearly half an hour later, removing Darby from the thread. She described the account in question, @bidenshairplugs, as “a popular parody account that's been around for years with tens of thousands of conservative fans.”
“The Left and Right play low and dirty,” she wrote. “They know that if they act outraged, someone will get scared and apologize, and then they win. I retweeted someone who defended me against Hollywood people calling me a ‘human centipede’ and other adorable names. So too bad that upsets him more than the well-fed right hurling repulsive insults at an editor for a website they trash non-stop. Twitter has a ‘mute’ button which I use frequently for good reason.”
Breitbart did nothing, according to McHugh. And @bidenshairplugs wasn’t exactly some harmless comedy account. As of this writing, it’s been suspended from Twitter and resurrected on Gab, the platform where far-right users too extreme even for Twitter’s liberal terms of service have found a home. Its recent Gab posts are riddled with racial slurs and Holocaust denial.
It was part of a pattern. McHugh’s behavior raised eyebrows but never led to any punishment or intervention. She’d occasionally get a light scolding, but that was about it. “Steve said ‘stop it’ just out of irritation. But it never, never affected my rise in the company,” she said.
McHugh even eventually took on a role that put her in close contact with Bannon for much of the day: He chose her as a producer on his Sirius XM radio show, a project dear to his heart.
It was a chaotic period, waking up at the crack of dawn, booking Bannon’s guests, writing her own pieces, and falling into bed exhausted. She became further entwined with her alt-right friends, with whom she spent most of her little free time — particularly DeAnna, her live-in boyfriend since 2015. “These alt-right people were often, like, the only friends I had besides my work colleagues,” she said.
McHugh never told her bosses about her ties to people like Brimelow, and she didn’t think she needed to. “It didn’t affect my work at Breitbart because I wasn’t taking story ideas from [Brimelow],” she said.
“It was sort of rumored, whispered stuff that was none of my business,” said Lee Stranahan, a former Breitbart reporter who now works for Russian government–owned outlet Sputnik, of McHugh’s associations. McHugh thinks it probably wouldn’t have gone over well if Breitbart had known, but nothing too serious: “I’m sure management would have been very upset. Steve would have been like, ‘Cut that out.’” But at a place like Breitbart News, the ethos was so firmly built around creating controversy and resisting supposed political correctness that a slap on the wrist was all McHugh thought she could expect. The important thing in the new conservative digital media, she had realized, was not to not be racist, but to laugh at those who called you racist.
In 2015, McHugh says, she witnessed an encounter between Bannon and the white nationalist activist Devin Saucier at Breitbart’s party following CPAC that has stuck in her memory as a sign of just how permissive Bannon was willing to be. At the time she was good friends with Saucier, who has edited for Taylor’s publication American Renaissance under a pen name and who, in 2017, wrote a pseudonymous article titled “Why I Am (Among Other Things) A White Nationalist.” Taylor calls himself a “white advocate” and has written, “When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization — any kind of civilization — disappears." McHugh brought Saucier along to the party.
As McHugh recalls it, Bannon looked at Saucier, sizing him up. He asked, “Who do you work for? Peter?” referring to Brimelow. Saucier, smiling, said no. Bannon said, “Far to the right, right?” Saucier responded in the affirmative. “AmRen? American Renaissance?” Saucier said, “Yes, sir,” and Bannon put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Well, we’re all fighting the same fight.”
A spokesperson for Bannon did not comment on the record.
In a broader piece about Breitbart, the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove wrote about McHugh’s role in going after Bannon’s enemies in 2016 — and also asked Breitbart to comment on some of McHugh’s tweets, including examples like, “It’s important to keep families together. We must deport anchor babies along with their illegal alien parents” and “Indian tribes never bothered to build any kind of civilization. They killed each other and chased bison. Yawn~.”
Marlow responded flippantly. “Neither Steve nor I are big fans of Twitter, but after reviewing these tweets, we’re considering giving Katie a weekly column,” he told Grove.
“They thought my mean tweets were funny,” she said. “My horrible jokes.”
The first hints of fall were in the air when I visited McHugh in September in the town where she was staying. We strolled around the quaint downtown area and had lunch in the restaurant of a local hotel. I took a couple of photos of her standing in front of a wall; afterward, she asked me to send them to her. She said no one had taken her picture in a long time. When she saw them, she said she looked gaunt.
When I went back to see her in November, I was with a friend of hers, the friend who had connected us in the first place. We went to a Waffle House, mostly empty except for a few elderly couples. Sunshine streamed in through the windows. We ordered breakfast, and I split a waffle with her. She was working now at a local diner.
This time, she was more willing to take responsibility for herself.
“I was a racist, certainly,” she said. “And I patted myself on the back, saying, ‘Well, I’m not, you know, some kind of Cro-Magnon racist. I just believe that they’re violent and unruly,’” referring to nonwhite people.
The idea that these were not “Cro-Magnon” racists, but instead cultured and intelligent holders of taboo truths, is essential to their appeal to the lonely and disaffected. Richard Spencer, who has done more than anyone else to try and rebrand white nationalism as something sophisticated, doesn’t think this was exactly the appeal for McHugh.
“I don’t think Katie McHugh has much of an ideology at all," he said. He described her as a “hater" with “conventional political opinions but extreme emotions.” He said he has encountered her in person about a dozen times.
The alt-right was, at the time, all about smoothing over its public image, becoming approachable, more mainstream. “They didn’t have swastikas covering their foreheads,” as McHugh put it. The very term “alt-right” represented this effort to rebrand white nationalism. Everything in public was euphemism. The names of the main organizations were bland: National Policy Institute, American Renaissance. People could blend in, and they did. They were “polished, sophisticated,” she said. “There’s a very high culture aspect to it.” The class markers were important to someone like McHugh, who had come from the sticks. And the emphasis on genetics and IQ was appealing as well. “They see it almost as a moral value,” she said. “They think that people with [a] high IQ confers them with some kind of super ability and makes them leaders, natural leaders.”
The emphasis on intelligence endows the whole enterprise with a pseudo-intellectual veneer, and it also provides white supremacists with a way to elide accusations of white supremacy. According to their argument, they can’t be white supremacists because they say that Jews and people of East Asian descent have a higher average IQ. This both whitewashes their bigotry and feeds into the alt-right’s victim mentality, especially as it relates to Jews. The work of the anti-Semitic writer Kevin MacDonald is a cornerstone of the alt-right movement. His Culture of Critique series argues that Jews, using their higher intelligence, employed Judaism as a “group evolutionary strategy” to perpetuate themselves and win out over other groups. MacDonald blames Jews for the very existence of anti-Semitism, arguing that anti-Semitism is a justified response to Jews’ plot to run the world.
McHugh claims she never really jelled with this argument, seeing instead a persecuted minority that had tried over the centuries to preserve itself. She clearly didn’t have enough of a problem with it to remove herself from the situation, however.
Emails from over the years show a tight, insular group of friends who could have been any set of twenty- or thirtysomethings living and working in DC — except some of them were committed extremists. They discussed plans for CPAC weekend. (“No real plans for tonight,” Saucier wrote when someone got to DC and asked what his group was up to in 2014. Saucier mentioned that “Jared” and “Richard” were headed to CPAC. “If you want to drop by the chateau tonight I'm sure there will be much conviviality.”) They coordinated travel down to Lynchburg, Virginia, for meetups. They planned an Alt-Right Toastmasters event in 2016 organized by Marcus Epstein, who was to give a talk on “The Pros and Cons of Anonymity.” Epstein, a former aide to nativist politicians like Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan, entered an Alford plea in 2009 on charges of assaulting a black woman on the street in DC and calling her the n-word in 2007.
McHugh’s relationship with DeAnna had been her entrée into the alt-right, and she had absorbed DeAnna’s friends by osmosis. DeAnna had wanted to marry her, she said, but McHugh, though she loved him, had several major qualms in the relationship. He was a deeply unhappy person, she felt, in a life of racist activism that had made him too toxic for mainstream society; “I think just because he was trapped in the alt-right, didn’t see a way out, made him very unhappy,” she said. He once told McHugh not to choose the same path, she said, to turn back while she could. He felt it was too late for him, she said.
Their differences went deeper — and stranger — than that, and allowed McHugh to see inside a truly bizarre subculture. McHugh was a Catholic, while DeAnna was a member of the Wolves of Vinland, a group based near Lynchburg that was focused around a neopagan theology based on self-improvement and feats of strength, as well as coded white nationalism. The idea was to cast off the bounds of modern Judeo-Christian society and find a way back to pre-Christian northern-European culture. McHugh sometimes accompanied DeAnna on weekend trips down to the Wolves’ headquarters for what they called a “moot” — a ceremony in which the assembled Wolves would smear ash on their bodies around a fire and give what McHugh described as “dramatic speeches” about self-sufficiency and relying on the other group members. They would then sit around the fire and drink beers.
The Wolves placed a heavy emphasis on masculinity. The women would prepare food for the gatherings earlier in the day before the moot commenced, according to McHugh. The Wolves were into a “Centurion Method” of physical fitness; a video still on YouTube shows DeAnna and Paul Waggener, one of the founders of the group who used the pseudonym “Grimnir,” taking turns lifting up the trunk of a car filled with cement blocks, scrambling around on a bunch of debris, and squatting while holding logs.
One of the Wolves, Maurice Michaely (Wolf name Hjalti), was sentenced to two years in prison for trying to burn down a black church. (“Visiting with incarcerated Wolf,” Waggener wrote on Facebook in 2014 to caption a photo of himself visiting Michaely in jail, speaking to him on a phone across a transparent barrier. “Free Hjalti you fucking pricks.”)
There is a thread in white nationalist ideology that is essentially anti-Christian, viewing Christianity as a destructive force that compelled white people to be overly generous. “They, at best, view it as a necessary evil,” McHugh said. “Almost as a control mechanism for people, and they’ll eventually shed it to go back to their true Western roots of being Aryan.” Christianity began as an offshoot of Judaism — to white nationalists, subversive at its core.
Though McHugh says she was appalled from the get-go at the Wolves’ paganism, a friend who has known her since she was an intern at the Daily Caller said she was tempted by it at the time. “I began to recognize that there are certain things that she needed reprogramming on, and so I set out to help her as much as I could,” the friend said.
“She seemed that she did have some interest in it,” this person said. “In 2014 I was in the hospital, and when you’re in the hospital people bring you things to read. And she brought me this little pagan pamphlet. And I was like, oh, we gotta stop this. Nip this in the bud.” The friend gave her a copy of City of God, St. Augustine’s seminal defense of Christianity in the declining years of the Roman Empire. He thinks it brought her back from the brink. “She was like, oh, this book’s incredible,” he said. “At that point, it was that she was not going to become a pagan, that she was gonna remain a Christian.”
The Wolves would eventually be a major factor in her breakup with DeAnna in 2016; McHugh couldn’t picture raising her kids in the context of that relationship, she said. But when they did break up, she was by then as much a part of the alt-right as DeAnna had been, one of the few women who had climbed the ranks of that world and become increasingly isolated from the rest of ours. She wanted more friends and joined a Discord chat for alt-right women, but she didn’t like it. The women swapped makeup and childcare tips, she said; then someone would jump in to tell the group how they’d brought up the “JQ” (the Jewish question) to their kids.
By that point, people had caught wind of her relationship with DeAnna. A Mother Jones reporter asked her for comment about it as part of a story on Richard Spencer and the alt-right in 2016. “My relationship was never ‘secret,’ but it’s pretty funny it’s newsworthy to a shitlib, meaning you,” McHugh responded to him.
As McHugh became more and more enmeshed in this scene, its members found themselves tantalizingly closer to power. The Trump campaign was gaining momentum, and Trump’s dog whistles were finding their audience. Alt-right figures like Spencer were seizing the moment and latching themselves on to Trump’s coattails.
Where do you go once you’ve become too toxic for Breitbart News?
During the 2016 campaign, within Breitbart, a division had emerged between Trump and Ted Cruz supporters. It wasn’t explicit at first, but it was clear that Bannon and a few of those closest to him became all in for Trump, while others were more wary. McHugh was in the Trump camp.
Bannon’s increasing prominence was also, in the end, what started the clock ticking on McHugh’s career at Breitbart. She had been able to survive for so long the culture he fostered, and Breitbart’s ascent in tandem with Trump’s had dropped the company right into a pressure cooker. Boycotts decimated Breitbart’s advertising business. The site made moves toward becoming more mainstream, hiring reporters from publications like the Hill and the Wall Street Journal. There was no longer room for the kind of trouble McHugh could cause.
The tweets that got McHugh fired in June 2017 weren’t even the worst things she’d said. “I never would have been insubordinate, you know,” she said, if there had been clear guidelines about what was or wasn’t allowed. But Breitbart appeared to have had enough.
In a statement on Saturday, a spokesperson for Breitbart said, “Breitbart News does not tolerate bigotry of any kind. Katie McHugh was fired years ago for multiple reasons, including lying.”
She confirmed her firing on Twitter at the time, saying, “Breitbart News fired me for telling the truth about Islam and Muslim immigration.” Several outlets wrote about her firing, including the New York Times, the New York Post, and the Atlantic, where I wrote about it. “Dismissing a writer for professing anti-Muslim beliefs might appear out of character for Breitbart News, which has often defended writers besieged by criticism from the left on free-speech grounds, considering them to be victims of political correctness,” Daniel Victor wrote in the Times. A crowdfunding page for McHugh was set up at WeSearchr, Charles C. Johnson’s site for crowdfunding for “bounties.” “Breitbart News fired an editor for speaking frankly about Islam and Muslim immigration,” McHugh wrote on the page. “If there were no Muslims in London, there would be no Muslim terror attacks, period. I said nothing wrong. As President Donald Trump says, if we don’t get smart, it will only get worse. It’s also interesting Breitbart News chose to fire me rather than colleagues leaking to CNN.” The fundraising goal was $10,000, to cover McHugh’s medical expenses.
There weren’t many places to go from there. You can’t get fired from Breitbart for being racist and then go mainstream. She moved further to the fringe, deeper into the fever swamps — where, she learned, connections to the mainstream remain.
“What have you been up to?” Dave Brooks, managing editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, wrote to her on June 4, 2017. “Saw a facebook friend hating on you, so I thought I’d see how you've been. You should hang out sometime.”
“Breitbart fired me and I’m working on my first book,” McHugh wrote back.
“I hate to hear that. Did they fire you before or after the tweet? Would you have any interest in working for AR.com if I talked to Richard?” Brooks replied.
“They fired me because of my tweets. Would be grateful to hear about another job opportunity,” McHugh said.
“So they cucked for CNN? What a bunch of bastards. I've talked to Richard, and the money isn't there yet. But he has you in mind. Keep your head up and let me know if you want to grab beers and bitch about the nonsense. I'll buy.”
“Thank you, will do.”
Brooks had another idea. “Yep, I also know Jared Taylor has been looking for an investigative reporter. I think he's a little in an old school journalist mindset, but it would pay more than I make at the Caller. Devin [Saucier] has the deets on this.”
In an email last week, Daily Caller publisher Neil Patel wrote that the company had dismissed Brooks as a result of these emails. “Katie McHugh has not worked with us for many years and we have no association with her,” Patel wrote. “We have absolutely zero tolerance for these insane white supremacy types. Any insinuation to the contrary is an embarrassment to all the great people who work here. We have dismissed Dave Brooks effective immediately based on the email correspondence you sent which we had never previously seen.”
“When she was fired from Breitbart, I worried for her health, so I donated to a fund to help her with medical expenses and told her about jobs I'd heard of involving Devin Saucier and Richard Lynn in the far-right, a circle I know she moved in,” Brooks said in an email on Thursday. Lynn is a British academic who argues that intelligence is based on race. “I am not friends, professionally or personally, with these people. I inquired on her behalf through people I knew, and I haven't spoken to any of them in years.” Brooks said that “AR.com” referred to American Renaissance.
In 2017, McHugh also had a friendly, if seemingly disinterested exchange, with Donald Trump Jr. “Mr. Trump, thanks for the follow,” she wrote to him in a Twitter DM on June 6 of that year. She had tweeted to announce her firing on June 5.
“My pleasure,” he responded. “Let me know where you land and good luck.”
A week later, she wrote to him: “Hi, Mr. Trump, just wanted to let you know I’m currently doing contract work with Charles C. Johnson. If you happen to be in D.C. at some point, I’d love the opportunity to meet you! Thanks again for your support!” He replied, “Great and good luck if I make it down there I’d like that.” (McHugh said these exchanges are the totality of her communication with Trump Jr. A spokesperson for Trump Jr. declined to comment.)
Thus began her short-lived alliance with Johnson. Although he’d had his origins in the mainstream conservative movement, writing a biography of Calvin Coolidge and getting a Bartley Fellowship at the Wall Street Journal, by this point Johnson had been banned permanently from Twitter for threatening the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson.
The idea of working together had come up before; on July 26, 2016, Johnson emailed McHugh and Jeff Giesea, a startup entrepreneur who once worked for PayPal founder and right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel. “The two of you should talk about bringing Katie on full time at GotNews.com,” Johnson wrote. “I think I can find a willing charity to serve as the 501c3 should you need a deduction.”
Giesea told BuzzFeed News that Johnson reached out to him as an informal adviser for GotNews regarding personnel and financing. A lawyer for Johnson, Ronald D. Coleman, also said that Giesea had informally advised Johnson and that they have not spoken recently. Coleman said the “501c3” comment reflected Johnson’s “belief that Ms. McHugh was talented … would benefit from a fellowship, and that he thought he may be able to her find one.”
McHugh’s exit from Breitbart finally presented the opportunity for her to work with Johnson, who now ran GotNews as well as the WeSearchr crowdfunding platform. She was responsible for editing and publishing incoming copy, as well as writing stories herself. She had a front-row seat to how the company operated; she participated in the large 400-person Slack for WeSearchr, which included channels like #memeworkshop, #fuckzuck, and #jews.
“The #jews subthread was created by Jewish users to talk about topics of Jewish interest,” said the lawyer for Johnson, who also said that Johnson “did not run the Slack” but hosted it.
Still, Johnson had other, more mainstream connections, she learned, despite the rogues’ gallery most closely associated with him. Emails from that summer show Johnson trying to set up a meeting between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Arkansas Republican donor Steve Stephens. (In an email to BuzzFeed News, Prince wrote, “I don’t know what you're talking about and the dinner never occurred.”)
McHugh also worked for Johnson during a year he’d repeatedly made comments about or posted images that concerned the Holocaust or Jews. On his now-deleted Facebook, he posted Hitler memes and a photo of a copy of Mein Kampf. During a 2017 Reddit AMA, when asked about the Holocaust, Johnson wrote: “I do not and never have believed the six million figure. I think the Red Cross numbers of 250,000 dead in the camps from typhus are more realistic.” In a text message to McHugh in August 2017, he wrote that he had given money to VDare. In June, McHugh attended yet another dinner with David Irving and even helped organize the guest list, inviting several people, including Johnson, who texted her that he regretted that he couldn’t make it and to give Irving his regards.
McHugh initially offered to host this dinner in her home — an offer she made to Irving in an email on June 3 of that year, while still employed at Breitbart News. “I would be more than happy to host a private, catered dinner at my home plus wine, sodas, etc. to sell your books,” she wrote to him. “If you would be willing to give a brief talk, that would be lovely. Will your Himmler biography be complete by then?”
Irving responded with a list of cities he was planning to travel to on an upcoming tour, and wrote, “Your idea sounds lovely, and I can build on that.” But McHugh had to renege on her offer to host for him after she got fired. The dinner for Irving took place on June 17 at the Nage restaurant.
Johnson’s lawyer described the issue of anti-Semitism as “a red herring and defamatory.” Coleman said Johnson isn’t a Holocaust denier and has “warm and mutually respectful relationships with Jews, including activists on Jewish issues and innumerable Jews from Holocaust survivor families.” Johnson, the lawyer said, expressed regret over missing the Irving dinner “out of respect for friends who had invited him, a common courtesy,” and described Irving’s work as “multifaceted.” Johnson’s lawyer did not dispute that Johnson supported VDare.
The first major crack in her relationship with the alt-right came when McHugh wrote an article critical of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where counterprotester Heather Heyer was murdered and two others were killed in a police helicopter crash. McHugh’s criticism centered on the tactics, not the idea; by her own admission, she was still a white nationalist at the time. “Richard Spencer has a kill count now and blood on his hands,” she wrote for GotNews. “Will Spencer’s fanboys...love him more than ever, especially because he has a kill count? Spencer: Three / Antifa: Zero!”
Over the course of a few months, her working relationship with Johnson disintegrated. Johnson told McHugh she should find other work after Oct. 1, and McHugh did not protest, she said. She landed at WorldNetDaily for a while but left in December 2017. Her former supervisor at WND said in an email that McHugh was “let go for performance issues.”
McHugh, by this point, didn’t have many places to turn professionally. She reached out to a man she knew, who worked in a regular job in the normal world, for advice about securing employment.
They began a romantic relationship that turned emotionally destructive. McHugh sought help from the police. According to a police report filed May 13, 2018, which BuzzFeed News obtained from the DC police: “V-1 reports that she began to date S-1 in December of 2017. Due to some abnormal acts V-1 has been attempting to break up with S-1. V-1 stated that S-1 has called her roughly 100 times and has sent numerous unwanted emails and texts as well.
“In the past week V-1 has been using a Spoof app and disguise [sic] his number in attempt to contact her,” the report reads, apparently transposing the V-1 and S-1. McHugh “stated that he hacked her previous ex boyfriends [sic] cellphone to get her to answer the phone,” the report reads. “V-1 stated that S-1 has shown up announced [sic] to the listed location and has also contacted her parents trying to get hold of V-1. V-1 is in fear of S-1 because of the repeated unwanted contacts and also because of his large stature.” McHugh didn’t pursue the matter further or try to press charges against the man, and they continued to date into that summer.
Asked about the police report, Brian Brook, a lawyer for the man, said: “My client completely denies the allegations of stalking, hacking, etc. It's beyond nonsense, especially when the supposed victim just days later went out socially with him, shared her personal calendar with him, and attended counseling with him.”
On some level, McHugh says, she had absorbed the message from the male white nationalists and their brethren in the men’s rights movement that women were lesser, meant for a support role and raising children, and not for public life. She herself broke the mold of that stereotype, being nothing if not outspoken, but her life was unstable, and she wasn’t exactly worldly when it came to men. DeAnna had been her most significant adult relationship.
McHugh says this period of her life, more than any other, pushed her to remove herself from the alt-right. She moved and was working in restaurant jobs. The friend who introduced her to City of God and another friend — the person who eventually connected me with her — began a full-scale effort to deprogram her, convincing her to turn her life around. What had this sneering dalliance with white nationalism gotten her? For a brief couple of years, it was the support of a crew of misfits cheering her on. Unemployment. A reputation in the gutter. A guilty conscience. She “had never tried a normal life,” her friend who’d known her since her time at the Daily Caller said. “When we’d talk about it, she’d say, ‘Well, I want to get married. I want to find someone. No one’s going to love me.’ And I would say, ‘Look. You know the phrase “There’s plenty of fish in the sea”? This is true. There are plenty of fish in the sea. But you have never actually ever been to the ocean.’”
She was ill equipped for normie life and “still nostalgic for Breitbart,” her other friend said. “She was nostalgic for Steve [Bannon] and how he would call her and somebody else his ‘Valkyries.’ They would just flatter her. And the alt-right did, too. She was like their queen.
“When she was at Breitbart she was a somebody,” this person said. “She was, like, important. And people fawned over her, and people like made her feel affirmed, right?”
A lot of people move on from the friends they had in their early twenties; they grow up, mature, and want to do something different with their life. It’s just that in most people’s cases, these friends don’t include reputation-destroying white supremacists. So McHugh, in order to make a clean break, had to come to a real reckoning with her past. That’s when she started putting pen to paper, and when I first heard about her wish to come forward.
The friend with whom I’d previously interacted on Twitter reached out to show me an essay McHugh wrote about her experiences. I showed the piece to my editors at the Atlantic — where I was then a staff writer but soon to leave to work on a book — but we discussed it and agreed that our role was to approach her as a journalistic subject rather than publish a piece by her. McHugh attempted to get her essay published at the UK magazine the Spectator, but it never was. “We were interested in the story — and the curious cast of characters involved — unfortunately we just couldn’t quite make it work as a Spectator piece so we encouraged her to place it elsewhere,” Spectator editor Freddy Gray said in an email. (In their statement about this story, the Breitbart spokesperson said, “She is a disgruntled ex-employee and has been shopping this story around here and overseas for well over a year, and nobody with credibility would publish it.”)
Instead, McHugh began to act as a source for me, something she now wants people to know.
She gave me a series of emails that showed that Ian Smith, a Department of Homeland Security official, had associated with members of the white nationalist scene in DC. Using the emails she gave to me, I reported out the story and Smith left DHS. The Washington Post later reported that Smith, who worked on immigration at DHS, attended policy meetings with White House officials as senior as Stephen Miller. At the time, Smith said in a statement, “I no longer work at DHS as of last week and didn’t attend any of the events you’ve mentioned.” Neither he nor DHS disputed that he was on the emails.
McHugh also tipped me off to former Daily Caller editor Scott Greer’s years of posts for Spencer’s blog Radix Journal, which I wrote about in September 2018.
Eventually she agreed to my requests to write about her. Over time, as I finished a book manuscript and began a new job, she has disconnected from her former circle and has worked a series of service jobs — or not worked at all. She struggles to pay her medical bills and has moved from place to place, concerned about her safety.
McHugh thinks of her time in the alt-right like St. Augustine’s famous story about stealing pears in his Confessions — driven by seeking what others hated, alone in the world, but together. Augustine wrote: “A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night … and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them.”
Augustine confesses to God that he had been “gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself”: “It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction: not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself!”
This titillating group shame is what McHugh thinks motivated her and the rest of the alt-right. And it allowed them to keep going even in the face of overwhelming social opprobrium.
“They indulge in negative social rituals, and that’s how their ties are bound tighter and tighter together,” she said. “By repeating these negative social rituals, they build tighter bonds with each other over ideology and shared experience. That’s why it’s hard for a lot of people to break out because they mistake these people for their friends.” Like the Wolves of Vinland, carrying on their bizarre playacting in the Virginia woods, the members of the alt-right are bound to one another in ways that make walking away daunting.
No one can be totally alone. Even if you’re hated by the majority of people, if you have kindred spirits cheering you on in the minority, you can survive. McHugh might have gone on longer if she hadn’t become toxic not only to the wider world but also to her alt-right former friends. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes about the way the lonely deduce the worst, and the way that totalitarian government “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man. … What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals.” White nationalism thrives on the loneliness of the disaffected; McHugh’s own loneliness aided her escape — but with the help of the two friends.
McHugh recently discovered the English academic Roger Griffin’s theory of palingenetic ultranationalism — the idea that fascism hinges on the idea of rebirth, that the old order would be swept away and the new one heroically installed, promising a new beginning and a better life for the people. Now, she says, she sees how much of all this was a fantasy designed to comfort disaffected men who were isolated and insecure.
Knowing exactly what to do with McHugh isn’t easy; but the point is more what she is able to do, not what society is supposed to do for her. She said terrible things and helped empower a destructive social and political movement. She was part of a group of people who took advantage of others’ trust and obliviousness to smuggle racists into polite society. Now, she says, she’s changed. She knows that many people won’t believe that she has. “That’s why I’m saying I take full responsibility for everything I said, every mistake I made, anyone who I hurt in this process, period,” she told me last year.
At age 28, she has made herself unemployable in the career field she chose — even on its fringes. She perpetually struggles to support herself financially. It’s easy to see how someone in McHugh’s position might regret the path she took that got her here. Would she regret it if she still had friends, still had a writing job?
McHugh has a message for the people on a similar path, though, one that can be considered regardless of whether you believe she’s actually changed.
“People like me should be given a chance to recognize how bad this is and that the alt-right is not a replacement for any kind of liberal democracy whatsoever, any kind of system; they have no chance, and they’re just harmful,” McHugh said. “There is forgiveness, there is redemption. You have to own up to what you did and then forcefully reject this and explain to people and tell your story and say, ‘Get out while you can.’” ●
Joseph Bernstein and Emma Loop contributed reporting.
Scott Greer stopped contributing to the Daily Caller last September; he had previously left his job as an editor to write a book in June. A previous version of this story misstated when Greer left his job.
This story has been updated to note that McHugh has alopecia.