On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
The calls marked the start of a months-long campaign of harassment orchestrated by Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. He claimed that Gersh was trying to “extort” a property sale from Sherry Spencer, whose son, Richard Spencer, was another prominent white nationalist and the face of the so-called alt-right movement.
The Spencers had long-standing ties to Whitefish, and Richard had been based there for years. But he gained international notoriety just after the 2016 election for giving a speech in Washington, D.C., in which he declared “Hail Trump!,” prompting Nazi salutes from his audience. In response, some Whitefish residents considered protesting in front of a commercial building Sherry owned in town. According to Gersh, Sherry sought her advice, and Gersh suggested that she sell the property, make a donation to charity, and denounce her son’s white-nationalist views. But Sherry claimed that Gersh had issued “terrible threats,” and she wrote a post on Medium on December 15 accusing her of an attempted shakedown. (Sherry Spencer did not respond to a request for comment.)
At the time, Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin barely knew each other. Spencer, who fancies himself white nationalism’s leading intellectual, cloaks his racism in highbrow arguments. Anglin prefers the gutter, reveling in the vile language common on the worst internet message boards. But Spencer and Anglin had appeared together on a podcast the day before Sherry’s Medium post was published and expressed their mutual admiration. Anglin declared it a “historic” occasion, a step toward greater unity on the extreme right.
Tanya Gersh was the target of a months-long campaign of harassment instigated by Andrew Anglin on The Daily Stormer. (Dan Chung / Southern Poverty Law Center)
It was in this spirit that Anglin “doxed” Gersh and her husband, Judah, as well as other Jews in Whitefish, by publishing their contact information and other personal details on his website. He plastered their photographs with yellow stars emblazoned with jude and posted a picture of the Gershes’ 12-year-old son superimposed on the gates at Auschwitz. He commanded his readers—his “Stormer Troll Army”—to “hit ’em up.”
“All of you deserve a bullet through your skull,” one Stormer said in an email.
“Put your uppity slut wife Tanya back in her cage, you rat-faced kike,” another wrote to Judah.
“You fucking wicked kike whore,” Andrew Auernheimer, The Daily Stormer’s webmaster, said in a voicemail for Gersh. “This is Trump’s America now.”
Over the next week, the Stormers besieged Whitefish businesses, human-rights groups, city-council members—anyone potentially connected to the targets. A single harasser called Judah’s office more than 500 times in three days, according to the Whitefish police. Gersh came home one night to find her husband sitting at home in the dark, suitcases on the floor, wondering whether they should flee. “I have never been so scared in my entire life,” she later told me.
That Anglin, a 33-year-old college dropout, could unleash such mayhem—Whitefish’s police chief, Bill Dial, likened it to “domestic terrorism”—was a sign of just how emboldened the alt-right had become.
Anglin is an ideological descendant of men such as George Lincoln Rockwell, who created the American Nazi Party in the late 1950s, and William Luther Pierce, who founded the National Alliance, a powerful white-nationalist group, in the 1970s. Anglin admires these predecessors, who saw themselves as revolutionaries at the vanguard of a movement to take back the country. He dreams of a violent insurrection.
But where Rockwell and Pierce relied on pamphlets, the radio, newsletters, and in-person organizing to advance their aims, Anglin has the internet. His reach is exponentially greater, his ability to connect with like-minded young men unprecedented.
He also arrived at a more fortuitous moment. Anglin and his ilk like to talk about the Overton Window, a term that describes the range of acceptable discourse in society. They’d been tugging at that window for years only to watch, with surprise and delight, as it flew wide open during Donald Trump’s candidacy. Suddenly it was okay to talk about banning Muslims or to cast Mexican immigrants as criminals and parasites—which meant Anglin’s even-more-extreme views weren’t as far outside the mainstream as they once had been. Anglin is the alt-right’s most accomplished propagandist, and his writing taps into some of the same anxieties and resentments that helped carry Trump to the presidency—chiefly a perceived loss of status among white men.
Six days into his Whitefish campaign, Anglin announced phase two: an armed protest. “Montana has extremely liberal open carry laws,” he wrote on The Daily Stormer. “My lawyer is telling me we can easily march through the center of the town carrying high-powered rifles.” He scheduled the event for January 16, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and predicted that about 200 people would show up for a “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza” in honor of King’s assassin. He promised to bus skinheads in from the Bay Area.
As national news outlets picked up the story, frightened Whitefish residents gathered for a community meeting, where Dial, the police chief, saw a 90-year-old Jewish couple trembling with fear. Some people had alarm systems installed. A rabbi had paranoid visions of skinheads in the woods with night-vision goggles and scoped weapons. The police increased patrols.
Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock, swooped into town, as did representatives of the Anti-Defamation League. The president of the World Jewish Congress demanded that authorities halt the march, calling it a “dangerous and life-threatening rally that puts all of America at risk.” Anglin stoked the hysteria by claiming that European nationalists, along with a Hamas representative and a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, were coming too. “Nothing can stop us,” he declared.
In the end, no one showed up—no European nationalists, no Hamas representatives, no armed skinheads. There was no “March on Whitefish.” Instead Anglin slunk away, having panicked a small town for a month. The Whitefish attack cemented his reputation as the trollmaster of the alt-right. But it left some wondering about the movement’s commitment to its cause. Was this all just a sick joke?