Milton Kleim surprised me. I had been writing about online neo-Nazis, antisemites, and Holocaust deniers for the Montreal Gazette for quite a while when I met him, and I had thought I had it all figured out. They were skinhead louts like Jason Smith, sleazy opportunists like Greg Raven, or absurd caricatures like the “farm-belt Fuhrer” Gary Lauck. I did not expect a neo-Nazi, let alone one of the most prominent propagandists of the far-right in the mid-1990s, to be an intelligent, articulate young man. Yet, there was Kleim on the other end of the telephone line. Our conversations were almost actually pleasant.
Extremist hate is always most dangerous when it smoothes its rhetoric into reasonable cadences, dons a shirt and tie as says things like “I don’t hate anyone; I just love my own people,” as Kleim did. Indeed later, near the end of his trajectory across the firmament of white nationalist celebrity, he intimated that he felt a pang of guilt that he had been able to make his message of hate sound so reasonable.
The surprising ones, the ones like Kleim, are the neo-Nazis you always need to look out for. Fancy-dress Hitlers like Lauck, or George Lincoln Rockwell are easy to spot, conspicuous in their brown shirts and kepis like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.* The terrorists are agents of mayhem who walk in the shadows, only to erupt in violence in Denver, at the Atlanta Olympic Games, at Oklahoma City, in Pittsburgh. They die in shootouts, by the own hand, or in prison.
But the ones like Kleim, who speak in calm, measured tones about the “natural order order of things,” and securing “the existence of our people and a future for white children”† are far more dangerous than they first appear. They are the ideologues, like Richard Spencer and David Duke, who set the terrorists’ agendas. They are the “good Americans,” like Charles Lindbergh, William Dudley Pelley, and Laura Ingraham, who make fascism and hate sound patriotic and appealing. And in that, they are often the most dangerous Nazis of all.
As a journalist for the Montreal Gazette and Wired News more than two decades ago, I reported on the first manifestations of online hate that have metastasized into the festering horror we suffer today. It was the subject of a chapter of my first book, Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches from the Information Revolution.
This is the third part of a series republishing that chapter. Rereading those words today, it all seems too familiar. The Nazis are back; they never really went away.
Net Nazi Number One
For three years, a clean-cut university student from central Minnesota named Milton John Kleim, Jr. was both the most energetic and, at times, the most articulate on-line propagandist the ultra-right had ever seen. Kleim’s brief career embodies the whole recent history of the neo-Nazis’ Internet campaign. Canadian journalist Crawford Kilian called him “Net Nazi Number One,” and the nickname stuck. Kleim wore it like a badge of honour, flaunting his intelligence – rare in a hatemonger – and youthful erudition in the service of hate. In 1995, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith called him an “innovative propagandist,” observing that he
thinks he has a method that might work. Kleim, a recent graduate of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota who likes to write earnest-sounding tomes that read like class papers, tries to project an image of a rational, scrubbed and shined, eager young activist… Kleim floods the newsgroups with messages attacking Jews, “Jewsmedia” and non-whites, openly calling for authoritarian government. (Anti-Defamation League Report, “Hate Group Recruitment on the Internet,” 1995.)
As much as Jason Smith seemed to hold out a promise to the ultra-right of a new age of on-line militancy that could reach millions of Internet users across borders and around the world, Kleim appeared to be its fulfillment. He wrote and posted with extraordinary energy, willfully picking fights with the growing ranks of on-line activists. As far as he was concerned, the Internet was an opportunity that he simply couldn’t pass up. The possibilities were almost endless, and Kleim soon found that he could reach, hector and – he hoped – thousands of people at minimal cost. He had discovered what the activists on the left knew; the Internet could circumvent traditional media and serve as a powerful medium for disenfranchised voices.
Kleim’s brief career as the ultra-right’s leading Internet propagandist encompasses the recent history of on-line white supremacist agitation thus far. Indeed, Net Nazi Number One literally wrote the book on on-line neo-Nazi activism. His 1995 article “On Tactics and Strategy for Usenet, posted to several Usenet newsgroups, and archived on many ultra-rightist FTP and Web sites, spells out exactly how he believed the Internet race war should be waged.
USENET offers enormous opportunity for the Aryan resistance to disseminate our message to the unaware and the ignorant. It is the only relatively uncensored (so far) mass medium which we have available. The State cannot yet stop us from “advertising” our ideas and organizations on USENET, but I can assure you, this will not always be the case. NOW is the time to grasp the WEAPON which is the INTERNET, and wield it skillfully and wisely while you may do so freely. (Milton J. Kleim, “On Tactics and Strategy for Usenet,” 1995.)
It is a powerful article, exhorting neo-Nazis to practice the on-line equivalent of guerrilla warfare, making quick hits in a variety of newsgroups, but avoiding contact with the “enemy” (anti-racist activists) wherever possible. Kleim lays out a strategy for first contact to recruit members, telling neo-Nazis to e-mail users who post sympathetic articles, welcome them to the fold and provide recruiting information. While warning his comrades not to cross-post articles to irrelevant newsgroups lest they earn the contempt of other users, Kleim hammers home his central point that propaganda must be kept simply and posted frequently. “SUSTAINED, electronic ‘guerrilla warfare,’ ‘hit and run’ style, using short, ‘self-contained’ posts is a major component in our struggle.”
Following his own instructions, Kleim sustained his guerrilla assault on Usenet almost everyday for more than two years. He established an “Aryan News Agency,” and worked on the National Alliance’s Turner Diaries Web site, but Net Nazi Number One always felt most comfortable in the raw text environment of Usenet. “I do see Usenet as being divided into three camps – the White Nationalists, the so-called anti-racists, and the people who are sort of in the middle, and sometimes they go either way,” he observed. “It’s sort of like a bar with thousands of rooms, and you can always find somewhere to brawl with someone. I’d say a good fifty to sixty per cent at least is just somebody wanting to argue, and they just start something. That’s probably the main reason why so many flame wars get going on Usenet. Then, of course, there are some people who really do have a beef with us.”
However, Kleim’s major contribution to the neo-Nazi cause were his tracts and essays, posted to Usenet and reproduced on ultra-rightist FTP and Web sites all over the Internet. Often self-consciously coy, dancing around the issues of hate and racism to make them somehow attractive to potential recruits in search of a political identity and racial community. His “National Socialism Primer,” written in a style more reminiscent of a summer camp marketing brochure than a hate group’s political tract, remains one of the movement’s most popular – and revealing – recruitment documents. Kleim goes to great lengths to show that “National Socialism is based on love of one’s own kind and the Creator’s benevolent natural Order, not hatred,” but never quite leaves the central racist program of the neo-Nazis behind:
Jews, members of a people who have chosen themselves to rule the World, comprise a majority of the World Manipulators, with substantial numbers of Aryans and Asians intoxicated with Judaic thought participating in this obscene racket. (Kleim, “National Socialism Primer,” Second Edition, 1995.)
Kleim always insisted that he wasn’t a Nazi. “[The term] represents something I’m not,” he once said. “I’m not a loony kook walking around in a uniform and screaming ‘gas the kikes.’ I don’t do that. I don’t believe that. You know, I seek a much different worldview than that. National Socialism is exactly what it says – nationalistic socialism.” For all of his protests, and intelligence however, Kleim’s on-line activism never departed from the ultra-right’s message of hate.
Born in 1971 to a “conservative German family” in Sacramento, California, Kleim is typical of the current generation of neo-Nazis, both on-line and off. His initiation into the ultra-right was less a question of firm belief than a search for identity. Today, Kleim says that, at 17 he was “looking for something” that he couldn’t quite express and restlessly moved from one political cause to another – including work with the Democratic party on the 1988 Dukakis-Bentsen presidential campaign. However, Andrew Oakley’s book 88, casually picked up by an alienated white teenager in central California, contained a comprehensive listing of American hate groups that offered something that other causes seemed to lack – identity, a cause, a movement.
The ultra-right’s recruits tend to be young, usually middle class and male. There are many young women in the movement, and organizations like Women for Aryan Unity that promote white supremacist values for women, but there’s something in the militaristic, violent Nazi iconography that appeals to young men. Indeed, the ultra-right’s principal selling point is not racism – the uglier side of the discourse is often played down in recruitment materials like the “National Socialism Primer” – but identification with a mythic teutonic warrior ideal. Just as paleo-Nazi recruitment propaganda emphasized the visceral power of an Aryan superman, the neo-Nazis promise empowerment. By joining, young men become Aryan warriors in a divine mission to deliver their people from the grip of ZOG. Rather than remaining anonymous participants in a bourgeois economy divested of the last shreds of the American Dream, the ultra-right promises that they will be special… they will be heroes.
The ultra-right has grown at times of social dislocation and economic crisis. The heyday of the Ku Klux Klan came during a peak of overseas and internal immigration, when African-American migrants from the American South, and Eastern European immigrants from abroad redrew the demographic geographies of America’s burgeoning industrial cities. The neo-fascist National Front was propelled to prominence during the desperate days of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when it became abundantly clear that the sun had finally set on the British Empire. The American ultra-right peaked during the mid-1980s, at a time when Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was systematically dismantled in the raw utilitarian atmosphere of fiscal conservatism and Reaganomics. Young people like Kleim do not become neo-Nazis out of hate. They see the promises of civil society and the American Dream being broken all around them, they experience the bleak ebb of a future that had been all but assured and with it the loss of economic identity. The ultra-right offers a belief system that tells them who to blame and promises an exalted status in the context of apparent decadence around them.
Kleim’s search led him to Christian Identity movement, the pseudo-religious foundation of Richard Girnt Butler’s Aryan Nations. Identity preaches that white Europeans – Aryans – are the true descendants of the biblical Israelites, God’s chosen people. The Jews are literally the spawn of Satan, corrupting the world and conspiring to thwart the divine mission of God’s people at every turn. All other non-Aryans are “mud people,” pre-adamic and thus sub-human. Christian Identity offered Kleim just that – an identity – without directly associating him with Nazis. Identity Christianity seemed safe enough, but by 1991, Kleim had drifted into explicitly neo-Nazi groups.
In fairly short order, Kleim became acquainted with both the Internet and Pierce’s Turner Diaries. “That did it,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of the people who read The Turner Diaries are going to be utterly repulsed by it; for some reason the other five per cent are just ‘Wow!’” Kleim was one of the five per cent. In 1993, he wrote his first article for the National Socialist magazine Instauration, and began studying anthropology at St. Cloud State University, where one of his professors encouraged him to take his first steps on the Internet. By 1995, he was an active member of Pierce’s National Alliance and generally regarded as one of the most important and influential white supremacists on the Internet.
However, in the summer of 1996, Kleim shocked his erstwhile neo-Nazi comrades when he suddenly and dramatically broke with the movement. In a series of open letters posted on Usenet to his former colleagues, Kleim lashed out at the leadership of the neo-Nazi movement. “Your lives mean more to me than earning yourselves prison for Pierce or a bullet for [Canadian skinhead leader George] Burdi,” he wrote. “To me, you are young Aryans with a future; to them, you are an instrument in a personal political quest. Expendable. Replaceable. You are pawns in a game played by small men with large egos. You are tools for the fulfillment of power trips, grandiose schemes, lunatic, unrealizable designs on America and the world.”
Perhaps reflecting his own search for identity as an alienated youth in Sacramento, Kleim condemned the adolescent motivations of the ultra-rights fresh recruits. “The ‘movement’s’ entertaining aspects serve as a diversion and a release for the sexual tension all racially-conscious Aryan males experience each and every day multiculturalism is encountered,” he wrote. “In a short-sighted yet gratifying manner, cussing ‘niggers’ and bitching about ‘the ZOG,’ listening to the latest pseudo-revolutionary idiocy the drunkards have screeched out, or reading the latest moronic missive by a self-serving, money-grubbing guru are imagined to be ‘fighting for the Race.’ Reality, however, is that it’s a cop-out, a feel-good recipe to soothe hyperactive hormones.”
By autumn, Kleim had not only denounced the movement, but had renounced and repudiated the entire corpus of his propaganda. He still had some way to go, and his vocabulary was peppered with the neo-Nazi references that had been so much a part of his language for so long, yet the change was there. “I have repudiated and denounced hatred,” he says today. “I’m equivocal on the aspect of race and racism, because I believe that probably 95 per cent of the people in our society in our society are racist in some way – it’s a matter of degree. I guess I’m still a racist in that I have preferences for certain types of people… I’m not trying to soothe my soul, but in a way I was kind of a propagandist for hire. I got caught up in it and I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.”
Today Kleim calls his erswhile antisemitism “irrational.” Yet, for most of his adult life, he was an active and virulent anti-Semite, somehow justifying his hatred of Jews-as-a-group with his freely admitted respect for individual Jews “I don’t know where it came from, but I guess it really indicates how pernicious the propaganda is,” he says. “It took a while to be indoctrinated, but if someone as rational as I am normally can be taken in by that stuff, what happens when someone who is average is reading it and they don’t critically analyze it.”
Few in the ultra-right saw it coming, but Kleim says his break with the movement and with his Net Nazi past was only part of a process of reevaluation that had begun months before. Indeed, in the autumn of 1996, it had begun to seem that the on-line ultra-right was in complete disarray, and Kleim’s departure was simply a reflection of its inability to adapt to the new technologies and impotence as a movement.
*In the interests of full disclosure, I stole that line from Raymond Chandler.
“Neo-Nazi Déja-Vu, Part IV: Paper Brownshirts” will appear next week.