Welcome to Leith
Every week Megan Condis and a group of friends get together for Documentary Sunday, a chance to dive into the weird, the wacky, the hilarious and the heartbreaking corners of our culture. This column chronicles all of the must-watch documentary films available for streaming.
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #88. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Imagine waking up one morning and realizing that your government has been seized by a vile crew of white supremacists led by a narcissistic Internet troll against the will of the majority of the people.
No, really. Imagine.
This was the nightmare facing the residents of Leith, North Dakota, a town of just over a dozen people. Leith was chosen as the location for a proposed white nationalist utopia by neo-Nazi and all around creep Craig Cobb in 2012. Cobb’s goal: to purchase cheap plots of land, convince enough of his racist Internet followers to move to the town, and take over its government through sheer numbers.
Filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker chronicle the attempted coup in Welcome to Leith (2015), a documentary that should be required viewing for all of us Americans who found ourselves stunned when Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. While the film features dozens of dramatic moments, from cops in riot gear escorting Cobb home from a town council meeting to the mayor personally throwing gasoline on a condemned building owned by the neo Nazis and lighting it on fire, its most important arguments are quite simple: Nazis exist. And they aren’t stupid.
The trouble with Godwin’s Law, the famous observation that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one,” is that it makes it easy to assume that there is no justifiable reason to call someone a Nazi. We have become so used to seeing Nazis as cartoon villains, as the faceless enemies we can kill with impunity in a videogame, that we forget that proud white supremacist groups are still alive and well today. Sometimes it is appropriate to call a Nazi a Nazi.
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of these groups in their wretched hives of scum and villainy online. In fact, as the film points out, white supremacist groups were considered the number one terrorist threat to the United States until the events of September 11 caused the federal government to prioritize Muslim extremism instead. But as the citizens of Leith discovered, just because Nazism fell off of the government’s radar, that doesn’t mean that they disappeared. Indeed, as the election of Donald Trump, the subsequent empowerment of Breitbart.com and bonafide ethnic cleansing advocate Richard Spencer, and the implementation of an executive order to “indefinitely suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees and temporarily ban people from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States” shows, white supremacists in the United States used their time out of the spotlight wisely.
They Aren’t Stupid
When it comes to groups like these, Americans tend to conflate stupidity with evil. How, we ask ourselves, could anyone with intelligence actually believe the hateful things these people espouse? Welcome to Leith reminds us that hate can be cunning, that white supremacists are capable of much more than troll posting and making empty threats online. They have spent the last decade thinking strategically about how to push their way into the halls of power, from tiny towns in North Dakota to the White House. In the coming months and years, we would do well to remember these lessons. We will not underestimate them this time.