Kit Pribble

Weird Wolves of the Alt-Right


JP Mueller, woods outside of Lynchburg, VA, 2011, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic, via Wikimedia Commons

“Somewhere between the drums and the hums and wild throat singing, out here in the darkness, we folded into the headspace of our barbarian fathers. Men, magic and nature were all the same thing, and the world was alive again.” – Jack Donovan, “A Time for Wolves”

About 30 miles outside of Lynchburg, VA, a neo-pagan cult of white nationalist Odin worshippers called the Wolves of Vinland have set up an unincorporated community on a parcel of wooded land. In the spirit of turn-of-the-twentieth-century proto-Nazi utopian settlements and contemporary LARPers everywhere, the Wolves have named the commune “Ulfheim,” “House of Wolves” in Old Norse. (Apologies to the LARP community for lumping them in with the esoteric fascists. Unlike the self-serious white separatists who are the subject of this article, LARP’s lively and often self-ironizing sense of play is based on the ability to distinguish between real and imagined spaces.) In a move that has become familiar among alt-righters ever since Richard Spencer got punched in the face while claiming that neo-Nazis hate him, the Wolves object to the term “white nationalist” on the basis that, according to their ideology, whiteness is not an automatic qualifier for special treatment within their self-selected group—it’s just an important prerequisite (for a characteristic example of this delusory maneuver, see Jack Donovan’s essay “Why I am not a White Nationalist”). While they might bristle at the designators “fascist” and “white nationalist,” however, the Wolves bear the neo-pagan label with pride. The group professes to believe in a mystical, mythical union between man and the cosmos, located in and experienced through pantheistic nature. They refer to their belief system alternately as “heathenism,” “Odinism,” and “Asatrú” (“belief in the Aesir”), the last an officially recognized religion in Iceland that was flagged by the SPLC in 1998. This vaguely theosophic Germanic-inspired nature mysticism, which purports to be an organic return to ancient European tribal culture but which defines itself primarily in terms of and against modernity, replicates the practices and ideology of late-nineteenth century völkisch movements in Germany with near perfect precision. It places a high value on physical fitness, white genealogy, aestheticized violence, masculinity, and heroic individualism understood as an emanation of the collective identity of the pan-European tribe.

That German romantic reinterpretations of Scandinavian mythology have a legacy not only in Tolkien’s brilliant mythopoeia, but in National Socialism as well is a fact widely recognized. George L. Mosse’s book The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (1964) provides a somewhat dated but nevertheless important overview of the fate of early romantic conceptions of myth—viewed as a sacred language whose whispers intimate the Original union of man with nature, signifier with signified—when viewed through the cracked and skewed lens of mid- to late-nineteenth century German nationalism and race science. Jean-Luc Nancy wrote in The Inoperative Community that “…the invention of myth is bound up with the use of its power…the thinking of myth, of myth scenography, belongs with the staging and setting to work…of a ‘Volk’ and of a ‘Reich,’ in the sense that Nazism gave to these terms.” A quick Google image search for white nationalist symbols will yield runic ideograms and Odin’s Crosses, along with Pepe the Frog and Donald Trump.

Nancy’s point about the felt power of myth is important when it comes to groups like the Wolves of Vinland, both because it identifies the particular strain of romanticism at work in neo-pagan fascist communities—egoistic romanticism of the absolute, non-ironic variety, a demonic will to power—and because it raises the important question: how powerful really is this strange alt-right subgroup of cosplaying Vikings fanboys?

The answer, it would seem, is “not very.” In a February 2016 interview with Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents Publishing and the North American New Right, Paul Waggener, a founding member of the Wolves of Vinland, estimated national membership at between 50 and 100 “patch members,” not including each chapter’s “un-oathed” prospectives (apart from Virginia, the group has chapters in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state). The Wolves do not aim to effect widespread political change: like their nineteenth-century German precursors, they see themselves as existing outside of traditional politics. Their ideal, which suggests a shocking confusion of spatial and temporal boundaries, is a retreat out of modernity and into nature, where the specters of globalism and multiculturalism do not loom. In the words of Jack Donovan, an oathed member of the Wolves and one of the group’s most prominent writers and spokespeople, “I just want to hang out in the woods with my friends and build something beautiful—I want to build a new culture” (“Why I am Not a White Nationalist”).

Yet for all that they present themselves as an isolationist forest tribe that wants to be left in peace to deadlift tree trunks and recite Nietzsche under the light of the full moon, the Wolves of Vinland’s bizarre mummery has found a popular following online. The Wolves have ties to a number of other individuals and subgroups within the alt-right, including Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute, Counter-Currents Publishing, Radix Journal, the American Renaissance, and Milo Yiannopoulos, whose interview with Jack Donovan, also an out gay man, contains the almost parodically misogynistic statement (from Donovan), “[Women] are not gonna tell some guy to come boss them around, but sometimes when that happens, [straight] relationships work out a little bit better.” Donovan’s talk at the 2014 American Renaissance Conference, in which he discusses white deracination as a result of global capitalism, has over 60,000 views on YouTube. The online vitriol has had real-world consequences: in June 2013, one of the Wolves’ members, Maurice Thompson Michaely, whose tribal name is “Hjalti,” pled guilty to Felony Arson for setting fire to a historically black church in Gainesville, VA. The Wolves of Vinland responded with “Free Hjalti” t-shirts and a series of incensed Facebook posts on Michaely’s behalf. The SPLC has since designated the WoV an active hate group. In addition to the anthropological interest one may have in the group’s practices—they perform yearly ritual reenactments of the funeral of the Norse God Baldr and sacrifice sheep to Odin while covered in tribal war paint—their growing status within the alt-right merits some attention.

The Wolves of Vinland was founded in Lynchburg in the early 2000s by brothers Paul and Matthias Waggener, sons of an Orthodox priest. In a March 2017 interview with Red Ice Radio, Matthias Waggener, whose tribal name is Jarnefr—apparently “Matthias Waggener” wasn’t Germanic enough—explains that the brothers started the group as a reaction against the most problematic aspects of modern consumer culture: apathy, greed, and blind obedience to the multicultural capitalist state. (Unsurprisingly, the interview is titled “Wolves of Vinland: A Tribe Against the Modern World,” evoking a Stirnerian-Nietzschean vision of primal revolt against decadent civilization.) The Waggeners and their friends, who started by gathering in local bars to perform black metal and read sections of the Poetic Edda out loud, took issue with the degraded condition in which modern man has found himself—not “man” as in “humankind,” but man as in men, as in sweaty hardworking testosterone-fueled males whom the global capitalist economy and its degenerate spawn, the feminist, have turned into greedy, lazy sissies. And how, Waggener asks, with real earnestness, can such a man—glued to the couch, a slave to passive consumption—build his life into a legend worth remembering? “I wanna be remembered for a thousand years…that’s what I wanna be able to do for my name and my lineage,” Waggener says in the interview. Reading it, I was reminded of the precocious boys I knew in high school, boys who had perennially just read Thus Spoke Zarathustra for the first time.

The Waggener brothers’ Übermenschian dreams led them and their friends to purchase a piece of land outside Lynchburg in 2003, where they began construction of rune-covered, off-grid housing, including a Viking-style long hall that was partially funded by contributions from Counter-Currents Publishing and World Net Daily. The group, which adopted the name “Wolves of Vinland” in reference to the Viking name for the section of North America discovered by Leif Eriksson, organized itself according to the “One Percenter” biker gang model: an aspiring Wolf first becomes an associate of the group, and then a prospect; the most dedicated and “elite” prospects are ritually inducted as fully patched members when they have demonstrated their commitment to physical fitness, MMA-style fight training (the Wolves hold daily bouts of sparring in which all male members are expected to participate), and the study of runes and hexology. The “tribe” itself is fed by Operation Werewolf, which recruits associates from the American Black Metal scene, a number of occultist, anarchist, and “men’s rights” online communities, and the body building gyms owned by WoV members in Lynchburg and Portland, OR. In his interview with Counter-Currents Publishing, Paul Waggener claims that Operation Werewolf, which he refers to as a “propaganda arm” for the Wolves of Vinland, has groups in several U.S. states, as well as Canada, Serbia, Asia, and South America. OW’s ominous watchwords are “Iron and Blood,” and the group’s mission statement—which reads like the opening voiceover for a bad Syfy original drama, or a piece of particularly slavish Fight Club fanfiction—describes the affiliation as “equal parts fight club, strength regimen, motorcycle club and esoteric order…a bloody fist shaken in the face of all institutions of control-a furious bite to the hands that seek to leash or enslave.”

These hands belong, above all, to feminists, the gay and transgender rights movement (like Yiannopoulos, Donovan considers himself to be both gay and anti-queer, a viable position within the alt-right), wealthy capitalists, liberal world leaders, people of color, and others who seek to neutralize that great and threatened power, white tribal masculinity. In a video with the camp title “What is masculinity? – An Introduction to The Way of Men,” Donovan lays out the “Four Tactical Virtues” of men that are under threat by modernity: Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor. In order to illustrate the importance of these virtues, Donovan, who has a soothing, almost ASMR-inducing voice, asks the viewer to imagine what sort of man they would want around in case of a zombie apocalypse: an overweight SJW couch potato, or a well-muscled Real Man who knows how to fight? The zombie scenario belies the extensive influence that pop culture plays in the construction of the Wolves’ practices and ideology, despite their avowed disdain for mass media: mentions of The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Vikings, Fight Club, and American Psycho abound in WoV interviews and blogs, alongside references to the Prose and Poetic Eddas, Julius Evola, and Mircea Eliade. These influences are taken and mixed with elements from a variety of American subcultures—including heathenry, Black Metal, biker culture, and green anarchism—as well as a strong urge toward ethnic separatism and an obsession with genealogy and the purity of white bloodlines. The result is the specific brand of violent neo-pagan alt-right ideology that the Wolves of Vinland are selling through blogs, convention talks, social media posts, OW-themed merchandise and gym equipment, and numerous pamphlets and e-books on masculinity, hexology, and fitness. The Wolves are self-aware enough to maintain a carefully curated distance from stereotypical images of fascist violence: Paul Waggener speaks dismissively to Johnson of “ignoramous, fucking shaven-headed morons who are screaming Nazi slogans or whatever while marching and doing super ineffective things like that.” This tactic makes their worldview all the more marketable, because more niche.

Donovan and the Waggener brothers are ideologues, the movement’s True Believers; it is doubtful that all or even most of the group’s members and associates fully buy into the blood-soaked rituals and neo-romantic philosophy of violent, mystical rebirth symbolized in rites like the annual funeral of Baldr (who the Eddas say will emerge from Hel resurrected to rule over the new earth following Ragnarok). However, the Wolves of Vinland and Operation Werewolf have created what is effectively a safe space for certain subsets of white working class men who feel disenfranchised under the current system to air their grievances and play-act at the type of power they believe is theirs by right. The Waggeners refer frequently to their own blue-collar background and self-educated status (Paul Waggener left formal education behind to join the workforce at the age of 15), and Donovan has written about the differences between “corporate” and “working class” masculinity, as well as the selfish and self-deluding “white country club set” who have learned insincere political correctness from their “expensive professors,” with the goal of getting ahead in an increasingly multicultural corporate environment. As Paul Waggener explains to Johnson in his interview with Counter-Currents, the Wolves of Vinland offers blue-collar men an alternative to working “for some asshole who’s getting rich off them while they get paid $9/hour to either sit in a fucking cubicle all day or go break their back with a sledgehammer.” The Wolves’ rhetorically persuasive class-based argument is their most effective weapon for promoting a self-sufficient white separatist tribe. It is a weapon that Donovan wields with particular deftness: his 2014 American Renaissance analysis of how corporations like Nike promote a meaningless notion of diversity for the sake of increasing global sales takes a hard swipe at mainstream progressive politics that seem to have left the working class hero behind.

I find it difficult to know how to react affectively to this phenomenon. Moral condemnation (the Wolves of Vinland are, after all, aggressors whose work is the product of two centuries of fascist thought) seems at once too blunt and not imaginative enough. Pity and the beginnings of a kind of sympathy (for their earnestness and their disenfranchisement, for their frustration with an unjust system) seem too soft and too close to conceding ideological ground that ought to be carefully guarded. Nikolai Gogol taught us that mockery is the best weapon for fighting the devil, and I do find myself laughing at some of the group’s more salient practices. The laughter isn’t mirthful, though; it’s derisive and ironic, and irony, for all that it has the potential to be intensely cathartic and productive when applied to the self, tends to become cruel and alienating when directed outward at the other.

I wonder if my feeling called upon to react individually or emotively (to play, that is, the reactionary) isn’t already in some sense a concession. Understood as a product of class antagonism, this unlikely group of self-proclaimed “barbarians” has been organized into something by the alt-right when they might, in a different world, have been organized instead by the far left. The problem they pose is not one of affective response but of political strategy. As leftist fringe phenomena like Chapo Trap House gain in popularity, questions emerge regarding left rhetoric and policy in the Age of Trump: Is there a place for the meme in socialist organizing, or are clever pop culture references a recruitment tool best left to the snickering Milo-ites? Can former Clinton supporters be won over by bullying Dirtbags? What about alternative subcultures within the white working class—the bikers, the heathens, the metal heads—who are currently seeking a sense of collectivity and political justice in all the wrong places? As the number of Wolves at the door to Lynchburg and Cascadia increases, howling for blood and demanding to make the world feel “alive again,” so too does the imperative for the left to find an answer to these sorts of tactical questions.

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