You are Literally the Enemy
One of the things that we, the targets of predator trolling, take comfort in is the notion that our attackers are ignorant, uneducated, and alone. He’s a nobody. He doesn’t matter.
This imagining serves to diffuse the hate, making us feel less afraid. What happens when we discover none of those things are true and he isn’t who we thought?
Like many of the trolls I’ve investigated, the man who appeared to trigger the storm of predator trolling against my family and me back in 2013—conservative journalist and blogger Robert Stacy McCain—was not ignorant or uneducated. And, far from quelling his hate and fear of marginalized people, knowledge and education may have made it worse.
After landing on McCain’s blog, I found his two posts about me, the first linking directly to my former Twitter handle. It was headlined “Neutral Objective Incompetence: How Ginger Gorham [sic] Aided Pedophile Network.”
“Nary a hint nor a shadow of scepticism dimmed the sunshine-and-rainbows narrative Gorham provided for Mark Newton and Peter Truong,” McCain wrote. “It amounted to free publicity for their criminal enterprise . . . Journalists today cannot report about homosexuality, they must only advocate, endorse, praise and celebrate homosexuality. This paradigm reduces reporters to the role of propagandists, whose job is to parrot the publicity of radical gay-rights activists.”
It’s taken four years to work up the courage to contact McCain. Although I sit down at my desk with the express task of emailing him, I do everything possible to avoid writing the message.
I read reams of information about him and re-read his 2013 blog posts about me. I eat chocolate and chips and then yogurt straight out of the tub with a spoon. Then, after running out of ways to waste time, I compose a brief email asking if he would consent to an interview for this book.
What is the protocol for emailing a man who you believe helped to create a tsunami of hate against you and your family, someone who made you feel unsafe? While I wait to see if he replies, I’m clicking and scrolling, scouring through the detritus each of us leaves in cyberspace. “I am a poor excuse for a Christian,” McCain says in a 2010 interview with another blogger, “but I really do have a deep faith in God, and I try to be grateful for his blessings.” One of these blessings, he goes on to say, is his wife, who always believed he’d “be somebody” one day. “And to the extent that I’ve become ‘somebody,’ I credit God’s promise in Proverbs 22:29: ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his work? He shall stand before kings.'”
McCain claims he’s “interviewed governors and congressmen and senators.” He scorns social justice and socialism and discusses homeschooling his kids. “Government schools are just another form of welfare slavery. Stop sending your kids to those liberal indoctrination camps,” he tells the interviewer.
McCain has been writing since 1986 and, since then, has put forward all manner of strong viewpoints, including appearing to excuse date rape: “Listen up, sweetheart: You buy the ticket, you take the ride.” Back in 1996, during a so-called “Race Debate,” McCain suggested “perfectly rational people” react with “altogether natural revulsion” to interracial relationships. “Equality Über Alles” shouts one headline on McCain’s blog, harking back to the Nazi era in World War II. The post rails against same-sex marriage, feminism and equality: “To say that men and women, as such, are different enough that they cannot be made truly equal in a free society is today such a controversial assertion as to seem wildly irresponsible—even though it is demonstrably true.” He goes on to assert, “[T]o those trapped within the egalitarian worldview—inequality is always evidence of injustice.”
It seems inexplicable that McCain hasn’t locked down his Facebook page by activating its privacy settings. But he hasn’t. All his photos are publicly available. Among the snaps are several depicting McCain and his wife, Lou Ann. They appear to be at several different weddings. He’s wearing a tie. She’s wearing a corsage. She has curly hair and glasses and looks fresher and less haggard than him. They are smiling and dancing. McCain’s 2007 Christmas album is jammed full of cute grandchildren opening gifts and playing musical instruments. He writes: “Great thing about having six kids? Christmas morning is WONDERFUL!” Some of the photos are work related. He’s grinning and holding signage for Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr in 2008. The following year he’s wearing a press pass for the conservative US monthly magazine The American Spectator.
It doesn’t take long for McCain to email me back. “This is an interesting proposal, ma’am, and I appreciate the civility of your communication,” he writes. “Have you ever come to grips—or written publicly—about how (and why) you were so thoroughly bamboozled by Newton and Truong?” He reiterates his view that journalists serve as “propagandists” for the gay rights movement, and, after rambling about Hillary Clinton’s US election loss and Russian hackers, he gets back to the topic at hand:
Your concern, I suppose, is that you were singled out and demonized for your reporting about Newton and Truong, once their wickedness was exposed . . . Well, one thing the Internet has done is to allow ordinary people to “talk back” to the media, and to develop an online counter-balance to these kinds of blatant biases.
McCain returns to lecture me about my perceived failings:
My point in relating this to you, Ms. Gorman, is to suggest that you consider your “experiences on the Internet” a lesson learned. And you ought to think very hard (as I have) about what the lesson actually is . . . It seems to me that you, like many other journalists, assume that the cause of gay rights is so sacred—a secular crusade—that anyone who criticizes or opposes it must be evil. Thus, you failed to apprehend that there might be bad actors like Newton and Truong using gay rights as a Trojan Horse for their own nefarious purposes. Lesson learned, eh?
The email concludes with McCain suggesting he “might be available for a Skype interview at some future point, but today I’ll be busy babysitting my two-year-old grandson, and on Wednesday I’m flying to Massachusetts for a five-day trip, so we’ll have to schedule after I return.” In fact, we never did schedule an interview because McCain stopped replying to my emails altogether.
I realize that as far as the hate stakes go, I’m McCain’s perfect match. I’m a feminist; I’ve been outspoken on the rights of LGBTIQ+ people and have campaigned for marriage equality. I’m also in a mixed-race marriage. (My husband, although now Australian, is Filipino by birth.) My family has Jewish roots. Although McCain hasn’t necessarily been an outspoken anti-Semite, an organization he’s been a key part of—the League of the South—certainly has.
Despite understanding this, I still need to know: Why was he so willing to put my family at risk when he holds his own family so dear? And how could he label me an accomplice to a crime that no one—not even Newton and Truong’s friends and neighbors—was aware was happening?
I’m driven to lay the evidence on the table. The first time Newton and Truong ever came to the attention of authorities was by chance. Local police were investigating another man, Craig Edward Broadley, for sharing child abuse material on the internet. When reviewing his collection police located images of Boy 1.
Detective Inspector Jon Rouse, the Australian policeman who worked with US authorities to apprehend the two pedophiles, describes those photos as “not illegal but concerning.” This was August 2011—more than a year after I’d interviewed the couple in Cairns. Two months later, on October 19, the pair were arrested in Los Angeles and then released due to lack of evidence.
Finally, in February the following year, US police again detained the men, but this time they were arrested and charged. Up until that point in time neither Newton nor Truong had a police record. Even now I wring my hands: I couldn’t have known.
These are the facts, the questions, the damage and the bigotry that remain hanging in the vast gulf between Robert Stacy McCain and me.
Like Craig, McCain doesn’t fit our stereotypes of who a predator troll might be. He seems educated, articulate and high profile. These traits are so uncomfortable and unexpected, they point in a direction I’m compelled to follow. We like to believe education is the great salve for festering hatred. McCain’s background and his behavior makes me question this popular wisdom.
In the wake of his communication blackout, the person I turn to is Dr Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). She heads up a team that monitors “the activities of the American radical right” on the Hatewatch blog. They also produce two intelligence reports a year.
Our first conversation is aborted. Although it’s high summer here, it’s deep winter in Alabama. Beirich emails at the last minute to say: “This crazy storm we have had has meant I had to go to another house I own and winterize it. There’s ice on a river here that never ices over.” Winterize, I learn, means to adapt something for cold weather.
Our second attempt to connect fares better—although I stuff up the time difference and appear on Skype looking unkempt and half-asleep. With good humor, Beirich laughs off my apology and dives straight in. She explains her ability to deal with so much hate, every day. “You’re in a mission-driven situation. You’re trying to beat down this heinous way of thinking to make the world a better place and that’s what gets you through reading all that. Ultimately,” she says, “the idea of white supremacy is what is behind slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, apartheid. I could go on and on and on about all the bad things that come from it.”
With her sandpapery voice and straight-talking manner, she’s immediately likeable. “Of course, an occasional beer is helpful,” she adds. “You need a little bit of a dark sense of humor.”
When she first came to the SPLC back in 1999, one of Beirich’s first projects was to investigate a relatively new organization called the League of the South. “We ran across Robert Stacy McCain as being affiliated with the League of the South and then found out about his role in the press. And so he was a very early person involved in the hate movement.”
“The League of the South is a neo-Confederate hate group. Those are organizations that want to revive the antebellum era. And in the case of the League in particular, although it’s gotten much more hardline just in the last few years, they have always been blatantly racist,” Beirich explains.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term “neo-Confederate,” it’s historical revisionism that glorifies the complex period that triggered the American Civil War during the 1860s. In essence, seven southern states, all of them pro-slavery, wanted to secede from the north because the new Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was opposed to slavery. A bloody war ensued, resulting in more than 600,000 military deaths.
Without putting too fine a point on it, those modern folk who hold neo-Confederate (and antebellum-era) views are pro–African American slavery and anti-Asian. SPLC’s website further states that neo-Confederates pursue Christianity “and other supposedly fundamental values that modern Americans are seen to have abandoned. Neo-Confederacy also . . . exhibits an understanding of race that favors segregation and suggests white supremacy.”
As early as 2000, Beirich recalls, the League of the South was already claiming “slavery was God-ordained and [they had] written about how black people would be at the foot of their new government. In other words, they would make them the least powerful part of a seceded south. And they gave all these positive attributes to white people—in particular white men, because they’re also very misogynistic—and negative traits to homosexuals, as they called them, women and minorities.”
“Now, in the last five or so years, the racism has become much more bold on the part of the League,” she says. “Of course, McCain is not as directly involved as he was back then, and the League has become rabidly anti-Semitic, but it was already deeply racist when McCain was hanging out with them.”
Citing the organization’s own written materials, Beirich says: “There was never any question about his [McCain’s] relationship to the League of the South and his membership. This is a guy who was deeply enmeshed in part of America’s hate movement, in particular one of the neo-Confederates, and yet was able to, at the same time, maintain a veneer of respectability in the conservative movement.”
“He was working for the Washington Times, which is a big conservative newspaper here,” she says. “He was a very good example, at the time, of hate leaching into the mainstream because of that relationship he had with the Washington Times.”
Her point here is striking. Not just in the United States, but in Australia, extreme right-wing voices—like that of fascist sympathizer Blair Cottrell when he appeared on Sky TV in August 2018—have increasingly succeeded in using the mainstream media to spread their messages.
Attempting to get underneath that attire, I ask Beirich: “If I was sitting next to you at a dinner party and we got into a conversation about this and I asked, ‘Who is he?’, what would you say to me?”
“Robert Stacy McCain is actually kind of funny. He has a sense of humor,” she says. “He can even correspond with a race traitor like me and make jokes and act like we can be friends, but the truth is the empathy isn’t there.” He once even joked about doing karaoke with Beirich, and sent her his cell phone number in case she wanted to talk.
“I think what we’d like to think of somebody who harbors racist views or other forms of ugly bigotry is necessarily sort of an ogre type, or a Klansman in his hood with teeth falling out, but that is not the case for most of the white nationalists that we deal with.”
While I see the SPLC as an invaluable resource when I’m trying to figure out who’s who in the trolling and extremism stakes, trolls themselves view the organization with scorn. In a strange and out-of-context rant during an interview I conducted with the well-known and extreme troll weev in early 2018, he said: “The SPLC makes things, a Hate Map. And you know what? The SPLC’s people have actually shot people on that hate map. Our’s [sic] send mean comments. The SPLC’s people send bullets. They did it to the Family Research Council. The SPLC declared them a hate group.”
“They’re an anti-abortion group, an anti–gay marriage group and the SPLC’s followers went and shot up the Family Research Council office . . . They’re the violent ones.”
For her part, Beirich takes great issue with weev’s assessment of this 2012 incident. “What weev is referring to here is when a deranged guy shot at a security guard at the FRC’s headquarters in Washington, DC. He didn’t like their anti-LGBT positions and he found out about them from our Hate Map.”
“We didn’t list an address, just that the group is anti-LGBT. And he had no connection with SPLC at all, regardless of the crazy that weev alleges here,” she says.
Back on the issue of Robert Stacy McCain, when I mention McCain’s email to me and his claim of being “wrongly smeared as a ‘white supremacist’ by various left-wing Internet vigilantes,” she points out that he has never sued or threatened to sue the SPLC, or alleged that they have lied about anything he did.
I describe looking at McCain’s family photos and learning that he sees himself as a God-loving man. “It’s pretty hard to reconcile that with his hateful output.”
“I think what we’d like to think of somebody who harbors racist views or other forms of ugly bigotry is necessarily sort of an ogre type, or a Klansman in his hood with teeth falling out, but that is not the case for most of the white nationalists that we deal with,” Beirich replies. She points to Yale University graduate Jared Taylor, founder and editor of white supremacist online magazine American Renaissance. He’s fluent in three languages and usually appears well turned out in a suit and tie. Then there’s Richard Spencer, president of the white supremacist think tank the National Policy Institute. “He’s a guy in khakis and a polo shirt and a nice haircut [who] comes from a good family and has a good education, and yet he’s as racist as all get-out,” she says.
(If you’re wondering why Spencer’s name is familiar, he’s the bloke who famously got punched in the head by a protester on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration in early 2017. The same year he helped lead members of the far right at the now-infamous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person died and dozens were injured.)
“I say this a lot of times to journalists,” Beirich says, “but a lot of these white nationalists in particular—that’s probably where I would put McCain—are probably better read than the average American.”
Many members of the alt-right “are well schooled in their ideas” and have consistent arguments about their beliefs, she says. “You can be extremely educated and believe really, really horrible things.”
This sentiment, when it sinks in, makes the foundations shudder. As a journalist, I’ve always believed my job is to share information and give a voice to those who don’t have one. To show up injustice for what it is. Instigate change in society. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1597, “Knowledge itself is power.” It helps democracy function better. A lofty notion. But what if it doesn’t? What if you teach angry young white men about the American Civil War and instead of having compassion for the downtrodden, they start promoting “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and an “Aryan homeland”?
Grasping at straws, I go back to McCain’s Christmas album. The sweet children. The presents. McCain may “express these very nice things about his family,” Beirich says, but simultaneously shun people outside his immediate circle—viewing them as “enemies” and “race traitors” or “wiggers” (an offensive portmanteau of “white” and “nigger”). “This belief structure is all about lacking empathy towards other people,” she says.
“So, someone like me would be dehumanized in his eyes? I’m not the same as his family,” I say.
“That’s exactly right,” she says. Beirich considers my own social and political creed, my ethnicity and mixed-race marriage in direct relation to Robert Stacy McCain. “The vision of a society that you’re talking about, in which all these different groups of people are equal, is not what he wants. He wants inequality. You are literally the enemy to his worldview,” she says. “When he doesn’t like what someone stands for or believes or does, he hits back.”
McCain, sadly, isn’t a one-off. He’s one of many trolls peddling hatred online and using all manner of sophisticated and bigoted arguments—often rooted in historical, social and biblical learnings—to justify their bile. Far from being ill-informed, this is an intelligent cohort who read and retain information, stacking up the facts and twisting them in the service of intolerance and aggression.
Excerpted with permission from Troll Hunting by Ginger Gorman, published by Hardie Grant April 2019, RRP.