One of the ugliest realities of the Donald Trump campaign — and that’s saying something — is that white supremacists have waltzed out of the shadows to offer their unrebuked support. Just last week, former KKK leader/Populist Party presidential candidate David Duke endorsed Trump on his radio show saying that “Jewish supremacists who control our country are the real problem, and the reason why America is not great.” And while it may be palpable to dismiss Duke as an impotent loudmouth wing nut, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a 14% increase of groups on the radical American right in 2015, to 892, up from 784 in the year prior, part of a larger trend that took off in 2008 when the country elected it’s first African-American president.
To paraphrase Lt. Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” swaths of this country are “in the Neo-Nazi supporting business. And cousin, business is a-booming.”
The white supremacy resurgence played out in a frightening way in Leith, North Dakota — population 24, give or take — in 2013-14 when Craig Cobb, sixty-four, moved into the depressed small town, and quietly started buying up cheap property in hopes of starting an all-white Legion of Doom enclave. It took the residents a little while to realize Cobb’s scheme, but when they began fighting back — along with nearby Native American protesters — it turned ugly. The documentary “Welcome to Leith,” directed by filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker of Brooklyn-based No Weather Productions, tells the story of how the townspeople united against a hideous man known for posting videos of Russian neo-Nazis beheading immigrants.
Following an August 2013 New York Times article, the filmmakers headed to Leith to examine what exactly was happening out on the rural North Dakota prairie. They spent close to two months there, spread out over three trips, between the fall of 2013 and spring 2014. It was Walker’s first time as a director, Nichols’s second, and white supremacy wasn’t something they were well-versed in. “We’d never done anything like this before, and didn’t really know any of these people, so it was a whole new world for us to explore,” says Nichols.
Like many rural Americans, the community was wary at first, especially after the deluge of national outlets. “There was a large media presence in the beginning, coming in for soundbites, which seemed to tire out the community on the whole,” says Walker. “Our approach is immersive, to be unobtrusive. Mayor Ron Schock was fired up from the beginning, gave the film his blessing, and spread the word on our behalf, but it took some townspeople a little while to understand we were serious.”
To comprehend the white supremacist community, the filmmakers spent a lot of time down the Aryan rabbit hole of message boards at Vanguard News Network and Stormfront, websites where Cobb frequently posted his racist broadsides. They also visited the Southern Poverty Law Center to speak with experts like Ryan Lenz, who appears in the film, describing his maiden visit to Leith as “B-roll for the Walking Dead.”
To be sure, the town isn’t flush, although the recent boom in the Bakken oil fields, some seventy miles north, was providing $50K-a-year jobs. Solid middle-class jobs were part of Cobb’s strategy, which is why it’s all the more pathetic that his plan flopped. Yes, some neo-Nazi nitwits from Detroit of all places showed up to intimidate for a brief spell, but only one small family took up residency. And the “proud Aryan” Iraq War veteran skinhead could barely provide for his wife and daughter.
Cobb himself comes across as more of an asshole than a danger. He’s the kind of man who gleefully badgers a local father at town hall, intimating that he had something to do with his daughter’s murder from a previous marriage in Washington state. (The stoicism the good Christian man shows is beyond remarkable.) There are even moments of high comedy, like when a woman tells Cobb he “needs to eat some soap” for his profanity-laced rantings.
In the end, Cobb metaphorically shoots himself in the foot, wandering about the town with a loaded firearm playing Nazi, without even the balls to wear a proper S.S. uniform. He wound up in jail for terrorizing locals, and copped a plea for four years probation with an ankle monitor. Cobb’s grand plan was undone in a hurry by a small community that banded together, his own grandiosity, and garden variety stupidity.
However, this doesn’t mean that he wasn’t menacing to the people of Leith. The father he needled was understandably terrified for his family’s safety, to the point of keeping his children under lock-and-key and teaching his wife how to shoot. Cobb constantly posted invitations to felons, especially federal prisoners, to move to North Dakota. He even sold a property to notorious racist Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance and the “inspiration” for Cameron Alexander in “American History X,“ for $1.
“I think you had to be there to really feel the deep affect Cobb had on Leith. There was the sense of ‘who is coming here next?’ and ‘will it be violent?” says Walker. “The town was so on edge, it was blinding in a way.”
Nichols added, “Leith is so isolated, it’s unsettling when you stay there. You drive two-miles down a dirt road and it feels like a ghost town. Four police officers cover 1,600 square miles of Grant County, so there’s a sense that anything could happen and nobody would be able to respond in time.”
There is no way of knowing if the feeble, aging Cobb truly thought his plan would succeed, or if he’s more media whore than evil incarnate. But his motives were clear, and it’s the young trigger-happy acolytes who are to be feared. It only takes one person to act upon a horrifying impulse, as we’ve seen countless times before, to enact violent domestic terrorism upon ordinary Americans like the churchgoing victims of Dylan Roof.
“Welcome to Leith” is a tense, well-crafted look at how a small community overcomes an unwanted nefarious character, with a beautiful bonfire denouement. Pulling back, however, the continuity of the white supremacy movement is depressing. Near the end of the film, Cobb — pathetically hiding away in a cheap motel with his belongings in a trash bag — violates his parole and calls Metzger to offer thanks for his support. (Cobb’s gratitude fell on deaf ears. Everyone abandoned him.)
Circling back, Metzger is one of the central figures in one of the most important books ever written about modern white supremacy, A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America by Elinor Langer. Her book begins with the 1988 killing of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by skinheads in her Portland, Oregon neighborhood. Langer works her way from the bottom (the East Side White Pride gang who beat Seraw to death) to the top (Metzger). Dubbed the “Aryan Walter Winchell,” he’s a racist proselytizer and former KKK Grand Wizard who sent a protege to organize the Portland skinheads. Years later, the SPLC was part of a civil lawsuit against Metzger and the White Aryan Resistance (WAR). He and WAR were found liable for intentionally inciting the skinheads to engage in violent confrontations with minorities. A jury awarded a $12.5-million verdict, more or less destroying WAR as a functional organization of hate.
And yet his ideas not only live on, they have become a theme of the 2016 presidential election. Tom Metzger recently told POLITICO that as long as Trump is “causing chaos and havoc with the citizens,” he’s down with Donald.
Craig Cobb resurfaced with the same plan in another town that he literally planned to name after Trump. Yet again, he failed in the Peace Garden State. He is not welcome in Leith, or anywhere else in North Dakota.