Behind a neofascist façade, Patriot Front is really just another ‘white nationalist pyramid scheme’

Behind a neofascist façade, Patriot Front is really just another ‘white nationalist pyramid scheme’

One of the constants of the world of right-wing extremists is that their leaders all find ways to turn their authoritarian activism into a moneymaking operation that wrings funds out of their gullible followers. Even if these leaders buy their own bullshit—and most of them do—they also are assiduous in creating revenue streams generated from the eager suckers who lap it up.

Take Patriot Front, the neofascist marching gang that recently drew national headlines for being busted outside a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, for example. A recent examination of the organization’s operations by Mackenzie Ryan of The Guardian found that Patriot Front’s ability to spread its brand of hate politics by operating as a “white nationalist pyramid scheme” that recruits angry young men with a vision of creating a “warrior elite,” the reality of which is remarkably buffoonish.

“No other white supremacist group operating in the US today is able to match Patriot Front’s ability to produce media, ability to mobilize across the country, and ability to finance,” Anti-Defamation League researcher Morgan Moon told Ryan. “That’s what makes them a particular concern.”

Thomas Rousseau, left, in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. James Alex Shields is on the right.

The man atop Patriot Front’s pyramid is Thomas Rousseau, the 24-year-old Texas man who founded Patriot Front in 2017 out of the ashes of the neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, under whose banner he had marched in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, alongside James Alex Fields, the man who later that day drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Fitting his politics, Rousseau runs Patriot Front in remarkably authoritarian fashion: ordering his followers to follow exercise regimens and to participate both in online ideological discussion and real-world “actions” that both spread the group’s propaganda and line Rousseau’s pockets.

Most of its recruitment begins online, in gaming chat rooms, message boards, or social media channels where they seek out young white males seething with various resentments. Part of its marketing, as Stephen Piggot of the Western States Center told Ryan, involves creating video packages aimed at younger audiences. Simultaneously, he says, much of their appeal involves the group’s emphasis on translating the ideology into real-world action.

Recruits are particularly drawn in by Patriot Front’s emphasis on creating “young warriors” and a “warrior elite,” Moon said. This includes an emphasis on fitness and diet, and is manifested in the real-world paramilitary training sessions it organizes.

Once recruits sign on, they’re quickly drawn up in Patriot Front’s authoritarian operations. They’re required to attend monthly online meetups and street demonstrations, and to meet a weekly activism quota that the group’s top lieutenants, called network directors, monitor with spreadsheets. Should a recruit fail to meet those requirements, Rousseau expels them, Moon said.

A data leak of Patriot Front chat rooms published earlier this year by the journalism collective Unicorn Riot revealed these operations in detail. Rousseau and his network directors oversaw the chats, organized by region. They organized real-world “actions” in the chatrooms, such as pasting propaganda stickers and fliers around the downtown areas of cities where they lived, as well as hoisting banners with their slogans and logo over freeways on overpasses.

The “actions” included a number of criminal acts of vandalism, such as defacing memorials, statues, and murals in highly public places. These included a memorial to George Floyd in New York City, as well as other works of public art that provoked their ire, such as a mural supporting Black Lives Matter in Olympia, Washington, and depictions of Black heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman.  

They also clearly believed they could do so with impunity. “As our recent actions have shown we can walk down busy avenues at prime time in Seattle and deface the largest most well protected mural in shitlib Olympia without so much as being accosted once,” one member who apparently participated in the Olympia vandalization wrote.

A more recent Unicorn Riot report exposed how members of Patriot Front participated in a likely hate crime by vandalizing an LGBTQ youth center in Springfield, Illinois, in November 2021. Video recordings made by the group’s members showed them stenciling their logo over a rainbow mural on one side of the Phoenix center, a nonprofit that provides housing and support to at-risk LGBTQ youth.

The video shows them applying the stencil, fleeing the scene, and then discussing how they targeted the building because “it’s a gay and trans youth center.” They also reveled in the distress they expected to create: “Those f*gs are gonna lose their mind,” boasted one of the vandals.

In all, Patriot Front records showed the group responsible for at least 29 acts of destruction of public art honoring Black, Mexican, Asian, and LGBTQ people. According to the ADL, Patriot Front has been responsible for up to 14 hate incidents a day.

Rousseau and his lieutenants set quotas for members to engage in various “actions,” including regional group quotas of at least “10 big actions a month.” Acts of vandalism are recorded in a spreadsheet.

The group also monitors its roughly 220 members’ personal lives and is fanatically controlling. Members are required to regularly log their weight and fitness regimen, follow an apparently disordered diet obsessively, and update their superiors on their “bad habits,” such as pornography and junk food. Leaders pointedly chastise members for failing to participate in enough chats or meetings or to file their mandatory fitness updates.

On top of all these demands, Rousseau charges his followers a premium for the same Patriot Front propaganda material that he then requires them to spread, according to Southern Poverty Law Center researcher Jeff Tischauser. Network directors are required to push members to buy new flyers and then spread them monthly.

“In this sense, Patriot Front is close to a white nationalist pyramid scheme,” Tischauser observed.

The scheme has created some internal turmoil. Researchers say Patriot Front chats they have obtained include complaints from members about the constant expense of buying new stickers, stencils, and other propaganda materials that Rousseau both requires they buy while charging them a premium.

There have been other cracks in Rousseau’s façade, notably the June arrests of 31 Patriot Front marchers in Coeur d’Alene—all of whose identities were publicly exposed—while attempting to create a riot at the city’s annual Pride in the Park event. The court cases arising from those arrests got under way this month, with Rousseau among the defendants.

“They got kind of the opposite of what they wanted: they weren’t able to disrupt the LGBTQ Pride events, and they got a whole lot of mainstream media attention,” Piggot said.

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