At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker premiered a documentary called Welcome to Leith, about a seemingly unremarkable North Dakota town that measures three square miles and boasts 24 residents. Leith never drew national attention until Craig Cobb, a white supremacist, moved into the community in 2012, mostly keeping to himself until he hatched a plot to take over the city by inviting his white-nationalist friends to move to Leith and gain control of the local government.
Nichols and Walker chronicled Cobb’s plan, speaking both to him and to Leith’s other residents, who feared what this white nationalist and his well-armed colleagues might do to them. Tense and upsetting, Welcome to Leith exposed the still-lingering racism and violence of neo-Nazis in America. And yet, it was easy to put the documentary’s terror on the back burner: After all, Leith is a small town in the middle of nowhere.
Until now, of course. Hate speech has escalated dramatically since President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House began in June 2015, racists and bigots seemingly emboldened by Trump’s xenophobic comments about Mexicans, Muslims and others. (Cobb was an early Trump supporter.) Suddenly, Welcome to Leith feels both frightening and urgent.
To get more insights into America’s white-supremacist underbelly, MEL recently spoke with Nichols by phone about whether he’s guilty of normalizing Cobb, how Cobb was normal in a lot of ways and the contradiction between Leith’s feelings for Cobb (they loathed him) and President-Elect Donald Trump (the majority of them voted for him).
What spoke to you about Cobb’s invasion of Leith?
It seemed like a Western. It was taking place in such a small community that we felt like it was the kind of story where you could go into this vacuum and tell the story from all perspectives. [There was the] inherent drama of this outsider coming in, laying low for a year and then being outed after he’s bought all of these properties. There’s also the townspeople’s fear, anger, confusion and helplessness. From a documentary filmmaking standpoint, you don’t often have these sorts of antagonists who are willing to be on camera. So it had this very riveting narrative.
How aware were you of white nationalists and neo-Nazis?
We had no knowledge, apart from a pop-culture kind of exposure. I met one white supremacist at a restaurant in Florida that I worked at some years ago. But at that time, he was a reformed white supremacist — and I thought that he was an interesting person. But, yeah, as far as any kind of knowledge of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its monitoring of these hate groups and the breakdowns of certain places online where some of them congregate? We had no knowledge. In some ways, it was good as our relationships with Cobb and [fellow white nationalist] Kynan Dutton were pretty naïve: We were just really curious about their belief system.
Did they question your motives?
They probably wouldn’t have been as cooperative if we weren’t two white males. But they asked us if we were gay. They asked us if we were Jewish. They asked us if we were working for the SPLC.
Did you get any sense that Cobb was trying to sell you on his worldview?
Absolutely. He’d be talking about [white nationalism], and then he’d ask us if we agreed. He had this feeling, which it turns out was pretty accurate, that there was a lot of resentment about demographic change in certain parts of the country — just the idea of white people not being a majority for much longer in the United States and having this sense that whites were getting scared of this multiculturalism. He would ask us if we agreed, and we would just listen. We never said we agreed; we would sort of say, “That’s interesting. We don’t know anyone who thinks like that, but it’s interesting for us to hear you tell this.”
When I saw the movie at Sundance in 2015, I remember thinking, “That’s just a small town in the middle of nowhere. It’s a problem, but not that big of a problem.”
We heard that sentiment from people: It’s just a small town, and it wasn’t that big a deal. But when [a neo-Nazi takeover] is established in one town, it can become a model for success for other towns and for other people in the movement who are so inclined. So while it was this tiny little spot in North Dakota that was pretty much all white anyway, if he’d been successful, there could be a domino effect in some of these [other] isolated places.
It’s impossible to have imagined Trump being elected while you were making this movie, but the film now feels prophetic. How deep did you think this kind of movement actually ran at the time?
As we started filming and doing research into white nationalism, we came across this idea that had been kicked around since at least 2001 called “Pioneer Little Europe,” which was basically what Cobb was trying to do: figuring out a way to get other white supremacists together and take over an area or a town. They tried a couple times, but Cobb got really close to being successful. If the story hadn’t broke the way it did, and if he hadn’t gotten so antagonistic, I think he would have had a better chance.
We never suspected, obviously, that the film would take on any more relevance now. We thought it was almost an artifact of racism that still existed but was gradually disappearing. We didn’t have any sense it would become what it is now.
It’s scary how close Cobb got to controlling Leith. If he’d been a little smarter and not gotten arrested for threatening residents with guns, he probably would have succeeded.
The first time we met Cobb face-to-face was when we did that jail interview. And I think it was there where we asked him about what he would’ve done differently. [He said that] before it was public knowledge what he was trying to do, he was trying to get [white supremacists] to come out [to Leith], and he was having a really hard time [convincing them]. But once the story was picked up by The New York Times, he felt like he could get a lot of publicity from the mainstream media by upping his antagonistic behavior, like nailing Swastikas to trees.
That, however, led to his downfall. He lived there for a year, and everyone was fine with him; they just thought that he was this old guy who kept to himself. But once the media coverage started and they started hearing about his beliefs, that’s what pushed everyone to defend themselves. If he had just been quiet and not as ostentatious in his signage and his behavior, he definitely could’ve taken over.
And yet, you’ve written that a majority of people in Leith voted for Trump. Why don’t they see connections between certain supporters that he has and guys like Cobb?
I posted that [on Facebook], and the mayor of the town’s wife was really upset. She felt very betrayed. She told me, “I would never vote for someone I believed was racist and had these views like Cobb. I can’t believe you would think we would vote for someone like that.” What she was telling me was that she doesn’t believe Trump is a racist, or the media coverage of him. So I think that there are definitely people who voted for Trump who don’t make that connection. To me, it seems so blatant. But these are people who, for a year, went through this nightmare with a white supremacist and then voted for Trump, who to them doesn’t represent anywhere near the same thing Cobb represents.
As you say, Cobb wanted to get the attention of the Times to publicize his cause. Did you ever feel like you also were helping Cobb by filming him?
We definitely thought about that question a lot, but essentially, we decided it was most important that people know these kinds of people exist. Ignoring it is more dangerous. If you don’t show Cobb and his belief system, it does a disservice to the people of Leith and their fear and sense of hopelessness — because they were really scared about what Cobb was saying. So we felt it wouldn’t be fair to the people in the town. It would make them look hysterical unless we showed exactly what it was they were facing, which were people with some scary ideas.
You’ve mentioned you didn’t want to vilify Cobb. So what were you hoping to achieve?
We wanted Cobb to watch the film and have this sense that he was honestly depicted and that we didn’t do anything to make him look like a monster. We felt like if we did that, we would achieve the objectivity we were hoping to realize. That was the goal — to be as objective as possible — just let people speak their mind, and the viewer can come to their own conclusions.
As far as humanizing people, I think people are complex. We definitely felt a lot of sympathy for Kynan — he suffers from pretty severe PTSD [from serving in the Iraq War]. He was our age, and he seemed like a guy who was very lost and found community in this group. And so, we didn’t want to depict anyone as a one-dimensional monster, because I don’t think that’s true of anyone; everyone has redeeming values and qualities.
But by trying to appear objective, you open yourself up to criticism of normalizing white nationalism — a charge that’s been leveled against recent alt-right profiles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.
I’ve definitely seen a lot of those articles. I think it really came down to a conversation we had with Ryan Lenz, a journalist at the Southern Poverty Law Center who broke the [Leith] story. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s whole approach is to monitor these groups and report on their activities. When we finally met with him, it reassured us. You have this organization that’s been around since the 1970s whose entire purpose is to watch these groups and let people know what they’re doing and where they are. I felt like we were just continuing on that track.
I’d be lying, though, if I said it weren’t in the back of our minds that we could be doing something dubious by giving Cobb a platform. We were also just so fascinated by the story that we really wanted to tell it. So it’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the next four years — how these kind of groups are covered. All of which is a long way of saying I don’t really have an answer for how we should cover these groups.
Plus, Cobb is a very arresting presence with a charismatic personality. Was that the way he came across in person, too?
Yeah, he’s definitely a smart guy who can be charming and funny. There were definitely some moments when we weren’t filming — where we were having lunch with him — where you could forget who he was as far as his worldview. He would just be this funny guy. So I can understand how people might like him and think he’s charming.
That said, we wanted to be careful about giving him any personal information. That’s what he could use against you, and we didn’t want him to know much about us or about people close to us. It was weird experience. I remember after every day of filming, we would go back to our hotel and drink whiskey, and we would feel strange and worn down.
Chris and I are not antagonistic at all as far as our filmmaking approach, but to feel that the relationship could turn once he saw the film — maybe he would hate it and try to retaliate against us — it definitely never leaves your mind. You’re on guard the whole time just because you know that things could change on dime. So in the end, it was exhausting to have these interactions with someone who, in a lot of ways, you’re scared of.