A worldwide surge in populist politics has breathed new life into the vestiges of New Zealand's far right. Kirsty Johnston reports from within the fringe.

When outrage over racist posters at Auckland University hit headlines in late March, their white supremacist creators were elated. They'd tricked the media! Their message was being heard! Their Facebook page was up to almost 100 likes!

Members of the Western Guard, the supremacists' secret online group, began to plan a second wave. They decided to mobilise their new recruits and plaster campuses nationwide. They made signs for Nelson, for New Plymouth, for Taupo. "White Lives Matter" the templates read. "You can prevent white genocide. Your country needs YOU!"

As more recruits joined in the coming days, energy built. The fledgling club discussed its limits - were gays allowed? No way, the hive mind said. They decreed it was probably best not to use ethnic slurs in public "just yet".

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The more experienced "brothers" shared tips on making flour and water paste to put up posters; and how to avoid being caught by police or passers-by.

By Saturday, they were ready.

"Heil Victory," a Facebook user named Dexter Olsen wrote on the group page. Like almost everyone in the Western Guard, he used a fake profile to discuss his far-right views. "Tonight, we show those in power that we will not sit idly by and allow our country to be delivered the same fate as our brothers and sisters in Europe. To you, my fellow men, I wish you luck in this endeavor."

Three significant events

Deep within anonymous online message boards, New Zealand's budding "alt-right" had been slowly gathering momentum for months.

Locals who supported the movement's soupy mix of racism, white nationalism and populism had been inspired by happenings overseas - including the Trump election - and began to wonder if they could further the cause at home.

Most of the discussion occurred on 4Chan, a site with deep alt-right connections. Throughout the end of last year, users suggested ways to get their messages across. This largely included making humorous viral images, or "memes", of local politicians, and hoping their antics would generate a media frenzy.

By the end of summer, however, the plans seemed nothing more than idle talk. Mainstream media had briefly considered the emergence of a New Zealand alt-right in the wake of Trump's victory, but then abandoned the idea. It seemed the trends observed in the UK, USA and Europe might not appear here. Online chat, even among the devotees, had died down.

Then suddenly, in March, three significant events occurred in quick succession.

Firstly, a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association appeared on campus at Orientation Week. Although it quickly disbanded amid accusations of racism and threats to its (unidentified) founders, the group gained national media coverage, including reaction from Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy.

Secondly, a week later, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters visited Victoria University in Wellington. During his speech to students he questioned the media's role in causing the "European" group to shut down. He accused journalists of suppressing dissenting voices, and on his way out, unashamedly signed a cartoon of a frog named Pepe - the most popular symbol of the alt-right.

Peters' actions set the New Zealand 4Chan boards alight.

"Guess who just got my vote!!" one user wrote. "Winston is based". (Based, loosely, means good).

"Absolutely BASED," said another. "Winnie has my undying respect."

"Winston is /ourguy/, right?" another asked. "I want someone to get rid of the Indians and Chinese, those f****** are stealing our country right out from under us."

In addition to the hype, users began earnestly discussing the importance of helping Peters win.

"As we all know, meme magic is enormously powerful. Bill English has lost the election, it belongs to Winston," one said.

"All that needs to happen is for us to make it happen through our collective (meme) power. We have already started discussing this but it is time to take it seriously."

Peters strenuously denies having any contact with or knowledge of the group.

"I have no idea who or what you're talking about," Peters told the Herald. "I've never heard of them and I've had no contact with them."

NZ First leader Winston Peters signed a poster featuring the online cartoon character Pepe the Frog.
NZ First leader Winston Peters signed a poster featuring the online cartoon character Pepe the Frog.

Asked about signing the Pepe poster, Peters said "give me a break, a student asked me to sign a piece of paper and I couldn't see the whole thing".

The same user who referred to "meme magic" identified five people to "target" - Labour leader Andrew Little, Prime Minister Bill English, Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking and Devoy.

They also discussed a counter-strategy. "We need to start influencing NZFirst both directly and through Young NZFirst," one wrote. "We need to push Winnie standing on his own feet and saying he will not form a coalition."

Anonymous members of the alt-right used message boards to plan how to use memes to influence the outcome of the election.
Anonymous members of the alt-right used message boards to plan how to use memes to influence the outcome of the election.

The group were urged to read Alinsky's Rules for Radicals to help their cause. The most pertinent point, one said, was Rule 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself."

"We need to come up with a way of making leftists, SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) thinking we are more powerful/more of a threat than we are," the writer urged.

"I suggest we use this thread to brainstorm possible ways of portraying ourselves as such."

Two weeks later, the Western Guard was born.

Racism 2.0

The term alt-right became mainstream last year, in the midst of the Trump election, Brexit, and the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

Described as Racism 2.0, the group's ongoing preoccupation is the idea that whites will become extinct. With a large base among men's rights activists, online trolls and gamers, its members are also anti-feminist, anti-media and anti-"normie" - their name for anyone who isn't alt-right.

In New Zealand, like elsewhere, the movement is leaderless, best thought of as a series of overlapping interest groups, like a Venn diagram with the alt-right at its nexus.

Members are the self-declared disenfranchised - largely young, educated, angry men who spend large amounts of time online. While many are new to the political arena, others have drifted across from the country's older neo-Nazi groups.

They believe concepts such as white genocide and cultural Marxism - a conspiracy theory that claims Marxists infiltrated the west to destroy Christian values and replace them with feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and atheism. Most align somewhere close to the nationalist spectrum.

"My main thoughts on politics at the moment is that I believe that fascism and national socialism are the most beneficial ways for a government to run a country," says Phillip, 17. "And the reason I believe that is because of the wonders it did for Nazi Germany."

Phillip is one of a number of young men from a high school in Auckland to join the Western Guard. He says he became interested in the alt-right during the "meme wars" of the US election, and began his "research" after that.

At first, it is difficult to tell if he's joking. Communication in the alt-right swings wildly between the ultra-earnest and extreme-ironic, with everything cloaked in multiple layers of jargon and vulgarity designed to confused and enrage the liberal left.

However, Phillip is one of those who seems legitimate. The Herald spent three months watching the Western Guard - using a fake Facebook profile to gain access to the secret page, and then subsequently joining its inter-related alt-right groups to observe the main players.

Memes linking popular right-wing cartoon character Pepe The Frog and symbols of New Zealand have been doing the rounds among alt-right supporters.
Memes linking popular right-wing cartoon character Pepe The Frog and symbols of New Zealand have been doing the rounds among alt-right supporters.

While the groups claim to "vet" members, our fake persona - Molly, who has a fluffy white kitten for her profile picture and a penchant for Ivanka Trump - was never questioned. She made friends with members, and talked to them on Facebook chat.

When contacted formally by the Herald, however, those identified as alt-right shut down. Most members did not respond to requests. Several replied with threats, or by sending penis photos via Facebook instead.

Others refused to be named for fear they would lose their jobs if their true associations were made public. One went so far as to close his Facebook profile when we asked for his phone number.

"Our views aren't publicly acceptable quite yet," one anonymous alt-right member said. "The media often paints us as evil, or vile or sick. We [could] lose our jobs, our families. Corporations don't apologise for racists ... not that we are racist."

Those who did agree to speak were either very young, like Phillip, or at the more moderate end of the alt-right spectrum. This includes members of the Make New Zealand Great Again Facebook group, which shares members with both Kiwi Alt Right and Young New Zealand First but is largely focused on pushing freedom of speech and fomenting Islamophobia, rather than talking openly about white nationalism.

One of the men who agreed to explain his involvement was Solomon Tors-Kilsen, a business owner and sometime youth worker from Timaru who describes himself as alt-right, but rejects many of the labels associated with the movement.

"We get called racist, xenophobic, backward - it's almost like a knee-jerk reaction," he says. "But the fact is, the people in these groups ... they are simply average people who are tired of being shut down for having legitimate concerns and are looking for real, honest, non-PC representation."

Tors-Kilsen, a member of Make New Zealand Great Again, says he believes people who would have never before considered themselves alt-right, or even right-wing, are starting to join the groups because they have genuine concerns about where New Zealand is going - particularly around immigration.

"We have homeless people, we have massive poverty ... and we're bringing in immigrants but not looking after our own people," he says.

A former member of the now-defunct Kiwis Against the Islamification of NZ, he also believes that radical Islam simply doesn't fit with New Zealand culture and there should be a conversation about that.

"We're seeing a lot of terrorist attacks all over the world, it's concerning. New Zealand is a great place and there are concerns that ideology is going to come here. So how do we stop it coming here?"

Taiwanese migrant Sylvester Kuo, 23, is a member of Make New Zealand Great Again too. The former president of Young Act, who left the party due to "differences in opinion", says he wouldn't even consider himself part of the alt-right. Yet he describes himself as a "civic nationalist" who is "weary of multiculturalism" and supports racial assimilation.

On the phone he is softly spoken and eloquent, in juxtaposition to his online persona, where he calls Muslims "kebabs"; the Herald the "enemedia"; and drag queens reading to children a "cancer".

Kuo is passionate about freedom of speech, saying people should be allowed to say what they want online without fear of recrimination. "People can take offence but it shouldn't be criminal," he says. " It's one thing to tell someone you're offended it's another to send them to prison."

He says he's not against people of different skin colours but that segregation creates disharmony. "The best approach ... is not to accommodate more backward practices that some people might have ... like wearing burqa, or female genital mutilation.

"I've seen a few burqa in NZ. It's quite concerning. A security concern."

Neither Kuo nor Tors-Kilsen are part of the more extreme groups, such as the Western Guard. When asked to point towards those who are, they named a failed Auckland local body candidate who did not return the Herald's calls - and Nick Chen, a vocal Trump supporter.

Chen agrees to meet at Starbucks on Queen St to talk. Before the meeting, he posts on Facebook about the interview, asking for tips on what to say.

"Tell [the reporter] to kill herself," comes one reply. "Be careful," says anothers. "She smells of liberal bullshit." "Make sure she doesn't misrepresent what you say."

And finally: "F*** her right in the pussy."

Chen describes himself as fascist and an ethno-nationalist. We ask how that works, given Chen is Chinese. He gets asked this a lot.

"It means I support people's rights in their own country. So as an ethno-nationalist [in New Zealand] I have to go out and support Europeans," he says.

"People get confused because I'm not white. They think [alt-right] is exclusive to neo-Nazis, but it's not."

While not a student, Chen is well-known at the Auckland University campus. He's met people from the European Students Association ("great people"), and attends political debates.

At the most recent one, he shouted down the moderator, accusing her of bias. He shouts a lot, his speaking voice booming through the cafe as he outlines his views.

It's obvious he enjoys shocking people, and that it's part of the group's attraction.

"There was a quote, 'do I want to be right or do I want to create chaos?'," he says. "We are the true anarchists, we are all about overthrowing the current system."

'No reason to feel disenfranchised'

For politics experts watching the growing alt-right in New Zealand, there are two main questions - why does this group feel so disenfranchised, and are they strong enough to influence the September election.

University of Canterbury Associate Professor in sociology Mike Grimshaw believes the claims of a loss of privilege are unjustified.

"Tertiary educated young white men have no need to feel disenfranchised here - the whole of society is structured to their advantage," he says. "But they claim disenfranchisement as part of a wider recourse to identity politics; so they can use the language without the requisite structural and societal analysis."

One of Grimshaw's PhD students, Ben Elley, is doing a thesis on the alt-right involving a comparison of them with other extremist groups.

"The feeling of disenfranchisement among some young white men does make sense - even if it isn't actually legitimate," he says.

This is because the alt-right actively promote the idea that with growing racial and gender equality, white men are being discriminated against.

"This is patently untrue, but there are a few factors that have built up the impression that it is, and they're as common here in NZ as they are in America," Elley says.

One factor is harsher economic realities for millennials - the fact that a university education no longer guarantees a job, a house, a family. For some, that can be blamed on diversity. The internet also has its part to play - online, extremist views can become more prominent, conspiracy theories can gain more traction than they otherwise would.

However, Elley, like most experts, says while the movement is definitely starting to spill into New Zealand, he doubts it will have any influence on the election.

Analysis of the Facebook groups involved seems to back this up - numbers are small - a couple of hundred in each, with even fewer active members. Even populist "meme" sites likely to be run by the alt-right have gained minimal traction in comparison to those run by the Greens or National supporters.

While some, like Tors-Kilsen, want to build their own party, it seems unlikely to happen this year. Their best bet might be agitating for others, or, like those on 4Chan planned, getting the ear of someone already in power, like Winston Peters.

However, the infiltration of New Zealand First and its youth wing seems unsuccessful.

Peters refused to do an interview about whether he would welcome such a group into his party and was upset the Herald had chosen to cover this issue instead of his more recent speeches.

The leader of the party's youth wing, Robert Gore, did not respond to questions in time.

'I can't wait to wake up to the news reports'

On the night of the Western Guard's second poster blitz in March, it poured with rain. The group - now with a total of 35 members - was undeterred.

"I can't wait to wake up to the news reports," wrote Josh, another young Aucklander. He and a friend stuck up posters at their school. Josh took a photo next to one, pulling a "Heil Hitler" sign. Before sending it to the group, he obscured his face with a picture of Pepe.

A Facebook post, said to be from a young Aucklander called Josh contained a photo of him taken while putting up Western Guard posters. Before posting, he obscured his face with a picture of Pepe.
A Facebook post, said to be from a young Aucklander called Josh contained a photo of him taken while putting up Western Guard posters. Before posting, he obscured his face with a picture of Pepe.

The group waited all weekend for the posters to hit the headlines again. But they never did. Late on Sunday, Josh posted again. "I just found out that 90 per cent of the posters me and Alex put up are gone."

After that - and amid fears a reporter from student media had infiltrated the page - the group was never really active again. Chen tried, as recently as June, to get its founders to meet up, but was unsuccessful.

"I don't know anyone that's involved, I would like to but I don't," he says.

We discuss the possibility that it could have all been a joke. Chen says that could be true. "It could even be the Government trying to plant that to give us a bad name."

He seems briefly despondent about the lack of interest in the alt-right in the New Zealand political scene. But then he begins talking again, about his own website, about the liberal media, about social justice warriors, traditionalism, the need for a hierarchy, about his many, many beliefs.

Around him, Starbucks has emptied out. Following his rant on feminism, the girls at the next table have packed up in disgust. Two more leave after he loudly declares refugees could swamp New Zealand. Chen doesn't notice. He just keeps talking, on and on and on.

The original version of this story contained a reference to Hobson's Pledge. Any implication that group has links or similarities to neo-Nazi groups was unintended and false. The group's Don Brash has asked us to point out that he opposes racism of any kind.