Being mocked as “cowards” and “feds” by one of America’s top podcasters wasn’t as devastating a blow as it might’ve first seemed for a Hitler fan club that’s spent nearly half a decade recruiting and training perhaps hundreds of young racist men to spread white nationalist ideals with public displays of hatred and exclusion reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.
Instead, Patriot Front members were mostly stoked that Joe Rogan had mentioned them to his audience at all.
A hate group formed in the wake of 2017's bloody “Unite the Right” rally, Patriot Act sensed mostly opportunity in being noticed by someone of Rogan’s stature, the same attitude with which it confronts most of its mentions by the mainstream press. It’s a pattern now illuminated by a collection of recently leaked messages, which portray rolling efforts, as recently as last month, to transform critical news coverage into something more useful—propaganda.
“There’s so much coverage out there and both sides hate us. That’s when you know you’re doing something right,” a Patriot Front member wrote privately in early December.
“Exactly. What a time to be alive,” said another.
The Front, whose march of around 100 members at the National Mall last year earned them a mention on Spotify’s The Joe Rogan Experience, took little offense when the eponymous host issued the bizarre, if uninformed claim that the group appeared to have suddenly arisen “out of nowhere.”
“Look at these guys. Where’s the fat people? How come they’re all wearing the same clothes,” Rogan exclaimed, seemingly befuddled by YouTube footage of the Dec. 4 march cued up by guest and Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi.
“Maybe they’re real,” Rogan said, “but I’m calling bullshit.”
The neo-fascist gathering at the National Mall, which kicked off to a drum-led march down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and featured men in white masks and blue and khaki uniforms carrying plastic shields and American flags, garnered widespread media attention. But it was far from the first time the group had received national coverage. An expose at ProPublica two years earlier, in fact, had dubbed the Patriot Front, “the most active white supremacist group in the nation.” Its strategies were similarly dissected by BuzzFeed in late-2020 after a prior leak of internal messages, which followed an earlier but nearly identical National Mall gathering—the subject of additional widespread coverage.
According to research by the Anti-Defamation League, Patriot Front is the most prolific purveyor of neo-Nazi propaganda in the country.
Still, the Front’s semi-synchronized parade drills, coordinated costumes, and lack of what Rogan deemed “fat people,” left him reeling in a state of apparent disbelief; one that, for Rogan, required a grander and more conspiratorial explanation to dispel. “Have you ever seen anything that looks more like feds?” Rogan asked, drawing laughter from Taibbi, who played into the host’s skepticism. “I mean, look, they could be real,” he said.
“Look, Matt Taibbi, I’m an unreliable source. I’m a comedian,” Rogan allowed, nevertheless pointing to the group’s attire and synchronous stepping as evidence of something more insidious than a neo-Nazi march staged at a site historically symbolic of America’s racial struggles.
Patriot Front had good reason to convince themselves the Rogan mention was a helpful “shoutout,” as one called it. The group relies on recruiting disaffected young men who, in the broadest terms, fall within Rogan’s massive demographic, and the leaked chats show the group’s leader, Thomas Ryan Rousseau, was “desperate” for any opportunity to break out of a plateau in membership in the low 200s.
The leak of more than 400 gigabytes of messages and other media from two internal Patriot Front forums, made publicly available in January by nonprofit media outlet Unicorn Riot, provides new insight into how the group reacted not only to Rogan’s segment but to coverage from more traditional outlets. Page after page of conversation lay bare efforts by Front members to aggregate mentions of itself in the mainstream press to craft videos designed to amplify its recruitment on platforms such as Telegram, where neo-Nazi rhetoric is openly espoused.
“Just pick out a few clips saying that we marched through DC, maybe some descriptions of us as long as it isn’t over-the-top calling us bloodthirsty neo-nazi’s, etc,” a member, apparently from Texas, told others in private chat, less than a week after the march in Washington. “Also, extend Rogan’s clip a little bit, I think right after it ends he says ‘you need to see this video,’ let’s try keeping that in.”
A request for comment made through Rogan’s website last week was not returned.
Patriot Front is an offshoot of the now-defunct, violent neo-Nazi group Vanguard America, which disbanded after the ultra-violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, during which now-convicted terrorist James Alex Fields Jr. marched alongside them in uniform before committing a car attack that killed protester Heather Heyer and wounded scores of others. Like its predecessor, the Patriot Front is largely a propagandist outfit. Its image is crafted to play heavily on nationalistic themes, evidenced not only by its name and use of American imagery, but its rallying cry: “Reclaim America!” But its efforts to outwardly distance itself from more elicit ties to Nazism belie a comfort internally among members with the genocidal aims of the Third Reich, as well as an idolization of other unabashed racist and fascist historical figures.
Members of the group are, in fact, required to hold racist views, and while they attempt to hide any overtly racist or anti-Semitic beliefs behind the American flag, the Patriot Front not only encourages but requires its members to espouse vitriolic racism. Leaked documents show potential recruits whose interviews were stamped “accepted” by the Front’s leaders include many men—some as young as 18—who idolize Hitler and share in the belief that only White people (of mostly European descent) should be considered “real Americans.”
Potential recruits who fail to mention race during interviews are quickly rejected by the group’s leaders and pejoratively labeled “civnats,” a nickname for so-called civic nationalists. In the eyes of Patriot Front recruiters, civic nationalists are those who profess a strong national identity, but are insufficiently hostile to concepts of racial equality or multiculturalism.
“Has read Mein Kampf, Hitler’s Revolution. MK was really interesting. Hitler as a thinker and revolutionary,” notes read from one interview with a potential recruit, who was “accepted” in his initial screening.
“Was struck by the fact that Hitler does not sound crazy or like a raving madman,” another recruit’s notes read.
“Admires Henry Ford because he was based and got a medal from Hitler,” says another.
The leaks also speak to the aspersions of Rogan who had cast doubt on the authenticity of the group due its lack of what he called “fat people.” Rogan’s use of the term “fat” was clearly not informed by the movement to reclaim the term as a positive, but was plain old mockery: “Idiots are usually fat, there’s some fatness to them, they don’t have discipline,” Rogan said.
Similar to how the Front’s leaders attempt—to varying degrees of failure—to present a cleaned-up image by exhorting members to avoid overt acts of violence, members are required to meet certain physical fitness standards, or risk being ejected from the group.
In keeping with the desire of the Front’s leaders to present a polished facade, they not only eschew violence—in policy—but require members to meet certain physical fitness standards, or risk being ejected from the group. The leaked messages include a channel called #lifestyle_recovery existed both for PF members to trade tips and to track their compliance with certain fitness standards. Some of these efforts were tracked in spreadsheets like the one seen below.
“This weekend is the perfect time for you guys to do your 3rd checkin of the month. The screenshot above is [sic] indicates the numbers I’m tracking and would like to obtain from all you guys,” one member, apparently from Michigan, wrote in the channel. “I also have another spreadsheet indicating weekly check-ins and weekly progress. All your milestones, struggles and such are also recorded so be open about your fitness journey.”
Higher-ranking members of the group were more direct in private.
“I am suspending activism for my unfit guys until they get in shape,” a Front “network director” from Florida, who goes by the pseudonym “Lawrence,” wrote to another senior member. According to the chat, a police officer caught members of his cell attempting to hang a banner in Fort Myers, Florida, but simply forced them to take it down. “Fat people are a huge liability,” he said.
Another private chat shows a member being referred to by their leader as “a weird fat gamer loser” and a “disgrace to our organization” who “diminishes and sullies the honor and status” of the group.
Our attempt to solicit comment from Patriot Front by email was unsuccessful.
Compliance with the fitness standards is considered a condition of membership and failure to adhere to the standards was discussed at the highest levels. In one exchange with Rousseau, the Patriot Front leader who founded the group at age 19, a member was asked to provide context for an image that he apparently found “humorous.”
“That’s an image of Johnny. I find it humorous because of his pot belly from over drinking soda. His mile time needs to improve significantly by the event,” Rousseau was told. He immediately asked for the member’s “metrics.”
Rogan’s allegation—or joke, perhaps—about the group being comprised of federal agents, meanwhile, drew little if any consternation from members on internal forums. Perhaps owing to the fact that it wasn’t the first time they’d heard it.
The claim about the group being “feds” was merely an echo of one cast by numerous far-right figures and pundits, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon promoter-turned-congresswoman with ties to the white supremacist movement; Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing pundit who panders to MAGA conspiracy theorists; and Wendy Rogers, a state senator and Oath Keepers member from Arizona who has become a minor celebrity in MAGA circles for backing a hoax audit of votes in Maricopa County.
GOP politicians and media personalities with allegiances closer to the more mainstream, MAGA-wing of conservative politics have made a habit of accusing their more extreme followers of being anti-fascist infiltrators and federal moles. After the Jan. 6 insurrection, for example, conspiracy theories that the violence was set off by someone other than Trump supporters went viral. Regardless of the motivation behind such speculation, or whether it’s even genuine, the impact is the same: Pretending the most radical elements of right-wing politics are fictions invented by enemies unknown provides cover and (vaguely) plausible deniability to goad rank-and-file conservatives ever further ideologically right.
“Of course, it’s possible that these were feds,” contrarian pundit Dave Rubin, who styles himself as a disaffected liberal mugged by conservative reality, said of the Patriot Front marchers on a Newsmax broadcast following Rogan’s episode. While D’Souza implied on Twitter that a lack of media interviews with the group during the march hinted at some government ploy, Rubin questioned why, if the group were a real one, it had no presence on social media. “Where is this group’s Twitter account? Where is their Facebook feed? Where is their Gab account...?”
Patriot Front has operated a Gab account since August 2017, to which it’s posted more than 3,300 times. It has also previously operated on Facebook, as the Guardian reported in 2019; however, it is now on Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations list, according to leaked documents published by the Intercept. Additionally, Twitter confirmed in an email that the group was permanently banned under its violent organizations policy.
Rubin went on to ask why the Patriot Front members, who covered their faces and dressed in identical uniforms, “all sort of looked the same,” or why they “had masks on,” even though, “generally, these people we’re told are ‘right-wing maniacs’ are not big mask people.” (Patriot Front members have always taken extensive efforts to conceal their identities, including the adoption of fake names.)
“Rogan, obviously, is asking the right questions... and we should all be a bit more skeptical these days,” Rubin said.
“Really says something about the system when half our guys weren’t even in step and we’re not even all ‘slim’ and yet we’re already being compared to the highest intelligence office at the state’s disposal,” a Patriot Front member, meanwhile, wrote in the leaked chats regarding Rogan’s statements. Added another: “The best part is that we’ll just keep having demonstrations and the same people will wonder why us ‘feds’ haven’t stopped yet.”
Still, not everyone was gratified by the comparison. As a member apparently from Texas wrote, “Of all the preposterous claims and smears from the media and peanut gallery, what I can NOT suffer without response is being compared to the feds by virtue of physical fitness.”