Punching a 95-pound woman in the face might be the best thing that ever happened to Nathan Damigo. The 30-year-old Marine veteran and leader of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa was until recently an obscure ex-con and member of a marginal hate group, but in the past three weeks he’s suddenly became an icon to the alt-right for being the man behind the fist that clocked anti-fascist protester Emily Rose Marshall at a rally of far-right groups on April 15 in Berkeley, California. 4Chan users created memes celebrating him for his “falcon punch.” The neo-nazi site Daily Stormer hailed him as a “true hero.” Berkeley police, meanwhile, have declined to state whether they are pursuing charges against him.
Twelve days after that encounter, at another far-right gathering—billed as a “fuck antifa” rally—admirers approach Damigo, who is dressed in a white hoodie, to shake his hand and pat him on the back. “You’re sort of famous now,” says Faith Goldy from the anti-semitic Canadian website Rebel Media.
“I’ve just been really humbled,” Damigo tells Goldy. “A lot of people have [shown] support and come up to me today and said thank you for fighting for our ability to come here and speak.”
The rally, held in MLK Civic Center Park, includes speakers Brittany Pettibone, an alt-right writer who promotes the conspiracy theory of “white genocide,”* and Vice cofounder Gavin McInnes, head of the Proud Boys, a “Western Chauvinist” street brawling fraternity. Large white men in motorcycle helmets, carrying sticks and bats, guard the stage. There are a surprising number of people of color in red MAGA hats including “Latina for Trump” Irma Hinajosa. Anti-fascist counter-protesters like Marshall are, for the most part, nowhere to be seen.
When I approach Damigo and ask him about the response he’s received to the video of the assault, he says it’s been “great.” Recruitment for Identity Evropa has “gone through the roof” since Trump’s inauguration, he adds, growing from just 12 people last year to more than 450 members across dozens of campuses. Cal State Stanislaus, where Damigo is a social sciences major, launched an “immediate investigation” after the video was posted online. Damigo says he thinks the investigation is “funny.”
After the punching video went viral, the alt-right unleashed a doxing campaign against Marshall and her family, publishing their home addresses and phone numbers online. Marshall received rape threats and other abusive messages and images of pornography work she’d done were turned into memes and posted to her grandmother’s Facebook page. Damigo tells me these actions were justified. “I think we’re [engaged] in cultural warfare right now,” he says. Anti-fascists, he claims, doxed him and his family last year. “This is part of that culture war.”
Damigo’s assault and the adulation that followed may indeed be new battles in a long culture war, but his story also shows how a young man from California has slowly been radicalized—in the military, in prison, and on the internet—and in turn how he’s helping “racialize,” or make racially conscious, a new generation of young white conservatives.
Damigo tells me he has returned to Berkeley because he supports free speech, which he’d like to exercise in order to promote Identity Evropa’s message that white people should take pride in their race and resist being “ethnically cleansed.”
As we talk, he forces a smile, but his quivering lip betrays an underlying frustration. He repeats catchwords like “radical diversity,” “radical inclusion,” and “multiracialism” throughout our interview. He speaks like someone who has practiced his talking points—a skill he teaches other white nationalists—but he hasn’t quite learned how to integrate them into a back and forth with a reporter.
I ask Damigo whether the free speech he is advocating for in Berkeley applies to everyone and not just white people, especially given the fact that he promotes the creation of an ethnically pure, white “ethnostate.” He pauses. His lip quivers. “We have a right to exist,” he says. “We have a right to an identity.”
When I press him and ask what measures he would go to in order to create that ethnostate, he admits that violence might be needed. “Politics,” he says, “is essentially the use of force and power.”
Damigo is a product of the rapidly growing right-wing ideology known loosely as “identitarianism,” and his current 15-minutes of fame has, in turn, made him one of its newly anointed popularizers. Born in Lewiston, Maine, to parents he describes as “fundamentalist Baptists,” his family later moved to San Jose, California, where Damigo attended a “small, private Christian school.” White people make up about half of San Jose’s population but for Damigo, it felt like “everybody was kind of a minority,” as he once told Countercurrents TV, a white nationalist YouTube channel. Many of his friends were Filipino and Latino and he noticed that they “had a very tight-knit group thing going on. I would go and I would hang out and there was always something that was kinda off, that wasn’t really fitting.”
Damigo’s parents imparted on him their “hawkish, neocon views,” and in 2004, at age 18, Damigo joined the Marine Corps and completed two tours in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province. “For the first time in my life, I was around a lot of white people,” he said. “I noticed that they seemed to share a lot of my views.” His friends of color back home were never mean to him, but he felt an ease with his new white comrades that felt much more “natural.” With his friends of color “it seemed like [on] every single issue politically we disagreed. No matter how hard I tried to convince them of the logic of the views I was espousing, it just didn’t seem to sink in and I couldn’t understand why.”
Damigo lost several friends in combat and when he returned home, “There were a lot of demons I was facing,” he said. “I felt betrayed by the government.” He found it hard to reintegrate and began drinking heavily. About a month after returning from his second tour, he went on a binge and held up an Arab taxi driver at gun point, robbing him of $43. He was convicted of armed robbery and spent a year in county jail followed by four years in prison.
Damigo was featured in Wartorn 1861-2010, a 2010 HBO documentary about PTSD coproduced by Sopranos star James Gandolfini. The film follows Damigo as he awaits sentencing. When Damigo’s brother asks him if PTSD made him do it, he replies, “I know it was PTSD.” His mother says that at the time of the crime, “he was drunk, he was confused, he was probably suicidal. And when he came up on this guy, all of a sudden he went into combat mode. He was back in Iraq in a heartbeat.” After Damigo was sentenced to six years in prison, his mother told the film crew, “They took him when he was 18 and put him through a paper shredder and then sent him back to us. We get to try to put all the pieces back together. Sometimes it’s like Humpty Dumpty: they don’t go back together.”
Prison, Damigo told Countercurrents TV, ended up “perhaps being the best thing that ever happened to me.” While locked up, he became “racialized.” Because California was under a federal court order to depopulate its prisons, Damigo was sent to a private facility in Oklahoma run by the Corrections Corporation of America. In prison, he told me, “everybody kind of breaks down on race. It’s constantly present.” He took to a white man who seemed to have a deep interest in politics, and who recommended Damigo read My Awakening by former KKK leader David Duke. This in turn led him to more serious sociological works like Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society and esoteric white nationalist texts like Guillaume Faye’s Why We Fight: Manifesto of the European Resistance. “From there,” Damigo said, “I think the rest is history.”
Damigo’s activism started after he was released in 2014. He became enamored with the French nativist movement Bloc Identitaire, whose so-called identitarian ideology aims to extend the insights of identity politics to white people in order to preserve and promote “white” culture. Identitarianism was a far-right, anti-immigration movement, but it was influenced in part by socialist ideas. It opposed “imperialism, whether it be American or Islamic.” But most of all Damigo was impressed by the movement’s “professionalism” in advocating for the “interests” of white Europeans. “They have mastered this branding, this aesthetic. They’ve really done an amazing job with it.”
Around the same time, Damigo came across YouTube videos by a man named Angelo Gage, another white nationalist Iraq veteran who has struggled with severe PTSD. Damigo commented on Gage’s videos and the two struck up a friendship online. Damigo eventually assisted Gage in founding the National Youth Front (NYF), a youth-oriented offshoot of the white nationalist American Freedom Party. The NYF’s main tactic was to wage provocative, media-courting campaigns against college instructors. “A lot of what we were going after were…professors…teaching these cultural Marxist, anti-white theories like white privilege theory and critical race theory, who were publicly making anti-white statements on social media.” They posted flyers on campuses with professors’ pictures, branded with the term “anti-white.” At Arizona State University NYF members pressured administrators to discontinue a class called “U.S. Race Theory and the Problem of Whiteness.” Damigo seems to see no contradiction between his claim to defend free speech and his efforts to silence a professor. “I’m pretty big on freedom of speech obviously…but right now in the school system what they have is really just indoctrination…We had an issue with that.”
When another organization named Youthfront threatened to sue NYF for using its name, NYF fell apart. Damigo saw it as an opportunity. He had wanted NYF to be more overtly “pro-white.” At the same time, a broader, loosely knit movement was forming called the alt-right, which mostly existed on the internet. Damigo thought it was “the next natural step to take this decentralized internet-based movement into the real world. We’re trying to create a fraternity and brotherhood for people who have awakened and who see the world in a different light. We want to get the normies’ attention.”
Identity Evropa, formed in 2016, is an exclusive organization with a stringent interview process for membership. “We want people who represent us with their presence,” Damigo said. The organization tries to challenge stereotypes about white nationalism, which is part of its seduction. There are no skinheads or white hoods or swastikas. Its members wear suits and focus on debate and rhetorical strategy. Its main focus over the past year has been branding. Members hang posters and put stickers around campuses and busy downtown areas, trying to build name recognition and “bring attention to the concept of becoming racialized.”
The biggest obstacle to getting that attention, according to Damigo, is restrictions imposed by online platforms. Google began cracking down on alt-right YouTube accounts after companies threatened to pull advertisements. White nationalists, in turn, have migrated en masse to Twitter, where they are relatively unrestricted. Damigo says when he joined Twitter a couple years ago, there were “perhaps only 20 pro-white accounts and I just watched it blossom over the last couple years.”
“We are exponentially growing right now,” Damigo said. “Next semester, [Identity Evropa is] going to have much more of a face [than] we’ve had over the last semester. We’re going to be going to schools, setting up tables. Our members are going to be out there talking to students.”
At the rally in Berkeley, an argument has erupted. A black woman is yelling at a group of white men on the right-wing side. “You’re racist!” she shouts.
“She’s pulling the black card,” someone mutters.
“You’re racist!” she repeats.
“Fuck Donald Trump!” a Latino man standing next to her shouts.
Damigo is off standing at a distance by himself, aloof. One of the white men goes and finds a black woman with a Trump shirt and brings her back to argue.
I later ask Damigo what he thinks about the fact that there are people of color at the rally on his side. “I’m fine with it,” he says. “It’s not the same movement, but this is a big tent coalition.” He says he is okay making strategic alliances with everyone on the far right, even if they aren’t white, united by shared issues like pressuring Trump to build a border wall or end the amnesty program for illegal immigrants. But none of this, he makes clear, amounts to a belief in racial equality. “No one’s really equal to anyone else in a biological sense,” he says.
“We have a right to preserve our heritage,” he adds. “And part of that requires having a nation and having a country where we can preserve ourselves.” He recognizes that a whites-only ethnostate is a “utopian idea”—or a dystopian one, to everyone else—that will take many steps to achieve. For now, he’s content to focus on “racializing” white people and stopping immigration. “It’s not a human right to live in a white country,” he tells me, “or live next to white people.”
Two white women in Trump t-shirts stand by politely as we talk. When Damigo looks over, one mouths, “I support you.” She holds her phone forward, asking for a picture. Damigo excuses himself from me. The woman thanks him for punching Emily Rose Marshall. They take a selfie together. Damigo smiles wide.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Brittany Pettibone as a writer for AltRight.com