[Content Warning: Transphobia]
Peter Cytanovic, the Charlottesville protestor whose face of fury became a global symbol of alt-right violence and racism, isn’t sorry. Not yet. Nine months after enrolling for a master’s degree at LSE, Cyatanovic – after numerous requests – agreed to an interview with The Beaver. His recent silence toward media outlets is perhaps reasonable – maybe even justified – but it hasn’t aided the narrative of recovery he is keen to stress.
Now, in a wide-ranging conversation, Cytanovic discusses the Charlottesville rally in depth for the first time. He also describes his experiences at a university which did not take kindly to his enrolment, but one to which he eventually acclimatised. (He does not discuss politics with his friends at the School.)
Cytanovic says he now believes that white privilege exists. He calls himself a feminist. But he refuses to apologise for what drove him to the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in north Virginia, two thousand miles from his college in Nevada. In some moments he speaks about Charlottesville with a seeming nostalgia, at other times with deep regret. When challenged, he leans on the same right-wing talking points that drove him to the fatal rally.
We began by discussing his experience of LSE and London, so far, before talking about Charlottesville and politics more broadly.
Additional reporting and questions by Melissa Au
The Beaver (TB): Did you have any problems with teachers or students when you first arrived at LSE?
Peter Cytanovic (PC): All the teachers understood that I wanted to just restart. They were completely willing to ignore it and understand that it could be a touchy issue. The teachers I spoke to about this were very accepting of the fact I wanted to restart.
TB: What about students?
PC: Not at the beginning, but when everything blew up [the student body discovering his enrolment], things got pretty bad. I’d get funny looks and people would leave the room when I entered, or move away from me. I tested out to see if this guy was moving away from me and he was, so eventually I just stayed in the same place. And I’ve had tampons thrown at me.
PC: I think I’ve been followed by one student around school, too.
TB: Did you ever get into any ugly class debates, where people tried to get something out of you?
PC: Oh, I avoided [class discussions] like the plague. I’d stay absolutely silent. I only said something when I felt I really needed to. When I felt the topic was potentially related to me, I’d stay totally quiet. When things did feel like they became to do with me, those segments of the class discussion ended pretty quickly.
TB: Teachers were helping you out by changing the subject.
PC: Yeah. And some students would ask me ‘Are you a Nazi?’, and when I’d say ‘No’ they’d accept that and we could move on from there.
TB: What sort of help did you get from LSE?
PC: There were contacts available but I never felt I needed to use them. I had security, I had professors I could call on the phone immediately if I felt threatened. I’ve had these experiences before, but LSE certainly wasn’t the worst. I knew that [harrassment] wasn’t going to work. Following me around for five minutes isn’t going to change me.
TB: Why did you feel you had to suppress your own opinions?
PC: I don’t know what my opinion is. I know that’s a cheap answer. In February 2018, I decided to just take a step back and re-learn everything I knew. Obviously I’d made some bad decisions with Charlottesville, so I decided to learn why as best as I could. I dove into stuff I wouldn’t normally read, like feminist literature by Anne Phillips in the Political Theory department [where Cytanovic is completing an MSc]. I made the conscious decision to explore and re-evaluate my own biases.
TB: What do you want to do after graduating?
PC: I want to get a PhD. I’ve wanted to be an academic for years. I guess my academic intentions are to build on my experience and try to understand what happened in the political sphere to get me where I was. I want to give an opinion that others probably don’t have; I highly doubt there’s anyone at the LSE who’d even consider [attending a far-right rally].
TB: There seems to be a paradox, there: on the one hand you want to re-evaluate your biases, and on the other you want to teach people the new perspective you’ve gained. To put it differently, should everyone join a white nationalist group in order to become more intellectually aware?
PC: I think they’re missing something about the anxieties driving the populist movement. Academia can have an ivory tower view of all this. But I know these anxieties, I’ve had these conversations and I understand what drives people to these groups. I’m pretty sure if you tried to relate to them, you couldn’t.
TB: Why not?
PC: I don’t think you could pull off those same authentic pains that we had.
TB: What sort of pains?
PC: I guess the most common one – the reason I went to Charlottesville – was the Confederate statues, this love of culture being … destroyed.
TB: That brought you pain.
PC: Yeah. I really did care about those statues. And I suppose you don’t.
PC: It’s just an issue from across the sea.
TB: Well it’s not so much that we don’t care about them, but we don’t feel emotionally attached to historical figures we consider racist. Or slaveholders.
PC: Lee didn’t hold slaves.
TB: Okay. [Robert E. Lee did in fact own slaves].
PC: I guess my opinion – what you could call a far-right opinion, though I think as a term it’s far too broad – does contribute to a more objective discussion.
TB: So you now consider your political beliefs to be something not worth associating yourself with, at least publicly.
PC: I’ve had the chance to come back and ask myself why I did what I did. But I don’t believe that all the concerns are wrong. It’s expressed very unhealthily, but dismissing those views as “evil white supremacists” and “everything you say is irrelevant” isn’t useful.
TB: What is the political theory argument in favour of keeping up monuments that millions associate with historical and ongoing racism?
PC: From my understanding, millions of people don’t see it as racism. There’s multi-truths, and all are objective. With the internet you can see there’s hundreds of thousands of opinions and you can just pick one to solidify your view. I’ve got friends from the South whose families have been there for four hundred years, and they fought while not being slaveholders. Robert E. Lee is a good example: he didn’t fight for slavery, even though his state seceded for slavery. I don’t think you should condemn all those 300,000 who died.
TB: Removing the statues isn’t so much about condemning the dead but reversing the symbolism of marking a racist cause. Isn’t it similar to if there were a statue to Rommel in Germany today?
PC: I believe that’s a false equivalence. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, there’s a statue called Silent Sam put up in the 1920s to commemorate the students of the university there who fought and died. To say that all of the statues are to celebrate white supremacy is to ignore all the pains of the people who fought for their homes. [Upon further research, The Beaver discovered that Silent Sam is broadly thought to have racist connotations.]
And to say that the North fought to free the slaves is obviously a myth. Lincoln only fought the war to contain the slaves and stop them going out West to sleep with white women. He wanted to ship black people back to Africa. [This is also a mistruth: Lincoln’s position evolved toward abolitionism throughout the 1860s.]
TB: If you were alive during the Civil War, would you support the South?
PC: No, I’d definitely be a Unionist. But I don’t care about the Civil War, I don’t care about the statues anymore. I just came here to learn political theory and how I can help in 2019. I don’t care about the past anymore.
TB: When did this change happen? Was it the physical distance that made you realise you were wrong, or do you feel you’ve grown as a person?
PC: I wasn’t wrong on everything. I was wrong in the way I expressed it. I was never a neo-Nazi, and I didn’t understand what being a white nationalist was when I said I was one.
TB: You said black people should live separately from white people.
PC: No, I didn’t.
TB: In your Channel 2 News interview, you stated that position. You also admitted to joining in with the chant “One People, One Nation, End Immigration”.
PC: I guess I stand corrected. In that sense, I do apologise for that. I think that the immigration debate could be discussed again, but I won’t take a stance. I’m not interested in politics anymore. As far as the white nationalist thing goes, I didn’t understand what I thought it was. Overall, my reasons for going to the rally I will not apologise for. I’m not a Nazi; I never have been. There’s no excuse, but it was a group mentality that really took control. But there’s no excuse. I shouldn’t have gone there. There was an authentic reason why I went that doesn’t involve me being a Nazi. I’m still thinking about that now. What was the question again?
TB: The original question was: When did you realise you were wrong?
PC: I hope I’ve answered that at least partially. To say “When I was wrong” kind of implies I was wrong about everything, and there are some things I don’t think I was wrong about.
TB: Do the Charlottesville marchers have any responsibility for the death of Heather Heyer?
PC: I think so.
TB: Including yourself?
PC: I caused hurt. There’s nothing I can do to change that now.
TB: But you said you don’t feel you have to apologise for why you went.
PC: The intentions, no. You know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I didn’t go to express hatred toward black people and Jews; I went for the statue. But it was expressed in the worst way possible. And for that I apologise.
TB: And the antisemitism just came out of it?
PC: I’m not an anti-Semite.
TB: I mean the antisemitism of the marchers.
PC: Yes. From my understanding, among the most extreme people there were some ‘legitimate’ Nazis. I was pretty uncomfortable around them. Of course that’s no excuse, because it spread to all of us. I don’t think it was the intention of all of us. But the blood was boiling. We were all ready.
TB: Ready for what? The march didn’t have to end in violence. I’m interested in where the hatred came from. Because the image of you is one of fury, isn’t it?
PC: Someone threw tampons at me. There’s anger there, too. It’s a different kind of anger. There wasn’t a happy attitude to us at Charlottesville. We were a more militant group. I’m not sure now but at the time there was a sense that we weren’t there to bring happy signs. We were there to be real about it.
TB: What does that mean, to be real about it? Can you see why that concerns me? Someone died as a consequence of the rally, because of this apparent obligation to ‘go through with’ whatever it was that you were there to do.
PC: I think the murder was obviously a tragedy. It was caused mainly by the right but also by the left. But I don’t understand your question, to be honest, so I don’t know how to answer it.
TB: You said that at Charlottesville you felt you had to “do” something, and not be happy-clappy about it. But the responsibility to do something ended in the death of a person. I’m interested in what you were looking for between those two things, if it exists.
PC: I don’t know what the best kind of protest is, but we also didn’t think that those happy protests worked. And we knew Antifa would be there, and they’re pretty insane. They were really looking for a fight as well. Trump said there were very fine people on both sides, and I agree with that because I see myself as one of those fine people.
TB: Was there any kind of discourse after the protest among those who attended? Were you shocked by what happened?
PC: Yeah. I called my sister that night because I was in a panic. I said, ‘Someone just died’. We thought it was three.
TB: It was three. Two police officers died in a helicopter crash.
PC: Oh yeah. But that wasn’t specifically because of the rally. How they crashed a helicopter, I don’t know how they did that … Anyway, I was thinking that I didn’t want anyone to die. There was a consensus that it was really horrible, but that the left started it.
TB: Of the guys who travelled with you, what are they up to now?
Most of them have left, I assume. I cut contact last December.
[Cytanovic explains that his roommate in Charlottesville, Andrew Dodson, committed suicide in April 2018. They attended church on the Sunday morning following the rally, speaking to Charlottesville residents and praying for those that died.]
TB: Do you remember the Channel 2 interview you did later in the day?
PC: Not really.
TB: You wore this polo shirt, with a ‘dragon’s eye’ symbol [associated with neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa]. Do you still own the shirt?
TB: Where is it?
PC: I threw it away.
TB: Did you know it was a neo-Nazi shirt when you bought it?
TB: Where did you get it?
PC: Online. From a store.
TB: How do you find a neo-Nazi shirt like that?
PC: On the site of Identity Evropa. You join the group and they have stuff you can buy.
TB: You’ve said you’re not a Nazi and never have been, but this is a group which has openly called itself neo-Nazi.
PC: I didn’t know they were Nazis. People throw around that word all the time. I see people calling Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, a neo-Nazi. From my point of view, they weren’t Nazis. But I knew they weren’t Nazis because they were like me.
TB: I understand the blurred lines in some of these definitions. But these groups literally call themselves Nazis and white supremacists. How do you account for that?
PC: I remember them saying that they were white nationalists, but not white supremacists. There was nothing I heard at the time that convinced me they were Nazis. Afterwards I realised they were.
TB: If someone were to ask you ‘Why are you a white nationalist?’, what would you say?
PC: I’m not.
TB: What about at the rally, when you thought you were a white nationalist?
TB: I guess I’m interested in finding out what it was about white nationalism that compelled you to fly 2,200 miles to Charlottesville?
PC: Was it really that far? Huh. I thought white nationalism at the time was American nationalism, being proud of our history without condemning. Without being an atomised individual, being part of a wider community. I’m ethnically American.
TB: Do you see any irony in calling yourself an ‘ethnic American’, as a white person?
PC: No. I’m white, but I’ve got no association with you. I’ve got no relationship with Europe. I’m white but I’m different: I’m American. For me that’s an ethnic identity, and it’s good and bad. America’s unique and it’s mine.
TB: Do you see black people as being part of that American identity?
PC: African-Americans, sure. Many of them have been here four hundred years, much longer than my family have.
TB: In that Channel 2 interview, again, you lamented threats against your family. You said “They’re not part of the alt-right – I am.” Are you still on the alt-right?
PC: No. No.
TB: Where do you place yourself politically?
PC: Well conservative politics isn’t authentic. It ignores a lot of issues that are beating down on a lot of Americans. People are making nine dollars an hour, they’re committing suicide. They can’t afford to start families. They can’t pay off their student debts.
TB: The Democrats seem to be talking a lot about that, especially in the primary campaign. What made you move to the extreme right?
PC: I’ve sort of retroactively defined myself as economically left and socially right. I’m a deep, deep Catholic. I’m very much pro-life. I just think fundamentally my way of life is what God has told me to do. I’m a socially conservative person, and my social conservatism comes before my economics. I don’t like the whole transgender thing. You’re born either a man or a woman. If you want to do that, go be weird somewhere else, go be happy somewhere else. If a man says ‘Oh, I’m a woman’, no you’re not. That’s a conservative thing. Most liberals give me weird looks when I say that.
TB: LSE’s code of conduct for its staff and students mentions trans inclusivity as a central pillar. Has fitting in to a liberal university in one of the world’s most liberal cities been hard for such a committed conservative as yourself?
PC: I love the cosmopolitan elements of the city. I don’t hate trans people. If that’s your thing, go do that. At the end of the day it’s a two-way street: I’m just the product of the teachings I’ve grown up with, and I can have a differing view of what I see to be the good life. If there’s a big Pride or LGBT event, I will respectfully go to the library or go elsewhere.
TB: Is there anything about Trump that offends you?
PC: I think he’s a dick. I think he’s a sexist. He’s on his third wife, so clearly he’s violated the sanctity of marriage . No one on this planet could get me registered to vote again. [Cytanovic voted for Trump in 2016]. Politics isn’t important to me anymore.
TB: Some former figures on the far-right are going on apology tours, to speak out against the ideas that radicalised them. Do you feel any responsibility to do the same?
PC: I was actually invited to an anti-racist event recently to fulfill that purpose, but I said no. I don’t think it’s a big [enough] part of my life. I’m now writing my thesis on how politics has become far too sterile, building on Hegel and others, and how populism is a new outlet for anti-technocratic radicalism. It can build on that universality that fights against how politics is so exclusionary. But it’s not due till December, so it’ll probably be completely different by then. Anyway, I’ve been telling people privately not to join these groups. Don’t associate, leave them alone. In terms of big public events it’s not what I’ll do, but I’ve been bashing on them in the private sphere since I got here.
TB: Did you need Charlottesville to happen to reflect on your own views?
PC: Without it, I wouldn’t have thought deeply about my politics, I wouldn’t have come to London, I wouldn’t be able to recognise that I’ve done really bad things. I’m not an anti-racist, I’m not an anti-fascist because that’s not who I am. But I’ve moved on in terms of Charlottesville and I’ve been able to reflect on everything. So I’m glad it happened; in that sense it was a godsend. I’m still the same person, but my thought process has changed.
TB: Like Saul on the road to Damascus.
PC: Not so biblical, but yeah. More ‘Stupid kid fucks up again.’
[This article was edited to add a content warning]