It was the 57th straight night of protests in Portland, Oregon. Black Lives Matter protesters had been tear gassed and shot at by the Portland Police Department for almost as many nights: the George Floyd Uprising was well underway. Federal officers had arrived a few days earlier, escalating the already-terroristic violence the police had started. Mayor Ted Wheeler had come out to a rally outside the federal courthouse, to make a show of his displeasure with the feds. (The crowd, by and large, didn’t buy it.)
“If they launch the tear gas against you,” Wheeler had said, “they’re launching the tear gas against me!”1Mike Baker, “Federal Agents Envelop Portland Protest, and City’s Mayor, in Tear Gas.” The New York Times, July 23, 2020.
After the speeches died down, as if on schedule, the feds began tear gassing the crowd. An average night for many. Wheeler stayed and took the gassing. His presence was captured on camera by many, and broadcast by mainstream outlets like the New York Times. He attempted nonchalance as he coughed through his flimsy paper mask and choked down water on camera.
There were dozens of journalists and activists livestreaming the actions in Portland on any given night, and one got up close and personal with the mayor for a moment. This livestream captured the sounds of one man scolding the passive mayor, who wore his medical mask over his mouth but not his nose.
As the camera pans to locate Wheeler, we hear a yell: “How do you like it, Ted?” The mayor doesn’t respond.
More aggressively, “you don’t like it?” Wheeler barely nods at the heckler.
The speaker finishes his short excoriation definitively: “Maybe it shouldn’t be done in your city streets!” A few hours later, after Wheeler (who’s also the police commissioner) left, Portland police declared the protest a riot and gassed those who stayed.
As one tweet described it, the interaction was “an absolutely magnificent shouty Dad Lecture about said gas.” In the livestream, the speaker’s usually distinctive voice was heavily muffled by his gas mask, but his signature dry understatement was recognizable. It was Robert Evans, a Portland-based reporter, podcaster, comedian, and machete enthusiast.
Evans is a tall, broad-shouldered man in his early thirties with a full beard and a thick mop of brown hair. His outfits, in live appearances and rare online photos, have an “I just threw this together” vibe: an oversized t-shirt under a suit jacket, or pants tucked into large hiking boots. He has a snake tattoo on his upper left arm that prompts his friend, L.A.-based comedian Jamie Loftus, to poke fun at his “snake tattoo energy.”
Another tattoo, on his left forearm, shows a fasces being smashed to bits. The fasces is an image of an axe in the midst of a bundle of rods; it’s an ancient symbol that’s been adopted by many cultures and movements, including Hiter’s and Mussolini’s fascist movements (hence the word fascism).
In the official photograph on his podcast website, he sports a haircut with a middle part that looks oddly monastic, but his lifestyle seems equal parts ascetic and hedonist. He distance-runs barefoot, 10 miles a day on average, he estimates. When I reached him by phone in November 2019, it was evening in The Hague, where he was attending a symposium for citizen journalists. He’d just started drinking.
“Oh, I almost never go 24 hours sober,” he said.
Evans’ body of work is prolific and unexpectedly varied. He worked for years as a sort of gonzo journalist, writing about (and participating in) drug cultures and traveling to conflict zones for the online publication Cracked. He’s perhaps most well known for his podcast Behind the Bastards, where he profiles “the worst people in all of history.” He raised his profile as a documentarian with podcasts, The Women’s War and Uprising: A Guide from Portland. He’s investigated right-wing radicalization online for publications like Bellingcat and increasingly makes appearances on mainstream and alt-media platforms alike to explain the police riots in Portland. And his speculative fiction mini-series, It Could Happen Here, and novel After the Revolution, about a hypothetical second American civil war and societal collapse, seem more prescient than ever after 2020.
During the national uprising following George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police in 2020, Evans was out in the streets nearly every night, suited head to toe in body armor and a thick helmet emblazoned with the somewhat crudely painted word “PRESS.” He and fellow local journalists formed a core group that frequently documented some of the worst attacks by police and federal agents as mainstream media glossed over them. When one Washington Post article claimed there was no violence after the feds left Portland, Evans livestreamed from the streets late into the night to show that despite the feds leaving, the Portland Police Department were as violent and offensive as ever.2Adam Taylor, “Portland protesters have almost no interaction with state police as thousands gather downtown.” The Washington Post, August 1, 2020.“Portland sheriffs just assaulted a crowd- slashing tires, macing and beating people, many of whom they did not even attempt to arrest,” he tweeted.
His coverage also showcased his tendency to deal with traumatic situations with humor. Before one summer night in Portland, Evans tweeted, “It is a day that ends in Y, so of course I am headed out to get shot at by federal troops.” His throwaway comment about a fence surrounding the Portland Justice Center that police seemed overly eager to defend from even the slightest touch even became a meme – the Sacred Fence. This kind of commentary further endears him to his audience. As one Evans fan tweeted, “Watching Robert Evans @IwriteOK livestream last night had me dying at how the most 2020 thing you can say is; ‘I haven’t been tear gassed this badly in DAYS!’”
Evans became a fixture of not only the Portland antifascist scene but the press corps too, blending the two identities into a new one: an antifascist journalist, who questions the police and the authorities as a starting point, not as an afterthought. Fueled by the disintegrating political situation and the collapsing landscape of traditional journalism, a vibrant network of crowdfunded antifascist media figures and outlets has grown over the past few years. Evans is perhaps the most well-known example of this kind of left-wing journalist: heavy on digital investigations and guerilla reportage from the streets, and dedicated to opposing the rise of fascist movements by any means necessary. Evans is an open antifascist, but he doesn’t hold signs, yell at police, or start fires – he livestreams, investigates, records, and writes. This is how he fights back.
Evans grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. He doesn’t remember his time in his hometown of Idabel, Oklahoma – population ~7,000 – fondly. “It’s a shit little town… No one’s heard of it and you don’t want to hear of it, it’s not a good place,” he told me. “Don’t go to Idabel.”
Evans’ parents pursued their vision of the American dream, first opening a pizza shop, then a donut shop. Or as Evans put it, “My parents were failing at a series of small businesses and going bankrupt… both failed miserably.”
His parents idolized figures in the Religious Right like Pat Buchanan and Ronald Reagan. The family attended church regularly, filling out their social circle in that environment. Evans doesn’t think his parents were particularly religious, but conservative Christianity was simply the water he swam in for 18 years.
Evans naturally parroted the conservative views of his parents. And he spent much of his teenhood “Extremely Online” as a regular in the Something Awful forums. Something Awful is a comedy website featuring blogs and forums that’s been a breeding ground for internet culture since its inception in 1999. Evans credits Something Awful’s moderation policies with keeping its most toxic members at bay; the website was touted as “a bastion against crazy right-wing internet trash” for this reason.But those very moderation practices were why a fed-up teenager created 4chan in 2003. 4chan is a messageboard site that has perhaps done more to fester and spread online right-wing radicalization than any other – save 8chan, which, like 4chan, was created to buck content moderation. 8chan eventually became the favorite internet spot for white nationalists and other extremists. Some of the internet’s most toxic events bubbled up from 8chan: Gamergate, increased doxxing and swatting, and the Qanon conspiracy theory.
Evans feels that his participation in internet forums like Something Awful as a teen gives him first-hand experience with how radicalization develops online.
“I understand those communities and how they function, the flow of them. So that’s part of why I feel called to write about it,” he told me. “These [online] places that I grew up in were, you know, strange and a little deranged, certainly – but not evil. How shades of them that are evil have risen up very much concerns me.”
These online environments – Internet forums full of bored teenage boys looking for some kind of life cause – are prime targets for white nationalists looking to organize a decentralized army. The process of online radicalization that turns run-of-the-mill Fox News-watching conservatives into full-blown fascists has intensified over the last decade. While 4chan and 8chan have harbored and fostered most of the posting that leads to extreme violence, Facebook and YouTube have also played a significant role in normalizing extremist ideas to everyday conservatives or libertarians. Facebook and YouTube’s algorithms are built to keep you on the site for as long as possible. They create a feedback loop to lead you to more incendiary content you can’t help but share (Facebook), or longer and more fringe videos to keep you watching (YouTube)3Woody Harrington, “The New Radicalization of the Internet”. The New York Times, November 24, 2018.. The feedback loop reinforces content that you’ve shown you engaged with, so you are clicking into more and more fringe ideas. Researchers have dubbed this the alt-right pipeline to describe the way people are funneled from certain communities into extremist ideas.4 Manoel Horta Ribeiro, Raphael Ottoni, Robert West, Virgílio A. F. Almeida, and Wagner Meira. “Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube”. FAT* ’20: Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency(January 2020): Pages 131–141.
There are many entry points online into the alt-right, like the “intellectual dark web,” anti-feminist atheism, video gaming communities, the men’s rights movement, and flat-earth conspiracy theories. Many of these communities are already rooted in traditionalist notions that are resistant to social change and a love of hierarchy that takes it as a natural and self-justifying feature of human existence. This makes them ripe for an ideology that confirms a “biological” hierarchy of humanity – like white nationalism.
But what we now know as the alt-right pipeline hadn’t quite solidified by the time Evans graduated high school and left the forums.“ If I’d been five or six years younger, it’s hard to say how things would’ve been different for me. But I don’t feel like I narrowly avoided becoming a Nazi. I just feel like I narrowly avoided becoming a Republican,” Evans said to me.
Instead, Evans became a libertarian. Growing up in Texas, he’d been immersed in gun culture and, as he reached high school, drug subcultures. For a while as a teen, he experienced these interests through the lens of his conservative upbringing. Blowing shit up and getting high was freedom, and laws infringing on his ability to do that were decidedly not.
But when he left Plano, Texas and went to college for a few semesters, he finally met people who hadn’t grown up like him, people who weren’t white. His favorite professor was from Aleppo, Syria, and getting to know him forced Evans to finally question what he believed about Islam and Muslims his whole life.
He began to realize that his love of wacky weapons and illicit substances was incompatible with the conservative vision of personal freedom. His openness to mind-altering substances and curiosity about people who were different from him helped drive him further away from the authoritarian beliefs that conservative libertarianism actually contains. While the right tends to wear a libertarian aesthetic while pushing authoritarian policies, Evans realized that the real essence of personal liberty is choosing for oneself while not harming other people – and that means we have responsibilities to each other.
“It’s bad to hurt people. It’s bad to reduce their freedom to express themselves and to live and seek happiness,” he summed it up to me. “If what you’re doing reduces the ability of human beings to find satisfaction in life, you’re probably being a piece of shit.”
But one experience in particular sparked Evans’ transformation from anti-authoritarian libertarian to full-out leftist. He was 19 when he read King Leopold’s Ghost, a pop history book that details the atrocities the Kingdom of Belgium inflicted on the Congo in the late 19th century, “this historical crime that was very different from but on the same scale in terms of loss of life as the Holocaust,” he described it. It infuriated Evans that he had never learned of the exploitation and genocide of the Congo.
“There’s this whole history that I was sort of raised not being taught and I’ve come to understand that it’s really critical for understanding the modern era,” he told me.
His podcast Behind the Bastards reflects this frustration and attempts to expand the historical record by delving into the harms of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism that American history education glosses over. (King Leopold became the ninth “bastard” Evans profiled on Behind the Bastards.)
It’s a way of fighting the propaganda he was fed in his youth, as most of us were – like Manifest Destiny, so-called Judeo-Christian values, the uncritical dismissal of the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and the genocide of indigenous peoples, and American exceptionalism. Texas is particularly notorious for its revisionist conservative curricula, but Evans believes every American was “criminally undereducated as a child.”
“Realizing that brought with it a deep well of anger and an urge to help people become better informed,” he told me.
Behind the Bastards is “a show about the worst people in all of history” – and it’s a comedy podcast. Evans researches and writes a many-thousands-of-words script about a historical subject then reads it to an unsuspecting guest. His targets when the show launched in 2018 were initially those you’d expect: like Stalin, Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Harvey Weinstien, and L. Ron Hubbard. But notably for a show of its mass reach, rich capitalists (like Charles Koch), US-friendly authoritarian dictators (like Rodrigo Duterte), the originators of conspiracy theories, and even American policing itself became targets too. Evans especially loves grifters and exposing how many societal structures we take for granted today are simply the product of one person’s desire to get rich quick – like “The Goat Testicle Implanting Doctor Who Invented Talk Radio.” To Evans, history is a series of few heroes and many bastards.
What sets the show apart from other chatty history podcasts is Evans himself. He usually opens an episode by shouting a version of “what’s blank-ing, my blanks?!” based on the bastard of the week: “whaaaat’s committin’, my war crimes?!” to introduce Bashar Al-Assad, for example. He reads his scripts with audible glee, shocking his guests as he leads them through winding narratives of horrors. And he leans really, really hard into absurd bits, like giving free advertising to Doritos or Mexican drug cartels instead of his real sponsors, throwing around whatever foodstuffs are lying around the recording studio (pre-COVID), or taunting the FDA to raid his hypothetical cult compound in the mountains, a la Ruby Ridge or Waco (all to his producer Sophie Lichterman’s exasperation). Conversations with guests frequently devolve into off-color tangents:
EVANS: “Carolina, you wanna talk about Hitler’s farts a little bit? Hitler had a horrible fart problem – ”
GUEST: “ – like Trump’s shit problem… he wears a diaper –
EVANS: “ALLEGEDLY. ALLEGEDLY. Lots of rad people shit their pants and don’t do the bad things … most babies do not attempt to stop the immigration visas of interpreters and ban immigration.”
GUEST: “it would be very hard for a baby to do either of those things.”
EVANS: “Yeah even if you were to invest a baby with the powers of the presidency and change the Constitution to allow a baby to serve a baby would have a very difficult time pushing either of those through…”
GUEST: “I think this is the next installment of Boss Baby.”
EVANS: “Boss Baby, he’s unknowingly the figurehead of a fascist movement”
This blend of history, politics, social critique and preposterous humor is an oddly effective concoction that not only makes the show memorable, but allows Evans to advocate for his anarchist ideals in an unexpected way. He’s not shy about expounding his views on personal freedom by telling people to take drugs, shoot guns, and do crimes (HYPOTHETICALLY, as producer Lichterman will hastily interject), but by couching these views in jokes, he endears himself to fans. People literally make art based on the show’s running jokes.
Take his views on guns and being armed. To this day, he owns a “small arsenal” of guns and other weapons – mostly because they’re fun. But his frequent references to weapons and explosives, tangents about gun history and proper use, and critiques of right-wing gun culture on the show have done a lot to popularize a left-wing gun culture of community defense characterized by groups like the Socialist Rifle Association and the John Brown Gun Club. “You should buy a gun. You should start a garden. You should learn what medicinal and edible plants grow in your area. You should learn how to fight,” he once tweeted.
Behind the Bastards fans on Reddit havetalked about how listening to the show has helped them become more leftist:
I don’t know if it was everything that happened in the last few years while I coincidentally [sic] was listening to RE podcasts, but I’m full on anarchist now.
The episodes of Behind the Bastards [sic] about the coal wars and the battle of Blair mountain are when I realized that I had gone from progressive liberal to leftist… I wouldn’t say that it was entirely Robert Evans that was responsible, but he was definitely part of it.
Always been a filthy lib, but Evan’s moved me on the gun debate to be less anti gun.
Definitely speed [sic] up the process of me moving left. I was like maybe slightly left of center by 2016. Trump’s presidency drove me a lot more left. And BTB really helped bridge the gap into anarchism.
He jokes that his goal is to radicalize people via podcasts, but I definitely wasn’t calling myself an anarchist before, and I am now, so I guess it’s working.
Others said they’d come to understand anarchism and see it as a viable political path as a result of Evans’ shows. Multiple people also noted their growing interest with the idea of arming themselves, even as they abhor violence. Many seemed to recognize an increasing resoluteness, even militancy, to their leftist politics and morals. By embedding them in Behind the Bastards’ absurdist humor, Evans has helped normalize and popularize radical anti-authoritarian ideas – like “maybe leaders are a bad idea,” “borders are fundamentally toxic,” and “buy bolt-cutters.”
Evans developed his knack for employing humor to explore difficult ideas and dark topics during his decade as a writer for Cracked, a comedy website in the vein of Mad Magazine. He pioneered the Personal Experiences feature of the website inthe 2010s and wrote there for a decade. Despite the feature’s name, Evans and his team considered these articles journalism, not just storytelling. The writers delved into topics you wouldn’t expect lend themselves very well to jokes, like sex slavery, PTSD, and honor killings.
“I think a very important component of good humor is compassion,” Evans told Forbes in a 2015 interview. “I think that’s also an important part of telling somebody’s story, and of journalism.”
One of these stories drove Evans to Slab City, an off-the-grid community in the Sonoran desert that’s home to many squatters, transient people, artists, and people dealing with drug addiction.
“It’s a weird place that has a lot of unstable people,” said David Bell, Evans’ coworker who accompanied him on the reporting trip. “But [Evans is] the kind of guy who’d see a guy who’s clearly on meth, lighting something on fire, and he’d be like ‘oh, I’m gonna go talk to that guy’.”
Bell and Evans shared a house in L.A. for a few years. They were both working at Cracked – Evans was Bell’s boss – and Evans was working on his book about ancient drugs, A Brief History of Vice.
“He accidentally overdosed us all on marajuana,” Bell told me.
In an attempt to recreate an Indian recipe, Evans offered a full serving of a weed-laced milkshake to all of his housemates. But apparently, he didn’t account for the potency of Los Angeles weed versus the weaker Indian weed he’d first tried the recipe with.
“We were high for days,” Bell told me, laughing. “I can’t really tell you much about that night because I don’t remember it.”
Evans had to go to work at Cracked the next day, and as an editor, had to cover for his comatose coworkers.
“I lost the ability to speak or understand people and I was out like a light for days,” Bell said. “In retrospect it was one of the funniest goddam things to happen to us because of Robert.”
Bell isn’t the only person genuinely amused by Evans’s interest in substances. To this day, Cracked’s second-most popular YouTube video is “4 Awful Ways Our Ancestors Got High (That We Tested!),” with 8.1 million views. Evans’s coworkers are his guinea pigs as they ingest nose-smoking tobacco, ur-booze, coffee-ghee balls, and soma, a hallucinogenic drink referenced in the Hindu Vedas that Evans recreated for his book.
“Best case scenario is that we all get really high and it’s a bonding experience and we’re all united under the throbbing pulse of the universe,” he says in the video. “And the worst case scenario is we all spend four to six hours vomiting.”
After reading his coworkers a poetic description from the Vedas of how the high is supposed to feel (“men feel the god within their veins”), it’s bottoms-up. A few hours into the trip, Evans explains to viewers, “The reason I did this is because I’ve had very powerful, positive experiences with intoxicants over the course of my life. I think the reason we’ve been using these substances for so long is that when they’re used properly and responsibly they can benefit us in significant ways.”
One of his coworkers, Teresa Lee, has what appears to be the best trip of her life. She rapidly declaims how much good there is in people and how amazing the world is and how much she loves everyone and “oh my god I’m time traveling.” Evans stands calmly in the background, chin up and eyes closed, taking it all in.
But Evans’ beat at Cracked wasn’t all drugs and comedy.
“The first time I got taken seriously as a journalist was when I wrote that article on ISIS’s propaganda,” he told me.
That article is called “7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue Of ISIS’s Magazine”. Evans laid out how ISIS used magazines, Facebook, Telegram and Twitter to recruit and radicalize thousands; experts say that their methods were not unlike those of white nationalists in America.5Woody Harrington, “The New Radicalization of the Internet”. The New York Times, November 24, 2018.
“I spent a whole weekend reading through a thousand pages of ISIS propaganda,” he said. “Nobody else was willing to do that. I kind of learned that the best way to get taken seriously as a journalist is to figure out what needs to be done but nobody else wants to do, because it sucks, and then do it.”
Evans continued to write about ISIS and the Syrian Civil War for Cracked throughout 2015. Over the next few years, he traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to report on the Syrian Civil War and the war against ISIS. His parents had championed the war in Iraq when he was a kid, with no regard for the consequences, Evans believes. For a long time, he’d also believed it was the right thing to do.
“My conflict journalism is really a big part of realizing that – going to Iraq, Syria and understanding more of the roots of the conflicts of those countries and how tied they are to these strands of thought and this very toxic history,” he told me.
“Literally the entire guiding motive-force of my career and life,” he said, coalesced during the days he spent reporting in Mosul, Iraq. During 2016 and 2017, Iraqui, Kurdish, and international forces attempted to win the city back from ISIS. It was the world’s single largest military operation since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When they finally succeeded, Mosul was razed to the ground.
On an episode of Worst Year Ever, a podcast Evans co-hosts with Katy Stoll and Cody Johnston, Evans related the tactics he was seeing from federal forces in Portland in the summer of 2020 to what he saw in Mosul.
“When I went to Iraq and watched them level that city, watched the same kind of men who shot that kid from 30 feet away – those are the people who burnt Mosul to the fucking ground to drive ISIS out,” he said. (Evans is referring to the assault on Donovan LaBella by federal troops. The 26-year-old who was holding a boombox up near federal troops, who shot him in the skull with “non-lethal” bullets).6Noelle Crombie, “Donavan La Bella making ‘remarkable’ recovery from head injury after being shot by feds with impact munition, sister says.” The Oregonian, July 19, 2020.
“Ever since then, it has been my overriding goal to try to stop that from happening to other cities. And that’s the situation that we’re in right now.”
But while Mosul was the beginning of something, it also signaled the end of something else – Evans’ relationship with his parents.7At least for a while. In recent episodes of his shows, Evans has mentioned renewed contact with his family as his mother fell ill and passed away in 2021. In February of that year he said, “I am in Texas because my mom is dying of cancer”; in April he added, “I’m flying to Texas to see my mom for the last time.”
“I was stumbling through the ruins of a neighborhood that had been shattered by warheads and smelling the rotting corpses wafting up from beneath collapsed piles of masonry and then talking with my parents and realizing they just… didn’t give a shit,” he told me.“Just the lack of care about the consequences of what they voted for. This almost sociopathic disregard for the impact of their vote.”
Evans still sounded incredulous, years later. “That recognition that someone can be ‘nice’ and also be a willing accomplice to evil made it very difficult for me to continue to have a relationship with them,” he said.
Evans’ time in the Middle East also led to two podcast projects: It Could Happen Here, and The Women’s War. It Could Happen Here is a speculative fiction account of a second American civil war, rooted in Evans’ research on American Christo-fascism and right-wing radicalization networks as well as the insurgencies and civil conflicts he’s reported on in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine. Evans posits that the ingredients for a second civil war are brewing under the surface of American society. All it would take for them to boil over are anuprising like summer 2020’s, a crisis like the pandemic, or the president refusing to leave office. He released it in April 2019 but such speculation feels more real than ever after the events of 2020.
It Could Happen Here is mainly about societal collapse. The Women’s War is about what happens after.
Evans visited northern Syria again in mid-2019, after his podcast audience raised over $40,000 in a GoFundMe to pay for his international reporting. More specifically, he went to Rojava, an autonomous region in the northeast where the people established a new society out of the wreckage of the Syrian Civil War. Rojava attracted international attention during the war against ISIS for its all-women military units. But it’s also unique and significant for being an anti-capitalist, feminist and eco-conscious society inspired by the libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin and a Kurdish leftist militant named Abdullah Öcalan.
The Rojavan constitution enshrined women’s freedom and equality in all areas of life, environmental sustainability, the rights to employment, self-defense, healthcare, housing, and information. The people there organized a combination of co-ops, communes and councils in pursuit of decentralized governance in order to maximize every individual’s participation in democratic processes. Between two to four million people live there. Just a few months after Evans’ visit, Donald Trump pulled US troops from the area, allowing Turkey’s forces to attack and destabilize the region.
Evans traveled to Rojava with Jake Hanrahan, a British conflict journalist and documentarian. Hanrahan is best known for his media platform Popular Front, which he markets as “grassroots conflict journalism.” In one particularly memorable episode of The Women’s War, the men interviewed two women, Alia and Abbi, who left their fairly average lives in the Caribbean to become ISIS brides.
The five of them – two brides, two journalists, and one interpreter – sit alone in a small trailer in the midst of a massive refugee camp (”the size of Burning Man,” Evans remarks) called Al-Hol. It’s jarring to hear their Caribbean English accents while Evans describes their full niqabs in narration.
“The killing has come from both sides,” one woman says. She was nonchalant towards ISIS’s violence and refused to make a judgment on its morality. Ultimately, she didn’t think ISIS was all that extreme.
“Please note that an extremist may not be the best judge of what is and is not extreme,” Evans sidebars dryly in the narration.
Throughout the interview, the women’s audio frequently sounds much further from the microphones than Evans’ and Hanrahans’, as if illustrating the chasm between them and the worlds they now inhabit. But tension in the small trailer rises as the journalists and their interpreter, Khabat Abbas, press the women on the genocide and enslavement of the Yazidi people.
“You know, I actually know two Yazidi women,” says Alia. “They were slaves to a Bosnian guy.”
She continues, “She said she really loved her slavemaster.”
“I just want to say, it’s weird to me – you’re a Black woman, Black women have been oppressed since the start of time, and you just justified slavery to me,” Hanrahan later responds. “Like, what’s going on?”
Alia backpedals, saying she doesn’t know that particular Yazidi woman’s history. But Hanrahan doesn’t let up – ”you don’t think there’s anything wrong with having slaves?” he presses. Evans and Hanrahan seem dumbfounded and infuriated that two Black women are defending slavery to them, two white men. But the women dismiss ISIS’s brutality with an argument favored by American extremists too – all countries are built on the bones of people who lived there before, so why does this genocide or that injustice matter?
“The Islamic state wasn’t just setting up a new country in an empty area,” Evans said.
“The house you lived in, someone was chased out of it,” Hanrahan adds.
“Does that seem wrong?” Evans asks. Alia sighs, searching for an answer.
“That’s something that has happened since the history of time immemorial,” she finally responds.
“Do you not think that cycle can be broken and we can make better societies?” Evans counters.
Evans marveled at Alia and Abbi’s radicalization, even as his time in Rojava solidified his own. But where the ISIS brides’ radicalization enabled them to dehumanize their neighbors and whitewash brutality, Evans deepened his commitment to openly fight against authoritarianism and for radical democracy. While the caliphate of ISIS represented the nadir of a human cycle, Rojava manifested the “essence of utopia,” for Evans: people taking direct physical actions to improve material circumstances for themselves and their neighbors, which further empowered individual self-determination.
The Women’s War reveals the difficulty of building a society truly based on human rights and a commitment to peace and justice while wrestling with what justice really looks like when you have unrepentant extremists in your midst and hostile international powers on your doorstep.It’s “the story of an idealistic dream that had the unlikely chance to flower in the dry flame-wracked planes of northeast Syria,” as Evans introduces it.Imperfect as it was, Rojava left him with an “intoxicating sense of potential,” he later said.
By the time Evans settled himself more permanently in Portland, OR in the early Trump years, he’d begun to recognize parallels between the political environment here and those in the conflict zones he’d been covering. Americans aren’t used to viewing conflicts in the US the same way we view those of other countries. But Evans took the skills and mindset he developed as a reporter of foreign wars to the streets of his own city.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 totally destabilized the political establishment and unleashed a wave of racist, authoritarian attitudes in America. A syncretistic fascist movement composed of anti-feminists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederate white nationalists, religious traditionalists, and tech capitalists rode this wave to increased prominence, validated by their president. At 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, fascists chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and murdered an anti-fascist named Heather Heyer. Charlottesville marked the beginning of a new era of uprisings and street fights in cities and towns across the country, as a counter-movement of antifascists across the country emerged too. Ordinary people increasingly took direct action to combat and suppress open fascist organizing in their own towns.
Evans became a constant fixture at protests and street fights in Portland, where clashes between fascists and anti-fascists groups, already somewhat common, proliferated and intensified during the Trump presidency. His livestream videos of major antifascist actions circulated widely on social media. He painstakingly documented the events leading up to explosions of violence, analyzing social media posts, chat logs and livestream footage for Bellingcat, a citizen journalist collective that focuses on open-source information and social media to investigate stories.8Robert Evans, “In Portland, A Roving Right-Wing Gang “Demasks” Left-Wing Activists”. Bellingcat, February 19, 2019.
But it wasn’t until Evans published a breakdown of the Christchurch, New Zealand terrorist’s manifesto in March 2019 that his status as an “expert” in right-wing propaganda was cemented. He was frustrated by what he saw as bungled coverage of mass shootings and white nationalists by mainstream media that boosted and spread terrorist manifestos and ideology uncritically (for example, NPR’s chummy interview with Jason Kessler, who organized Unite the Right).9Robert Evans, “Shitposting, Inspirational Terrorism, and the Christchurch Mosque Massacre.” Bellingcat, March 15, 2019. His article for Bellingcat methodically distinguished the “shitposting” from the intentional propaganda in the manifesto.
Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder, said in an email, “His piece on the shooter’s manifesto being a trap for journalists, kind of one last sick in-joke for his 8chan-based peer group, seemed to do a lot to stop the mainstream media falling for that trap.”
At that point, both mainstream media and 8chan, the messageboard website where the shooter posted his violent intentions, took notice. ABC, CNN, NPR, the Columbia Journalism Review and other mainstream media outlets consulted Evans as an alt-right counterterrorism expert.10Emily Bell, “Terrorism bred online requires anticipatory, not reactionary coverage.” Columbia Journalism Review, March 20, 2019. After an interview Evans did with ABC Australia about the Christchurch shooting, 8chan users placed a 15 Bitcoin “bounty” on him – worth about $75,000 at the time – complete with a photoshopped picture of his head with a bloody bullethole in it.
That year he released the mini-series The War on Everyone (2019), a history of the American far-right, from neo-Nazis to the Christian Identity movement to militia groups and more. Evans recounts how a right wing terrorist group called The Order managed to heist about four million dollars in cash in1984 and used much of that funding to buy early computers and networking equipment to connect different white nationalists groups across America. They’ve been using the internet to disseminate and normalize their views and strengthen their movement as long as the internet has existed. In Evans’s mind, it’s not unlike the propaganda and radicalization approach that ISIS took. And events like Unite the Right, he said, are “the culmination of 30 years of really diligent work.”
“What I tell every journalist from a big station that talks to me that they never play, they never put it on the radio, they never put it on TV,” he said on an episode of Harmontown, “is this shit goes back further than the internet as they know it.”
When I asked Evans how he felt about the success of his career being directly tied to a rise in fascist terrorist violence, he said, “Yeah, it’s been great for my career!”
He said it sarcastically, but he’s not wrong: by 2019, Evans was building something like a podcast empire in earnest, churning out projects at a frankly ridiculous rate. He continued to put out Behind the Bastards and Worst Year Ever weekly while reporting documentary shows like The Women’s War and The War on Everyone.His recent documentary series Uprising: A Guide from Portland (2021) is a retrospective on the 100 days of uprising in Portland following George Floyd’s murder. It focused not just on the brutal police violence of the summer but the mutual aid structures that Portlanders built to take care of each other during it. He dove into speculative fiction with the audiobook After the Revolution (2021), a novel set twenty years after the US’s collapse, featuring three protagonists navigating the rise of a Christian dominionist state. He blended these genres with the second season of It Could Happen Here (2021),now a daily show touting itself as a “roadmap to survival” after what Evans thinks is an inevitable societal collapse – a show that, according to Evans, is “as much about hope as it is about collapse.” He finished off 2021 with the release of Assault on America, an investigative miniseries about the key players and online origins of the January 6th insurrection.
With Evans’s podcasts, local reporting and livestreams, and his national recognition, he’s been part of a rising trend of anti-fascist journalists – a decentralized group of people working outside legacy media, who not only act as watchdogs against their local white nationalist and fascist networks but also fill gaps left by failing newspapers. As guerilla journalists, they attend city council meetings, FOIA documents from their local police departments, and expose the corruption of local landlords, politicians and capitalists – the sorts of things a gumshoe reporter at a well-funded local paper would have done before venture capital hollowed the industry out. But they release their findings on Twitter and other social media, use crowdfunding to keep their efforts going, and gain an audience by magnifying each other’s investigations on social media.
In our era of proliferating disinformation and conspiracies on one hand, and blatant media support of capitalism and imperialism on another, antifascist journalists are a valuable and necessary alternative. Traditional media’s so-called objective reporting doesn’t want to dismantle harmful power structures, and therefore doesn’t try to illuminate and question them. Think of how network news and legacy papers covered the recent rise of open fascism, with profiles of the ‘fascist next door’ or pieces that treat them like creatures in an exhibit to be merely gawked at. Contrast that with how Evans and others, like Molly Conger, Emily Gorcenski, Vishal Singh, Shane Burley, Talia Jane and Talia Lavin (to name only a few), start from a clear position of anti-fascism and distrust of authority. Not only are they doing what you’d expect from antifa activists, like doxing Neo-Nazis, signal-boosting antifa actions, but they’re also getting quoted and consulted in local and national outlets, even publishing books. They’ve shone light on corruption and harm in their own communities and in doing so, attained a level of recognition and legitimacy in mainstream media as “real” journalists, not just activists or ideologues.
But lately, that hasn’t felt like enough to Evans. The rise of antifa journalism hasn’t stemmed the tide of fascism, and as more mainstream reporters and outlets have finally caught on to the threat, it seems as if the effect has no longer been to expose and damage fascists more, but to normalize them.
“I forget the guy who says that journalism is about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” he said.11Evans is referencing a quote from Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago journalist and humorist in the late 1800s. Pulitzer: “The humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it in the mouth of his alter-ego, the bartender and eternal critic Mr. Dooley: “Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.” “ “And what that means is if you are not dusting someone off or providing them with immediate aid, you should be hitting someone else in the fucking face—and I did feel for a while like I was hitting some some bad people in their face and I don’t anymore.”
Post-2020 has left Evans questioning what the impact of his work has actually been. He’s pulled back from the street reporting in Portland, the disinformation explainers for Bellingcat, and he’s re-focusing.
“I’m not doing that kind of journalism anymore because I just felt that I was no longer connecting in that way. I had lost the ability to be kinetic. So I think now, while I hope the folks who are still out there are able to land some punches, I’m looking for a way to provide comfort in an active and meaningful manner.”
The creation of Cool Zone Media in late 2021, a “progressive podcast network” with Evans and his shows at the head, marks that shift. The premise is that the collapse is inevitable—so how do we build a better future?
With the launch of Cool Zone, it’s also become clear that Evans has also become a public figure in a way that many others in this sphere of antifascist journalism haven’t. It’s difficult to describe what he’s built over the past few years without using the obnoxiously corporate phrase “personal brand.” But as obnoxious as it is, it’s also emblematic of the way we consume media today. Journalists basically need to be ‘content creators’ with fans, not simply readers and listeners. Fostering parasocial relationships becomes part of the content strategy, whether consciously or not. …, he’s solidifying his personal brand (ugh) as the chaotic-good, anti-authoritarian, bolt-cutter-wielding utoptian that you should listen to – and trust. But what does it mean when a guy who encapsulates his outlook on the world with the phrase, “maybe leaders are a bad idea” officially becomes a leader himself?
I’ve been following Evans’s work since I was a teen reading Cracked. I listen to one of his many podcasts nearly every day. I deeply related to him when he told me that he’s “motivated by morality” and fueled by a “deep well of anger” over the conservative propaganda he was immersed in as a child. I would even say his outlook on journalism influenced my own.
“I see journalism as a kind of activism,” he told me.
But I’ve also been discomfited by the level of influence this ‘figure’ of Robert Evans has had on leftist media and popular leftist thought. He’s become a celebrity, essentially, and while I haven’t seen evidence of anyone worshiping him or dogmatically defending everything he says, that’s a fear I have about radical figures and spaces. People gravitate towards charismatic individuals with confident answers.
In his work on radicalization, Evans pointed out that so many people drawn to fascist positions online see these views as providing them with an identity and their lives with a meaning. How do leftists know their movements won’t fulfill a similar function or create leader cults around their online celebrities? It’s worth asking: if leaders are a bad idea, then how does a culture actually make that radical ideal real, the way Evans seems to have found it real when he went to Rojava and found people helping their neighbors and reconstructing their wartorn society instead of blindly following authority?
ISIS brides and anarchists aren’t two sides of the same coin, but where is the line between a radical and a fundamentalist? We’re all human beings and all have the ability to twist our ideals to dehumanize each other. The potential for dogmatism is always there when you believe in something strongly. And leaders can use dogma to become masters.
In the same Reddit thread where Behind the Bastards listeners discussed how the show had helped them shift left, one Redditor wrestled with this too.
It really troubles me that I have become (more) radicalized by the likes of Robert. Like, am I really that immune to the Alex Joneses of the world if I can be convinced by some guy whose credibility to me comes from writing on a comedy website (that I don’t really remember in particular), who I never personally fact check? So yes, my politics have changed because of BtB [Behind the Bastards], and while I’m ok with my positions, I’m not really ok with how I got here.
So how do people resist the urge to put someone on a pedestal? Anarchists like Robert Evans actively argue against individuals having too much power and influence; to the extent they succeed in spreading their message, don’t they at least run the risk of building up power and influence over others? And if that’s so, can they even build the world they’re fighting for? Or are humans doomed to repeat a cycle that eventually lends itself to fascism?
Of course, Robert Evans has an answer for that. “One lesson we can take out of human prehistory, in terms of how we fight fascism, is that it’s not something we fight by voting for the right person,” he said in an episode of Behind the Bastards called “The Bastard Manifesto.” He used the episode to present biological, psychological and anthropological evidence on which he built his belief in the viability of an egalitarian, anti-authoritarian society. “Hierarchy – and authoritarianism itself – seem not like the natural order of things but more like a virus,” he said.
“It’s something we fight on a day-to-day basis in our daily lives, by fighting the fascists within our own self, by fighting those authoritarian impulses and urges that we all have because it’s coded into our brain. It’s a constant battle that starts at the bottom.”
Hierarchies and authoritarianism may be coded into human brains, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the natural order of things. If we coded them in, we can code them out.
“The fascism has been coming from inside your brain the whole time,” Evans said.
Mary Steffenhagen is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She has reported on education, disinformation, labor organizing and local activism for outlets such as Teen Vogue, Coda Story and Salon. She earned her masters in urban, investigative and audio journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in December 2021.