The case of a schoolteacher in Florida suggests a subversion strategy long advocated by alt-right leaders — but if it's happening, it's likely arising from the simple need for hate to hide its face.
There were warning signs, hints, that the children’s youngish schoolteacher was not everything she appeared to be. Or rather, as she explained it to the well-known white nationalist being interviewed as a guest on her weekly podcast out of Florida, she was much more than they suspected. But everyone looked the other way.
“I’m aware, even hyper-aware, that they are listening,” she said, describing her superiors at the middle school where she taught. “So I’m getting a little bit more underhanded about how I deal with it.”
“It” was her devout belief in racist white nationalism, which as she explained to her audience kept bubbling up in the classroom – when discussing current events in North Korea, or explaining historical events such as the Civil War, in which, she told her pupils, the bad guys actually won. It brought parental questioning, and the principal as well.
“I’ve had a couple instances where, you know, parents were concerned,” she explained on the podcast. “I had one at the beginning of this year who emailed the principal over my head, and basically told her, you know, I’m worried that your teacher is injecting political bias into her teaching.
“And the principal came to me and she was like, ‘I’m not worried. Should I be worried?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’ [Laughs.] And she believed me, and backed off, and I haven’t heard anything since.”
The teacher – 25-year-old Dayanna Volitich, an Ohio State graduate who taught social studies at Crystal River Middle School in Citrus County, and went by the nom de plume “Tiana Dalichov” on her podcast devoted to evangelizing white-nationalist ideology, titled “Unapologetic” – was exposed last week in a startling Huffington Post piece detailing Volitich’s activities both on the Internet (particularly on social media, where she was unambiguously racist) and in the classroom. School district officials promptly removed her from the classroom and suspended her until a hearing could be held.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story was how Volitich and her interviewee – Lana Lokteff, the notorious Holocaust-denying host at Red Ice, the white-nationalist propaganda outlet designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – described their strategy for infiltrating schools and other workplaces and acting covertly, without revealing their white-nationalist affiliations or beliefs to anyone else.
“We need more people who would be committed to being teachers,” said Lokteff. “They don’t have to be vocal about their views. But get in there, be more covert, and begin taking over those places. I mean, that’s what the left did. That’s what a lot of these Cultural Marxists and Frankfurt Schoolers did. … So if we could have more teachers in those positions, that would be great. And you know what, I do hear from teachers all the time, people that are closet Red Ice listeners that support what we do, and I think that’s fantastic. We need a lot more of that.”
“Well, I’m absolutely one of them,” responded “Dalichov” enthusiastically.
All of which left many people reading the story wondering: Just how many other schoolteachers like that are there? And might my kid be at risk?
Their concerns are not entirely groundless, and indeed the problem may be broader than most people realize – while, at the same time, it may just be occurring naturally as a result of the stigmatized nature of far-right ideology, rather than due to any kind of explicit or widespread strategy.
Lokteff and Red Ice are hardly alone in proposing what some white nationalists call the “secret agent” strategy: Maintaining their positions and jobs within mainstream workplaces – and not just in schools – while acting with plausible deniability on behalf of their racist beliefs.
They do so by paying “lip service” to normal standards of diversity and playing what Volitich called “the dog and pony show” when it came time to public proclamations – but then acting in every other regard as a white nationalist ideologue would: discriminating against minorities in their choices and actions, believing them to be innately inferior, presuming that liberals and Jews are conspiring to harm them, and so on.
The idea was first floated in 2010 by Greg Johnson, publisher of the unabashedly white-nationalist webzine/publishing house Counter Currents and one of the leaders of the suit-and-tie “respectable,” pseudo-academic faction of the radical right. Johnson, as it happens, has also appeared on Lokteff's program on multiple occasions.
“We need people who are plugged into the system and have a lot to lose,” he wrote. “But because of these very traits, they cannot afford to be explicit White Nationalists. Not yet, anyway. Nothing would be gained by these people losing their positions in the system by openly avowing White Nationalism in today’s climate.
“So what is to be done? We need to keep building our network until we become strong enough, and the system becomes weak enough, for open struggle to have a chance of success. Until then, most of us will have to remain publicly silent, sharing our views with only small circles of trusted friends.”
Johnson’s strategy surfaced recently in the Seattle press, when a reporter for the alt-weekly The Stranger managed to get into Johnson’s annual white-nationalist convocation, which had recently moved with Johnson from California’s Bay Area to the Puget Sound. The reporter, David Lewis, described how the gathering was populated almost entirely by young white men working in the software or technology world in some capacity – well-educated, privileged, and intent on maintaining it.
“Basically, white nationalists meet in secret at conventions like Northwest Forum while paying ‘lip service to diversity’ at their day jobs,” Lewis explained. “They move into positions of power where they can hire other racists and keep non-whites from getting into the company. Two years ago, this method would have seemed like a total joke, but these guys really do mostly work in tech, and they were doing a lot of networking.”
As Lewis noted, Johnson has written that the ranks of his “secret agents” include “college professors, writers, artists, designers, publishers, creative people working in the film industry, businessmen, and professionals, some of them quite prominent in their fields.”
The case of Volitich case makes clear that this is a real phenomenon, though it’s not at all clear at what level it’s occurring, and the extent to which it reflects a conscious strategy. Johnson claims that it occurs at an unidentifiable level within a number of white-collar professions, and the “insider” reports both from Lewis and from the New York Times in 2017 feature a number of anonymous professionals boasting about undertaking precisely the same deception in their own lives.
Volitich and Lokteff’s rhetoric suggests that it's also happening on a reflexive or instinctive level – often directly as a result of the social stigma attached to being identified as a member of the movement, rather than any identifiable ideology or radicalization process. There's no indication the Florida teacher subscribed to or read Counter Currents or was familiar with Johnson.
Predictably, Volitich denied being a racist ideologue secretly indoctrinating schoolchildren – even though she used her podcasts to describe precisely how she did that. She issued a statement claiming that the reportage on her activities didn’t "have any truth to them."
"The views 'Tiana Dalichov' espouses do not pervade my professional career," she said. "As an adult, my decisions are my own, and my family has nothing whatsoever to do with my social media accounts or my podcast. From them, I humbly ask for forgiveness, as it was never my intention to cause them grief while engaging in a hobby on my personal time."
In some quarters of the alt-right, they call this practice of intentional deception “white taqiyya” – the latter being Muslim practice of precautionary dissimulation in order to smooth over differences, which white nationalists unsurprisingly interpret as outright lying. So-called “Cultural Marxists,” they claim, insinuated their way atop American society with such practices, so they are justified in doing the same.
However, aside from such random cases as Volitich’s – or, just as recently, the radical anti-choice activist in Milwaukee who has boasted about indoctrinating students in his role as a part-time teacher – there’s little evidence that Johnson’s “secret agent” strategy is spreading beyond his immediate circle of influence in the tech world and the boasting of his immediate circle.
Keegan Hankes, an analyst who specializes in white nationalism and online radicalization for the SPLC, says he is “personally pretty skeptical” about how pervasive Johnson’s “secret agent” tactic has actually become; rather, he says, much of this behavior is natural for a widely stigmatized radical belief system.
“Seems to me that folks simply need jobs to support themselves and they also happen to participate in the hate movement,” Hankes says. “I do think that the idea of having two lives is ubiquitous in the hate movement. For instance, those who have programming skills are widely given a pass on public activism because of how valuable their skills are to the movement and the importance of them not losing their jobs.”
The problem isn’t that white nationalists subscribe to a radical belief system per se – rather, it’s that their beliefs encourage bigoted and sometimes violent behavior that are inappropriate for anyone involved in public service, particularly those with authority over others, and create a toxic work environment as well as poisoned relations with the public. The problem with people like Volitich isn’t their beliefs alone; it’s that the behavior and rhetoric these beliefs inevitably elicit just as inevitably infected her classroom and her students.
Nonetheless, employers will want to use their own judgment when it comes to questioning whether their employees – and particularly their managers, or people in positions of authority – are hiding their participation in a hate group. Hankes says those employers who develop suspicions, or have concerns brought to their attention, “would be most likely to find clues on employee’s personal social media pages. However, doxxing has become such a common outcome for participants in the hate movement that most are careful to keep everything sanitary. Folks are a lot more careful online than they once were.”
However, as Dayann Volitich discovered, the truth often has a way of eventually coming out.