VDARE Publisher Lydia Brimelow and VDARE Editor Peter Brimelow

@vdare/Twitter Claire Goforth

‘The whole town has my back’: Anti-immigration power couple has big plans to shape U.S. laws—from their castle in West Virginia

'Of course we’re afraid of them.'

 

Claire Goforth

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Posted on Jan 15, 2024   Updated on Jan 18, 2024, 9:41 am CST

A pink balloon escaped a child’s hand and went sailing over trees tinged with the first yellows, oranges, and candy-apple reds of fall. A boisterous crowd mingled below, enjoying the annual Apple Butter Festival—a parade, bluegrass music, and giant vats of the thick, brown concoction for which the event is named.

High above, a stone fortress loomed over festival goers eating hand-cut potato chips smothered in melted cheese and queueing up to buy lottery tickets: Berkeley Castle. 

The nearly 140-year-old castle is on the National Register of Historic Places. The medieval-style structure is as stunning as it is out of place in this quiet Appalachian town.

Over the years, the Berkeley Castle has been a private residence, boys’ camp, event space, even aspiring “ghostbuster college,” as local author Jeanne Mozier wrote in The Story of Berkeley Castle: What’s True and What’s Not. The castle has inspired tales of ghosts, secret passageways, even a curse.

Today the castle has become a wedge in this town of fewer than 800 residents. Since 2020, the storied structure has been the official headquarters of VDARE, an anti-immigrant website that publishes white nationalists and is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). VDARE’s contributors range from popular conservative pundits like Ann Coulter to Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, whom it’s been publishing since before the deadly riot and through to present day. It’s seen as a bridge between the far-right and more mainstream Republicans. VDARE founder Peter Brimelow, himself an immigrant, insists that he is a “civic nationalist” who simply provides a forum to critique the nation’s immigration system.

Via email, Peter told the Daily Dot that he believes civic nationalism differs from white nationalism in that the latter “means supporting an ethnostate for whites.” He added, “I would define it more broadly as the defense of white interests in a multicultural society.”

He said he thinks both civic and white nationalism “are legitimate.”

Peter, his wife Lydia, who is the publisher of VDARE, and their family purportedly live in another building on the castle grounds. A lawsuit brought by New York, where VDARE is registered, suggests they use the castle as their primary residence. The Brimelows insist they do not.

VDARE relocated to Berkeley Springs as part of a nationwide movement of far-right figures and groups settling in areas where they feel they will be welcome. This trend is part of a larger pattern of ideological migration underway wherein citizens are moving to places where the politics align with their own.

Once settled in their new homes, far-right extremists are creating headquarters for their operations, recruiting members, and exerting influence on the community—with an eye toward the nation at large.

In 2022, Peter Brimelow wrote that they’d “disrupted” the “local left,” vowing, “Next stop, America.” Lydia recently opined that a “national divorce” may be inevitable, an idea that’s grown more popular in recent years, particularly among conservatives.

“Populations are moving around in a major way and it’s entirely feasible that the way forward will not have the same boundaries that the current situation has,” she said. “I think we should be open-minded about that.” Lydia added that she’d prefer a “peaceable” and “amicable” split, but said, “I think that’s a fantasy.”

Lydia was referring to the country splitting apart. 

“Up until VDARE came to our town, we were all neighbors,” Trey Johanson said. “And we could disagree and say, ‘Please pass the mashed potatoes.’”

The Daily Dot spent the last several months reporting from communities in Maine, Idaho, Florida, and West Virginia where far-right groups and influencers have relocated in recent years, exploring how it’s impacting the community. Each area is reacting differently to the extremist newcomers. One community in northern Maine has already chased out a neo-Nazi who’d hoped to create a white ethnostate there. For this series, the Daily Dot spoke with dozens of residents, consulted public records, historical documents, and interviewed experts on extremism.

Multiple residents agreed that powerful people in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which is in the county where I grew up, have welcomed VDARE and the Brimelows with open arms. Lydia recently boasted, “The whole town has my back.” There’s also a passionate resistance who views Brimelows and VDARE as an unwelcome force of hate and division.

VDARE has turned neighbor against neighbor and threatened the identity of the town, which formed the same year the nation’s founders penned the Declaration of Independence.

A town divided

Peter has long denied that either he or VDARE is white nationalist. Extremism experts say their statements indicate otherwise. At VDARE’s annual conference at Berkeley Castle, where he was introduced by conspiracy theorist Lauren Witzke, who has called COVID a “demonic” “bio-weapon” and tried to distance herself from her support of QAnon during a 2020 run for office, Peter claimed that the “great replacement”—the white nationalist theory that the white majority is intentionally being displaced by non-white immigration—is real, but white supremacy isn’t. 

As the SPLC notes in her extremist file, Lydia has called the theory one of the “fires we lit.” Lydia recently said, “My preference would be to avoid secession because I think the whole thing is ours, they can all leave.”

“Ours” seems to refer to the descendants of white settlers, not the indigenous people whose lands they took.

Via email, Lydia said, “‘They’ are the people who are destroying the monuments of my ancestors as prelude to their ultimate goal of destroying the Historic American Nation, of which I am a daughter. In my view, secession in this context is vandalism on a great civilization. The Historic American Nation carved this country out of nothing.”

Peter’s written that Hispanics “specialize in rape, especially of children.” He told the Daily Dot that he stands by this statement and denied that it is racist. “It is simply a fact that different ethnic groups specialize in different types of crime,” he said.

Berkeley Castle enticed the Brimelows for several reasons. For one, it’s big enough to hold events and conferences, which VDARE has struggled to find venues willing to host. The thick castle walls and remote location also afford privacy to its pseudonymous contributors, anonymous donors, and others who prefer to keep their association with VDARE under wraps. The proximity to the nation’s capital was also appealing—and could be even more convenient should former President Donald Trump win the 2024 election. During a fundraising appeal in December, Peter said their enemies are “annoyed” by their presence at the castle. “They know we’re going to develop greater influence inside the Beltway,” he said.

Last week, Brimelow told the Daily Dot that they’ve “played a role” in an impending crackdown on immigration. He also said that the couple was en route to have dinner with a member of Congress.

Soon after VDARE bought the castle for $1.4 million in funds reportedly donated from a dark money source, concerned residents began debating what they should do about it. Locals say that today Berkeley Springs is divided into three factions: one that accepts the Brimelows and may share their ideology; one that wants to ignore them, either to avoid bad publicity or simply to live and let live; and one that wants to take a stand against VDARE and the Brimelows.

Longtime resident Patti Miller is a somewhat reluctant member of the latter camp. In a recent phone conversation, Miller, 69, said she fell in love with the area the moment she stepped foot there two decades ago. She describes it as “like living in summer camp.” She and her wife own property at Prospect Peak, just steps from Berkeley Castle. The National Geographic named the peak, which overlooks the Potomac and Great Cacapon River Valleys and miles of forest in West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, “among America’s outstanding beauty spots.”

VDare in West Virginia
Berkeley Castle is steps from Prospect Peak, rated by National Geographic Magazine as “among America’s outstanding beauty spots.”

Miller works to help small farmers grow produce for local markets. A lot of West Virginians, the state with the third-highest poverty rate, live in food deserts. My hometown, Paw Paw, which is in the same county as Berkeley Castle, is 25 country miles from the closest grocery store; many there buy groceries from the Dollar General or the town’s lone gas station. Then there’s the opioid crisis, poor access to medical care, and other pressing needs.

Miller doesn’t consider herself a liberal or a conservative, she supports policies on both sides of America’s widening political divide. She’d rather pour her energy into helping others than opposing “the castle people,” as some locals have dubbed the Brimelows.

“I’m sorry that VDARE is giving the conservatives and the progressives one more thing to polarize over and I can’t honestly understand my friends that are VDARE supporters,” she said, but added, “I feel very concerned about the cost of sitting back and being quiet and the cost of stirring up polarization.”

In Miller’s view, VDARE’s beliefs run counter to Appalachian culture where neighbors help neighbors and check their differences at the door. She spoke of a Black female farmer who told her that her family hadn’t experienced racism since moving to West Virginia. One day Miller shared that story with an old white orchardman. The man was “so grateful to hear that this veteran woman at least had the same crappy chance as the rest of the farmers to make a go of it,” Miller said, her voice catching at the memory.

“When we got off the phone we were both crying, his pride was so deep. My pride was so deep for the people that made that true,” she said.

That sense of community also drew Trey and Paul Johanson to Berkeley Springs. Sitting at the dining room table in their home on a frigid, blustery day in late November, Paul said he moved to the area in 2005 to build his dream house. He and Trey started dating about a decade later and she ultimately relocated from the Rockville, Maryland area to Berkeley Springs. Today the couple own multiple businesses in town, including local landmarks the Fairfax Coffee House and the Star Theatre.

VDare in West Virginia
Paul and Trey Johanson own multiple businesses in Berkeley Springs. They’re involved in ongoing efforts to oppose VDARE and the Brimelows.

As a Jewish woman growing up in the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s, Trey knows what it’s like to live in a community divided by prejudice. Those first years in Berkeley Springs were refreshingly different.

“I came to Berkeley Springs because I’m hitching my wagon to this cowboy, right? I have both fallen in love with the little town and also become deeply rooted and committed to different things,” Trey said.

Things changed when the Brimelows moved in.

“Up until VDARE came to our town, we were all neighbors,” she said. “And we could disagree and say, ‘Please pass the mashed potatoes.’”

After news of the castle purchase broke, local business owners became concerned that being known as the home of VDARE would kill tourism. Berkeley Springs bills itself as the site of the nation’s first spa; George Washington himself firmly believed in the healing power of the springs there. Long before a 16-year-old Washington first visited, indigenous people named a nearby river the Cacapon, which translates to “healing waters.”

In early 2020, Paul, who has a background as a facilitator, organized a meeting to discuss how they should respond to VDARE coming to town.

He estimated that roughly 50 people showed up. Divisions were immediately apparent. Some wanted to sweep it under the rug, others wanted to be welcoming and neighborly, and some thought the Brimelows should be shunned.

Then the pandemic hit and everyone’s focus shifted to trying to stay afloat and alive. It bubbled back up that spring and summer when George Floyd’s murder inspired people to clamor for civil rights in towns big and small—including Berkeley Springs.

There was a demonstration shortly after Floyd’s death, which went on without incident. In August, locals planned another. This time, tensions were high. A local motorcycle club organized a counter protest. The event would mark the first time that VDARE showed any real interest in local matters.

After the civil rights demonstrators were overwhelmed by what interviewees described as a rowdy, armed counter protest, Peter wrote an article titled, “Patriots Rout Black Lives Matter in Berkeley Springs WV!” In it, he noted that less than 1% of the town is Black. VDARE also sent a video crew to document the event. (The same videographer is credited with covering the Capitol riot for VDARE.)

The Brimelows later sued a local man over a tweet that inaccurately claimed they organized the counter protest. The man ultimately settled for $20,000 and a public apology in the newspaper. He declined to comment and reportedly has since moved away.

A half-dozen locals separately told the Daily Dot that the lawsuit scared a lot of people who may otherwise have spoken out against VDARE.

“Of course we’re afraid of them,” Paul said. “We’re not crazy.”

Charming the town with a smile and some cash

Journalist Michael Edison Hayden is writing a book about the Brimelows, Strange People on the Hill. Hayden believes that propaganda about things like the great replacement theory, one of VDARE’s favorite subjects, is having a significant, but underreported impact on rural white communities.

“It is radically changing people’s lives, it’s creating dysfunction in these communities and it’s creating tension at the kitchen table,” Hayden told the Daily Dot.

Berkeley Springs, he said, “embodies those tensions.”

Via email, the Brimelows told the Daily Dot that their impact on the town has been “completely positive.” They also said people often thank them for saving the castle from falling into disrepair and for making it open to the public.

“We were driven into the historic property business because communists like yourself repeatedly intimidated commercial hotels into breaking their conference contracts with us. But it’s backfired on you,” they said.

After the Brimelows published their response to the Daily Dot’s questions on VDARE over the weekend, several people who identified themselves as residents of Berkeley Springs reached out to contradict them.

“VDARE’s acceptance in Berkeley Springs, WV is limited to […] maybe 12 or so people. The bulk of town rejects VDARE, and everything they stand for,” wrote one.

The Brimelows’ direct involvement in town affairs has largely been through the Berkeley Castle Foundation and the Bath Christmas Project. (Bath is an alternate name for Berkeley Springs.) VDARE controls the foundation, which now is a member of the local chamber of commerce; the website lists it right next to Berkeley Springs Pride. Lydia is the foundation’s representative on the chamber.

Lydia is also on the board of the Bath Christmas Project, which puts up holiday decorations in town and at the castle. According to its website, after joining in 2021, Lydia allowed the project to use VDARE’s castle for a fundraiser. “The first annual Christmas at the Castle event is born!” it says. Last month, one person commented on a photo from the project’s holiday fundraiser in which Lydia beams alongside her fellow board members, “Your hard work shines through in and around that beautiful castle.”

SPLC’s Hatewatch has also reported that VDARE donated thousands of dollars to the project—big money in a county where a family’s median income is $60,000.

Locals don’t mince words when they describe what the Brimelows are doing in Berkeley Springs.

“It’s land and expand, and they’re doing a brilliant job at it,” one person told the Daily Dot last month.

Multiple people told the Daily Dot that the Morgan Arts Council got rid of its former director because of an incident involving a beer. The former director declined to comment.

They said that several months ago, Peter showed up and ordered a beer just as a concert ended. They’d stopped serving for the night, so he was refused.

That could’ve been the end of it. It wasn’t.

One person said that soon “the whole town was in a hue and cry.”

People told the Daily Dot that Lydia sent a letter to MAC’s board demanding they fire its director. The mayor, they said, threatened to withhold its funding if the director remained at the helm because it would signify that it was “unfriendly to members of our community.” (Multiple people said the mayor, who did not respond to interview requests, has been the Brimelows’ guest at Berkeley Castle.)

The Brimelows did not deny sending a letter to MAC, saying only that it was a “private matter, which was resolved to our satisfaction.”

Shortly thereafter, MAC declined to renew the director’s contract.

MAC confirmed that the board did not renew the contract, but issued a blanket denial regarding the alleged circumstances.

“Apparently you have one or more people feeding you false and/or speculative information,” MAC said via email.

“The Morgan Arts Council does not discuss or share human resources topics outside of the board of directors,” it added. “And all of your questions are based on fake news and the presumptions are grossly inaccurate.”

It claimed that the board simply decided to spend months looking for a new executive director and that the former director “could have chosen to apply.”

MAC did not answer questions about whether the Brimelows made any donations or wrote a letter demanding they fire the director, and whether it was pressed by the mayor or town council.

Multiple people said that the Christmas project was the beginning of the Brimelows’ long game to infiltrate the town.

They also believe that people locally and nationally have become emboldened to reveal their bigotry in recent years.

“I long for the days when we just hid our racism in the basement as a country. Now it’s out on the porch again,” one person said ruefully.

Battle over a love mural

Ask people around town about VDARE these days and they often unexpectedly bring up a mural on the side of Fairfax Coffee House.

The Johansons, who own the coffeehouse and have been at the forefront of efforts to oppose the Brimelows, commissioned Matthew Denton, a native of nearby Martinsburg, West Virginia, to paint the mural a few years before the Brimelows bought the castle. The mural featured a sun with different colored rays and the word “love” written in multiple languages.

“Tourists come to this place because it’s this beautiful, unique, welcoming, open kind of town. That’s just the vibe that I wanted to put onto the wall,” Denton told the Daily Dot.

VDare in West Virginia
“Sun of Love” mural by artist Matthew Denton.

The mural was intended to be a feature of a biergarten the Johansons and the owner of Mountain Laurel Artisans a few doors down were building in a courtyard between their businesses.

“People loved it,” Denton said of the mural. “I’m up on this ladder and I can’t tell you how many times people stopped to thank me for bringing beauty to the community.”

The bright colors of Denton’s mural hadn’t even begun to fade when it became entangled in a legal dispute.

The Johansons said, and court records confirm, that the partnership with Mountain Laurel started falling apart in the summer of 2020, around the time that tensions were rising over the civil rights protests. Charles Curia, owner of Mountain Laurel, filed suit against the Johansons in early 2021 alleging financial misdealing. (The Johansons maintain that all the funds went to work and materials for construction of the biergarten.) Curia prevailed in arbitration. Under the terms of the ruling, Curia was awarded the biergarten and all the improvements thereon—including the wall attached to the exterior of Fairfax Coffee House, the same wall that Denton’s mural was on.

Last fall, Curia had the mural painted over. The Johansons called Denton, who now lives in Vermont, to give him the news. He was heartbroken.

Denton said he asked Curia why he would remove something so many people loved. Curia, he said, responded that just as many people hated it.

Curia told the SPLC that he considers the Brimelows friends. His business, Mountain Laurel, sells tickets to tours and other events at the castle. In 2022, the SPLC brought a woman who successfully sued neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin to speak to a group at Fairfax Coffee House as part of local efforts to strategize about opposing VDARE. Curia and two others reportedly camped outside and took photos of people entering and leaving the shop.

Today Denton’s sun has been replaced with a simple design akin to a welcome sign. “Where the springs & love flow,” it says. In lieu of the rainbow hues that once graced the wall, the black lettering is accentuated by an embellishment in red, white, and blue.

VDare in West Virginia
This mural on the wall outside Fairfax Coffee House replaced artist Matthew Denton’s love mural.

Asked by the SPLC why he waved a hand-drawn swastika during a tourism board meeting, Curia reportedly provided a handwritten note in which he likened the Nazi symbol to the Pride flag, which he said stood for “hate.”

Curia told the Daily Dot that it had been “extremely misinformed” about him photographing people at Fairfax Coffee House and likening the swastika to the Pride flag. He did not respond to follow-up inquiries that included a copy of the note he purportedly gave SPLC.

VDare in West Virginia
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that local merchant Charles Curia gave its reporter this letter likening the swastika to the Pride flag.

Losing the love mural has further stoked divisions in Berkeley Springs. Some say it’s opened their eyes to the town’s true character.

Bob Emerick spent his career as a Methodist minister in Brooklyn, New York. After retiring, he decided to move somewhere closer to his hometown of Ellerslie, Maryland. Berkeley Springs, he thought, was just the place.

“I told people back in Brooklyn I’m moving to the Paris of West Virginia because of the art, the openness and the feeling. It wasn’t a heavy, nasty feeling like you get in a lot of places,” Emerick told the Daily Dot.

The episode with the mural disabused his illusions about the town. He now sees that it has two sides: “the surface culture and then there’s the underbelly.”

“I also know there’s a core of good people here,” he said.

Regarding both VDARE and the mural, Emerick believes that local leaders are playing a good ol’ boys game that has him worried about the future.

“Does Berkeley Springs stand for inclusiveness and welcoming people and supporting the arts or are we a closed shop that pretends to be open?” Emerick wondered.

Who would want to visit a town with a reputation for being the headquarters of hate?

The Lord and Lady of Berkeley Springs

Multiple people opined that the Brimelows think of themselves as local nobility.

During a recent appearance on the podcast of a woman the New Republic describes as a white nationalist, Lydia said that 50 people regularly volunteer to help them with the gardening and castle upkeep. “We get historical tours, we have floats in the parade, we have demonstrations and things, just like any other historic building would,” she said.

While the couple portrays themselves as well-liked, they also seem to hold themselves apart from—some might say above—the rest of town. When journalist Hayden attended a Christmas party at Berkeley Castle in December, Peter reportedly confronted him and suggested he leave the guests, many of whom were locals, out of his reporting. “These are normies,” Peter said.

Far-right extremists often refer to people who don’t subscribe to their beliefs as “normies.” Peter told the Daily Dot that he was simply referring to people who are not political.

Hayden said that the couple likes to give the impression that they’re popular. It’s true that they have been accepted by some, including prominent residents. Photos show that Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer attended an event at the castle during this holiday season. Bohrer did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Brimelows said they did not know Bohrer was at the event but were “delighted” to hear it.

The truth, Hayden said, is more complex. He believes that the Brimelows have done a good job of charming some people, in part because they need to be liked. Not everyone is charmed, however.

“A lot of people in town, from what I can see, view it as a potential trap for their ambitions for their town, that it really sinks possibilities of changing, of making the town a tourist haven,” Hayden said.

There’s already talk of people avoiding Berkeley Springs because they don’t think it’s inclusive. The editor of the local paper told the Daily Dot that many residents regret speaking to the Washington Post for an article from last January about how VDARE has divided the town. Archives show that around that time, the chamber of commerce added a statement to the front page of its website that it “strongly believes that businesses in our community benefit from the diversity that makes our community strong.”

Those who don’t want to be known for what the Post called the “hate castle” have created signs that say “all are welcome who welcome all.” Some businesses wave Pride flags year-round or display signs that say “hate has no home here” to send a similar message.

VDare in West Virginia
Businesses in Berkeley Springs hang signs with captions like “hate has no home here” and “all are welcome who welcome all” to signal that VDARE doesn’t represent their town.

Residents are also concerned about the type of people Berkeley Springs will attract because of VDARE. Its events are attended by a bevy of white nationalists and other notorious figures.

At VDARE’s conference last summer, Lydia said that conspiracist Witzke had suggested that Berkeley Castle “could be the Mar-a-Lago of West Virginia.” Lydia also told attendees that she wants to install “orphaned monuments,” including statues of slave owners, around the castle for a “Heritage Walk”—an odd attraction in a state that seceded from Virginia rather than fight a war to preserve slavery.

At that same conference, Peter said he wants to fly the Confederate flag over the castle, another strange choice in a state founded because it didn’t want to belong to the Confederacy.

While the castle gives them a dramatic backdrop for marketing materials and thick walls to isolate them from the eyes and ears of those who oppose them, it could also prove VDARE’s undoing.

Berkeley Castle is at the center of an investigation launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James. VDARE’s nonprofit status may be at risk due to it selling the castle and surrounding properties to the nonprofit Berkeley Castle Foundation (BCF) and for-profit BBB. Lydia Brimelow heads both BCF and BBB.

The Brimelows insist they have not run afoul of the law. “NYAG refuses to say why she is investigating us, has not charged us with anything, and has repeatedly refused to meet with our lawyers to discuss the Castle purchase transaction,” they told the Daily Dot. “She appears simply to be trying to batter us to death with onerous subpoenas.”

They’re nevertheless clearly worried about what the investigation might reveal, which includes the names of its pseudonymous writers. During a fundraising appeal late last year, Peter claimed that their writers, some of whom are federal employees acting as “whistleblowers,” are “profoundly alarmed.” Lydia also said there is a “nonzero chance that Letitia James will get in a kill shot.”

Lydia also lamented that being outed as a VDARE contributor could cause financial hardship to their contributors.

“Some people do express relief once they’ve been doxxed that they can live out loud, but it’s an enormous sacrifice,” she said. “You know, they say things like, ‘Sure, now we live in a trailer in a rural area when we used to have a white-collar job inside the Beltway, but at least we know who our friends are.’”

The couple were seated in front of one of eight fireplaces in their 9,300-square-foot castle that features battlements, stone gargoyles, and a dungeon.

In the valley below, people like the Johansons, retired preacher Emerick, and others are strategizing on how to show the rest of the world that VDARE doesn’t define Berkeley Springs.

“I’m not talking about rioting in the streets,” said one VDARE opponent. “I’m talking about shining our light as bright as we can and killing them with love.”

Read the entire Naziland series
VDARE Publisher Lydia Brimelow and VDARE Editor Peter Brimelow
Vincent James (l) Brent Regan (c) David Reilly (r)
christopher pohlhaus
John Minadeo in front of signs hung on highway that read 'end Jewish supremacy in America' and 'Honk if you know its the Jews'

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*First Published: Jan 15, 2024, 12:00 am CST