WEST Virginia was in my thoughts yesterday. In the spring of 2006 I spent a lot of time there, hanging out at an armed neo-nazi compound. I remembered the US marine – freshly radicalised during a tour of Iraq – taking me to the compound’s heavily-stocked armoury and selecting an AK-47, shotgun and revolver to go shooting in the woods. The compound was owned by the National Alliance (NA) – then America’s most dangerous neo-nazi organisation. I remembered the NA warehouse, filled with millions of dollars of merchandise to be shipped around the world, items like a computer mouse mat bearing the legend “Got Jews? Try Zyklon B” – that’s the chemical used in the Nazi gas chambers – or a pair of skinhead boots with a swastika carved into the sole, so the wearer can leave victims with the imprint on their face after stamping on them. I remembered the young NA recruits and their computer game called Ethnic Cleansing where the player scores points killing Mexicans.

As a liberal film-maker, producing a documentary about the far right around the world, I was revolted by what I saw. But I was also horribly, fearfully, impressed – these people were deadly serious, they had money, weapons and a belief system more akin to a religious cult than a political party. They were also beginning to be listened to – that was the scariest part: their numbers were growing and more and more people were heeding them. I saw the same story unfold wherever making the film took me – in Germany, in Italy, at home in Britain, in the United States, the far right was gaining traction … but no-one really seemed to give a damn.

On Sunday, though, things seemed to shift at home, as MI5 took over from the police in the fight against the far right in Britain. The switch showed that at last we are starting to take the violent threat from neo-nazis and their alt-right clones seriously.

Let me be very clear: home-grown radical neo-nazis are as much a threat to western democracy as Islamist terror. I’ve not come to that belief idly, sitting in my armchair. For 27 years, I have investigated the far right across Europe and America, and watched as the movement grew and changed until we got to the place where we are today: with a president in the White House who behaves like a hate preacher radicalising his flock; with a growing cult around a dangerous charismatic extremist like Tommy Robinson; with a far right president in Brazil; with social democratic parties on the ropes across Europe as extremists gain both ground and legitimacy in the eyes of many voters.

Social democratic parties have no-one to blame but themselves – as they made the space that the far right now occupies. For decades, the Left and liberals would not talk about the fears over immigration that many white working-class communities felt – fears that could have been easily assuaged if the nation had tackled the matter head on. That silence was quickly filled up by extremists. Instead of a difficult but necessary conversation, most politicians tuned out, and so hate and lies were allowed to fester and take root. Voila, welcome to 2018.

The media aided and abetted the political silence – because primarily the media and politics are comprised of the same type of people. I have lost count of the number of times a TV commissioning editor looked at me as if there was a bad smell under their nose when I suggested an investigation into the far right. My view is that if there’s a bad smell you should investigate and fix it before everywhere becomes toxic.

It took me years to get that film made which I mentioned earlier. Everyone felt the subject too unpleasant. When it finally appeared it was seen as a Louis Theroux-style glimpse into the world of the weird. How wrong that view was. I was trying to say: watch out, these people are coming, you are sleepwalking to disaster.

If our political and media class had done their job, events may have taken a different path. Folk like me weren’t exaggerating the threat – in fact, the threat was apparent to anyone who cared to look. I began investigating the far right as a young reporter in Northern Ireland, writing about links between loyalist terrorists and British neo-nazis. But it was Northern Ireland, so no-one cared. Then the Oklahoma bombing happened in 1995 when extremist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people. But that was a one-off, surely? So no-one really cared. Then in 1999, I covered the London nail bombings as white supremacist David Copeland targeted the gay community and ethnic minorities. But he was a lone wolf, wasn’t he? So no-one cared.

“Lone wolf” is code for “white people can’t be terrorists”. Whenever an Islamist terrorist acts alone, they are not called lone wolves – we are told that they were “inspired by Isis”. The same is true of far right terrorists – they are not lone wolves, they are inspired by someone or something, be it a president or the philosophy of a neo-nazi movement. In fact, it was one of the most infamous neo-nazis, NA leader William Pierce, who promulgated the theory of extremists working alone, inspired by fascist principles, to carry out acts of terror. Pierce branded the theory “leaderless resistance”. I recall Pierce – whose writings inspired the Oklahoma Bomber – speaking to me about this theory with a quiver of erotic thrill in his voice.

It was only when the far right became unavoidable – in the worst fringes of the Trump movement and the Brexit campaign – that the political and the media class started to pay attention. By then though, Jo Cox had been murdered by a neo-nazi – linked to the National Alliance.

In our fear of causing offence, our desire to be politically correct, and our attempts to avoid anything ugly, wilfully blind mainstream politics and the media unwittingly helped create the Frankenstein monster that, in its American form, is now sending bombs through the post and shooting worshippers in synagogues. And where America goes, Britain and Europe often follow. Take the threat for real – MI5 already has.