The aftermath of the white nationalist “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12 has dealt a major blow to the “alt-right,” a far-right brand of politics that has coalesced around ideas based in white nationalism, xenophobia and misogyny. After many months of rapid expansion, the unfolding events seem to have broken the movement’s momentum. While the result of two new far right Bay Area rallies this weekend remain to be seen, if the left is lucky and the correct cards are dealt, this may turn out to be the Gettysburg of those who are called the “alt-right.”
Unite the Right was the largest white nationalist rally since 1987. It included clashes between rally participants and antifascist counter-protesters, and ended with a neo-Nazi driving his car into an antiracist march, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 others. Public opinion, at least for the moment, has overwhelmingly turned against the racist coalition of the “alt-right,” as it now looks less like a hip nationalist movement and more like a bunch of cold-blooded murderers. On August 18, it was announced that Trump adviser Steve Bannon — the symbol of the far-right movement’s direct tie to the Trump administration — was leaving the White House. Another far right rally the next week in Boston on August 19 was met by up to 40,000 people marching against it — making it the largest anti-racist rally in years.
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But those identified as “alt-right” didn’t just get a black mark on their reputation. Two national rallies were canceled; arrest warrants have been issued for prominent figures; a host of digital companies have cracked down on the movement; some rally attendees have lost jobs, while others tried to separate themselves from the tarnished “alt-right” brand; and Bannon’s departure is a blow to the movement. Last, this domino effect is leading two prominent white nationalist groups who use the label “alt-right” to advocate a change in strategy to avoid opposition — even while hinting at more dangerous possibilities.
After the huge Boston counter-protest, two national days of far-right rallies were cancelled. The August 19 “March on Google,” organized by “alt-lite” figure Jack Posobiec, was supposed to target nine Google locations in the wake of the company firing employee James Damore for circulating a blatantly discriminatory anti-diversity memo. (The “alt-lite” is the more moderate wing of the “alt-right”; it accepts some people of color, Jews and gay men as members.) Seeing the “alt-right” brand sinking, Posobiec first took pains to claim the march had nothing to do with the movement, but then cancelled it entirely on August 16. And ACT for America, an Islamophobic group, had planned 67 “America First Rallies” on September 9; but these were canceled on August 21. It was planned to be the group’s next national day of action after the June 2017 “March Against Sharia,” which had been attended by many of the same activists that later came to Charlottesville.
Two prominent figures within this far-right coalition have also been arrested. Kyle Chapman, better known as “Based Stickman” — who became famous for wearing body armor while attacking antifascists with a stick at a Berkeley demonstration in March — was charged with a felony for possession of a leaded stick. With two prior felony convictions, Chapman could be imprisoned under California’s harsh “three strikes” law if convicted. He was slated to appear at Saturday’s rally in San Fransciso, but even if he can raise the bail, a court has ordered him to stay away. Chris Cantwell, a scheduled Unite the Right speaker who gloated over Heyer’s death in a Vice documentary made at the thwarted rally, made a video of himself weeping after learning that arrest warrants had been issued for him. (Facing three felony charges, on August 23, he turned himself in). Multiple websites, including the online dating website OKCupid, banned Cantwell, saying, “There is no room for hate in a place where you’re looking for love.”
After many months of pressure, a wide variety of digital companies cracked down on some overtly white nationalist and “alt-right”-identified media platforms. Cloudflare, GoDaddy, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, PayPal, Discord, Squarespace and Spotify all took action against the digital assets and accounts of some of these sites. In particular, the notorious neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, which gleefully took aim at Heyer’s death — calling her a “fat, childless, 32-year-old slut” — was chased around the internet. It bounced from GoDaddy to Google to the Russian Network Information Center, and is now only accessible on the so-called “dark web,” via a Tor browser. Another group that lost its website was Vanguard America — the group that James Alex Fields Jr., the alleged driver of the car that killed Heyer, had marched with at Unite the Right.
In addition, one of the major far-right video channels that was seen as part of the “alt-right,” Rebel Media, had a total meltdown after one of its reporters broadcast live at Unite the Right and then went on the Daily Stormer podcast. A Rebel co-founder quit, and “alt-right” star Gavin McInnes announced he was leaving. The leader of a “fight club” called the Proud Boys issued a statement saying “Proud Boys may not attend Alt-Right events in ANY capacity” — after they had specifically been told they could attend Unite the Right. Perhaps the selfie that then-member Sal Cipolla took at the event with David Duke was too much, or maybe it was the fact that the rally’s organizer Jason Kessler was said to be a Proud Boy himself.
Upon returning home, many rally attendees found out that, in the words of One People’s Project executive director Daryle Lamont Jenkins, “hate has consequences.” After being identified and outed, a number of rally participants lost their jobs, said they were going to move, withdrew from college, and — in one case — had their disgusted webmaster pull their porn site.
And the effect of Steve Bannon’s departure from the Trump administration on the movement cannot be underestimated. While Trump openly courted the support of the “alt-right” during his electoral campaign — at one point tweeting a cartoon of himself as the movement symbol Pepe — Bannon was seen as the true link between the movement and the White House. During the campaign, and while still at helm of Breitbart, Bannon had declared it the “platform for the alt-right.” As Trump’s presidency has gone on, various members of this Breitbart-fueled coalition of white nationalists and xenophobes have become disenchanted with him — but Bannon remained their champion. And a source who requested anonymity told me that prominent “alt-right” members like Mike Enoch would tell new recruits that “alt-right” leaders had ties to Bannon, and that he was “our guy.” With Bannon out of office, this pretense is no longer tenable.
This has all happened in just two weeks. Racist leaders who use the “alt-right” label are reeling, and contemplating a change of tactics. For example, the Traditionalist Worker Party is advocating secret, unannounced “flash” demonstrations — so their opposition can’t mobilize.
But even more ominous is a recent post on AltRight.com, a website run in part by Richard Spencer. It says, “We have been no-platformed and a full blackout on our abilities to get our message out, fundraise and network is in effect…. Debate time’s over. The curtain has been brought down across the stage. No more questions. Get with the pogrom [sic] or get lost…. It is almost as if Antifa has deliberately started burning the ships we need to go home so that we have nowhere to go but forward. Total victory or bust.” Whether this is a call for more militant demonstrations that have no intention of attracting uncommitted sympathizers — or if it’s a call for followers to take clandestine armed action — remains to be seen.
I think — I hope — that this latest configuration of white nationalists, xenophobes, Islamophobes, anti-Semites and misogynists has met its Gettysburg: a hard-fought battle that did not end the US Civil War but halted the expansion of the forces of white supremacy, and in retrospect was a turning point that the Confederacy never recovered from. The Civil War dragged on for two more years after Gettysburg. Right now, we still have three years and four months of Trump being in power. It might be a long road ahead, but hopefully popular revulsion to overt white nationalism has, at the least, put a halt to its advance.