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The Fall of the “Alt-Right” Came From Anti-Fascism

Entire communities took up the anti-fascist fight.

A counterprotester holds a sign during the alt-right's "No to Marxism" rally in Berkeley, California, on August 27, 2017.

Part of the Series

Call them racists, nativists, misogynists, Islamophobics, anti-Semites or one of several other odious adjectives — author Shane Burley breaks down the ignoble contemporary offshoots of fascism. He also offers strategies for resistance. Get Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It with a donation to Truthout.

Richard Spencer, the infamous founder of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, already knew his group of racists was making a public nosedive even before the recent catastrophe at Michigan State University.

“I think the movement is in a bad state right now, I’m not going to lie about it,” Spencer said to his millennial sidekick Gregory Conte during a March 3 episode of his podcast. “We’re going to have to figure out how to build institutions in the era of rapid — and rabid — de-platforming. Which is really hard.”

Spencer has been the figurehead for the “alt-right” since its evolution from the backwoods of esoteric web blogs, within private conferences and then, finally, attaining public recognition as part of a national political conversation. No one could have seen the highs that 2015 and 2016 would bring to white supremacy, and they thought their boom in numbers and exposure would be a permanent incline. But even after Donald Trump’s election, the anti-fascist movement has detonated like a bomb, with Spencer seeing one devastating hurdle after another. Conferences have been shut down, “alt-right” violence has been publicly exposed and opposition has been so explosive that he can’t even buy a cup of coffee without a mob chasing him down the street.

Publicly, though, he has claimed he would never back down in the face of opposition and has pushed forward on a series of high-profile college appearances. On March 5, he was set for yet another, this time at Michigan State University, in a move that was so unpopular with the student body and administration that it took a lawsuit from a supporter of Spencer to get him into a university building. This had become the usual pattern over the last nine months for the “alt-right,” following the disastrous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since then, the movement’s public outreach has been punctuated by canceled venues, dropped web platforms and the exposing of deception.

At this point, it is safe to say the “alt-right” is in a period of extreme decline. The term “alt-right,” short for “alternative right,” started to be applied to the growing movement when Spencer developed a webzine in 2010 using the term to link up various strains of pseudo-intellectual far-right nationalist ideologies with which he was mingling. White nationalists of various stripes became the center of his movement, and over the next five years, they worked hard to create an intellectual foundation and narrative structure they could use to argue for open fascism: white identity meets human inequality.

By 2015, their rhetoric was picked up by the angry trollosphere, where it transformed into a world of memes, harassment and multimedia content — all while they struggled to move from the virtual world of message boards into street action. The high point of this rise was Trump’s election, but since then, even their more relatively “moderate” counterparts have abandoned them and every project they launch has seemed to fail.

This is not an unusual story for white nationalism in the US. Strong personalities mixed with instability and inadequate know-how has created a series of catastrophic disasters for organizations focused on building a “white ethnostate,” and we have watched groups, from the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to the Aryan Nations, burn out in violent spectacles. The most common narrative that media outlets have picked up on is that it is the ineptitude of the racists themselves that has collapsed their movements, and reporters often stereotype them as poor and ignorant “rednecks” against actual demographic information about these movements. While the white nationalist ability for self-sabotage can be impressive, it misses the most critical factor in the story of every white supremacist loss: They failed because of effective anti-fascist organizing.

Stop Spencer

Back in 2016, Spencer had decided to launch himself onto state-school campuses in what he labeled the “Danger Zone Tour.” The idea here was that government-owned institutions would be more likely to host him against the pressure of anti-fascists than private institutions. There is some merit to his logic. After both the 2010 and 2011 conferences for the “race realist” organization American Renaissance were canceled by pressure campaigns from the anti-fascist community organization, One People’s Project, the “alt-right” settled into a long-term relationship with Montgomery Bell State Park just outside Nashville, Tennessee. Since then, they have not had to move, and even though they have annual protesters, the state-managed venue has not cowed to pressure. Spencer assumed the same would be true on campuses.

Michigan State is only the latest in a string of these, and even though a mass campaign from students at multiple campuses formed to stop him, the school administration caved to a lawsuit leveled against it and offered him a farm building on the outskirts of their Lansing campus during spring break.

The organizing for what was branded the “#StopSpencer” campaign began toward the end of 2017. The timing of the campaign — taking shape during the period in which Spencer could be granted his platform — allowed for the student body and surrounding communities to organically build a solid base of opposition. By the time Spencer’s March 5, 2018, talk happened, there had already been escalations with student walkouts and informational actions.

The existence of the “alt-right” has given impetus to the idea of anti-fascist organizing, which goes back decades, even while remaining on the margins of the American left. Anti-fascist work, however, was given more urgency with the rise of Trumpism, and therefore grew as an organizational priority. When the “alt-right” peaks into a public presence — especially with a high-profile face like Spencer’s — that impetus hits the periphery of those organizers like a lightning bolt, and all of a sudden, it moves from the confines of committed activists to a movement defined by huge swaths of the community. Spencer himself, as with the rest of the “alt-right’s” All-Star bench, can be considered the catalyst and injection of adrenaline into an already-angry community.

The resistance against Spencer has not just emerged during the past 12 months. In years before the “alt-right” became a household name, Spencer was being brought to campuses by groups like the now-defunct Youth for Western Civilization. Anti-fascists often disrupted Spencer’s talks against affirmative action, mirroring what we saw later in the high-profile actions against Milo Yiannopoulos. The “alt-right’s” attempts to focus on college campuses because of access to affluent, young, professional-class men has also delivered them over to a student activist culture, and the fires outside the University of California, Berkeley and the clashes at the University of Washington, among many others, were the result. The insistence of people like Yiannopoulos and Spencer to force their way onto campuses only escalated things and prompted anti-fascist organizations to be ready to mobilize.

Spencer generally ignored the fact that his appearances were becoming demilitarized zones, with his December 2016 event at Texas A&M drawing hundreds in a spectacle comparable to a football game. He used, what he claimed as “success” there, to go on to Alabama’s Auburn University on April 19, 2017, employing former Klan attorney Sam Dickson to sue his way into the college. The same strategy took him to the University of Florida, Gainesville, on October 19, where a massive coalition pushed back on him and his followers. At each location, organizations of students and community members were formed, battling the white nationalists showing up, rendering the events barely functional and creating permanent connections for ongoing organizing work.

This activity was only an extension of what was taking place anytime Spencer — or white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa or the Traditionalist Workers Party — were attempting to hold a public conference or rally. Police barricades, last-minute venue cancellations and public brawls overshadowed the “alt-right’s” message, and as members were doxxed and fired from their jobs, it became harder and harder to make their movement attractive to recruits. In the wake of Charlottesville, they were forced off social media, web hosting, podcast platforms and just about every outreach tool available, leaving them only to the back alleys of the internet.

The situation over the course of Spencer’s campus tour, which was intended to be a victory lap for the “alt-right,” ended up a death spiral. Charlottesville was intended to be their high-water mark, where they brought out nearly 1,000 fully-committed white nationalists, but it now seems like a ghost they only wish they could hold onto.

On March 4 and 5, 2018, there was a planned “alt-right” conference in Detroit. Anti-fascist organizers got wind of the location and the “alt-right” were banned from one venue after another, including private restaurants that wouldn’t even serve them drinks. Under pressure, Spencer’s attorney and host of the conference, Kyle Bristow, publicly distanced himself from the white nationalist movement. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Spencer still had high hopes for his use of the campus, but since students were gone and the building provided to him was used primarily by farm animals, it wasn’t looking good. Hundreds were brought out by the #StopSpencer campaign, which was coordinating in multiple locations to block audience members from entering the hall. The Traditionalist Workers Party, led by the now-disgraced leader Matthew Heimbach, was stopped by a flash mob of protesters, and Gregory Conte ended up as a ranting meme in a million YouTube clips before being arrested. In the end, only a handful showed up despite the 150 tickets he offered. About 20 actually made it in, less than the number of people arrested out front. Those who did show up had more in common with skinhead gangs like the Hammerskin Nation than the suit-and-tie crowd Spencer so desperately wants to recruit.

The bottom line is that coordinated anti-fascist action like this has made it incredibly difficult for the “alt-right” to organize. Major figures like Spencer have had their events turned into platforms for mass opposition, and his speeches shouted down. In 2016, he was able to host a sold out National Policy Institute conference at the famed Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, but last year, the organization got booted from the unheated barn they were forced to rent. All of the tools they had — online outreach, public events and private meetings — have essentially been stolen from them, and an entire infrastructure of doxxing and protest action have made consequence inevitable. This is not how they build “the movement of the future.”

In a YouTube video shortly after the Michigan State debacle, Spencer recapped this failure, admitting that anti-fascist organizers had won and they cannot have public appearances anymore.

“I don’t think that it’s a good idea for me to host an event that is wide open to the public,” Spencer said, lamenting the pressure from anti-fascist groups. “Things are difficult. We felt that great feeling of winning for a long time. We are now in something that feels a lot more like a hard struggle.”

Matt Parrott, longtime white nationalist and cofounder of the Traditionalist Workers Party, went on “Gab,” an alternative to Twitter popular among white nationalists, to place blame for their failure solely on the opposition.

“The antifa has pretty much succeeded in achieving what the progressive left cannot, which is fully and finally de-platforming the hard right,” Parrott said. “They demoralized and disabled the majority of the “alt-right,” driving most of them off the streets and public square.”

The major “alt-right” blog, The Right Stuff, has been organizing private meet-ups that are heavily vetted for their membership, a format they are now presenting as an alternative to “in real life” activism. Spencer agrees, basically giving up on open, public events that can reach the unconverted.

The story of Michigan, and the decline of the “alt-right,” is the result of a coordinated campaign of thousands of anti-fascists who have radicalized in a period of insurgent white supremacy. The goal of anti-fascist organizing of all stripes is to dismantle the functioning of white nationalist organizations to make white nationalists unable to meet their goals, which range from recruitment to violence.

What Anti-Fascism Means

Even still, the overall narrative in many media outlets has instead been one framed as anti-fascist violence, minimizing the entirety of anti-fascist community organizing to snapshots of street fights. The argument made here is that this type of anti-fascism, narrowly understood, is counterproductive to stopping fascist growth since it makes them appear as victims. The problem with this discourse is that it first misses the actual diversity of anti-fascist organizing, which has a massive spectrum and is predominantly made up of ordinary people doing traditional organizing work with neighbors and congregants, but also that it misunderstands what actually stops fascist growth.

It is not the vague mysticism of public opinion or the spin from op-eds. What stops white nationalists is activists stopping white nationalists: stopping their project from working, from expanding, from making a difference. In this way, the anti-fascist movement — made up of church groups, student clubs, anarchists and liberals — has prevented the “alt-right’s” infrastructure from self-replicating by throwing a monkey wrench into their machine.

We have every reason to believe that the “alt-right” could recover from this and any other period of massive decline. The white nationalist movement has seen mass upheavals against it, destabilizing lawsuits from nonprofits like the Southern Poverty Law Center, and projects like the KKK rise to national prominence before dropping to pariah status. What the “alt-right” has done over the decades, and will continue to do, is manipulate edge issues that they can use to push conservatives into a more reactionary direction. What matters is how the left continues to build this movement now, so that any moment of resurgence is eliminated purely through the competent organizing work that shows community members the stake of the threat, inoculates them against nationalist lies and shows them how getting involved can change lives.

The only thing that will really seal the death certificate of the “alt-right” is an ever-growing presence of antifascism in all areas of social life, a movement whose vibrancy is overwhelming and has the ability to be intergenerational. While “alt-right” branding and strategies are new, their ideas are not, and they won’t be the last — unless antifascism is not seen as just the hobby of a few.

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