It was undeniably satisfying to watch last weekend’s “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington, DC, fail to gather enough warm fascist bodies to populate a high school football team. Likewise, it was heartwarming to see the thousands of anti-racist counterprotesters who came out to shout that whole shabby scene down.
It was tempting, in the aftermath, to see this latest fascist eruption as some kind of short-lived celestial event, the bright flash of a dying star before it collapses on itself. The truth, unfortunately, is more complicated. The 21st-century white nationalist movement may have failed in its weekend attempt at cohesion and remains fractured, but it is still potent enough to be deadly dangerous.
The fraying of the far right was visible well before “Unite the Right 2” fizzled out on live television. Back in March of this year, Daily Beast journalist Kelly Weill wrote, “Last summer, the American alt-right was presenting itself as a threatening, unified front, gaining national attention with a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The collection of far-right and white nationalist groups proclaimed victory after President Donald Trump hesitated to directly condemn them and instead ‘blamed both sides’ and the ‘alt left’ for the violence. But less than a year after Charlottesville, the alt-right is splintering in dramatic fashion as its leaders turn on each other or quit altogether.”
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To be sure, “Unite the Right 2” was a perfect fluffy mess … but that is exactly what serious white nationalist leaders were expecting. Grandstanders like Jason Kessler — the racist “alt-right” leader who organized both last weekend’s miniaturized debacle and last year’s catastrophic Charlottesville rally — are outcasts within genuine white nationalist circles. The two dozen douchebags (term used in the sense suggested by scholar Michael Mark Cohen: “A useless sexist tool”) who showed up to be scary fascists in public last weekend didn’t get the “Sit Down, Shut Up, Stay Home” memo. The savvier movement leaders wisely kept their people out of sight.
“One of the movement’s key figures — Christopher Cantwell, better known from Charlottesville as ‘The Crying Nazi’ — wrote a blog post in late June warning, ‘Follow Kessler At Your Peril,’” reported The Washington Post on the day of the rally. “Even Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, recently told readers to avoid the event, saying that ‘everyone knows that there will be violence’ and that participants will ‘look like ruffians’ and that no matter what ‘we get blamed for it.’ He added: ‘You need to protect yourselves. You need to lay low.’”
“Last year’s Charlottesville rally came at a pivotal time for the white nationalist wing of the ‘alt-right,’” Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at the think tank Political Research Associates, told Truthout. “They had hoped it was going to be their big breakthrough. In the aftermath, almost all the speakers and groups that attended turned against rally organizer Jason Kessler. Kessler also did his best to alienate potential supporters.”
“’Unite the Right 2′ came in a totally different context than the first one and was never expected to be a big rally,” continued Sunshine. “The small turnout is not symbolic of the strength of the white nationalist movement in general or the ‘alt-right’ in particular, but rather of Kessler’s unpopularity. It also reflected a general agreement in ‘alt-right’ circles that the first rally was a disaster which was a huge blow to the movement, and holding a second one was, at best, a poor idea.”
One undeniable fact arising from the weekend’s events in the nation’s capital is clear: Counter-demonstration works. Antifa resistance works, even when it gets messy. Time and again since the election of Donald Trump motivated white nationalists to march out of the shadows, they have been greeted by huge crowds determined to push back hard. The personal cost of being a fascist in broad daylight has skyrocketed in the last year, and white nationalists know this full well.
“White nationalist activists stayed away [from ‘Unite the Right 2’] both because they were scared and because their leadership told them to,” Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, told Truthout, “but that only gives a small window into the story. The leadership told them to stay away basically because they were afraid as well. The broad white nationalist movement had to move into full retreat because of this public organizing, as well as a shift in public opinion, and that has made event’s like Kessler’s ‘Unite the Right 2’ much less attractive.”
“Kessler’s attempt to mainstream white nationalism may have failed on Sunday,” Bill Berkowitz, who has been researching and writing about conservative movements for 30 years, told Truthout, “but the desire to mainstream is an idea lurking in the weeds. So, while this gathering fizzled, I would be very hesitant to accept any analyses that advance the meme that the white nationalist/white supremacist movement is dead or dying.”
The danger remains present, and if the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map” is as accurate as it appears, the threat continues to grow. By the center’s accounting, there are nearly 1,000 hate groups active in the United States, an increase of 20 percent in four years.
The weekend rally in Washington, DC, was a poor example of the true threat posed by the white nationalist movement. A far better example was the so-called “Patriot Prayer” rally in Portland, Oregon, one week before. Again, the right-wing protesters were met with anti-racist and anti-fascist counterprotesters, but that is where the similarities cease. There were many more Patriot Prayer attendees than in DC, and they came dressed for a fight. There were violent clashes between the rally participants and counter-demonstrators, and with the police.
“The rally last week in Portland, Oregon, was a far more important bellweather of which factions are strongest in the streets among the broader far right today,” Spencer Sunshine told Truthout. “It was organized by the slightly more moderate elements in the so-called ‘alt-lite’ — who embrace the approach and style of the ‘alt-right’ and share its misogyny, Islamophobia, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and conspiracy theories — but stop short of calling for a white ethnostate and open antisemitism. The Portland rally drew 400 people — many in body armor, shields and other militarized garb — and it shows where the real strength in today’s street-level far right lies.”
The white nationalist movement may be wrestling with infighting and negative media coverage thanks to its own spectacular self-inflicted wounds, but it is far from finished. The weak showing in DC served as evidence of that infighting, to be sure, but it was also proof positive that serious white nationalist leaders have a keen sense of strategy. Effective insurgents know when to keep their heads down, comforted by the belief that their day has not yet come.
“The war never ends,” writes Splinter journalist and activist Hamilton Nolan, who joined the counter-demonstrators in Washington, DC, this weekend, “nor can it. Its goals morph as society itself does. The strong young soldiers who defeated Hitler die away. The fascists that fell in Berlin can rise again in Charlottesville.”
Permanent vigilance and the will to mobilize are the price we must pay, now and forever.