Will Decentralization of Neo-Nazism Spur More Right-Wing Terrorism?

For the first time in decades, it is possible that there will be no U.S. neo-Nazi party large enough to hold public rallies. In a story worthy of a plot-twisting HBO special, Black civil rights activist James Stern convinced the leader of the largest U.S. neo-Nazi party, the National Socialist Movement (NSM), to officially make him their president in order to help protect the party from a lawsuit. Afterward, he said, “As a Black man, I took over a neo-Nazi group and outsmarted them,” and that he intends to dismantle the group from within.

The NSM is important for opponents of the far right to watch because it is the largest open neo-Nazi group in the United States. As such, it is the furthest stop for a public, organized group on the right wing of the political spectrum. And after the 2018 collapse of the Traditionalist Worker Party, another large fascist party, the NSM has been the only neo-Nazi group able to hold public demonstrations of even a moderate size.

This, in combination with several other recent events, marks the third major blow dealt to the white nationalist movement since 2016. The first was the wave of deplatforming after Charlottesville. (“Deplatforming” refers to the practice of cancelling digital and other services for certain political groups; for example, when PayPal cancels the accounts of racist groups.) The second was the March 2018 meltdown, when the Traditionalist Worker Party collapsed after a leadership sex scandal, and “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer’s college tour ended after a disastrous finale in Michigan.

After spring 2018, the energy shifted from the white nationalist wing of the “alt-right” to the more moderate “alt-lite” — which shares the white nationalists’ conspiracy-fueled, Islamophobic vision, but doesn’t call for a white ethnostate and allows in gay men, Jews, and people of color. But the alt-lite’s reign was brief, especially for the Proud Boys, the largest and most violent of the alt-lite groups. In October 2018, 10 of its affiliates were arrested after a gang-style attack in New York City. Police had initially refused to make arrests but did so after the mayor and governor called for them to intervene. This spurred a leadership shakeup — founder Gavin McInnes resigned, and his first replacement lasted less than a week — and a change in public perceptions of the group. Media outlets, which previously referred to them as “edgy right-wing provocateurs,” now describe them as “violent extremists with ties to white nationalism.”

The street fights that broke out across the country in 2017 and early 2018 between the far right and their antifascist opposition have waned. They now appear limited to the Pacific Northwest, where Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer group had been working closely with the local Proud Boys. But this alliance, too, is now reeling from a one-two punch.

The first punch was an internal schism: Tusitala “Tiny” Toese left Patriot Prayer for the Proud Boys. Toese had been Gibson’s stalwart comrade, a main Patriot Prayer street-brawler, and a primary driver of the conflicts that usually occur in Portland, Oregon. The second punch was a series of indications that the cozy treatment that the area’s far right has received from law enforcement may soon come to an end.

Despite numerous arrests, Toese has remained on the street. Recently, communications were made public which showed that the Portland police had frequent and friendly contact with Patriot Prayer, and told them how to avoid arrest. At the same time, police used extreme measures against anti-fascists; at one demonstration they nearly killed one. According to The Guardian‘s Jason Wilson, Portland’s mayor and some city councilors have promised an independent investigation into the police-Patriot Prayer relationship. New warrants have been issued against Toese and another Proud Boy, Donovon Flippo. Flippo has been arrested, while Toese is currently not in custody; on social media Toese has said he has gone to Samoa. All of this may finally signal a change in how Portland law enforcement treats the far right.

In other locations, the courts are not hesitating to impose stiff sentences on violent far-right activists. Tyler Tenbrink, who had shot at anti-racist protestors after a Richard Spencer talk in Gainesville, Florida, in 2017, received a 15-year sentence in February 2019.

White supremacists in the government’s ranks are also receiving attention. Christopher Hasson, a white nationalist and Coast Guard member, was arrested in February with a weapons cache; he had allegedly written that he was “dreaming of a way to kill almost every last person on the earth.” And a Marine, Mason Edward Mead, is under investigation after he used social media to identify as a neo-Nazi and post a picture of TNT bricks laid out in the shape of a swastika.

Finally, one of the last major “alt-right” fascist groups, Identity Evropa, is reeling from over 770,000 internal messages being made public on March 6 by the radical media project Unicorn Riot. Many Identity Evropa members have already been doxed based on this information. The group immediately announced a name change, and is now the American Identity Movement. Identity Evropa had previously been successful as the largest “alt-right” fascist group. It cultivated a mainstream look and appealed to college-educated, middle-class whites, and pursued a strategy of entryism into the Republican Party. They had also bragged it was a “safe” group for professionals, since relatively few members had previously been doxed.

The relationships — both between white nationalists and the alt-lite, as well as the far right in general and law enforcement — are significant because the far right cannot function without the aid of more mainstream conservatives. Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism shows how even Mussolini and Hitler relied on alliances with non-fascist conservatives to gain and keep power. In the United States, fascists have never been able to create a mass party. Where they have achieved limited success, they have needed sympathizers, collaborators and apologists from the more moderate factions of the right. The far right loves to use violence — but it can only do this if law enforcement permits.

In late 2016, there was a working alliance among the Trumpist Republicans, the alt-lite and Patriot movement, and the white nationalists and fascists. All of these separate parts of the far right flourished as they egged on and aided each other, united by their support of Trump. After Charlottesville, mainstream conservatives finally considered the explicit white nationalists off limits to openly align with, although the alt-lite was still widely seen as acceptable among Trumpist Republicans. After fall 2018, many of the alt-lite have been treated as increasingly toxic as well.

This said, it is worth looking specifically at what the explicitly neo-Nazi current is doing. Nazis, as well as other fascist currents, are the object of great fascination — both as the ultimate bad guy, and the most extreme end of conservative politics. But the actual political role of neo-Nazis in U.S. right-wing politics is complex.

It is a small movement; I could not find published figures, but, after looking at estimates from previous decades and talking to others who closely watch the far right, I think there are several thousand people who identify as Nazis in the U.S. today. On one hand, Nazism acts as the logical endpoint for those who advocate conservative social hierarchies. Many Republicans deny being racist, while deploying code words against oppressed groups and advocating policies that may sometimes look neutral but in fact disproportionately harm oppressed people. For these bigots, Nazism is a logical conclusion of their politics.

On the other hand, the Nazis’ European-derived politics have always been out-of-step with the vast majority of U.S. conservatives. The fascist advocacy of a strong state clashes with U.S. conservative rhetoric against “big government.”

Nazis do not just want “more” racism and anti-Semitism, nor even just to replace the U.S. government with a radically different system; they want to transform modern society as we know it. This gives them an appeal to constituencies that regular conservatives don’t usually reach, such as some skinheads, black metal fans and biker gangs. Some members of these groups are drawn to neo-Nazism specifically because of its reputation as the most extreme political position possible — one often depicted as evil incarnate.

This is true especially for Satanists like the Order of Nine Angles, who encourage members to join extremist political groups. They have become influential on the Atomwaffen Division, a U.S. neo-Nazi group whose affiliates killed five people in 2017 and 2018.

Many neo-Nazis use the reaction they provoke as an organizing tool. This included George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the original American Nazi Party. In many ways, his politics were closer to ultra-conservatives like 1950s anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy than to Adolf Hitler. But, fueled by anti-Semitism, Rockwell craftily manipulated the Nazi label for publicity. (To this day, neo-Nazism’s bedrock of anti-Semitism has sometimes distinguished it from other kinds of white nationalism; for example, neo-Nazis have claimed that Jews are behind the removal of Confederate statues.) Rockwell wrote in 1967 that:

The Swastika and Hitler, far from being millstones, are actually the answer to the eternal problem of the right wing — money! … you can go into the streets and march and distribute homemade handbills and picket — for nothing. The Jews go wild, attack — and you then have free use of millions of dollars’ worth of Jewish TV, newspapers, magazines, etc.

In the 1920s and ’30s there was open pro-Nazi organizing in the United States, although this was suppressed during the war. Afterward, new groups inspired by the Nazis formed — but they eschewed the label. Rockwell condemned them as “Sneaky Nazis” who hid their true beliefs. He garnered a huge amount of media attention by holding protests which took the opposite approach. But his group had less than a hundred members at its height, and he was assassinated in 1967 by a former member.

After his murder, his party (which by then had changed its name to the National Socialist White People’s Party, NSWPP) soon splintered. Some started promoting armed revolutionary warfare. Others took the “Sneaky Nazi” route, trying to soft-sell their ideas to gain more mainstream acceptance. The party still exists today under yet another name, the New Order, although it has abandoned high-profile demonstrations for private events.

Some Nazis sought to continue Rockwell’s legacy of having a membership-based organization that held public rallies. For years, the NSM was the largest neo-Nazi group deploying this strategy. It was originally founded in the mid-1970s by several neo-Nazis who were former and current members of the American Nazi Party/NSWPP. It continued as a very small group until 1994, when they recruited Jeff Schoep, a young skinhead who took over and turned it into the party it is today — that is, at least until he was taken in by a Black man who outsmarted him.

For the last few years, the NSM has been searching for a new identity. Its rallies drew attention, but it was in a decaying orbit. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2009 there were 61 NSM chapters; in 2018 it was down to six. The “alt-right” clearly eclipsed them. New websites like Daily Stormer, and loosely organized groups like Atomwaffen Division, had caught the mood of youthful neo-Nazis.

The remainder of the NSM is already fragmenting. A legal filing appointed Stern the group’s “president/director,” although this was initially kept a secret from the members. On a Russian social media site, Schoep announced he has stepped down as the “commander,” and been replaced by Burt Colucci. Stern says he’s going to keep the legal rights to the group’s name, and use their website for Holocaust education. Even if the neo-Nazis can win a lawsuit against Stern and regain control, Colucci will inherit a compromised and much smaller organization.

So, with the Traditionalist Worker Party gone and the NSM in chaos, organized U.S. neo-Nazism is in disarray. The Atomwaffen Division has over two dozen affiliates but is undoubtedly under intense law enforcement surveillance and eschews public rallies. Vanguard America was a major “alt-right,” neo-Nazi group until Charlottesville. Afterward, it was superseded by the Patriot Front, who disguise their true politics with traditional patriotic language — classic “Sneaky Nazis.” The Daily Stormer has been driven to the dark web and its affiliated groups, which use the name “Book Clubs” (which they are not), are not lively organizations.

Other neo-Nazis are in small groups like the New Order, as well as in splinter groups of current and former neo-Nazi groups. Some are members of broader white nationalist groups like American Identity Movement and the American Freedom Party. (While the terms “neo-Nazi” and “white nationalist” are often used interchangeably, neo-Nazism is actually only one type of white nationalism.) U.S. neo-Nazis also belong to racist skinhead and biker gangs, or participate in religious movements like Christian Identity and Creativity.

For years, the NSM has been the furthest right stop on the political spectrum for a publicly facing group. If it collapses, this will produce a vacuum within the landscape of organized white supremacists. While the relevance of structured groups in political movements has declined, especially with the advent of online and wireless communications, they still serve a unique function. Obviously, a new group could assume its place that wishes to “raise the swastika” and dodge the inevitable rotten tomatoes.

A worst-case scenario is that those neo-Nazis who in the past would join a public party and experience catharsis through attending public rallies will, instead, feel boxed in and vent their frustration through bombings and murders (such as the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre, which happened as this article was going to press). The lack of a public party could also encourage neo-Nazis to join the more decentralized groups, which are harder to track and more likely to encourage violence. Schoep himself seems to be looking toward forming a new group; he could team up with Matthew Heimbach, and both are proven organizers, although both have also been marred by significant scandals. On March 14, as this article was being prepared for publication, Heimbach announced on social media that he was starting a “new project” with “comrades” from Traditionalist Worker Party chapters and former members of several different organizations.

And although the parts of the far right that hold public marches and rallies have taken several major blows, as long as Trump is president, he will continue to encourage white nationalist attitudes. And white nationalists will continue to take advantage of this favorable climate to push their own agenda, which is significantly more radical than Trump’s. The white nationalist wing of the “alt-right,” and the neo-Nazis with it, have been brought to its knees. However, down is not out, and with almost two more years of a Trump presidency to go, a close eye should be kept on their next move.