The alt-right movement has sought over the past two years to rebrand white nationalism, lifting it out of the obscure corners of the website Stormfront and elevating it into the mainstream political discussion.
In some ways the effort succeeded. President Trump’s campaign offered white nationalists a political home in the mainstream. They heard Trump’s hardline anti-immigration stances and repeated refusals to disavow racists as a dog whistle. The alt-right itself was media- and internet-savvy and appealed to a younger demographic. Its leaders became household names. Hillary Clinton even gave a speech about the movement.
Two incidents over the past year show why the alt-right’s pivot failed. One is the infamous speech given by alt-right leader Richard Spencer at a conference last year, where The Atlantic recorded attendees giving Nazi salutes. The other is what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, where a white-nationalist “Unite the Right” rally starring several of the alt-right’s leading lights turned violent. At the end of the day, three people had died, and at least 19 more were injured. The photos from Charlottesville show Confederate flags, Nazi insignia, and militia members with guns. David Duke was there. In the end, the alt-right never shed its association with older fascist and white-supremacist ideas and movements, and arguably never really tried.
Spencer was eager to distance himself from the chaos of Charlottesville when I spoke to him on Saturday night.
“Going forward we’re going to have more tightly controlled rallies and demonstrations,” he told me by phone from an alt-right afterparty for the event. Spencer said this was not his event. “I accepted an invitation,” he said, from the rally’s organizer, Jason Kessler. Spencer’s name was on the flyer for the event.
“I don’t think that adopting the garb of a movement from 70 years ago is going to be very productive,” Spencer said. “I certainly evoke the past in a lot of my aesthetic but I’ve never tried to engage in live-action role-playing reenactment—I don’t think that’s ever going to be positive.” Spencer was on stage in November when his conference attendees began giving Nazi salutes, and he said “Hail Trump” in his speech. He excused this to me later as a “moment of utter exuberance and craziness.”
Kessler declined to be interviewed on Saturday night, saying he felt it would be “biased.” But he disputed the claim that Nazi symbols had been an important element of the march, saying there had been just one guy with a Nazi flag. (Photos from the march show a swastika armband on a featured speaker, T-shirts quoting Hitler, and other Nazi iconography.)
Over the past year a schism had already taken place among the alt-right, particularly after Spencer’s conference. Some right-wing activists who had once called themselves alt-right began peeling off, favoring terms like “new right.” The blogger and Twitter personality Mike Cernovich, who has clashed with Spencer, is one of these. Cernovich has revamped himself as a key figure in the pro-Trump media sphere, which has become obsessed with rooting out globalist enemies of Trump rather than advancing overtly racial politics.
“These alt-right people are so scared of people calling them a cuck they walked with them,” Cernovich said, referring to the neo-Nazis. “Those dumb motherfuckers, are you kidding me? They’re gonna let themselves be in pictures with the Nazi flag?”
“That’s all the alt-right stands for, is white nationalism,” he said. “They are now indistinguishable. Worse than that, they are now associated with domestic terrorism.”
“Their dream is over as of today,” he said of the alt-right. “As of salute-gate, it was over.”
“We’re on the winning side for the first time in my experience.”
James Alex Fields, the man suspected of driving his car into a crowd of people protesting the rally and killing one, was photographed earlier that day with the Vanguard America group. The fact that the alt-right is now associated with the political violence he perpetrated is a turning point.
“I certainly hope that white advocacy does not become irrevocably linked in the public’s mind with violence and confrontation,” said Jared Taylor, the founder of American Renaissance, who hosts a white-nationalist conference every year and who Spencer has credited with “red-pilling” him, or converting him to the movement. Taylor’s conference has attracted an increasing number of young alt-right attendees in the past couple years; when I went last year, there was a large contingent of MAGA-hat-wearing young men.
“You can’t control who comes to a public rally,” Taylor said. “Whether or not they invited certain groups, I don’t know whether or not they were welcome, but you’d have to ask Jason Kessler.”
“I try to set boundaries but you have to ask them,” Taylor said.
The paradox of the alt-right in this moment is that just when it had seemed to achieve political legitimacy beyond its wildest dreams, it has also shown it can’t figure out how to bring itself out of the darkest corners of political thought. Some ideas are considered beyond the pale for a reason. Members of the alt-right and people sporting Nazi symbols attend rallies together for a reason.
Spencer told me last year that “we’re on the winning side for the first time in my experience.” In one sense, he’s still right. Their preferred candidate won, and as president he is still reluctant to disavow the white nationalists who support him, going out of his way to blame “many sides” for the violence on Saturday. Hundreds of torch-bearing white nationalists marched the night before the rally through the University of Virginia, not wearing masks or hoods, unafraid to show their faces. But the events in Charlottesville the next day unmasked them anyway.