Members of the alt-right like to depict their movement as an irreverent response to political correctness.
On Saturday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car through that façade, in a terrorist attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others who had gathered in opposition to the white-nationalist movement.
It was a defining moment, but not a moment for a pause. More alt-right rallies are scheduled for the coming Saturday, in at least nine cities. These events will provide an important barometer for the future of this movement, depending on how many people turn out, who those people are, and how they conduct themselves. For the alt-right, the coming weekend represents a critical test—which may reveal it gathering force, dissipating, or changing in significant ways. By Saturday night, it may be clear where it’s headed.
The alt-right has become an umbrella community for the American far-right, a loosely defined movement with a strong center of gravity online and which encompasses a large number of subnetworks.
Some of these subgroups identify primarily as the alt-right, but many are affiliated with more specific strains of white-nationalist ideology—including the Ku Klux Klan, Odinists, Neo-Nazis, and more, many in full regalia lest anyone miss the point.
The prevalence of white nationalism within the alt-right has led to a deep internal split between its overtly racist wing and its less overtly racist wing. Members of the latter faction might be charitably described as less racist or as non-racist, but most are pretty open about the fact that their primary concern is the specter of bad publicity. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville graphically illustrated a couple of important points regarding this internal division.
First, the overtly racist wing of the alt-right is clearly ascendant. White supremacist protests in early 2016 were embarrassingly small. An estimated 500 white nationalists turned out for the rally Saturday. While this is still a small number in the absolute sense, the trend is disturbing.
Second, Charlottesville put to rest the idea that the alt-right can be primarily defined as fun-loving transgressive hipsters or an elaborate practical joke (if anyone still really believed that). Even before the culminating act of terrorism, the rally in Charlottesville illustrated that the umbrella of the alt-right is an effective means to mobilize a highly visible mix of old-school white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Offline, at least, this isn’t the new white nationalism; it’s the old white nationalism as the primary beneficiary of the activity generated by a looser collection of people online.
Third, the composition of the crowd in Charlottesville shows that there are more potential fracture lines in the alt-right than the optics of white supremacy. Since the 1970s, white nationalism in the United States has been a sectarian affair. White nationalists all generally agree white people should be in charge, but they have many different competing beliefs about why that is the case, and how white rule should be implemented. These differences are not trivial, and for decades they have prevented a broadly concerted campaign of action by white nationalists in America. Charlottesville was an example of how the alt-right umbrella community can muster numbers that Odinists or the KKK alone cannot.
The events scheduled for this coming Saturday—a “free speech” rally in Boston and marches scheduled in nine cities to protest Google’s firing of an employee who wrote a screed against diversity—will help clarify where all the chaotic elements that comprise the alt-right are headed in the near-term future. (The anti-Google protests are slated for Atlanta, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New York, Washington, Austin, Boston, and Mountain View, California. On Sunday, organizers released a statement condemning violence and insisting that they are “in no way associated with any group who organized” in Charlottesville.)
Prior to Fields’s attack, Charlottesville was on track to be a clear victory for the alt-right. While attendance of 500 people is a pittance compared to most mainstream political events, it represents a marked upswing from 2016. Simply turning out that many people in one place was an unqualified win.
The fact that few participants sought to conceal their identities was a bold statement about the mainstreaming of white nationalism, which did not go unnoticed during an ominous torch-wielding event the night before the formal rally. Even after the “Unite the Right” rally itself was shut down by authorities as an unlawful assembly in the face of escalating violence, the event was seen as a show of strength.
But the terrorist attack by Fields, who attended the rally alongside a neo-Nazi group known as Vanguard America, was a game-changer. Videos posted online depicted his car accelerating down a street to target a group of pedestrians with devastating effect. The horrifying attack, recorded in graphic detail, sparked a massive national outpouring of outrage and condemnation. When “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler attempted to hold a press conference on Sunday in Charlottesville, he was chased away by a crowd of people shouting “murderer” and “shame.”
The question now is how the alt-right will process the backlash, and an early indicator will be seen in Saturday’s marches and rallies.
Terrorism is a double-edged sword. While it can help mobilize the most radical segments of an extremist movement, it simultaneously alienates the least radical, including people who are loosely supportive of an extremist movement, or tolerant or dismissive of its rhetorical excesses.
The risk that terrorism entails for extremists was clear after the Oklahoma City bombing, when the anti-government Patriot movement rapidly went from boom to bust, as adherents melted away—some due to fear of a government crackdown, others in genuine moral dismay over the attack, which killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured many more. The Patriot movement has since recovered from these setbacks, but the process took years, and McVeigh is still a controversial figure for many adherents.
The attack in Charlottesville, while horrific, was not on the scale of Oklahoma City, and it is unclear how those within the alt-right will process its meaning. In the first 24 hours, online adherents responded predictably, with a mix of denialism, whataboutism, victim-blaming, disavowals of Fields, and the advancement of conspiracy theories to explain the problem away. Some glorified the rally while pointedly ignoring the car attack. Others dismissed it as a road-rage incident unrelated to ideology. And some—relatively few—criticized the attack for portraying white nationalism in a negative light.
That’s the context for Saturday’s scheduled events, whose organizers have denied any connection to the “Unite the Right” organizers, although at least one personality from Charlottesville (Tim Gionet, aka Baked Alaska) is scheduled to appear at the Boston event. Turnout for these events will help illustrate exactly what kind of moment this nation has come to. Here’s what to look for:
- How many people will come out to march with the alt-right after the events in Charlottesville?
- Which faction will come out on top? Will marchers primarily consist of the same old-school, everything-but-a-hood white nationalists seen in Charlottesville, or will they represent the “fashy” element of the alt-right, which seeks to offset the repugnance of its views with a less ostentatious veneer?
- Will the marchers be armed and spoiling for a fight, as the rally participants were in Charlottesville?
- Will they be met by sizeable crowds of counter-protesters?
- Will those counter-protesters be peaceful, or will they be looking for a fight themselves?
How each of these questions plays out will reveal something about the future of the alt-right. If attendance is very low, for instance, it may signal that Charlottesville was a sobering moment for the movement, perhaps with some adherents reconsidering their tactics, and with other people reconsidering their involvement altogether.
If attendance is very high, on the other hand, it likely means that the Charlottesville rally was an energizing event for the alt-right, even with its culmination in a terrorist attack, and that would be cause for serious concern. If attendance is high and the participants include more of the same Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists in garish costumes and armed to the teeth, it would be hard to interpret that as anything less than extremely alarming.
If attendance is low, on the other hand, while met with very large and peaceful counter-protests, that would be an extremely encouraging turn of events, highlighting the marginal nature of the movement and helping to reinforce a strong social center standing in opposition to the latest wave of racist extremism to rock America.
And of course, there are many possible outcomes in between these two poles, which will require unpacking. A large turnout from the alt-right but an even larger presence of peaceful counter-protesters might bode well for the overall mood of the country but reinforce the idea that the alt-right is here to stay. A small turnout from both sides would be more difficult to assess. An aggressive showing by antifa groups looking to meet violence with violence could lead to further escalation.
There is one more wild card to consider: the president of the United States, who is scheduled to hold a press conference on Monday. Based on his past failures to repudiate white nationalism, there’s a good chance he will continue to hedge his language with weak equivocations. But the political pressure to say more is rapidly mounting, and the president may find himself backed into a corner.
If President Trump somehow manages to issue a convincing and unequivocal condemnation of Unite the Right specifically and white nationalism more broadly, and if he can do it without visibly seething about the necessity, the reaction from the alt-right should be fascinating and informative. Given his history, it’s a very long shot that the president will be able to successfully check all of those boxes, but it’s not impossible.
If the president successfully repudiates the alt-right, it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. Some portion of the alt-right is more enamored of Trumpism than of white nationalism. These are not mutually exclusive categories at the moment, but if Trump manages to change that dynamic, it’s unclear where the chips may fall.
Would the alt-right turn against the president en masse, or in part? And if so, what impact would that have on his already flagging poll numbers? Would some be enraged and adopt an even more violent posture? Would they be discouraged? Would they shrug it off? Or would they splinter into yet more factions, stealing their momentum and forcing a massive retrenchment?
The last outcome is probably the most likely, in the unlikely event that the president can muster the moral courage to take and maintain a strong stand without simultaneously undermining it in some way.
The only certainty is that the week ahead is bound to be interesting and consequential. By the time we reach the other side, Americans will likely have a much clearer picture of the shape and direction of white-nationalist extremism in America. I wish I felt more optimistic about what we will see.