The Rise of the Alt-Right

Selections from The Atlantic’s coverage of 2017, when the right-wing movement gained momentum

Chet Strange / Stephen Maturen / Alec MacGillis / Chip Somodevilla / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Every December, The Atlantic looks back on the previous year—to highlight not just the big moments, but the progression of big ideas. Below, the second of four installments  on our political coverage looks at the resurgence of white nationalism in 2017.

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected, white nationalists gathered in Washington, D.C. for an annual conference, where The Atlantic captured the audience offering cheers and enthusiastic Nazi salutes. At the helm was Richard Spencer, the leader of the “alt-right,” a term he popularized. “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” they exclaimed. Spencer would go on to set up a “hub” for the alt-right movement in the Washington area. But fractures within the the movement were emerging at the Deploraball, an event held in January, where figures of the alt-right celebrated Trump’s victory.

Steve Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News who once described the site as “the platform for the alt-right,” served as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House. Over the course of the year, the resurgence of white nationalism would play out on the national stage.

Tension in the White House

Bannon came to occupy different roles in the White House, including a regular seat at meetings of the principal’s committee of the National Security Council, which Rosie Gray noted was an “unorthodox move.” When Bannon was removed from the NSC in April, Gray explained what to make of his departure.

As Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s influence grew within the administration, Rosie Gray asked: “Are the Nationalists Losing the War for Trump’s White House?” Trump loyalists were also targeting Chief of Staff Reince Priebus following National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ouster. Priebus, who had faced criticism for selling out his party, would eventually be pushed out, prompting Molly Ball to ask: “Was it really worth it?

When it seemed as though Trump was being successfully courted by the Republican establishment and moving away from Bannon, Peter Beinart argued that Trumpism would continue with or without Bannon. That was soon put to the test, when Bannon was dismissed in August. McKay Coppins pointed out that some of Trump’s word choices after Bannon’s departure indicated “Breitbartism is alive and well in the Trump White House.”

Protest in Charlottesville

In February, leaders in Charlottesville, Virginia, voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. Six months later, white nationalists, including prominent figures like Richard Spencer and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, descended on Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally to protest the city’s actions. They paraded with guns, chanted Nazi slogans, and carried tiki torches, evoking the KKK. Photojournalist Seth Herald captured scenes from the protest, which quickly escalated and turned deadly when a car plowed through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a 32-year-old woman.

In response to the protest, Trump condemned “hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides, on many sides”—but it’s what he left unsaid that was revealing, wrote Elaine Godfrey. Jeffrey Goldberg posed the question: “Why Won’t Trump Call Out Radical White Terrorism?” Two days later, Trump released a statement explicitly condemning white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK. He later backtracked on those remarks and defended the white nationalists who protested in Charlottesville, saying that there were “very fine people on both sides.” His comments drew criticism from congressional Republicans. David A. Graham wrote that “Trump Knows Exactly What He’s Doing.” Rosie Gray spoke to alt-right leaders who praised Trump’s remarks. And Ronald Brownstein argued that Trump’s backstep threatened the GOP’s attempt to disassociate the party from white nationalism.

McKay Coppins and Elaine Godfrey reached out to 146 state party chairs and national committee members to gauge their reactions to Trump’s Charlottesville response. Only seven offered critical responses. In late August, the Republican National Committee unanimously approved a resolution condemning white supremacy. Following the violent clashes, Vann R. Newkirk II spent time with Charlottesville's black community, while Emma Green looked at the Christian community’s reactions to racism within their ranks. Clare Foran spoke with a counterterrorism expert about how Trump’s comments could embolden the far-right. Megan Garber asked: “Why Charlottesville?” And Kara Voght explored how the University of Virginia is grappling with its legacy.

In the aftermath, some rally goers were identified and fired from their jobs. Gillian B. White explored the ethics of getting people fired for attending racist rallies, pointing out that many matters of public opinion play out in the business world. And Alexis C. Madrigal warned that targeting the individuals could further radicalize them. But even as the nation was still absorbing what it had just witnessed, the Confederate monument debate raged on.

The Debate Over Confederate Monuments

After Charlottesville, calls to remove Confederate statues grew. Memorably, in Durham, North Carolina, protestors pulled one down themselves. Baltimore also took down its monuments. Yoni Appelbaum wrote that the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville accelerated the collapse of the statues they sought to defend. And Vann R. Newkirk II reflected on the moment, comparing it to his own childhood in North Carolina, where Confederate statues were “as immovable and immutable as the hills and the lakes.” In some states, lawmakers stood in the way of local officials that wanted to take down monuments, a move Memphis, Tennessee, recently maneuvered around.

Adam Serwer provided an in-depth description of the man at the center of the debate: Robert E. Lee. The retelling of the Civil War became a recurring theme on the right. In a one-on-one interview in October, Chief of Staff John Kelly revealed he shared many of the same beliefs as Trump about the Civil War. Serwer argued that Kelly missed an essential point about the Civil War. In an attempt to chronicle the enduring debate over rebel flags and monuments, Lena Felton and I compiled highlights from The Atlantic’s coverage on “how these symbols are perceived, and whether Americans should still preserve them.”

Defining White Supremacy

In The Atlantic’s September cover story, “The First White President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that race propelled Trump to the White House. Chloé Valdary countered that there’s no single explanation for Trump’s election. Vann R. Newkirk II called for the need to define white supremacy, claiming that giving it too narrow of a definition allows it to flourish. And Adam Serwer argued that efforts to highlight non-racial explanations for Trump’s glaringly racial appeal is a long-standing political tradition in “The Nationalist’s Delusion.”

Angela Nagle looked back on the progression of the alt-right over the year: how it attracted a broad audience and sowed confusion about their off-screen threat, and why Charlottesville was a breaking point. And in “The Making of an American Nazi,” Luke O’Brien profiled Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer.

Toward the end of the year, a few high-profile elections tested the viability of racial appeals in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. After leaving the White House, Bannon vowed to fight against the Republican establishment. In Virginia, Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor who adopted Trump-style politics, challenged Republican Ed Gillespie in the GOP primary but eventually lost. Democrats ultimately took the seat for governor. In Alabama, Bannon backed Trumpist candidates like Roy Moore, who later faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Moore’s defeat in the Alabama Senate special election was a stunning blow to Trump and Bannon. Going into 2018, McKay Coppins wrote, the GOP’s future is uncertain now that, among other things, Trump’s racially coded rhetoric has attuned his base to be more attracted to divisive candidates.