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15 August 2018updated 25 Jul 2021 3:55pm

The alt-right’s long march

In the last year the Unite the Right movement has splintered and its organisational capacity dwindled, but the Overton window is still shifting. 

By Louis Amis

There was great anxiety over turnout among the organisers of the white power rally “Unite the Right 2”, in Washington, DC on 12 August, a year after the first, in Charlottesville. Key members of the movement, also known as the alt-right, were snubbing the event. “We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet,” Andrew Anglin, one luminary, wrote in an open letter on his Daily Stormer website. “Won’t likely attend,” Richard Spencer, another, told Newsweek. “We don’t have anything to gain,” said the League of the South.

A spokesperson for the pseudo-intellectual group Identity Evropa coolly told me that, “We don’t intend to participate in the activities of other movements.” Meanwhile, the Traditionalist Worker Party, a feared street-fighting formation, had recently imploded in a bizarre trailer-park bust-up, after its leader, Matt Heimbach, was caught sleeping with his father-in-law’s wife – so they couldn’t come either.

Last summer, a few hundred assorted neo-Nazis, skinheads, Klansmen and regular-looking, preppy white guys from all over the country had put aside their minor differences to terrorise the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, with two days of swastika-waving and lethal violence. But the movement has splintered since then, and its organisational capacity dwindled, under a withering civil society backlash.

Individuals have been prosecuted, sued and publicly exposed. They have struggled for access to web-hosting, and to fundraising and social media platforms. Many of them fear “Antifa”, the violent wing of the counter-protesters who confront the alt-right wherever they appear. (“You see them come with the black outfits, and with the helmets, and with the baseball bats,” President Trump noted, during his feverish, wide-eyed public defence of the alt-right after Charlottesville.)

“We need to remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun,” Anglin counselled; the way to do that would be to confine activism to the online sphere, and certainly no longer march the streets alongside the painfully “unironic” neo-Nazis.

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Jason Kessler, who organised both the Charlottesville rally and this year’s sequel, surely saw Anglin’s point. Kessler is being sued under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 by 13 victims of last year’s violence. Yet the need to draw attention to the aforementioned “discrimination” – and, more importantly, to himself – took precedence. He discouraged weapons and all flags other than American and Confederate, and, according to Facebook Messenger logs leaked by the website Unicorn Riot, was “not courting violent neo-Nazi groups for this event”. But he didn’t ban Nazis outright – “if people want to play by the rules fine” – and wanted David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, to give a speech. The result of this hedging, along with all the other deterrents, was that almost no one from anywhere on the alt-right spectrum felt hip and sexy enough to show up.

Two-dozen protesters, and similar numbers of police and reporters, fitted comfortably inside a single subway car as it trundled through the Virginia suburbs into the nation’s capital. “The UK? Fuck the UK,” said “Karl” (a nickname), a 21-year-old student from Texas in neat khakis and white button-down shirt, when I introduced myself: “You guys can kiss my ass.” Two adolescent boys looked on silently, faces concealed by bandanas; they wore badges advertising themselves as devotees of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy-theory narrative being serialised on message boards.

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Rich, 36, from Long Island, with WHITE PRIDE tattooed on his neck, told me with sorrowful, yellow-green eyes that people unfairly consider him a Nazi: “I don’t hate anyone, I just love my own race, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.” Bobby, from the New Jersey European Heritage Association, lectured me through a hockey mask about Jewish over-representation in “the media, in Hollywood, when it comes to pornography, degeneracy, the music industry”.

They marched a mile on foot, through a gauntlet of thousands of screaming counter-protesters. Hundreds of police officers worked to keep them safe. At Lafayette Square, more journalists were rotated in and out of the security cordon, in groups of 40 or 50 at a time, to listen as Kessler, a natural public speaker, talked at length about how his freedom of speech had been denied and his rights violated, all due to the colour of his white skin. He was being “mocked by the entire planet” – but also venerated. It didn’t matter that almost no one was there, that there wasn’t really any rally. The city, in its response, had built him a phantom army. Across the street, a quiet-looking White House almost seemed to listen politely, too.

Most members of the alt-right are somehow too romanced by their own sense of victimhood to realise just how friendly the current disposition of power is to their aims. But the thought-leaders believe in gradually shifting what’s known as the Overton window – the boundaries of acceptable public opinion. “Criticism of Jewish influence should be demystified and normalised,” Kessler wrote in the leaked Facebook logs. “It’s down to a hardcore contingent that will say no to tomorrow’s Republicans [becoming] Trannies for Tax Cuts.”

As it stands, a majority of white Americans and, according to a University of Virginia poll conducted this month, 43 per cent of all Americans, believe that “white people are currently under attack”. The campaign strategy that Republican candidates in this autumn’s mid-term elections have settled upon involves stoking that idea more than it does talking about tax cuts. The Overton window has moved, and can move further. “Being in favour of white advocacy does not mean you’re a white supremacist,” Kessler said in the square. I asked whether he thought the president was “pro-white”. “Well, he’s against political correctness,” Kessler replied. “And that’s a step in the right direction.”

This article appears in the 15 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad