No More Funny Business: 'Alt-right' Reinventing Itself as a Leaner, Meaner White Nationalist Power

The alt-right movement is moving away from the irony of Pepe the Frog and rallying more seriously around the white supremacist hard core

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Protesters stands guard in front of the entrance to their gathering during a white nationalist rally, on Saturday Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. The group had gathered to protest plans by the city of Charlottesville to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. (Shaban Athuman /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Protesters stands guard in front of the entrance to their gathering during a white nationalist rally, on Saturday Aug. 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va. The group had gathered to protest plans by the Credit: Shaban Athuman/AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Just over a month since the rally in Charlottesville, Va, where white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed violently over the removal of Confederate monuments across the South, leaving one counterprotester dead, Merriam-Webster added “alt-right” to its online dictionary last week.

The inclusion signifies the level to which the term, coined by American white supremacist Richard Spencer in 2008, has entered the political discourse. Merriam-Webster defines the alt-right as a “right-wing, primarily online political movement or grouping based in the U.S. whose members reject mainstream conservative politics and espouse extremist beliefs and policies typically centered on ideas of white nationalism.”

The U.K. anti-racist group Hope Not Hate, one of whose members went undercover and infiltrated the alt-right for over a year, defines the movement as an amorphous collection of “blogs, vlogs, websites and podcasts with only a few offline organizations of note.” It’s a loosely-knit movement with no single leader or dominant organization able to completely control the direction.

A white nationalist demonstrator with a helmet and shield walks into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unCredit: Steve Helber/AP

The term alt-right, however, has become so ubiquitous that it’s often used to describe all sorts of far-right movements, ideologies and individuals, many of which have little or nothing to do with the alt-right proper. Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart reporter turned media celebrity, is a good example. While often described as alt-right, Yiannopoulos is in fact loathed by the alt-right and is more closely affiliated with the so-called alt-light – the alt-right’s “softer,” less overtly white-supremacist sister movement that focuses on defending “Western culture” instead of outright race.

Both movements grew out of the same troll-and-meme online culture and exploded in popularity at the same time, but they split sometime last year when Spencer and other leading alt-right figures made their white-nationalist tendencies public by flashing the Nazi salute at a Trump election celebration.

Regardless of the newfound recognition of the term alt-right in recent weeks, the movement has suffered numerous blows since Charlottesville. The fallout included arrests in connection with violence at the rally, online shaming of white nationalists, infighting, canceled events, and mass condemnations and disavowals – even from once-important allies. President Donald Trump’s former senior strategist, Steve Bannon, who once proudly (and famously) referred to Breitbart (the far-right news website he chairs) as a “platform for the alt-right,” called the movement “a collection of clowns” and “losers.”

The alt-right label became increasingly toxic: Breitbart itself severed ties with the movement, vehemently denying that it ever represented it. The website went so far as to cite a Harvard-MIT study that “concluded that Breitbart News does not represent the alt-right.”

As few on the outside can clearly differentiate between the alt-right and alt-light, the latter is trying to rebrand itself as the New Right, but it hasn’t been doing better.

A masked demonstrator in a Donald Trump MAGA hat at a "Freedom of Speech" rally of self-proclaimed white nationalists, white supremacists and alt-right activists. Lincoln Memorial D.C., June 25, 2017Credit: JIM BOURG/REUTERS

In Boston, for example, an alt-light “free speech” rally ended in viral humiliation after the few who came found themselves surrounded by thousands of counterprotesters. And Free Speech Week at the University of California, Berkeley – an alt-light gathering that was to feature far-right superstars such as Yiannopoulos, Bannon and Mike Cernovich – was canceled by the students organizing it following protests, leaving Yiannopoulos and Cernovich to go to Berkeley on their own and speak to a minuscule crowd of 50 people.

And now Trump, who inspired the movements to grow, energized their followers and increased their visibility during his presidential election campaign, has flip-flopped regarding his position the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, DACA, working with Democrats to reach a deal. When far-right activists organized a pro-Trump rally called the Mother of All Rallies this month, the alt-right was noticeably absent. Spencer told The Washington Post that, if anything, he’d be protesting against Trump these days.

But none of this means the alt-right is declining, say two scholars who have published books on the movement’s rise and origins. In general, they caution, it’s dangerous to eulogize the alt-right. People have been doing that ever since Spencer first coined the term. Still, they say, the movement has been isolated and diminished by last month’s events in Charlottesville, which included Ku Klux Klan members. The resistance it encountered means it also lost one of its big recruiting tools: Simply put, it’s no longer fun.

‘No going back’

Before Charlottesville, says Angela Nagle, author of “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right,” the alt-right thrived on irony. It weaponized it.

White nationalist Richard Spencer addressing supporters at a "Freedom of Speech" rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, June 25, 2017.Credit: JIM BOURG/REUTERS

Owing to its roots in the dark corners of online message boards, the alt-right used meme culture and trolling to great effect in 2015 and 2016. The ironic facade, best exemplified by the smirking face of the Pepe the Frog meme, proved to be a useful schtick. Alt-right figures would make statements that indicated white-nationalist tendencies and then mock the outraged liberals who took them seriously.

This created an air of ambiguity and transgressiveness, an impression that it might all be just a big joke, which helped the alt-right wrong-foot its detractors. It also allowed many irreverent young men to flirt with white-nationalist ideas without fully committing.

Nagle has spent years studying the alt-right’s unlikely rise, tracking its origins in the anonymous trolling culture of 4Chan and Reddit, and the banding together of online subcultures – united by their hatred of “PC culture” and “Social Justice Warriors” – that used memes, trolling and harassment to needle progressive sensibilities. Now, she says, the irony-laden chapter in the movement’s history is over.

Demonstrators carrying Confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.Credit: Emily Molli / NurPhoto

“There’s really no going back from Charlottesville,” she says. “As the movement moved offline, elements like trolling and the nihilistic culture of transgression have kind of dropped away.” The movement has shed its online persona to appear like its true self.

George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, also spent years studying the alt-right and white-nationalist movements. His new book, “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” studies the movement’s evolution and the differences – and similarities – to previous white-nationalist movements.

Unlike the white-nationalist movements of the 1980s and ’90s, which he says “were not known for attracting people who were particularly talented or bright,” the alt-right was youthful and tech savvy, totally different from previous white-supremacist movements like the KKK, which the alt-right viewed as ineffective and derisively called “white nationalism 1.0.” Uniquely, the alt-right was leaderless, not beset by “wannabe führers.” It offered anonymity and laughs.

“Although I think the people pushing the movement for the most part were all serious, part of its appeal with lots of young people was that there was a spirit of youthful rebellion about it,” Hawley says. “It was also offering something more attractive than William Pierce ever did,” he adds, referring to the American white nationalist who founded the National Alliance in 1974. As Hawley puts it, the alt-right presented itself as “something you can be a part of that’s fun and also safe. You get to laugh along the way. I don’t think anybody is going to join Aryan Nation with that in mind,” referring to the white supremacist religious organization.

Hawley agrees with Nagle that the ironic phase is over and that the movement is turning into a more typical white-nationalist movement. Starting earlier this year, Hawley says, people in the alt-right realized that “there are limits to what internet harassments and memes and trolling campaigns could accomplish,” so a push to take it off the internet and into the real world ensued.

But that gambit backfired with Charlottesville and the last month has seen a break between the movement and much of the online troll army that helped the alt-right explode onto the international stage. Many of the trolls simply broke with the movement.

“I think there’s a growing indication, especially after a big wave of doxxing, that this isn’t a game that people can just engage in and disengage from without potential for real consequences,” Hawley says.

Nagle says that in Charlottesville, “the alt-right wasn’t being ironic, for once.” It was very obvious that the movement believed in white nationalism. That, she says, forced a break between the more fervently ideological faction and people just along for the ride.

“All those guys who spent time in all these forums, now after Charlottesville, see they’re not willing to go through with what it would take to turn their flirtations with the far right into something real. They don’t have the serious political commitment to really be part of the movement that Richard Spencer is leading,” Nagle says.

“They’re not going to go and face down militarized riot police and Antifa [the anti-fascist movement at the forefront of the counterprotests], they’re not serious enough about their goals. In many cases, I think these were young people who enjoyed the fun of transgression, but hadn’t really seriously thought through the gravity of the ideas that they were flirting with.”

Still in the game

Part of the problem, Hawley says, is that once the alt-right stepped into the outside world, it looked less like its youthful, rebellious online persona and “a lot like the earlier white nationalism they had been trying to distinguish themselves from.”

Still, Hawley and Nagle don’t believe that the blows of the past month mean the alt-right is close to an end just yet, despite all the arrests and disavowals.

“There are people who were really enthusiastic about the alt-right’s message before – they probably still are. If somebody was committed to the creation of a new ethno-state, it’s unlikely that they’ve had a real change of heart,” Hawley says.

The problem for the alt-right, he argues, is that after Charlottesville, it’s unclear how to harness the youthful energy of online trolling and turn it into a unified, serious white-nationalist movement. “I’m not sure they really know how to move forward without going back and doing the things that were ineffectual before,” he says.

As for the near future, Hawley suggests that a model more akin to European far-right movements – groups that “don’t announce months in advance exactly what they’re going to do and where they’re going to do it” – seems likely: PR stunts like taking over mosques.

As Hawley puts it, “They can’t really have big rallies, but they can show up, make a show of force, take the pictures they want to take and then disperse. I’m thinking of the mosque occupation in France a few years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if that might be a model that is more likely to be replicated in the U.S.”

But the alt-right is a leaderless movement, which means in-house opinions about its future vary widely. Some people, Hawley says, think the alt-right should lay low for a while and let Antifa “overstay their welcome,” while others want a “million Charlottesvilles.”

The most energized faction seems to be the so-called alt-tech, which aims to create the white-nationalist movement’s own technological infrastructure – things like social media, fundraising platforms and web-hosting services – now that so many web-service companies are banning it.

“We tend to think in terms of groups and organizations, but the alt-right still hasn’t achieved that yet,” Hawley says. “It’s still sort of a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters kind of movement.”

According to Nagle, the bigger problem is that the anger that sparked the movement hasn’t dissipated. The alt-right, she says, has lost a lot of activists who are afraid of the consequences, but still believe in the movement’s core messages. And though the alt-right finds itself diminished, she says, the threat of violence might be bigger now that the stalwarts don’t have to placate the more moderate wing, and now that the movement is linked to the far-right militia movement.

“I worry that there’s this group of particularly younger men who have not been convinced that they’re wrong,” Nagle says, adding that the anger still exists.

“It’s not that they’ve been convinced that any of their critiques of liberalism or feminism are wrong, because there is a real crisis in liberalism and its ability to defend its own ideas and inspire people,” she says. “That problem is not going to go away. It’s just going to continue festering and take different forms.”

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