One year after the deadly fascist-led rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the U.S. Alt Right is stumbling to regain its footing. Only a small number of White Nationalists came to Washington, DC rally for a rally on the one-year anniversary. While this doesn’t represent the movement’s strength, the public backlash against the Alt Right has significantly damaged it, and it has been unable to regain its former position. However, the more moderate wing of the movement, the so-called “Alt Lite,” is in far better shape—both in its political orientation and strength in the street.
The Alt Right had a meteoric rise in 2016. It was only late in the year that it started to separate itself into two wings. One, the Alt Right proper, largely followed the longstanding White Nationalist movement, but was different in its smaller details—its leaders, social base, aesthetics, and organizing forms. The Alt Lite shared the Alt Right’s cultural and organizing forms, and many of its politics, but stopped short of calling for a white ethnostate and open antisemitism. It also allowed in people of color, gay, and Jewish members. This stance led to its close cooperation with militia members and the Trumpist wing of the GOP.
The Alt Right was able to revive the U.S. White Nationalist movement, which had been in a long slump. A series of demonstrations and clashes in early 2017, led by the Alt Lite but joined by the Alt Right, culminated in the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. However, this rally was dominated by White Nationalists, and the planned speakers were a Who’s Who of the Alt Right. After street fights with antifascists, the police prevented the rally from actually taking place, and dispersed the crowds. But the day ended when one of the fascist activists rammed his car into an antifascist march, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 29 others.
The murder created a wave of public revulsion, and action, against the Alt Right. The Alt Right and White Nationalists—and some Alt Lite members—lost a huge amount of digital platforms, including social media, website hosts, financial services, and even profiles on dating apps. One Far Right rally, held a week later in Boston, attracted 40,000 counter-protestors. Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, the members of Donald Trump’s administration closest to the Alt Right, also left the White House soon after. (Trump advisor Stephen Miller, a former associate of Richard Spencer, has stepped up to take their place.)
The Alt Right also moved away from Trump. They disagreed with his April 2017 bombing of a Syrian air base under Bashar al-Assad’s control, as well as Trump’s strong support for Israel. His economic policies also clashed with many key Alt Right figures, who support social welfare economics—at least for white people.
By March 2018 the Alt Right hit a low point. The Traditionalist Worker Party, the only group consistently able to mobilize a street presence, folded after a scandal: their leader was caught sleeping with his father-in-law’s wife. Alt Right leader Richard Spencer’s university speaking tour, which had already run into problems, was cancelled after a disastrous appearance in Michigan. And Alt Right figures—especially those who had attended Charlottesville—continued to be doxxed and fired from their jobs. This left only two active, on–the-ground Alt Right groups (the Patriot Front and Identity Evropa), and they focused on unannounced, pop-up demos. A number of White Nationalists entered the spring 2018 election primaries, but most have been soundly defeated.
This downturn did not affect Trump or his more mainstream supporters. The Alt Lite had also lost its momentum in street rallies. But Patriot Prayer’s Joey Gibson was able to revive them in the western states. The Alt Lite fight gang, the Proud Boys, also avoided collapsing after Charlottesville, and are now a growing—and increasingly violent—group. The Alt Lite also has the advantage of avoiding the public taboo against White Nationalism. Unlike the Alt Right, ideologically the Alt Lite is unreservedly pro-Trump, supports his fiscally conservative economic policy, and is pro-Israel. This allows Alt Lite members to portray themselves as regular Trump supporters to the public.
Around 400 (including members of militias) attended an August 4, 2018 Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Oregon; many were dressed in body armor and carrying shields. The counterprotest, which drew over 1,000 people, was attacked by police with crowd control weapons and dispersed.
The organizer of the first Charlottesville rally, Jason Kessler, held a second one in DC on August 12, 2018. While less than 30 people came, the counterdemonstration drew about 1,000. But Leftist victory claims overlooked that after the first rally, Kessler had fallen out with almost all of the speakers and groups which came to the first one.
This was followed by rallies a week later on August 18— in cities like Tucson, Austin, San Jose, Boston, and Seattle—many of which were billed as against “far left violence.” Most of these were organized by Resist Marxism group, which combines Alt Lite figures with Patriot movement and militia activists. It ended as a debacle though: in most places, counter-protestors easily outnumbered the modest numbers of Far Right activists.
Nonetheless, this shows a revival of interest by the Alt Lite and its Far Right allies to hold national street demonstrations. And they are still trying to build momentum. Upcoming events in September include a rally by the neoconfederate League of the South (who were at Charlottesville last year) in Tennessee; Joey Gibson is holding an event in Austin to defend conspiracy theorist Alex Jones; and the militia and Alt Lite groups are holding a second Mother of All Rallies (MOAR) in DC.
It’s unclear where the Alt Right can turn next. They have drawn a new generation into White Nationalist politics. For the time at least, this new blood is not going away. But the Alt Right’s thunder seems to be stolen by the Alt Lite, who can function more openly. Their rank Islamophobia and aggressive misogyny has been normalized by Trump. So, for example, doxxing has no affect on them outside of extremely liberal areas. It is only as the level of Alt Lite violence has increased have those outside the radical left started to respond.
Trump continually stokes the fires of racial resentment in the United States. The revelation that federal authorities who detained undocumented immigrants were separating small children from their parents created widespread outrage. And Trump continues to fuel unabashed racism with lies such as his August 22, 2018 tweet, which claimed there was a “large-scale killing” of white South African farmers. (This is a long-standing conspiracy theory among White Nationalists.)
There is already an unheard-of level of open White Nationalist sentiment expressed by mainstream media and political figures, like Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. On August 8, 2018, Ingraham gave an on-air, baldly White Nationalist rant in which she claimed, “The America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” because immigration was being “foisted” on Americans. This situation lends itself to the possibility that the Alt Right could collapse while its primary talking points will be taken up, in a more moderate form, by mainstream conservatives.
The United States feels like it is teetering on a precipice, ready to fall headlong into a racist delirium at any moment. Whoever can channel the zeitgeist—whether it’s street-fighting fascists, Alt Lite gangs, or the president and his administration—will be the immediate beneficiary of this.
Spencer Sunshine (www.spencersunshine.com) is an associate fellow at the think tank Political Research Associates. Follow him on twitter: @transform6789