It’s been a bad few weeks to be a white nationalist.
The racist far-right has been flailing since descending on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August for a rally that participants deemed a success for its huge turnout—until it turned deadly. Groups plan events and then cancel them in rapid succession, and people point fingers on Twitter at who they perceive to be leading the movement astray. An event intended to “Unite the Right” ended up doing the exact opposite.
“If this was initially seen as a victory for the movement, it’s actually been one of abject devastation,” Heidi Beirich, expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TPM. “Look at the infighting that came in the wake of the event over whether it was the right tactics, if they should have been there in the first place, the groups that came, and the violence, obviously.”
“It was very painful to them and there’s a lot of reticence to go down that road again,” Beirich added. “They certainly don’t want to have a Charlottesville 2.0.”
The last thing the far-right wants right now is another sprawling rally brimming with heavily-armed participants in a public place. The Anticommunist Action Network on Thursday abruptly canceled an event along those lines being planned for Charlotte, North Carolina, after white nationalist leader Richard Spencer dropped out and white supremacist websites cautioned their followers against going.
White supremacist Andrew Anglin wrote on his Daily Stormer website that after Charlottesville, marching with guns through a park in Charlotte was a “recipe for disaster” that would invite police backlash and mass arrests. Neo-Nazi Internet troll Weev took direct aim at Spencer in his own blog post, framing him as an attention-seeking opportunist and “source of catastrophic loss for all who stand beside him.”
This sort of mutual mistrust and infighting is not new to far-right movements, according to experts on the subject.
“In this extremism world, and I’ve been doing this for over three decades, there have always been these internecine battles that take place, and jealousies, and personalities,” said Brian Levin, director of the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University.
But Levin said he believes there is a real splintering now, as many groups that showed up to Charlottesville—and even some that didn’t—set about dissociating themselves from the event and its violence.
Movement leaders of varying stripes all are saddled with the baggage of having attended an event where Ku Klux Klan leaders flew their banners, and where an ideological sympathizer rammed a car into a group of peaceful protesters, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring many more. The damage is particularly great for the so-called “alt-right,” a loosely defined group of white nationalists, anti-Semites and online trolls whose project has been putting a presentable, buttoned-up face on racism.
“The concept of the alt-right is to create a sort of mainstream version of an old hatred,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “When violence occurs at their events, it does undermine their effort to try to recruit and attract people to their cause as if it was somehow mainstream.”
Even more cutting for a cohort obsessed with projecting aggressive masculinity, the event made many of them “appear as laughingstocks,” Segal said. Social media lit up with videos of “alt-right” personality Baked Alaska calling for milk after getting pepper-sprayed in the face. And Spencer and other alt-right leaders disavowed Charlottesville organizer Jason Kessler after he was chased from his own impromptu press conference after the event and later sent what he claimed was an alcohol, Ambien and Xanax-fueled tweet insulting Heyer.
Kessler is hardly the only Charlottesville participant to see his life fall to pieces over an event condemned by virtually everyone, with the notable exception of President Donald Trump. The Daily Stormer’s Anglin, who is in hiding as he faces a pending lawsuit, has been booted from multiple web hosting services. Others were doxxed, kicked off social media and Paypal or fired from their jobs. Some participants who injured counter-protesters have been jailed. And as FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in a Wednesday congressional hearing, his agency has “about 1,000 open domestic-terrorism investigations,” many related to the white nationalist movement.
Those in the white nationalist community acknowledge that they’ve taken a serious hit.
Evan McLaren, executive director of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, described Charlottesville as “traumatic for a lot of people,” telling TPM it was “natural” that those in the “alt-right” “are now seeking explanations.”
Echoing tweets from Spencer, McLaren said that the movement should redirect their attention to private venues where counter-demonstrators can’t enter or to “flash mob-type events not announced beforehand.”
There are other spillover effects. Concerns about “violence” and “alt left terrorist threats” recently derailed nationwide rallies planned by anti-Muslim group ACT! For America and far-right Internet personality Jack Posobiac. And former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ plan to host a “Free Speech Week” in Berkeley imploded.
As the SPLC’s Beirich put it, “The public sympathy has dissipated.”
“Milo is of course not directly connected with what happened at Charlottesville, but I think a lot of people on the right who’d normally have come out to make a fuss about free speech rights have taken a second look at this argument,” she added.
Both extremists and the experts who study them caution that those on the racist fringe are simply down, not out. But with leaders squabbling over tactics and a fired-up countermovement tracking its every move, the right may not unite again in the near future.