While President Donald Trump spent the week generating goodwill among the varied white nationalist groups that descended on Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, a wide swath of corporations, universities and localities was pushing back against them.
PayPal, Patreon, Facebook, Squarespace, Spotify, Google, GoDaddy, Texas A&M University, the University of Florida, Michigan State University, and a mountain resort in Colorado are among the companies removing white nationalists’ accounts and venues canceling their planned events in the wake of violent street clashes that left three people dead and dozens injured on Saturday. By eliminating both the physical and virtual platforms that white nationalists use to promote their ideas, those companies and institutions have curtailed the avenues by which they could grow their reach.
“I can’t think of another incident to which the backlash has been nearly so widespread,” Mark Pitcavage, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, told TPM.
Most of the white nationalist, far-right and “anti-communist” groups that spoke with TPM acknowledged that squeeze, in addition to their association with a gory rally attended by neo-Nazis and decorated Ku Klux Klan members, as a setback. But the gloss they put on it varied widely: A number of group leaders insisted that the exposure they received through the “Unite the Right” rally is worth any ensuing hardship, and that other social media and web domain platforms will crop up to service their needs. Others described the ongoing backlash as a huge blow.
A Charlottesville organizer and white nationalist podcast host who goes by the pseudonym Caerulus Rex told TPM that his PayPal account had been terminated in the wake of Charlottesville. But Rex insisted that such moves would not “silence us.”
“There are already services stepping up to accept the money that paypal and the like dont want,” Rex said in an email. “Those companies that started refusing us service created an opportunity for tech savy [sic] individuals to profit by not being offended by the truth.”
The Charlottesville organizer behind the @AltRightVa Twitter handle, who declined to give his name, expressed a similar sentiment.
In a phone call, the organizer acknowledged that the “Unite the Right” rally “did not turn out the way we wanted it to.” But he was confident that white nationalists who had their PayPal, YouTube and other accounts canceled will either turn to other sites to get their message out, like the open source platform Minds.com, or create new platforms entirely.
“The market will provide a solution,” he insisted in a phone interview.
Other rally attendees made use of the pro-First Amendment arguments so often voiced by white nationalists to concede that private companies are within their rights to cut off service to any user.
“That is that company’s choice if they want to,” the publications director for the California-based Anti-Communist Action Group, who identified himself only as Seth, told TPM. “If we’re going to allow people to deny a gay couple their cake, we have to apply that standard universally.”
The extent to which white nationalist groups were affected by service denials and account terminations this week varied depending on their size, reach and how violent and virulent their views are. Andrew Anglin’s neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, was essentially wiped off the mainstream internet after GoDaddy, Google and CloudFare stopped providing domain registration in quick succession. Anglin has since relocated the site to the dark web, where it is only available via use of a Tor network, radically restricting his audience.
“His site is all he has,” the ADL’s Pitcavage observed. “He can’t even show his face ‘cause he’ll get served with lawsuits. So his site is basically his voice. He gets hurt a lot worse than someone else who has a lot of different avenues for expressing their ideologies and beliefs.”
Pitcavage said the squeeze was real, whether or not these groups want to acknowledge it.
“There’s only a limited number of ways to send money electronically over the Internet,” he said. “There are only a limited number of large social media sites—once you get away from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, you’re really dropping off in terms of the numbers of membership.”
Some white nationalist groups who have been active for years see this week’s backlash, which has derailed several scheduled events, as devastating.
Though his website and PayPal account have gone untouched, Jared Taylor, the head of white nationalist publication American Renaissance, likened large social media platforms to “public utilities” in their monopoly of specific industries, saying, “If they kick you off because they don’t like the cut of your jib, it’s a terrible setback in how you want to get your message out.”
Taylor said that he was “driven to” hold his publication’s annual conference at state parks rather than in posh hotels because of what he deemed “illegal pressure tactics.”
“We used to have our meetings in first class hotels, convenient to airports, convenient to international travel,” he said. “Now we’re really limited to public facilities. That’s a huge blow; it’s a huge setback.”
The rally on the streets of Charlottesville and a slew of plans to hold events in public spaces on university campuses speaks to this squeezing of the white nationalist movement out of private spaces.
Cheyenne Mountain Lodge, a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this week canceled a planned 2018 conference organized by the white nationalist-aligned website Virginia Dare after public outcry. Still, VDare founder Peter Brimelow told TPM that the conference hubbub, on top of PayPal dropping his account, led to “one of the strongest donor days ever” and claimed that “traffic is running double or triple usual pace.” According to Brimelow, that cable hosts like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson discussed VDare’s predicament on air helped, too.
Texas A&M this week canceled a September rally planned by activist Preston Wiginton, who had invited prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak, out of concern that the event would result in the same violence seen in Virginia.
Wiginton told TPM he’s in talks with the American Civil Liberties Union and private attorneys to take legal action against A&M. Given the high burden for a public university to prove that threats of violence will materialize at an event, some legal analysts say Wiginton has a strong case (The ACLU did not immediately return TPM’s request for comment).
Insisting he was just “making an observation,” Wiginton invoked a dark precedent: the formation of the Irish Republican Army.
“Historically if you look at the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, this is exactly how they were formed,” he said. “They were forced underground because of their views. That’s what America is playing with. I’m not advocating that at all, but in a society where you have people that have issues or are angry or something, our First Amendment makes it so they can express those views, come to a forum and discuss and find a solution to those problems.”
Battles over whether one may spew hate speech in public are likely to play out on university campuses and in city parks for years to come. As Pitcavage noted, what matters in terms of corporate and private backlash is whether it stands that test of time.