The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017, was a defining moment for the alt-right, but not in the way the racist movement had hoped.
Announced in the context of escalating violence at alt-right events, Unite the Right was intended to be the moment that the primarily online-based movement demonstrated that its various factions and figures could stand in solidarity for white nationalism, wielding power on the streets against all opposition.
As events transpired, Unite the Right was defined by ferocious violence that resulted in dozens of injuries, culminating in the death of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer after an alleged white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors. Whilst the alt-right has long attempted to portray itself as a fresh alternative to stale, thuggish, traditional American white supremacism, media outlets across the globe were soon adorned with images of leading alt-right figures alongside Nazi flags, Klansmen,and shield-and-helmet clad activists with makeshift weapons. The scope of negative coverage was magnified by US President Donald Trump’s failure to adequately condemn the white supremacists.
Charlottesville was a hubristic attempt to capitalise on the momentum of Trump’s election, but instead gave the alt-right its most infamous moment. Whilst some alt-right figures attempted to claim the abortive event was a victory, Charlottesville significantly intensified negative attention to the alt-right, which in the aftermath has found itself operating in an even more hostile environment and facing a number of considerable challenges.
Just a year later, “Unite the Right 2” and its organiser Jason Kessler faced preemptive condemnation across the alt-right for attempting to hold a sequel march to the first abortive rally. Kessler was able to muster a dismal turnout of just 20 activists in Washington DC, down from as many as 1,500 at the previous rally, vastly outnumbered by counter-protestors.
While the alt-right has undoubtedly endured a long and bruising year since Charlottesville, the miserable attendance at Unite the Right 2 does not represent the wholesale collapse of the alt-right in America, but rather a tactical shift away from planned street protests. The online deplatformings, lawsuits and infighting endured by the alt-right in the wake of Charlottesville has forced white nationalists to pause, readapt and reconsider strategy both online and offline.
The alt-right has, since its earliest days, primarily operated online. Whilst many thousands of internet users may identify with the alt-right, only a fraction of these will have engaged in offline activism. The alt-right uses the internet to recruit, to target its perceived enemies, and to engage in “metapolitics” – the dissemination of ideas and cultural values, laying the foundation for long term political change. While Unite the Right was an attempt by alt-right figureheads to venture into street politics, getting boots on the ground still depended on the use of online tools; advertising the event, allowing event organizers to communicate, and crowdfunding travel costs.
The subsequent catastrophe has led many on the alt-right to abandon the endorsement of planned public events, in favor of retreating online and continuing to engage in the culture war through digital means. Online activists can be anonymous, avoiding the doxxings and lawsuits that Charlottesville brought on them. “We had successfully been lured out of our element, out of the place we were winning by engaging the culture, into a place where we could not win”, wrote Andrew Anglin of the influential nazi alt-right website the Daily Stormer.
However, post-Charlottesville the alt-right has found that the internet is no longer quite the safe haven it once was. Alongside actions by anti-fascist hackers – for example, Red Ice Creations, the alt-right’s premier media network, claimed to have had its social media hacked and its membership database stolen on the day of the rally – public outcry has prompted a renewed digital crackdown aimed at alt-right associated accounts on social media platforms, payment providers and advertising platforms.
This has forced some on the alt-right to seek solace in alternative online platforms, sometimes created by the alt-right or its sympathisers. These are marketed for their “free speech” policies and, in the case of payments, can provide greater anonymity. These alternative platforms have had varying degrees of success, however, and engagement in mainstream platforms remains a major area of focus for the alt-right, which has in some areas has remained continued to grow online post-Charlottesville.
Anglin’s The Daily Stormer has been victim to particularly severe responses post-Charlottesville, partly due to the outlet branding Heyer a “fat, childless, 32 year-old slut” and site administrator Andrew Auernheimer (AKA weev) claiming that he was seeking to “get people on the ground” at her funeral. Shortly after Unite the Right, The Daily Stormer’s domain name was seized by Google and the its hosting provider, GoDaddy, kicked the site off its servers. The Daily Stormer has has subsequently moved between hosting providers and has had 14 domain names seized, enabling Anglin to call his site the “most censored publication in history”. “In less than a year between the election and that fateful day in August, we went from the highest high to the lowest low”, Anglin wrote in March 2018.
Despite all this, Anglin claimed in June 2018 that “Daily Stormer traffic is better than ever”, and the site remains by far the most significant nazi website in the world. Elsewhere Greg Johnson’s alt-right hub Counter-Currents Publishing, which suffered online DDOS attacks after Charlottesville, reported a spike in visitors in August 2017, although has since returned to approximately 150,000 visitors per month, a small increase from spring 2017.
The alt-right has been hurt financially by online payment providers Stripe and PayPal cancelling contracts with high profile websites and activists. This began with the pre-Charlottesville cancellation of the accounts of “alt-light” personality Based Stickman (AKA Kyle Chapman), alt-right blog Occidental Dissent and WeSearchr, the crowdfunding site that offered a bounty for the antifascist that punched alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer in January 2017. The crackdown accelerated after Unite the Right, with the accounts of Spencer’s National Policy Institute (NPI), alt-right fraternity Identity Evropa and Counter-Currents getting the boot. Bans by payment providers have been piecemeal, however, and Stripe remains as the processor of several sites connected to the alt-right.
The alt-right has sought to establish replacement funding platforms, but with limited success. The Patreon alternative Hatreon went down in early 2018. This has increased the already existing interest in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Monero. As decentralised systems they are virtually impossible to censor and allow for a degree of anonymity that is impossible with, for example, credit card. The rapid rise in the price of BitCoin during the fall of 2017 helped drive the use of the currency. Most public alt-right activists now have cryptocurrency wallets.
Dependence on effort-intensive payment methods such as cryptocurrencies and cheques has, for some, caused difficulties. Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents recently announced that his organisation has received $8,497.94 in donations so far in 2018, well short of its $70.000 target and significantly less than previous years. Johnson has, however, done well from cryptocurrencies; his wallet was worth over $100,000 in December 2017, thanks to the high price of the currency at the time. Others have fared even better; Andrew Auernheimer (AKA weev) of The Daily Stormer has received a staggering $1,676,039 to his bitcoin wallet as of August 2018. These numbers highlight the tech-savvy nature of the alt-right, a movement looking to stay a step ahead.
Post-Charlottesville many social media platforms also took a renewed effort to ban accounts associated with the alt-right. Twitter has banned numerous high profile activists, especially after policy changes in December 2017.
Gab.ai has quickly gained traction in the alt-right as a Twitter alternative and some of those blocked on Twitter, such as Anglin, have established themselves as among Gab’s most prominent users. The site experienced a surge in activity in August 2017, lasting to January 2018. Since then, activity on the site has slowed but remains at roughly double the monthly activity compared to this time last year. The site reported to have 465,000 registered users in April 2018.
Gab.ai has, however, largely failed to establish a loyal user base. Many users contribute little to the site, simply maintaining accounts as backups in case of Twitter bans, resulting in comparatively low levels of discussion and interaction between users compared to other social media platforms. This highlights the fact that the alt-right is reluctant to move to alternative platforms unless forced. Platforms such as Gab.ai, Reddit alternative Voat and Facebook alternative VK risk alt-right ghettoisation, with limited the potential to reach new audiences and pull off attention-grabbing media stunts afforded by mainstream platforms.
Bans on alt-right accounts can meaningfully limit the alt-right’s reach, but such bans have been inconsistent across platforms; for example, Facebook has banned Spencer and Counter-Currents, while Twitter has not. Some influential users have simply returned to Twitter under different user names.
Post-Charlottesville the alt-right has continued to grow on YouTube, which is both central in disseminating its message and, whilst it has banned a small number of extreme accounts, is relatively lenient towards the alt-right. In the last twelve months Scottish vlogger Colin Robertson (AKA Millennial Woes) has doubled his monthly views, as has premier alt-right platform Red Ice Creations; alt-right vlogger Brittany Pettibone has increased her numbers ten-fold. YouTube also allows alt-right accounts, such as Robertson’s, to monetise their live streams with ‘Super Chats’, which allow viewers to ‘tip’ the creator of the video, now a common way for alt-right YouTubers to monetise their channels, supplanting platforms like Patreon where users may have been blocked.
Impervious to bans are image message boards such as 4chan and 8chan, which tolerate almost any kind of content, no matter how extreme. The /pol/ board of 4chan has been essential to the movement’s growth, and both 4chan and 8chan remain central hubs for the development of alt-right propaganda and online strategies, such as deliberate misinformation and ad hoc hate campaigns, through which the alt-right’s culture war is fought.
Much more can be done to limit the alt-right’s reach on mainstream platforms. For now, the alt-right is finding ways to adapt.
“Unite the Right” has, ironically, left the movement more fragmented than ever before, with many activists attempting to shift blame for the mess, and some dissociating from the movement altogether. “There’s disarray, there’s discord and there’s infighting—endless f***ing infighting, vendettas” said Robertson in March 2018, summarising simply: “we are f***ed”.
Since Charlottesville there has been intense backlash against figures continuing to engage in street politics and planned public events. Following Charlottesville Spencer continued on his tour of American colleges, protected by his black-clad nazi bodyguards of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP). The expensive tour culminated at Michigan State University in March, when 25 people were arrested after TWP nazis violently clashed with anti-fascists, all so that Spencer could address a near-empty auditorium. TWP dissolved just weeks later after leader Matthew Heimbach was arrested for assaulting his wife and TWP co-founder Matt Parrott, Heimbach’s father-in-law, sparked by Heimbach’s affair with Parrott’s wife. The whole debacle was deeply humiliating for the alt-right.
The predictable violence at planned street protests such as Charlottesville has also enabled lawsuits against big name alt-right figures, including a suit brought on behalf of 10 counter-protestors injured at Charlottesville and against event organisers. “I am under attack and I need your help”, Spencer said in an April video. “Some of the biggest and baddest law firms in the United States are suing me”.
Coupled with deplatformings from funding sites, such lawsuits have been devastating for some figures; Spencer is reportedly so broke that in May his credit card was declined for a $4.75 drink. Spencer’s AltRight.com was taken down by its hosting provider after being targeted by a civil rights group in May; it is now back online but has not posted new content for three months, possibly because Spencer cannot afford to pay contributors.
“It will take the movement years to recover from the bad decisions of 2017”, writes Greg Johnson. “I doubt that Richard Spencer and his various operations like the National Policy Institute will recover at all”.
Some white supremacist groups outside of the alt-right milieu have, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) states, cultivated a “fight club” mentality since Charlottesville, and some groups on the less extreme “alt-light” spectrum, such as Gavin McInnes’ Proud Boys (who preemptively disavowed Unite the Right), have continued to hold chaotic public protests. However, in the eyes of Johnson, Charlottesville has helped build a general consensus in the alt-right that the movement needs to abandon planned public events and the “self-marginalizing neo-Nazi goon squad buffoonery” they entail and instead return to strategies of “metapolitics and also street actions on the European Identitarian mode”.
In October 2017, less than two months after Unite the Right, white nationalists returned to Charlottesville to hold a short, unannounced torch-lit “flash protest”. Alt-right group Identity Evropa, which has also been hit with lawsuits, has most consistently adopted the flash protest tactics of the European far-right network Generation Identity. Such tactics are aimed at providing photo-opportunities to be spread online whilst reducing opportunity for opposition. Carla Hill of the ADL estimates that alt-right activists have organised or attended 32 public events in the US since Charlottesville; as Cas Mudde states, most of these have been flash demonstrations.
The alt-right has also continued to host private conferences, bringing together the biggest American and European names in the alt-right and providing networking opportunities and fostering sense of community. Speeches can subsequently be uploaded to YouTube and other sites, greatly expanding their potential audience. In America, whilst Spencer’s NPI has held no events since 2016, Identity Evropa held its first national conference in March, and Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance held a major event in April. The Daily Stormer and The Right Stuff have also advocated the organisation of smaller-scale private meetups, referred to as “Book Clubs” and “Pool Parties” respectively, aimed at extreme right community-building.
In Europe alt-right conferences have, with some exceptions, flourished since Charlottesville. To name explicitly alt-right conferences, October 2017 saw the inaugural meeting of Comhra Dublin in Ireland and an Erkenbrand conference in Rotterdam, Netherlands; February 2018 saw the Etnofutr/Blue Awakening conference in Tallinn, Estonia; April 2018 saw the inaugural meeting of Sarastus/Awakening in Helskini, Finland, as well as an alt-right conference from Institut für Staatspolitik in Magdeburg, Germany, and Greg Johnson’s Scandza Forum in Stockholm, Sweden. On the horizon is another Scandza Forum in Copenhagen, Denmark in September and another Erkenbrand conference in Rotterdam.
This is not the sign of a movement receding in the European context. The collapse of the London Forum, which had previously been the alt-right’s major platform in the UK, has come due to the discrediting of the group by HOPE not hate and the jailing of figurehead Jez Turner, rather than repercussions from Charlottesville. It is notable that Identitarian Ideas, the longstanding conference series organised by Spencer’s ally Daniel Friberg, has not held a conference since February 2017 (a planned event in November 2017 was cancelled after Spencer was barred entry to Sweden). However Friberg’s primary focus, the Hungary-based “metapolitical” publisher Arktos Media, published more titles in 2017 than any previous year in its history.
No Room for Complacency
Charlottesville has had far-reaching consequences for the alt-right, and has faced considerable challenges in the intervening period. However it is folly to assume that the threat posed by the racist alt-right has vanished, rather than having simply been driven underground, retreating to safer terrain behind screens and in private events.
While some well-known figures, like Spencer, are now under legal and financial pressure, the movement has never been tied to specific leader or organization, but is ever-shifting and adaptable. The alt-right has retained its resolution to shift the “Overton window” – the boundaries of acceptable debate – and will continue to attempt to normalize vile racism, and must continue to be challenged at every turn.