“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.”
"Luke Ford reports all of the 'juicy' quotes, and has been doing it for years." (Marc B. Shapiro)
"This guy knows all the gossip, the ins and outs, the lashon hara of the Orthodox world. He’s an [expert] in... all the inner workings of the Orthodox world." (Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff)
"This generation's Hillel." (Nathan Cofnas)