Peter Cvjetanovic along with neo-Nazis and white supremacists at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on \ in Charlottesville, Va. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The far right movement may seem all but dead, but a crop of political candidates are introducing ideas into the mainstream.
No one would argue that the last year hasn’t been a rough one for the white nationalist movement in America. In fact, a not insignificant number of column inches has been written about how the movement is all but dead.
The leader of the National Socialist group the Traditionalist Workers party, Matthew Heimbach, has had a disastrous year ever since he was honeypotted into sleeping with his stepfather-in-law’s girlfriend while said stepfather-in-law filmed the whole thing through the window from an apple crate. Heimbach then severely beat his stepfather-in-law, shoved his wife and ended up charged with spousal abuse – and bereft of his political party.
Richard Spencer was compelled to abandon his college speaking tour because of relentless hounding by the antifa as well as lackluster crowds.
Andrew Anglin, founder of thewhite supremacist website the Daily Stormer, found himself the target of a barrage of lawsuits and spent most of the year in hiding.
The Traditionalist Workers party folded, and with it the Nationalist Front, Heimbachs’ big tent coalition of skinheads, neo-Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
Far-right websites and social media accounts were de-platformed and forced into the online netherworlds of the social network Gab and various Russian hosting services. Paypal, GoFundMe and Patreon, all popular vehicles for white supremacist fundraising, kicked many of their most prominent racist users off their service.
Yet this only tells part of the story – one that has little to do with the relative health of the far right in America.
Whereas pseudo-political street thugs like the former Vice executive Gavin McInnes or the Washington state candidate for US Senate Joey Gibson (both of whom deny affiliations with white supremacists or the “alt-right”) have found public rallies and often violent clashes with counter protesters to be effective sites for recruiting, there is a large crop of nationalist political candidates who have learned to thrive in the shadows of their much louder ideological kinsmen.
These less flamboyant and less entertaining nationalists are riding the coattails of the far right into the political arena and, to mix a metaphor, they are only just now beginning to dip their toes into the electoral pool. In this light, the political movement embodied by Richard Spencer, Mike Enoch and Andrew Anglin isn’t the end goal in itself, but rather the vehicle by which their ideological detritus gets borne into the political bloodstream of America.
“Think about the alt-right as a way to reintroduce political ideas that has been relegated to the fringes back into the mainstream,” Ryan Lenz told me. Lenz is a freelance journalist and former investigator for the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks and monitors hate groups in America. “Over time it no longer becomes a third rail for politicians to discuss antisemitic and anti-black ideas. We’re not yet at a point where the political field is swept over by candidates who denigrate classes of people, but in this midterm cycle there are more than a dozen candidates who belong on the far right. Some of them are advocates of horrific ideologies, and who have received relatively little attention for their positions.”
In this way, the Nazis of Charlottesville and their leaders have served as an inoculation, numbing us to candidates and ideas that only a year ago would be completely unacceptable.
For example, the Iowa representative Steve King has made several statements that echo things I’d heard at Klan rallies, once remarking that Somali Muslims should be barred from working at meatpacking plants and later tweeting: “[Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”
Only recently, and to very little outrage, did he retweet Mark A Collett, who has identified himself as a Nazi sympathizer. On Thursday, a somber looking Laura Ingraham lamented an America made unrecognizable by hordes of immigrants, foisted upon a defenseless, once white country. Corey Stewart, the GOP candidate for the Senate in Virginia, has not only championed Confederate monuments and decried immigrants but has also been associated with Jason Kessler, the man behind the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, as well as Paul Nehlen, a man who proved that it is possible to be too racist for Twitter.
Art Jones, a longtime neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier who even nationalists have described as “too stupid to live” and “worse than butt cancer”, was slated to be the sole GOP candidate on the ballot for Illinois’ third congressional district this fall, though he has since been challenged by a write-in candidate.
Further west, in Illinois’ 17th congressional district, the GOP candidate Bill Falwell has claimed not only that “Pizzagate” – the conspiracy theory that maintained that prominent Democrats led a child trafficking ring out of a local DC pizza restaurant – was a real thing, but that Israel was behind 9/11 and that Beyoncé is a member of the Illuminati.
While most of these candidates have no real chance of winning and have been chastised and in some cases disavowed by the GOP, many of them have received the support of fellow Republicans. Steve West, running for Congress in Missouri, beat out several other Republicans in the primaries, despite having said that Islam is a movement that wants to take over America, linking members of the LGBT community to pedophilia, and saying of Jews who didn’t like what he had to say about Judaism: “Maybe they just shouldn’t vote for me.”
Then there are the higher-ups, like Steve Bannon, whose links to the far right are too many to list in one essay. Stephen Miller, Trump’s adviser and one of the architects of his zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigration, has links to several Islamophobic groups, as well as links to Richard Spencer – whom he attended Duke University with.
Together, these individuals, as well as others, represent the way the ideology of the far right has seeped into the mainstream. Just how far the contagion goes is uncertain. As Ryan Lenz told me, we just don’t know yet. “We know there are a number of candidates who feel that the electorate is open enough to field these ideas,” Lenz went on. “But we don’t know how voters will respond. November will be a referendum on the mainstreaming of these ideas.”
There is an even more pessimistic way to look at it, and that is that despite having a rough year, the far right in America is still very much a force. It’s easy for the public, and members of the media – myself included – to conflate the movement with its leaders, and so in watching the once ubiquitous and brash public faces of the far right fall, one might think that the movement itself is also in trouble.
Looking at the lackluster showings at Richard Spencer’s rallies before he ended his college speaking tour, or the low number of attendees at Patriot Prayer’s recent event in Portland, one might be forgiven for thinking that the far right really is browbeaten and doomed.
Mark Pitcavage, researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, told me that would be a mistake. “Most of the bad things that have happened in the movement this year have happened to individual spokespersons or leaders,” he said. “The rank and file have remained in large part intact and untouched.”
While a large part of the movement has retreated to the relative safety of the online world after Charlottesville, they remain active and maintain the same beliefs. Pitcavage believes that the much-covered “death of the far right” is premature.
“As soon as people know about something – a trend or a new movement – then they are quick on the bandwagon to pronounce it dead. The far right in America is surging, and a surge like this normally lasts four or five years. We’re really only at the beginning of this thing.”
Pitcavage compares the current state of the far right in America to something that happened to the movement in the mid-1980s. The white supremacist movement was well established back then, and when the skinheads arrived, it threw the dynamics into disarray. The skinheads were a new subculture, bringing with them new people, a new energy and new slang – and though it took a while, eventually the movement learned to accept the new groups and a new equilibrium set in.
“Now we have an influx of new, extreme people,” Pitcavage told me. “Generally young, with a lot of energy … It was born online, on 4chan, in the manosphere, and came about through events like ‘Gamergate’. The older generation of white supremacists finds them confusing, and the new group has yet to learn what it means to be public with their beliefs.”
That’s what you saw in Charlottesville: a new generation of white supremacists learning what it means to be public for the first time.
And so there it is: white supremacist politicians in the mainstream and a new, energized far right movement that is only just figuring out how to fit in. Unite the Right II may turn out to be just a very lonely Jason Kessler surrounded by hundreds of counter protestors and journalists, but the movement he represents, the movement that killed Heather Heyer one year ago, is just getting started.
Vegas Tenold is the author of Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America