Alt-right weakened but not dead after Charlottesville: Patrick Strickland Interviews Shane Burley
In the wake of a white supremacist rally that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the far-right movement in the United States has been plagued by a wave of disavowals, cancellations and counter-protests.
On August 12, hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis from travelled to Charlottesville for “Unite the Right”, a demonstration called to protest against the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederacy’s foremost military leader during the US Civil War (1861–1865).
Jason Kessler, a white supremacist activist and former journalist, organised the event.
Unite the Right participants descended on Charlottesville and clashed with community members, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists.
James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio resident who travelled to Charlottesville, was charged with second-degree murder and other charges after he allegedly ploughed his car into an anti-racist march, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens more.
The Traditionalist Worker Party, the League of the South, Identity Evropa, Vanguard America, the National Socialist Movement and other organisations affiliated with the so-called “alt-right” were among the groups in attendance.
The alt-right is a loosely knit group of far-right populists, white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, among others, who advocate an exclusively white ethnostate in North America.
Despite the president’s comments that there were “some very fine people on both sides”, prominent alt-right activists, groups and affiliates had already been under heavy public scrutiny.
Politicians across the country denounced the alt-right, several activists were prevented from speaking on university campuses and they were booted from a number of website hosting services and social media platforms.
Meanwhile, comparably moderate nationalist groups and pro-Trump figures — often described as the “alt-light”, distanced themselves from the alt-right.
Al Jazeera spoke to Shane Burley, author of the upcoming book Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, about the long-term consequences of the Charlottesville rally and what it will mean for the alt-right’s ability to continue holding large demonstrations.
Al Jazeera: More than one month has passed since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. What kind of impact has that event had on the alt-right and broader far right?
Shane Burley: It was the biggest failure they’ve had in the last several years. I don’t want to overstate it, but I honestly don’t think it can be toned down … the level to which they [failed].
In the week after Charlottesville, there was an effort to basically go after every one of their outreach tools. It attacked them so specifically as a group. We haven’t been able to see fully what effect it’s had on them because it’s still too early; but it’s going to limit their outreach so effectively. It’s hard to see how they could maintain themselves as an ever-increasing movement.
White supremacist leader Richard Spencer is credited with coining the term “alt-right” in 2008 [File: Jim Bourg/Reuters]
Al Jazeera: What is the alt-right’s primary means of outreach, and how has it changed since Charlottesville?
Burley: The alt-right really survives on a few online platforms. They survive on social media by being on the same platforms as mainstream journalists and political commentators. They also survive by using desktop publishing and podcasts. All of that has allowed them to reach their base very effectively and also be available to the outside public. But that’s not happening any more.
Twitter went through and shuttered many of the main alt-right figures’ accounts. SoundCloud has been dropping alt-right podcasts. SoundCloud has been doing that for a while, but they’ve really gone after these podcasts aggressively [since Charlottesville]. PayPal was a major one; it pulled most of these websites from their services. A lot of the more long-standing far-right websites were pulled [offline]. MailChimp dropped them. Patreon dropped them.
There was such an effective effort to drop all of the mediums they use to get any type of success. They had been able to create a financial infrastructure through crowdfunding, but they can’t do that any more. They were able to manage very professional looking websites, but they can’t do that any more.
The problem now is that we don’t know what it will be like in six months or a year from now, when they aren’t really able to do any outreach at all.
Al Jazeera: In the lead-up to Charlottesville, many commentators argued that the alt-right was attempting to build a broader street presence by holding joint rallies with more mainstream Trump supporters. How has that changed since Charlottesville?
Burley: Fascist groups always need a crossover point that bridges them with the mainstream right. There were always different groups — such as the alt-light and the paleo-conservatives — which they could use for that bridge. But the reality is that these people in the alt-light were never going to stand up for white nationalism and open racialism.
That always put them at odds because at some point, comparably moderate movements were going to be pressed to make a statement about what’s going on and they always were going to choose the moderates.
Militia organisations (armed civilian groups who claim to protect the Constitution) have been on the front line of that. They just don’t want to be associated with groups [on the alt-right]. They’ve had some success in recruiting people of colour, so they want to keep that going.
All these groups — those associated with [far-right news outlets] Breitbart and Rebel Media — were forced to move away from folks like [white supremacist activist] Richard Spencer because he’s talking about open fascist politics.
With Unite the Right, what you ended up seeing was the best coalescence of racialist groups. Now they’ve been completely pushed aside from those people [on the alt-light].
People on the alt-light also have careers. With someone like Richard Spencer, this is their thing — they don’t have those institutions backing them.
Al Jazeera: The alt-right became a household name in the US largely due to its vocal support of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the group has openly criticised many of the president’s policies. How do you describe the group’s view of the Trump administration now?
Burley: Their position towards Trump is essentially the same as their position on the alt-light. That’s because Trump is essentially an alt-light figure. This is a contention between white nationalism and civic nationalism. Trumpian populism is different than the kind of elitist fascist vision [the alt-right] advocate, so those approaches were never going to completely line up.
Anti-fascists clash with a far-right demonstrator in Berkeley, California in late August [File: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/AFP]
Trump did more so in [the alt-right’s] favour than I thought he would do so this fast. He really did prioritise racial issues [such as launching the Muslim ban, targeting affirmative action] but he did much of it unsuccessfully. They’re unhappy about the DACA measures, threats against North Korea and bombing of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad. But they did see it for what it is. They didn’t expect him to push a white nationalist agenda. He’s not going to do that, and I don’t think they were ever blind to that.
They get caught by their own internal narratives. There could be a point when they say Trump has been taken over by Jews and is capitulating to multiculturalism.
Al Jazeera: We haven’t seen them in the streets since Charlottesville. Should we expect to see another alt-right show of force in the future?
Burley: I think they’ll continue. They’ve experienced many moments when they were in decline and then ramped back up. Since the [November] elections, they’ve been on a downward spiral in many ways because they’re dealing with internal conflicts and they’re bad at organising.
It took a long time for the world to catch up to what the alt-right means. It’s only now that people are coming around to understand that alt-right means fascist politics. It’s going to be tough for openly alt-right figures to hold crossover events like “free speech” rallies. But they’ve been able to cultivate a large enough base to ensure that they’re not going to disappear.
*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_