A train pulled out of the quiet and quirky Portland, Oregon neighborhood of Hollywood on Friday evening, and that’s when the yelling began. Targeting two young women, one wearing a hijab, 35-year-old Jeremy Christian went on an Islamophobic tirade, accusing them of terrorism, tax evasion and general un-Americanness. When three men stepped up to intervene in the assault, Christian was ready with a knife, stabbing each one, successively, in the jugular and killing two of them.
This brutal attack was not just the result of mental illness, as is often blamed in cases such as these, but rather the latest stop-over in white supremacist escalations. Christian, who was new to such politics, had been frothing with rage for several weeks — ever since an April 30 “free speech” rally that a local ultra-conservative group had organized and modeled after other alt-right events happening around the country. Wearing an American flag cape and wielding a wooden baseball bat, Christian was stopped by police before he could take a swing at the counter protesters.
Tragedies like these inspire a sense of horror in the collective community, but it is not necessarily a surprise. The pattern of white supremacist violence has been consistent over the decades as fascist movements rise and fall, and disaffected members of their ranks follow suit with “lone wolf” violence. How the community responds to these moments of sorrow, and the ways in which those responsible are held accountable, is what determines the fate of movements like the alt-right.
A violent vision
The history of the white nationalist movement — of which the alt-right is the latest incarnation — is one of violence from start to finish. As FBI reports confirm, radical right-wing combatants are still the primary terror threat in the United States, far outweighing the Islamic terror boogeyman that the Trump administration hopes to portray. In a 2015 survey of 382 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a full 74 percent of attacks came from far-right “anti-government” radicals. In a U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center study, far-right terrorists were responsible for an average of 337 attacks a year since 9/11. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate groups, listed white supremacists as conducting more attacks in 2015 than any other ideology, and when combined with anti-abortion and “anti-government” groups, which often crossover, the number rose to a full 63 percent of all domestic terrorism.
The threat of white supremacist terrorism is a constant in U.S. history. During the civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan built a paramilitary assault on the American South, murdering hundreds in bombings, gun attacks and lynching. In the 1980s, the Order erupted as a revolutionary project out of the Aryan Nations, robbing banks and murdering Jewish radio host Alan Berg. The militia movement, which was becoming an increasingly violent force in the 1990s after the passage of the Brady assault weapons ban and blunders by federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Waco, hit its zenith when Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh detonated a fertilizer bomb in the Oklahoma City Federal Building.
Built on failure
The pattern of white supremacist violence often fails to be associated with the movement itself because of the common “lone wolf” quality of individual attacks. Following the “leaderless resistance” model developed by white nationalist Louis Beam and championed by skinhead leaders like Tom Metzger, those on the fringes of the movement and society are often instigated to engage in acts of extreme violence against the state, minorities and their collaborators. The model for this violence is one of desperation, attempting to mobilize those without strong social bonds. The failure of their ability to organize, to see growth from a seed idea into a mass populist movement, kicks it over the edge into a nihilist assault lacking in long-term vision. As the culture further turned left, and major white supremacist enclaves like the Aryan Nations compound and the National Alliance were disrupted, desperate acts of violence took place — from the 2009 murder of a security guard at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum to the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
A part of this pattern comes from the relationship that white nationalists have with those on the margins of the mainstream, like politicians, media outlets and other provocateurs. Because of the extreme nature of their ideas, white nationalists latch onto those who — despite not sharing their key ideological platform — have enough in common with them to help mainstream their message. People like Barry Goldwater and George Wallace held this role to the anti-integrationists active during the civil rights movement. In the early 1990s, the campaign of Pat Buchanan and the broad “paleoconservative” movement did this as well, using dog whistle language railing against immigration, globalization and affirmative action. Today, this comes in the form of what many call the “alt-light,” the layer of “anti-PC” talking heads that populates the so-called deplorable-sphere around the Donald Trump campaign. Milo Yiannoupoulos, Lauren Southern and Gavin McGinnis all promote their talking points and political ideas, even if they would squirm when the full-bore racism and anti-Semitism is unleashed.
Historically, white nationalists ride their mainstream relationships as far as those with celebrity are willing to take them, and when the association becomes too toxic, those with careers to think about jump ship. As the true alt-right becomes more well known, and their history of violence becomes more commonly understood, this will further push those who have lent their celebrity to betray their allegiances. It is this final push that relegates the fascist core back to their subcultural roots, validating — in their minds — a “revolutionary” perspective that had been compromised by the pursuit of beltway respectability. It is at this moment that the acts of “lone wolf” violence escalate, when the hope of a peaceful solution to the “race problem” has been dashed. As we enter the period when the alt-right breaks from Trump and is abandoned by their temporary colleagues, the potential for violence only magnifies.
A part of history
What often blinds people to the alt-right’s potential for violence is their branding, not their content. With fashionable swooped hair, pressed suits, and geeky Internet jargon, they seem more like an upper-middle-class wedding party than a nationalist cadre bent on a 21st century coup. This is only a mirage, as they are simply the latest generation in a lineage of white nationalist organizing, but with better youth appeal. At American Renaissance, one of the largest alt-right conferences, the “who’s who” of the movement is in attendance: U.S. Members of the Aryan Nations hobnob with the alt-right group Proud Boys, former KKK leaders like David Duke and Don Black hold “Q&As,” and politicians from far-right European political movements like the British National Party receive standing ovations.
While their language may be, at times, couched in academic jargon, they have the same effect of motivating their fringe towards acts of kamikaze violence. After Dylan Roof murdered nine in a flurry of automatic gunfire, his manifesto revealed that his inspiration was the propaganda of the Council of Conservative Citizens — a neo-Confederate group that lists miscegenation as “against God’s chosen order,” and holds American Renaissance founder Jared Taylor as one of its spokesmen and board members. Taylor’s work at American Renaissance further inspired Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others in 2011.
As the alt-right coasts into its most contentious period since its 2015–2016 rise, the violence has risen among its disaffected periphery. James Harris Jackson went to New York City in March with the intent of finding and killing black men in relationships with white women. Instead, he settled on murdering a black homeless man with a sword. Weeks later, Sean Urbanski murdered Army Second Lieutenant Richard Collins in an act of racial revenge. Both men were following alt-right figures online, with Urbanski in the “Alt-Reich” Facebook group and Jackson following alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer. During the same period of escalation, Lauren Southern brought an entourage of alt-right celebrities — and others ready to attack community members and protesters — to her speaking event in downtown Berkeley, California.
While the historical behavior of white supremacists teaches us what to expect, there is also much to learn from the community responses that have neutralized their growth. For example, while the federal government went to war with the militia movement after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was growing public disgust that devastated the militia movement’s recruitment efforts and essentially forced them into retreat until Barrack Obama was elected president.
The final answer, though, is the creation of a mass response to this type of racist violence. With only hours notice the day after the Christian murders in Portland, a candlelight vigil drew thousands to the site of the attack. Meanwhile, the organizers of the April 30 “free speech” rally are organizing another event on June 4, and the response from the community promises to completely overwhelm them, showing that an iron wall has been built against alt-right recruitment. This is the way that a mass movement turns the tide of atrocity, letting the violence act as a reminder of what inaction can bring.