The Lessons of Unite the Right

Counterprotesters wait for white supremacists to arrive to Lafayette Park during the Unite the Right rally.
Counterprotesters wait for white supremacists to arrive to Lafayette Park during the Unite the Right rally on Sunday in Washington. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

The meager turnout at the Unite the Right rally in D.C. on Sunday offered real confirmation that the alt-right’s organizing capabilities have seriously atrophied in the wake of last year’s Charlottesville rally as a consequence of both infighting and resistance. Jason Kessler, an alt-right leader and one of the organizers of both rallies, told the National Park Service that between 100 and 400 demonstrators could be expected to show up in front of the White House. The violence that broke out around Charlottesville’s rally and the killing of counterprotester Heather Heyer led city officials and counterorganizers alike to fear the worst in the lead-up to this weekend. The city’s emergency level was heightened, and widely criticized provisions to escort Kessler’s demonstrators in private Metro cars were made. More than three dozen activist groups signed on to participate in counterprotest efforts, all but ensuring that those demonstrators would be vastly outnumbered. Even so, the extent to which Kessler’s rally was dwarfed was a surprise. All of about 30 ralliers ultimately came for the event, which proved nearly impossible to see or hear behind the thousands of chanting demonstrators and throngs of journalists who packed into Lafayette Square for the big showdown. By 5:30 p.m., the time Kessler had scheduled the rally to begin, both Kessler’s posse and most counterdemonstrators had started off home in the rain.

In the year since Charlottesville, many in the alt-right movement have been forced from online fundraising, social media, and publishing platforms. They have been forced, too, from the streets and their workplaces by anti-fascist activists whose tactics were widely maligned as counterproductive by a number of pundits throughout the past year. Confrontation, doxing, and de-platforming, conventional wisdom went, could bolster the movement’s claims to martyrdom and repression and might ultimately embolden its leaders. Precisely the opposite has happened. Unite the Right holdout Richard Spencer, still perhaps the alt-right’s most prominent figure, has spoken frankly about the challenge antifa has posed to his own organizing efforts ever since he was punched in the face by a protester on Inauguration Day in 2017. In March, he announced that he would no longer hold well-publicized public events. “When they become violent clashes and pitched battles, they aren’t fun,” he said. “Antifa is winning.” Andrew Anglin of the flagship neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer was among the alt-right figures who warned followers not to participate in Sunday’s rally. “This isn’t the same as the little demonstrations we did before Charlottesville,” he wrote in a post last week. “If you show up at this event, and you are identified, your life will be ruined. You won’t be able to get into a university or get a good job, you probably won’t be able to even get into a trade school or join a union.”

This wariness and Kessler’s humiliation on Sunday suggest that the alt-right’s days as a public-facing movement might be numbered for now, which isn’t to say that the movement is dead. It seems plausible, in fact, that sympathizers might be more willing to join up if leaders aren’t asking them to risk physical harm or reputational damage in public demonstrations. The alt-right began as an online subculture and will remain one with real staying power, given the salience of far-right ideology among more Americans than we, until very recently, have been willing to admit.

A national survey conducted after last year’s Unite the Right rallies suggests that about 10 million Americans believe they “mostly agree” with white supremacists—a number about the size of the self-described LGBTQ population. Most will never don swastika armbands or out themselves in any obvious way given the difficulty—now and always—of separating much of the far right’s rhetoric on race and immigration with the rhetoric of the conservative mainstream. Last week, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham lamented, to about 2.4 million viewers, the death of “the America we know and love” in “some parts of the country.”

“Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people,” Ingraham said. “And they are changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” Tucker Carlson, whose also highly rated show has been an ongoing experiment in the laundering of white-nationalist language for respectable audiences, has cast Democrats as a threat to the values of “Anglo-American civilization” and accused the party of plotting a coup via the immigration of minorities.

There are moreover five or so far-right figures running for office as Republicans across the country, including a neo-Nazi who ran unopposed in an Illinois congressional primary who will be on the party’s ballot line come November. The Republican Party’s nominee for Senate in Virginia, Corey Stewart, has been associated with Jason Kessler and white-nationalist types, as have some of his staffers. On Friday, the Independent Journal Review reported that Stewart will retain campaign adviser Rick Shaftan, who tweeted after 2014’s protests in Ferguson that “only a fool would start, finance or insure a business in a black neighborhood,” alongside other similar racial commentary. Last week, Stewart’s own Twitter account sent out a tweet calling former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, who is a Muslim, “a far left ISIS commie.”

Of course, no Republican politician means more to the far right than the president, and one hopes that those who gathered in Lafayette Square looked beyond and literally behind the gaggle of idiots marching about to appreciate fully the totality of what the far right has won since 2016. The protests and acts of resistance against Kirstjen Nielsen, Stephen Miller, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the administration’s child-separation policy and the demonstrations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities have been at least as meaningful as Sunday’s counterdemonstrations, oriented as they are against the individuals and agencies working to actually implement some of the far right’s objectives as policy. Those protests took the putative aim of Kessler’s rallies as a foregone conclusion. The right is already united. The Kesslers and Andrew Anglins of this country, the president, his administration, his party, and millions of ordinary Americans share a common anxiety about the erosion of white power and influence over the direction of our society. On some days, that anxiety is an invitation to murder. On others, it reshapes our immigration policy from the White House. But it is the same concern. There is occasion, given this, for taking to Lafayette Square every day—whether or not 30 or so alt-righters have convened a pitiful assembly in the rain.