August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where more than a thousand white nationalist adherents conducted a torch-lit march chanting “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us” before provoking widespread street violence the following day, was viewed widely as a watershed moment for the burgeoning Alt-Right. As the “largest hate gathering of its kind in decades in the United States,” the Charlottesville rally demonstrated that the diffuse movement – whose vibrancy had been most prominently displayed online – could mobilize in large numbers in physical space. It also showcased a level of organization that seemed far from ad hoc, and a set of media-ready male leaders who sought to embody the modern white supremacist brand: clean-cut, neatly dressed, with coifed “fashy” haircuts.
Despite the movement’s seeming of-the-minute status as an extremist analogue to a President who consistently upholds its worldview, Charlottesville was one culmination of a broader arc that reaches back well before Trump’s 2016 victory. “Long before election night,” Robert Futrell and Pete Simi presciently note, “White supremacists had become savvy at outwardly masking their real beliefs and intentions while most wrote them off as politically innocuous wackos. Having bided their time, they are reemerging to try to capitalize on a racially recharged political climate.” This long view provides a window into the Alt-Right’s ascendance into the public arena, along with the seeds of its decline.
Considering the movement as one whose recent public resurgence follows directly from a preceding abeyance period marked by an increase in organizational activity helps to explain a seeming puzzle: the sharp rise in hate actions in 2017 has occurred in the absence of commensurate growth in the stock of hate organizations. This seeming inconsistency signals the need to avoid viewing hate groups and incidents interchangeably, as two sides of the same extremist coin, and instead decouple explanations of organization and action to recognize the variegated nature of “hate.”
Doing so requires as well that we pay particular attention to the distinct roles that threat and opportunity play as drivers of mobilization. In social movement scholarship, these core concepts often have been conceived, at least implicitly, as opposing forces that motivate different constituencies – i.e. with threat motivating certain forms of (typically right-wing) mobilization, and opportunity spurring actions intended to spark progressive change. But, as Jack Goldstone and Charles Tilly advise, by focusing on the interplay of these factors we can see how both can exert independent and simultaneous effects on activists’ political calculi.
In a forthcoming article, I draw on Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) data to differentiate the contrasting environments that have facilitated the formation of hate organizations and the commission of hate incidents. On the one hand, the sharp rise in hate groups between 2000 and 2012 – an increase that tracked closely to claims of a disappearing white majority associated with the 2000 Census, as well as the later election of President Obama – demonstrate how such groups tend to form in response to threat, emerging within environments in which groups perceive their social standing to be uncertain or at risk.
Hate incidents, in contrast, have risen primarily in response to expanding opportunities to act. Whether perpetrated through established extremist organizations or by free-standing adherents, such actions are most likely to occur when those who desire to commit them perceive lower costs or risks. The Trump campaign and presidency has of course created this license. An SPLC data project identified a sharp uptick in documented hate incidents following his 2016 election, with more than a third of those referencing the President explicitly. This spike reflects an opportunistic “get active” moment within the already-robust field of hate groups, whose number had more than doubled between 1999 and 2016. In short, emboldened white nationalists are drawing on the organizational infrastructure they have developed over the past two decades to more openly advance their agendas.
But can the Alt-Right capitalize on this window of opportunity to move firmly into the public arena? History shows that hate groups with appeal rooted in hardline racism and a predilection for violence face an especially difficult balancing act when they aspire to a mass base, as cross-pressures associated with the very source of their appeal can contribute to their undoing.
Research I’ve conducted on the civil rights-era Ku Klux Klan provides a case in point. In the face of the impending passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, crowds at KKK rallies increased dramatically. While Klan leaders took pains to claim they were peaceful – ostensibly emphasizing “ballots over bullets” – escalating violence associated with the group forced the police’s hand. In North Carolina, the nation’s most active KKK stronghold, officials began challenging Klan rally permit requests and aggressively investigating cross burnings and other intimidation tactics previously dismissed as “not hurting anyone.” Because such policing measures also created space for concerned citizens to publicly oppose organized vigilantism, the resulting intensified outcry opened up another front in the war against the KKK. By 1969, the Klan had all but ceased to operate as a mass membership organization.
Thus far, we’ve seen some striking parallels within today’s Alt-Right. Painted as a potential leap forward for many of the groups at the center of the August Charlottesville action, an October 28 White Lives Matter (WLM) rally in Shelbyville, Tennessee, featured a smaller white nationalist turnout that was outnumbered and outflanked by better-organized counter-protesters.
Why? Crucially, police sought to avoid a repeat of Charlottesville’s ill-fated stand-down approach and undertook elaborate preparations to separate White nationalists from their opponents and prevent either side from possessing objects that could be used as weapons. Such policing measures removed the threat of intimidation by WLM marchers and opened space for their opponents to be, as the SPLC’s on-scene reporter put it, “simply louder, funnier, more enthusiastic and better organized” than the WLM contingent. While the latter sought mostly to replicate their now-familiar mode – a march accompanied by “Blood and Soil” chants and periodic speeches – counter-protesters demonstrated a greater capacity to adapt their tactics to neutralize the WLM presence. Counter-protesters successfully overpowered the WLM sound system, drowning out the latter’s speeches with clips from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack,” while frustrating the WLM contingent with “we can’t hear you” taunts.
Thus far, white nationalist attempts to innovate have been less successful. Richard Spencer, the self-styled head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, has sought to capitalize on his post-Charlottesville notoriety by targeting public universities, based on their supposed legal obligation to host events by groups who pay the requisite fees. While several such events have been held up in court, Spencer’s October 19 appearance at the University of Florida was met by a heavy security presence and an organized response that ensured empty seats in the event space (among other tactics, a local brewery offered free beers in exchange for unused tickets) and vigorous heckling of drastically-outnumbered Alt-Right adherents and supporters outside the venue.
Indeed, while the Alt-Right’s online profile remains high and anonymous acts in their name – including an ongoing spate of white identity flyers on more than 150 campuses – continue, the opportunity that many leaders have promoted to take the movement public, through large organized gatherings that might extend their support base, is shrinking. While Trump’s posture maintains broader license for such actions, Alt-Right leaders have yet to figure out how to expand their repertoire to use public space in ways that outpace stronger and more creative counter-measures mobilized by those who oppose white nationalist agendas.
Rather than a springboard for a white supremacist insurgency, Charlottesville’s ultimate legacy may reside in its sweeping impact on how white nationalist events are countered both by police and by counter-protesters – and thus as the tragic event that slammed shut the Alt-Right’s window.