The Alt-Right’s Optics Scam
‘Clean cut’ Neo-Nazis Identity Evropa hope to smuggle hate into the mainstream—the ‘Today Show’ is helping them
There’s a good litmus test for reporters covering the alt-right: If your subject is happy about their treatment, you messed up. The neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa was positively ecstatic about the Today Show’s recent interview with its leader Patrick Casey.
While the segment was greeted enthusiastically by the group and their allies, anti-racist activists condemned the show for platforming Casey, calling it a “recruitment video” and a “puff piece.”
The producers might be a bit confused by this reaction. Wasn’t the title “Hate on the Ballot” unambiguous about who the group is? They were portrayed in bad light, weren’t they?
It starts out well enough. The reporter Peter Alexander notes that the SPLC had designated them a hate group and touches briefly on their involvement in the deadly Unite the Right rally last year. But the piece starts to run into trouble while he’s introducing Casey. Alexander says that “the group’s image [is] clean cut—no visible tattoos, no criminal record—its message pro-white.”
He uses the phrase “clean cut” twice in the opening, and with the references to tattoos and criminal records, the implication is that they are not what normally comes to mind when one thinks of white supremacists. In other words, he’s doing exactly what they want.
From its inception, the alt-right has been obsessed with optics. Founding figures like Richard Spencer cultivated the image of a movement of well-dressed, “clean cut” intellectuals who look and sound nothing like the paunchy Klansmen and the methed-out skinheads of old.
Identity Evropa has embraced this strategy more than any other group. Their dress code is something like what one might see in a tech start-up in their native California: Oxford shirts tucked into khaki pants. The only thing that sets them apart is the undercut, a nod to the hairstyle worn by the Nazi army.
This focus on optics is nothing new. Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who founded the group Life After Hate, told NPR earlier this year that skinheads adopted a similar approach 30 years ago:
We recognized in the mid-’80s that our edginess, our look, even our language, was turning away the average American white racist — people we wanted to recruit. So we decided then to grow our hair out, to stop getting tattoos that would identify us, to trade in our boots for suits and to go to college campuses and recruit there and enroll, to get jobs in law enforcement, to go to the military and get training and to even run for office.
These little cosmetic tweaks are accompanied by equally superficial attempts at moderating rhetoric to the point where it is virtually indistinguishable from the GOP platform under Trump. Identity Evropa shies away from publicly using the kind of overtly racist language that might mark them for what they are.
Instead they opt for cryptofascist slogans and imagery that slyly dogwhistle the same ideas promoted by their neo-Nazi predecessors. Their propaganda typically features pictures of Roman statues. One poster bears the slogan “The Future Belongs to Us,” a callback to the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” sung by a Nazi youth in the film Cabaret.
The group’s euphemizing of white nationalism as “identitarianism” is the continuation of a process that began long ago. As Picciolini points out, the term “white nationalism” itself was originally a rebranding of white supremacy, but it has since taken on the same toxic connotation.
Likewise, the framing of the Identity Evropa’s beliefs as “pro-white,” which Alexander carelessly parroted, is an old song. It echoes the messaging of David Duke’s Association for the Advancement of White People, an organization that Duke claimed merely advocated for “white civil rights.” Groups like this hope to draw a false equivalency between themselves and other organizations advocating for their collective interests, such as Black Lives Matter or the NAACP. They’re not “anti-black;” they’re “pro-white.”
The Today Show’s segment exposes a blind spot in the mainstream media. They’re thinking only in terms of their target audience, not Identity Evropa’s. It’s assumed that calling them a hate group and invoking their name over dramatic footage of James Alex Fields plowing into protestors is enough to taint them.
A conservative audience predisposed to mistrust the “liberal media”—an audience that believes Fields was the exception rather than the rule in Charlottesville— will look at a well-dressed young man politely answering questions and think he must be one of those “very fine people” Trump spoke of.
They’ll see someone articulating views not altogether different from their own and regard the “hate group” label as more slander of conservatives by the “fake news.”
In highlighting Identity Evropa’s style, the goal of the Today Show was apparently to emphasize how capable the group is of blending in with the core of the Republican Party, but they inadvertently helped them in the process. By listening respectfully to Casey, they signaled to their audience of millions that he deserved to be listened to.
In the dust-up that followed the segment, sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss, one of the few experts the Today Show interviewed for the segment, took to Twitter to politely criticize the show’s use of her commentary. Miller-Idriss had given an hour-long interview in which she warned that there was a real danger groups like Identity Evropa could become mainstream, but it was cut down to a clip of her describing them positively as “smart” and “savvy.”
The Today Show should have focused on the continuity between Identity Evropa and past hate groups rather than their differences. There is a very real threat that groups like Identity Evropa will be a greater presence in the Republican Party, but it’s not because they’re “clean cut.” Their looks were never the problem; it’s their ideas, which are sadly no longer that radical on the right. It’s a form of self-deception to talk about these beliefs “becoming” mainstream, because they already are. ■