The disintegration of white nationalist groups post-Charlottesville may partly explain the surge in violence

Justin Ward
Aug 13 · 10 min read
Patrick Crusius (foreground), the suspect in last week’s mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso (FBI).

The high-water mark for the alt-right was 2017. Following Trump’s election on an anti-immigration platform, there was a sense within the movement that its moment had finally arrived. Expecting to transition from fringe gadfly to legitimate lobbyist, Richard Spencer, the de facto leader of the alt-right, moved to a D.C. suburb just a few days before Trump’s inauguration. “We’re basically becoming part of the establishment, so it only makes sense to have a presence here in Washington,” he told a Washington Post reporter.

At the time, Spencer giddily dreamed of ways to build on the momentum. He was hosting press conferences in the spacious living room of his Alexandria flat and claimed to be receiving 40 media requests per day. To grow the movement, he planned to embark on a speaking tour and launch a series of online platforms—he even pondered a run for the House of Representatives.

But just seven months later, the alt-right would flame out spectacularly in the wake of a disastrous rally that was intended to be a show of strength. The ironically named Unite the Right march in Charlottesville precipitated the disintegration of the alt-right as a mass movement.

Far-right demonstrators beat up a counter-protester at the Unite the Right rally (Rodney Dunning / Creative Commons)

Organizers became embroiled in costly legal battles over the murder of activist Heather Heyer and the countless other acts of violence that transpired. The various leading figures in the movement turned against one another, each accusing the other of being in cahoots with the feds.

Some of the largest and best organized groups split or dissolved entirely. Others began hemorrhaging members. The Traditionalist Workers Party, which had gained so much ground over the preceding years, broke down after one of its leaders cuckolded the other in an incident dubbed the “Night of the Wrong Wives.

By the summer of 2018, the headlines were heralding the alt-right’s decline.

“Racist ‘alt-right’ movement reeling after string of setbacks,” read the title of one AP article.

The Daily Beast declared: “Less than a year after Charlottesville, the alt-right is self-destructing.”

The word “implode” was ubiquitous, as reporters and commentators echoed the assessment of Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Spencer, who had such high hopes the year before, was suddenly despondent. His phone stopped ringing. His speaking tours were cancelled. He took to Youtube to complain that “antifa is winning.”

Beneath the relatively neutral language of news writing was an undercurrent of glee at the apparent demise of the alt-right, but the triumphalism was premature. Despite all this talk of its “implosion,” white supremacy is paradoxically deadlier than ever before.

The lone wolf in a crowd

Unite the Right inspired a feeling of horror as people from around the world watched hundreds of neo-Nazis march down the streets of an American city. Still, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and religious minorities are no safer now that white supremacist rallies seldom field more than a few dozen attendees.

The killings in El Paso, Poway, Gilroy and Pittsburgh in the past 12 months show that the far-right is entering an even more violent phase—and it’s most likely because of the breakdown in organization.

It might seem counterintuitive, but there’s not a positive correlation between the level of far-right organization and the amount of deadly violence. During period of the alt-right’s ascendancy, there were comparatively few white nationalist murders, and with the exception of Charlottesville, no attempts at mass terrorism.

Far-right terror killed more people in El Paso last week than in all of 2017. The Anti-Defamation League reported 19 “extremist-related” murders committed by white supremacists that year, the overwhelming majority of which were classified as “non-ideological,” meaning that ideology was not the primary motive. Some were domestic or personal disputes that merely involved white nationalists. Two were deaths that occurred during a prison break by members of a white power gang in Georgia.

Certainly, there was no shortage of racist violence that year, but it tended to be less lethal. During Trump’s first year in office, hate crimes mostly took the form of harassment, threats, assault, arson and vandalism carried out by a far-right that felt increasingly emboldened by the president’s nativist and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

When James Alex Fields rammed his car through a crowd of protestors, killing one and injuring more than two dozen, it effectively closed the door on any chance that the alt-right might get a seat at the table of legitimate politics. The attack not only prefigured the era of white nationalist terror we’re living in now but also said something about the relationship between organization and violence.

Police block off the scene of James Alex Fields’ car attack in Charlottesville (Evan Nesterak / Wikimedia Commons)

Fields lack of solid organizational ties with the movement goes a long way to explaining why he was the one who carried out the attack. Though he was involved in the rally, Fields was a “lone wolf” in the sense that he acted alone and without instruction.

It’s true that he was dressed in the white polo and khaki pants that members of Vanguard America wore and carried a shield of the organization, but there is no other evidence that he was a member. He doesn’t appear in the group’s Discord chats, and he travelled to the rally alone rather than carpooling with members.

While it’s true that extremist organizations can encourage members to commit violence—ex. the “red laces” initiations of skinhead gangs—they can also mitigate against individual violence by their members. This is especially true if the organization has some long-term political goal.

Had Fields been plugged into some group or another, he probably would have spent the rest of the day in intensive discussions about next steps—rebranding, shifting rhetoric, future rallies, etc.—or maybe just trading stories about the day’s events over beers with other neo-Nazis.

Instead, he sat alone in his car, watching a crowd of jubilant antifascists celebrating up the road. He was inculcated with the life-or-death urgency of the imagined “white genocide” but there was no one offering him a practical way to respond to it, so he did the one thing he could do that gave him a sense of agency: He stepped on the gas.

‘Screw your optics’

The events in Charlottesville once again foregrounded the eternal debate on “optics” within the alt-right. Some were still clinging to the slim hope that their politics could maintain a foothold within the mainstream while others argued that the movement should embrace its outsider status and build a pole of attraction beyond the rightmost boundary of the Overton Window.

Though their political beliefs didn’t change, even the most hardline neo-Nazis began making cosmetic adjustments to their messaging.

A section of Vanguard America reconstituted itself as Patriot Front under the leadership of Tommy Rousseau, a 19-year-old from Texas with a mind for marketing. They ditched the swastikas and Odal runes in favor of stars, stripes and eagles while submerging their radical ideas beneath a thin veneer of patriotism.

(Anti-Defamation League)

The Proud Boy-allied American Guard, a libertarian “political club” founded by notorious skinhead Brien James, formally repudiated ethnonationalism. Billing itself as “American nationalist,” the group is nominally multiracial, but the majority of its core members and leaders are former Klansmen and skinheads from James’ Vinlanders Social Club.

Identity Evropa, which always had a focus on optics, doubled down on its entryism strategy. They began vetting members for criminal backgrounds (somewhat ironic considering their founder did a bit for armed robbery) and even started tabling at CPAC, with the goal of “taking over the Republican Party.”

But none of this really did much to stop the atrophy and restore the movement to where it was the previous year. Because of the secretive nature of far-right groups, it’s hard to say with any certainty if—or how much—membership declined, but the decrease in the size and frequency of organized actions seems to indicate a huge drop off.

Take Patriot Front. The whole of its activity is mostly limited to flyering and banner drops. At best, they can muster a dozen people to yell outside an anarchist bookstore for 30 minutes. The only groups that are still able to hold relatively large rallies consistently are alt-lite groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it’s unorganized and relegated to the margins of politics, the alt-right is still massive. A poll released a week after Charlottesville, found that 9 percent of Americans believe neo-Nazism is an acceptable ideology.

That’s 22 million people who are on their way to being radicalized or already there. And without any organized channel for political action, the only thing that remains is individual terror, which brings us to Robert Bowers.

Bowers had no known affiliations with any groups and he was unknown to law enforcement at the time he shot up the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, but his final post to Gab—“Screw your optics. I’m going in.”—implies that he had been plugged in to the “optics” debate going on within the alt-right—and clearly indicates on which side he fell on.

The wall-to-wall coverage of the migrant caravan on rightwing media in the weeks leading up to the massacre fueled his sense of despair over “white genocide” and he decided to do the only thing he could think to do about it.

There’s a fundamental characteristic of the fascist mentality that drives this kind of violence.

In his essay “Ur Fascism,” Italian author Umberto Eco described fascism as a cult of death, heroism and “action for action’s sake.” Sitting around discussing things—that’s for craven, effete liberals. A fascist takes heroic action and dies if necessary.

Bowers offered a more attractive model for every wannabe hero to follow, because flyering laundromats in Denton at 3 a.m. won’t get you into Valhalla.

It will get worse before it gets better

There was a time when the public could feel reassured once they found out a terrorist was a “lone wolf.” If they were caught, then it was over. Everyone could relax knowing that there weren’t more bombers or shooters on the loose.

But this new breed of “lone wolf” terrorism has a viral quality—every attack breeds more attacks. In the week following the El Paso shooting, a copycat was arrested for planning to shoot up a Walmart in Florida and another potential shooter was caught plotting to bomb a synagogue and a gay bar in Las Vegas. A man also attempted to kill Muslims at a mosque in Norway but was beaten up by worshippers. He made a post on 8chan praising other mass shooters and calling the Christchurch murderer “Saint Tarrant.”

Self-radicalized terrorists acting on their own initiative can potentially be more effective than an organization in terms of their ability to produce violence on a mass scale.

Experts on extremism have noted the parallels between the Islamic State’s crowdsourced model of terrorism and the American far-right. The Islamic State radicalizes converts who carry out attacks in their name and then take credit after the fact.

This way, they don’t have to absorb the costs and risks of actually planning and executing attacks. Their main activity then becomes propaganda.

The alt-right carries out this function with no organization whatsoever. They mass-distribute canned talking points (“redpills”) on their message boards along with memes and other visual aids. Incitement to action exists without the alternative opportunities for non-violent political activity that organizations provide.

White nationalist terror is starting to converge with that of the Islamic State in another troubling way: scale.

From 2007–2016, white supremacists and other far-right extremists accounted for 74 percent of deaths from violent extremism, according to the ADL, but fatalities per incident were less than five on average. There were fewer Islamist terror attacks in that span but much higher death tolls.

More people died in El Paso last week than in the attack at San Bernardino, while roughly the same number died in Christchurch as were killed at the Pulse Night Club.

Every year the Southern Poverty Law Center announces yet another increase in the number of hate groups while the ADL tallies up flier and banner drops—a 182 percent increase last year!—but ultimately these metrics say very little about the threat of white nationalist terror.

The next alt-right mass murderer will probably be someone who never posted a single flier.

Right now, the next Patrick Crusius is somewhere sipping a Monster drink as he scrolls through the latest 8chan posts about skull sizes and FBI crime stats.

The next Robert Bowers doesn’t spend his days donning a white bandana and unfurling banners that say “Reclaim America” off overpasses— he’s squirreling away the meager wages from his menial job to build an arsenal.

The next Dylann Roof is stocking shelves at a Safeway, pining for the moment when he can finally shake off the drudgery of his humdrum existence and apotheosize into an immortal icon of white rage.

The next big killer isn’t in the streets fighting black-clad antifascists. He’s living in obscurity, daydreaming about a day in the not-to-distant future when he can beat Saint Tarrant’s “score” and then maybe his face will be the one on all the memes.

Justin Ward

Written by

Radical journalist. Write about extremism, politics, class, labor, history and media. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler & ArcDigi.Twitter: @justwardoctrine

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