Despite being almost religiously devoted to Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, the legions of online racists referred to as the “alt-right” have already decided to move on to their next big project: sparking widespread political conflict that they hope to turn into a nationwide race war.
White nationalists worldwide have fantasized about such conflicts for decades in photocopied manifestos and novels like “The Turner Diaries,” which reportedly inspired Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Racist killers like Dylann Roof have tried to spark the racial apocalypse through mass murder. This time around, their dreams seem slightly more plausible, thanks to two important tools that didn’t really exist for racists of yore: the democratizing nature of the internet (allowing anyone with enough dedication to grow a following) and a realization among members of today’s far right that they can adopt the tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience — long associated with the activist left — to spread their message of hate.
Before the web, the expense required to engage in mass communications was such that only wealthy individuals and political parties could do it effectively. That changed with the emergence of the internet. Before the web, white nationalists simply could not afford to get out their message effectively to large numbers of people. Now, finding racist materials online is a matter of a simple Google search.
The widespread adoption of the web has also given rise to a new form of culture based on trolling, the practice of posting abusive messages in discussion forums and social networks with the sole intent of provoking others to anger.
At first, trolling was simply an apolitical form of amusement — web posting as performance art. The image board 4chan soon became its mecca.
Over time, however, the trolls began moving from joking about racism to advocating it in their desire to become ever more edgy. Andrew Anglin, creator of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer and a longtime troll before that, described the transformation process in a lengthy post on his blog:
“The sentiments behind the jokes slowly became serious, as people realized they were based on fact,” he wrote. “Non-ironic Nazism [began] masquerading as ironic Nazism.”
As online neo-Nazis immersed themselves into the thought stream of what today’s young racists call “White Nationalism 1.0,” they soon were joined by many members of the so-called “manosphere,” a loose collection of anti-feminist blog communities that originally began as dating tip sites for men.
The political rise of Donald Trump and his harsh critique of American conservatism as corrupt and effeminate — as cuckolded, as in the insult “cuckservative” — provided the perfect mechanism for the racist alt-right to eject its nonracist elements and grow its ranks by radicalizing more mainstream white conservatives.
Demonstrating a media savvy far beyond the ken of 20th-century white nationalists, the new race warriors have managed to spread their message to an audience of millions. Since 4chan literally invented the internet meme, it’s no surprise that the board’s members (and those who frequent its rivals and spinoffs) have successfully created political propaganda that appeals to more mainstream conservatives. In fact, conservative media in general has become so polarized against the left that it both wittingly and unwittingly spreads alt-right messages to its audiences. Trump himself tweeted memes produced by neo-Nazis on several occasions during his presidential campaign.
Having proved their ability to manipulate the right long before they began to sour on Trump, America’s homegrown Nazis have now set their sights on using the left to push white nationalism into the mainstream.
The strategy essentially began coalescing last June after a crew of white nationalists demonstrating in Sacramento, California, were physically attacked by a group of “antifa” activists, members of a radical left-wing underground movement who seek to use political violence to forcibly shut down organizations they perceive as fascist. Nine people were hospitalized after the fracas as the skinheads and their allies retaliated with knives and other weapons.
This brawl received comparatively little national media attention but was obsessively covered within the alt-right, as the notoriously fractious community came together to sympathize with the demonstrators. The incident soon became a rallying cry on the far right, dubbed the “Battle of Sacramento.”
Publishing an interview with Matthew Heimbach, a leader of the group that had organized the march, the Daily Stormer’s Anglin proclaimed that the skirmish would “go down in history as the day the American race war really heated up.”
Heimbach strongly agreed, saying that he hoped the highly educated web trolls would understand their need to work together with the blue-collar skinheads they have generally derided:
I have had the pleasure to get to know a lot of different people in the White nationalist movement over the years I have been involved in this Cause. One of the biggest problems I have found in our movement is the sub cultural divides between various factions and classism within certain factions. The skinhead subculture is a working class movement with a lot of diversity within it. . . .
One of our primary functions as a movement must be uniting our people and promoting class cooperation, gender cooperation and religious cooperation. The enemy seeks to divide us, we must unite as one people; standing shoulder to shoulder in defense of our folk.
Seeing the galvanizing power that such skirmishes could bring to their cause, Heimbach and other far-right activists have held dozens of rallies since last summer. They’ve also made it a point to join up with protest events organized by “normie” Republicans who support President Trump, in the hopes of recruiting new members and generating sympathy for their cause. This bears a striking similarity to the “popular front” strategy practiced for years by Marxists and other left-wing revolutionaries.
By their own admission, the racist activists see attacks by antifa activists as useful to their cause. In hundreds of web postings examined by Salon, members of the Daily Stormer and many other websites such as 8chan’s /pol/ board have discussed at length their plans to infiltrate antifa social-media groups and use them to foment violence against right-wingers, in a strategy ultimately aimed at radicalizing “basic bitch” white conservatives.
The strategy is a grotesque variation of methods employed by Mohandas K. Gandhi in his struggle for Indian independence, and for that matter by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his fight for civil rights for black Americans. Historian David Garrow and others have documented how King and his allies would sometimes place children and elderly women in important protest positions, believing that any violence directed against such vulnerable people would engender outrage from journalists and the general public. Subsequent events proved his strategy was a sound one.
Seizing upon violence from the opposing side, regardless of who started the aggression, is also a key component of the radicalization strategy of Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS or al-Qaida. Such militant Islamists have long pointed to real or alleged abuses of Muslims committed by Western governments as a justification for their revolutionary theology. It’s not a coincidence that Anglin has called for “white sharia” in a series of recent web postings. Those on the alt-right and Islamic jihadists have more than a few similarities, despite their mutual hatred.
“If you can portray yourself sympathetically, suffering violence is a strategic advantage,” said David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies social movements. “It brings people into the conflict and portrays your opponent unsympathetically.”
The far right’s radical vision has also been aided by the emergence of a conservative media niche sometimes referred to as the “alt-lite.” Such outlets frequently take neofascist memes, strip them of overtly white nationalist content and then repackage them to the much larger conservative media world for clicks and advertising dollars.
Nathan Damigo, a white supremacist who was caught on film punching a female antifa activist named Emily Nauert during an April 15 brawl at a pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, California, is a perfect example of the way neo-Nazis are using clashes with antifa activists to mainstream their views within the larger right.
It’s not clear who originally sponsored the pro-Trump event in what may be America’s most liberal community. An online flyer promoting it featured a mixture of alt-right and more mainstream conservatives. Irma Hinojosa, a Latina supporter of Trump, was featured alongside Brittany Pettibone, a Christian nationalist contributor to alt-right websites, and Lauren Southern, an alt-lite commentator who has bragged that anime fans masturbate to photos of her.
While centrist and left-wing news sources focused on Nauert and condemned Damigo for hitting her, conservative and far-right websites began digging up information on her. They discovered video evidence appearing to show that Nauert had been throwing bottles at her opponents earlier in the confrontation. Soon a number of conservative sites such as The Rebel (which formerly employed Southern) that had denounced the alt-right in other contexts were demonizing Nauert with the epithet “Moldylocks.” Many regular conservatives on Twitter have also promoted memes that glorified Damigo.
Another Berkeley rally riot a few weeks earlier, on March 4, provided an example of the confluence of alt-right and alt-lite. Kyle Chapman — a pro-Trump commercial diver who showed up at the protest armed with pepper spray, a knife and a shield — hit with a long piece of wood the head of an antifa activist who appeared to be struggling with a Trump supporter.
Within minutes after the video of Chapman’s encounter surfaced online via 8chan’s /pol/ forum, he was dubbed “Based Stickman” on the neo-Nazi forum and the meme magicians went to work devising numerous propaganda images of him. These images and clips quickly migrated to more mainstream conservative sites that also cater to alt-right audiences, including The Rebel, Breitbart News and Gateway Pundit. Heat Street — a blog owned and operated by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. that is attempting to cultivate a younger right-wing readership — praised Chapman in an extraordinarily flattering article. Hailing his actions as “giving America one of its greatest victories since Guadalcanal,” the site denounced Berkeley police for arresting the “hero.”
“Chapman’s brief stint as a political prisoner should be a disturbing reminder that America would benefit from more modern-day Patrick Henrys,” blogger Joe Simonson wrote.
None of the people praising “Based Stickman” bothered to look up his violent past, his “likes” of white nationalist pages on Facebook or his seemingly indiscriminate pepper-spray attack on a fellow Trump supporter. Chapman was just as nonchalant when he was asked by Wired reporter Emma Grey Ellis if he approved of people circulating memes of white supremacist Nathan Damigo. “I honestly just don’t care,” he was quoted as saying.
The radicalization process appears to be working among at least some conservatives. Read through almost any thread about antifa activists on 4chan, 8chan, the Daily Stormer or any of the larger alt-right blogs and you’ll find stories like the one below recounted by an 8chan /pol/ member:
The thing is I WANT them around. My 70 y/o mom was a basic indy voting normie a year ago. Now she’s all but telling me we need to gas the cultural marxists and exterminate the muslims. This is all because of the stupidity of the last year. All the safe space shit, the 4000 genders, riots, [jihadist] attacks, white genocide, etc. . . . She’d literally just look the other way as commies and muslims are genocided knowing it needs to be done. My brother is going the same way.
Antifa is our greatest ally. Their insanity is pushing the normies to the far right.
Leveraging far-left activists who think that they help their cause by engaging in violence is the dream of many neo-fascists.
“Lol how do they still not get it?” asked one /pol/ poster earlier this month. “They’re escalating with people that have been dreaming about killing them for years and have been preparing the whole time.”
Chapman, the “Based Stickman,” seems to be moving in that general direction. On April 21, he announced the formation of a group called the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, which appears to have more than a few similarities to the Sturmabteilung, the infamous Brownshirts paramilitary organization that predated the Nazi Party and helped facilitate its rise.
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In interviews with Salon and on their own websites, antifa activists and their allies have defended their tactics, saying that mainstream liberals and various government officials’ willingness to allow neofascists to publicly flaunt their views will ultimately lead to the destruction of civil society.
As might be expected, many antifa activists are aware that the alt-right has been moving toward a new operating consensus that is less about conventional politics and more about fomenting revolution. A representative of It’s Going Down, one of the most popular antifa and anarchist websites, discussed this with Salon by email:
As Trump has predictably not done anything to improve the lives of the majority of poor and working-class people, the far-Right has continued to search for enemies to explain this reality, outside of anything that would question capitalism and the governments that protect it, and thus has continued to settle for the need to attack and beat back social movements and struggles which actually do challenge the status-quo. . . .
A changing and often worsening of conditions among the working-class; neoliberalism and the rise of the ‘precariat,’ people working more precarious jobs for less pay. Within this context people are looking for answers and often where there is not a strong anti-capitalist force to provide that, they end up being attracted to the far-Right, which on the surface appears to provide a critique of ‘globalism’ and the political order. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Right in general feeds off of autonomous and insurgent violence and social movements. The Bundy occupation was backed by several elected officials just as Trump goes on InfoWars, while some Republicans find it hard to condemn abortion shooters, and others talk about ‘white genocide.’ This is a different reality than on the Left. On the Left the ‘official organizations;’ political parties, non-profits, and labor unions, act as a wet blanket on revolt, trying to contain them and force them back into the political and economic structure for the sake of maintaining social peace. . . . This reality is why the anarchist movement is the only movement that seeks to build a true grassroots and autonomous force outside of the political circus and within actual communities for the purpose of creating counter-power to the status-quo.
Regardless of whether attempts to forcibly shut down far-right events might help to mainstream fascist viewpoints, antifa activism has become a hot debate topic on the American left.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the progressive icon whom polls suggest is now America’s most popular politician, repeatedly denounced violence during his 2016 presidential campaign. He weighed in on the subject again in an interview with The Huffington Post when he was asked about violent threats that the University of California, Berkeley, received after it announced that it would allow a local College Republican chapter to host a speech by alt-lite columnist and Trump acolyte Ann Coulter. Her speaking engagement, which the organizers had scheduled for April 27, was moved to May 2 by the university administration and ultimately canceled after organizers refused the date.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like it,” Sanders told reporter Daniel Marans. “To me, it’s a sign of intellectual weakness. If you can’t ask Ann Coulter in a polite way questions which expose the weakness of her arguments, if all you can do is boo or shut her down or prevent her from coming, what does that tell the world?”
To the antifa activists, however, their extreme tactics are not about silencing free speech. Instead, they are about stopping the far right from organizing its forces, according to an activist giving his name as Kieran, who agreed to be interviewed by a leftist radio station in February:
There’s both a question of strategy and tactics. I think that all of this is with the understanding that what we’re opposing is not the free speech of fascists, or the speeches of fascists. What we’re doing is opposing the organizing of the fascists. So, for instance, in my workplace, I work with workers with a whole range of opinions on all different kinds of questions. And occasionally you’re going to run into people who are influenced by far right politics. In those circumstances it doesn’t make sense for me to start a fight, a physical fight with a coworker since they raised some perspective that comes from that background.
But that’s totally different than a situation where you have an organization or a personality who’s using the framework of a public speech or an event, a forum, in order to advance political goals. And so the way we look at it is the way we would look at any kind of organizing done by that group with those aims.
Kieran also defended the antifa militancy that led to the cancellation of a February speech by alt-lite commentator Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart News editor.
“Our understanding is that he was planning to out undocumented students at Berkeley for the sole purpose of putting them under attack by Trump’s immigration forces,” Kieran said in the radio interview. “And so, in that circumstance, we can’t let that attack go unchallenged. And I think that when you look at it from that perspective, it makes sense to try and oppose it.”
The neofascists, however, no longer appear to see leftist disruptions as a loss. Instead, they have come to the conclusion that violence at a political gathering is far more valuable than whatever speeches the people who organized it happen to deliver.
In the pre-internet days, rallies were their own reward. In the age of YouTube and social media, that’s not the case.
“The only realistic gains we can get from these rallies are the videos and snapshots of Leftists going absolutely berserk,” according to blogger “Marcus Cicero” of Occidental Dissent, a Southern nationalist blog.
The pseudonymous writer envisioned a parallel to Germany between World Wars I and II: “Like the Weimar Republic, decaying America needs to be brought to its knees for something far greater to rise from the ruins, and if these demonstrations continue to grow, spread, and radicalize, we may be closer than ever before.”