The weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, has left the alt-right with a serious branding problem, and not everyone aligned with the movement seems eager to take on the baggage of being associated with the frenzy of unabashed bigotry that took place at Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally.
Out of the fray came images of brawling neo-Nazis, marching Klansmen in full regalia and torch-bearing white men chanting anti-Semitic and fascist slogans, all capped by an alleged terrorist attack on counterprotesters that left one woman dead and at least 19 more injured.
The event was the work of Richard Spencer, the self-proclaimed father of the alt-right, who is widely credited with coining the phrase. His version of the “alternative right” is based around white nationalism and white supremacy, and openly touts anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, homophobia and the belief that the U.S. should be established as a white ethno-state.
Spencer summoned the various far-right factions to Charlottesville, calling for a show of strength and unity against the city’s slated removal of a Confederate General Robert E. Lee statue. While the groups may have differed somewhat in tone and style, they gathered around shared values openly grounded in white nationalism and white supremacy.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump defended the rally, saying that some of the attendees were “very fine people.” But as Trump continues to face backlash over his refusal to unequivocally denounce the ideology of hatred and supremacy that the alt-right organized around, some prominent figures associated with the movement have quickly scrambled to distance themselves from the label entirely.
This week, prominent pro-Trump bloggers retweeted a Facebook post by Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large of the far-right conspiracy site Infowars, in an effort to draw a distinction between their views and the ones on display in Charlottesville.
Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich are perhaps best known for pushing anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories, including PizzaGate, among the alt-right.
After Charlottesville, the two bloggers have been quick to distance themselves from the alt-right instead throwing their support behind Watson, who has regularly criticized Spencer as a firebrand who’s undeservingly been given a platform as a supposed leader of the far-right.
In other tweets, Posobiec called the alt-right a “cancer” while referring to Spencer, the movement’s self-proclaimed leader, as “scum.” Posobiec identifies instead as “New Right,” he said. Which apparently means he likes to “wear MAGA hats, create memes & have fun.”
On Tuesday, Watson said he, Posobiec and Cernovich, all of whom have also been referred to as members of the so-called “alt-lite,” no longer wanted to be lumped into the alt-right.
Although Posobiec appears intent on dissociating himself from Spencer and the alt-right, he hasn’t always been such an outspoken critic. Spencer tweeted out an image of the two together in June.
In a message to HuffPost, Posobiec maintained that he’d “never taken a photo” with Spencer, whom he called a “scumbag Nazi.” He said the image was “probably photoshop.” Asked if there was a place for white nationalism in the “New Right,” Watson said he had “zero interest in any movement based around identity politics or race.” Cernovich did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Charlottesville is the latest flashpoint in a larger war over the definition of the alt-right movement and its identity.
During the 2016 campaign, the alt-right achieved more mainstream acceptance when Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, formerly the chairman of Breitbart Media, proudly professed to Mother Jones that he viewed his former website as the homepage for the “alt-right.”
At the time, the movement had already begun to take on a more nebulous identity, sweeping up a broad range of anti-establishment conservatives, tech-savvy libertarians, racial provocateurs, anti-politically correct internet trolls and pro-Trump meme-lords, slipping effortlessly between themes of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, toxic masculinity and offensive hyperbole.
As the movement grew, prominent bloggers like Cernovich and Posobiec emerged seemingly out of the internet ether, attracting hundreds of thousands of followers to promote a media narrative to counter the so-called “Clinton News Network” ― a name used to refer to CNN by its detractors. While they were happy to capitalize on the newfound attention given to a relatively unknown movement with ties to the Trump campaign, they’ve since slid in and out of the alt-right in an apparent effort to keep its darker, more overtly racist undertones at arm’s length.
“I believe in strong borders, including keeping out Islamic terrorists. If people think that’s inherently racist, fine—but I’m an American nationalist, not a white nationalist,” Cernovich told The New Yorker last year.
The rifts within the alt-right intensified after the election, with some members perhaps growing wary of their inability to have it both ways. Spencer and other white nationalists drew nationwide condemnation in November, when they were filmed “hailing” Trump’s victory with a Nazi salute.
The tone against Spencer has grown harsher in recent months ― at least publicly.
“[Spencer] fancies himself an outlaw intellectual when he’s a soft-faced fame whore who’d be performing in off-Broadway shows if he had the musical talent,” Cernovich told The New Yorker in July.
While Spencer’s Nazi gesture may have been the beginning of the end for the alt-right as a viable political movement, some far-right bloggers now say that Charlottesville will make it impossible to identify as alt-right without being seen as an open racist.
“As a ‘brand,’ the alt-right was irreparably damaged by HeilGate, but now it is dead and Spencer killed it, deliberately killed it, with malice of forethought,” wrote Katie McHugh, a blogger for the fringe conservative site GotNews who was fired from Breitbart earlier this year over a series of anti-Muslim tweets.
The alt-right brand may now be dead in some people’s minds, but the views behind it clearly are not. Posobiec has tweeted about “white genocide,” a white nationalist conspiracy theory and recruitment tool that claims governments are trying to cull white people into extinction through policies of mass immigration, integration, racial diversity and abortion. Cernovich has also declared that “white genocide is real.”
Posobiec, Cernovich and Watson regularly tweet about the Black Lives Matter movement, which they accuse of inciting hatred against whites and of not giving sufficient attention to black-on black-crime. And all three appear to share Trump’s belief that Middle Eastern refugees, and Muslims generally, are incompatible with Western culture and an existential threat to the U.S.
Whether or not there’s a substantive difference between the “new” and “alt” right, the movement’s fracturing was somewhat foreseeable, said Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Loosely defined hate groups are not well-oiled machines, and high levels of disorganization often lead to fissures when they begin to garner national attention or support, he said.
“It’s a lot easier to be a bigot in the abstract than to actually try to organize around hatred and anger, because not everyone wants to sign up to the same level or the same operation efforts,” Levin said. “The saying about herding cats also applies to white nationalists.”
White nationalists, like other hate movements, also thrive on the image of being insurgents defending against a broken system. When they go on the offensive ― and especially when they succeed ― the foundation can begin to falter.
“Part of the alt-right’s problem is they achieved their initial goals to promote white nationalism into the mainstream and dismantle the traditional barriers and structures that existed in the Republican Party, but now they’re ascendent,” said Levin. “It’s very difficult to organize a group that is anti-establishment once they become partially establishment.”
Whichever version of the right these figures claim to identify with, it’s clear that they still have a friend in Trump.
On Monday, still facing criticism for his soft, “many sides” response to the violence in Charlottesville, Trump retweeted a racially coded critique from Posobiec asking why the national media had dedicated so much coverage to the “Unite the Right” rally, but hadn’t expressed “outrage” over violence in Chicago.
A day later, Trump held a contentious press conference, in which he parroted the far-right argument that anti-fascist and anti-racist protesters were equal aggressors in Charlottesville, and therefore equally as worthy of condemnation as their white supremacist counterparts.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?” asked Trump. “I think they do.”