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The Left’s Supporting Role in American Hate Theater

White supremacists from the KKK to the alt-right hold rallies solely to troll liberals—and they're succeeding. It's time for a new resistance strategy.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty

On the second Saturday in July, more than 1,000 people showed up in a small Southern city to shout down the Ku Klux Klan. That very same afternoon, up North, left-wing counter-protesters chased a band of alt-right Proud Boys out of a public park where they’d tried to rally. It’s been like that throughout this Summer of Hate, fifty years removed from the so-called Summer of Love. Wherever they’ve tried to assemble, both old and new-school white supremacists have found themselves routinely outnumbered, outshouted, out-organized, and out-brawled by the left.

It’s been a long time—almost half a century, in fact—since liberal America has been in a proper street-fighting mood. Peaceful nonviolence and “engaging in dialogue” are approximately as relevant in 2017 as LSD and Jefferson Airplane. And in many ways that’s a glorious thing. Liberal passivity—tolerating intolerance, reasoning with insanity—has unquestionably played a role in the rise of Donald Trump and the new, increasingly dangerous form of white supremacy that he’s inspired. It’s thrilling to meet force with force when the assholes come to town. Hell, it’s thrilling just to read the headlines. “KKK rally in Charlottesville met with throng of protesters” has an undeniably gleeful ring to it, especially when you’re reading it in USA Today.

But there’s a downside, and a dark side, to the way we’re fighting back. By confronting both the various breeds of white supremacists with fury and violence, we’re giving them better media attention and recruitment tools than the worst of the worst could ever hope to muster for themselves.

Charlottesville is a case in point. A largely liberal university town in central Virginia, it has mounted the single most impressive show of resistance in the country. A pitched battle over removing Confederate monuments and renaming Robert E. Lee Park had been raging for years before the city council voted in February to finally rid the city of the statues and rename the park. But even when the dispute was seemingly settled, it wasn’t; the haters wouldn’t let it die. Several dozen white nationalists led by self-promoting, Hitler-saluting dandy Richard Spencer and The Daily Caller’s resident fascist contributor, Jason Kessler, organized a torch-lit procession to the park in May, while the city was holding a multicultural festival nearby—a perfect opportunity for trolling IRL.

The white supremacists gave Pat Buchanesque speeches about the death of Western civilization, and paid symbolic homage to both their Klan forefathers (with the torches) and to Hitler and Fearless Leader Trump, chanting “blood and soil!” and “Russia is our friend.” Kessler tore down a protest sign from the Lee statue and got arrested for disorderly conduct, while the rest of the crew celebrated their triumph. “After the event and a long day of winning, we went back and threw an Alt-Right house party and celebrated our victory,” wrote Wayne Peek at “We sang songs, laughed and most of all just enjoyed the mental high you feel after an incredible win.”

A tiny and largely defunct rural North Carolina chapter of the KKK, the Loyal White Knights, decided to get in on the fun and announced their own “save the statue” hoedown in Charlottesville on July 8. When the day came for these outside agitators to show their faces (and/or hoods), the ragtag band of bearded, wild-eyed white dudes numbered 40 or 50. By and large, this was the usual pathetic bunch of lowlifes from the hollow—whoever was drunk or pissed-off enough that day to put on a costume and come along for the ride and try to spook some liberal snowflakes. (Favorite sign, wielded by one of more official-looking ZZ Top doppelgängers in the crew: “Jews Are Satans Children / Talmud Is a Child Molesters Biblel!” [sic]).

This wasn’t a show of organized menace; it was a public display of the Klan’s profound irrelevance. Even with the spike in racist hate crimes and organized white supremacy we’ve seen in the Trump era, there’s been no KKK resurgence to speak of. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found a grand total of 42 Klan groups currently active in 33 states, most claiming fewer than 25 members. Even that small remnant is disorganized, squabbling and fractious; as one Klansmen lamented online, “there is more Imperial Wizards on Facebook then there is at Hogwart’s Academy.”

Only one thing gives the Klan a dollop of relevance and currency: The liberal and left-wing freakout every time they drop an ungrammatical leaflet in people’s yards in the dead of night, and especially whenever they announce a rally. A KKK rally is catnip for the left, and white supremacists—including the better organized, more menacing younger denizens of white nationalism who masquerade as the “alt-right”—know it. You only have to slap Klan or Nazi imagery on a poster announcing an event, or announce it on Facebook, and you’ve immediately sent every liberal and left-winger within shouting distance (which now means the global internet) into a world-class tizzy. They’ll organize to shut down the march, and tie up city council meetings for weeks with demands to revoke the First Amendment privileges of the worst of the worst. They’ll hotly debate the “best” way to respond, or not. Some—most­—will naturally want to overwhelm the haters with shame and numbers. Others will want to peacefully counter-organize multicultural festivals and teaching moments. They’ll have the best intentions in the world. And they’ll all be expending a lot of organizing energy, not to mention emotional currency, on very little indeed.

And so the good people of Charlottesville, along with a fair number of masked anti-fascists and anarchists from god knows where, took to the streets on July 8. They drowned out the Klansmen with their own taunts and threats, tried to block them from driving away after the rally, and turned their ire toward the cops for “protecting” the Klan. The Charlottesville Police Department made matters worse, ordering the protesters to disperse in short order, then tear-gassing them in the ensuing chaos. Twenty-three protesters landed in jail. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie noted in his eyewitness account, “if anyone was in danger, it was the Klan members, not the protesters.”

Counter-organizing against the Klan is a sucker’s game. Name any Klan rally in the last few decades, anywhere in the United States, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one that was not grossly overhyped by local (and thus national) media, turned into a community spectacle that leaves the left feuding with each other and battling police over cops’ “peace-keeping” tactics. And the faded remnants of that sad spent force of American Hate go away feeling strangely powerful and relevant, chuckling with delight at how easily the “socialists” can be duped.

We’re getting played. And the alt-right, which has all the momentum and currency that the Klan sorely lacks, understands this well. Every day, they’re scripting new episodes of American Hate Theater, and the left is dutifully playing its supporting role.

If we were only talking about the KKK here, there’d be nothing else to say: Before you organize against a Klan rally, follow the unheeded advice of Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, who warned residents before the Klan rally in July to not “take the bait—to deny the KKK the confrontation and celebrity they desire.” But when it comes to the new white nationalists, it’s not quite so clear-cut. Despite the hype, the “alt-right” is another small band of squabbling ideologues and thugs, led by wannabes like Spencer and National Socialist Leader Matthew Heimbach, with the same sociopathic tendencies and runaway egos that crippled the old hate groups from within. But they’re also young—and young men in packs are the most dangerous people in America, both in terms of regular crime and hate crimes. And their ranks, unlike the Klan’s, are growing; they’ve been able to muster 200 of their fellow-travelers for public spectacles, and they’re planning to amass in Charlottesville again on Saturday for a “Unite the Right Free Speech Rally” they’ve been advertising for months.

The new white nationalists are not just putting misspelled leaflets on people’s doors in the middle of the night, as the Klan still does, or organizing rallies on the town square. The alt-lite Proud Boys, the brainchild of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, is for instance a sort of white-male-supremacist fraternity for overgrown nutjobs who like to doll up in fascist preppy drag and get their kicks infiltrating Black Lives Matter and other social-justice protests, taunting people and starting fights (it’s reputedly an initiation rite to “kick the crap out of an antifa,” or anti-fascist). They’re not alone: National Socialists, Oath Keepers, the whole alphabet soup of testosterone-crazed haters are (within their own considerable limits) better organized and more genuinely threatening than the Kluxers could hope to be. They don’t want to scare and intimidate city folk once in a while, and then crawl back in their hidey-holes. They want to troll and provoke the left non-stop, and they do. They want to recruit alienated young white guys to the cause, and they do. And they’ve learned valuable lessons from the old Klan in how to exaggerate their potency.

One of those lessons came to fruition on the same Saturday in July that KKK counter-protesters took leave of their senses in Charlottesville. In New Haven, Connecticut, the Proud Boys (and other groups, supposedly) had put out word that they’d have a “recruitment” event on the New Haven Green, smack in the middle of town, featuring a speech by Augustus Invictus, another self-glorifying (and goat-blood-drinking) “leader” who publishes The Revolutionary Conservative. They had no permit to protest; if a rally had transpired, it would have been a matter of minutes to call the cops and shut it down.

Instead, social-justice activists spread the word and turned out some 150 counter-protesters to meet a grand total of six Proud Boys who showed up—their speaker never did. (Stuck in traffic, Invictus claimed; it’s brutal in New Haven on a Saturday afternoon!) It became another classic episode of American Hate Theater, captured as always on smartphones by both sides, and by local media. “This is some of the most unproductive shit I’ve ever seen in my life,” one black protester (who says his brother was recently shot by police) tells a white activist:

To put it mildly, the counter-protesters of the nonexistent protest do not come off well in any video of the event. The few Proud Boys who showed up in their Fred Perry shirts and MAGA hats (wondering where the rally was, no doubt) were bombed with paint balloons, threatened, harassed, and in one case kicked around pretty good. The “counter-protesters” were the aggressors—they’d been primed for a fight, for a threat that wouldn’t materialize, and some of them proceeded as though there was one. The police overreacted too—it’s part of the established script—and showed their own stupidity about the state of twenty-first-century hate, blaming the organizers for claiming the Proud Boys were violent white supremacists (which they unquestionably are). “We told them there was no KKK,” said New Haven’s clueless police chief, adding that the Proud Boys were “no white supremacist group” but rather “a white nationalist group”—and thus not a menace to take seriously, apparently.

If the new white nationalists didn’t know it before, now they do: You don’t even have to organize and turn your people out to garner golden publicity and bolster recruitment efforts. Just say you’re showing up, and watch the fireworks.

The impetus to “smash” the haters is hard to deny, and in many ways impossible to argue with. But we’re losing the same street battles that we’re winning. And worse, we’re fighting the wrong fight: Instead of counter-trolling the haters online, in the arena where they’re actually winning converts, the left is organizing to out-taunt, out-number, and physically overwhelm them whenever they come up for daylight. And we’re inadvertently feeding directly into the new white nationalists’ own propaganda.

Spencer and his cohorts claim they’re not haters or aggressors, but rather the last defenders of a dying Western civilization. You’d have to be a gullible moron—or an alienated young white male—to fall for that logic, but America has been known to produce its fair share of gullible morons and alienated young white males.

It’s time for a new tactic. Let the alt-right declare a race war that nobody shows up for. They’re already vastly out-numbered. Surely they can also be outsmarted.