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The Rise and Fall of the Racist Right

White nationalists entered 2017 on a high. They ended it in disarray.

Mark Peterson/Redux

I began reporting on the various malcontents of the American far right back in 2011, when nationalism and white supremacy were still on the fringes of the political landscape and the Tea Party, almost quaint in retrospect, was the face of white anger. During those early years, I spent countless weekends at Klan BBQs, neo-Nazi rallies, and lackluster conventions where attendance rarely exceeded a couple dozen people. The white supremacist scene was as tiny as it was delusional. In the spring of 2011, I spent a rain-soaked evening under a tented gazebo in a suburban backyard in New Jersey, discussing electoral prospects with Jeff Schoep, the commander of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the United States. He believed that whites in America were coming around to his way of thinking, to identifying first and foremost as white. He explained that white voters could even get over the NSM’s fondness for swastikas and its affiliation with the KKK as long as the message and messenger were compelling enough. At the time I thought the rainwater had seeped into his brain.

Five years later, as candidate Donald Trump declined to denounce former Klansman David Duke and the Roman salutes of Richard Spencer’s crew, I realized that Schoep had been right all along. White voters in America were prepared to forgive even the most egregious appeals to white supremacy so long as a compelling candidate played on their racial grievances. Trump proved that, and so did Roy Moore, the race-baiting, gun-toting alleged child molester who, despite losing Alabama’s special election for the Senate, still captured a healthy majority of the white vote.

It was with an overwhelming sense of schadenfreude that the far right in America stepped into 2017. They had been vindicated. Matthew Heimbach and his Traditionalist Workers Party trolled heartbroken libtards on the streets of Washington, D.C., on inauguration day. They lunched with Republican operators who said that Heimbach—an avowed National Socialist—would help the GOP solidify the disaffected white vote. Spencer, jubilant and yet to be punched by an antifa protester, was considering a run for Congress—because why not? Stranger things had just happened and these were heady times. The forces of the racist right felt they could throw whatever they wanted on the wall, and it would stick.

During a January lunch with Spencer in the D.C. suburbs, he explained to me how the far right was the laboratory of Trump’s GOP. He (in his humble opinion) was the intellectual lodestar for the whole thing—the wellspring from which the gospel of modern nationalism would flow, washing over the newly red-pilled masses and percolating through the orange follicles of the impressionable demagogue about to move into the White House.

It didn’t quite pan out as Spencer had hoped, but that hardly mattered. Even as the nativist far right publicly broke with Trump over his missile barrage of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, his gutting of the federal budget’s assistance to Appalachia, and a host of other smaller slights, they used their newfound notoriety to stage high-profile rallies—relatively speaking, of course, since not many people showed up on average—designed for maximum public impact. Spencer came out the other side of a viral punching a changed person, embraced by the boots in the movement for taking a fist to the face. He rebranded himself as a man of action who during speeches would throw away his oppressive tweed jacket and demonstratively roll up his sleeves.

As we stood in an abandoned coal field in western Kentucky in April, amidst a group of Nazis, Klansmen, and college kids, Brad Griffin, a popular blogger in the movement, told me that the defining moment of the past year hadn’t been the election of Trump, but rather the punching of Spencer. It confirmed my suspicion that the sometimes violent reactions to hate speech were having the undesirable effect of growing the movement.

The spiel was pure snake oil, but that didn’t change anything. “Facts are lame,” Spencer crooned at Auburn University in Alabama in April. “They’re boring.” He was right. What mattered were the spectacle, the lawsuits, the fights, and the commotion. The movement settled into a comfortable routine of announcing campus speeches, having them cancelled by a skittish university administration, suing on First Amendment grounds, and winning, thus garnering tenfold the attention such speeches actually deserved.

A new generation of angry, young men, represented by the pasty, pubescent boys in Identity Evropa and American Vanguard or the angry chauvinists of the Proud Boys, believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that white men were the true persecuted class of today. This was a new kind of white anger. The nationalists I’d covered in the past were more often than not poor and disaffected. The provocateurs at Auburn weren’t the destitute or the uneducated. They were bored, young men who had the time and the money to walk around feeling aggrieved.

And they were also buoyant. They felt their movement was coming together, which was the driving sentiment behind the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August. They wanted to celebrate that unity and cement it further. Except that’s when it all fell apart.

Behind the scenes, the Charlottesville rally was a mess of competing egos and petty squabbles. Originally intended to be a smaller affair, the list of participants ballooned as soon as the various chieftains got wind of the event and wanted their turn in the spotlight. Thus, inevitably, Charlottesville was doomed. I embedded with a faction consisting of the most radical groups that called itself The Hard Right, as opposed to the Alt-Right and the Alt-Light. Even in the days leading up to Charlottesville they were mocking the anemic, diet-fascists like Spencer and Mike Cernovich. Their sense of solidarity came from their common animosity toward antifa. Beyond that the groups shared little in common.

Then, in the aftermath of the tragic death of Heather Heyer, even this shred of unity was stripped away as groups openly split over how to deal with Heyer’s death. There were condemnations and counter-condemnations, as a movement adept at merely playing war suddenly had to deal with the very real repercussions of a person dying. The various factions withdrew to their corners. Spencer continued his traveling sideshow, gleefully imposing his unwanted presence on college campuses, while other groups decided to focus on more local action. The first half of 2017 had been the movement’s moment in the sun, and, although its members didn’t care to admit it, the chaos in Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer marked its passing.

The people I had spent the better part of a decade covering surprised even me with their callous ability to rationalize a person’s death. In their mindset of open warfare, Heyer was collateral damage; or even more heartlessly, an enemy combatant who had died on the battlefield. I suspected that it was their way of avoiding any feeling of responsibility or guilt, but the cowardice of the thing disgusted me. And I was glad to be done with them.

I embedded with the movement at a time when it was nothing. I bore witness to its unlikely rise to prominence, and to those ugly days in August. It was a bad year, but it also exposed the limitations of the far right as a political force. Unity turned out to be an elusive goal, even for a group of racists, Nazis, and ethno-nationalists. The past year showed us how far the far right could go—too far for most, even if they didn’t really get anywhere at all.