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White Out

The alt-right and other ethno-nationalist groups are falling apart, but their ideas are still in power.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

On Wednesday evening, Laura Ingraham opened her Fox News show with a critique of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old democratic socialist who ousted a top House Democrat in a June primary and is virtually guaranteed to become a member of Congress this fall. Conservatives, naturally, aren’t thrilled to see any kind of socialist win a U.S. election, even in a New York City district where Republicans can’t compete. But Ingraham’s opening monologue also carried a more insidious message.

She played a clip in which Ocasio-Cortez noted that the older generation of Democratic leaders came to power in the 1990s, under economic circumstances that are much different than today’s. “That’s not America anymore,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“She’s kind of right in the general sense, because in some parts of the country it does seem like the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Ingraham said. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” She then pivoted to a litany of murders and other crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Her central point, however, was that the country was taken away from its citizens by foreign hordes. “Everyone is gaming the system,” she said, referring to Democrats. “Now, this is a sure way over time to remake and reshape America. This is exactly what socialists like Ocasio-Cortez want. Eventually diluting and overwhelming your vote with the votes of others who aren’t, let’s face it, too big on Adam Smith and the Federalist Papers.”

Ingraham’s monologue mirrored the rhetoric that white nationalists use to articulate their worldview, except that it was delivered in a nationally televised broadcast by a major media outlet: She cast the nation’s immigrant population as participants in a plot by unnamed forces to “reshape and remake America” by “foisting changes” upon the native population that would “dilute and overwhelm” them. To further diminish their humanity, Ingraham singled out a handful of child rapists and murderers, as if to suggest an inherent degree of criminality in the nation’s foreign-born residents.

These remarks came a few days before the one-year anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Organizers had intended for the rally to be a Woodstock of sorts for white nationalism. Instead, it appears to have been the alt-right’s Altamont. The movement has yet to recover from the fallout from Charlottesville. But Ingraham’s comments—not to mention this weekend’s Unite the Right 2 rally in the nation’s capital, and the political endurance of figures like Corey Stewart—show that their ideas still enjoy far too much currency in American civic life.

“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases,” Louis Brandeis once wrote. “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Brandeis ranks among the finest legal minds ever produced by the United States, excelling at both the trench warfare of litigation and the high-minded brawls of constitutional law. He also happened to be the first Jewish justice on the Supreme Court, so racists might not put too much stock in his words. But the turmoil that’s engulfed the movement since Charlottesville has proved him right.

Leading figures from the alt-right and other white-nationalist groups didn’t think it would be this way. Last year’s rally on the University of Virginia campus was meant to be a moment of unity and solidarity for the disparate movement. There had been some missteps—Richard Spencer, for example, had been filmed giving a Nazi salute the previous November—but the energy seemed to be on their side. After all, Donald Trump had been sworn in as president only eight months earlier, after centering his campaign on hostility toward Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants in general.

The first day began with a torchlit march near a contentious statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. The demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us,” an anti-Semitic slogan that casts immigration as a Jewish plot to destroy America’s white ethnic majority. The following day, protests turned violent as white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters. It turned deadly when a driver with neo-Nazi sympathies rammed his car into a crowd, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal with a passion for social justice.

In the wake of the violence, Trump publicly defended the alt-right, whose leaders saw the rally as a success and a path to legitimacy. “It was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force,” Spencer told The New York Times at the time. But the ensuing year took a toll. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that far-right leaders have seen a sharp decline in momentum and morale, partly because of infighting and partly because of mass resistance to their activities. “It’s been a total fracturing of the right,” Jason Kessler, a white nationalist and organizer of the Unite the Right rallies, told the Journal. When members gather in D.C. on Sunday for an anniversary march—Charlottesville officials denied them a permit—their numbers will likely be even smaller than they were last year, and those opposing them will be far more numerous.

Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler was confronted outside the Charlottesville City Hall after last year’s rally.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

What made Charlottesville so damaging to the white-nationalist cause is that it erased the veener of legitimacy that its new leaders had tried to build. Before the protests, the movement’s leading figures were covered copiously by the mainstream media, which often marveled at how normal they seemed. Mother Jones described Spencer as “dapper,” while The Los Angeles Times reported that a D.C. gathering of white nationalists after Trump’s election “more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen.” This was a propaganda coup. White nationalism had long been typified by its violent, aggressive adherents: neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen, skinheads, and other groups too brutish for mainstream American discourse.

Whatever hopes the alt-right had of changing that perception died in Charlottesville. In a way, this may have been inevitable. Political ideologies are defined by the worlds they want to build. Democratic socialists, for example, aim to rein in capitalism’s excesses in the short term and eventually replace it altogether with social ownership. Libertarians seek to roll back the state’s powers and functions to varying degrees. Adherents of those ideologies can operate within a democratic framework to achieve their goals. White nationalism cannot. Its end game, no matter how benign its adherents’ phrasing or attire, will always be ethnic cleansing.

While the alt-right is in decline, those who share its beliefs remain in power. Nowhere do they sit higher than President Donald Trump, whose administration has pursued even more aggressive policies towards immigrants. Foremost among them is the family-separation policy that traumatized hundreds of children earlier this year before the courts stepped in. The White House is currently mulling a plan to block immigrants who received government benefits from obtaining citizenship, as well as large reductions in the numbers of refugees admitted into the country.

With a president who vocally defends white nationalists and executes policies that match their worldview, more of its adherents have sought public office. In March, perennial candidate Arthur Jones captured the Republican nomination for Illinois’ 3rd congressional district. Jones is unlikely to win the seat in November, partly because the district tilts strongly Democratic and partly because he is an unrepentant Holocaust denier. The Illinois Republican Party called Jones a Nazi and denounced his candidacy, while out-of-state figures like Texas Senator Ted Cruz urged Illinois voters to “write in another candidate, or vote for the Democrat.”

Jones is hardly an isolated figure. The California Republican Party initially endorsed John Fitzgerald for the state’s 11th congressional district, only to rescind its support in March when officials discovered his anti-Semitic views. Party officials also expelled Patrick Little, a candidate for the California Senate, from the state convention in May after learning about his neo-Nazi affiliations. Both lost their bids for office. In Wisconsin, white nationalist Paul Nehlen is among the Republican candidates vying in next week’s primary for the seat vacated by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

One Republican state party is notably bucking the trend when it comes to rebuking white-nationalist candidates. In June, Corey Stewart won the Republican primary for Senate in Virginia, setting up a challenge of Democratic Senator Tim Kaine in November. Stewart enjoys the full backing of the Virginia Republican Party, which has declined to condemn him and his white-nationalist views, and Trump has been a reliable supporter.

Stewart rose to prominence on a platform of hardline immigration enforcement and enthusiastic defenses of Confederate statues and monuments. So it’s no surprise that, as The New York Times reported last week, “Some white nationalists volunteer for Mr. Stewart’s campaign, and several of his aides and advisers have used racist or anti-Muslim language, or maintained links to outspoken racists like Jason Kessler.” Stewart also called Nehlen, the anti-Semitic congressional candidate Wisconsin, “one of my personal heroes.”

Earlier this week, CNN surfaced remarks he made at an event in 2017 where he praises southern efforts to secede from the Union during the Civil War. “Because, at the base of it, Virginians, we think for ourselves,” he told a crowd of supporters. “And if the established order is wrong, we rebel. We did that in the Revolution, we did it in the Civil War, and we’re doing it today. We’re doing it today because they’re trying to rob us of everything that we hold dear: our history, our heritage, our culture.”

Stewart isn’t even a Southerner. He was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, a state that fought for the Union, and he only moved to Virginia after graduating from law school. Stewart’s zeal for the Confederacy, and sympathy for its aims, can’t be ascribed to some familial kinship with those who fought for it. The Lost Cause can only truly be part of his heritage and his culture if he sees it as a struggle on behalf of white Americans to retain a certain racial hierarchy.

It’s surreal to see a candidate for political office defend the Confederacy at all, especially 153 years after its defeat. This was a violent, militant rebellion that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in an effort to preserve a white aristocracy that enslaved millions of people. A healthy political culture would readily expel supporters of that cause from its ranks. Virginians seem ready to do just that: A Virginia Commonwealth University poll released Thursday found that Kaine enjoys a 26-point lead over Stewart. May sunlight continue to disinfect such diseases.