In early August 2017, hundreds of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and militia groups descended on the picturesque city of Charlottesville, Virginia. The assembled groups had two main goals: to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and to unite the burgeoning white-nationalist movement in the U.S. They began the weekend by wielding Tiki torches and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans; by the next day, the rally had devolved into unthinkable violence, with a neo-Nazi plowing into a crowd of protesters and murdering a woman named Heather Heyer.
Now, exactly a year later, the rally’s organizers are about to hold a follow-up event in D.C. Since Charlottesville, white nationalism has reentered the mainstream media conversation in an unprecedented way, and those who support it have been consistently emboldened by the administration — starting in the direct aftermath of the violence last August, when Trump refused to condemn those who marched in the initial “Unite the Right” rally, claiming that “both sides” shared blame for the violence that ensued. In the months since, elected politicians have shamelessly promoted the sentiments of neo-Nazis, the Trump administration has abused immigrant children in unimaginably cruel ways, the far-right has organized additional violent rallies around the country, and proud Holocaust deniers have started to run for office.
Still, the movement remains fragmented. To understand the ways in which the it’s evolved, the Cut talked to Data & Society researcher Joan Donovan about the lead-up to Charlottesville, what happened in the aftermath, and how the white-nationalist movement might change in coming months.
So Charlottesville was the first major attempt to unite various white-supremacist groups: alt-right, neo-Confederates, Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and various militias. How do these groups interact? Are there any tensions?
I’ve been studying white supremacists online since about 2015, very very early. I watched the rise of these groups and how they began communicating with each other. There are different kinds of white supremacists, which is why we have this distinction between white supremacists and white nationalists. White nationalists are definitely the more politically organized group within these online forums, and this is because they’re interested in a political program that closes the borders and advantages white people in employment opportunities to build a culture of whiteness throughout the nation. So these groups saw an opportunity when Donald Trump was gaining media attention to show up to any rallies for recruiting purposes in public.
Prior to that, a lot of them had been anonymous online because they knew that, were they to bring up these ideas in public or in their workplace, they could be fired or suffer some kind of social repercussions. In the wake of Trump’s campaign, these groups became highly politically mobilized, both on and offline. These leaders started to gain infamy online as serious organizers, and they started creating their own media, which includes podcasts and Youtube videos, and they began calling for in-person meet-ups.
For me as a researcher, the most surprising aspect of this mobilization was that militias got involved. Now, militias are highly organized, they do tactical training, and also do not usually group-up with other organizations in this way. In looking at which groups were mobilizing to go to Charlottesville, I became very concerned around the breadth of the different kinds of groups that were going to be present. What these groups wanted to do was have a big show of force on Friday night. So the real action and planning of the event was about that early rally with the torches, because they knew that Saturday was going to be very complicated and fraught with violence.
What usually happens to movements after a really big event like this, is that you’ll see lots of disorganization followed by reorganization. We watched as different factions disagreed over optics and the message and the spotlight and who should be empowered to speak to the media. We saw lots of infighting occur within these groups. But six to seven months after Charlottesville, these groups started to come back together and converse more, and started to realign.
Other groups that hadn’t been as prominently involved in Charlottesville, like Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, began to mobilize and organize in ways that were similar to what we saw happen in Charlottesville. Now we see a new leadership, but it’s essentially the same political ideology, which is anti-immigrant, pro-white. Proud Boys is a group that’s “pro-Western,” which is another word for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic, to some degree.
Are there any especially violent or influential groups on the right that you believe have rose to prominence since Charlottesville?
Well, in the past year, what’s been interesting is that people are starting to think about anti-fascist street confrontations as a serious problem, but at the same time, we’re also dealing with the rise of a truly white-nationalist agenda coming from the Trump administration in our border politics. Never before have we gotten to the degree that we’re doing right now — like separating families as publicly, which is a method of deterrence. This is a kind of law and order that Jeff Sessions has favored, where he publicly punishes groups of people so that other groups are sufficiently warned not to participate in migration or asylum-seeking.
That buttoned-down white nationalism coming out of the Trump administration is feeding into these street battles and really creating vexed local politics in certain cities that we know are flash points, particularly Portland and Berkeley. Our government’s move toward a white-nationalist agenda is fueling local street violence in a way that is going to lead to more death, and we’re also going to have this centrifugal force that brings more people into the issues and into the battles. It’s not going to go away unless the government stops hyper-focusing policy on anti-immigrant sentiments.
How has law enforcement changed its approach to white-supremacy rallies? At the recent Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, for example, we saw law enforcement confronting counter-protesters, while simultaneously escorting white supremacists.
There are a few things that are difficult to address about law enforcement post-Charlottesville, which is mainly that law enforcement’s role, ideally, is that they’re supposed to facilitate open assemblies of people who want to air their grievances in public. Their role is not supposed to be one that involves punishment in these formations. We have lots of history of protesting where police do use excessive force, but generally there’s usually one group of people who are protesting in the streets, and there might be one smaller counter-mobilization. We don’t usually see them get this large.
So could you say whether law enforcement tends to infiltrate leftist or far-right groups more aggressively?
Historically, with white nationalists in America, we have groups like SPLC and ADL that arise out of the need to do watchdog investigations because the FBI and DHS have failed to treat white nationalists as sufficient threats to the safety and security of other Americans. So, I think these groups persist because of the lapse in law enforcement. As well, we have an abundance of cases, going back to the history of the Civil-Rights Movement even, where cops have infiltrated and created counterintelligence programs that tracked black organizers and the Black Panthers and other groups who seek to bring equality to America.
We see a lot of nationalist language coming out of the Trump administration, but would you say that the far-right has gained influence within electoral politics?
I’m a firm believer that nothing happens politically that social movements haven’t already put on the table, in a very serious way. The government and street mobilizations are acting in concert, where they both gather energy and seek alignment. I see at Trump rallies, for example, these famed individuals who I see in street rallies. I see them talking about similar policies and about what needs to happen in the administration.
When I think about white nationalism as a political movement, it really is also an agenda for government. Nationalism in and of itself is very prominent in Trump’s platform, and so the rise of this nationalist movement in the midst of a political opportunity, where nationalism is very much a key feature of the presidency, illustrates to me that reform and revolt need each other.
What can we expect in coming months?
One thing that I think is going to be a flashpoint over the next year as we go into the midterms is rallies related to certain Democratic candidates. I think these are spots where we should look for far-right counter-mobilizing and the desire to whip the media up into a frenzy. In particular, I’m thinking about public appearances of women politicians like Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi, where I think we could see far-right people showing up. And as Trump continues to have his rolling campaign, I would watch again for those instances of violence at those rallies.