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The alt-right is debating whether to try to look less like Nazis

“Optics-cucking,” the debate roiling white nationalists, explained.

Unite the Right
Alt-right rally attendees at “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tensions are flaring between two warring camps inside the alt-right movement ahead of their planned march on the White House Sunday: those who think they should try to look a little less like anti-Semites and racists, and those who think that would make them a bunch of “optics-cucks.”

“We need to remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun,” wrote Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi who runs the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, urging his readers not to attend the rally. “We need to speak to the culture. We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet.”

But others, like white supremacist Christopher Cantwell (who was recently barred from entering the state of Virginia for five years), disagree. In a blog post earlier this year, he wrote that those within the white supremacist movement should “become Republicans, not revolutionaries,” but added, “This is not to say we should descend into optics cucking. Far from it. Anyone who dares punch right” — as in, anyone who criticizes those who wear neo-Nazi regalia to rallies or uses white supremacist slogans in public — “should be descended upon with all of the venom we can muster.”

“Unite the Right 2,” the sequel to last year’s alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was organized largely by “white civil rights activist” Jason Kessler. It is intended, per the application, to protest what participants feel were civil rights abuses at their gathering last year, where young white men carried tiki torches and marched to Nazi-inspired chants and where a counterprotester was killed.

According to Kessler, it was those “civil rights abuses” by Charlottesville officials “that led to the violence at last year’s rally” — though it was a member of the alt-right who murdered a woman by purposely driving into a crowd of counterprotesters. White people aren’t “able to peacefully assemble. We’re not able to speak,” Kessler said in an interview, though he, as Slate pointed out in June, had permission to do both.

Before Charlottesville, the alt-right and white nationalists believed that their movement was ready for primetime and, more importantly, real political power amid the rise of Donald Trump. But as Unite the Right descended into violence and murder in Charlottesville, the subsequent legal fallout and the massive backlash by the public suggested to many in the movement that, in fact, it wasn’t prepared to emerge from the confines of the dark corners of the internet. Under public pressure, the alt-right has largely disintegrated.

Those who remain are divided over how best to grow their ranks. Some of the biggest names in white supremacy and neo-Nazism — the same people who showed up last year to chant, “Jews will not replace us,” and wave swastikas — aren’t going to the rally, and they’re telling their followers and fellow travelers not to go either. They are concerned about the “optics” — that a movement made up of anti-Semites and racists might appear to be a movement of anti-Semites and racists.

Other die-hard members balk at the idea of toning down their public protest (like leaving guns and swastika flags at home, as one post suggests to attendees). On alt-right message boards, they’re howling that this makes them cowards, questioning the motives of the optics camp. They call it “optics-cucking,” an insult that questions the target’s masculinity.

Optics, and “optics-cucking”

It might be surprising just how concerned a movement that began by besieging Jewish reporters and nonwhite people on the internet with anti-Semitic memes and virulent racism could possibly be about “optics.” But with regards to Unite the Right, many who had urged their followers to attend last year’s rally, including hardened neo-Nazis, recognized that the optics of Charlottesville were bad — and bad for the movement.

Anglin, who runs the Daily Stormer website (and is currently on the run from a lawsuit filed by a Jewish woman whose address he publicized), posted an article on August 5 titled, “Don’t Go to ‘Unite the Right 2’ – We Disavow.” In the article, Anglin argues, “While many people DO support whites maintaining a white society in America, no one supports neo-Nazi street-fighting,” adding, “Armband neo-Nazism is never going to be that popular”:

We cannot win a battle on the streets. We cannot win a protest movement organizational battle. We are currently winning a culture war, and were long before the kike media tricked us into Charlottesville. We need to remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun. We need to speak to the culture. We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet. That is exactly what you do not want. And basically, that is what the Alt-Right has become synonymous with post-Charlottesville.

But even before this year’s rally was announced, the alt-right had already been embroiled in a debate about whether caring about looking less like hardened fascists and neo-Nazis and more like everyday white American citizens is a goal or, as the Daily Beast first reported, an example of weakness or even “optics-cucking” — “cuck” being a reference to a pornography genre in which a man watches another man have sex with his wife.

In short, should the alt-right look like Nazis to appear strong and get straight to the point, or should the alt-right not look like Nazis in order to more successfully evangelize for the cause?

In the weeks immediately following the rally in Charlottesville, a writer at the alt-right website Right Realist explained the “optics matter” perspective in a piece called “Why I was Wrong about the Alt-Right” that urged the alt-right to embrace pacifism and battle via popular culture, because “Jews didn’t gain their disproportionate influence in society by marching with torches in the streets”:

The reason the establishment has reacted so aggressively is because we’ve completely lost the moral high-ground after Charlottesville, and they know it. Our enemies have seen the opportunity they needed to crush us without looking like the authoritarian monsters they are to the public at large. Nobody in the public is going to step up to defend “KKK, Nazi, white supremacists.” ... Our goal should be a positive, mainstream movement which champions racial, ethnic, and cultural preservation and advocacy for all peoples. And since this is a Western movement, it will primarily focus on whites, who are uniquely denied the right to guard their survival and advocate their interests. ... As much as I loved watching the Charlottesville warm-up rally, the image of angry torch-bearing whites chanting racist slogans is not what we are looking for.

This appears to be the perspective of Jason Kessler, who, during the planning for this year’s rally, expressly forbid any flags besides the American flag and the Confederate flag from being flown at the rally (to avoid the overwhelming presence of Nazi flags).

In an interview on an alt-right podcast on July 12, Kessler said, “That kind of neo-Nazi stuff is just not compatible with real-world stuff. So if you go to this event and you see people doing those salutes, you see somebody carrying a swastika flag, you tell them to put it away or get the hell away from them.”

Via the Unite the Right website.

But others within the movement feel very differently. Another alt-right blogger described his happiness at the alt-right’s transition into visible white supremacy, in a post in March. He wrote approvingly that Charlottesville had made clear how violent the movement had the potential to become. Many within the alt-right, he said, had decided to embrace full-fledged anti-Semitism and white nationalism “rather than tapping the brakes into optics cucking” and giving up the dream of a full-fledged race war and a white ethnostate:

Activism begets more IRL [in real life] stuff. ... Don’t you wish YOU could kick ass and crack skulls, too? There will be boots on the ground, Phalanx style. More protests and rallies and demonstrations are a necessary and inevitable precursor to open conflict and civil war, which will go racial as soon as the participants figure out that they aren’t trying to avoid a Twitter ban anymore. ... As America polarizes and divides, many nonWhites and quite a few leftists will want to be separated from us just as goodly as we need to be rid of them. The Peter Pans of the Alt Right will be the ones trying to hold us all together, not willing to sacrifice soil for blood, or blood for soil.

“Everything is different now”

The biggest lesson from Charlottesville was about not optics but consequences, from guilty verdicts to lawsuits to losing positions of power within college-level Republican organizations that did not want to be associated with tiki torch-carrying white supremacists.

Many who attended the Unite the Right rally, like former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, believed that the election of Donald Trump was a sign that the country had moved closer to their racist views. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in,” Duke said at the rally. “That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

But Unite the Right didn’t take place within the safe and anonymous environs of the internet, where you can tweet anti-Semitic memes about how hilarious gas chambers are behind a username with eight digits and no fear of real consequences besides the suspension of your Twitter account. Unite the Right was real, taking place in a public space in full view of the world, and the vast majority of the country — including Trump’s most ardent supporters — found what happened in Charlottesville horrifying and repulsive.

Kessler himself admitted on an alt-right podcast that many of the attendees at last year’s rally were “people who aren’t used to being out of the internet,” and who didn’t recognize that their identities being public would lead to real-world problems.

No wonder, then, that in his post denouncing the second rally, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wrote that to go to a post-Charlottesville Unite the Right rally would potentially be life-ruining. “Getting doxed as a neo-Nazi street fighter will ruin your live, forever.”

From the Daily Stormer, August 5, 2018.