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One year after Charlottesville, the alt-right is gathering again — in Washington

Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right are rallying outside the White House.

White nationalists and neo-Nazis encircle counterprotesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville on August 11, 2017.
Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At last year’s Unite the Right rally, hundreds of members of the alt-right and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, purportedly to defend a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, as it faced removal approved by the City Council. The event was supposed to be the alt-right’s zenith, coming into its own as a real political force with real political power — and, tangentially, grabbing the ear of the president.

The event began with a torchlit rally where attendees shouted, “You will not replace us!” (some replacing “you” with “Jews”). The next day, the event attracted a counterprotest, during which a self-avowed Nazi sympathizer drove a car into a crowd, killing a young woman. Afterward, President Donald Trump famously remarked that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The events weren’t the high point of the alt-right but the beginning of the end of the alt-right’s real or imagined political effectiveness.

And on August 12, they’re doing it again — this time, outside the White House.

It’s not clear how many people will attend Unite the Right 2 — many white nationalists have already said they have no interest in going, while others who might otherwise attend are enmeshed in legal troubles stemming from last year’s rally. Meanwhile, organizers of the coalition DC Against Hate have told at least one outlet that they expect at least 1,000 counterprotesters to attend events aimed against Unite the Right 2 under the banner “Shut It Down DC.”

A year ago, members of the alt-right felt strong enough to venture off the internet and into the real world. Now, the movement has largely been broken — by the law, by widespread disapproval, and mostly by their own actions — and Unite the Right 2 could represent its last stand.

The plan for Unite the Right 2: a march, but please, no swastikas

On May 8, “white civil rights activist” Jason Kessler filed an application with the National Park Service to hold a rally of about 400 people in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House. His stated purpose: “Protesting civil rights abuse in Charlottesville Va / white civil rights rally.” Kessler, who organized last year’s debacle, initially applied for the rally to be held in Charlottesville again. His application was turned down by the city, however, and his subsequent efforts to sue the city for denying his application failed.

His application to march in Washington, DC, though, was approved in full by the National Park Service on August 5.

The current plan is to travel on the Metro from Vienna, Virginia, to the Foggy Bottom station (near George Washington University) in DC, then to march to Lafayette Square for a two-hour rally with speeches from figures like alt-right Wisconsin candidate Paul Nehlen, who may attend. American flags and Confederate flags are permitted, but Nazi flags, unlike last year, are not.

On the rally’s website, organizers warned: “ALWAYS Be aware of your surroundings. Do not talk to the media. Do not engage in any fighting. ALWAYS be a good representative for our cause.”

But coordinating this event has seemingly been chaotic at best, as revealed by recent internal Facebook chats from Unite the Right planners (obtained from an anonymous source by the media collective Unicorn Riot, a left-leaning investigative journalism nonprofit). The chats appear to show Kessler arguing with other planners about a wide range of issues. Those include basic logistics like transportation and housing; whether or not a nonwhite speaker would give them “political cover” to have major white supremacist figures speak as well; and whether there’s a good way to “normalize” anti-Semitism without appearing to do so (in other words, without using anti-Semitic memes).

Ironically, in the midst of discussions about which neo-Nazi groups could provide security for rallygoers, Kessler sort of seemed to try to tamp down violent rhetoric. As Unicorn Riot wrote (bolded words attributed to Kessler from the Facebook group chat):

Likely inspired by his ongoing legal problems, Kessler at times expressed concerns at the violent rhetoric being used in his Unite The Right 2 planning chat. “Please don’t talk about fighting anyone at the rally,” he wrote on May 28. “Hurts the legal situation.” He also chastised other event co-planners for discussing whether their security team should plan for violence: “this is absolutely the wrong kind of thing to be talking about on Facebook.”

Unmentioned in the Facebook chats is just how many white nationalist groups — like the neo-Confederate and white supremacist group League of the South, for example — have little to no interest in Unite the Right 2.

Unite the Right went very, very wrong for the alt-right

To understand the shambolic disorganization of Unite the Right 2, it’s critical to understand its predecessor.

As my colleague Dara Lind wrote on the alt-right in 2017:

In 2015 and 2016, the alt-right was an inescapable online presence, with some of its members crediting the movement’s “meme magic” with the unexpected popularity of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary and, later, the general election. With Trump’s election, some of its leaders have become more seriously engaged in politics, via pro-Trump organizations like the Proud Boys and the Alt-Knights.

Like Trump himself, alt-right leaders didn’t start out by explicitly aligning themselves with the sort of right-wing groups and movements that almost everyone in 2017 America is willing to agree are racist — like the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. But racist rhetoric has become a hallmark of the movement, from the use of “cuck” to deride anti-alt-right conservatives to Twitter harassment of Jewish journalists by Photoshopping them into images of Nazi gas chambers.

Around this time, the statue of Robert E. Lee was targeted by activists for removal from a park in Charlottesville after the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a white supremacist. The alt-right saw this as the perfect moment to gather to defend “Southern heritage.” But as the planning for the event commenced, the tenor and tone of the rally soon shifted. As Lind wrote, the rally turned “from an ostensible attempt to bring a broad coalition of conservative groups together to protest the controversial removal of a statue, to a ‘Nazified’ rally for ‘the pro-white movement in America.’”

The 2017 edition of Unite the Right was intended by its organizers and supporters to be a “pivotal moment” for white supremacists and the alt-right, featuring some of that movement’s biggest names, from white nationalist spokesperson-of-sorts Richard Spencer to Matthew Heimbach of the Traditional Workers Party, a neo-Nazi group.

Unite the Right 2017 poster
A poster from the 2017 Unite the Right rally.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of marking a high point for the “pro-white movement,” the tiki torch-lit march on August 11 and the violence of the rally the next day resulted in the killing of Heather Heyer and universal condemnation. Since August 12, 2017, the alt-right has been dealt several blows.

Organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right have been embroiled in lawsuits filed by victims of the violence that took place. Many of the alt-right’s biggest personalities, like Richard Spencer, lost funding platforms because, understandably, platforms like Patreon and PayPal didn’t want to be associated with advocates for the return of the Third Reich. Other alt-right figures are involved in legal proceedings related to, for instance, harassing a Jewish woman online, or participation in a trailer park brawl.

One white nationalist attendee (best known for sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of his imminent arrest) was even recently banned from entering the state of Virginia. Kessler himself tweeted insults about the young woman killed during the rally, then blamed his tweets on a combination of Ambien and Xanax when even his fellow rallygoers disavowed him. And politically, the rally only served to, in the words of the New York Times, “empower a leftist political coalition that vows to confront generations of racial and economic injustice” in Charlottesville.

On a larger scale, as the Atlantic’s Angela Nagle wrote in December 2017, the violence of Unite the Right put into sharp relief the distinct difference between what the alt-right purported itself to be (people posting “fun” memes mocking so-called “political correctness”), and what it actually became (a cover for racists and anti-Semites, complete with Nazi insignia and swastikas):

The rally brought into the open the movement’s racist core—not the winking shit-posters and fuzzy-faced geeks wearing obscure-internet-joke T-shirts, but a small army of unapologetic white nationalists. Anyone who flirted with the alt-right now understood what they were pledging allegiance to. ... “Charlottesville changed everything,” [Gavin McInnes, who had previously associated with alt-right elements] said to Boston Herald Radio. “I don’t advocate the alt-right. I don’t advocate their politics.”

It should be noted, however, that many of the attendees of Unite the Right clearly knew exactly what the point of the event was.

From former KKK leader David Duke’s Twitter account. August 9, 2017.

For those targeted by the denizens of the alt-right — those whose images were photoshopped into Nazi gas chambers and who received harassing tweets and emails for months — the alt-right was always a cesspool of hate.

But for casual observers, people who aren’t on Twitter and don’t visit Breitbart — the “platform for the alt-right,” in the words of former Breitbart chair and White House strategist Steve Bannon — Charlottesville made that reality all too real.

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