Eight months after a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville ended in the death of a counterprotester, the loose collection of disaffected young white men known as the alt-right is in disarray.
The problems have been mounting: lawsuits and arrests, fundraising difficulties, tepid recruitment, widespread infighting, fierce counterprotests, and banishment from social media platforms. Taken together, they’ve exhausted even some of the staunchest members.
One of the movement’s biggest groups, the Traditionalist Worker Party, dissolved in March. Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, the largest alt-right website, has gone into hiding, chased by a harassment lawsuit. And Richard Spencer, the alt-right’s most public figure, canceled a college speaking tour and was abandoned by his attorney last month.
“Things have become a lot harder, and we paid a price for what happened in Charlottesville. . . . The question is whether there is going to be a third act,” said Spencer, who coined the name of the movement, which rose to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign; advocates a whites-only ethno-state; and has posted racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic memes across the Internet.
Overall, the number of neo-Nazi groups increased in the United States in 2017, from 99 to 121, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center report released this year. That number is likely to decrease this year, said Heidi Beirich, who co-wrote the report. The SPLC did not group alt-right organizations together, but some of the neo-Nazi groups were an outgrowth of the movement.
“Imploding” is how Beirich now describes the alt-right. “The self-inflicted damage, the defections, the infighting is so rampant, it’s to the point of almost being pathetic.”
Even so, there is little doubt that white supremacy remains a potent force that is likely to emerge again as a political one — if not as the alt-right, then as something else. Racial animus remains an entrenched aspect of American life.
The alt-right “is on a downward spiral, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to disappear and that they’re not going to regroup,” said Marilyn Mayo, who studies hate groups for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. She said one large group called Identity Evropa — which targets college-age men, is less extreme in rhetoric and has turned away from the alt-right label — has grown recently.
“March was a phenomenal month for Identity Evropa, perhaps our best month,” group spokesman Darren Baker said.
Chris Schiano, a reporter for Unicorn Riot, a decentralized nonprofit media organization that has leaked internal correspondence among alt-right members, called the movement “basically done.” It could resurface if it falls out of public view and organizes under newer, younger leaders, he cautions, but they haven’t “gotten much traction yet.”
“The overall level of racism in U.S. society hasn’t improved, it’s just that the organizing space for these types of networks” has largely been depleted, said Schiano, whose group rose out of Occupy Wall Street and documents social protests. “So the latent potential won’t go away unless society becomes less racist.”
Three percent of Americans surveyed this winter as part of a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll said they supported the alt-right or white-nationalist movement.
The zenith of the alt-right — Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally in August — also appears to have been the moment of its decline, according to hate-group experts and members of the alt-right, most of whom were predicting a surge in membership at the time.
The death of Heather Heyer, 32 — killed in Charlottesville when a young alt-right member allegedly plowed his car into her — and President Trump’s reluctance to disown white nationalism focused a degree of scrutiny on the movement that it hadn’t known until then. People started being fired from their jobs. Families disowned their children. Fundraising websites dropped people associated with the alt-right, making it difficult to raise money. Reporters covered every misstep.
Chris Cantwell, a white-nationalist radio host featured in a Vice video about the march that was viewed by millions, wept in a video he posted to the Internet, proclaiming himself “terrified” after Charlottesville police issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of using tear gas in the protest. The Daily Stormer was dropped by its Web-hosting company.
Some members have given up on the movement entirely. “I got to go back to my normal life,” Connor Perrin, who drove all night from Austin to Charlottesville to protest what he saw as the oppression of white men in the United States, said in an interview late last year. “I’m focusing on working and being normal. . . . My mom is like: ‘Stop being alt-right. You’re going to get yourself in trouble.’ ” He later added, “We lost.”
Others said they were told they weren’t extreme enough for the movement. “I was unofficially kicked out because I had sex with a half-Japanese girl, and they didn’t like that,” said Jack, 18, of Aurora, Ill., who spoke on the condition that his last name not be published. “With white nationalists, you’re never white enough.”
There has long been infighting in the white-supremacist movement. The National Alliance, which for decades was the country’s best-organized and perhaps most powerful white-supremacist group, succumbed to infighting and a rapid decline after the death of its leader, William Pierce, in 2002. The history of the Ku Klux Klan, too, is one of internal turmoil.
What separates the alt-right movement from older groups like these, however, is that its members are Internet natives. They riff off contemporary culture and politics and understand the power of leavening hate with attempts at humor, which makes their messaging and memes more palatable to disillusioned suburban white kids who spend a lot of time online. Their ideas have infected the mainstream.
“We’re not going back to a time when no one had heard the word ‘alt-right,’ ” Spencer said. “We’re not going back to a time when no one had heard of an ethno-state. It’s in the discourse.”
But in the same way the Internet was a boon for the alt-right, enabling rapid mobilization, fundraising and a sense of community, it also has thrown up roadblocks to the movement’s progress. After alt-right members started getting booted from Facebook and Twitter, they relocated to alternative social media platforms, such as Gab, where they weren’t likely to encounter, let alone radicalize, people they call “normies,” who use more mainstream outlets.
Participation and enthusiasm appear to have slowed since. Several street rallies have been sparsely populated by white supremacists — but overwhelmingly attended by counterprotesters — and by the time Spencer ended his college speaking tour, few supporters were coming to his speeches.
At Stormfront, a large white-supremacist online forum whose threads were read by some alt-right members, few were donating money. “It’s that time of [the] month again, when the big, scary bills hit,” site creator Don Black wrote recently. His wife, according to site members, has stopped financially supporting the forum, and his son, Derek, has rejected white supremacy. “Our contributions have once again totaled less than $2000, which is not enough to cover our basic server and radio bills, and this month we no longer have enough personal money to make up the difference.”
The Traditionalist Worker Party, which at its height operated in at least eight states and had about 1,200 paying members, according to its leaders, also collapsed last month. It was perhaps the most institutionally organized of all the groups making up the alt-right. It had a clear hierarchy: Paying members reported to regional commanders, who in turn reported to the top leaders living in a trailer park in Paoli, Ind., where everything came apart last month.
The dynamic between co-founders Matt Parrott and Matthew Heimbach has always been unconventional. Heimbach is married to Parrott’s stepdaughter from a former marriage, and the two men lived in neighboring trailers, where they promoted traditional gender roles in addition to white-supremacist beliefs.
According to a police report obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Heimbach began sleeping with Parrott’s wife. In early March, the two told Parrott and Heimbach’s wife that the three-month affair was over. But days later, according to the police report, a plan was concocted to catch them in the act. Parrott was outside, standing atop a box, watching Heimbach and Parrott’s wife through a window when the box broke. His cover presumably blown, Parrott went to confront Heimbach, who allegedly choked him, according to the police report.. Parrott lost consciousness, then fled to a Walmart, where he called police, who reported that Heimbach appeared to have violently grabbed his own wife’s face.
Heimbach was charged with felony domestic battery, the Traditionalist Worker Party disintegrated, and Parrott, speaking on the phone earlier this month, sounded different than the triumphant white supremacist who in the days after the Charlottesville rally promised that he and the alt-right were here to stay.
“I’m unplugged from politics,” Parrott said. “I’m done. I’m out. I don’t want to be in The Washington Post anymore. I don’t care to have this humiliating and terrifying ordeal be more public than it already is. . . . There is no more Trad Worker.”
Heimbach, citing the advice of his attorneys, declined to comment.
The group’s website was removed. Some members said they were out. Others said they wanted to start something new. Another group, called Nationalist Initiative, soon coalesced online, heralding a new brand.
“TWP failed,” it said in a tweet this month to its 68 followers. “What comes from the ashes?”