The day after a gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, American neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin took to the extremist website he founded — where there is already an entire tab devoted to the “Jewish Problem” — and started complaining.
It’s not that Anglin was upset by the slaughter of innocent people. He was upset that such a radical and overt act of hate — straight-up killing — in 2018 America would make it much more difficult for white supremacists and neo-Nazis to gain more supporters and eventually rise to political power.
“These Jewish corpses are going to be used for years to come as clubs to beat our freedom of speech rights,” he wrote Sunday. “Nothing was gained in this event.”
“Look, kids: you’re not going to fight the Jews and overthrow the system with random terrorist attacks,” he added.
Among neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Anglin was not alone in that view, which experts on extremism say underscores their prevailing long-term strategy. Gone are the days of defeating one’s declared enemies through vigilante violence like public lynchings or even Nazi death camps — at least not right now. Today‘s goal is first to escape the political fringe and the dark corners of the Internet. The kind of “change” they seek can occur, they argue, only when they are in control.
Hence the problem Pittsburgh shooting suspect Robert Bowers presents to those extremist groups — the negative optics of a massacre allegedly at the hands of someone with whom they agree.
Bowers, in his online posts, referenced conspiracy theories about white people being targeted by “globalists,” and he aimed his hatred at Jews. Shortly before the massacre in Pittsburgh, Bowers apparently posted his final screed on the social media site Gab: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project who tracks neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, said most have an explicit goal of building political power.
“So when they see someone who espouses their exact ideology and then goes and shoots a bunch of people, that essentially makes their politics that much harder and basically kills any chance of them generating mainstream support for their positions,” Hankes said. “To them, it makes their brand so toxic that no one is going to listen to them no matter what they say.”
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist best known for coining the term “alt-right,” frequently spouts anti-Semitic beliefs. But he insisted after the Pittsburgh slayings that he doesn’t believe violence is the way to fight Jews in American society.
“Everything I do, I’m trying to reach the mainstream. That’s why I’m talking to you. That’s why I use my name. I’m not trying to be part of a subculture. I’m trying to reach mainstream people,” he said. “To be associated with someone like [Bowers] is truly disappointing and demoralizing, and to know that something like that can be used to censor us further, to suppress our speech, that is again quite demoralizing.”
Civil rights groups say public expressions of racism — with its disparate multitude of targets and actions — have seen a precipitous rise in the United States since President Trump’s 2016 election. It’s a trend Trump’s critics attribute to his frequent use of false statements and conspiracy theories that can incite anger toward Democrats, women, minorities and other political opponents and critics.
The rainbow of American racists includes the fringe neo-Nazis like Anglin, for whom Jews are the prime target of their hatred.
But only some among that crowd found it fit to rejoice publicly after the massacre. On the social media site 4chan, anonymous commenters expressed excitement about the possibility that the media attention to Bowers’s views was “accidentally redpilling” the public to their cause. Redpilling, on the Internet, is a reference to the movie “The Matrix” and is commonly used by racist groups to describe a conversion to extreme views.
But for many others, there were the political costs and further censorship to consider. Some chose outright denial, saying it could have been a “false flag” — an attack carried out by Jews themselves to garner public sympathy. And then there were others who lamented that at the very least, the killings were not strategic — if such an attack were to yield benefits, the targets would need to be important Jews.
“I think this was, overall, a big negative,” said Matthew Heimbach, co-founder of a now-defunct white nationalist group. “My first knee jerk response on social media, VK and Facebook was: Don’t [expletive] do this. It’s only going to turn people away from us when we’ve got to be winning hearts and minds.”
“It’s not like these were executives from Halliburton or financial executives from the 2008 crash,” Heimbach added. “They were just senior citizens.”
Described as a loner, Bowers was not previously known to law enforcement. But Hankes said his comments were a perfect echo of the ideology espoused on neo-Nazi websites.
Bowers told police after the attack that he just wanted “to kill Jews,” according to a federal criminal complaint.
“They’re committing genocide to my people,” he said.
Hankes said the idea of a white genocide aligns with the public-facing ideology neo-Nazis present.
“This is the heart of white nationalism,” Hankes said. “This is the absolute core of their ideology — this idea of replacement and that there is a war of attrition in this country.”
The online platform where Bowers posted his messages — Gab — in the hours after the massacre issued a defiant message promising that the site would only grow stronger:
“You have all just made Gab a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online at a time when Silicon Valley is stifling political speech they disagree with to interfere in a U.S. election.”