I was at what should have been a farmers’ market in Berkeley, California, last year when a throng of black-clad antifascists tried to scrap it out with far-right ralliers in the middle of a park named after Martin Luther King Jr. I watched scrawny college students get pummeled by hulking, be-swastika-ed ex-soldiers and ex-law enforcement officers in motorcycle gear. The antifascists’ one reprisal was setting off a homemade smoke bomb, which promptly blew back into their own faces, drawing raucous jeering from the white supremacists. It was as close to a war zone as I ever hope to be, and it was unequivocally a win for the racists.
They had proved they could march into a historic bastion of nonviolent liberalism and troll its occupants into a frothy-mouthed rage, fulfilling their own prophecies of an extremist “alt-left” while also making national news. I went home that night more worried about America, and especially protest in America, than I had ever been before. It was easy to imagine the Bay Area becoming an extremist battleground—each weekend an opportunity for the next rally turned riot.
That vision has not come to pass. In the long arc of American racism, 2017 saw a sudden spike in visibility, but it was not the beginning of a new era in which people routinely walk the streets advertising their white supremacy. This year has brought the opposite trend: 2018 has been a year of pushing the alt-right and other white nationalist groups back underground, and punishing them for misdeeds committed during their brief moment in the sun. That’s a testament to the strength of the backlash against 2017’s naked racism, and evidence of how costly being openly racist has become—especially on the internet, where it has doomed entire social media platforms to obscurity. This must be counted as a good thing.
Regardless of what scaremonger reporters might espouse, the alt-right, as we have come to know it over the last two years, has failed—as extremism researchers always knew it would. But in its place has come something shadowier and far older: an underground white supremacist movement operating on society’s fringes, and a culture that disavows the racists while quietly mainstreaming their ideas.
Far-right extremist groups almost always implode or succumb to infighting, and the alt-right is no exception. Many of the groups that made headlines last year (and even this year) have since disbanded. Vanguard America and the Traditionalist Workers Party, who organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, both succumbed to internal squabbling, and the Proud Boys effectively disbanded after founder Gavin McInnes quit the group. As a result, no rally has even approached the numbers Charlottesville drew last year.
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Much of tension within these groups has been the result of America—average citizens, tech companies, and judges alike—coming down on them, hard. Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right, canceled his college speaking tour because the (very negative) audience response was “intimidating.” James Fields, who drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Charlottesville rally, was convicted of murdering Heather Heyer and sentenced to life in prison, plus 419 years. Platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and GoFundMe have banned prominent alt-right figures like Milo Yiannopolous, Gavin McInnes, and Infowars’ Alex Jones; Alt-right havens Gab and the Daily Stormer have been shunted to increasingly provincial corners of the web. Many rank and file alt-righters have been doxed and lost their jobs. Being openly racist got a lot less OK in 2018, and we should be proud of that.
The issue, though, is that while there’s satisfaction and schadenfreude in watching these public flounderings, the alt-right doesn’t have to be visible to succeed. In fact, going underground is a return to the status quo for American white supremacy. For decades, leaders like David Duke have been instructing their followers to blend in to polite society, and then occasionally make oblique calls for lone-wolf terrorist actors. It’s that kind of individual and small-cell violence that’s on the rise in 2018: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School experienced a massacre at the hands of a radicalized racist student, Oakland’s Nia Wilson was fatally stabbed by a suspected alt-righter; worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue were murdered by an anti-Semitic alt-right sympathizer.
In its place has come something shadowier: an underground white supremacist movement operating on society’s fringes, and a culture that disavows the racists while quietly mainstreaming their ideas.
There’s a sick rhythm to these acts of violence: The news breaks, reporters scour social media to learn more about the perpetrator, and the next day is awash in stories about the mounting death toll caused by American white supremacy. Hate crime in America is still on the rise, and US law enforcement has found itself woefully ill-equipped to fight (or even understand and report ) it.
Besides, even in retreat the alt-right has reshaped our political discourse. Its outsize internet presence (and free signal boosts provided by well-intentioned media) has given such ideas disproportionate weight in First Amendment and immigration debates. Researchers have found that around 11 million Americans have come around to the alt-right way of thinking. To turn on Fox News (especially alt-right favorites Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham) is to hear thinly veiled white supremacist talking points presented as news.
The alt-right is ideologically more dangerous the more invisible it gets, because it’s easier to make prejudice palatable when it is presented alongside mainstream conservative ideas. The alt-right may have gone underground physically, but its ideas persist and are being actively normalized—there’s no need to risk walking the streets when presidents and respectable-looking talking heads will spread your ideas for you.
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