WASHINGTON — The white supremacists who alarmed the nation a year ago on the streets of Charlottesville, Va., with their tiki torches and hateful chants show signs, at least temporarily, of being pushed back into the shadows after months of legal challenges, counterprotests and internal strife.
Sunday’s sparse turnout on the streets of Washington says little about the country’s current levels of intolerance, bigotry and xenophobia. Hate crimes in the 10 largest American cities were up last year, and fearmongering talk of “massive demographic changes” has made its way into the mainstream. But it does say something about the disarray within a movement that last August had a disquietingly large turnout at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“It was a dead-enders event from the get-go, meaning that Charlottesville a year ago had an intention and agenda, and both failed,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, chairman of the Berkeley Center For Right-Wing Studies. “And the coalition that came together to put it together dissolved.”
The view from those inside the movement is not that different. “Now, we are facing so much pushback that people are not in the mood to celebrate,” said Richard B. Spencer, the white nationalist and prominent alt-right figure, who declined to attend Sunday’s event. “And I’m not going to do something demoralizing.”
The coalition of old-school racist groups, neo-Confederates and Internet-savvy white identitarians that brought about last year’s rally has proved, in the months since, to be a disparate herd that cannot agree on a leader or a particular brand of intolerance. Mobilizing large numbers of white supremacists in public appears to be a challenge, even though nobody would ever say they have gone away. In fact, their discriminatory messages are now echoed by some politicians and commentators.
Sunday’s Washington rally — which was dwarfed by thousands of counterdemonstrators — was arranged by Jason Kessler, 34, one of numerous people who had a hand in planning last year’s torch-lit rally and, later, violent protests in the streets. On Twitter, he has obscenely mocked Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed when a man who espoused white supremacist views rammed his car into counterprotesters at the Charlottesville rally.
On Sunday, under heavy police escort, Mr. Kessler marched defiantly through the streets of Washington, holding an American flag while flanked by a small group of supporters, some in the “Make America Great Again” ball caps favored by backers of President Trump.
But in a sign of the fracturing of the alt-right, before, during and after the Sunday rally, hard-core racists and neo-Nazis, whom Mr. Kessler has publicly disavowed, took to social media to attack him and this weekend’s protest, which was billed as a second Unite the Right event. Many of those attacks took place on Gab, an online forum to which many on the alt-right migrated after they were kicked off Twitter.
The attacks came from both well-known members of the alt-right and from anonymous followers. Their argument, in essence, was that Mr. Kessler was not extreme enough.
One Gab poster, who identified himself as Sterben, said that Mr. Kessler should have been more welcoming to Nazis and other such groups “because there’s more of us and history is never on the side of the cowards.”
A week before the event in Washington, Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, published an article titled, “Don’t Go to Unite the Right 2 — We Disavow.”
“We cannot win a battle on the streets,” Mr. Anglin wrote.
Instead, he counseled taking part in events like “Stormer Book Clubs,” where followers “can get together with other people who think like we do in real life.”
“We need to remain in the realm of the hip, cool, sexy, fun,” Mr. Anglin wrote. “We need to speak to the culture. We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around” while “completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet.”
One significant headache for the far right is a federal lawsuit, filed in October, that accuses organizers of last year’s rally, including Mr. Spencer and Mr. Kessler, of encouraging followers to arm themselves and commit acts of violence. Organized by Roberta A. Kaplan, a New York lawyer, the civil conspiracy action is modeled on an earlier suit that helped take down the Nuremberg Files, a website that listed the names of abortion providers.
“It’s purposeful. It’s being done to break groups like us,” said Jeff Schoep, national commander of the National Socialist Movement, which participated in the Charlottesville rally but steered clear of Sunday’s event.
Some observers believe the suit could expose the murky funding of some of the alt-right groups. But the effort to expose them has extended beyond the courtroom and the news media.
In late July, in anticipation of this year’s rally, activists posted personal information of organizers online and encouraged people to alert employers of their affiliations, put up fliers outing them in their neighborhoods, and uncover their “ties to more ‘respectable’ right-wing organizations that help them hide their true intentions.”
Mr. Kessler said that participants in a chat group on Discord, a digital communications app favored by the far right, were harassed in the run-up to the rally after their personal information, including phone numbers, addresses and license plates, were released online.
Mr. Kessler provided no proof of such harassment. But pushback to the alt-right in the streets of Washington was in plain view. The area around the White House was thick Sunday with counterprotesters who were vocal in their contempt and disgust for the movement. They were joined by members of the far-left antifa movement, who marched with helmets and masked faces behind a banner threatening violence toward fascists.
James Anderson, an editor at ItsGoingDown.org, an anarchist-inflected website that has become a kind of clearinghouse for writing about antifa, said that after Charlottesville, young people from groups like Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America began to work with masked and black-clad anti-fascists to combat the rise of the alt-right.
“Their worst nightmare has come to pass,” Mr. Anderson added, referring to the alt-right. “Young people, especially across racial lines, are working together against the far right.”
But some experts on white nationalism say the movement’s political agenda remains disconcertingly widespread. And some policy issues the far right has promoted, including immigration restrictions, ending affirmative action and instituting trade protections, have been embraced by mainstream right-wing politicians and pundits.
“What’s crucial for the fate of the alt-right is not the demonstrations,” said Thomas J. Main, a political scientist at Baruch College. “They are a political movement that is concerned with influencing the way people think, and there are a lot of signs that their ideas continue to penetrate mainstream media and political culture.”
In “The Rise of the Alt-Right,” published by the Brookings Institution, Dr. Main tracked web traffic to 10 sites associated with the alt-right. After Charlottesville, visits plummeted to The Daily Stormer, one of the most popular sites, which had trouble finding an internet company to host it.
But overall traffic remained relatively high through February of this year, the most recent time period available, Dr. Main said, collectively hovering around four million visits on average per month — a bit more than the liberal magazine The New Republic.
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