WASHINGTON - A year after American white supremacists marched with flaming torches through a southern university and delighted in President Donald Trump’s response after protests turned deadly, the “alt-right” is in disarray, riven by infighting and struggling financially.
The divisions became clear Sunday, when a rally in Washington, organized by the same man behind last year’s “Unite the Right” event in the Virginia city of Charlottesville, turned into a fiasco.
Jason Kessler had estimated about 400 demonstrators would come, but only a couple dozen showed up, protected by scores of police officers and drowned out by thousands of counterprotesters.
Barred from carrying rifles and other weaponry, as some had done in Charlottesville, the extremists looked vulnerable and, at times, terrified.
The rally marked a low point for the neo-Nazi movement, which less than two years ago welcomed Trump’s election with cries of “Hail Trump” and Nazi salutes, and saw his victory as the moment their views would slide into the American mainstream.
In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, which culminated in a woman’s death when a man drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, neo-Nazi groups were jubilant that Trump initially failed to condemn white supremacists.
He famously said there was “blame on both sides” for the violence, condemning the anti-fascists who came “with clubs in their hands,” and praised “very fine people” from both the protest and counter-protest groups.
Trump “refused to even mention anything to do with us,” Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, wrote at the time.
“When reporters were screaming at him about White Nationalism he just walked out of the room.”
David Duke, a former KKK leader and avowed racist and anti-Semite, praised Trump’s “honesty and courage.”
But in the months since, the neo-Nazi movement has been hammered where it hurts most — the wallet.
Silicon Valley responded by refusing to host extremist sites and shut down PayPal accounts associated with fundraising for neo-Nazis.
The Daily Stormer now solicits donations via cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.
Heidi Beirich, an expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) who has been tracking hate groups since 1999, said white extremists are also reeling from a process called “deplatforming,” where they lose access to social media networks.
And, she noted, several people who marched in Charlottesville have been hit with lawsuits.
“It’s not been a good year for the participants of Charlottesville and Kessler has been personally blamed for that,” Beirich said.
“That explains why so few people came out to support him.”
Experts observed that another reason for Sunday’s dismal turnout was that would-be participants are afraid of their identities being revealed.
After Charlottesville, several marchers lost their jobs after online sleuths posted photos and asked for people to identify them. This form of online shaming is sometimes known as “doxxing.”
“If you show up at this event, and you are identified, your life will be ruined,” Anglin wrote.
Anglin also points to another division in the alt-right — their aesthetic.
Many participants in the Charlottesville rally, realizing that jackboots and swastikas would not endear them to a broader public, donned smart polo shirts and chinos.
But some on the extreme right saw this as kowtowing to the politically correct.
In a blog this year, white supremacist Christopher Cantwell called this “optics cucking.”
A “cuck” in extreme right parlance is a submissive male that is “cuckolded” by a woman.
Anglin insists the neo-Nazi movement should try to be “hip, cool, sexy, fun.
“We need to speak to the culture. We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet,” he said.
Despite these divisions, the neo-Nazi movement is still having an impact.
In liberal Portland, Oregon, two far-right groups, Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, marched in support of the first group’s founder, Joey Gibson, who is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in neighboring Washington state.
Several openly racist or white nationalist candidates are seeking elected office this year, including avowed Nazi Arthur Jones of Illinois, who won his district’s Republican party primary and is running for Congress.
And in Wisconsin, Paul Nehlen, the leading Republican running to fill the seat in Congress currently held by retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, has emerged as a leader of the alt-right movement.
Beirich, of the SPLC, noted the alt-right still feels emboldened with Trump in the White House, and are thrilled with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
“They just thought that he was a billion times better than anything they’d seen in their lifetimes,” she said.
“And I don’t think that their enthusiasm has diminished on that front.”