For most Americans, the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th, 2017 was horrifying. Just a few years ago, many would have thought that something like this was impossible: indeed, the idea of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis garnering enough support to march on the University of Virginia, freely and unafraid, in 2017 is disturbing. Fewer still would have predicted that the rally—which resulted in three deaths and at least 34 injuries—would be actively defended by our president, Donald Trump.
Needless to say, the power of white nationalists—both on the streets and inside the White House—still has people all over the country shaken up. And that concern is only augmented by the fact that this disturbing trend doesn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. Only a week after the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, similar demonstrations took place in Seattle and Boston. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries at either of these events, but the violent presence of the alt-right in American society continues to be a disturbing problem. While it may be tempting to link the origins of 21st century Neo-Nazism to the election of Donald Trump, the truth is that Trump was elected because of this preexisting alt-right movement. And now that he is the leader of the free world, he has only provided a voice for these extremists. Thus, in order to address this problem—and prevent the election of another dangerous, nationalist president—we must understand how and where the alt-right originated.
In trying to grasp this new approach to bigotry, the mistake that most Americans make is with regards to their pre-existing ideas about members of these hate groups. During the 20th century, the KKK was characterized by older and uneducated whites, who often colluded with corrupt local officials who also held their views. Similarly, during the 1970s and 1980s, Neo-Nazism was typified by “skinheads”, who were usually uneducated, white minors joining fringe gangs in impoverished areas. The common denominators of these stereotypes are poverty and ignorance: both Klansmen and Neo-Nazis were considered to be the dregs of society, which only emerged in impoverished and uneducated areas of the country. These groups were also considered to be made up of either rebellious youth (skinheads) or out-of-touch old people (Klansmen). While these presumptions may have been true during the mid-20th century, the current face of white nationalism is radically different.
Attendees of the Charlottesville rally were largely white men between the ages of 18 and 30. James Alex Fields Jr., the driver of the car which killed Heather Heyer, was 20 years old. Many of the attendees were college students (like Nicholas Fuentes, who dropped out of BU after backlash from other students), and some leaders of the alt-right have been described by the media as attractive, charming, and “dapper”. Richard Spencer, the notorious Neo-Nazi who entered mainstream attention after being punched in the face at the Women’s March on D.C., has degrees from UVA and the University of Chicago.
Most of these men did not become white nationalists and Neo-Nazis because their families were bigoted (the family of Peter Tefft, a Neo-Nazi at Charlottesville, publically disowned him just a few days after the rally), or because they didn’t have good role models (James Fields’ former teacher claimed that he tried to steer Fields away from Nazism during high school). And they didn’t become racist because they grew up in all-white towns (Richard Spencer was born in Boston, one of the most diverse cities in the country). So how did they develop these violent and hateful ideologies?
The answer is the Internet: and it is the Internet that makes this white nationalist movement different from those that came before it.
Online radicalization is a phenomenon which is usually not talked about in the context of “white” terrorism. Recently, the FBI and private cybersecurity experts have been investigating how ISIS uses internet chat rooms and social media to recruit its members. Their online presence has resulted in the radicalization of as many as 3,000 Westerners, including the San Bernardino shooters who killed 14 people in 2015.
But ISIS isn’t the only terrorist group that is adept at online radicalization. Members of the “alt-right” (a term created by white supremacists and Neo-Nazis to rebrand themselves) have created internet cesspools, in which violent rhetoric towards women, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and homosexuals flows freely.
Reddit and 4chan are the most frequented forums for alt-right groups, now that Stormfront (a website created by former KKK leader, Don Black, in 1995) lost its internet domain after it was used to orchestrate the Charlottesville rally.
For example, The_Donald is a Reddit community with 450,000 subscribers where members of the alt-right can spout hate speech and plan rallies such as the one which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. In sites like these, members strongly identify with Donald Trump, often calling their community “the Trumpire” and referring to the president as “God Emperor Trump.”
Additionally, virtually all members identify as alt-right, and often prescribe to ideas of white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, Neo-Nazism, and anti-liberal/SJWs (“Social Justice Warriors”), but they do not usually join these websites already having all of these beliefs. Young white men are led to hate sites by alt-right “recruiters”, who seek out people ripe for radicalization on other social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.
There are many toxic Internet subgroups for alt-right recruiters to pick and cultivate new members from, but I will address the four main factions here.
Many teenage boys who grew up isolated, and without much socialization, become basic Internet trolls, or “shitposters.” Shitposters don’t necessarily have hateful agendas, but their existence is centered on the abolition of what they view as a “politically correct society”; they will oftentimes make racist, sexist, or Anti-Semitic jokes in the hopes of garnering a frustrated response from others. Some shitposters can be as young as 14, and their impressionability—as well as their hatred of the “politically correct”—makes them perfect targets for alt-right recruitment.
Two other subgroups that are closely related to each other are the “meninist” and “Gamergate” movements. Meninists (also called “Men’s Rights Activists”) are young men who feel emasculated and threatened by the feminist movement. Meninists (by their very name) mock and demean feminism. They can often be found lamenting on Twitter and YouTube about how feminism is a movement based on hatred towards men, and it will result in a society that oppresses men and privileges women. Men almost always become meninists because they were rejected (or “friendzoned”) by a woman, and decide that this is the woman’s fault and not their own; this is why this subgroup closely relates to the Gamergate controversy. Gamergate was an Internet war that began in 2014; according to the Washington Post, it pitted “stereotypical gamers” (nerdy white guys who objectify women) against independent gamers, creators, and critics, who sought to bring an end to the toxic, misogynistic gaming culture. Men on 4chan and Reddit attacked feminist writers like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, sending them so many death and rape threats that they were forced to leave their homes and temporarily go underground. The origin of “Gamergaters” is most likely similar to that of meninists: rejection from women, coupled with a desire to objectify women is what fuels this kind of hatred.
Meninists and “Gamergaters” are often found in the same place: on online comments sections, complaining about mainstream organizations or figures “pandering” to the aforementioned SJWs. Recently, they caught media attention with the sexist backlash to the all-female screenings of Wonder Woman.
Finally, the last subgroup worth mentioning are conspiracy theorists, especially anti-globalists. These are the stereotypical, aluminum-hat-wearing pontificators who lurk on the /r/conspiracy thread and InfoWars. Among their ranks are rightwing paranoiacs like Alex Jones, Mark Levin, and Rush Limbaugh, who are convinced that the left have a globalist scheme to oppress “real” Americans. Along with being anti-globalist, followers of this subgroup are also anti-elite and pro-isolationist. In these online conspiracy circles, it’s not uncommon to see death threats against “globalist figures” like the Clinton and the Gates families, as well as Anti-Semitic rants about the Illuminati and Jewish “puppet-masters” like George Soros, Sheldon Adelson, and Michael Bloomberg.
When disillusioned white men are invited to these forums, they may only subscribe to one of these four “brands” of hate; but the longer they are members, the more they soak up all of the alt-right ideology like sponges. And oftentimes, it all takes place without their loved ones’ knowledge.
Take Peter Tefft, the aforementioned Neo-Nazi who was disavowed by his family after his participation in Charlottesville. Tefft’s nephew, Jacob Scott, has spoken about his uncle’s online recruitment into the alt-right. Just ten years ago, Tefft was surprisingly liberal: “He was a feminist, he was a progressive, he was a vegetarian.” But that changed when he began hanging out with friends online, on sites like 4chan and Infowars. According to Scott, nobody in their extended family noticed that something was wrong until Tefft started “‘ranting about the Jews’ and identifying himself as a fascist” at family gatherings.
Pearce Tefft has speculated that his son was attracted to the alt-right because of the exclusive, unearned praise that these online echo chambers offer. Neo-Fascists tout themselves and other white men as being the only “right” or “valuable” members of society, usually for the sole reason of their gender or race. Thus, when you become a member of this community, you don’t have to do anything to become worthy of unlimited accolades; that kind of ego-trip can be intoxicating, and it shows that narcissism plays a substantial role in alt-right membership.
Some members of these hate groups may just be “misguided,” as Pearce Tefft suggests about his own son, but I would say that most of them know exactly what they are doing, and their strength, as individuals and as a group, should not be underestimated. Many Americans still think of conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis as the crazed fringes of society: people that are clearly identifiable by their tin hats and swastikas, as well as the RV that they live in. This is not the case. The alt-right has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives: from our high schools, to our universities, to our workplaces. The “racist uncle” stereotype no longer characterizes most white supremacists: instead, they are suave orators like Richard Spencer, or eloquent writers like Colin Liddell, who wrote a think-piece on why there should be a black genocide.
It is clear that with the election of Donald Trump, these dangerous extremists no longer feel like they have to hide in the shadows anymore. The infamous “both sides are to blame” quote from President Trump was meant to show white supremacists and Neo-Nazis that they have friends in the highest levels of government, and they have taken this message to heart. On October 7th, white nationalists held “Charlottesville 3.0,” a rally in which protestors denounced the city council’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. Richard Spencer later called the rally a “great success,” and gave reporters this chilling quote: “You are going to have to get used to the alt-right…You are going to have to get used to white identity.”
In this case, Spencer is absolutely right. Unless something drastically changes in America, we are going to have to get used to people like him. Because American Nazism isn’t going away anytime soon while one of its biggest proponents is still in the White House.