Politics

What Sunday’s Unite the Right 2 tells us about the state of the alt-right

On Sunday, “white civil rights activist” Jason Kessler will lead an undetermined number of alt-right, far-right, and white supremacist individuals and organizations in Unite the Right 2, gathering in Washington, DC on the first anniversary of the group’s disastrous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of a young woman.

As I wrote on Unite the Right 2 earlier this week, the ultimate size of the event is anyone’s guess:

It’s not clear how many people will attend Unite the Right 2 — many white nationalists have already said they have no interest in going, while others who might otherwise attend are enmeshed in legal troubles stemming from last year’s rally. Meanwhile, organizers of the coalition DC Against Hate have told at least one outlet that they expect at least 1,000 counterprotesters to attend events aimed against Unite the Right 2 under the banner “Shut It Down DC.”

But no matter the number of rally-goers present, Unite the Right 2 — taking place on the first anniversary of much of America’s first experience of the alt-right’s racism and anti-Semitism — will have a lot to tell us.

On projected attendance, organizer admits, “I just pulled it out of a hat.”

When Kessler applied for a permit to rally in Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House, he stated that he expected roughly 400 people to attend — a number he has since admitted in court he just “pulled out of a hat.”

In short, it is extremely unlikely that attendance numbers rival those of last year’s Unite the Right, which included a tiki-torch lit parade of white supremacists marching through the campus of the University of Virginia alongside the disastrous rally the following day which ended in the murder of counter-activist Heather Heyer.


Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017.
Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In a movement that is largely disintegrating, many of the biggest names in the alt-right and white supremacist far-right are staying far away from Unite the Right 2. That’s both because of the aftermath of last year’s rally and because of a debate embroiling the alt-right about whether or not “optics” — like chanting “Jews will not replace us” before marching under a Nazi flag — matter, and whether they should even be rallying in public in the first place.

But at least on one point, many within the alt-right agree: Jason Kessler is not to be trusted. As one neo-Nazi figure posted on the social media platform website Gab — which is popular with alt-right figures banned from Twitter — earlier this summer, “Follow Kessler and you get what you deserve.” Some within the alt-right even think that Kessler is a “subversive” who is leading the movement into risky situations like Unite the Right on purpose. Another Gab user arguing, “Avoiding this rally IS being tactical and strategic because there is only an opportunity for the media to use this to demonize Trump and his supporters as fascists.” For his part, Kessler is attempting to publicly distance himself from the white supremacist alt-right (while still filing court documents listing self-avowed anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers as potential speakers at Unite the Right 2.)

And not only are many within the alt-right and white nationalist movement not attending Unite the Right 2 — because of last year’s rally, “optics,” or Jason Kessler — but those who are attending are facing the ramifications of Kessler’s own poor planning:

…coordinating this event has seemingly been chaotic at best, as revealed by recent internal Facebook chats from Unite the Right planners (obtained from an anonymous source by the media collective Unicorn Riot, a left-leaning investigative journalism nonprofit). The chats appear to show Kessler arguing with other planners about a wide range of issues. Those include basic logistics like transportation and housing; whether or not a nonwhite speaker would give them “political cover” to have major white supremacist figures speak as well; and whether there’s a good way to “normalize” anti-Semitism without appearing to do so (in other words, without using anti-Semitic memes).

Attendance numbers, then, won’t tell us everything about how strong (or how fragmented) the alt-right has been since Charlottesville, but they will give us a snapshot of a part of the current movement.

The police response — from local officers to the Secret Service — will be telling

In the wake of the violence of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — to which an independent investigation showed the response of Charlottesville Police contributed — Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, DC Chief of Police Peter Newsham, and regional police announced on Thursday that the city had already deployed its Emergency Operations Center in advance of the rally, and other city officials told the media that regional police — including departments in Maryland and Virginia — were prepared for the rally. After a man fired a shot at a counter-protestor in Charlottesville, no guns will be permitted at Unite the Right events or counter-demonstrations in Washington, with or without a permit.

And as the groups participating in Unite the Right 2 plan to travel to and from the rally using Washington’s Metro system, the Metro Transit Police are coordinating with local police and officials. Sharon Bulova from the Fairfax County Board of Governors tweeted that rally-goers will be meeting at the Vienna Metro Station to ride into Washington, and that law enforcement would have “an increased presence at the station.” The town of Vienna is located within Fairfax County.

One advantage Washington enjoys in advance of the rally is significant experience with large-scale marches and events, from presidential inaugurations to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. In addition, the site of the rally, Lafayette Park, is also federal land, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which is joining forces with DC Police and the US Secret Service (as the park is so close to the White House) to prevent any violence. National Park Service spokesperson Mike Litterst told ABC7 in Washington, “The park police and the law enforcement partners are looking at any lessons that may be learned from previous demonstrations to ensure there is no violence.”


A statue of Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans occupies the center of Lafayette Square on the north side of the White House January 20, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Why what they wear (and carry) matters

The decision by many who attended the tiki torch-lit rally that launched Unite the Right last summer to dress in polo shirts and khaki pants was a purposeful one. As neo-Nazi organizer Andrew Anglin wrote on his Daily Stormer website in advance of the rally in 2017, rally-goers should avoid shorts, wear button-downs, and above all:

It is very important to look good…. I cannot stress the point hard enough – I’m hitting italics again – we need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas. If that is sad to you, I’m sorry, but that is just human nature. If people see a bunch of mismatched overweight slobs, they are not going to care what they are saying.”

But since the chaos of Charlottesville, the alt-right has been divided among those who want to attempt to look mainstream while advocating for white nationalism and anti-Semitism, and those who view such concerns over appearance as “optics cucking.” As I wrote on Friday:

Even before this year’s rally was announced, the alt-right had already been embroiled in a debate about whether caring about looking less like hardened fascists and neo-Nazis and more like everyday white American citizens is a goal or, as the Daily Beast first reported, an example of weakness or even “optics-cucking” — “cuck” being a reference to a pornography genre in which a man watches another man have sex with his wife.

Kessler has taken the mainstream position, expressly forbidding any flags besides the American flag and the Confederate flag from being flown at the rally. But others who may be in attendance could be from the latter camp, and far more willing to wear alt-right and far-right regalia and display fascist and neo-Nazi symbols.


White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the ‘alt-right’ attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the ‘Unite the Right’ rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The media will help shape the impact

How national media outlets depict the groups and individuals attending Unite the Right, the counter-protestors, and the rally itself will be critical to understanding the wider cultural impact that the alt-right movement is having. Part of the goal of the white supremacist alt-right is to push their opinions into the mainstream via mainstream media outlets. And many of those outlets, in their efforts to explain alt-right and white supremacist views, have been accused by some of “normalizing” them.

Already, National Public Radio has been heavily criticized for a seven-minute “Morning Edition” interview with Jason Kessler where, with little pushback, Kessler defended his racist views and even listed racial groups by IQ.

Another “very fine people on both sides”?

The most important reactions to Unite the Right won’t be from rally-goers, or even from the media — they’ll be from politicians, including President Donald Trump, whose muted reaction to Charlottesville (saying there were “very fine people on both sides” at Unite the Right, for example) was widely criticized. On Saturday in advance of Unite the Right 2, Trump tweeted, “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans.”

But it’s not just Trump.

Several Republican 2018 candidates have explicit ties to Unite the Right and the alt-right more generally, most notably GOP congressional candidate Corey Stewart, who has not only appeared at events with Kessler (and received his endorsement in the Virginia GOP primary), but employs a staffer who was taking part in planning for Unite the Right 2.

And that’s not to mention that at least one failed GOP candidate, self-described Holocaust denier and anti-Semite Patrick Little, is already in attendance at Unite the Right 2-associated events, and another alt-right Congressional candidate, Wisconsin’s Paul Nehlen, was on Kessler’s wish list of potential speakers.

In contrast, former Republican president candidate and current Senate candidate Mitt Romney shared a blog post on his campaign website on Saturday entitled, “As I See It: Race and Equality,” in which he denounced Unite the Right 2 rallygoers and the alt-right (alongside Donald Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric), adding:

There are some besotted and misguided souls who long for a population that is more homogeneous—more white. They even disparage legal immigration, ignoring the fact that nearly all Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. But can they not at least recognize—whether or not they like it—we are, in fact, a highly diverse population? And given this reality, “united we stand and divided we fall.”




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