Last year, the alt-right, a hardline faction of the US far right, rallied behind Donald Trump‘s campaign and celebrated his electoral victory.
In turn, Trump’s rhetoric – often described by watchdog groups as “dog-whistling” racists – energised the alt-right, which has grown into a loosely-knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalist and neo-Nazis.
Nine months into Trump’s presidency, however, the alt-right’s future is dotted with uncertainty as the movement remains embroiled in internal strife, and as it breaks from its enthusiastic support of the president and the policies it now views as a betrayal.
Shane Burley, author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It, explained that the alt-right’s ideological contradictions with comparably mainstream Trump supporters have been heightened by recent events.
“It would be really hard to see how they [the alt-right] could continue those relationships at this point,” Burley told Al Jazeera.
In September, the latest phase of complications between comparably mainstream Trump supporters and the hardliners in the alt-right erupted when the president decided to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in March 2018.
Created by former President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA is a federal government programme that allows children who entered the US without documents to temporarily remain, work and study in the country.
As part of a deal with the Democratic Party opposition, Trump said that his administration is searching for a way to allow DACA recipients – known as Dreamers – to stay in the country without giving them citizenship or amnesty.
Trump stopped short of immediately repealing the programme, giving Congress six months to come up with a political solution before DACA officially ends next year.
In late September, Richard Spencer, the white supremacist who coined the term “alt-right” in 2008, led a march outside the White House, where he and his supporters decried Trump’s DACA decision as not strict enough. For them, anything less than a full repeal and deportation falls short.
Spencer, who heads the Virginia-based National Policy Institute, was joined by members of Identity Evropa, a white supremacist organisation that was established in March 2016.
“Donald Trump, we are ready to dream again, but you need to become who you are,” Spencer bellowed through a loudspeaker, flanked on both sides by supporters holding up a banner.
“You need to be the nationalist populist that you presented [yourself to] the world as,” Spencer said.
Accusing Trump of becoming a mainstream Republican, Spencer continued, “We cannot support you if you are going to support DACA. We will not support you if you are going to support DACA.”
Spencer’s anger was a far cry from the jubilance he displayed at a conference following Trump’s election when he proclaimed to an audience of some 200 people: “Hail Trump! Hail victory! Hail our people!” Several attendees rose to their feet and performed Nazi-like salutes.
Yet, even before Trump’s backroom deals on DACA, much of the alt-right had found ample reason to criticise the president, from US intervention in the Middle East to the appointment of establishment conservatives in his administration.
What did they expect?
“The more ideological, career-oriented ones, such as Richard Spencer, will really be pushing against Trump in a lot of ways,” Burley said.
to push through a white nationalist agenda. He’s not going to, and I don’t think they were blind to that.”]
According to Burley, the alt-right’s support for the president was always belied by a glaring contradiction between Trump’s “civic nationalism” and the movement’s white nationalism.
“I think that the alt-rightists who are more honest will say Trump was basically just holding the door open and that they were hoping that [Trump’s policies and their politics] would line up enough,” he explained.
Despite this, the alt-right has continued to be a vocal proponent of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, including the president’s revised travel ban which is set to take effect this week.
Anti-Semitism as ‘the backbone’
Yet, the relationship has endured ups and downs, with many on the alt-right decrying Trump’s appointment of Jews in his administration. Among the Jewish officials Trump has installed are his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who serves as a senior adviser and Gary Cohn, an investment banker, who is director of the National Economic Council.
Daryl Lamont Jenkins, an anti-fascist researcher and founder of the Philadelphia-based One People’s Project, explained that “anti-Semitism is the backbone of their movement”.
In April, alt-rightists, many of whom describe themselves as anti-interventionists, expressed outrage over the US bombing of a Syrian airbase. Spencer and others held an “anti-war” demonstration in Washington, DC, after that military operation, announcing their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
For many in the alt-right, that raid symbolised Trump’s merger with neoconservative wings of the Republican Party and the supposed takeover of his administration by the “Jewish establishment”.
More recently, segments of the alt-right have vocally opposed Trump’s threats to carry out a military attack against North Korea.
Cas Mudde, author of The Far Right in America, explained that the alt-right “has never truly embraced Trump but sees him as the best available vehicle to promote their racist and white nationalist agenda”.
Mudde, who is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, added: “That won’t change because of these policy changes, although they will be even more cautious and partial in their support.”
Meanwhile, as the divide grew, the alt-right, which had at one point been largely confined to online outlets and social media, has made a concerted effort to build a more formidable presence in the streets.
In April, alt-rightists flocked to Berkeley, California, to join brawls between Trump supporters and anti-fascists, known colloquially as “Antifa”.
Identity Evropa leader Nathan Damigo was caught on tape sucker-punching a female anti-fascist during those rallies. The video, which went viral on social media, was celebrated by alt-rightists.
At the time, it appeared that the alt-right was becoming increasingly capable of exerting influence on more mainstream grassroots pro-Trump protests, and it rallied at the same events as the alt-light, a comparably moderate movement that rejects the alt-right’s openly white supremacist politics but shared many of its sentiments.
How did Charlottesville change things?
A turning point came in August, however, when hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis from across the US descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, seeking to outdo a previous demonstration against the city’s decision to remove a Confederate statue in May.
In the run-up to that event – dubbed Unite the Right – it became clear that the hard core of the alt-right would set the tone. Groups like the National Socialist Movement and Vanguard America, a neo-Nazi organisation, had announced their plans to attend.
The neo-Confederate League of the South and the Traditionalist Worker Party, headed by self-professed fascist Matthew Heimbach, urged their supporters to make the trek to Charlottesville.
Many alt-light groups issued public disavowals of the alt-right before that rally.
Gavin McInnes, a media personality who founded the Proud Boys, an ultra-nationalist men’s fraternity, said he wouldn’t attend. Alt-light social media figures such as Jack Prosebiec and Mike Cernovich denounced Unite the Right and publicly distanced themselves from the participants.
On August 11, the night before the rally, a large mob of white supremacists carrying torches marched on the University of Virginia campus chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us”. Confronted by a small group of anti-racist students, the marchers attacked them with their torches until police eventually intervened.
The next day, after the protest’s permit was pulled and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, the alt-right rally participants swarmed the streets and clashed with community members, anti-racists and anti-fascists.
That afternoon, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, who had been photographed marching with Vanguard America earlier in the day, allegedly ploughed his car into an anti-racist march, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
Following Heyer’s killing, Republicans and Democrats both roundly condemned the alt-right. Web hosting services booted alt-right websites offline, and social media outlets cancelled accounts belonging to several of the movement’s groups and prominent figures. In Florida, Texas and elsewhere, cities and universities refused to provide permits for alt-right events.
The backlash from groups that once claimed to be part of the alt-right was also widespread.
McInnes, who had previously said the Proud Boys were part of the alt-right, lashed out at Unite the Right organiser Jason Kessler, who described himself as both a member of the Proud Boys and an advocate of the alt-right.
“We disavow the alt-right; Proud Boys are not alt-right,” he said at the time during an episode of his Rebel Media YouTube show, which has since been discontinued. McInnes went on to describe Fields as a “terrorist” and murderer.
McInnes deemed Kessler as a “spy” who is “disingenuous”, claiming that the former journalist had attempted to infiltrate the Proud Boys and undermine the group’s legitimacy.
Disagreements were also rife among the solid core of the alt-right. When Kessler took to Twitter to describe the late Heyer as a “fat, disgusting communist” and insinuated she was to blame for her own killing, Spencer called on alt-rightists to no longer associate with him.
“Heyer’s death was deeply saddening,” Spencer wrote on Twitter. “‘Payback’ is a morally reprehensible idea.”
Meanwhile, some alt-rightists celebrated Trump’s weak condemnation of their movement, which he said included some “very fine people”. In Trump’s comments, anti-racists saw something more insidious: the president had reserved the bulk of his ire for anti-fascists, who he described as the “alt-left”.
David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and Andrew Anglin, an author at the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer blog, said the president had essentially declared his support for the alt-right and its allies.
Writing on Twitter, Duke thanked Trump for condemning the “leftist terrorists” that make up the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement and Antifa.
Anglin wrote: “People saying he cucked are shills and k*kes. He did the opposite of cuck. He refused to even mention anything to do with us. When reporters were screaming at him about white nationalism, he just walked out of the room.”
Yet, the massive outcry over the president’s comments demonstrated that, in a matter of months, the alt-right went from being viewed as having played a pivotal role in Trump’s election to the most marginalised it had been in the last two years.
Can the alt-right bounce back?
According to Mudde, Charlottesville “was an exception”, alluding to the “pathetic turnout at successor rallies”.
Trump has given them the most momentum that they've seen in a generation, so they are not going to abandon him just yet.
More difficult still, several participants have since been doxxed – a term used to describe posting one’s personal information, such as name, address and employer online – and several lost their jobs. Others became maligned in their communities.
“Many new so-called alt-right supporters will not come again after having been doxxed or out of fear of being doxxed,” Mudde concluded.
Earlier this month, Spencer and around 40 of his supporters returned to Charlottesville to hold a “flash rally” that lasted around 10 minutes.
Elsewhere, far-right protests have been massively outnumbered by their anti-fascist counterparts. A week after Charlottesville, an estimated 15,000 counter-demonstrators drowned out the chants of some 200 far-right protesters in Boston, Massachusetts.
Against this backdrop, it remains unclear whether this public backlash against the alt-right, the infighting among its ranks and the intense marginalisation, are obstacles the movement can overcome.
Factions of the far right who distanced themselves from the chaos of Charlottesville have tried to remake their movement under the banner of “the new right”. Vanguard America, one of the groups that played a prominent role in the violence, renamed itself as “Patriot Front”.
One People’s Project’s Daryl Lamont Jenkins expects that the exercise in rebranding is bound to fail. The alt-right may raise its voice against decisions Trump has implemented, but it has few options, Jenkins said.
“[Trump] is still for them the best hope. They knew he wasn’t going to be 100 percent on board, and they have been happy with him going as far as he did,” he concluded.
“They have nowhere else to go. Trump has given them the most momentum that they’ve seen in a generation, so they are not going to abandon him just yet.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_