WASHINGTON —Unite the Right, the agglomeration of far-right groups that organized the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, rally last year, hopes to meet there again on its anniversary — Sunday, August 12.
If the rally is allowed to take place at all this year, by court order it’s likely not to include armed individuals and groups; because of infighting and attrition, a good chunk of the 500 or so extremists who turned up last year also will be missing this year.
Unite What’s Left of the Right might be a more accurate moniker.
Last year’s rally seemed to climax a year in which the white supremacist wing of the alt-right appeared to be ascendant. Chanting “The Jews will not replace us“ and other incendiary slogans, the Charlottesville marchers dropped any pretense that they were merely economic nationalists looking to preserve the country’s borders, or heirs of the Confederacy hoping to preserve their heritage.
Donald Trump’s equivocation on the march, and his comment that there were “good people” among both the far-right marchers and their opponents, was also seen as a low point of his young presidency.
On the anniversary, the far right hasn’t disappeared: The Anti-Defamation League reports a huge increase in white supremacist propaganda on U.S. college campuses, including anti-Jewish and racist rhetoric. But some of the alt-right leadership is in disarray, and the media largely have moved on, in part because the White House itself is at the center of the debate about white nationalists’ favorite subjects: limiting immigration and preserving what it calls America’s culture.
Trump’s critics say his immigration policies — including those covering people from certain Muslim countries, his musings on African nations as “sh•tholes,” and the policy of the U.S. at the Mexico border — showed that their ideas found a home in the mainstream.
Here are some snapshots of where the alt-right is as we head into the Charlottesville anniversary.
The lawsuits: No arms and less organization
Charlottesville, the municipality, joined several other plaintiffs in a bid to mitigate violence in the face of a second rally. They have sued to keep 25 defendants, individuals and groups among them, from returning for any protests bearing arms.
The lawsuit has yet to be fully resolved, but so far at least 11 of the defendants have settled by agreeing not to return to Charlottesville armed.
Jason Kessler, a key organizer of last year’s march, is leading the effort to reconvene in Charlottesville this year. He also has a consent decree. He is allowed to return to Charlottesville and organize a rally, but he must instruct those who join him not to be armed.
The fact that so many marchers last year bore arms is central to another lawsuit filed by Roberta Kaplan on behalf of 11 Charlottesville residents, including several wounded when a white supremacist rammed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one of them, Heather Heyer. Kaplan says the defendants’ First Amendment defense does not cover the actual violence. A Jewish dermatologist is among the plaintiffs.
“People are entitled to have their First Amendment beliefs in this country and to speak those beliefs, but what they’re not allowed to do in this country is to plan, commit, and then celebrate violence motivated by those beliefs,” she told NPR earlier this year. A judge allowed the lawsuit to go forward this month.
(Kaplan famously won the 2013 Supreme Court case that helped legalize same-sex marriage, U.S. v. Windsor, .)
While Charlottesville has denied Kessler a permit for his planned reunion, his lawsuit against the city will get a hearing this week. Kessler also is planning a parallel protest in Washington, D.C., near the White House.
The leaders: Down but not all are out
Richard Spencer is the think-tank face of white supremacism. (He founded the National Policy Institute, which endeavors to lend an intellectual patina to the movement.) He is named in the lawsuit Kaplan filed. According to reports, Spencer’s once prolific campus appearances have dried up and for a period he had trouble finding a lawyer to defend him. Raising money for his defense was also difficult — crowdfunding sites were prone to keep him off their platforms.
Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville local, still is fighting the fight and leading the attempt to reconvene a sequel. The New York Times reports that he still gets into it with fellow residents who resent his role in last year’s rally.
Christopher Cantwell earned the sobriquet “crying Nazi” for sobbing in a video he posted last August after a warrant was issued for his arrest for assaulting protesters. He was the subject of a Vice video on the rally in which he said he longed for a president “a lot more racist than Donald Trump” and who would “not give his daughter to a Jew.” He was convicted and sentenced last week to time served, plus an agreement to stay out of the state of Virginia for five years. True to form, Cantwell denounced the Jews on his way out of the courthouse. He wasn’t crying.
Matthew Heimbach co-founded the Traditionalist Worker’s Party. With its black uniforms and helmets, the group was an imposing and at times violent presence at the rally. He now faces prison for assaulting his wife and the co-founder of his party after the pair found him in a trailer committing adultery with the co-founder’s wife.
The mayors — a Jew hands off to a black woman
Michael Signer, the mayor last year, was criticezed from all sides. A Jewish professor of politics of the University of Virginia, he came under anti-Semitic attack and also was criticized by some residents who excoriated the municipal and police leadership for not preparing sufficiently for the rally. Signer is on the talk circuit now, including appearing at events by Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League.
Among his critics was local activist Nikuyah Walker, who went on to become the town’s first black female mayor — with Signer’s backing. She has made redressing racial inequities a central plank of her term.
Extremism sneaks into the mainstream
Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, issued a clarion call last week.
Asked about the alt-right at an American Enterprise Institute event, the Wisconsin Republican said, “We have to go back and fight for our ground and re-win these ideas and marginalize these guys the best we can to the corners. Do everything you can to defeat it.”
Ryan sounded resolute — except he’s leaving politics at the end of the year and is something of a lame duck.
Meantime, far-right extremists keep winning Republican primaries. (Whack-a-mole style, state and national Republican parties denounce the extremists as fast as they crop up.)
The Republican establishment explains that many (but not all) of the extremists are sneaking in through primaries in solidly Democratic districts where the state and national GOP chose not to field or back a credible candidate.
Critics of President Donald Trump wonder whether the extremism is a feature or a bug of Republican politics under his administration. They accuse the president of race-baiting when, for example, he uses words like “animals” to describe immigrant criminals. (The White House said the term applied exclusively to gangs like the notorious MS-13, although critics respond that even exaggerating the threat of the gangs is a way to stoke fear of immigrants.)
When Trump warned this month that European leaders “better watch themselves” because immigration is “changing the culture” of their societies, many thought he was projecting onto the continent his own and his base’s fears about immigration, legal and otherwise. Even Trump acknowledged that his remarks were not “politically correct.”
Additionally, there are Republican politicians like Corey Stewart, the nominee in Virginia in this year’s Senate election, who have embraced the rhetoric of the far right and who have not been disavowed by the establishment.
“There’s been a reluctance to denounce Steve King or Corey Stewart or even cut them off from financing,” said Heidi Beirich, the Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “And there’s the issue that their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim messages you heard in Charlottesville are now resulting in policy out of the Trump administration. It’s scarier to have policy based on their ideas than having a few groups that are well put together.”
JTA Wire Service