When a car ploughed into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters killing one and injuring some twenty more in Charlottesville, Virginia, a new culture war saw its first fatality. At a march entitled ‘Unite the Right’, anti-fascists clashed with the so called ‘Alt-Right’, emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 determined to make their voices heard after years of perceived marginalisation from the national agenda under ex-President Barack Obama.
While the US is no stranger to violence erupting from disagreements over culture and morality, the march in Charlottesville – as well as other demonstrations around the US – show how online movements have moved out of cyber-space and into the real world with deadly results.
What is the Alt-Right?
The term was coined in 2008 by Paul Gottfried and popularised by Richard Spencer shortly afterwards. Rejecting the mainstream Republican desires for free-markets, foreign interventionism and an inclusive notion of what it means to be an American; the movement instead promotes an agenda of isolationism and white-supremacy, leading some to refer to its many followers as neo-Nazis. The Alt-Right should not be confused with what Spencer now refers to as the ‘Alt-Light’: another internet group that rails against feminism and political correctness – but does not share the same white supremacist ideas.
Once confined to internet messaging fora such as 4Chan’s ‘/pol’ and various meme pages, the Alt-Right has coalesced since November’s election to convert their online movement into one which has a presence in the physical world. Trump is seen by many on the Alt-Right to broadly support their agenda due to his rejection of Muslim refugees and key promise of building a wall between the US and Mexico. This perception was strengthened by the appointment of Steve Bannon, the former editor of right-wing news site Breitbart, as the President’s Chief Strategist.
A dangerous precedent
In response to the Women’s March which took place after the November vote, the Alt-Right decided to organise its own marches and protests in support of Trump, some of which saw large counter protests. In Berkeley, California, these protests and counter protests often descended into violence between the Alt-Right and masked activists known as AntiFA (Anti-Fascists). With several seriously injured on both sides in these earlier protests, the authorities in Charlottesville were understandably concerned about what was billed as the largest Alt-Right march ever this weekend.
The protest was organised to contest the city council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. While its detractors claim that the statue glorifies a man and a government that fought to protect slavery supporters, members of the Alt-Right argue that the removal of the statue would constitute historical revisionism and is part of a liberal plot to make them feel aliens in their own country.
In the run up to the rally, AirBnB decided to cancel the accounts of anyone they thought may be taking part. Spencer organised a night time rally at the University of Virginia, his alma mater, in which several hundred attendees carried torches through the campus shouting anti-Semitic slurs. This contributed to the authorities eventual decision to declare a state of emergency, mobilising police resources as well as advising residents to leave town or remain indoors.
The rally has been almost universally condemned by politicians across the political spectrum. President Trump chose to decry “in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides”. His failure to directly mention the far-right has provoked widespread condemnation, and Senators Orin Hatch and Marco Rubio have demanded that the president take a tougher line on the Alt-Right in the future.
However, the cancelation of the rally may have altogether different effect: to empower the far-right. With many more Alt-Right rallies and protests planned across the US in the coming months, this could be the beginning of a protracted and bloody conflict for agency as different sectors of society seek to define American ideals and values. President Trump must take the lead if this scenario is to be averted, however this is exceptionally unlikely given that the Alt-Right constitute a sizeable proportion of his support base, and external affairs occupy his agenda.