When white nationalist Richard Spencer coined the term “alt-right” nearly a decade ago, his movement was marginal, impotent, and striving for respectability. The phrase was a useful euphemism for his genocidal ideology, a palatable alternative to “the Ku Klux Klan” or “the American Nazi Party” to go with his suit, tie, and military undercut.
In the years to follow, as trolling culture grew online and began to adopt the symbols and lexicon of white supremacy — first ironically, then less so — “alt-right” proved a conveniently ambiguous label for the sanitized neo-Nazi movement’s new prankster fellow travelers. The online trolls who flocked to the “alt-right” liked to play footsie with racist extremism, then laugh at anyone who took it seriously. Like their cryptic “Kek” flags and Pepe the Frog memes, the “alt-right” label signaled an allegiance to white nationalism without fully committing to it. It was so malleable, in fact, that during the 2016 election, it expanded to include just about anyone on the right who considered themselves “anti-establishment,” including many of Donald Trump’s rank-and-file supporters.
Now, however, the term has become a liability. Its erosion began as far back as November 2016, when Spencer paid homage to the soon-to-be president with a cry of “Hail, Trump!” Then, in August, the “alt-right” brand cratered. During a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, meant to bring together a coalition that still regarded itself as the so-called alt-right, crowds of white men were captured on camera giving the Roman — or Nazi — salute. Swastikas abounded. Street fights broke out, and the violence turned deadly: A left-wing counterprotester named Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist.
Just a few days after Klansmen and other extreme right-wing activists marched openly on the Charlottesville streets, far-right YouTube star and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich disowned the “alt-right,” calling them “Nazi boys.” “That’s all it is now,” he said in a video, “is a purely anti-Semitic movement.” In 2016, the right-wing website Breitbart had embraced both the moniker and the movement of the “alt-right.” Steve Bannon, who returned to Breitbart as executive chair after resigning as Trump’s chief strategist, infamously called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right,” and Breitbart reporters Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos celebrated the arrival of these “young, creative” far-right instigators, in full recognition of the movement’s racial segregationist dimension. But after Charlottesville, Breitbart angrily denounced its critics for ever daring to insinuate that it was part of the “alt-right” movement, calling it a “smear.”
The Proud Boys, a drinking club of male, far-right street brawlers, who purport to defend “Western values,” are routinely associated with the “alt-right.” But the group’s leader, Gavin McInnes, who helped launch Vice Media in 1994 and now runs a right-wing YouTube talk show, has in fact rejected the term for some time, preferring the milder-sounding “alt-light.” McInnes’s insistence that the Proud Boys have nothing to do with the “alt-right” grew even more adamant after the violence in Charlottesville. Last month, in a blog post titled “WE ARE NOT ALT-RIGHT,” he alerted his group that “alt-right” members planned to “infiltrate” Proud Boys meetings and “sabotage” them. Then, McInnes’s attorney threatened to sue The Intercept over a short documentary film I directed, which included about 17 seconds of footage drawn from McInnes’s YouTube shows. His lawyer, Jason Van Dyke, claimed that the film’s “obvious insinuation” is that McInnes is “a white nationalist, a white supremacist, or alt-right,” whereas in reality, McInnes “has no affiliation with the alt-right whatsoever.”
Such is the growing toxicity of the “alt-right” brand post-Charlottesville, and the eagerness of many right-wing groups and leaders to escape its valence. That eagerness, in turn, may suggest that the new far-right movement that coalesced around the Trump campaign last year is splitting into factions, divided over the degree to which they openly embrace an overt white nationalist ideology.
The biggest cleave within what was once collectively known as the “alt-right” is between explicitly white nationalist organizations and the individuals and groups they derisively call the “alt-light.” The term “alt-light” was coined by white nationalists to describe people who agreed with their far-right politics but stopped short of adopting their aspirations for a white ethno-state.
To outsiders, the distinction can appear somewhat academic. Many people associated with the “alt-light” have extreme anti-immigrant views, nurture a bizarre paranoia about Islam, and even trade in pseudo-scientific theories about race IQ, expressing sympathies with visions of ethnic cleansing. To the extent that it’s even possible to draw a line between the “alt-light” and the “alt-right,” it comes down to the degree of one’s fixation on race and one’s seriousness about purging the U.S. and Europe of nonwhite people. The “alt-right” is simply the most hardcore faction of an extremist right-wing, xenophobic movement bent on destroying what it perceives to be the domination of mainstream culture by “the left” — which is to say the values of feminism and multiculturalism.
Before Charlottesville, the two factions sustained an alliance in the face of common adversaries, beginning during Trump’s presidential campaign and continuing through the street brawls between the far right and antifascist activists known as antifa in places like Berkeley, California, where the Proud Boys and other “alt-light” groups have fought side by side with avowed white nationalists.
Charlottesville ended that. Stripped of any pretense of facetiousness or trolling, young men who initially signed up for the movement by harassing women on video game forums and posting anti-Semitic frog memes on 4Chan were ill-prepared for a hardcore Nazi and KKK march that exploded into an orgy of violence, and the doxing and shaming that followed. Ever since, some of the most prominent personalities of the far-right have been bolting from the “alt-right” label, and the overall movement has suffered a series of major setbacks as a result.
On August 19, just a week after Charlottesville, a small far-right demonstration in Boston was dwarfed by tens of thousands of antiracist counterprotesters. The right-wing rally, however, had all but fallen apart days before. Prominent speakers, including McInnes, backed out of the event’s lineup. “Charlottesville changed everything,” McInnes explained, claiming that local politicians were trying to incite a riot (the charge is not supported by any evidence). On the day of the event, in the face of the tidal wave of opposition from Boston residents, the rally came to an early close. Far-right organizers who had intended to show their political muscle instead stumbled into a spectacular display of weakness.
Following the far right’s defeat in Boston, an anti-Muslim organization called ACT for America, which bills itself as the “NRA of national security,” canceled 67 planned rallies across the country. In a clear reference to Charlottesville, the group’s press release condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis (along with antifa and the Islamic State) for usurping the supposedly legitimate far-right movement. The public break with overt white nationalists suggested a change of heart for ACT for America, whose “anti-Sharia” rallies earlier in the summer, before Charlottesville, had been attended by members of white nationalist groups Identity Evropa and Vanguard America, both self-identified “alt-right” organizations. Some members of the Proud Boys had attended as well.
The following weekend, organizers of a right-wing rally called “Patriot Prayer,” which was scheduled to take place in San Francisco’s Crissy Field, canceled their event in the face of massive local opposition. Instead, they announced a press conference in a park called Alamo Square, but then canceled that, too. The group ended up livestreaming a public statement while hunkered down in an undisclosed hotel room, as thousands of counterprotesters did an impromptu victory march from Alamo Square to the Mission. (Organizers finally held a public press conference in Pacifica, a surf town 30 minutes south of the city.) The next day, only a handful of right-wing activists turned out to a planned “anti-Marxism” rally in Berkeley.
The split between the white nationalists of the “alt-right” and the often racist demagogues of the “alt-light” is strategically significant, and factored into the far-right’s failure to mobilize further post-Charlottesville. But the actual difference between the two may be more a matter of style than substance.
Two days after Heather Heyer’s death, Gavin McInnes had Jason Kessler, the principal organizer of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, as a guest on his show (the episode is behind a paywall). McInnes tore into Kessler, telling him, “The blood of this girl, I mean, it’s obviously on the hands of the guy driving the car, but it’s also on your hands.” He accused Kessler of lying to him in the past. Kessler, according to McInnes, had shown up to Proud Boys meetings, but only after claiming he was not “alt-right.” “I never said I wasn’t ‘alt-right,’” Kessler protested, accusing McInnes of using him as a “patsy” in order to distance himself from the events in Charlottesville. “You’re trying to cuck and save your own ass,” he complained.
McInnes and Kessler have not always been on such poor terms. Kessler had appeared on McInnes’s show before, months ahead of Charlottesville. They had a far friendlier conversation about a grisly homicide carried out in Virginia by members of MS-13, a street gang that originated in Los Angeles and El Salvador. In his set-up to the segment, McInnes made some sarcastic jokes about the values of diversity and multiculturalism. “I understand you have a lot of Hispanic people in Virginia right now,” McInnes sneered. Then the two engaged in a graphic discussion of the bloody details of a brutal murder, casually conflating sadistic gang members with immigrants of any kind, documented or undocumented.
The dialogue was unremarkable, standard Fox News fare save for the fact that Kessler’s interest in immigration stems specifically from his white nationalist ideology. “[W]hites will be the only ethnicity on Earth without a country of their own,” Kessler wrote last June in an article in VDARE, an anti-immigration website that frequently publishes the writings of white supremacists. “The governments of the West are waging a campaign of slow extermination against their own core populations,” he wrote. “It is white genocide.”
Kessler’s depiction of a worldwide demise of the white race reflected the animating ideology of the white nationalists who carried tiki torches through the University of Virginia campus on the eve of the “Unite the Right” rally he helped organize. “You will not replace us!” they chanted. “Jews will not replace us!”
Before Charlottesville, however, those sentiments were also right at home on YouTube shows McInnes once designated as being on his side of the “alt-light”-“alt-right” split. “The future of Europe looks pretty halal,” cried right-wing YouTube star Lauren Southern, in a video purporting to explain how white people are “quite literally being replaced” in Europe by non-white Muslims. “You are importing a radicalized low-IQ population into a high-IQ society,” said far-right YouTube personality Stefan Molyneux, on the same subject.
Nor was Kessler the only one among the company McInnes has kept who openly espouses white supremacist or white nationalist rhetoric. The most prominently featured person in the Intercept documentary over which McInnes, through his attorney Jason Van Dyke, threatened to sue is a violent felon named Kyle Chapman, also known as “Based Stickman.” Chapman founded a group called the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, which is affiliated with the Proud Boys. Van Dyke sent The Intercept a statement which read, in part, “Mr. McInnes, Mr. Chapman, The Proud Boys, and The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights reject, in the strongest possible terms, the notion or suggestion that any race — including the white race — is inherently superior to any other race.”
The Intercept film showed Chapman speaking to an audience in Southern California, claiming, “Whites as a group have done far more for this world than any other group.” To wild applause from the crowd, he celebrated hate crimes directed against Muslims in Eastern Europe. “One Muslim steps wrong in one of those countries, and every Polish, Ukrainian, Czech man on the streets will put that son of a bitch in check in two seconds,” he roared. “And that’s how it has to be here.” He proclaimed that the white race has been “targeted for destruction” and invoked a “war on whites,” imploring his audience, “You must sacrifice, you must bleed, and some of you may have to, at some point, die.”
There is nothing subtle, ambiguous, or ironic about Chapman’s statements. Like the chants of the Nazi-saluting far-right foot soldiers in Charlottesville, it is the language of a white supremacist exhorting his admirers to participate in a race war.
In the speech captured in the documentary, Chapman stopped short of calling for the founding of a white ethno-state. In his letter, McInnes’s attorney specifically condemned that dystopian vision. But that’s about the only discernible difference between Chapman’s race-based ideology and that of overt white nationalists, such as Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor — both of whom McInnes has in the past called “pretty reasonable, normal guys.” In his initial communication to The Intercept, Van Dyke cited his client’s “wholehearted condemnation of white nationalism and white supremacy,” but on his show, McInnes has lauded Chapman for being such an inspirational figure on the right, promoting his tough-guy image.
Like his client, McInnes’s lawyer has also distanced himself from his own associations with the “alt-right” brand. Until very recently, Van Dyke, who is a member of the Proud Boys, was listed as a member of the board of directors of an “alt-right” nonprofit called the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas. The board also includes Richard Spencer and white nationalist blogger and podcaster Mike Enoch. “I resigned from the board when it went from defending persons being bullied by phony civil rights organizations,” Van Dyke said in an email, “to being the ‘legal arm of the alt-right.’ I did not support this change of direction of the foundation.”
Despite all the protestations, the line between the “alt-light” and the “alt-right” is unclear. It’s a fluid, shifting space that encompasses hardcore white nationalists, who dream of purging the land of nonwhites, and their defenders and apologists, who make the case for white victimization but are careful not to take their arguments to their logical, genocidal conclusions. The “alt-light” has thrived by toying with those blurred boundaries, signaling their allegiance to white supremacist audiences while maintaining the threadbare plausible deniability of irony, trolling, and innocent intellectual speculation.
Charlottesville made that space a little less fluid. There, the Pepe frogs, the “Kek” flags, and all of the other coded semaphores of today’s white nationalism were transformed into less ambiguous symbols: the swastika and the KKK hood. That undeniable display of white nationalism left the leaders of the “alt-light” in a precarious position. At least one has responded by embracing the “alt-right” cause. Others, like McInnes, have become desperate to disown it. But there is little McInnes or anyone else can do to change the plain reality: There is just one new far-right movement, not two, and the most vivid expression of its aspirations was put on display in Charlottesville.