President Donald Trump’s July Fourth “Salute to America” was supposed to be a patriotic extravaganza, complete with military tanks, to affirm the country’s greatness under his leadership.
But many within his once-loyal cadre of far-right extremists, racist trolls and white nationalists who latched onto his campaign under the banner of the “alt-right” in 2016 were looking the other way. Online forums home to the alt-right, such as 4chan and 8chan, were filled with chatter about Disney’s decision to cast a black actress as Ariel in the upcoming live-action version of “The Little Mermaid.” Discussions around “Salute to America” were decidedly muted.
Extremism experts say their apparent lack of interest in Trump is partly because the heyday of the “alt-right” as a coordinated bloc is over — and partly because they feel betrayed by Trump, who, by operating in the political mainstream, is now tainted by the very swamp he promised to drain. Many also feel like he has failed to deliver on the sweeping immigration enforcement he promised during the campaign.
“President Trump may try to give the us a new holiday tradition to match Bastille Day,” wrote American Renaissance, a white nationalist organization, “but military hardware means nothing without racial consciousness and political will. America’s border is undefended.”
By the time Trump was elected in Nov. 2016, his campaign manager and future strategist Steve Bannon had been making brazen overtures to the far-right, even going as far to describe his website Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right.” Days after Trump’s upset victory, white nationalist Richard Spencer led a room full of men in suits in Washington D.C. to perform Nazi salutes. It was a defining moment that told the world that the so-called “alt-right” had won.
But now, with Trump’s 2020 campaign underway and Bannon out of the picture after a public fallout with the White House, the alt-right has splintered.
“Whenever I talk about the alt-right at this point, I do so in the past tense,” said George Hawley, an assistant political science professor at the University of Alabama and author of two books on the alt-right. “For the most part, as far as I can tell, there’s no enthusiasm within the extreme right for President Trump — which isn’t to say they’re going to become Democrats. The massive trolling operation we saw in 2016 I think is unlikely to be repeated.”
The 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which left one woman dead and dozens injured, was meant to bring the disparate factions of the alt-right together in the real world. In the end it did quite the opposite — and turned out to be a breaking point.
“The events there really laid bare the tensions in the movement — between the actual neo-Nazis who were rallying on the streets and the larger mass of Pepe-wielding meme anons online,” said Mike Wendling, editor of BBC Trending, a podcast that investigates social media, and author of ‘Alt-Right: from 4chan to the White House.“To be sure some, though perhaps not all, of the latter had deep sympathy with the extremists. But murder and extreme violence tends to make people very queasy.”
Infighting, expensive lawsuits and criminal charges tore the alt-right apart in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Preppy white nationalists like Spencer realized that marching alongside neo-Nazi skinheads did nothing for his aspirations of legitimacy even if they shared the same ideas deep down.
Meanwhile, some MAGA-friendly groups like the Proud Boys, whose members were in Charlottesville in an unofficial capacity, scrambled to distance themselves from the rest of the alt-right entirely — and are among the few who remain loyal to the president.
Failure to MAGA
The far-right believed Trump would bring about cataclysmic change, especially with regard to immigration. But in their view, they never got it. Instead, they saw him ensnared in political maneuvering, stonewalled by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over border wall funding — a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.
“Trump has so far failed to achieve his “MAGA” agenda to any significant degree,” said Patrick Casey, the leader of white nationalist group Identity Evropa, which formed in 2015 and recently rebranded to ‘American Identity Movement. “Our president squandered an enormous opportunity.” Casey added that he hopes 2024 brings a “superior candidate” — like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. (There’s even a Facebook page “Tucker Carlson 2024,” which only has 1,300 followers.)
Casey and about 20 members of his group held their own flash rally over the weekend in Alexandria, Virginia. In the past, their members wore MAGA hats at their events. But this time, there were no trademark red caps in sight. The group called for an end to the “great replacement,” the white supremacist anti-immigration conspiracy theory that inspired the “You will not replace us” chant at the violent Unite the Right rally Charlottesville in 2017. They also called for “the need for populism to move beyond Trumpism if our country is to be saved,” according to their Twitter page.
On June 17, the eve of Trump’s inaugural MAGA rally in Orlando, the president warned that “mass deportations” could be imminent. But the far-right weren’t buying it. “Yeah, I was hopeful when I saw this originally, but in all likelihood, nothing will happen,” one person wrote on the imageboard site 8chan. “I have finally reached the last stage of being blackpilled on trump.” “Blackpill” is a far-right meme, used to describe nihilism, fatalism, and defeat.
Power is double-edged
Some experts who have studied the alt-right believe that the movement would be stronger and more cohesive had Trump’s lost the 2016 election.
“Being in opposition is usually easier and more fun than governing, so when their man came to power it was hard for some of the alt-right arguments to hold much water: that they their views were oppressed, that they had no mainstream political outlet, that they were an edgy counterculture,” said Wendling,
Far-right extremists who peddle anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have also taken issue with Trump’s strong pro-Israel stance and close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many of Trump’s former fans, like Richard Spencer, now ridicule the president by tweeting his name alongside Israeli and American flag emojis. Vocal anti-semites like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who “endorsed” Trump in 2016, has completely turned his back on the president. In a recent tweet, he referred to Trump as “President Donald Kushner,” in reference to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, whom he calls a “Zionist Warmonger.”
Duke has joined the small but growing contingent of the far-right who are embracing Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat, due to her non-interventionist policies (she disavowed his support). Online trolls also rallied around Democratic fringe candidate Andrew Yang, who has proposed unusual policies like “Universal Basic Income” and voiced opposition to circumcision. Yang, too, disavowed white nationalists’ support.
But overall, Hawley believes that the far-right’s interest in Trump, a mainstream political candidate, was a historical aberration to begin with.
“Trump was a candidate they were genuinely enthused about,” Hawley said. “They weren’t as excited about Romney or McCain. I think we’re headed to a situation much like the previous status quo, of the extreme right being more or less indifferent when it comes to their preferences of Republicans and Democrats.”
But while many of the key figures and groups associated with the alt-right have turned on Trump, others like the Proud Boys, which operate like a far-right street fighting gang, still claim the president as their ideological ally.
Dozens of Proud Boys showed up to Trump’s 2020 rally in Orlando last month. Many wore red MAGA hats and flashed white supremacy signs at the cameras. Proud Boys, including their founder Gavin McInnes plus other right-wing provocateurs, also hosted a “Defend Free Speech” rally in D.C. on Saturday, days after Trump’s July 4 extravaganza.
Former Trump advisor Roger Stone even asked the Proud Boys to work as his security detail at a political conference in Oregon in March 2018, even though the group had a reputation in the area for violently brawling with antifascist protesters. Later that year, McInnes gave a talk at the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City. Following the event, Proud Boys stalked the streets of Manhattan, beating up protesters, and hurling homophobic and racist slurs. Ten Proud Boys were arrested, and two have so far pleaded guilty.
2020: The Threat Ahead
Although the alt-right has splintered and mutated since 2015, extremism watchdogs warn that the far-right continues to pose a threat.
The most violent, racist elements of the alt-right have been deplatformed, for the most part, from mainstream sites like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. Now they congregate in alternative forums like 8chan, Discord, Gab or Telegram, where they trade in incredibly violent —even terroristic — language and threats.
“What extremism analysts are concerned about is the increasing activity by loners, particularly but not exclusively, on the violent hard right,” said Brian Levin who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, “a renewed uptick in aggression around political rallies, attacks against houses of worship, as well as an escalation across and between different ideologies.”
Levin cited political polarization, an “increasingly toxic, manipulated and splintered social media landscape,” recent threats against political and public figures, and a “decentralization of terrorism with erratic and small cells dominating” to explain his concerns.
An extreme right group with imagery that’s associated with the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen recently shared a meme on Twitter, showing a young man with a skeleton bandanna over his mouth. “The struggle for the minds of our youth” is written on his forehead. In one hand, he’s holding Trump’s “Art of the Deal.” In the other, he’s holding “Siege” by American neo-Nazi James Mason. “YOU CAN’T HAVE BOTH,” the tweet says. “”Don’t be tempted to fall back into that MAGA crowd this election season. It didn’t save us last time, it won’t save us this time. Take ACTION for 2020, real action. Do something.”
Disclosure: Gavin McInnes was a co-founder of Vice Media. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded The Proud Boys organization in 2016.
Cover: Alt-right members, extreme right activists, Trump supporters and white supremacists rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., June 25, 2017, "to reaffirm a commitment to the basic necessity of Freedom of Speech in civil society." (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)