On Sunday, fewer than 20 far-right activists showed up in Washington, DC, for the sequel to last year's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. By most accounts (including my own), the low turnout amounted to a pathetic failure, or at least a sign that the public shaming of those who participated in the deadly 2017 event served as an effective deterrent this time around. But even if it's tempting to think the poor showing signaled the death-knell of the alt-right, according to Pete Simi, a sociologist and extremism expert at Chapman University, that's far from the truth. Most of the white supremacists he's spent time with would never attend such a poorly organized rally associated with someone getting murdered, he argued. That doesn't mean they don't exist.
"The fact that it attracted such a small number is not very telling," Simi told me. "I think folks are gonna over-interpret what this means and that's a huge mistake. At this point in time, if you're a white supremacist and the president of the United States is expressing views that align with yours, why bother wasting your time to attend that rally? You'd have to be a clown."
And for all the agreement within the mainstream media that Sunday dented the far-right brand, there was discord within the alt-right about whether even that was the case.
To back up, it's important to note how important "optics" are to the alt-right. This became apparent last year, when the neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin gave his followers very specific instructions about how to appear "sexy" before getting in front of news cameras in Charlottesville. And while it might be surprising that people with abhorrent racist views who sling slurs and dehumanize entire groups of people could be concerned with how they come off in the media, the alt-right is positively obsessed with exactly that.
In the lead up to this year's event, Anglin told his followers not to bother coming because they would end up looking like people who LARP rather than a real political movement. Other far-right players like Richard Spencer also sat it out. For his part, white nationalist Jason Kessler claimed he didn't want neo-Nazis at the event anyway. "Focusing on quality individuals will make this thing run much smoother and less stressful closer to game time," he apparently wrote in a leaked Facebook chat.
After the disaster of Charlottesville, the focus in some quarters on the far-right has been to come across, however misleadingly, as sane and rational in comparison to counter-protestors—including antifa activists. In fact, some have taken to arguing the weak turnout was a good thing, while rejoicing in coverage by mainstream outlets like Vox and journalists like CNN's Jake Tapper that suggested counter-protestors were randomly pelting cops and journalists.
In that sense, there was room, however awkwardly or unconvincingly, for the far-right to declare its own strange kind of victory.
"This left the thousands of anti-fascists and Communists that were shipped into Charlottesville and Washington, DC with no Nazis to fight," one far-right scribe intoned on the Daily Stormer. "And instead of going home, these unhinged individuals decided to violently attack the police and media. Some of them even threatened to murder the President of the United States."
As someone who attended UTR2 and was with black-bloc protestors the entire time, I did not see anything like that. (Neither did Simi.) Still, the academic suggested the needle of public perception has been moved based on the sheer number of counter-protestors who attended relative to the white nationalists, who might now try and claim to be underdogs.
"I've had some interesting conversations with people about [UTR2] and that's what they're talking about—black bloc being domestic terrorists," Simi told me. "I think there's currently a very strong false equivalency between antifa and white supremacists. The alt-right wasn't sitting in a smoke-filled room saying, 'Let's have only a few people show up,' but as far as the ultimate consequence, I think to some extent, they're [being] accurate."
Other right-wing activists, however, seemed to concede the spectacle was as bad for their so-called movement as detractors initially claimed. "UTR-1 2017: A show of strength. UTR-2 2018: A show of weakness. Strength vs. weakness are the optics that count, not what flags are displayed," one Gab user with the Neo-Nazi handle "Volker Zorn" wrote. "We ended up looking like a pathetic, fringe, non-movement," said another user who went by the name "Frederick Namington."
A third contingent argued Kessler's idea to promote the event as a "white civil rights" movement presented a way forward for the fringe right, who may want to distance themselves from both the violent racists of the alt-right and the allegedly pussy-footing "alt lite."
"There is a growing consensus that the Alt Right is dead, killed by adopting the self-marginalizing ideas and ethos of White Nationalism 1.0," went one such account on a white-nationalist publisher. "The Alt Lite, moreover, is absolutely opposed to white identity politics. So there’s a need for fresh new approaches to white advocacy."
Finally, there were those who said that the "optics" didn't matter at all—that attendance at Unite the Right 2 was not indicative of white nationalism's appeal. "Rather, the alt-right movement is more apt to manifest itself in rising resentment that will show itself in the polls come election day," read an account on Richard Spencer's alt-right website. "Increasingly displaced Americans are more motivated than ever to turn out the vote. Those who cannot express themselves on the streets are still free to vote their conscience."
As Simi pointed out, they're also free to join the military or law enforcement—two of the segments of society where you're legally permitted to take another person's life. So rather than write the autopsy on the alt-right based on poor attendance at a rally, concerned citizens might do best to stay vigilant about unmasking such folks—and pushing back on their ideology whenever possible.
"The reality is that it's not the optics people are objecting to, it's the message," said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. "Even in this crazy day and age, the majority of Americans reject hardcore white supremacy whether there are swastikas or suits and ties involved. White supremacists can't face that, so they quibble over optics instead."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.