Two leading figures in so-called alt-right have met with a series of recent setbacks. Richard Spencer’s 15 minutes as White nationalism’s preppy it-boy seem to be up. And Matthew Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP) has melted down in a sex scandal worthy of a daytime soap. But do these blows spell an end for the overt White nationalism linked to the ascent of Trump?
The alt-right’s star rose rapidly in 2016 with media coverage linked to the Trump’s campaign. The president’s run was a match to gasoline for the racist right and his victory emboldened them. Clashes between what I dubbed as “Independent Trumpists” culminated last August’s with street fighting at the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The media fallout made the alt-right brand toxic and drove a wedge between the hardcore White nationalist elements and the so called alt-lite.
Influence is difficult to quantify. But it seems to me—someone who has been tracking White nationalism for more than a decade—that the alt-right has declined after Charlottesville. With the arrests, job and education losses and mainstream ostracism of often young participants, alt-right organizing projects have moved from celebratory to cautious. There have also been material consequences. In particular, numerous digital platforms suspended alt-right accounts. The top neo-Nazi alt-right website, the Daily Stormer, was driven to the edges of the Internet.
Richard Spencer, the alt-right’s poster boy for intellectualizing White supremacy, tried to turn the situation around with what he called a “Danger Zone Tour” of universities. Many of the early 2017 clashes were at universities, and the publicity fueled the alt-right. But Spencer’s tour was a bust. Last April, he successfully forced Alabama’s Auburn University to host him and hundreds of students attended. But by October 2017, his University of Florida in Gainesville talk was met with a one-two punch of clashes outside the school and heckling, Spencer stormed off the stage. After the talk, some of his followers were arrested for shooting at anti-racists. Spencer’s next appearance, at Michigan State University in March 2018, cemented his downward spiral. A lawyer that Spencer was working with, Kyle Bristow, resigned after media scrutiny. Clashes broke out outside of the venue, but only a handful of students actually attended the talk.
Matthew Heimbach, whose TWP provided security to Spencer at Michigan State, tried to get in on the collegiate speaking action in February. He gave a talk called “National Socialism or Death” at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville that was supposed to be the first in a tour, but the crowd was mostly non-student supporters and media.
Heimbach’s TWP had been a steady source of support for Spencer’s rallies. It was an unusual alliance—the two had had a falling out previously, and Heimbach was close to the older KKK and Nazi skinhead groups that Spencer has distanced himself from. But Heimbach led the only group White nationalist group that would consistently bring a couple dozen members out who would be willing to engage in fisticuffs. Groups that had fought alongside White nationalists during the clashes at the beginning of 2017, such as Gavin McInnes’s Proud Boys and right-wing paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers, didn’t want to be seen with Spencer. And while Spencer was good at grabbing headlines, he didn’t show any talent as a political organizer. Identity Evropa, an alt-right group that adopted his preppy aesthetic, took a decidedly non-confrontational turn after Charlottesville. Spencer broke with them by forming his own group, Operation Homeland, which hasn’t gained any traction.
Shortly after Spencer’s disastrous Michigan appearance, Heimbach’s party disintegrated in a sex scandal. The married man was arrested on March 13 for battery, domestic battery committed in the presence of a child, strangulation and intimidation after he was caught having an affair with the wife of Matthew Parrott, his group’s spokesperson and web administrator. Parrott—who is also Heimbach’s father-in-law—resigned and said he was destroying the party’s website and membership records. While the TWP has not officially disbanded, it’s hard to imagine Heimbach making a comeback soon. Spencer is now left without reliable security.
These blows seem to have hit an already flagging alt-right hard. Spencer moaned to the media that “antifa is winning.” The alt-right’s ability to raise money has been greatly curtailed since most online donation-processing sites have shut them out. Only the small outlet MakerSupport continues to work with them.
Spencer and others are parties are the targets of a major lawsuit filed in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Arrests have piled up for alt-right activists. And their reputation for violence is mounting: the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that more than 100 people have been “killed or injured by alleged perpetrators influenced by the so-called ‘alt-right.’” The movement’s attacks on women’s participation—and accusations of abuse, including by Heimbach—have limited their recruitment possibilities.
Doxxing has isolated those who are not hardcore movement activists. While there was concern earlier in the year that Trump had re-normalized White nationalism to pre-Civil Rights Movement levels, the continued loss of employment and educational opportunies by people outed as White nationalists have shown this not to be true. In mid-March 2018, a Wells Fargo mortgage broker lost his job in Portland, Oregon, after an antifa group doxxed him. Uncommitted followers seem to be scared off at the possibility of losing their livelihood leaving only hardcore racist activists in the movement.
But while this is clearly a low point for Spencer and Heimbach, it’s too early to say if this is indicative of the entire movement. White nationalism been plagued by leadership struggles and scandals for decades. Street clashes between far right groups and antifa continue in California and Oregon. Identity Evropa had a successful conference followed by a banner drop in March in Nashville. And one worrisome possibility is that if the alt-right is collapsing—or it perceives itself as such—fringe elements will embark on murder and bombing sprees. Five murders have already been linked to Atomwaffen Division, the most extreme of the alt-right neo-Nazi groups.
We should also keep our eyes on the fact that the conditions that gave rise to a reinvigorated White nationalist movement remain. Changing U.S. demographics are on track to end the White majority. Trump’s racist, sexist, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant and economic nationalist statements and actions reflect core issues of the White nationalists. And Trump’s election itself was a victory of a grassroots resurgence of nativism and right-wing populism that became evident with the rise of the Tea Party a decade ago and is today’s Republican base.
These factors continue to provide a fertile climate for open White nationalist organizing. It’s quite possible that new leaders will replace Spencer and Heimbach and that new digital opportunities will open up for the alt-right. Let’s hope that’s not the verdict—but the jury is still out.