What happened to the alt-right after Charlottesville could be a guide for what happens to QAnon and the mob that stormed the US Capitol last week.
The alt right was a version of white supremacy that attracted a much younger crowd through the internet, and it aimed to work within mainstream politics to advance racism. And for a moment, it seemed like it was working — that the movement was moving from the internet to real life.
But after the Unite the Right rally in 2017, their efforts were slowly crushed. By mid-2018, its leaders told me they could no longer hold public rallies that were announced in advance. Many groups disbanded because of infighting, or because their internal communications were infiltrated by anti-fascists, or because their leader was humiliated in scandal. A longtime troll told me last month that talking about current events in that world was considered “cringe,” meaning embarrassing.
White nationalism still exists. The Department of Homeland Security says it is the greatest terror threat in the United States. But it is not spreading through the movement that called itself the alt-right.
This happened because the alt-right was hammered on three fronts — social, financial and legal. It’s important to understand how these three elements worked together, because there are early signs the same pattern is happening with the Trump movement and the QAnon conspiracy theory.
It’s hard to remember now, but before Charlottesville, the term “alt-right” was in flux, claimed by both neo-Nazis and not-explicitly-racist conservatives. To take one prominent example, in 2016, when he was running the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon infamously said his Breitbart News website was “the platform for the alt-right.”
After Charlottesville, the term “alt-right” was poison. Only days later, Bannon said, “Ethno-nationalism — it’s losers,” and, “We gotta help crush it.”
The blowback came in three parts.
First, the social. Many attendees who showed their faces in Charlottesville were doxxed, meaning that identifying information such as the protesters’ names, locations and employers were posted online. They were shamed in local media and many were fired from their jobs.
Those in the alt-right who weren’t doxxed lived in paralyzing fear of it, they’ve told me. Life became very difficult for the movement’s footsoldiers.
As their faces circulated on social media, they lost their own accounts. White power advocates were kicked of Twitter, Facebook, etc. Alternative social media sites like Gab popped up. But some complained to me that using Gab was pointless. Elliot Kline, then head of the now-defunct group Identity Evropa, told me there were no journalists on Gab. They couldn’t use it to spread their message outside the echo chamber.
This was the aftereffect of Charlottesville that most Americans could see best, but it wasn’t the most important.
The second part was the money. They lost the power to raise it. Fundraising sites such as Patreon and GoFundMe kicked them off. White power programmers tried to make their own versions — Hatreon, GoyFundMe — but that didn’t work, because then payment processors dropped them.
The civil rights advocacy group Color of Change had been pressuring financial services companies to stop processing the payments of White nationalists well before Charlottesville. Color of Change president Rashad Robinson told CNN that at the time, he thought it was absurd that it was so easy to give White nationalists money.
“We started going to the credit card companies and processors, and they’d say you have to go to the banks. The banks would say you have to go to the credit card companies,” Robinson said.
“A lot of enabling happens because people in powerful positions are not seeing this as a threat against them and their families,” Robinson said. “They could make intellectual arguments about slippery slopes, but what they were doing was creating an out so they didn’t have to make hard decisions — decisions that should not have been hard in the first place.”
PayPal was the only company that worked well with Color of Change to cut off White power groups, Robinson said. “And then Charlottesville happened.”
“Magically they could do something they couldn’t do before — and no law had changed.”
In the fall of 2018, Chris Cantwell, who I’d interviewed in the Vice documentary about Charlottesville, told me he’d been dropped by nearly every payment processor. He complained he could still get money through Bitcoin — but few people used it, and it had no mechanism for recurring payments. At one point, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer told me he could get money only through paper checks.
Matthew Heimbach, who ran the now-disbanded Traditionalist Worker Party, has quit the White power movement. But this summer he told me that non-profit groups that transition people out of extremism didn’t have much to offer him. He said they told him they could pay for his extremist tattoo to be removed, and get him on cable TV. He didn’t need that, he said. What he needed was a good job — to support his family, and to pay for a lawyer. His past limited his options.
The social and the financial repercussions combined to worsen the effects of the third piece of the backlash: the legal. Those who committed crimes on camera were often prosecuted. James Alex Fields Jr., who drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, was sentenced to life in prison. Cantwell was prosecuted for macing people in a confrontation with anti-fascists at the end of a torch march. He pleaded guilty to two assault charges involving pepper spray and was required to leave the state of Virginia.
(In a sign of how the pressure has caused the White power movement to eat itself, in September, Cantwell was found guilty of extortion. Cantwell had threatened a White supremacist that he’d rape his wife unless the man gave Cantwell the personal information of a third White supremacist whom Cantwell was angry with.)
Perhaps most devastating, many of Charlottesville’s major White power figures were named in a federal civil lawsuit, Sines v. Kessler, filed in October 2017. The plaintiffs’ legal team is headed by Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued at the Supreme Court to end the ban on gay marriage.
The alt-right defendants have not been able to find legal representation with a comparable resume.
In fact, they’ve struggled to find lawyers at all. Six of the remaining 18 defendants, including Richard Spencer, are now representing themselves in court. In a hearing this spring, Spencer’s lawyer asked to withdraw from the case because Spencer hadn’t paid him. Spencer told the judge the case had been “financially crippling.” The judge allowed the lawyer to quit.
The trial is scheduled for April, but it may be pushed to October because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Will QAnon and the pro-Trump mob face something similar? There are early signs the answer is yes. Activists and law enforcement are working together to find the identities of people pictured inside the Capitol.
As photos of their faces circulate on social media, rioters are facing consequences at home. A Maryland man seen entering the Capitol wearing his work ID on a lanyard has been fired. Many of his comrades have also lost their jobs.
The FBI has posted photos of rioters, seeking information. One of them is a man who described fighting with police in an interview with CNN in which he shouted, “What are we supposed to do?”
Thousands of QAnon accounts have been removed from social media. They’ve tried migrating to Parler, but Amazon stopped providing services to Parler, effectively kicking it off the public internet. Apple and Google removed it from their app stores. On eBay, sellers are trying to take advantage of less tech-savvy Trump fans, offering mobile phones with Parler already installed for more than $1,000.
President Donald Trump has been kicked off Twitter and Facebook. Sunday night, the payment processor Stripe booted the Trump campaign. Monday, Signature Bank said it would close Trump’s personal accounts. Deutsche Bank, which has been a major source of loans to Trump’s businesses, announced it will no longer do business with him.
Trump is certainly in a stronger position, in terms of power and money, than even the most affluent marchers in Charlottesville. But that also means he has more to lose. Especially legally.