The American radical right has almost always been fractured, riven by red-hot splits over ideology, raw power, and an unrelieved series of petty fights revolving around sex, drugs, money, and over-inflated egos.
A neo-Nazi leader sneers at the “freaks and weaklings” who inhabit other hate groups. One Klansman shoots another over the theft of a membership list. A major white supremacist conference breaks up in acrimony over the question of whether Jews or blacks are the primary enemy. A skinhead who recants his views is nailed to a cross. Major groups collapse over accusations of treachery.
But for one brief and shining moment, all that seemed to melt away. With the election of Donald Trump, the lonely wilderness journey of the radical right appeared to come to an end, replaced by a kind of sunny optimism not seen in those circles for at least half a century. All of a sudden anything was possible, with far-right populism and racial nationalism surging to the fore in Europe and elsewhere in a way not seen since before World War II.
Now the honeymoon is over.
In just the last few weeks, Ammon Bundy, a radical-right militia hero who had been a key figure in two armed standoffs with government, withdrew from the movement after being pilloried for saying immigrants should be welcomed.
Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of the Proud Boys hate group who once boasted that “fighting solves everything,” quit the group after an attack by his followers outside a New York City Republican club drew a major lawsuit.
The neo-Confederate League of the South lost its headquarters when its Alabama state leader refused to rent his Wetumpka building to the group any more, apparently because he was troubled by its increasing radicalism.
And key radical leaders, taken aback by the repudiation of Trump and the Republican Party that was reflected in November’s midterm election results, seem to have realized that Trump has little chance of building a wall on the Mexican border or accomplishing much else on the anti-immigration front. That has led many to see the man they once called “our glorious leader” in a new light.
“This election was also a near-death experience for the Right, especially White Nationalists,” Greg Johnson wrote on his racist Counter-Currents website. “We should know by now that we can’t depend upon Republicans. And Trump himself is at best on probation. We can only depend on ourselves.”
None of this is to say that radical right is not expanding, in the United States and Europe as well. It is. But its undeniable spread has brought with it the typical problems of expansion, including renewed ideological and other infighting, growing critical attention from outside the movement, and, most especially, angry internal disputes about the role and “optics” of increasing political violence.
The spate of terrorism just before the midterms—the mailing of 13 pipe bombs to liberal critics of President Trump, the massacre of 11 congregants of a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a white supremacist’s random slaying of two black people at a Kentucky grocery store—didn’t help. A CNN exit poll showed that about three-quarters of voters said extremist violence was an important factor in their midterm vote. One quarter of them said that it was the most important.
Terror from the right is very typically an expression of frustration. This was clearly true under Barack Obama—those on the extreme right were enraged by the president’s relative liberalism, and some decided that violence was the only way forward. Americans are now witnessing the same phenomenon under Trump, as the far right sees him as increasingly isolated and in real legal jeopardy.
The terror, in other words, is a sign of weakness.
The phenomenon is not new. It began in earnest with the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. The murder there of an anti-racist counter-protester set off a movement debate about the “optics” of killing.
Seven months later, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who runs the high-profile Daily Stormer website, was already despairing about the state of the movement. “We are in no way ready to ‘take to the streets,’” he wrote. “We do not have stable organizations, we do not have developed communities, we do not have allies in the government or military, we do not have allies in academia, entertainment or media, we do not have a legal team. We do not really have much of anything at all.”
Since then, things have only gotten worse.
Anglin himself is on the run, trying to avoid a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I worked for 20 years. Matthew Heimbach, the violent head of the radical-right Traditionalist Workers Party, was disgraced and disappeared from the scene after being caught in bed with his father-in-law’s wife. Kyle Bristow, a well-known movement attorney, has “withdrawn” from politics. The main organizer of the Unite the Right rally, Jordan Kessler, is being shunned. Another, Eli Bristow, disappeared after his claims of being a combat veteran were debunked.
At the same time, numerous white supremacists and fellow travelers have been booted off their social media platforms. Fundraising has become more difficult as outfits like PayPal and Amazon refuse to service them.
And earlier this month, neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder for driving a car into a crowd of Charlottesville counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. It was a potent reminder of the senseless violence of the radical right.
The irony is that all of this is happening under a president who once said there were “many fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. But with Trump’s political and legal situation growing increasingly hazardous, the rise of political terror that is driving many on the right away, and deepening divisions on the radical right, the movement is experiencing its worst troubles in years.
With a little luck, that may continue.