Far-right groups favor street-level action, as the so-called "alt-right" bickers over tactics.
The early months of 2017 saw a major shift in the racist “alt-right” presence, as white nationalists took their ideological battles off the internet and into the streets, protesting on college campuses and around Confederate monuments. The August 12 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was the culmination of this effort, intended by leaders to supercharge their momentum. Instead, the violent, shocking and lethal display was a stumbling block that complicated their advance.
In the aftermath, there was little the disparate blocs of the alt-right could agree on. Retreating from their disastrous real-world debut to their online comfort zone, faction leaders took to their forums and blogs to pass blame and quarrel over how to move forward.
These ongoing debates are not about taking responsibility for violence in the movement or appealing for a kinder, gentler alt-right. No one is proposing an existential reckoning. Instead, the infighting surrounds disagreements over public perception and recruitment strategies. Most alt-right leaders just call it “optics.”
Should groups be planning major rallies or just focus on small, surprise “flash mobs?” Should white supremacists dress like frat boys or street fighters? Should offensive symbols be allowed on signs, clothing or flags? And how much energy, if any, should be expended duping the “normies” into believing the alt-right is founded on more than just white bigotry?
In a widely discussed post a few weeks after Unite the Right, Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer argued that the alt-right should start using the American flag exclusively at events. This serves the dual purpose of using an innocuous symbol while simultaneously reinforcing their racist message that America is by and for white people. His suggestion drew the ire of Brad Griffin, “PR chief” for the League of the South (LOS), neo-Confederates who in many cases are openly secessionist, so by definition object to marching under Old Glory. In December, Vincent Law of AltRight.com argued that white supremacists can infiltrate the mainstream if they act as normal and approachable as possible.
“Would a regular American want to get a beer with an average Alt-Righter or not? That is what is going to make our opinions ‘normal’ or not,” he wrote.
Griffin, again, takes the opposite view, arguing that appealing to “normies” is useless when you should be targeting the “disaffected.” In fact, he wrote that he would like LOS members to look as intimidating as possible. Matt Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party, also rejected any strategy that resembled watering down a more explicitly National Socialist message to appeal to American nationalist sensibilities.
“If you want bulls to charge toward you, wave a red cape,” he quipped. “If you want c---- to charge toward you, wave an American flag.”
But superficial tactics aside, the overall strategy remains what it was before Charlottesville. In 2017, the alt-right became visible. They were active and present on American streets. Despite (and for some, perhaps because of) the growing violence, that trend has continued.
Taking to the streets
Groups primarily focused on street-level activism have been emerging on the alt-right since 2016. Richard Spencer, for example, announced in early December a new group called “Operation Homeland,” an umbrella for “Identitarians” that Spencer promised would “take activism to the next level.” Allies Cameron Padgett, Evan McLaren and Elliott Kline (alias “Eli Mosley,” formerly of Identity Evropa), are joining Spencer in this new endeavor, which he said would, “plan and carry out bold demonstrations,” among other things.
While Operation Homeland is just kicking off, there are a few prominent groups currently in existence. Like the greater alt-right, these organizations diverge in their preferred optics. But there’s one thing they share: Whether they spend most of their time talking about it or actually doing it, these groups love beating up “leftists.”
Rise Above Movement
A Southern California group that claims to have 50 members, Rise Above Movement (RAM) is an explicitly violent, racist, right-wing fight club that attends rallies around the country to openly brawl with counter-protesters. In October, ProPublica released an in-depth investigation that supplied most of the details now known about RAM’s activities. The report identified RAM leadership and catalogued violence perpetrated by the group at four different rallies in 2017. ProPublica’s investigation revealed that many of the group’s leaders have felonies on their records, and that RAM has recruited members from Hammerskin Nation, the largest skinhead gang in the U.S.
In an interview with ProPublica’s reporter, an anonymous RAM leader said the group was not racist. It’s not uncommon for a group like this to make that claim, but in RAM’s case it rings particularly hollow. Members are on video referencing David Lane’s neo-Nazi catchphrase the “14 Words,” and just a sample of leaders’ social media accounts reveals ugly, racist memes and posts riddled with bigoted sentiments and racial slurs.
Their recruitment strategy, including promotional videos featuring their workout and training routines, is targeted toward men who find the idea of a real world fight club appealing. White supremacy supplies the justification for violence, but ultimately this group has been about street fighting. They’ve won praise from far-right media outlets that applaud the zeal with which they assault political opponents.
Their intentions for 2018 are unclear, as the anonymous RAM member told ProPublica the group is taking a break from rallies, and declined to discuss their future plans.
From a branding standpoint, the American Guard is one of the tamer options on the scene. That may seem like somewhat of a contradiction for an organization founded by Brien James, a veteran skinhead who back in 2003 started the Vinlanders Social Club, one of America’s most violent skinhead gangs. And it’s not just James — many active members in the group were once members of racist skinhead gangs, including his co-founders Joshua Long and Ryan Ramsey, both formerly in the gang The Hated. In some cases, members are still involved with their old crowd.
The group doesn’t emphasize its skinhead ties. James has said that he left the openly white nationalist scene because his beliefs had evolved into what he described in 2013 as “Constitutional Libertarianism,” and he no longer believed racism was compatible with that worldview. In his estimation, the American Guard is race neutral. Membership is open to everyone, including both minorities and racists.
The group is governed by a philosophy they call “Constitutional nationalism.” Their online platform promotes a libertarian worldview with an isolationist, anti-immigrant bent. In essence, they are precisely the kind of “civic nationalists” that so irritated Matt Heimbach in the weeks following Charlottesville. They idealize “Western culture,” they indulge nativist animosity toward immigrants, Muslims, liberals and any other person or group deemed sufficiently un-American, but they appear to draw the line at suggestions of biologically rooted racial superiority.
Even so, their imagery, two crossed cleavers, is unabashedly nativist. The cleavers are a reference to Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Bill the Butcher in the film Gangs of New York, a crime boss who runs a gang, the “Natives,” which attacks Irish immigrants.
The American Guard has been present at rallies and demonstrations of the alt-right and so-called alt-lite alike. Brien James and some of his American Guard comrades were pictured attending Unite the Right in Charlottesville. Outside of rallies, the group has chapters in 13 states, and focuses on local organizing in a manner akin to an anti-communist neighborhood watch. In most cases, their street level presence is more muted than an explicit fight club like RAM.
James has not cut ties entirely with his skinhead past, appearing at the Vinlanders Social Club annual meeting this year wearing his Vinlanders jacket. On December 8, 2017 he honored neo-Nazi terrorist Robert Jay Mathews in a post to Facebook. Mathews was the leader of the murderous white supremacist group The Order, who died in a shootout with federal law enforcement in 1984.
Of Mathews, James wrote, “So I would have to disagree with him on some things now ideologically, only because I have the benefit of seeing how things have played out … If actions speak louder than words, he wasn’t a white supremacist at all. He fought tyranny. He was [a] f------ alpha warrior against the tyranny and decline he saw coming.”
The most nebulous of all the groups on this list, Anti-Communist Action (Anticom) is very tight-lipped about its internal organization and its true values. The website, which was recently taken down, consisted only of a merchandise shop peddling patches and stickers with violent memes, an out-of-date blog, a screed on Cultural Marxism and an online application form.
Based on the number of active social media accounts, the group has chapters in 15 U.S. and Canadian cities, and purports to be open to all members, regardless of race or ideology, as long as they hate communism and antifascists, or “antifa.” The group’s website homepage boasts, “Not affiliated with any organization.” Despite this, they marched alongside avowed white supremacists and neo-Nazis at Charlottesville, and some members reportedly provided security for Richard Spencer when he spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville in October.
Apparently undeterred by the deadly violence that unfolded at Unite the Right, Anticom attempted to organize a “March Against Communism” protest in Charlotte for December 28, featuring Richard Spencer as a speaker. They promoted the event on social media in September, telling members to “bring your torches, guns, armor, gear and flags,” adding, “stay nonviolent, and we’ll have a great time.” They cancelled the rally a week later, after Spencer pulled out of the event amid controversy.
In November, the left-wing media group Unicorn Riot released online chat records from Anticom, shared from an encrypted Discord server. The logs suggested that Anticom’s public position about accepting all ideologies was just a front, as many members posted bigoted, racist and hateful statements or openly espoused fascist views. But far more troubling was the revelation that Anticom chat group members were exchanging documents about how to make and use bombs, grenades and other explosives. After the logs were released, ProPublica reporters reached out to Anticom representatives, who confirmed the conversations were authentic.
Anticom’s recruitment pitch is simple. It’s not about what they believe in, it’s about what they don’t. They share memes focusing on the horrors perpetrated by communist dictators like Josef Stalin, and suggest that groups like antifa and Black Lives Matter are somehow attempting to commit similar atrocities. So, when they use a meme praising Chilean right wing death squads, it’s about self-defense. Keeping the focus squarely on a boogeyman of their own invention means they never even need to open a discussion about what they stand for.
Patriot Front was born from a schism in the leadership of Vanguard America. As an offshoot of Vanguard America, Patriot Front has its roots in the neo-Nazi organizing message board IronMarch.org, a website that also bred AtomWaffen Division, a small neo-Nazi group that gained notoriety last summer when one member murdered two of his roommates. A fourth roommate, Brandon Russell (also of AtomWaffen Division), escaped the rampage and was later arrested when police discovered two rifles, rounds of ammunition and a pair of binoculars in his truck. Law enforcement believed he might have been planning a sniper-style terrorist attack.
The man who led the Vanguard America split and now heads up the new group, Thomas Rousseau, is only 18 years old. In his August 30, 2017 announcement, he was clear about his intentions for Patriot Front to engage heavily in street-level activity.
“You will be expected to work, and work hard to meet the bar rising,” he wrote. “Inactivity will get you expelled, unwillingness to work and contribute in any capacity will as well.”
For the time being, most of that activity has been flyering and displaying banners bearing the group’s favorite slogans, like, “Will Your Speech Be Hate Speech?” and “Fascism: The Next Step for America.” They’ve also participated in rallies and held a couple of protests of their own, the first outside a Houston bookstore in September where they demanded a fight with antifascists they said were inside the shop.
Patriot Front is openly, unapologetically fascist. The group’s website domain is bloodandsoil.com, and they even put the word “fascism” in the title of their manifesto. Promotional materials take a serious tone, without the winking, “for the lulz” irony that some other organizations employ to “red pill” the uninitiated. But they’re still hoping to draw new recruits who haven’t yet been radicalized.
“The new name was carefully chosen, as it serves several purposes,” Rousseau said in the post introducing Patriot Front. “It can help inspire sympathy among those more inclined to fence-sitting, and can easily be used to justify our worldview.”
He and his followers also advocate something they call “American Fascism,” promoting figures like George Washington, General George Patton and Andrew Jackson as heroic ideals, largely passing over fascist mainstays like Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler.
In the white supremacist movement, splinter groups spawn as often as they fizzle out, so there’s no telling which of these will thrive or perish in 2018. But one thing is clear: The need for visibility isn’t going anywhere. Pandora’s box has opened on the internet’s racist, fascist fringe, and the demons are none too eager to be shoved back inside. America can expect direct, physical action to grow in popularity and frequency in the coming year.