I was traveling to attend a wedding over weekend and so did not get to follow the news but was gratified upon my return to read that the much-promoted Unite the Right 2 rally that was supposed to be a show of force of the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and fascists in front of the White House where they now think they have a friend turned out to be a total bust, with the number of counter-protestors utterly dwarfing the few people who turned up for the rally under heavy police protection.
A tiny group of white supremacists made their way to the White House on Sunday, surrounded by a double cordon of police officers and throngs of protesters shouting “Shame!” “Shame!”
In the center was 34-year-old Jason Kessler. His white supremacist rally last year in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, had left dozens of people seriously injured, and one young woman dead. Kessler thrust himself down the street like a prize-fighter, biting his lower lip and glaring ahead.
To protect their safety and that of others, officials had organised a special route for the parade. Kessler and his companions were escorted onto the metro. A special car was prepared for them, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported. In downtown Washington, police officers said they planned to clear part of the metro station platform to escort Kessler up to the street. As he came up the elevators, he was met with hundreds of news photographers and a roar of outrage from protesters amassed waiting.
In Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, Kessler and his tiny group of supporters were taken away to their own distant corner of the park as they talked to each other in front of journalists. Cordoned off and dozens of meters away, too far to even see Kessler, a crowd of thousands of counterprotesters waved signs and shouted their disapproval.
Some of the protesters said they did not know how Kessler and his supporters felt about the thousands of angry opponents. But they said they knew how they felt, seeing the enormous crowd that had come out to protest made them feel encouraged and comforted.
There will be analyses of why, just a year after these white supremacists felt so emboldened as to march openly in large numbers in Charlottesville and launch attacks on counter-protestors, they now found it difficult to get more than two dozen or so to show up yesterday. It is true that there has been internal dissension within the groups involving tactics and personal differences. It is also true that individuals who had been publicly identified as marchers and attackers last year and at other white supremacist rallies have suffered some consequences, ranging from social shaming to loss of employment to beatings by counter-protestors to arrests. Many of them are now whining that they are being unfairly maligned as racists. It is a bit much to claim that you are not a racist when you attend white supremacists rallies, march with them, and chant their slogans.
But it is also true that the fact that the presence of groups like Antifa, who were willing to use physical force to defend counter-protestors from the assaults of the white nationalists, seem to have caused some in the movement to realize that this was not entirely fun and games (‘lulz’) and that there were real costs involved in being openly aligned with racist groups. The idea that this could be seen as merely a lark had been used as a tactic to recruit young people to attend white nationalist rallies. The young people recruited by these means are likely realizing that they were the victims of bait-and-switch, where they came for the lulz and stayed for the racism.
The pathetic nature of yesterday’s rally as documented by Andy Kroll should not lead to complacency.
[The] alt-right and its fellow travelers were never going to be able to assemble a mass movement. Despite the controversy over the rally and its bloody aftermath, the white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda. As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. And as an ideological vanguard, the alt-right fulfilled its own purpose in pulling the Republican Party in its direction.
Jason Kessler, the organizer of both Unite the Right events, may have failed to stage anything remotely resembling a follow-up to last year’s rally. But the cause Kessler and his followers champion, the beliefs they hold about race and white supremacy and immigration — those views have today found a home in one of America’s two major political parties. They have a receptive audience in the White House and with President Trump, who has spent his first year-and-a-half in office spewing bigotry toward immigrants and people of color, and who just today attacked the intelligence of a former black female employee and surrogate, Omarosa Manigault-Newman.
Those who showed up in Charlottesville last year but did not show up in Washington this year have not necessarily changed their minds, only their willingness to be publicly associated with these groups. They are lying low. For now. And they have important allies in Donald Trump and the Republican party.