August 20, 2018

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The far right hails ‘Unite the Right’ a success. Its legacy says otherwise | Cas Mudde | Opinion

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This weekend the extreme right, or “alt-right”, will descend on Washington DC to try and regain the media spotlight in a rerun of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year. Like most sequels, Unite the Right 2 will be a weak copy of the original. Even the organizer, Jason Kessler, seems to acknowledge this. He applied for a permit for a rally of about 400 people, while estimates of the turnout at the Charlottesville rally in 2017 range from between 500 and 1,500 far right protesters.

This year’s Unite the Right 2 reflects the demise of the extreme right. Since Charlottesville, so-called “alt-right” activists have organized or attended 32 public events in the US, according to Carla Hill of anti-extremism watchdog Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The clear majority of these events were “flash demonstrations”, where five to 20 people briefly appeared to unfold a banner to protest immigration – a signature strategy of the marginal “alt-right” group Identity Evropa. At the same time, radical right, or “alt-light” groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have organized a few larger rallies, mostly in the north-western part of the country, more reminiscent of last year’s Charlottesville frenzy.

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The myth of Charlottesville is that the rally was a big success for the alt-right. However, the organizers had two major political goals for the rally: firstly, to show the country that the alt-right is not just a social media phenomenon, and secondly, to bring various far right groups together. Neither of these goals was realized.

Whether 500 or 1,500 people attended, Unite the Right was undoubtedly one of the largest explicitly extreme right rallies in recent US history. But while 1,500 people looks impressive in a town of 50,000, they came from all over the country, and constitute only a minuscule faction of the alt-right trolls on social media, let alone of the population of 325 million that live in the US.

Moreover, much of the actual mobilization came from the usual suspects of the US far right, such as neo-Confederate groups such as the League of the South, white supremacists such as the various Klans, and neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Movement.

And while various old and new alt-right groups and individuals did come together in Charlottesville, the explicit goal was to reunite the extreme right with the radical right, after the two had grown increasingly apart in the wake of Trump’s victory.

But the alt-light boycotted Unite the Right, with prominent leaders including Mike Cernovich later denouncing it as “a trap”. Since Charlottesville, the two factions have grown apart even further, attacking each other online, and organizing parallel rallies – such as the Freedom of Speech Rally and Rally Against Political Violence in Washington DC last summer.

But the more important legacies of the Unite the Right rally go far beyond the internal struggles within the far right. As is so often the case, they reflect longer ongoing trends within the conservative movement, which Donald Trump amplified with blunt, provocative statements. In his now infamous comments on the violent rally, the president lashed out at the counter-protesters and said there were “fine people on both sides”.

As the media has reported in past months, more and more of these “fine people” from the far-right are finding their way to the Republican party, even winning primaries and getting on the ballot for local, regional, and national races. At least one of them, Paul Nehlen, who hopes to replace House speaker Paul Ryan, is scheduled to attend Unite the Right 2.

While the normalization of open extreme right candidates like Nehlen remains limited to parts of the Republican base, open radical right candidates are taking over the Grand Old Party across the American heartland, shaping the party more and more in the image of its leader. Backed enthusiastically by Trump, they have won Republican primaries by promising to “put Georgia first” (Brian Kemp) or to “stamp out” sanctuary cities (Kris Kobach).

At the same time, anti-left hysteria is reaching feverish levels within conservative America, fueled by mainstream media and organizations like Fox News and the NRA. But the anti-left paranoia does not remain limited to opportunistic propaganda. House Republicans are trying to push an “unmasking antifa bill” through Congress, while the FBI is investigating “Antifa sympathizers”.

All of this is in part a consequence of the highly problematic media coverage of far right rallies like Unite the Right. Not only does the excessive media attention make both the alt-right and the antifa seem bigger and more relevant than they are, but it also inflates their potential for violence. Moreover, the uncritical coverage, as well as the obligatory liberal false equivalence narrative, strengthens the impression that the real threat comes from the left.

For example, most media report that primarily antifa protesters are arrested after far right rallies, but few report that they are specifically targeted by the police, who not only turn a blind eye to the weaponry of the far right, but sometimes even work together with them in “enforcing the law”.

If anything positive is to come out of the Unite the Right 2 rally this weekend, let it be a more critical and responsible media coverage of the alt-right and antifa alike, as well as the ways in which law enforcement and politicians deal with them.



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