To 19-year-old Colton Merwin, a Maryland native and recent college dropout, several clashes this year between far-left radicals, right-wing Donald Trump supporters and alt-right activists in Berkeley, California were an attack on free speech. In February, violent left-wing activists—including anarchists and anti-fascists—attacked police officers and set fires on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley to prevent controversial alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. In April, a right-wing rally held in a local park resulted in a day of street fighting between left-wing and right-wing radicals. Twenty-one people were arrested, and six were hospitalized.
To protect what he saw as his own civil liberty in danger, Merwin applied for permits to host an alt-right “Rally for Free Speech” on the National Mall in June. Using Facebook Messenger, he secured speeches by some of his favorite far-right internet personalities, including, as of June 16, Richard Spencer—famous for his ideals of a white American ethno-state.
This addition to the lineup prompted Jack Posobiec, a staunch Trump advocate and conspiracy theorist, and Laura Loomer, a reporter for the far-right Canadian political blog The Rebel Media, to back out of the rally. Posobiec was a project director for Citizens for Trump during the 2016 election and Loomer rose to fame following her June 16 disruption of the Public Theater’s politically controversial production of Julius Caesar. “I’m not sharing the stage with an anti-Semite,” Loomer, who is Jewish, told The New Yorker.
And thus Washington, DC became the latest battleground for dueling factions of the alt-right. The term, coined in 2008 by Spencer himself, refers to a loosely-defined group of right-wing organizations with a common denominator: ideals of white nationalism. But it’s not that simple. Each organization, and each individual member within each organization, subscribes to his or her own brand of far-right politics. On June 25, the ideological cracks in the alt-right network were on full display—with anti-Semitism at the heart of the divide.
After Posobiec and Loomer backed out of the “Rally for Free Speech,” the former announced he would host a “Rally Against Political Violence” in front of the White House at the same time as the original rally. Chaos ensued on social media as Spencer labeled Posobiec an “outright liar” and Loomer a “Zionist fanatic.” He denounced their rally as “alt-lite” rather than alt-right, intending to insult the two. Anthime Gionet, also known as “Baked Alaska,” posted a meme of Loomer in which her head is Photoshopped into a gas chamber with Trump in a Nazi uniform on the outside.
The June 25 alt-right rally ultimately drew a crowd of about 100 in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the Rally for Free Speech, featuring Augustus Sol Invictus, the self-proclaimed leader of the “Alt-Knights,” and Jason Kessler, a neo-confederate and contributor to VDARE—a website the Southern Poverty Law Center labels as an anti-immigration hate outlet—and, of course, Richard Spencer.
Meanwhile, just over a mile away, the so-called “alt-lite” rally drew a crowd of about 50, with speakers including Lucian Wintrich, the White House correspondent for the conservative political blog The Gateway Pundit, and Corey Stewart, a politician in favor of displaying Confederate flags who recently lost Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
Some experts say the dichotomy between the alt-right and the “alt-lite” rallies does not necessarily signal deep ideological differences. Instead, it may be a matter of tactics. Just because one radical right-wing organization uses blatantly anti-Semitic language does not mean that others who don’t are not, in fact, anti-Semitic, says Carolyn Gallaher, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service whose research focuses on right-wing paramilitary groups. It’s partially a political calculus, she adds. “At least since the Holocaust, there’s always been this sense among some people on the right that if we want to have more political traction and more influence we shouldn’t be openly anti-Semitic or racist.”
Keegan Hankes, who tracks far-right extremism, anti-government, neo-confederate and alt-right online propaganda campaigns for the Southern Poverty Law Center, famous for taking legal action against hate groups, echoed Gallaher’s sentiment. “When the fire gets too hot, they splinter off,” Hankes says, citing conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich’s split from the “Richard Spencers and the Andrew Anglins of the world.” In December, Cernovich condemned “Baked Alaska” for using blatantly anti-Semitic language on social media and disinvited him from DeploraBall, an extreme right-wing celebration held just before Trump’s inauguration. “For these figures on the alt-right called the ‘alt-lite,’ this was in part an image problem. Any time you take a harder right position on any of these issues and become openly racist or openly anti-Semitic, you run the risk of alienating your followers and further isolating yourself,” he says.
But even among the “Richard Spencers and Andrew Anglins of the world,” he adds, there’s language disparity. For example, Kevin McDonald, a former evolutionary psychology professor the SPLC refers to as “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic” will attend and speak at the same alt-right events as Richard Spencer, but they won’t say the same things, says Hankes. MacDonald, who Hankes calls “one of the most influential anti-Semites” on the fringe of the extreme right, is blatantly anti-Semitic. In his novel A People That Shall Dwell Alone, Judaism as Group Evolutionary Strategy, with Diaspora Peoples, MacDonald claims that Judaism isn’t a religion but instead a “group evolutionary strategy” that outcompetes non-Jews in society, undermining their home countries. Spencer, on the other hand, serves as the alt-right figurehead with an image and voice more palatable to a larger audience. “There’s a reason you don’t see Richard Spencer out yelling about the Jews in his speeches,” Hankes says. “It creates major fault lines not because a ton of them disagree. You see varying degrees of anti-Semitism across this whole thing. You see people who will talk about it openly, you see others who just kind of hint-hint wink-wink at it. But the biggest dividing factor on the topic is more brand and propaganda than anything else. They know it’s alienating for normal people to hear really shocking things, like the Holocaust didn’t happen or openly joking about killing Jews.”
In the 1990s, blatantly white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Ku Klux Klan were losing power as the anti-government Militia Movement was on the rise, says Gallaher. The Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood use anti-Semitic slurs like “Zionist Occupied Government” to propagate the grand conspiracy that Jews are taking over the country, while militia groups opted instead for coded terms like “New World Order” to make their message more acceptable to larger audiences. In effect, this coded language enabled the militia movement to attract people who may or may not be aware of the anti-Semitic history of terms like “New World Order.”
“What we’re seeing now is those same debates—the difference is that which group is more powerful seems to have flipped.” Gallaher says.
On Sunday, the blatant anti-Semitism of the alt-right drew a greater crowd than the personalities of the “alt-lite.” In fact, it drew twice the crowd.
“I just feel like the balance is shifting,” Gallaher says. And the reason, she says, may—at least in part—have something to do with Trump, whose outspoken demeanor has attracted significant media attention over the course of his campaign and presidency. “These strains have been in American culture for a very, very long time—you know, since the beginning, but [Trump] certainly I think has emboldened people to be blatant in their biases.” Indeed, in the first three months of 2017, the Anti-Defamation League found an 86 percent spike in anti-Semitic incidents across the country.
But it’s more than just a branding game. Splits between the alt-right and the “alt-lite” also center around debates over whether or not Jews are white—an issue that surfaced in mainstream media following Israeli movie star Gal Gadot’s rise to fame in Wonder Woman. Some say she’s a woman of color due to her Ashkenazi, Jewish and Israeli identity. Others argue her Eastern European roots prove her whiteness.
You wouldn’t think, “Gal Gadot, who is plainly white, is in fact white,” would be a controversial point, but here we are.
— Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) June 4, 2017
Claiming that Gal Gadot is a “person of color” is totally specious and an insult to people of color who need representation in media. >
— S.I. Rosenbaum (@sirosenbaum) June 1, 2017
“If you are a white supremacist, you’re a white nationalist. For you—the important thing is that whites should have power, but there’s no one clear definition of what it means to be white,” Gallaher says, noting that whiteness has no biological definition; rather, it’s a social construction.
“There are necessarily these questions for them about who’s white, right? That’s one of the first things you have to define if you want to make a white ethno-state” says George Hawley, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama who authored Making Sense of the Alt-Right earlier this year. Today, the white nationalist and white supremacist movements seem to favor the exclusion of Jews from the category of whiteness—an opinion that doesn’t match that of all white supremacists or white nationalists of the past, according to Hawley. He cited Jared Taylor, a white supremacist who is the founder and editor of white supremacist publication American Renaissance. Taylor argued that Jews were white—and that anti-Semitism was therefore counterproductive. “That does not seem to be the modal view within today’s alt-right,” he added. “That is, there seems to be a general attitude that Jewish Americans, even those predominantly from European ancestry, should be viewed as a separate category and thus not as people who could be potential allies for their movement.”
The alt-right and the “alt-lite” are new movements, with ideologies and boundaries still forming. This blurs the line between the two, pitting overt hate against a more discrete kind of hate that is nonetheless laced with misogyny, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Hate-tracking organizations are trying to keep up, with the Anti-Defamation League recently publishing a guide identifying influential leaders of both the alt-right and the “alt-lite.”
To Eric Ward—a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center whose essay Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism was published by The Public Eye—anti-Semitism isn’t simply a dividing line; rather, it actually incited white nationalism. Understanding anti-Semitism’s centrality, Ward argues, explains the fuel behind white nationalists’ anti-black, Islamophobic, misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ views, among other hate-based agendas.
After the black-led civil rights movement shook the social order of the country in the 1960s, white nationalists and white supremacists created a narrative of white dispossession in the U.S. But at the same time white nationalists struggled to accept that blacks—a so-called “race of inferiors” according to white supremacist ideology—were able to change social order alone.
“Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes,” Ward writes. “This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious,” he writes: “It is, of course, the Jews.”