The Alt-Right Branding War Has Torn the Movement in Two - 2017-07-06
A few weeks ago, Colton Merwin, a nineteen-year-old from Maryland who recently dropped out of college, decided to organize a rally on the National Mall. "I got all the permits and stuff myself," he said. "It was pretty easy, actually." He called his event the Rally for Free Speech. It was intended as a kind of rebuttal to a series of events that took place in Berkeley, California, earlier this year. In February, on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, a violent group of left-wing protesters prevented the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking; in April, anarchists and "anti-Fascists" interrupted a right-wing event in a Berkeley park, sparking a day of street clashes that came to be known as the Battle of Berkeley. "I got tired of seeing the far left smashing people instead of letting them speak," Merwin said. "My idea was that everyone's voice deserves to be heard."
He didn't invite "everyone" to speak at his rally. Instead, via Facebook message, he invited some of his favorite right-wing Internet personalities. Most were young and new to politics; most were critics of mainstream conservatism, often on libertarian or nationalist grounds; most had gained attention during last year's Presidential campaign, primarily through social media or alternative media; many had espoused anti-Muslim or anti-feminist views while accusing the left of incivility. In other words, they embodied a new wave of political protest and social commentary that is often called—by the outside world, if not by the commentators themselves—the alt-right.
On June 16th, nine days before the rally, Merwin announced a surprise addition to his lineup: the white nationalist and anti-Semite Richard Spencer. Spencer believes that white Americans need their own homeland—"a sort of white Zionism," he calls it. For years, he had been a marginal figure on the far right; last year, when the alt-right became an object of popular fascination, Spencer used the notoriety to his advantage. After the election, he experienced two moments of viral fame: one shortly after Trump's victory, when Spencer cried "Hail Trump" during a speech and appeared to lead a crowd in a Nazi-esque salute; and the other on Inauguration Day, when a masked stranger punched him in the face. Spencer is a deliberately divisive figure, and, during the past few months, many on the right have worked to distance themselves from him and his views. Lucian Wintrich, of the pro-Trump tabloid the Gateway Pundit, told me that, last year, the term alt-right "was adopted by libertarians, anti-globalists, classical conservatives, and pretty much everyone else who was sick of what had become of establishment conservatism." Wintrich counted himself among that group. "Then Richard Spencer came along, throwing up Nazi salutes and claiming that he was the leader of the alt-right," Wintrich went on. "He effectively made the term toxic and then claimed it for himself. We all abandoned using it in droves."