For many Americans, the rise of the alt-right is distressing. We are not accustomed to white supremacists marching down our streets, advocating for the preservation of “white identity.” So, why is it happening now?
There are a lot of reasons actually. Here are four.
Let’s start with the reason that gets discussed most often in the news — We have a president who has not condemned white supremacy. It’s true. Donald Trump’s unwillingness to distance himself from extreme racism, even after the firing of Steve Bannon, matters. Presidents set the national tone and send signals to groups of all political stripes regarding what is acceptable and what is not. While some might argue that Trump hasn’t exactly supported groups touting this far-right ideology, he hasn’t disavowed them either. Social science research, including my own, finds that silence matters. In fact, if silence is the primary response by a politician or interest group, it often is interpreted as support for a cause.
Groups promoting “white identity” have been organizing online for decades and waiting for their moment to act. Forums promoting white identity such as Stormfront literally attract millions of people, hundreds of thousands of whom register and share their racist points of view. If you navigate to the forum, you will see hundreds of ongoing discussions. The most popular of which feature the “crimes” of ethnic minorities, Muslims, and Jews. Anyone can read the public conversations, and those who have accounts can post and eventually participate in private forums, where they can discuss issues and plan actions with other true believers outside the view of the public. Stormfront is the biggest, but far from the only, forum promoting racist ideologies and actions.
White supremacists and other hate groups have been testing the boundaries of their free speech and right to organize for decades – and have repeatedly won. Westboro Baptist Church is a good example in this regard. Since 1991, the group has organized 60,683 demonstrations outside of everything from military funerals to community theatre productions. The church argues that America is being punished for its support of homosexuality. In their view, the deaths of military personnel and civilians in church shootings are proof of “God’s wrath” on this point. Westboro Baptist churchgoers travel around the country, waving upsetting signs, and chanting about God’s wrath. The church sues anyone who tries to prevent them from sharing their point of view. In 1995,the group won more than $100,000 in a lawsuit opposing the Kansas Funeral Picketing Act, successfully arguing it violated its First Amendment Rights. More recently, Albert Snyder, father of a deceased marine, paid the church $16,510 after unsuccessful litigation. Snyder sued the church in hopes of stopping the funeral protests. He lost and, eventually, the Supreme Court weighed in on the case, determining that the churchgoers’ speech was protected. These tests take place at the state level as well. Just last year the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan sued the state of Georgia for not allowing the group to participate in the adopt-a-highway program – and won.
Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the Republican and Democratic Parties and are turning to (extreme) groups in order to affect change. Donald Trump’s win, among other things, illustrated just how fed up many citizens are with career politicians and American politics. Many Americans do not feel like the political system works on their behalf and they have tried different ways of expressing discontent and affecting change. The Tea Party Movement represented one attempt to change the Republican Party – and it succeeded to some extent. There are certainly still politicians in office, such as Rand Paul, who uphold many of the Tea Party values, particularly as they relate to smaller government. Institutional change, however, is slow and difficult, and some citizens are tired of waiting. Extreme ideologies – such as those represented by the alt-right and antifa – promise action, and, in the case of the alt-right, political influence.
The question I get asked a lot is: How long until the alt-right disappears?
It is not an easy question to answer because, as I noted before, extreme points of view and people who buy into them never completely disappear. I can tell you that there are a lot of organizations that are grouped under the alt-right and they are not working together nearly as closely together as pundits and media outlets let on. To get a good sense of the groups that are currently lumped into the alt-right category check out the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists and summarizes far-right groups and their ideologies. Some of these differences are highlighted below in a chart made by Quartz. Notice that these different groups broadly share hatred for Non-whites, Blacks, and Jews, but little else.
Why does this matter?
Because coalitions, particularly ones where diverse groups don’t have a lot in common, are difficult to sustain. Sure, these groups are currently united in their general hostility toward racial and ethnic minorities- and their right to share their concerns over an increasingly diverse country. But, as with other movements, these groups will find that more divides them then binds them together. Factions will rise and the loose coalition of groups will fall.
Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology and a Research Associate in the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy. Rohlinger studies social movements, political participation, and mass media. Her new book, Digital Media and American Society, will be published in spring 2018.