The city of Charlottesville, Virginia has become a flashpoint for the neo-fascist movement in the United States. Comprised of neo-Confederates, open Nazis, self-described “white identitarians,” and Traditionalists, this fascist movement is mobilizing for a “Unite the Right” protest on August 12 to stop the renaming of parks and removal of Civil War monuments.
Initially permitted for Emancipation Park, formerly known as Lee Park, where the statue of Robert E. Lee is slated for removal, Charlottesville officials decided on Monday to move the Unite the Right protest to McIntire Park instead.
The American Civil Liberties Union has announced that it will join the Albemarle County-based Rutherford Institute in representing Unite the Right leader Jason Kessler to officially oppose the location change, despite city officials’ concerns regarding health and safety. Unite the Right organizers promise the rally will be held at Emancipation Park regardless.
Although Unite the Right bills itself as a populist coalition of conservative forces opposing the destruction of the South and its legacy, the group’s organizers are open about their extremist beliefs. Key figures other than the event’s organizer, Jason Kessler, who was dispatched from Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller after participating in a far-right rally he was supposed to report on, include alt-right leader Richard Spencer and fascist publicist Mike “Enoch” Peinovich.
Spencer and Peinovich are calling for the shelter of those who “refuse to punch right,” hoping that mainstream conservatives will refuse to oppose fascism for the sake of achieving common goals. The rally will also include occultist Augustus Sol Invictus and Chris Cantwell, a libertarian-turned-fascist who is known for celebrating the murder of police.
What this syncretic combination of cranks and snake-oil salesmen really represents is an invitation of conventional conservatives and “civic nationalists” (also known as the “alt-light”) to get behind the leadership of alt-right white nationalists.
The alt-right was conceived of by Richard Spencer and his cadre of dissident rightists in 2010 as a big tent, but not a mass movement. Instead, in his initial vision it would be a vanguard, the caste within the mass that will lead as ideological intelligentsia. The push toward millennial recruitment, especially at college campuses, has swelled that white nationalist core — as has Trumpian populism — and they now see their chance to make the alt-right an autonomous mass movement by consolidating the far-right.
While Trump and the enigmatic alt-light allowed people like Spencer a further reach, it eroded their distinction. The entire function of the alt-right was to present their vision of an ethno-state as the solution to the “crisis of modernity.” As their voice is muddied, they have become unable to center their own ideas.
The policy of refusing to “punch right” has already created fissures, however. When National Socialist Movement leader Jeff Schoep signed on to “defend free speech and our heritage at the Lee Monument” other Patriot organizers pulled out. Spencer has never been too comfortable with the open Nazi element adjoined to the alt-right, but they remain necessary to maintain a potential mass movement that does not mimic the alt-light’s abandonment of those to their right.
The idea of the left, the movement towards greater equality and against oppression, is a mass politics of its own: a tacit alliance between various ideologies that may be in hostile competition at points. The fragmentation of the left has come from very real clashes of perspective, different visions for how to achieve the final push toward equality and freedom, but that base of shared values is enough to build the bonds necessary for mass movements. Mass politics are not made of perfect unities but functional alliances where compromise drives a shared platform. This requires a balancing act between pragmatism and idealism, and the mechanism of change comes from the groundswell rather than a vanguard.
As the far-right moves its ideological base into the mass direction, the only option for the left is to overwhelm their attempt by returning to its own roots. A mass movement that is relevant and accessible to a huge swath of people and communities is needed. Such a movement develops through a praxis of community education and recruitment that can affect the perspective of the community as it builds. Through education, engagement and lived experiences, a movement that confronts the present threat and builds towards lofty goals in the future can then grow.
If the alt-right is clamoring towards a radical-right mass movement, the left should counter with a major groundswell of its own, uniting disparate elements of its basic coalition together into a project built on equality. Without this sense of radicalism it fails to answer the main problem leading to the alt-right’s growth. Discontent is growing across the country and there needs to be some option for profound change.
This will mean turning back to major constituencies all but abandoned by the left, from rural America to blue-collar workplaces, and building the networks necessary to demand — and achieve — far more than just the removal of racists from a park. Dr. Cornel West has joined interfaith coalition Congregate C’ville in calling for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to unite in opposition to the event, drawing from one of the largest bases that the left often ignores. Black Lives Matter organizations and the white-ally organization Showing Up for Racial Justice have committed to countering their presence at the event.
After community pressure, Airbnb announced that they would cancel the reservations for rally attendants, saying that “there are those who would be pursuing behavior on the platform that would be antithetical to the Airbnb Community Commitment.” Storefronts throughout Charlottesville are resisting the option of closing for the day, hanging signs saying, “If equality and diversity aren’t for you, then neither are we … We are open in protest of the recent demonstrations of hate.”
With the mass recruitment and publicity the alt-right has put into their rally, this presents even larger opportunities for the left. As the alt-right makes their threat visible in the park, this can and should act as a point of rupture where left organizations can unite as well, connecting with the community en masse and building something that can deafen the racialist rhetoric that haunts the community.