RUSSELLVILLE, ARK. (Reuters) - Two years ago, America’s white nationalist movement stunned the country. Neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, had turned deadly when a far-right protester drove a car through a crowd, killing one and injuring dozens. Some movement leaders regrouped. Instead of stoking outrage, they set out to build support with another tack: Looking normal.
The larger goal was what many white nationalists call “Phase 2” — gaining mainstream acceptance for far-right ideas widely rejected as repugnant and getting white nationalists into positions of influence. The normalization effort included softened rhetoric and social gatherings that, for many groups, would increasingly replace confrontational rallies.
“The strategy is internally focused now — having families get together,” said alt-right blogger Brad Griffin, a self-avowed white nationalist from Montgomery, Alabama. He fondly recalled a river-tubing trip he organised in 2018 for friends who had attended a local white nationalist conference. The goal of such low-key gatherings, he said, is to spread far-right ideology away from the public spectacle of a public protest. “It’s a lot more fun to do that than to go out and tangle with Antifa” — members of America’s far-left “anti-fascist” movement — “and get hit with piss balloons in the street.”
Griffin spoke in an interview before last weekend’s massacre in El Paso, Texas — an event that has scrambled the calculus for the movement’s aspiring normalizers.
On Saturday, authorities say, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius shot and killed 22 people and wounded two dozen more shortly after a manifesto appeared online explaining his motivation and decrying a “Hispanic invasion” of the United States.
The El Paso attack has also put new pressure on a man some white nationalists praise as helping advance their movement: Donald Trump. The U.S. president has come under sustained criticism for his racially incendiary rhetoric since launching his candidacy in 2015 — including his repeated use of the word “invasion” to describe immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Monday, Trump issued his most forceful disavowal of white supremacism to date. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said in response to the weekend’s shootings. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
After Charlottesville, the lie-low approach was seen as a necessity by some in the movement. Many white nationalist groups were sued and lost access to social media, which has caused them to avoid public confrontations, said Heidi Beirich, who studies far-right groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization that tracks extremists.
“We haven’t seen many rallies since Charlottesville,” she said. The combination of bad press, prosecutions and lost access to social media, has “depressed people in the movement” and created a sense that “maybe the softer approach is the way to go.”
The shootings, and Trump’s repudiation, leave the normalizers in a difficult, perhaps impossible spot. Their gambit was always a stretch.
A Reuters photojournalist has observed the approach up close — at a children’s nursery in a "church" run by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK); a restaurant-and-bar that caters to white supremacists in Georgia; a barbecue held in Arkansas by the ShieldWall Network, a self-avowed neo-Nazi group with dozens of members. Even as they described their hopes of mainstreaming, many members of these and other groups also voiced the violent tropes that animate the movement. (WIDER IMAGE photo essay: reut.rs/2KnI80l )
One is the so-called Great Replacement conspiracy theory, common in white nationalist circles, which holds that leftist elites are engineering the replacement of white majorities globally through policies that encourage mass migrations as white birth rates decline. The manifesto tied to the El Paso shooting referenced the replacement theory in explaining why the shooter chose to kill Hispanic people.
Asked in a May interview how whites could regain demographic dominance, ShieldWall’s leader, Billy Roper, told Reuters that promoting a higher birth rate among white people is helpful, but “bullets” would be faster. Roper said his organization doesn’t advocate anything illegal but that he “couldn’t disagree” with the goals of the mass shooter who murdered 51 people at two Muslim mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March. That killer, too, had cited the replacement theory as a motive.
In a phone interview after the Texas massacre, Roper said he didn’t support the killings. But the victims, Roper said, “were just pawns in the Jewish game of demographic replacement of whites,” adding that such “cultural conflicts” are an “unfortunate fact of modern life” in an increasingly diverse nation moving closer to racial “balkanization.”
The strategy of trying to couch such extreme views in mainstream rhetoric is not new. One of the highest-profile examples of the normalization tack is that of David Duke, a former KKK grand wizard who traded the klan’s signature white robes and pointy hats for a business suit, adopted more mainstream conservative talking points, and made the runoff election for Louisiana governor in 1991. Duke lost by a wide margin but drew support from about half the state’s white voters.
The normalization effort is also not universal. Some far-right groups are still known for confrontation, including the Proud Boys, who last October fought with people protesting a Republican Club event in New York City.
Members of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, carry guns and other weapons (left) as they gather in a parking lot before attending a rally at the state capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, in November 2018. The group was protesting what it called the “white genocide” taking place in South Africa.
In Draketown, Georgia, Pat Lanzo runs a restaurant-and-bar that white supremacists have claimed as their own. Lanzo insists the Georgia Peach Oyster Bar is merely a celebration of free speech.
“We’re not racist,” he said. “We hate everyone equally.”
The decor inside his bar is filled with the kind of racist tropes that remain a hard sell with mainstream America. His menus feature a drawing of a Klan member relaxing on a hammock made of two lynched black corpses tied together at the feet. And Lanzo has rented his property to neo-Nazis and klan members for cross burnings, a traditional show of force by the KKK in the American South.
The image-scrubbing by today’s white nationalists belies a long history of violence by far-right ideologues. In the ten years ending in 2018, murderers motivated by far-right ideology took the lives of 124 people in 62 incidents, according to the U.S. Extremist Crime Database, a collaboration of criminal justice researchers from multiple universities. The statistics include white supremacists but also those with other far-right agendas that are not focused on race, such as anti-government militants.
Thomas Robb, the national director of The Knights Party, a group formerly named the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, said the movement should think beyond confrontations and rallies.
“When the rally’s over, what do you do?” said Robb in an interview before the El Paso shootings. “Our goal isn’t so much to get membership, but influence. When people come to our website, they see responsible people who aren’t using the ‘N word’ in every sentence.” Instead, Robb said, the aim is to “speak like Corporate America” as a way to make far-right ideas more palatable to a broader audience.
White nationalists have always debated whether putting “reasonable clothing” on their movement would get them further than street clashes and violence, said Mike German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning policy institute. But the approach appears to have gained momentum under Trump in part because of the president’s racially divisive rhetoric, said German, who previously spent years undercover with white nationalists as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
“Before, white nationalists were trying to shove their way into the mainstream,” German said. “Now, they’re being invited in.”
It’s far from clear whether many true believers are ready for life in the mainstream.
This past April in Russellville, Arkansas, a lakeside college town, three members of the ShieldWall Network gathered to rent a houseboat and cruise around Lake Dardanelle. A Reuters photojournalist went with them.
Moods were light; they toasted one another with Fireball whiskey shots, laughed when one of them dropped his phone in the lake and cooed as another cuddled with his pregnant wife. Later that night, the group would initiate a new recruit, Nicholas Holloway, and burn wooden swastikas.
Two months later, in June, Holloway and two other ShieldWall members on the boat that day — Julian Calfy and John Carollo — were arrested for allegedly beating a gay man and holding a gun to his head after luring him to Calfy’s home with a false dating advertisement, according to police reports. Calfy remains in jail, while the other two members are free on bail, according to a spokesman for the Pope County, Arkansas, Sheriff’s Office. Each is charged with third-degree battery, first-degree terroristic threatening and first-degree criminal mischief in connection with the attack.
Neither the defendants nor their attorneys could be reached for comment.
Griffin, the alt-right blogger, condemned the El Paso shooting in stronger terms than other extremists who spoke to Reuters, calling it and other mass shootings by avowed white nationalists “insane tragedies.”
At the same time, Griffin said he supported resegregation of the races, echoing one of the core principles of the manifesto that authorities tied to the Texas shooter.
The continuing violence, he said, undermines any attempt by the movement to gain more mainstream acceptance. At this point, he said, most white nationalists would rather just “stay out of the debate.”
Reporting by Jim Urquhart and Nick Brown; Editing by Brian Thevenot