The Southern Poverty Law Center recently counted more than 100 victims injured or killed by members of what is being dubbed the “alt-right.” All of the perpetrators hold some common characteristics: white, male and under 40 years old.
On the surface, the majority of the alt-right's "members" appear to be politically disillusioned individuals encouraged to believe that their voices have been drowned out by a left-leaning mainstream news apparatus. Many other strong cultural movements have spawned from these same conditions, though.
From the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to the 1980s punk scene and beyond, movements found success through their ability to cater to a specifically disenfranchised group. These movements historically offer a sense of solidarity and organization to individuals who feel they have otherwise been scorned by society.
However, this time seems different, as the violent alt-right is becoming increasingly empowered and dangerous. How will we counteract this threat in the coming years?
Who Are They and What do They Want?
The alt-right is, fundamentally, more of a cultural scene than an official organization. Members don’t host meetings, not officially, anyway. Many of them have never met one another, interacting solely through social media and sympathetic websites. Given the anonymity of most internet forums, it's difficult to find any cohesive message or unifying figures inspiring this group. There is even indication that some the most rabid advocates are posting ironically and have no real aspirations for political change.
Of course, internet forums are only one facet of this sprawling group. Some members meet through old-school white supremacist organizations, gun clubs or political rallies. The march on Charlottesville, Va., widely seen as an alt-right "coming out" event, showcased the buffet of different advocacy groups that fall under the umbrella of the movement. Paramilitary gun advocates marched beside neo-Nazis. KKK members appeared without hoods, and dozens of obscure insignias and symbols dotted the ranks of the thousands marching.
One feature that seems to unify all members of this group is political and cultural dissatisfaction. The movement, which has become increasingly whitewashed since the mid-2010s behind figures like Milo Yiannopolous, consists primarily of white men rabidly opposed to political correctness, gun control and immigration, among many other issues.
Violence in the Alt-Right
Our country endured yet another horrific school shooting on Valentine's Day last month. Like most mass shooters, Nikolas Cruz is a young male. He had an extensive online presence, posting material related to his guns and his dissatisfaction with the current political climate. He was, to the best of our knowledge, a member of the loosely organized alt-right.
The massacre, unfortunately, was just another data point in a complex and disturbing portrait of this developing and fundamentally disorganized group. Our country is undergoing an epidemic of mass shootings unrivaled by any other democracy today. And while these violent acts seem entirely random, almost all the shooters are white men under or around 30 years old – awfully consistent with the alt-right.
All signs seem to indicate that Cruz, like most modern shooters, acted alone, complicating the case against the alt-right. If systemic attacks were being carried out against schools and public gatherings, a response to this group could be more immediate and clear.
Nonetheless, a trend seems to be developing. There are plenty of websites advocating white supremacy, violence against minorities, calls for a second revolution and other violent solutions to perceived national woes. A large percentage of mass shooters in recent years frequented these sites or posted similar content – something the current political and justice system isn't yet equipped to handle.
Internet privacy and First Amendment rights protect these websites and their active users. The fact is, most facets of the alt-right operate independently from one another, and many do not acknowledge the greater movement at all.
The Crisis Actor Phenomena
Following every mass shooting, certain sites on the internet spring into action. Trolls frequenting the YouTube comment section begin positing stories about “green screens” and “crisis actors” – people purportedly paid by the political left to simulate public crises, which would then allow them to push for certain legislation. America has a rich history of political suspicion and conspiracy theories, which tend to find more traction here than most countries.
In fact, the crisis actor phenomena has existed since the 19th century, appearing as far back as the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. Fast forward to the age of the internet, which finds a corner for every opinion, and we see a port-of-call for alt-right conspirators attempting to validate their beliefs.
Suddenly, the shooter himself becomes a martyr – a fall guy used by the left to push for gun control legislation – and teenagers begging for the violence to stop are crying crocodile tears while the background scenery is depicted as nothing more than a stock animation. For many engulfed in the alt-right maelstrom, this represents their actual reality.
So What Are Our Options
This is a movement fed on misinformation and toxic online forums. How, then, can we begin to strip the violent power from a movement that is fractured, independently operating and widely anonymous? A few ideas have been floated.
We should consider the positive aspects of the internet and our ability to share moving and convincing stories with all members of the community. The alt-right has put a premium on the demonization of immigrants and refugees, many of whom are fleeing genuinely appalling conditions in their home country. By sharing refugees' stories and what they hope to find in America, perhaps a dialogue with some elements of the alt-right can be established.
Gun control legislation is seen as the primary means by which our country can prevent future violent incidents. As it sits, residents of many states can purchase semiautomatic weapons from certain dealers without a background check. This allows individuals with mentally or emotionally unstable backgrounds to own incredibly dangerous weapons. Establishing a more extensive system of background checks has overwhelming support across America.
Directly confronting members of the alt-right has resulted in violence – Charlottesville being the clearest example. Other indirect forms of confrontation, including censorship and "outing" online users or alt-right event participants, have been more effective. Whether these methods pressure the movement, or simply further entrench its members in their ideals, is unclear.
A Violent Future
One thing we know: The American epidemic of gun violence will continue if nothing changes. Since Columbine in 1999, there have been endless mass shootings. Now, a fresh wave of violence is sweeping the nation, and it seems to be most prevalent in a particular demographic: young white males. This issue won’t disappear with the older generation. We need to be discussing actionable legislation that will help pave the way for a safer future – because what we’re doing clearly isn’t working.