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.”
As soon as Spencer was announced as a participant in the Rally for Free Speech, Jack Posobiec and Laura Loomer, two advocate-journalists who were also scheduled to speak, backed out. “It’s pretty simple,” Loomer, who is Jewish, told me at the time. “I’m not sharing the stage with an anti-Semite.” The next day, Posobiec announced that he would host a competing event, the Rally Against Political Violence, in front of the White House. This rally would feature a new slate of speakers, including Wintrich; Cassandra Fairbanks, of the pro-Trump Web site Big League Politics; the political consultant and Periscope pundit Ali Akbar; and the social-media star and InfoWars contributor Mike Cernovich. The events would be held at the same time, to draw a clear distinction between people who would stand with Spencer and those who would not. In effect, the Rally for Free Speech became an alt-right event, and the Rally Against Political Violence became a right-wing event organized in opposition to the alt-right. The two factions spent the intervening week talking trash, on Twitter and YouTube, about which rally would draw a bigger crowd. To the outside world, the schism might have seemed sudden, even inexplicable. In fact, it had been developing for months.
The phrase “alternative right” has been critiqued on several grounds: that it’s too vague; that it obscures the extent to which the movement is coterminous with the rest of the Republican base; that it’s a euphemism for white supremacy. The definition has shifted over time, both inside and outside the movement, such that, for a while, it was impossible to tell whether any two people who referred to the alt-right were referring to the same thing. During the Presidential campaign, the term came to denote several intersecting phenomena: anti-feminism, opposition to political correctness, online abuse, belligerent nihilism, conspiracy theories, inflammatory Internet memes. Some pro-Trump activists adopted this big-tent definition, allowing any youthful, “edgy” critique of establishment conservatism to be considered alt-right. But a core within the movement always insisted on a narrower conception of the alt-right, one that was inextricably linked with white separatism, and with Spencer specifically.
Now the boundaries are set. Spencer and his allies have won the branding war. They own the alt-right label; their right-wing opponents are aligning themselves against it, working to establish a parallel brand. It has become increasingly clear that this is not a mere rhetorical ploy but a distinction with a difference.
As far as anyone can tell, the phrase “alternative right” was invented in 2008. That November, Paul Gottfried, a cantankerous intellectual who calls himself a “paleoconservative,” gave a speech at the first annual meeting of the H. L. Mencken Club, a “society for the independent Right.” “We have attracted, beside old-timers like me . . . well-educated young professionals, who consider themselves to be on the right, but not of the current conservative movement,” he said. Gottfried did not utter the phrase “alternative right” in the speech—he used the term “post-paleo” instead—but his remarks were later published on the Web site Taki’s Magazine, under the headline “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right.” The headline was written by Spencer, who was then an acolyte of Gottfried’s and an editor at Taki’s. (Gottfried later told the journalist Jacob Siegel that he and Spencer “co-created” the phrase.) In 2010, Spencer registered alternativeright.com, which now redirects to altright.com, and he has since endeavored to position himself as the face of the movement.
When I profiled Mike Cernovich, in October of last year, I wrote that Cernovich “prefers to call himself an ‘American nationalist,’ but he often uses ‘we’ when discussing the alt-right movement.” This was during the Presidential campaign, when the definition of “alt-right” was still in flux, and when the various pro-Trump factions were united against a common enemy. (It was also prior to Spencer’s “Hail Trump” debacle, in November*.) Two months earlier, Cernovich had written a blog post in which he explained that, although he differed with the alt-right on ethno-nationalism and other issues, he refused to disavow the movement. “I have my disagreements with the alt-right, but let’s get a win for the right in America before hashing it all out,” Cernovich wrote. “Once the right has some actual power, then it will be time to have an ideological civil war.” A few months later, Republicans won the White House and both houses of Congress, and the civil war emerged into the open. “What does Richard do other than sit in a home his mom pays for and send out press releases?” Cernovich said recently, in a text message to me. “He fancies himself an outlaw intellectual when he’s a soft-faced fame whore who’d be performing in off-Broadway shows if he had the musical talent.” (Spencer, for his part, has called Cernovich and his cohort “liars and freaks.”)
By the beginning of 2017, the divisions were becoming clear, at least to those within the pro-Trump movement. In January, when I met Gavin McInnes, the founder of a “pro-Western fraternal organization” called the Proud Boys, I asked whether I should refer to him as alt-right. “Nope,” he said, swigging from a can of Budweiser. “They care about the white race. We care about Western values.” This is a view that has come to be known as “civic nationalism,” as opposed to white nationalism—or “alt-light,” as opposed to alt-right. In April, when I interviewed Lucian Wintrich on The New Yorker Radio Hour, the producers asked me whether he should be identified as a member of alt-right in the introduction. I said no, in part because Wintrich has Jewish ancestry and a Latino boyfriend, and in part because I’d been with him during the weekend of the Inauguration, when he shared Spencer-gets-punched memes with as much glee as any slap-happy liberal. Neither McInnes nor Wintrich would be mistaken for old-school conservatives; and yet they, along with many of their peers, have made a clean break with the alt-right.
Last year, before Richard Spencer’s burst of viral fame, it was still possible to align oneself with the alt-right without ever having encountered Spencer or his ideas. Consider Steve Bannon’s interview with Mother Jones, last summer, in which he proudly identified with the alt-right and then, in the same conversation, denied any particular connection between the alt-right and white nationalism. Bannon is crafty, and he may have been trying to dog whistle while maintaining plausible deniability. Or maybe this was an accurate reflection of how he understood the term. Either way, the sanitized definition of alt-right that he proffered then seems far less plausible now. Most of the activists who agreed to speak at the Rally Against Political Violence now identify themselves with the alt-light, or the New Right, or civic nationalism, or American nationalism, or one of a few other variations. All of these labels are attempts to leave behind the baggage of the Republican Party without taking on the baggage of white separatism. “For a while, alt-right was the perfect catchall for anti-establishment conservatism,” Wintrich told me. “A lot of us are still frustrated that Richard Spencer ruined the term for the rest of us.”
On June 25th, a few dozen people stood in a loose semicircle facing the White House. A man with dyed-green hair, a green shirt, green pants, and a cane stepped onto a portable riser and sang the National Anthem. I stood in the shade of an oak tree and watched a few of the speeches. Kyle Prescott, a member of the Proud Boys who had been scheduled to speak at the Rally for Free Speech before deciding to switch stages, said, “I’m happy to spend my day here, at the abode of our glorious revered President Donald Trump, rather than at certain rallies where speakers are kept under wraps until the absolute last minute.” He spent the rest of his speech condemning “Hollywood liberals, university S.J.W.s, fervent race-baiters,” and “the media’s clear left-wing bias.” For a while, a man who goes by Red Pill Ken (Twitter bio: “BLACK TRUMP SUPPORTER”) stood onstage, uninvited, interrupting the speakers with shouted expressions of encouragement. Johnny Rice, a Messianic Jew wearing a menorah pendant and a Trump T-shirt, stood behind the riser, blowing a shofar.
Standing near me were Jack Murphy, who is at work on a book called “Democrat to Deplorable,” and Jeff Giesea, one of the organizers of a group called MAGA Meetups. They decided to walk to the National Mall to observe the alt-right rally. I tagged along. “I don’t expect any drama,” Murphy said. “I just want to see what the vibe is like.” The last time I’d been with him, after a pre-Inauguration party called the DeploraBall, he and Spencer had nearly come to blows. “If Cernovich hadn’t broken it up, I would have beaten the shit out of him,” Murphy told me. “I kept asking him simple questions, and he wouldn’t answer. He wants to create a white ethno-state. O.K., how does he propose to make that happen, exactly? Forced expulsions? I wanted to make him admit either that he doesn’t have a plan or that his plan is too fucking unpalatable to even speak about in public.”
When we reached the Rally for Free Speech, Chris Cantwell, a thick-necked man with a hoarse voice, was in the middle of a speech. “At what point do we begin physically removing Democrats and Communists to establish and maintain the libertarian social order necessary for our desired meritocracy?” he shouted into a microphone. “We are losing massive ground each moment. Nonwhite immigration and breeding alone are rapidly diminishing what electoral majorities we have remaining. Jewish influence disarms us.”
Murphy raised his eyebrows. “Looks like we’ve found their rally,” he said.
“It seems like the crowds are about the same size,” Giesea said, before drifting away to talk to a friend in the audience. Murphy stood quietly, watching the speakers and shaking his head. “So much of this could be solved if these guys just got girlfriends,” he said.
We returned to the Rally Against Political Violence just as it ended. Murphy, Cernovich, Loomer, and about a dozen others walked to a rooftop bar and sat at a banquette with a view of the Washington Monument. “The alt-right keeps labelling us alt-light, but I don’t think we should give in to that,” Loomer said.
“Yeah, you don’t want to define yourself as the absence of something,” Cernovich said. “Although there is precedent for it—7UP, the un-cola. So it has worked at least once.” He ordered a burger and a bottle of Riesling.
Will Chamberlain, the D.C. organizer of MAGA Meetups, said, “I think New Right is the best of the ones I’ve heard so far.”
Cernovich nodded. “New Right is my favorite,” he said.
“It makes clear that we’re not basing a movement on nastiness and resentment, like the alt-right,” Chamberlain said. “We’re about appealing to what actual Americans want and need.”
“Exactly,” Cernovich said. “That’s why today was a success, optics-wise. A good, clean split—us over here, them over there.”
The sun shifted so that it hit the back of Chamberlain’s neck. “I should move before I burn up,” he said. Then he added, “How could white supremacy be true if I can’t even sit in the sun for five minutes?”
*This post has been corrected to reflect that Spencer’s speech occurred in November, not January.