On Saturday, at a Charlottesville rally populated by alt-right activists and white supremacists, a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The man arrested in connection with the murder, James Alex Fields, Jr., had previously posted white nationalist symbols, alt-right memes, and even a photo of Hitler as a baby to his Facebook page. Now, alt-right message boards and leading figures are attempting to disown not just Fields, but Saturday’s violent gathering as a whole, in part by going into full damage control mode.
For months going on years, online forums like Reddit and 4chan have fostered a growing contingent of disenfranchised, young, (mostly) white men who have railed against calls for diversity and inclusion. In the process, they have demonized minorities and progressive values. In practical terms, this has meant flirting with—if not directly embracing—white supremacy as the solution to their problems. The alt-right can’t disavow the events of the Unite the Right rally, because that rally was a product of an environment they’ve spent years making.
“There’s no question that the conditions by which people feel emboldened, the condition under which people’s attitudes are supported and elevated on these types of forums, certainly create the conditions that makes this type of violence possible,” says Charlton McIlwain, an associate professor at New York University who focuses on race and digital media.
Fields appears specifically connected to Vanguard America, a group that the Anti-Defamation League defines as “a white supremacist group that opposes multiculturalism and believes that America is an exclusively white nation.” You might have seen one of several videos floating around of Vanguard America members, who all donned white polos and khakis in Charlottesville Saturday, chanting “blood and soil” as they marched through the streets. The phrase refers to a defining Nazi ideology that emphasized the idea that German blood belonged on German soil. In Vanguard America’s case, it represents the notion that the blood of white people somehow has a “special bond” to American soil.
Vanguard America issued the following statement late Saturday evening: “The driver of the vehicle that hit counter protestors today was, in no way, a member of Vanguard America. All our members had been safely evacuated by the time of the incident. The shields seen do not denote membership, nor does the white shirt. The shields were freely handed out to anyone in attendance. All our members are safe an [sic] accounted for, with no arrests or charges.”
Regardless of whether Fields was an official member, he was clearly involved enough to know about the meeting place, the chants, and the dress code. The group also made no attempt to denounce Fields, nor did it express remorse for the lives that were lost. Currently, Vanguard America’s pinned tweet reads, “Stand up, White man. This is your fight. Become a man of action, become a part of the Vanguard. #VanguardAmerica.”
But even beyond the actions of Fields, or any specific white supremacist group, the rhetoric of alt-right groups online both promoted the Charlottesville rally and, by extension, the confrontations that arose. On Sunday, the alt-right Reddit group r/The_Donald attempted to distance itself from the previous day’s events. One post in particular declared that those who weren’t present at the rally could in no way be complicit in what happened there.
But the entire week prior to the event, that same subreddit promoted the rally with a thread stuck to the top of the page.
The original post itself was deleted at some point Saturday, but archived versions of it survive on both Internet Archive and Archive.is.
In the post, user John3Sobieski notes that while “many of the people who will be there are National Socialist and Ethnostate sort of groups,” he does not “endorse them.” However, he then goes on to say, “In this case, the pursuit of preserving without shame white culture, our goals happen to align. I’ll be there regardless of the questionable company because saving history is more important than our differences.”
Another (now deleted) post from Reddit user WeLoveTrump2016 asserts that attending the rally and standing up to “radical leftist terrorism” is a moral imperative: “It is one thing to say you believe in Free Speech. It is another to stand up for the first amendment in the face of thousands of violent Marxists. If the leftists can shut down this event, then they will shut down ours too through the same intimidation and literal terrorism. This rally is a matter of Civil Rights and preserving American History and Heritage. … We cannot allow BLM and Antifa terrorists to succeed in demolishing our rights to speak and peacefully assemble.” (‘Antifa‘ is technically a group that opposes fascism, though the alt-right uses the term as a pejorative to describe any organized left-wing group.)
Simply deleting these threads doesn’t remove the r/The_Donald’s association with what happened. It also doesn’t erase the cumulative posts that target minorities and advocate for white supremacy.
“It’s something that we saw over and over again happening throughout Donald Trump’s campaign,” says McIlwain. “Not calling out racism and white supremacy, not actively trying to voice concerns about it—much less ramping it up by contributing in terms of language or making room for overt and explicit displays of racism—all of those figure into the picture that contributes to what we saw Saturday. All of that contributes to an environment that makes those types of actions possible, that makes them kind of likely.”
The argument, too, that r/The_Donald only supported some ideologies and not others, that its version of white nationalism differed from that version, is disingenuous at best, and useless in practice.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the nuance that some of these organizations were trying to think through and communicate would be lost, and that people would devolve to a lowest-common-denominator kind of thinking, which is an America for white Americans versus all others,” says Safiya Umoja Noble, assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and the author of The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, Class, and Culture Online.
Over on 4chan’s politics board, which has often acted as a sort of catch-all for opinions and ideas that are too unsavory even for Reddit, explicit discussions about preserving the white race are a daily occurrence, as are the racial slurs and pejoratives that follow.re
As recently as June 29, one 4chan user recommended that another join Vanguard America—though the user warned the organization isn’t “really into street combat.” Another user offered, “If you want to stomp some Antifa, you are going to have to meet people IRL in an antifa-infested area.” These sorts of comments are rarely (if ever) condemned, and more often than not encouraged.
But in the wake of Charlottesville, the focus shifted to deflection. Both 4Chan and Reddit also embraced the notion that Charlottesville was a “false flag,” a staged effort by shadowy forces to effectively frame the alt-right for violence. And in a thread titled “DMG CONTROL alt right,” users explicitly sought ways “to stand up and show that the MSM [or mainstream media] narrative is false. It’s the only way of getting normies back onto our side.”
One option: Fake empathy. “Screaming ‘false flag’ RN is stupid and no one actually believes it,” wrote another 4chan. “It’s a reach. We’re better off having people commemorate her death, acting apologetic just for the PR.” Meanwhile, the site shows few (if any) sentiments of sincere remorse, with little demonstrated desire to distance itself from white nationalism even after Saturday’s events.
In that same damage-control thread, one user laid the alt-right connection to white nationalism out in relatively explicit terms: “The Alt-Right is an attempt to rebrand WN. Using ironic memes and terms that don’t mean anything to our enemies but normies find funny and actually lead people to develop a race-based political consciousness is what it is all about. If you are arguing that we should always be pragmatic and open minded and we should bully larpers [live action roll-players] into fucking off then nobody in the modern movement really disagrees with you.”
On Sunday, Reddit threads titled things like “Painting Trump supporters and the right as violent white supremacists IS AN ORGANIZED, DELIBERATE SMEAR CAMPAIGN by leftist smear groups such as Media Matters. The fake MSM are all a part of the campaign” and “REMINDER: Antifa are literally showing up at Trump rallies disguised as ‘Trump supporters’ giving Nazi salutes” have been garnering significant support. The latter currently has over 7,000 upvotes.
In a video posted Saturday entitled, “EXCLUSIVE: Virginia Riots Staged To Bring In Martial Law, Ban Conservative Gatherings,” Alex Jones, the man Donald Trump praised as having an “amazing reputation,” explains, “It’s in the Wikileaks that they want to cause a race war, the Democrats, because they’re losing. The Republican leadership is just as bad; they’re a part of it.” According to Jones, globalist elites staged the violence in Charlottesville in order to trigger a national emergency that will eventually allow them to enact martial law and stop any sort of demonstration from ever happening again. All of which is to say, according to Jones, none of this is the alt-right’s fault. In fact, they were set up.
4chan, too, has grasped on to the idea that the deaths at Saturday’s rallies might have been planned by the left or, in some instances, the CIA. One user wrote that it “appears to be the perfect set-up to win sympathy for the violent left, while demonizing the right.”
But try as the alt-right might, it can’t dissociate itself from the death of Heather Heyer, nor any other violence that might follow. The rhetoric it has wielded, and the ideas it has espoused, all contributed to Saturday’s tragedy.
“It’s a false distinction to say what happens on the internet isn’t happening in the real world,” said Noble. “People are acting on their beliefs always, in various different moments of their lives. Of course we should continue to expect to see people like Dylan Roof, and people like Milo Yannapolis, Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon, we should expect to see people who have used these internet and online spaces to think and ideate, we should expect to continue to see people doing and acting in the world upon those ideas.”