Two years ago, with Donald Trump barreling toward the presidency, the young white supremacists bolstering his campaign looked to two of their own for leadership, guidance, and the ideological heft to bring their dreams to fruition.
In the relatively short time since, however, that hopeful vision has collapsed. Dreams of an ascendant, generational shift in white supremacy have been replaced by infighting, disinterest, and the specter of jail time.
For Richard Spencer — the subject of any number of flattering profiles during the 2016 campaign — the past year has buried his rising star under a heap of disappointment and embarrassment, dramatically shrinking his influence.
For Matthew Heimbach — the man who acted as the brawn to Spencer’s brain; the “most important white supremacist of 2016,” as ThinkProgress said — his future appears even darker. Where Heimbach dreamed of a trans-Atlantic network of white supremacists, lifting his Traditionalist Worker Party into a series of nationwide chapters, he’s instead staring down significant jail time for alleged assault, stemming from his apparent attractions to his mother-in-law.
As Trump’s second year in office continues — notably, without the significant policy proposals the white supremacists thought he’d advance on their behalf — the young white supremacists, the so-called “alt-right” that burst forth so prominently in 2016, is suddenly rudderless.
While the recent setbacks have been as significant as they’ve been spectacular, experts caution that it doesn’t mean young white supremacists are no longer any kind of threat. Still, the rapid drop-off of major figures leads to a new raft of questions.
“These are… major young intellectual leaders who have summarily stepped away from leadership, so we suddenly have a serious vacuum of intellectual capability in the alt-right, and no one’s stepped forward to say, ‘I will lead you now,’” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Ryan Lenz told ThinkProgress.
Slowly, and then all at once
The dissolution of the leadership happened slowly at first, and then all at once. That is to say, the signs of the disintegration of the leadership of these young white supremacists had been there for months — but the collapse over the past two weeks has been as swift as it’s been surprising.
For the Anti-Defamation League’s Marilyn Mayo, the underlying threads threatening the movement’s leadership can be traced back to last summer’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the violent rally, a young white supremacist — a man who had posted pro-Trump material, no less — murdered Heather Heyer, and significantly injured nearly 20 others.
“Charlottesville was going to be this big event, and we knew it would be,” Mayo told ThinkProgress. “But… it was kind of a false sense of unity. Because even though it brought together all different elements of the white supremacist world — the Klan, skinheads, neo-Nazis, the alt-right — it was right after Charlottesville that you had people being doxxed, websites being kicked off their servers, making people question whether they should be part of the alt-right.”
Tiki-torch parades for young white supremacists suddenly became opportunities for alarmed observers to alert employers, schools, and families. Public displays of white supremacy — and affiliations with white supremacists like Spencer and Heimbach — prompted people to pressure the fundraising sites, credit card companies, and domain hosting companies helping these white supremacists send their messages.
The replacement sites, the so-called world of “alt-tech,” quickly deflated, broken without any attendant expertise to keep the sites running. Indeed, as of this month, only one site — MakerSupport — allows Spencer to raise any funds. As Spencer said, “This is all we’ve got.”
But it wasn’t simply a matter of “de-platforming,” or private companies opting not to do business with the white supremacists previously flourishing. Increased media coverage brought public pressure to bear on the people supporting leaders like Spencer and Heimbach.
See, for instance, the case of Kyle Bristow, Spencer’s lawyer. The supposed firebrand, and self-proclaimed “sword and shield” of young white supremacists, crumpled as quickly as critical media coverage turned his way. Just a few weeks after media stories began focusing on his work, Bristow pulled the plug on his Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas.
What comes next?
The steep drop-off in relevance among America’s young white supremacists over the past few months is, in a certain sense, unsurprising. After all, these groups and their leaders are only following the precedent set by other white supremacist groups before them, all of which fizzled out just as it appeared momentum was on their side.
“I think what happened is very typical of white supremacist movements that gain momentum,” Mayo said, pointing to the fractures within the movement that doomed any kind of cohesive response. “They eventually get to the point where you have people vying for leadership and what direction they should go in — and then you have the infighting.”
And Spencer, to be sure, isn’t done. He recognized that no one was turning out for his tours, yes — but he hasn’t given up dreams of an ethno-state wholesale. He has, rather, decided to “recalibrate,” and “find a model that works.”
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Spencer,” Lenz said. “Spencer left in an embarrassing moment… but he’s not disgraced, he’s not shamed. He just sort of recognizes that he might not be as effective as he thought.”
Heimbach finds himself in a different situation entirely. Arrested on multiple counts of battery — namely for battering his father-in-law, who’d found out about Heimbach’s affair with Heimbach’s mother-in-law — the erstwhile leader of the Traditionalist Worker Party is facing potential jail time for his actions.
“We’ve seen the last of Heimbach,” Lenz predicted.
And like that — in March alone — the gallery of leaders these young white supremacists looked to in 2016 are no more. These young white supremacists, dragging since the events in Charlottesville, have watched their leaders collapse upon themselves. “There’s definitely an implosion of sorts going on,” Mayo said.
Not that their followers will necessarily just slink back into the shadows. Mayo says she’s already seen discussion about a potential rebrand for the Traditionalist Worker Party’s ranks moving forward — into a new party, into a new attempt to inject white supremacy outright into the U.S., with a new leader yet to be ordained.
Lenz cautions that the rapid disintegration of the movement’s leadership isn’t entirely a cause worth celebrating. Rather, it presents a series of questions for the movement, and for its observers, to come, especially as groups like Atomwaffen — groups more viscerally violent than even Spencer or Heimbach — assert themselves.
“I will say this, on an ominous note: What we have is a movement devoid of leaders, a movement suddenly devoid of intellectual leaders that have kept the alt-right, as it ascended into the mainstream, focused,” Lenz said. “What does it mean when the alt-right doesn’t have an organizing focus, and all we have left are things like Atomwaffen?”