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A statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, VA © Katherine Welles

Unite the Right: The New Face of White Supremacy

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Landon Shroder, a former intelligence analyst and now partner and political director of RVA Mag.

On August 12, a small student town of Charlottesville, Virginia, voted as America’s happiest place, became a scene of what the Southern Poverty Law Center previously described as the “largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” An amalgamation of white supremacy groups descended on the city’s Emancipation Park — recently renamed from Robert E. Lee Park — as part of the Unite the Right event, many sporting camouflage and military weapons.

As the far right clashed with counter-protesters, the rally took a violent turn, with a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, losing her life when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. ran his car into a group of people, injuring further 19. The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the death, and Fields has been charged with murder.

Donald Trump came under fire from across the spectrum for suggesting the responsibility for the violence rested with “many sides.” The president’s reluctance to directly denounce white nationalist groups saw the far right rejoicing at what it perceived as a tacit endorsement on social media. Meanwhile, vigils were held across the country to commemorate the tragic events.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Landon Shroder, former intelligence analyst and now partner and political director of RVA Mag, about what is behind, and ahead of, the violence in Charlottesville.

Anna Pivovarchuk: RVA Mag has been covering the issue of the far right in Virginia for some time now. Can you explain what is behind the most recent rally in Charlottesville?

Landon Shroder: This weekend’s rally called Unite the Right was the culmination of many months’ planning that followed two other white supremacy rallies over the course of the summer. Black Lives Matter in Charlottesville has been calling the events of this summer “The Summer of Hate,” which is an accurate representation given the groups and personalities who have been leading these rallies.

So how did all of this start? With the planned removal of a statue glorifying Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson by the city of Charlottesville. This removal was not an impetuous decision, however, and was undertaken by the city in partnership with local residents through a detailed public assessment. Cities all throughout the Southern US are now struggling to assess the place of Confederate symbols in public life — as they should. We are going through the same process in Richmond, Virginia, right now. We have a city littered with Confederate monuments and symbols given our history as the capital of the Confederacy, and our own mayor has just inaugurated a commission on the role they should play in our public lives.

Nonetheless, to protest the removal of these statues in Charlottesville, which was announced in April, alt-right poster child Richard Spencer led a torch-lit vigil in front of the statue of Lee, evoking memories of torch-lit lynch mobs suppressing communities of color during the Jim Crow era. The symbolism behind their actions is not random and has been calculated to not only motivate their followers and gain earned media, but to intimidate.

This was followed by a Ku Klux Klan demonstration at the statue of Stonewall Jackson in May, which was not heavily attended by the Klan, but significant in that the Klan felt that it was a convenient time to come out of the shadows. This finally culminated in the Unite the Right rally this past weekend, which combined all facets of the white nationalist, white supremacist and alt-right movements in one place.

Pivovarchuk: Unite the Right represents a new face of white supremacy in America. How are groups like the Traditionalist Worker Party or the League of the South, and leaders like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, different from the likes of David Duke and the KKK? How are they more or less dangerous?

Shroder: Ideologically they are all very similar, diverging only at the point of tactics and strategy. These are groups who believe in ethno-nationalism and the supremacy of people who have a white European identity. While there are vestiges of the overt racism of the past, especially in terms of hatred for African Americans and Jews (which was on full display at Unite the Right), a lot of the rhetoric has shifted away from that outward portrayal.

This is where guys like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler are so problematic, and why David Duke endorsed their rally and not that of his former Klansmen. The Klan will always be a threat due to its history of violence: It is America’s first real domestic terrorist group. However, its brand is toxic, dated and far too redneck to be the vehicle by which new people (especially young people) are brought into white nationalism and supremacy.

And, in my opinion, this is what makes the next generation of white supremacists like Spencer and Kessler so dangerous. Because they are wrapping their rhetoric in language that is deceptive and does not fully articulate their true motivations, i.e., “Are you a proud western chauvinist?” or “We will not be dispossessed” or “Be proud of your European identity.” This is coded language to grow their individual brand of nationalism and supremacy. When this is messaged, it does not tell the full story and becomes an unsuspecting bait and switch. Yet when placed in the full context of identity politics, it becomes an extremely valuable propaganda tool for groups looking to recruit young white people.

Pivovarchuk: The rally ended with a tragic loss of life and multiple injured in a terrorist attack straight out of ISIS playbook. We heard President Trump condemn “many sides” and the first lady mentioned freedom of speech, while at the same time Department of Homeland Security funds are being diverted away from far-right terrorism. Just how dangerous is the situation in your opinion?

Shroder: Very. America is a violent place — we can be honest about that. We glorify violence and worship weapons of war on a daily basis. On top of this, we are interjecting the most visceral form of emotional response — hate — into the hardest conversation Americans have to have with one another — race — and then removing the controls whereby law enforcement can effectively track and mitigate the threat posed by supremacist groups. What does that sound like a recipe for?

There is also the public optics behind that policy shift. What does it signal to far-right terrorist groups? It signals that they are not a priority and that legitimizes their very existence, and for people sitting on the fence it gives them additional motivation to join since it lowers the risk threshold for their involvement.

Pivovarchuk: You’ve spent part of your career analyzing and tracking terrorist groups in the Middle East. Do you see parallels in the radicalization process and tactics between the far right and jihadism?

Shroder: So many. The pathway to radicalization for white supremacist groups is not dissimilar from those in the Middle East. It starts with people who have been convinced of their own victimization and then offered a chance to do something about it. That was on full display at Unite the Right. Throngs of young white men who have been convinced of their own displacement and convinced that they have been persecuted due to the struggle for greater equality. They have been coopted to believe that equality is synonymous with their own dispossession. But in the age of identity politics, people are looking to affiliate with groups that not only reflect their own political preference but the media they consume to validate those opinions. This is where the similarities are the strongest, and where the echo chamber becomes the most dangerous.

One of the other similarities is the willingness to use violence. There is no equivalence between the white supremacist, nationalist, neo-Nazi and alt-right groups and those of anti-racists, anti-fascists and progressives on the left. This is something people have to know and better understand. Groups fighting racism and struggling for equality are in no way similar to those who would use violence to undermine equality, which is what those who participated in Unite the Right want.

Those groups have clearly expressed an interest in the violent enforcement of their ideas; subverting equality is in and of itself an act of violence. Why else would there be a projection of force that includes assault rifles, military equipment and the organization of a heavily-armed militia? All of this was on full display at Unite the Right.

So, for me, as a former intelligence professional, the ability for far-right groups at Unite the Right to escalate into violence, which ended in a domestic-terrorist incident, is hardly surprising. Tragic in every way, but not surprising because their rhetoric is predisposed to the perspective of hate and detestation of those who they think are victimizing them. In any tactical environment that is escalating that only ends one way — violence.

Pivovarchuk: Some have expressed an opinion that it is a positive thing that the white supremacist violence has finally come center stage, because now there will be a response to it rather than it being left to simmer below the surface. What can be done to counter the far-right narrative and, most importantly, prevent further violence?

Shroder: This has to start at the top with the president. Leaders on both sides have obviously come out against the conditions that led to the events at Unite the Right. Regardless, without an effective condemnation of the white nationalist and supremacist groups from the White House, the conditions that drove the violence this weekend will remain in place. Civility starts at the top, without which we are reduced to individual pockets of tribalism and factionalism all vying against one another.

People are on edge, in the South and nationally, and that can only be mitigated by the president. But even knowing that the White House is still stacked with individuals who believe in this kind of nationalism: Steven Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka. How we bottle back up what has been unleashed remains to be seen, but I do not think it is going to be easy.

Pivovarchuk: What is the mood in Virginia today? Where does civil society go from here?

Shroder: The optics are bad and the mood is sour. I live in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and people took to the streets last night against a proposed rally to support our own Confederate monuments. This is a provocative move by a neo-Confederate groups given the events of Unite the Right, more so because we now know, implicitly, that the “heritage and history” conversation is one that is a front (willingly or unwillingly) for white nationalist and supremacy groups.

People are taking sides. That is where we are at, and that is a bad place to be.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com