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In Charlottesville, White Nationalists Try To Seize An Elusive Spotlight

White nationalist demonstrators walk into a park to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.
White nationalist demonstrators walk into a park to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.

It didn't take long for a photo of a throng of torch-wielding white supremacists to go viral. The picture from Friday night captured the faces of young (mostly) men who had descended onto the University of Virginia's campus to protest the pending removal of a nearby statue of Robert E. Lee and as part of a planned rally in Charlottesville for white supremacists called "Unite The Right." That the young men in the picture looked so smug and unashamed only made their troll-job more effective. Don't they know they should be embarrassed by the things they're saying?

It seemed another example of how emboldened the loose agglomeration of white nationalists, neo-Confederates and fascists that make up the so-called "alt-right" had become over the past two years, since they had hitched their wagons to Donald Trump's star. (One of the key architects of Trump's long-shot campaign for the White House was Steve Bannon, who as the head of Breitbart News turned it into the alt-right's unofficial propaganda organ.) While the views of the torch carriers in Charlottesville weren't exactly mainstream, the protesters clearly no longer felt they had anything to hide. They didn't need the hoods and masks that once shrouded the identities of their ideological forebears.

Richard Spencer, the white nationalist leader and University of Virginia alum who coined the term "alt-right," would likely count that openness as its own incremental success. "If you greeted someone in 1985 and you said, 'all gays should marry,' you actually would get a lot of laughs," Spencer told The Atlantic last year, not long after the election. "By 2015, gay marriage is popular. What is possible has shifted. That's what the alt-right is doing. It's shifting the reality of what's possible, and imagining a reality in which they are."

Spencer and other figures on the alt-right often explicitly invoke as their objective a desire to shift the "Overton window," a wonky concept that until recently was only name-checked by political theorists and media studies types. Named for Joseph P. Overton, the political scientist who first articulated it, it refers to the universe of ideas that are palatable and therefore viable as policy; ideas that lay outside of that "window" are unthinkable. When the Overton window has shifted or expanded or contracted, it has often been the result of sustained political agitation. The most obvious example is the civil rights movement, which was, at its root, a project to fundamentally recast the social norms of the United States. It helped make mainstream once-radioactive ideas like the integration of American public spaces and created powerful new taboos around public expressions of racism.

Of course, these are the very things the alt-right wants to roll back. And just as it was in other ideological movements, the rancor among alt-right types — who can disagree over tactics, priorities and objectives — might serve the useful function of carving out more political room for their various revanchist factions to maneuver. The "radicals" often pull the movement in their ideological direction, but they also draw away fire and opprobrium from folks who less combative approaches to the same ends. That's partly how Spencer, who makes a show of being well-mannered, name-dropping novelists and wearing ties, ended up a regular presence in the mainstream news media. His life's goal may be to cleave out of the United States a separate nation meant solely for white people, but at least he doesn't shout.

While a news outlet might pass on giving space and airtime to legitimizing a figure like Spencer, it's much harder to ignore the president of the United States, by definition the most mainstream political figure in the country. Trump was restrained after the skirmishes between "Unite the Right" rallygoers and counterprotesters turned deadly. He characterized what was happening in Charlottesville as an "egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence, on many sides." Whatever his motive, Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis — the kind of villains that it takes virtually no political instincts or particular ideology for a mainstream figure to condemn — escaped even a token condemnation from the president. The white supremacist treated instead as just one of any number of unruly partisan hordes and not especially worthy of rebuke. It was a remarkable moment. It seemed almost as if something in the country had shifted.

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