Jason Kessler and the 'alt-right' implosion after Charlottesville

Steve Helber/AP
Jason Kessler arrived at federal court July 24 for a hearing on his rally permit. Mr. Kessler, an organizer of last summer's deadly white nationalist rally in Virginia, is staging an event this weekend in Washington marking its anniversary.
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No guns. No criticizing African-Americans or Jews. No swastikas. And no brawls. According to organizer Jason Kessler, those are some of the ground rules for this weekend’s Unite the Right protest in Washington – his big opportunity to recover from last year’s disastrous Charlottesville, Va., rally that shook the nation and shattered the self-described alt-right movement. Mr. Kessler says he has distanced himself from the alt-right and has been preaching nonviolence. “It’s the only way to counteract Antifa,” he says. “If we fight back, we become the bad guys.” Whether that represents a tactical shift or a change of heart remains to be seen this weekend. “I think it’s going to be a very big deal – whether people show up or not,” says former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, because Kessler’s actions will show his true colors. He cautions that if Kessler is merely cloaking his message in more palatable wording – as Mr. Picciolini did himself years ago – that could present a threat that is subtler than unabashed white supremacism but equally sinister. Either way, hateful and racist ideologies are persisting, despite the implosion of the alt-right’s leadership since Charlottesville.

Why We Wrote This

In a Monitor interview, Jason Kessler rejected the hate and violence that erupted at last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. A reprise rally this weekend will test the sincerity of that stance. Fourth in a series of profiles of individuals whose lives were changed by Charlottesville.

This weekend is in many ways a test for Jason Kessler.

Mr. Kessler, the organizer of last year’s Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, is staging an anniversary rally in Washington. After a year of being pilloried not only by the left but also his erstwhile allies, this is Kessler’s big opportunity to recover from a disastrous rally that shook the nation and shattered the self-described alt-right movement.

Charlottesville was supposed to be the movement’s coming out party, an emergence from the shadows of internet chat rooms into the national spotlight. Instead, amid the backlash over the anti-Semitic, racist chants and Klan-like imagery of the protesters, some of whom donned brass knuckles and carried assault-style weapons and truncheons, the alt-right has imploded.

Why We Wrote This

In a Monitor interview, Jason Kessler rejected the hate and violence that erupted at last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. A reprise rally this weekend will test the sincerity of that stance. Fourth in a series of profiles of individuals whose lives were changed by Charlottesville.

In a wide-ranging phone interview, Kessler says he has sought to distance himself from the movement, which he describes as having devolved into an “unhealthy obsession” with Jews. He says he is seeking to stand up for the civil rights of white Americans, and paints a very different picture for this year’s event, which will take place Aug. 12 across from the White House.

No guns. No pepper spray. No criticizing “blacks or Muslims or Jews.” No flags except the Stars and Stripes and the Confederate battle flag, which supporters say is about heritage, not hate. (Anyone with a swastika flag will be told to join the counterprotesters, he insists.) And no brawls with aggressive left-wing groups like Antifa, who, like elements of the alt-right, have been up for a fight.  

“I’ve been telling people we must embrace nonviolent resistance like Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi because it’s the only way to counteract Antifa,” says Kessler. “If we fight back, we become the bad guys.”

Such comments strike a dissonant tone with the events of his rally last year, in which counterprotester Heather Heyer and two state police troopers were killed and dozens were injured. If Kessler and company have forsworn hate and made a genuine commitment to nonviolent protest, they have the opportunity to convince America of that by their actions this weekend.

“I think [the anniversary rally] is going to be a very big deal – whether people show up or not,” says former white supremacist Christian Picciolini, who adds that Kessler and others are likely going to try to use this as a platform to distance themselves from the offensive imagery and slogans of Charlottesville. But unless that comes with a true change of heart, he cautions, it could present a threat that is subtler than unabashed white supremacism but equally sinister.

“People like Jason Kessler are really the most dangerous white supremacists today because they are so good at putting on the suit, using language that is just a little bit more palatable – like what I used to say 30 years ago,” says Mr. Picciolini, who has had numerous interactions with Kessler and says he stands ready to help him, just as he’s helped more than 200 people leave hateful ideologies. “I think their actions are going to speak louder than their words.”

Many of Kessler’s allies from last year are unlikely to show up, beset by internal divisions, lawsuits, and the wrath of Silicon Valley tech firms, which have kicked them off PayPal and other platforms essential to their organizing efforts.

More than a few blame Kessler – and the Charlottesville protests.

“The people at Unite The Right who were doxxed, injured, arrested, harassed, fired from their jobs, shunned by their families, and in one case driven to suicide had a lot of illusions stripped away from them. A lot of them are understandably bitter,” says Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of the alt-right website Counter-Currents, who says the movement has dramatically contracted due to poor leadership and strategically unsound activism like the Charlottesville rally. “A huge number of people who attended and who watched the disaster from a distance simply disappeared from the movement.... But most of them will be back when the movement offers them a new way forward.”

Indeed, despite the disarray that Charlottesville caused, white supremacy and white nationalism have by no means been defeated.

“While people are celebrating the implosion of the alt-right – and there’s many reasons to do that – when you shake the hornet’s nest and kick it apart, it doesn’t mean your hornet problem is over,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI recorded an increase in the number of hate crimes in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, with more than 7,000 incidents recorded – including disproportionate targeting of African-Americans, Jews, and the LGBT community. Anti-white hate crime is also on the rise, with more incidents against white people in 2016 than Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, or LGBT individuals.

The following year, the number of neo-Nazi groups in the United States grew by 22 percent, amid an overall rise in hate groups, to nearly 1,000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Heidi Beirich, who tracks extremist groups for SPLC’s Intelligence Project, says she wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another increase this year. 

She calls President Trump a champion for the alt-right’s ideas, implementing policies – such as a border wall – that they have been advocating for years. What’s more, she adds, some of them have started to run themselves. Eight candidates for national office with white supremacist ties are on the GOP ticket in five states. This summer, groups unaffiliated with – and relatively untouched by – Charlottesville have been staging protests on the West Coast.

“That doesn’t indicate to me that this is a losing movement, no matter what has happened to Kessler and company,” says Ms. Beirich.

The genesis of the anniversary rally

The 2017 Unite the Right rally brought together disparate factions, including neo-Nazis, inspired by the ideas of Adolf Hitler and focused on hatred of Jews; white supremacists, who advocate for white domination of other races; and white nationalists, who seek to preserve a white national majority, sometimes through separatism. The alt-right – a term coined by Richard Spencer in 2008 when he vowed to take down the traditional Republican Party – refers to a mix of these elements, which share a core belief of white identity.

Numbering more than 500, Charlottesville was one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists in the modern era. In 1977, Skokie, Ill., tried but failed to bar a neo-Nazi rally through a neighborhood that was home to many Holocaust survivors on the grounds that it could cause emotional harm and foment violence. The Supreme Court disagreed. (In the end, a brief and small march took place in Chicago.) In both cases, the American Civil Liberties Union supported the rallies on free-speech grounds. After Charlottesville, where some participants had firearms slung over their shoulders, the ACLU changed its policy to no longer defend armed protesters. Some counterprotesters were also armed.

But it was neo-Nazi James Alex Fields, Jr., who police say rammed his Dodge Charger into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Kessler’s star fell quickly. 

He was chased away from a podium the next day when he tried to take a stand against political violence. Afterward, he says, he holed up in his Charlottesville home as cars rolled slowly by, his number was leaked, and he received what he describes as a steady stream of “awful, vile” phone calls. One night, he unleashed on Twitter.

“Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist,” he tweeted, in an outburst he later blamed on drinking too much alcohol too close to taking his sleeping medication. “Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.”

Mr. Spencer denounced the tweet as “morally reprehensible” and disassociated himself from Kessler, as did prominent figures, who held him responsible for the violence and the smearing that followed.

“Basically, I just had a breakdown,” says Kessler of the days after the rally. He believes he was set up as the fall guy for the violence, which he blames largely on law enforcement failing to execute on the security plan Kessler had developed with them. He cites the December report by former US district attorney Thomas Heaphy, which found only one instance on Aug. 12 of a police officer intervening to stop violence between the two sides. “People were just abusing me so badly, and on the other hand they weren’t saying anything about the counterprotesters.”

The idea of an anniversary rally struck Kessler as a way to bring to light his version of events. He calls the dominant media narrative a “cover-up” and says that to let it “go on unchallenged would have killed my spirit.”

Meanwhile, others are challenging him. A lawsuit spearheaded by New York attorney Roberta Kaplan describes the violent rhetoric of Unite the Right protesters leading up to Aug. 12, including in one online forum co-moderated by Kessler, in which participants said things like, “I’m ready to crack skulls.”

“The defendants in this case are being motivated by ideology that denies the dignity of other human beings and taking affirmative steps to plan violence to physically attack people,” says Ms. Kaplan.

The complaint describes those involved – Nazis, Klansmen, white supremacists, and white nationalists – as bringing to Charlottesville “the imagery of the Holocaust, of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of fascism.”

'It's easy to get swallowed up in the hate'

Kessler voted for former President Barack Obama but says the Democratic Party left him when it focused on identity politics.

“I realized – they hate white men, and I’m a white man,” he says. So he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and allied himself with the alt-right movement because they were pro-free speech and anti-political correctness.

“They weren’t afraid to stand up for men or white people or Christians,” says Kessler. But this year, he adds, “It’s been moving more into an arena of an unhealthy obsession with Jews. Everything is about Jews, Jews, Jews.”

And he seems to imply he also got swept up in hatred.

“There’s so much hate in these social issues – it’s easy to get swallowed up in the hate, and easy to react to your critics with hate. It creates a dark cloud over your heart and your soul,” says Kessler, who says he’s turned to his Christian faith and its teachings of love.

As for others, he says many get involved in the movement via the internet, “and they get addicted to shock,” he says. “They find that they can shock by using Hitler imagery.”

Indeed, the internet has proved a huge boon to hate groups, says Beirich. But it is also spilling over into mainstream politics, says Professor Levin, who credits, at least in part, Spencer’s 2008 vow to destroy the traditional Republican Party, which did not allow white nationalists through the door.

“That has happened,” says Levin, citing as an example a 2016 Klan rally in Orange County with signs like “stop illegal immigration” or “stop sharia (Islamic law)” – the same sort of signs one would see at mainstream events. “If 9 or 10 percent of Americans support Nazi or alt-right views, if you go into other wedge issues … and talk about immigration or Muslims, you get a much bigger pool of people you can recruit from.”

Even as the leadership of the alt-right is in crisis, it’s the listeners who are more important than the leaders, argues Jared Taylor, whom the SPLC has called “the cultivated, cosmopolitan face of white supremacy.”

“What ultimately matters is the extent to which these now dissident ideas are gaining better credibility and better acceptance than who happens to be the bearer of this message,” says Mr. Taylor, who runs the online magazine American Renaissance.

The source of Kessler’s grievances

Kessler says he is driven by a fear that white people’s rights are being eroded as they near the point where white people will become a minority in America (which the US Census projects will occur by 2045).

“It’s one thing to have immigration, but to the point where they overwhelm the host population is not right,” he says, referring to white Americans, not the original Native American population. Meanwhile, he says, there are “powerful” groups advocating for minorities, from AIPAC for the Jewish lobby to CAIR for Muslims to La Raza (now UnidosUS) for Hispanics and the NAACP for African-Americans.

“I’m not a neo-Nazi, I’m not even a white nationalist; I’m supporting equal rights and representation for white people,” says Kessler. “Because I think the primary thing is that white people aren’t able to organize as a political constituency without stigma.”

Others would take issue with that self-classification. But it may be true that Kessler started with real grievances, says Carol Swain, author of a prescient 2002 book, “The New White Nationalism.”

“He had a UVA degree but he was working menial low-wage jobs. I’m sure that created a lot of resentment,” says Dr. Swain, an African-American who was born into an impoverished family in rural Virginia and worked her way up to becoming a professor at Princeton and Vanderbilt before retiring last year. “And I think the society we live in today does not necessarily allow white people to address grievances that may be legitimate.”

In her book, which warned of an impending racial clash if the new white nationalism were not properly addressed, Swain argues that the movement’s ideology is just as dangerous as white supremacy and needs to be aired in public forums where its arguments and data can be countered.

But the opposite is happening. Spencer quit his college speaking tour amid lawsuits, frequent protests, and dwindling audiences, and his National Policy Institute has been sued. The League of the South is facing lawsuits, though it held its annual convention in June. The Traditionalist Workers Party fell apart after its leader, Matt Heimbach, was downed by what Beirich calls “a low-end sex scandal.” Figures such as Johnson, who have long advocated private or unannounced gatherings, have gained credibility in the wake of Charlottesville.

“Antifa violence is merely pushing the movement underground where it can grow more rapidly without being thwarted,” he writes in response to emailed questions while traveling abroad. It’s also more cost-effective than staging rallies and dealing with the lawsuits that ensue, he adds, estimating the cost of Charlottesville to the movement at about $1 million. “Online propaganda changes far more minds for far less money.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed reporting.

Part 1: A new life for mother whose daughter was killed in Charlottesville

Part 2: Charlottesville teen goes from targeting statue to taking on system

Part 3: Charlottesville pastors see protest as an act of faith

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