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How White Supremacists Planned Their Rally in D.C.

They were banished from their old online hubs and abandoned by many of their allies. Here’s what that tells us about the white-power movement in 2018.

On Sunday, a group of white supremacists is planning to gather in Washington, D.C. for a “white civil rights” rally—a sequel to the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, when around 600 demonstrators showed up to march carrying torches and chanting things like “Jews will not replace us.” Unite the Right 2 is being organized primarily by Jason Kessler, the same white nationalist who was a key organizer of the first Unite the Right. This year’s venue is Lafayette Square, immediately to the north of the White House.

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For many Americans, the 2017 rally’s size came as a shock, its violence a wake-up call to the reality that the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and other white-power groups had grown confident enough during the presidency of Donald Trump to dramatically proclaim their existence. Before that event, many participants planned their attendance using online hubs like Discord, a chat service best known for its use by gamers. There, in 2017, private Discord servers run by alt-right users were home to major coordinating efforts for Unite the Right, arranging things like event speakers, car pools, and room sharing for those attending the rally. A lot of organizing work also happened through the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.

This year, Kessler and his fellow white nationalist co-organizers switched much of their rally planning throughout the summer to private groups on Facebook Messenger and the encrypted texting app Signal, as was learned after a nonprofit investigative media collective, Unicorn Riot, leaked private Facebook chat logs between Kessler and others. Looking at their activity there—as well as at how various online communities of white supremacists have reacted to the rally plans—it’s clear the movement that emerged into the pubic view in Charlottesville is now in a much more fractious state.

This time around, Kessler and his small group of co-organizers built a website, unitetherightrally.com, where people could sign up to indicate they planned to attend. That they’re making a public appeal is telling, since last year they were able to gather hundreds of marchers using more private online enclaves. But after the 2017 march turned deadly, with one participant striking the counterprotester Heather Heyer with a car and killing her, Discord took action to remove some of the servers that were used to organize the march. Facebook took down a number of private groups that were associated with the rally, as well, and the Daily Stormer lost its domain hosting. People who wanted to participate in Charlottesville in 2017 could organize privately, in trusted online spaces that many had called home for years. Now they’re locked out of some of those spaces—and are finding fewer enthusiastic marchers.

Whatever the organizers are planning for D.C., it looks like it’ll be piddlier than Charlottesville. Kessler has yet to release the speaker list for Sunday’s event, and many of the most prominent figures in the white nationalist movement who supported last year’s march have denounced Unite the Right 2. That includes the white supremacist Richard Spencer, who shared on Twitter this week that he would not attend the event and encouraged others to avoid it.

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Spencer isn’t alone. A lot of white nationalists criticized Kessler for taking the wrong approach, suggesting a rift in what’s supposed to be a neo-fascist movement predicated on a binding understanding that Christian white people are superior to everyone else. The movement that looked so strong and terrifyingly coordinated in Charlottesville in 2017 appears to lack the same cohesion a year later, or at least lack the same confidence that inspired hundreds of spirited, mostly white men to pour into the streets, unmasked and ready to brawl. Whether or not leaders in the movement are simply sitting this one out or if there really is a disintegration in the white-power community is hard to say, but it’s clear that all the press the Unite the Right 2 rally has generated isn’t being matched in interest by the movement itself.

The far-right podcaster Mike “Enoch” Peinovich told Newsweek earlier this year, when it looked like there would still be a simultaneous event in Charlottesville, that he has no plans to attend a sequel. Andrew Aglin, the editor of the Daily Stormer, earlier this month wrote a scathing condemnation of the year’s rally in D.C. “If you show up at this event, and you are identified, your life will be ruined,” he wrote. “You won’t be able to get into a university or get a good job, you probably won’t be able to even get into a trade school or join a union.” Aglin’s perspective actually isn’t uninformed. The Daily Stormer went through the ringer after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville last year when it lost its security and hosting providers and was temporarily forced offline and later into the obscurity of the dark web.

The old-school online Nazi stomping ground Stormfront, the longest-running major hate website on the web, is full of anti-Semitic sympathizers who are calling the D.C. rally a must-miss event. “This is a bad idea. It plays right into the jewish medias hands. It is a great opportunity to make us look bad and lose support among mainstream Americans. Any violence that happens will be blamed on the right. Regardless of who starts it,” one poster said on a thread with a litany of others agreeing that Kessler’s event is bound to be a bust.

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Even those interested in helping organize the event have found reason to be apprehensive. In the private Facebook chats where organizers have been working for months to hash out logistics, many used Facebook profiles with alias names, according to the leaked logs released by Unicorn Riot. Those logs revealed that Kessler discussed bringing a violent skinhead group to the event. Though they also unearthed the kind of logistical discussions you’d see with the organization of any protest (sound systems, road closures), every third or fourth message contained an anti-Semitic slur, complaint about anti-fascist organizers, or racist meme. “Any Jew that would help us is going to have to work extra hard to be seen as ‘one of the good ones’. That’s just a reality of the situation,” Kessler wrote in the group chat as they discussed theories on how Jewish people had tried to foil their movement. After the logs were released at the end of June, many of the rally organizers appeared to abandon their Facebook pages.

Although the 2017 Unite the Right rally was a terrifying show of force and cohesion by white supremacists, the aftermath seems to have led many participants to conclude that the event had left the movement weaker. The death of Heather Heyer sparked a mass expulsion of hate groups from the internet. White supremacists lost their dating profiles; neo-Nazi bands were kicked off Spotify; famous racists lost their Patreon accounts; Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter stomped out neo-Nazi users and groups; and Kessler and others became embroiled in a string of lawsuits that are still ongoing. Many who were confident enough to declare themselves affiliated with violent white supremacists and were filmed at the first Unite the Right rally lost their jobs and were alienated from their families and friends. Fractured and weaker, Kessler and his co-organizers are having trouble getting their fellow racists and anti-Semites on board for the sequel. No surprise there.

None of this is to say that the white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements aren’t something people should take seriously; if these demonstrators were dangerous last year, they should be considered so this year, too. And no one on the far right who denounced Kessler’s event did so because of a change of heart, but rather because they think the event isn’t a good look for their movement. Their disinterest doesn’t mean that hate is any less likely to manifest in the real world at a later date. If this weekend’s big rally turns out to be more like a small gathering of a few men in ridiculous Ku Klux Klan–inspired garb, it might be easy to laugh at. But don’t be fooled into thinking there aren’t more white supremacists where these ones came from.