When white nationalist Richard Spencer coined the term “alt-right” nearly a decade ago, his movement was marginal, impotent, and striving for respectability. The phrase was a useful euphemism for his genocidal ideology, a palatable alternative to “the Ku Klux Klan” or “the American Nazi Party” to go with his suit, tie, and military undercut.
In the years to follow, as trolling culture grew online and began to adopt the symbols and lexicon of white supremacy — first ironically, then less so — “alt-right” proved a conveniently ambiguous label for the sanitized neo-Nazi movement’s new prankster fellow travelers. The online trolls who flocked to the “alt-right” liked to play footsie with racist extremism, then laugh at anyone who took it seriously. Like their cryptic “Kek” flags and Pepe the Frog memes, the “alt-right” label signaled an allegiance to white nationalism without fully committing to it. It was so malleable, in fact, that during the 2016 election, it expanded to include just about anyone on the right who considered themselves “anti-establishment,” including many of Donald Trump’s rank-and-file supporters.
Now, however, the term has become a liability. Its erosion began as far back as November 2016, when Spencer paid homage to the soon-to-be president with a cry of “Hail, Trump!” Then, in August, the “alt-right” brand cratered. During a far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, meant to bring together a coalition that still regarded itself as the so-called alt-right, crowds of white men were captured on camera giving the Roman — or Nazi — salute. Swastikas abounded. Street fights broke out, and the violence turned deadly: A left-wing counterprotester named Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist.