If a reader were to judge from popular media accounts, the biggest threat to university life and public discourse would be obvious: the left-wing students on campus fighting various forms of bigotry and other injustices. From liberal broadsheets to Breitbart.com, commentators have taken up a strawman debate — largely shaped by the far right — about campus free speech. Tactics like “no-platforming” and physically confronting neo-Nazis have come under the liberal microscope; the ethics questioned, the proponents decried as the real fascistic force on campus.
As Adam Johnson, a contributing analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, told me, a November study he conducted found that the “New York Times has dedicated 21 columns and articles to the subject of conservatives’ free speech on campus, while only three covered the silencing of college liberals or leftists.”
But recently released reports from a pair of prominent nonprofit organizations tell a different story, focusing on the danger we should be addressing: the increased targeting of student spaces by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and the violence these ideologies entail.
More than 100 people were killed or injured last year by perpetrators believed to be influenced by the racism and misogyny that defines the so-called alt-right.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that incidents of white supremacist propaganda on U.S. campuses more than tripled in 2017. Groups doubling down on campus propagandizing include explicit neo-Nazis like the Florida-based Atomwaffen Division, as well as associations like Identity Evropa, known for couching its unabashed racist message in thinly veiled panegyrics to protecting Western culture and posters bearing Michelangelo’s David.
“The ‘alt-right’ is a movement of mostly young white males,” Carla Hill, senior researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told me. “They realize that for any movement to truly grow, they must reach young minds, and this segment of the white supremacist movement has been focused on doing that.”
The potential gravity of this surge was then underlined by a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, titled simply, “The Alt-Right Is Killing People.” More than 100 people were killed or injured last year by perpetrators believed to be influenced by the racism and misogyny that defines the so-called alt-right, the center found.
The reports draw no direct link between the rise in white supremacist propaganda and the spike in white supremacist murders. But together, they make clear that the threat of “alt-right” influence on young people, above all young white men, is anything but academic: Racist ideology is never free of violence, and neither is it in the case of the cosplaying, Nazi-adjacent trolls of the “alt-right.”
The Anti-Defamation League reported separately in November that white supremacists and other far-right extremists were responsible for 59 percent of all extremist-related fatalities in the U.S. in 2017, up from 20 percent in 2016. While it’s too soon for much dispositive social science on the link, it’s difficult to consider all this data outside of the Trump era in American politics.
Over a year ago, there was no shortage of coverage predicting this sort of uptick in racist violence. The possibility of it occupied the liberal commentariat as Donald Trump’s presidency loomed as an unlikely aberration. Opinion pages in late 2016 ran dozens of pieces wondering whether a Trump regime would be a truly fascist one, warning of emboldened white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
The predictions have, to an extent, come to fruition: As the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center reports shows, the American far right is sucking up more and more oxygen and exacting an increasingly deadly toll on the country. Trump, for his part, has veered dangerously close to condoning the far right’s violence; at the very least, he has sought to diffuse blame for it.
Even as bigotry and racist violence have dug into their footholds over the course of the last year, many of the same liberal publications once seemingly obsessed with the threat of fascism have devoted more energy to decrying the students and staff organizing to expunge hate from their midst.