I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now.
As we await the outcome of the Sines v. Kessler trial, it has been on my mind all week. Back in 2017, the Alt-Right fell under the spell of the Alt-Lite and sought to emulate them in key ways that led to the disastrous outcome of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. This is especially ironic since the Alt-Right had traditionally defined itself against mainstream conservatism, but in that moment the Alt-Right was championing liberalism and had positioned itself as the vanguard of civil liberties. Far from championing “fascism” in 2017, the Alt-Right died on the hill of defending liberal norms.
Consider the following:
- The Richard Spencer tour which included stops in college towns in Auburn, AL (Auburn University), Washington, DC (American University), Charlottesville (University of Virginia), Gainesville, FL (University of Florida) and East Lansing, MI (Michigan State University) was inspired by and modeled on the MILO tour. The idea was for a controversial speaker to hold an event on campus, “trigger the libs,” defend free speech and gain publicity in the process.
- The reasoning behind the MILO and Spencer college tours was that college campuses had become bastions of wokeness and illiberalism and that opponents of these things should challenge and break up the safe spaces by exercising their constitutional rights.
- In Auburn, Charlottesville, Gainesville and I believe East Lansing as well, this involved asserting a First Amendment right to assemble and speak and engaging in legal battles in court. The Spencer college tour continued after Charlottesville with stops in Gainesville and East Lansing before grinding to a halt in 2018 as the Alt-Right unraveled on social media.
- Jason Kessler was involved with the Proud Boys, styles himself as a defender of civil liberties and a civil rights activist and conceived of the Unite the Right rally as a way to invite all these different groups under the defending free speech banner in Charlottesville. Initially, the rally was supposed to include all the Alt-Lite groups who backed out over fear of being accused of racism.
- Jason Kessler saw similarities between Berkeley and Charlottesville which were extreme progressive college towns with a reputation for intolerance.
- Long after Charlottesville, Jason Kessler was still championing the free speech cause and positioning himself as a defender of civil liberties and a civil rights activist when he held the Unite the Right II rally in DC. It is important to keep in mind that this continued after Charlottesville.
I vividly recall two key events in particular in the lead up to the Unite the Right rally:
- In the wake of the unannounced rally in Charlottesville in May 2017, Jason Kessler sold us on participating in the Unite the Right rally there by pointing out that he was being bullied by a local group called SURJ which were violating his civil liberties. Kessler made the same civil liberties argument to try to get everyone to participate in his Unite the Right II rally.
- The Unite the Right rally was a “go” after the ACLU of Virginia worked with Jason Kessler to get an injunction in federal court that allowed the rally to go forward
In the lead up to the event, there was a profound difference in how the two sides who clashed that day responded. The Alt-Right side was eager to make their case in federal court and to cooperate with the police and trust the police with their security. The idea was to hold a large free speech rally around the issue of defending Southern heritage. The Nationalist Front groups even parked in the parking garage adjacent to the Charlottesville Police Department. In contrast, Antifa came to event to engage in violence to disrupt the Unite the Right rally and did not cooperate with the police.
I will never forget how all these illusions that played out that day:
- The moment we realized that we had walked into a trap was when we came out of the parking garage and marched up the street toward Lee Park and the police had barricaded themselves away from the crowd of Antifa who had encircled Lee Park. The police made no effort to separate the two sides, to intervene and stop fights or to provide safe ingress and egress into and out of Lee Park.
- The Virginia State Police deliberately pushed the Alt-Right crowd in Lee Park into the crowd of Antifa in the street
- DeAndre Harris and his friends and other Antifa assaulted people who were dispersing and returning to their vehicles in front of the Charlottesville Police Department while police officers stood around and watched it happen and did not intervene
- It later came out that Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas boasted “let them fight” because it would make it easier to declare and unlawful assembly and shutdown the event
- Antifa paraded through the streets of Charlottesville for hours during Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s “State of Emergency.” Heather Heyer didn’t show up until over an hour into the “State of Emergency.”
- At one point, naive Alt-Right protesters chanted “Blue Lives Matter” at the Virginia State Police before they cleared them from the park
I’m bringing this up now because Charlottesville is relevant to the ongoing debate over classical liberalism on the Right. In Charlottesville, we saw how the whole system of free speech and free assembly and federal courts and constitutional rights and civil liberties and civil rights and the police as a neutral authority with the responsibility to equally enforce the law could crumble in practice. It is highly relevant to this debate that the most extreme groups on the Right were relying on and defending liberal norms and were championing traditionally liberal causes like free speech.
As things stand today, only one side is defending these liberal norms. The ACLU itself no longer believes in civil liberties which it pointedly abandoned after Charlottesville which was the turning point. The Left no longer believes in non-violence, free speech, free assembly, equality under the law, pluralism, equal justice, tolerance, due process and so on. They do not believe in “agreeing to disagree” or a neutral public sphere. They do not believe that the other side has constitutional rights which they have a duty to respect. They are ardent believers in censorship and the heckler’s veto. It is one thing that progressive activists believe this. It is another thing when their values are reflected in the system itself.
It appears that the Right will soon find itself back in power and possibly even in an overwhelming position of strength. Donald Trump is the favorite to be the next president. Should the Right continue to champion conserving liberalism and liberal norms which the other side has abandoned? Should we continue to believe in liberalism and liberal norms after Charlottesville?