Note: This was originally published on Medium.
There’s an argument that’s existed for a long time against protesting unimportant people or groups like David Duke and the Westboro Baptist Church. This idea holds that protesting these people or groups gives them a megaphone to reach out to people that otherwise wouldn’t have heard their ideas, and that some people will sympathize with the person’s plight and think that their ideas are good.
The most recent iterations of this debate center around three stars of the ethno-nationalist/alt-right/hair Nazi movement: Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos, white nationalist “intellectual” Richard Spencer, and Kenny vs. Spenny guest star Gavin McInnes. In recent weeks, all three have seen protests at various appearances, most notably when a Yiannopoulos appearance at UC Berkeley was shut down by protesters, potentially preventing him from narcing on undocumented students or outing and ridiculing trans students.
The Intercept’s Lee Fang and others argued that the protesters were being “played by the far right” in that the only result of protests against such a useless dipshit can be to give Milo a bigger platform. The hesitancy to get behind protests for that reason is somewhat understandable, but it lacks nuance around Americans’ opinions about overt white nationalism and fascism, as well as the potential for their platforms to grow if people just ignore them.
All three of these people are heavily involved in a huge undertaking to rebrand white nationalist, reactionary, fascist politics as a fresh idea. This plan all rides on the ability of the alt-right’s leaders to shed their connection to everything that’s previously make white nationalism broadly unpopular in the United States: Nazis, concentration camps, Klan robes, burning crosses, etc.
Now, the flip side of this is that it’s caused a lot of people to think that as long as they’re not putting on hoods or condoning goose-steppers, they’re not racist and aren’t implicit in a racist system. But because of this get-out-of-jail free card, even the right despises the label of fascism. Think about every time you’ve heard the charge “Feminazi” leveled at a woman, that Black people are the “real racists,” or how Frog Emoji Deplorables whimper “Maybe you’re the real Nazis” whenever they get pantsed in the diaper aisle. Even as American conservatives embrace some of the tenets of the European far right, most (Neil Gorsuch aside) are patently uncomfortable with being labeled as such.
Spencer and Milo are admittedly more media-savvy than most white nationalists, and accordingly, they want to avoid a serious association with the most obvious thing people associate with white nationalism. “Are you a neo-Nazi?” a woman asks Spencer while he’s giving the interview where he gets merked. “No, I’m not a neo-Nazi,” he responds. “Neo-Nazis don’t love me, they kind of hate me actually.”
Donald Trump, during the campaign, shied away from associations with this section of the far right, echoing what George Wallace and Strom Thurmond had done in “disavowing” Klan violence even as they fought for Jim Crow. Trump, for example, promised to “take care of our African-American people.” He disavowed David Duke (after being asked repeatedly), the campaign denounced its support from the KKK shortly before the election, and the day before election day, Eric Trump said Duke “deserves a bullet.” All of it was bullshit, of course, but it was bullshit that even Trump — who ran for president because he was tired of the War on Christmas — had to peddle.
The circumstances between Spencer, Milo, and Trump couldn’t be more different, of course. Trump’s four-decade reputation as a braggadocios, full of shit businessman with several wives and a television show helped obscure, at least for the people who voted for him, the real evil in his platform. Part of that also stems from the fact that Trump doesn’t pretend to be some Charles Murray-like psuedo-intellectual about his racism. He’s just a really dumb racist guy.
While Trump might outwardly reject their beliefs, the trio’s talent for getting press is apparent, and the potential is there — especially as Trump himself weighed in on the Berkeley protests by threatening to pull funding from the school — for these ethno-nationalists to become mainstream mouthpieces for Trumpism, the new “conservative public intellectuals.”
This is the best argument for protesting these relatively inconsequential figures: Every piece of coverage of protests has to mention why Yiannopoulos or Spencer is controversial in the first place, which — given the reasons why they are — only serves to undermine their pivot from the racists and fascists of yore. Only three generations removed from World War II and two generations removed from Jim Crow, the label of “white nationalism” is a good enough reason for a lot of people to be disgusted by these opinions or never take them seriously. It sabotages the whole project of making overt fascism and white nationalism, the logical successor to Trumpism, an accessible and mainstream and politically viable idea.
If you make Milo and Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes into David Duke and the Westboro Baptist Church, if you reduce them to simply new faces and haircuts on the same old fascist, ghoulish trolls that have always been there, it forces them into the same frame as Duke: cartoon villains who aren’t much more than a complete joke, even among those on the right.
This much is apparent: the far right sees Trump as a start, not an end, in their effort to make the United States into a white nationalist, fascist state. They also see him as an opportunity to drag the conversation further to the right. “As with so much with Trump,” Spencer recently wrote in a spectacularly weird column praising Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch, “symbolism is more important . . . more powerful . . . more triggering . . . perhaps more lasting . . . than his actual policies.”
These people are clowns, and there’s an argument to be made that the focus should be on Trump administration figures. Maybe so. But we can’t afford for the conversation to be as far right as it is now, much less for it to be even farther right in the future. And considering how serious of a predicament we’re already in, organized dissent against the far right — in all its forms — is not only a moral action to defend trans people and undocumented people and other targeted groups, but a useful one as well.