On Saturday, a few hundred nationalists, white supremacists, Trump supporters, and other reactionaries descended on downtown Portland, Oregon, for a right-wing rally. Leading them was Joey Gibson, a notorious provocateur who is running for a US Senate seat in Washington on a platform of Trump-inflected libertarianism.
Over the past two years, Gibson has organized marches throughout the Pacific Northwest, bolstered primarily by members of the street-fighting Proud Boys, an ultranationalist, traditionalist “fraternal organization” founded by ex-Vice executive Gavin McInnes. This event was billed as a patriotic rally, but under the bright blue summer sky on the bank of the Willamette River, its participants were met by a much larger mobilization of unions, community groups, some militant anti-fascists, and anti-capitalist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization.
As riot cops fired flash-bang grenades into the larger of the crowds, injuring at least two people and arresting four, Gibson led his supporters back and forth along the waterfront, escorted by another contingent of armored police.
I asked him how his Senate campaign was going. “You’re looking at it,” Gibson replied.
His crew was visibly frustrated: The sheer size of the counter-protest had foiled their plans to march through the city. Cheering on the police would have to suffice. “USA! USA!” they chanted. A bagpipe on the anti-fascist side droned, accompanied by a snare drum and the intermittent booms of stun grenades.
For all the digital chaos wrought by the so-called “alt-right,” open-air political violence remains the most immediate way for figures like Gibson to radicalize and recruit young men into his burgeoning movement. And, to broaden their appeal, groups sympathetic or adjacent to the alt-right are ditching racist rhetoric for more mainstream political language. This allows them to appeal to a bigger and (at least superficially) multiracial group of middle-class Americans who wouldn’t dream of joining the Ku Klux Klan, but harbor deep resentment towards foreigners and approve of other parts of Trump’s agenda.
In the recent past, open white nationalists such as Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer built their movements with hopes to not just influence the Republican Party but wield political power in their own right. Heimbach strove to build an explicitly revolutionary organization in his Traditionalist Worker Party; the more genteel Spencer’s Ccontinental-style “identitarianism” provided a kind of intellectual framework, drawing from thinkers such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist to advocate for a white ethno-state.