A photo of Whitefish in Montana

The Alt Right’s War on Whitefish, and the Growth of an Opposition

The heart of Montana’s Flathead Valley has always been a cash-flushed vacation destination for those hitting the nearby mountains, perusing well-oiled ski resorts and the kitschy shops that live off of its financial success. Whitefish, a town with a population scarcely above 5,000, is one of the most traveled towns along the valley, with restaurants and antique shops littering its tourism district. It is along these streets that a procession of neo-Nazis promise to march against “Jewish power,” flooding in from out of state, automatic weapons in tow.

Andrew Anglin, the host of the neo-Nazi and Alt Right blog the Daily Stormer, has called for an armed march on Whitefish. The Daily Stormer mixes traditional genocidal Nazi ideas of racial superiority and anti-Semitism with the digital tirades so typical of the new Alt Right. In the world of contemporary white nationalism, the traditional “Stormfront” crowd of skinheads, Klansman, and other insurrectionary racialists has found their access to the more hip Alt Right through Anglin’s site.

Anglin had promised to ship in neo-Nazi skinheads from the San Francisco area, including a supposed Hamas member and vigilantes from the Soldiers of Odin, to descend on the town on January 16th, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Anglin renamed it James Earl Ray Day after the man who assassinated King on his trip to visit striking sanitation workers. While Anglin came on strong with a promise of terrorism, it was exactly his exaggeration and the Alt Right’s pattern of creating smoke without fire that created the kernel of their failure. In a world where white nationalism has become commonplace, anti-fascism has grown by mammoth proportions. Anglin’s threat was a catalyzing event that allowed anti-fascist organizations, both community-based and more militant, to take the next step towards a united community that forced Anglin to finally concede defeat.

The Alt Right Mythology

While Alt Right people associated with the Daily Stormer and the surrounding constellations of podcasts, blogs, and busy Twitter accounts have always presented themselves as a movement that is new and intellectual rather than violent, this is a façade that has been cultivated to insulate them from the long history of opposition their movement has faced. While the branding, strategy, and talking points are new, this is traditional white nationalism repackaged for the smartphone generation.  Almost every single prominent Alt Right organization, from the National Policy Institute to American Renaissance, can trace its roots back to earlier white nationalist projects that have had long histories of terrorism. American Renaissance, which built its reputation by arguing people of color have lower IQs and are more aggressive than whites, has hosted guests like former KKK leaders Don Black and David Duke, various Holocaust Deniers, and Aryan Nations members. At the National Policy Institute conference you will see former neo-Nazi skinheads, which is not so surprising after the recent video of stiffed-arm Seig Heils to round out their 2016 conference.burley

Andrew Anglin lies on the edges of this pack of open fascists, often trying to take their snarky memes and racialist talking points, and use them to bring along traditional neo-Nazism. While the Alt Right has relegated itself to podcasts and online word diarrhea, neo-Nazis have had a long tradition of stepping out into the streets in an effort to strike terror into their neighbors. What Anglin hoped to do was to return the Alt Right to its long tradition of American white nationalist organizing: the main street march. The Alt Right, with a more educated demeanor and dreams of Washington power never wanted to resort to the embarrassing role-playing so characteristic of the “revolutionary” white nationalist groups often from the rural South.

White, Montana

Anglin’s call was neither new nor arbitrary, but came at the end of years of escalation that began when Richard Spencer, the Director of the National Policy Institute and founder of the term Alternative Right, moved to Whitefish. When Whitefish became his parent’s vacation home away from their busy lives in Dallas, Spencer moved there with his new Georgian-Russian wife Nina Kouprianova. He centered the NPI there, listing his mother’s property as their headquarters, and hoped to live a quiet life there half the year working on the various racialist book, podcasts, and websites he produces.

Starting in 2014, the relationship he had with Whitefish began to crumble, first during a fated ride on a chairlift at the posh Whitefish Mountain ski resort. Seated by chance next to neoconservative GOP strategist and lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Spencer berated him for his foreign policy blunders. Spencer comes from an Old Right sensibility about foreign policy matters, one centered on an isolationist “America First” agenda. The confrontation quickly erupted into a controversy as Scheunemann spoke to the press about why a well-paid ski resort in Montana was allowing Spencer membership.

Spencer then headed to Hungary to hold a conference on white nationalism and “pan-European solidarity.” The conference was modeled after his NPI conferences, hosting an international audience and featuring speakers like American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor, Croatian New Rightist Tomislav Sunic, and Eurasianist nationalist mystic Alexandr Dugin. The Hungarian nationalist political party Jobbik eventually pulled out and Viktor Orban himself, under pressure from the socialist party, condemned the conference and declared Spencer persona non grata. Despite the advice of his fellow Alt Right consortium, Spencer continued his plans to host the conference and took a series of flights and train rides into Budapest to avoid arrest. Despite his Bond-like attempts at stealth, the Hungarian authorities descended on his pre-conference dinner and arrested Spencer, deporting him back to the U.S., banning him from entering the European Union.

burleyWhen he returned his infamy had only grown and Whitefish had had enough. A local group named Love Lives Here had formed in 2009 in response to the showing of a Nazi film in the area, and they became an affiliate of the larger Montana Human Rights Network who had been known for countering the growth of the militia movement. A campaign was started to pass an “anti-hate” ordinance through the Whitefish city council to prevent Spencer from holding NPI events in the town. Spencer became irate, declaring that the town was trying to “make Richard Spencer illegal.” Spencer was even refused service at a local coffee shop as he waited for his drink with his then pregnant wife, and other business owners asked that he not return. City Councillor Frank Sweeney had contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to solicit advice for how to build this ordinance at the time, noting that Spencer was creating his racialist media from their town. They ended up passing a more tepid “commitment to diversity,” one that Spencer tried to “troll” by publicly “endorsing” the call for inclusivity.

This back and forth allowed both sides to claim victory, but as they continued on, Spencer’s appeal was to a constituency of loud racists whom he had little evidence would support him in material ways. At the same time, this catalyst allowed for the Montana Human Rights Network to continue to organize in its highlighted relevancy, with a white nationalist neighbor showing exactly what was at stake.

The Year of the Alt Right?

Since 2014, Spencer’s profile has moved from Whitefish embarrassment to the national stage as scarcely a day goes by without an emerging story or profile on the most famous white nationalist in the country. 2016 became the “coming out party” for the Alt Right, taking their radical traditionalism into mainstream media discourse. During the post-election NPI conference, cameras from The Atlantic caught conference attendees using Roman Salutes as Spencer yelled “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!”

While Richard was riding a wave of attention, his parents Sherry and Dr. William Spencer continued their investment in Whitefish. Sherry owned a rental property at 22 Lupfer Avenue along Whitefish’s historic commercial district. A local activist named Tanya Gersh began raising the profile of Sherry’s property ownership in town; specifically that Spencer had been using much of it as a base for his operations. While the Spencers had made it their second home, the slow burn of the Alt Right and its growing opposition finally made the relationship between the Spencers and the town crumble. According to the Virginia state corporation commission, Sherry’s multi-million dollar Whitefish home is still listed as the headquarters for NPI. Sherry began to get pressure to sell the commercial building, a prospect she considered; yet after Gersh offered to list the property herself, Sherry became incensed and published a Medium.com post about it claiming Gersh was “extorting” her.

“Whatever you think about my son’s ideas — they are, after all, ideas — in what moral universe is it right for the “sins” of the son to be visited upon the mother?” said Sherry.

That is hard for many to believe given Sherry’s own right-wing connections to fringe political candidates and her close relationship to her radicalized son. Her Facebook even included photos of her and her husband attending the H.L. Menken Club conference, a white nationalist gathering that was a precursor to the NPI conference. Shortly thereafter, Richard began publishing videos and blog posts attacking Gersh and Love Lives Here, calling them a “local hate group.”

Troll Army

It was about this point that the Internet exploded, and Anglin jumped into the lead. He began organizing a doxxing campaign of Whitefish residents, posting pictures of Jewish neighbors with golden stars emblazoned atop and the word “Jude” inscribed. Several images were stacked in front of the Burkenwald concentration camp, where so many Jews were piled into mass graves after gassings. Calls, emails, death threats, Yelp reviews, and a stream of harassment fell on Whitefish, creating a culture of frozen fear. Special derision was given to Gersh, who had to go into hiding and had her 12-year-old child targeted.

burleyWhat set off Anglin was not only that the Spencers were facing push back, but that anyone of Jewish descent could be involved. The essentialist nature of race is central to white nationalism, but also that there is a key actor in the international opera of racial conflict. This comes down to the “Jewish Question,” the belief that Jews are a tribal group who use a superior “verbal IQ” and ethnocentrism to destroy nations. Anglin hopes to reframe the issue as one of “powerful Jews” attacking plucky Alt Right heroes, and that he needs to re-live Kristallnacht, the night with the German SA burned and looted Jewish businesses. While some of those they harassed were in fact Jewish, most were not, but none of that mattered since they labeled the behavior as Jewish, as they do with anything associated with left-wing politics, feminism, or cosmopolitanism. Many on the left have argued, erroneously, that anti-Semitism is on the wane, but the Alt Right has worked hard to make the reality of anti-Jewish hatred explicit, and Anglin’s effort further politicized those he targeted.

Love Lives Here continued organizing in the Flathead Valley, first creating a “menorah card” giveaway so that residents could put the image of the menorah in their windows during Hanukah. This act of solidarity would send a message of the shared experience of this harassment, because, in this case, Anglin and his army have labeled them all as Jewish. On January 7th, Love Lives Here organized a massive diversity rally with speakers and music, including letters of support from around the country. All of this was meant to soft-peddle the opposition by creating a show of community support, and it has helped the Whitefish community to become unified in opposition to the Alt Right. While Anglin wanted to build divisions in the community, the strategy has been to simply forge bonds and to strengthen the wall against these ideas. Anglin took the bigotry from something ephemeral to a tangible threat, and now there was an imperative to come together.

Anglin’s next move was to call for an armed march in Whitefish to threaten the Jewish residents and assert power. While Anglin has posted a filled-out permit for the march, it was actually only partially completed; revealing his bluff. Love Lives Here refused to engage directly with the neo-Nazis, so other groups stepped in to build on the united community base and to develop a counter-demonstration that can block Anglin. Montana Antifa began a public call for the demonstration, along with fundraising to meet the logistics, and the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World and its General Defense Committee also organized a large contingent, just as they have against white nationalist projects in places like the Twin Cities. Montana Antifa asked supporters to contact the hospitality base of the Flathead Valley to warn them about Nazis trying to rent accommodations. At the same time, Columbus Anti-Racist Action in Columbus, Ohio staged a protest action along with Showing Up for Racial Justice against Greg Anglin, Andrew’s father who has been accused of supporting his neo-Nazi son. All of this happened with the kind of support that they never would have received only months before, but as Anglin overstated his own ability to create a gun-toting parade, he provided the agitation that created a broad support for Antifa.

The threat presented by much of the Alt Right, Anglin includes, is one that hovers between real and fake, but has consequences for the sense of security that many that many built on the absence of open extremism. While the Alt Right was often reported as “diet fascism,” they were instead the real deal, except this time using “dank memes” instead of swastika banners. For Anglin’s war on Whitefish, he showed the Alt Right’s hand, which was to threaten people into inaction. This time, Whitefish chose something else.

burleyWhile the Alt Right claimed 2016 was their year, it was also the year of opposition. Anti-fascist groups have grown exponentially, and the result of the Whitefish harassment campaign was a unified state and the acceptance of radical anti-fascist organizations willing to defend against a racist contingent at all costs. While the Alt Right has been unable to move rhetoric into boots on the ground, the anti-fascist left has, and Anglin’s bluff could be the deathblow to a white nationalist movement fumbling its growing pains.
When the day actually arrived, the only people to show up were the dozens of anti-fascist supporters brought by Antifa organizations, the IWW, the Queer Insurrection Unit, the Alliance for Intersectional Power, and the surrounding community of Whitefish. Patrols were conducted on the surrounding streets to see if there was a contingent of nationalists who promised to arrive anyway, yet none came. Anglin pulled back entirely when he saw his few supporters would be dwarfed by a community united.

A State Unified in Resistance

Anglin’s “day of action” reversed the power by revealing that one side was ready for a fight. The region created a series of responses to the threat of an organized racist attack, from the civic alliance of Love Lives Here to the direct opposition of the IWW GDC. The two organizations together presented a spectrum of possibilities, from the strengthening of community to the direct opposition on the street corner. It is likely this final step, that antifascists were committing to “no platform” principles, is what forced the neo-Nazis to cancel their busses. This anti-fascist project was stronger by the end of the day than they were before anyone they heard of the Daily Stormer, and that anti-fascist opposition does not suddenly disappear after the Alt Right retreats. While there may have been tactical disagreements between some organizations, a few of which did not want to publicly antagonize the Nazi contingent, in the end they came together in a complex web of support, with the militant anti-fascist organizations building on the foundation laid by the Montana Human Rights Network.

The adaptation the community made to the racist threat presents lessons for the ongoing confrontation with the white nationalism. The base building had been done not for months, but years, and the slow process helped to further radicalize a town that could barely pass an anti-hate resolution a couple of years before. Likewise, with two different approaches to the issue, with the softer community organizing from Love Lives Here on the one side and the direct confrontation presented by Antifa on the other, can have a synthesis. Without the long-term community engagement presented by the Montana Human Rights Network, there wouldn’t be a broadly unified community to resist the invasion, and without organizations willing to confront the protest directly, it could have still taken place.

The Montana Human Rights Network has been clear that they have received more hate threats and incidents since the election of Donald Trump than they had in years. But with this kind of behavior becoming commonplace, they have now created a model for how to unify a community and create an organized anti-fascist response that engages more and more residents, many of whom have no background in organizing.

What happens in Whitefish may provide a model for other small towns around the country. While Anglin has shown that the trolls can try to use traditional racist and anti-Semitic narratives to attack residents without a political backing, this climate of fear has also driven those same residents to action and to form a strong sense of community. As is happening around the country, the election of Donald Trump and rise of hate crimes has inspired new organizations to form and older ones to grow. In Whitefish, this has awakened the community and the entire state is becoming a veritable “no go” zone for the Alt Right that will have ramifications for Patriot and white nationalist groups across the state. As Anglin tries to scramble up his supporters, the anti-fascist opposition has become a wave that will make any further attempts at racialist organization fail before it begins.


Shane Burley

12375190_1270053539678590_6582607531732468985_oShane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon.  He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1


Our publications can be found here.

Editorial: The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Five months ago, we published a piece called, “Confronting the New Right,” an information page designed to supplement an essay about a Fascist candidate for elected office in Florida, Augustus Sol Invictus.

It caused a bit of controversy.

Though the article about Invictus was viewed only about 1000 times, the information page eclipsed that article by a factor of ten. “Confronting The New Right” was viewed 10,000 times, becoming the third most accessed essay on Gods&Radicals (behind Sean Donahue’s excellent essay, “The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment” and my review of Alex Mar’s book, Witches of America.)

Neither its extreme popularity or the controversy surrounding “Confronting the New Right” surprised me. What did take me aback, however, was the reaction some ‘leaders’ had to the piece, some of whom I’d worked closely with as the co-founder and co-organiser of the first Many Gods West.  Pagan and Polytheist figures who’d otherwise presented themselves as bulwarks against racism and fascist entryism became very quick to denounce Gods&Radicals and the page about the New Right. Some even joined in on personal attacks and physical threats against myself and other Gods&Radicals writers

While a few of these figures do hold racist, nationalist, or fascist views, none openly disagreed with the general thrust of my argument. Only a few suggested that the New Right shouldn’t be worried about, or that fascism was a non-existent threat. Rather, their primary arguments were on the matter of authority.

Respect Your Elders….

I provided four suggestions for those concerned with the New Right. The two involving spiritual leaders attracted the most rancor:

  • Demand clear stances from leaders: If a leader of any Pagan tradition seems to equivocate on questions of race, identity, or politics, or if they seem to have odd associations with New Right figures, ask them to clarify their stance, especially if they are ‘your’ leader.  Just because they are older or more experienced doesn’t mean they are beyond question; in fact, claiming ‘authority’ as an ‘elder’ or ‘priest’ leads to all manner of abuses, including spiritual abuse.
  • Challenge divine proclamations: While it’s certainly possible that a god may have told someone to do something awful, that’s hardly an excuse to do something awful.  The sacred has long been used by violent people to justify violence, by hateful people to justify hatred, and by authoritarian people to justify authoritarianism.  Just because someone is a ‘professional’ priest or diviner or witch doesn’t mean that their statements about the gods are true. Especially question commands that might grant the giver of the message power over you, or lead you to see a group of people as ‘an enemy.’

I presented both of these suggestions to help address a problem I’d noted in many Pagan-related groups. Many leaders seemed to equivocate on matters related to inclusion of minorities, or declined to criticize other groups who held racist, trans-exclusionist, or homophobic views. Asking leaders for clear stances seemed a common-sense approach to this problem–after all, if they’re ‘our’ leaders, they should be clear.

A common complaint to this suggestion was that I was attempting to ‘politicize’ Pagan groups. In such a view, though, being inclusive is political, while excluding people is not. Many of those who held such a view fell back upon their own perceived roles as priests to the gods, founders of traditions, or bearers of special knowledge. Suggesting that readers use their own discernment on such matters, rather than default to divine proclamations, challenged this strategy.

One essay by a Pagan leader became typical of the panic these two suggestions caused.  In his essay, A Wind That Tastes of Ashes, John Michael Greer accused me of demogoguery, warning:

…he urges them to challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders, and to break down boundaries between different traditions. If you’re a demagogue out to bully and bluster your way to unearned power, the respect others give to community leaders and elders is a major obstacle. The tendency of different groups within the community to look to their leaders and elders, rather than to you, is another. Breaking down these particular obstacles is also, by the way, standard Marxist strategy, which suggests where Wildermuth may have gotten his grasp of the demagogue’s trade.

I am, of course, a Marxist. And an Anarchist, a Feminist, a Pagan, and a Polytheist. And I did indeed suggest we challenge the traditional roles of Pagan elders and leaders. But why, precisely? Because I was seeking unearned power? Or as he and others suggested elsewhere, I am a Marxist entryist looking to sabotage already-existing groups rather than build my own?

No.  Rather, it was because of stuff like the Asatru Folk Assembly’s announcement on the 21st of August:

AFA

The Asatru Folk Assembly, founded by Stephen McNallen and supported heavily by many people within the New (and old) Right, is not the only Pagan-aligned group to hold such views. But what I have long found worrisome is that such groups have rarely been so clear about their positions, nor are they often challenged by others.

For instance, Steve Abell, the former steersman of the Troth (the largest Heathen organisation in the world), refused to take strong stances against AFA’s rhetoric. Abell once even wrote an essay lauding Stephen McNallen’s civility while suggesting that a staunch anti-racist, Ryan Smith, was attempting to revive the “Inquisition” by confronting AFA’s racism.

Steve Abell was hardly the only leader to have painted the sort of white nationalist rhetoric that AFA uses as civil while insisting those who confront it are initiating “witchhunts.” More interesting, though, several AFA members led the charge against Gods&Radicals on this very point (many of the comments in Greer’s essay  and several blog posts shared by other critics are from one such member), framing the controversy around Confronting the New Right not as one of racism versus inclusion but rather innocent victims defending themselves from angry radicals.

Such a switch starts to sound like obfuscation, an attempt to silence critics who challenge the power of white (often male) leaders and elders who have long either ignored the political implications of their views, or actively attempted to hide them (as AFA often did).

But We’re Not Political…

Religious claims have political implications, especially those arguing for exclusion or strict hierarchy. Consider AFA’s claim that gender is ‘a gift from the holy powers and our ancestors,’ rather than a social construct. Something coming from ‘the holy powers’ (gods) is no different from claiming it to be ‘divinely ordained,’ just as some polytheists claim authority and hierarchy to be.

If the gods declared it, then any person faithful to the gods must accept this, lest they go against their will.

In such a view, the divine order (gender and sexual orientation, in the case of the AFA, or authority and hierarchy, in the case of some polytheists) is apolitical; any attempt to alter it is a politicization of something that should instead be sacred. Thus, on one hand there is the will of the gods, and against it stands radicals, ‘cultural marxists,’ or demagogues.

But who declares what is sacred? Who tells us what the will of the gods is?

Why, of course, the priests. The elders. The leaders. People who have a vested interest in hierarchy and a respect for authority, because they are at the top of it.

We are told merely to trust that devoted priests of the gods, founders or leaders of spiritual traditions, and elders who have accumulated years of influence have a better grasp of what the gods want than we do. Their experience, their ‘professional’ roles, their expertise should unquestioningly give more weight to their words than those of others, especially when the question arises as to what the gods will for humans.

There are some leaders I trust, some elders whose words I heed much sooner than others, some priests whose insights into the divine has proven repeatedly to be sound. But the trust I grant them comes not from their position as leader, or elder, or priest, but from my own experience with them.

Also, they each have something in common: they never pull rank.  Rather than relying upon a divine order of hierarchy or a sense of innate authority, they speak as fellow humans, themselves sharply aware of the possibility they might be wrong.

None demand I listen to them. None suggest they possess special powers or specific expertise that others cannot possess. None demand I follow them, nor are they surrounded by people who believe them to be any different from themselves.

Whether those who would claim the ability to speak on behalf of the gods (yet rely upon claims of divinely-ordained hierarchies and authority) are just deluded or seeking more power is impossible to know. Does the current AFA Alsherjargothi, Matt Flavel, really have the ability to know what the ‘holy powers’ have ordained regarding gender and sex?

We can’t answer this, and it’s maybe not even the right question.  Instead, we should be asking why anyone would accept such a claim, and why other Pagans and Polytheists–themselves leaders–insist that questioning authority and hierarchy is equivalent to a witch hunt.

The Witch Hunt That Wasn’t

Witches, of course, were not people in power. They were not leaders, large land holders or rich aristocrats. They were not bishops and priests, leaders of churches or even their community.

Instead, they were women, often those who did not conform to ‘divinely ordained’ standards of gender expression and sexual activity. The charges against them included dressing like men, having sex with other women and with the devil. They were often accused of undermining the authority of rulers, going against the strictures God ordained and priests declared. They refused the authority of man in favor of their own wills and desires.

They were disobedient, unruly and unruled. Just as the heretics the Catholic Church hunted claimed their own ability to hear God was equal to that of the priests, witches refused to settle for the divine order dictated to them.

Witch pullIt is not–and never has been–the leaderless, the self-ruled, and the self-possessed who hunted down innocents because they disagreed with their opinions. There is a reason history is not full of stories of racists or white nationalists finding burning crosses in their yards or being lynched. Likewise,  we do not hear of homophobes dragged behind trucks for miles, or burned alive, or slaughtered en-masse at a night club.

There has been no great ‘witch-hunt’ against fascist and authoritarian Polytheists by leftist neopagans. No leaders were strung up by the readers of Gods&Radicals, violently purged and shoved into ghettos or camps.

But some leaders have been challenged, and that’s what they fear most.

Those who claim that I or any other critic of authoritarian or New Right Paganism are attempting to initiate a witch-hunt know full well they have no such thing to fear. What they do have to lose, though, is their influence and power.

If I suggest you might be able to speak to the gods yourself, or if I and others (as in the recent My Polytheism series) assert you might be able to craft your own relationship with the divine rather than relying on self-proclaimed priests, then self-appointed leaders will have to find other ways of gaining our respect.

If people start questioning artificial ideas of hierarchy or divinely-ordained authority, leaders will have to earn our respect the way the rest of us do, step down from their pedestals and thrones and learn alongside us. They’ll have to find their own power and their own place within our varied traditions, and do the real work of building community, rather than authoritarian structures based on hierarchy.

In such a Paganism, statements about ‘the holy powers’ ordaining gender and sexuality will be seen as what they are–political opinions of racist, sexist, and anti-gay leaders who have too long hidden their ideas behind authority and the gods, expecting the faithful to fall in line.

I’m proud to help build such a Paganism.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd manyis the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals.