For all that he did in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, carrying a torch through Emancipation Park, he wasn’t even aware that the alt-right existed one year ago. It wasn’t until Hillary Clinton condemned the movement in a campaign speech last August that he first learned of it, and from there, the radicalization of William Fears, 29, moved quickly.
He heard that one of its spokesmen, Richard Spencer, who coined the name “alt-right,” was speaking at Texas A&M University in December, so he drove the two hours to hear him speak. There, he met people who looked like him, people he never would have associated with white nationalism - men wearing suits, not swastikas - and it made him want to be a part of something. Then Fears was going to other rallies across Texas, and local websites were calling him one of “Houston’s most outspoken Neo-Nazis,” and he was seeing alt-right memes of Adolf Hitler that at first he thought foolish - “people are going to hate us” - but soon learned to enjoy.
“It’s probably been about a year,” he said, “but my evolution has been faster and faster.”
Last weekend’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which ended with dozens injured, a woman struck dead by a car, a president again engulfed in scandal and another national bout of soul-searching over race in America, was a collection of virtually every kind of white nationalist the country has ever known. There were members of the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and neo-Nazis. But it was this group, the group of William Fears, that was not so familiar.
The torch-lit images of Friday night’s march through Emancipation Park revealed scores like him: clean-cut, unashamed and young - very young. They almost looked as though they were students of the university they marched through.
Who were they? What in their relatively short lives had so aggrieved them that they felt compelled to drive across the country for a rally? How does this happen?
The answer is complicated and unique to each person, but there are nonetheless similarities, according to lengthy interviews with six young men, aged 21 to 35, who traveled hundreds of kilometres to Charlottesville to the rally. For these men, it was far from just for fun. It was the culmination of something that took months for some, years for others. There were plot points along this trajectory, each emboldening them more and more, until they were on the streets of Charlottesville, ready to unshackle themselves from the anonymity of online avatars and show the world their faces.
From New Orleans, one man journeyed 1,553 km. Another arrived from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania - 397km. Another drove all night, more than 20 hours in all, from Austin, Texas - 2259 km. One more traveled from Dayton, Ohio - 711km.
The road to Charlottesville, 869 km away from his home in Paoli, Indiana, began decades ago for Matthew Parrott, who at 35 calls himself “the first alt-righter,” referring to a small and decentralised movement of extreme conservatives, many of whom profess white-supremacist and anti-Semitic beliefs and seek a whites-only ethno state.
Parrott was socially awkward and had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 15. So his family pooled their money and got him a computer with access to the Internet - a rarity in his neighborhood of mobile homes - which he came to see as his “secret portal in my bedroom.” In chat rooms, he developed a taste for intellectual combat, always taking the contrarian side, obsessing over how to dismantle progressive arguments until, as he puts it, he “ended up self-radicalizing.”
That radicalisation was rooted, he said, in his own feelings of alienation, which intensified when he went to Indiana University and confronted an elite he soon came to disdain. “They made fun of my accent and overbite and they called me white trash and hillbilly,” Parrott said. “I was never able to identify with a single person.”
He dropped out after his first semester, and his disillusionment festered until, at age 23, he went to the national conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-nationalist organisation based in St Louis. He considers this moment when comparing what white nationalism once was and what it has become. “I was the youngest one in the room,” he said. Old men, “asked me, ‘Whose grandson are you?’ They were baffled. . . . And now those guys are too frail to understand what’s going on.”
What was going on: The same alienation and purposelessness that once defined his life had come to characterise that of so many others. An economy capsised, a job market contracted, a student-loan crisis erupted, and feelings of resentment and victimisation took hold among some members of Parrott’s generation.
“This is not some hypothetical thing,” said Parrott, who soon established the white nationalist Traditionalist Youth Network and started recruiting. “This is, ‘I’m stuck working at McDonald’s where there are no factory jobs and the boomer economy is gone and we have got this humiliating degrading service economy. . . . They feel the ladder has been kicked away from them.”
And who was to blame for all of this? Those who joined the alt-right did not view impersonal economic factors or their own failings as culprits.
“In some respects, it’s not that different from Islamist extremists,” Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Centre said. A similar set of conditions - disaffected young men, few jobs for them and a radical ideology promising answers - have fueled recruitment for the alt-right movement. These young men, Lenz said, were told “they were sold a raw bill of goods. The government is working against them and doesn’t give a s--- about white people, and they were told this during a period when the first African-American president was in the White House.”
There came a moment for every young man interviewed when they felt whites, and particularly white men, had become subject to discrimination, a perception that formed the foundation of their new identities.
Peyton Oubre, 21, of Metairie, Louisiana, perceived it after graduating from high school when he was looking for a job. “Where I live, go to any McDonalds or Walmart, and most of the employees are black,” said Oubre, who is unemployed. “And I could put in 500 applications and receive one call. Every time I walked into Walmart, there were no white people, and how come they are getting hired and I can’t?”
“White privilege,” he said. “I’m still waiting on my privilege.”
For Tony Hovater, 29, of Dayton, Ohio, it came after he had dropped out of college and was touring with his metal band, for which he played drums, and he passed through the small towns of the Rust Belt and Appalachia. He started thinking that so much of the national narrative focuses on the plight of poor, urban minorities, but here was poverty as desperate as any he had seen, and yet no one was talking about poor whites. “You see how a complete system failed a group of people and didn’t take any responsibility for it and has done nothing to help,” he said.
For Connor Perrin, 29, of Austin, who grew up upper-middle class, it was during college when he felt campus liberals were ostracising his fraternity because it was white. “If only people would stop attacking us,” he said.“I can’t say anything just because I’m white. I can’t talk about race, and I can’t talk about the Jews because I’ll be called an anti-Semite, and I can’t say I want to date my own race.”
For Eric Starr, 31, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who has been convicted of disorderly conduct for fighting and possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, it was growing up white in a poor black neighbourhood. “I got bullied and I got made fun of and I got beat up,” he said. “Cracker, whitey, white boy.”
And for William Fears, who has been convicted of criminal trespass, aggravated kidnapping and possession of a controlled substance, it happened while he was incarcerated. “I don’t think any race experiences racism in the modern world the way that white people do in a jail,” he said. “In jail, whites come last.”
From these disparate geographies, social classes and upbringings - rich and poor, rural and urban, educated and not - they converged on a single place last weekend, Charlottesville, with a shared belief that they, white men, are the true victims of today’s America.
Why they made the journey
“I wanted to be in the fight,” Perrin said.
“I need to be more aggressive,” Parrot said.
“We never fight for anything,” Fears said.
The violence that they would mete out and receive on the streets of the picturesque college town was the most pivotal moment to date in the evolution of the alt-right movement, the men interviewed believe. The alt-right has always been a diffuse movement, but it has also been intensely communal. People make and share memes that glorify President Trump and make jokes of Hitler and the Holocaust. They discuss events on 4chan, Reddit and Discord. They get to know one another despite a distance of hundreds of kilometres. They learned not to fear being called a racist or a Nazi, and in fact, some found those descriptions liberating, even “addicting,” as Parrott described it.
But Charlottesville represented an opportunity to further transcend what they called confining social taboos. Many came prepared for violence, like Fears, who was wearing a blue business suit, a helmet, gas mask and goggles. He rode a van with a group of other alt-right members, and described it as “being transported into a war zone.” Bottles burst against the van’s windows, he recalled. People hit the van. It stopped before Emancipation Park, and everyone started yelling to get out as quickly as possible. Gripping a flag like a weapon, Fears strode to the front and melted into the melee. He threw punches. He took punches. He felt disgust. “Someone hit me in the head with a stick,” he said, “and it split my goggles off.”
“Little savages,” Starr said of the counterprotesters.
“Subhuman,” Perrin said.
Neither the day’s events leading to the car crash that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others in Charlottesville, nor the condemnation from politicians and people across the country that followed, has persuaded those interviewed that their beliefs are wrong. For some, it only confirmed their sense of victimhood. They felt silenced and censored, deprived of their rights. They felt as if the death of Heyer had changed everything, and that uncontrollable forces had been unleashed.
“It was like a war, and some people died, and it was an eerie feeling,” Fears said. “Things are life and death now, and if you’re involved in this movement, you have to be willing to die for it now, and that was the first time that had happened.”
Soon after the rally, Fears started the long trip home to Houston, where he is a construction worker. He talked to his family, who “pretty much agree with me.” He tried to calm down his little brother, who was “shaken up by it.” He thought about what would happen if he died. “If I’m killed, that’s fine,” he said. “Maybe I’ll be a martyr or something, or remembered.”
He knows there will be another Black Lives Matter event soon, and he has plans to go. “I’ll take a megaphone and see what they have to say,” he said. “I would like there not to be more violence. . . . But it might be inevitable, so let’s get this out of the way. If there is going to be a violent race war, maybe we should do it, maybe we should escalate it.”