How Unite the Right paved the way for Jan. 6 — and helped launch some of riot's biggest players

The ideas that galvanized the Unite the Right rally are no longer considered too radioactive for right-wing media

Published January 1, 2022 5:00AM (EST)

The Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty/Chet Strange)
The Ku Klux Klan protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty/Chet Strange)

This article originally appeared on Raw Story


Days after neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. murdered antiracist activist Heather Heyer in a horrific car-ramming attack in Charlottesville, Va., the Daily Caller, a website founded by Tucker Carlson, quietly removed articles by contributor Jason Kessler.

Kessler was the primary organizer of the Unite the Right rally, which saw neo-Nazis chant, "Jews will not replace us," as they carried torches to the Rotunda at the University of Virginia on Aug. 11, 2017 and again the following day as they marched through Charlottesville.

More than four years later, the ideas that galvanized the Unite the Right rally are no longer considered too radioactive for mainstream conservative media. Carlson himself embraced the Great Replacement theory — responsible for fueling massacres in Pittsburgh; Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, Calif.; and El Paso, Texas — on his Fox News show in April 2021. He accused Democrats of "trying to replace the current electorate" in the United States "with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World."

There are distinct differences in messaging between Unite the Right, in which white supremacists used Confederate symbols and neo-Nazi aesthetics to nakedly promote white nationalism, and the Jan. 6 insurrection, in which Trump supporters filtered similar aims through QAnon, paranoid anticommunism, and a perverted version of patriotism.

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Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America — the nonprofit that won the civil lawsuit against the organizers of Unite the Right — is among those who see distinct similarities between the two events.

"The four years in between have shown us how much of this extremism has moved into the mainstream," she said. "If you look at the tools and tactics, there are many, many parallels, from the use of social media to plan the violence to explicit discussion of the use of free speech instruments like flagpoles as weapons, to the immediate finger-pointing to 'antifa, blaming them for the violence that far-right extremists were responsible for to even some of the ideology.

"While Charlottesville was explicitly white nationalist with holocaust imagery, and with KKK and Nazi paraphernalia like the tiki torches that are meant to evoke dark periods of our history, on January 6th when you think about 'stopping the steal,' it also speaks at its core to this same idea: There's a plot to steal the country from largely white Christians," Spitalnick continued. "That idea that Jews will not replace us is at the core of Unite the Right, but it's also at the core of Jan. 6. We've seen how these ideas have been mainstreamed, from Tucker Carlson giving replacement theory a home on Fox News every night to Republican politicians talking about it."

The two dozen leaders and organizations that were in trial earlier this month in Charlottesville have not been the primary drivers of far-right radicalization over the past four years. While the defendants who were the central organizers of Unite the Right have been financially hobbled by ongoing litigation, some of those who attended the rally played important roles in organizing support for the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Nicholas Fuentes, who attended the rally as an 18-year-old Boston University student, gushed on Facebook on Aug. 12, 2017: "The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming. And they know that once the word gets outs, they will not be able to stop us. The fire rises!"

More than three years later, Fuentes was recruited to bring the legion of young, white men known — known as "Groypers" — that follow him into the #StopTheSteal coalition. Introduced by #StopTheSteal organizer Ali Alexander, Fuentes ascended a stepladder and addressed Trump supporters outside of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Nov. 21, 2020.

RELATED: Mein Kampf, racial slurs and Antifa conspiracies lead wild first week at Charlottesville trial

"This is an intergenerational struggle of the real American people that constitute this country over and against the global special interests that have taken it over," Fuentes said, electrifying the crowd. "If we are unsuccessful in our struggle to secure President Trump another term in office, then that will institute and introduce the rule of global corporations over this country.

"What is at stake is nothing short of our civilizational inheritance," Fuentes continued, using language strikingly similar to that of Richard Spencer, the marquee leader at Unite the Right. "We Americans have inherited the greatest civilization in the history of the world, and we're not giving it up without a fight." Launching into a transphobic rant accusing global elites of harboring "sick plans" for Americans, Fuentes then falsely equated immigration with criminality, claiming that the globalists "want dirt and scum and crime on these streets." He declared: "This is not a Third World country; this is the United States of America!"

The Proud Boys, which also emerged from the alt-right movement that rode Trump's coattails, are likewise intertwined with the organizing efforts surrounding Unite the Right, though they evaded legal liability in Charlottesville.

As well as being a contributor to the Daily Caller, Kessler was also a member of the Proud Boys. As the complaint in the civil suit noted, prior to Unite the Right, Kessler organized a "Proud Boys" event in Charlottesville in which he was initiated into the gang by being beaten in an alley until he could name five breakfast cereals. The plaintiffs introduced into evidence an article published by defendant organization Traditionalist Worker Party entitled, "Proud Boys are Cordially Invited to Unite the Right."

But shortly before Unite the Right, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnis publicly disavowed the event. Many Proud Boys, including future national chairman Enrique Tarrio, attended anyway. Shane Reeves, a Proud Boy from Colorado posted a photo of himself on Facebook providing a security escort for Augustus Sol Invictus at Unite the Right. Invictus led the short-lived Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, formed as the "tactical defense arm" of the Proud Boys. Both Invictus and Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knight were defendants in the Charlottesville lawsuit. Although they did not show up in court to represent themselves during the trial, the plaintiffs are seeking a default judgement against them.

RELATED: The Charlottesville model: Trump's "fine people" praise of white nationalists is now GOP mainstream

"It is still an overwhelming experience to process, and the men I met that day I consider brothers for life," Reeves wrote in the Facebook post.

As other far-right groups dealt with the legal fallout and public-relations backlash after Unite the Right, over the ensuing four years the Proud Boys would engage in escalating street violence against left-wing adversaries, build ties with the GOP, and supply foot soldiers to the effort to prevent Joe Biden from taking office. Dozens of Proud Boys face federal charges in connection with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

"The clearest winners from Unite the Right were the Proud Boys," said Alexander Reid Ross, a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. "They backed out. There's a part of the alt-right within the Unite the Right coalition that was able to bring that legacy further into fascism. That was the Proud Boys.

"McInnis recognized astutely in a sense that with the National Socialist Movement getting involved, it was going to be a debacle," Ross continued. "It was always going to be associated with the Nazi movement, and not just the broad right wing. He disassociated at the last minute. But the Proud Boys are interwoven with Unite the Right. Tarrio was there, as well as the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights."

At least one person who attended Unite the Right has also been charged in connection with the storming of the US Capitol: Tim Gionet aka Baked Alaska.

RELATED: Charlottesville trial has Nazis on edge as extremism expert decodes their online "doublespeak"

On. Aug. 8, 2017, Gionet tweeted a photo of himself pointing a pistol at a camera, accompanied by the misogynistic text: "Get in b*** we are saving the world." On Jan. 6, 2021, Gionet live-streamed himself inside a Capitol office saying, "America First is inevitable. F*** globalists, let's go."

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who serves on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, is among those who have drawn a tight connection between that event and Unite the Right.

"The events in Charlottesville in 2017 were a nightmare and a precursor and a foreshadowing of everything that would unfold over the next four years, culminating in the violent insurrection against the union on January 6th, the attack on our US Capitol," Raskin said during an online fundraiser for Integrity First for America on Sept. 30.

The most horrific aspect of Unite the Right — James Fields' deadly car attack — has unfortunately become a common feature in white vigilante response to antiracist protests.

As the civil complaint detailed, the tactic was already gaining mainstream acceptance prior to August 2017. In January 2017, Fox News' opinion website tweeted out a video entitled "Reel of Cars Plowing Through Protestors Trying to Block the Road" that had originally appeared on the Daily Caller.

"One thought that perhaps the car attack in Charlottesville would diminish that strategy, and the Daily Caller deleted the post," Ross said. But in 2020, there was an unprecedented number of car attacks — 129 since the beginning of the George Floyd protests in May 2020, and an additional five since the beginning of 2021.

"The Charlottesville car attack is a propaganda of the deed," Ross said. "It publicized the act; people see it as possible and sort of proliferate it."

While Biden's election marks a victory for progressives, many observers continue to see far-right politics making inroads in American politics. Ross said that in the aftermath of Unite the Right, the Proud Boys were perfectly positioned to push forward the process of fascism.

"Their mission is to restore Western civilization to the seat of power culturally," he said. "Their approach to doing it is a performance: If they can beat up enough of the people who disagree with them, they can show they're superior and spread the myth of the crusading knights of Western civilization. It's kind of like what the Klan did. They're more inclusive than the Klan; they don't exclude Catholics. But the underpinning of their ideology is white nationalist."

Whatever the seeds of right-wing radicalization, there's little doubt that extremism has taken a tighter hold since Unite the Right.

"I think people are sleeping on the idea that there's a wide swath of America that is radicalized," said Shawn Breen, an independent researcher who has tracked many of the participating groups since before and after Unite the Right rally. "Not necessarily due to these groups. They've been radicalized by proxy, by Trump and the GOP. People that weren't receptive to these groups then would be a lot more receptive now."

In a number of respects, the GOP base and what was known as the alt-right in 2017 have arrived at the same place.

"I think you can watch Tucker Carlson, and see many of the alt-right's positions put plain and simple," Ross said. "He goes off on the Great Replacement. He says white Americans are being replaced by immigrants. He specifies white conservative Americans being replaced by immigrants."

Another point of convergence is admiration for Hungary.

Mike Peinovich, who was dismissed as one of the original defendants in the Charlottesville lawsuit, went on to co-found the National Justice Party, which is modeled after the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary. And in August, Carlson traveled to Hungary to meet the country's authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban.

"The positioning of Hungary as an international center for conservatism — that is deeply disturbing," Ross said. "This is a deeply authoritarian situation in Hungary. It's admired for sure by the alt-right today with the National Justice Party. You can see the alt-right and the Republican Party reconverging over the dual exigency of illiberal populism."

So far, at least, Ross said, Carlson has refrained from explicit antisemitism.

"Tucker Carlson will simply use liberals as a stand-in for the role played by the Jews," Ross said. "He talks about [liberal financier George] Soros a lot. He promotes conspiracy theories, but he doesn't make those the obvious center of his politics; it's more obscure. That might be changing. We've seen in the US an increase in attacks on Jews. We've seen major sports stars and comedians come out with antisemitic extremism. I think we're witnessing a frightening increase in antisemitism in the mainstream of the United States. I think they're preparing the ground for openly antisemitic populism."

In her closing remarks during the Sept. 30 fundraiser, Spitalnick said the goal of the lawsuit against the neo-Nazis who organized the Unite the Right rally was multifaceted.

"This case is about making clear the consequences of violent hate, about winning accountability for our plaintiffs, who survived the unthinkable; for the community of Charlottesville, which was violently targeted by the extremists who descended on their city from around the country," she said. "It's about setting a precedent serving as an example of how you can bring violent extremists to justice, and deterring others from participating in the next violent act."

But Spitalnick wanted to make sure the last point didn't get overlooked.

"And it's about helping to wake up our country to the crisis of white supremacy and hate," she said.

By Jordan Green

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