When hundreds of white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville with lit tiki torches and swastikas, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” they drew the ire of countless left-leaning groups, civil rights activists, politicians from both sides of the aisle—and also of Stormfront, the decades-old internet watering hole for David Duke-style white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Many of Stormfront’s users viewed the actions of the Unite the Right rally-goers (most of whom fall under the self-selected moniker of “alt-right,” although “Nazis who like memes” also works) as outrageous, shameful, and counterproductive to their shared goals of securing a future for the white race. Stormfront posters complained that the ragtag collection of groups brandishing homemade shields and screaming openly about Jews gave other neo-Nazis a bad name. They viewed the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer almost exclusively as bad PR.
The rifts between Stormfront’s white supremacists and the younger, more internet-savvy generation that cut its teeth on 4chan have shown before. In fact, Stormfront’s frustration with the Charlottesville rally-goers reflects the same ideological disagreements that have divided white supremacist groups since the early days of the Ku Klux Klan. New racists, same fights.
Stormfront’s present-day concerns coalesce around recruiting best-practices. The alt-right’s flamboyance, they say, could alienate potential enlistees to their movement of hate.
“Some were carrying swastikas and that isn’t good for our image, because of the propogabda [sic] embedded into everyone’s minds,” wrote user pontypool, although he later added that he was “glad for any whites uniting, even, the morons.”
“This is still a propaganda battle,” another user wrote. “How does this help us win a propaganda battle? Someone died and around twenty people went to the hospital.”
Beyond shields and swastikas presenting a bad look, the two sides also disagree on long-term strategy. “The factions, in my view, generally reflect differences of opinion that hinge on the normative role of the state in securing or legitimizing white supremacy,” says Christopher Petrella, a lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College.
Where the alt-right sees the establishment as effectively useless, Petrella says, members of Stormfront believe that white nationalists can best further their cause—which, again, is turning the US into a white ethnostate—by insidiously working their way into the mainstream. Torches and Nazi chants aren’t exactly the best foot forward.
By contrast, the forum postings argue, if you can make yourself sound even moderately reasonable to people who’d rather not think of themselves as racist, then you’ve already won.
Stromfront’s white supremacists rolled their eyes even at the branding around Charlottesville. “Calling it ‘Unite the Right’ was a huge tactical error,” one Stormfront user wrote. “If they really wanted to accomplish their goal of protecting confederate monuments, they would not have alienated the many many left-wing historic preservationists who have actual power and who would otherwise greatly sympathize with such a cause.”
“I’ve yet to see any common White man or woman jump off the fence and join the ranks,” wrote VikingSong. “The only folk angry about what’s been going on are us who are WNs [white nationalists] anyway! But maybe it’s because I’m a ‘normie,’ who hasn’t been ‘red pilled’ enough? Maybe I need a ‘woke’ twenty something, with a whole vocabulary of infantile buzzwords at their command, to explain their strategy to me because I sure as hell can’t understand it?”
They even disagree on President Donald Trump. While the alt-right sees a powerful ally in the Oval Office, Stormfront user Danger2443 believes the group has been worse for the president’s image than his more traditional Nazi supporters. To his mind, Stormfront’s version of white nationalism has already succeeded, because “when a Presidential candidate retweets White Genocide, refuses to disavow its author Bob Whitaker and still gets elected, that means WN is on the way to public acceptance.” As for the alt-right, Danger2443 believes that “their undisciplined clowning embarrassed [Trump] in front of the country.”
Experts see echoes of a decades-old divide in the alt-right and Stormfront infighting. In 1954, southerners created White Citizens Councils to protest desegregation. A 1956 article described the Citizens Councils this way: “They shun both the Klans’ reputation for violence, and their haberdashery; their members are respectable citizens of the community, the quintessence of the civic luncheon club. At their meetings there is emphasis on speakers from the ministry and the universities. … The White Citizens Council movement today has had to throw off the Klan’s stigma and repudiate its legacy.”
That division “spoke to the continuing power of white supremacy in marshaling both violence and politics to prevent equal justice for all people,” says Walter Greason, a historian at Monmouth University. “Even within these two main branches, there were hundreds of local derivations that focused on specific approaches to punish civil rights organizations. In fact, it took almost 30 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act for the social stigma attached to supporters of racial equality to decline.”
In the same way the White Citizens Councils avoided signifiers like white hoods, Stormfront founder Don Black has tried to ban the use of racial slurs entirely.” And it’s not just explicit obscenities Black wants his users to avoid; he also wants to give off an air of general respectability, asking that people “make an effort to use proper spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization (no ALL-CAPS posts).”
Of course, Stormfront’s veneer of propriety is only that. According to a 2014 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Stormfront users committed 100 murders between 2009 and 2014. “Investigators find that most offenders openly advocated their ideology online for lengthy periods while sucking up the hatred around them,” the SPLC wrote. “Yet Stormfront’s founder, former Alabama Klan leader Stephen Donald ‘Don’ Black, shrugs off responsibility for what he has wrought.”
And despite their differences with the alt-right, not everyone on Stormfront thought that the Charlottesville rally was a net negative. “The event was the first time in decades that a large number of whites stood up at a demonstration, for that alone it is a huge success,” wrote KevinCannon. Another noted that, “The pictures of the torchlight march in particular were beautiful and evocative. Made me wish I was there. The fact that Trump won’t join the left media hate wagon condemning the rally as Nazi violence is another huge plus.”
Stormfront may condemn the alt-right’s actions and see them as incompetent fools, but they share the same endgame of a white nationalist state. The more the factions overcome those differences, the greater the risk. “We are on the edge of very volatile tipping point,” says Greason, “where the nation could reject white supremacy at its roots, or where we could go backwards into an acceptance of racial injustice that hasn’t prevailed in a generation.”
In fact, if white supremacists have grown enough in number to splinter and repeat the infighting of the 1950s, the US may sit closer to rolling back those societal gains than many assume. “The outright rejection of Klan ideology is largely a 21st-century phenomenon,” Greason says. The challenge now is keeping it that way. Stormfront and the alt-right may disagree on tactics, but they’re both pushing toward the same cliff.