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Alt-rightThe focal point: White supremacy

Published 17 August 2017

The weekend clashes between white nationalist demonstrators and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia., which killed a 32-year-old woman and injured others has reignited long-simmering fears that racist hate groups are resurgent nationally and now may feel emboldened to push their goals publicly. Bart Bonikowski, an associate professor in Harvard’s Sociology Department, has studied the discourse of populist movements in the United States and Europe, with an emphasis on the processes that animate nationalist political movements. He says that he doubts that he doubts that the widespread public backlash suggests these groups might dial back their incendiary efforts. “It’s hard to predict the future, but I doubt that this will be the case. As I mentioned, these movements thrive when they receive attention in the media, regardless of whether it’s good or bad. And in this case, they’re getting the media attention as well as support from the president. So, if anything, this is likely to give them an incentive to hold more rallies and become more extremist in their practices.”

The weekend clashes between white nationalist demonstrators and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia., which killed a 32-year-old woman and injured others has reignited long-simmering fears that racist hate groups are resurgent nationally and now may feel emboldened to push their goals publicly.

President Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign was embraced by right-wing groups, drew criticism from both political parties for initially blaming all sides and being slow to explicitly disavow the white nationalists, who included Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis.

Bart Bonikowski is an associate professor in Harvard’s Sociology Department and a faculty affiliate at the Center for European Studies and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He studies political sociology in the United States and Europe, with an emphasis on populist discourse and the processes that animate nationalist political movements. The Christina Pazzanese of the Harvard Gazette spoke with Bonikowski about the political implications of the weekend violence.

Gazette: How do you view the rally and resulting violence that occurred in Charlottesville?
Bonikowski
:It’s clear at this point that the extreme right has been emboldened by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policies since he’s come into office. It’s not too much of a stretch to draw a direct line between his discourse and the violence. His campaign focused primarily on anti-immigrant discourse and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but there were numerous dog whistles targeting African-Americans, as well: Comments about inner cities, his use of the phrase “my African-American,” his support for All Lives Matter, and his retweeting of neo-Nazis and failure to condemn [onetime Klan leader] David Duke during the campaign. All of these actions were clear attempts to mobilize two factions: one, everyday racist, ethnonationalist white supporters who are not members of the KKK or the neo-Nazi movement and second, the radical extremists we saw in Virginia.