Don’t Let the Alt-Right’s Rebrand Fool You

Rejecting Neo-Nazism is part of the movement's long game for mainstream legitimacy

Photo courtesy Peter Milne/Internet Archive
Peter Milne/Internet Archive

This February, I attended a Rebel Media event days after six Muslims were gunned down at a Quebec mosque. Over a thousand Rebel supporters had shown up to protest a government motion to condemn Islamophobia. Faith Goldy—the now former Rebel reporter who rose to even higher infamy for her Charlottesville coverage—emceed. She riled up the audience members, calling them “patriots,” and describing the government motion as a “clash of civilizations.” Whenever a speaker linked Muslims with terrorism, the crowd, sporting Infowars and Make America Great Again gear, broke into cheers.

The crowd grew even more hostile when Goldy and Rebel co-founder Ezra Levant pointed out the mainstream media in the room, including me. A number of audience members rose to their feet, turned toward the press, and then shouted “Fake news!” I felt like I’d been transported to one of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies. As a reporter, I’ve covered a lot of unsettling people and events. But the mass anger spurred on by the Rebel crew made me feel, for the first time ever, that I needed to get out of the room. I was afraid. At one point, a colleague Tweeted that she saw a man raise his arm in what appeared to be a Nazi salute. Levant flatly denied it, claiming the gesture was from the Hunger Games. Online, his followers harassed my fellow reporter for days. It was unrelenting.

By then, I’d been reporting on the rise of the alt-right in Canada for a year, and was familiar with this rhetoric. At a school board meeting in Peel, a group demanded the Muslim prayer be banned in schools and one man tore a Koran to shreds. At a rally at Toronto’s city hall, where protesters showed up to speak out against the same anti-Islamophobia motion, I heard a woman wearing a Make America Great Again hat yell “Islam is evil.” The day after the February Rebel rally, I was in Emerson, Manitoba where I overheard an old man say Muslim refugees couldn’t be trusted because they are taught to lie to assimilate—but would soon take over and destroy Western culture. When I later interviewed him, he told me he’d learned everything he knows about Muslims from Fox News and, of course, the Rebel.

Through the Rebel, Levant has long amplified explicitly anti-Muslim voices like Pamela Geller, who gained notoriety in 2010 for her vocal opposition to the Lower Manhattan Muslim community center Park51, and Tommy Robinson, who founded the anti-Islam English Defence League. As the National Post’s Richard Warnica reported, there’s also significant evidence that the writer behind one of the world’s best-known counter-jihadi blogs has also penned hundreds of anti-Muslim posts for the Rebel under the name Victor Laszlo. The Rebel’s contributors, like alumna Lauren Southern, have made it their brand to stoke fears of Muslims endangering “Western culture”—a fundamental tenet of the alt-right movement. Earlier this year, Southern spoke with me at length, warning that “one part of the mosaic” would get bigger and overwhelm the others. “You can say goodbye to your French and English and Native culture,” she said, echoing—who else?—the alt-right.

All of this is why Levant’s sudden rush to reject the alt-right last week made many, myself included, skeptical. After years of actively pushing its rhetoric, what did he have to gain from drawing the line now? And he wasn’t alone. Since Charlottesville, many far-right public figures said they were not, in fact, alt-right. In quick succession, Rebel co-founder Brian Lilley and occasional contributors Barbara Kay and John Robson announced they were calling it quits with the Rebel. Robson said the tone had become “too unconstructive.” Kay, who maintained even in her resignation statement that her admiration and respect for Levant and Goldy “remains undimmed,” said Levant brought on contributors who had “tarnished the Rebel brand.” By mid-week, conservative politicians, such as party leader

Levant claims since Trump’s election, the alt-right has transformed into something new—that Richard Spencer and other white nationalists are now the movement’s leading figures. In fact, Spencer, who Gavin McInnes has interviewed for the Rebel, coined the term alt-right when he started the website in 2010. He’s been a leader within the movement since the beginning. And for Levant to claim the movement has suddenly become racist is to discount his own audience. The Rebel has repeatedly welcomed far-right figures as guests and contributors on its shows, including Spencer, as well as right-wing conspiracy theorists Paul Joseph Watson and Mike Cernovich.

Whether or not the alt right is about white supremacy has never been a trick question—it’s always been about making these views more palatable in order to propel them into the mainstream discourse. By getting rid of the word “white” and replacing it with “right,” white supremacists have managed to partner with conservatives who don’t want to be associated with racism and white supremacy. But, at its heart, the message has never changed.

Ryan Scrivens studies Canadian right wing extremist groups at Simon Fraser University. To him, Levant’s move is an obvious political ploy. Levant is a long-time ideologue, but he’s also the more legitimate face of the far right movement in Canada, with roots in the Reform Party of Canada, and a long history of friendships with mainstream Canadian politicians. Before the Rebel, he wrote for the National Post. “What he’s about is making hatred mainstream,” says Scrivens. “He just tries to frame his arguments a bit differently.” And that frame is the key: Like many other ultra-right wing publications, the Rebel has regularly given a platform to racist and xenophobic views by allowing contributors to build their arguments around issues of free speech and immigration. They bank on a lack of public sympathy for Muslims.

To audiences who are sympathetic to such politics, these ideas are all okay—righteous and patriotic, even. They may be reprehensible, but they also present the illusion of being debatable in way that Nazism cannot—the word itself allows reality to puncture through any attempt to obfuscate. Which is to say, Nazi is a bad word if you want to gain far-right supporters and replace the mainstream conservative narrative with one that’s far more hardline, one that, say, echoes “Make America Great Again” here in Canada. It’s all part of a process of legitimation, says Samuel Tanner, a Université de Montréal criminology professor who specializes in right wing extremism. He adds that it reinforces what experts have observed in Quebec and throughout Canada, with right-wing groups like PEGIDA, the Soldiers of Odin, and La Meute.

The same can lens can be applied to far-right politicians who’ve attempted to break into the mainstream. Kellie Leitch, first viewed mostly as a fringe candidate for the Conservative leadership, shocked everyone with her ability to convert outrageous headlines into public support. After Canadians rejected the Conservatives’ undeniably anti-Muslim, xenophobic policies in the federal election, Leitch cried on TV, apologizing for being involved in the “barbaric practices hotline.” That all changed, however, after Trump’s election—and his own process of legitimation. Soon, she embraced Trump’s brand of identity politics, making screening immigrants for “Canadian values” the lynchpin of her campaign. And while she failed, perhaps because was unable to connect with Canadians on a personal level and lacked Trump’s on-camera charm, many Canadians agreed with her ideas.

In France, we’ve seen the legitimization of far-right figures like Marine Le Pen, who lost the last presidential election, but was catapulted onto the global stage. In the US, Steve Bannon, the driving force behind the alt-right publication Breitbart, briefly found himself in one of the most powerful positions in the world, as Trump’s chief strategist.

And then there’s Levant again. This week, he released another memo, this time outlining the changes he’ll make to get the Rebel to “the next level.” These include hiring a business manager, a managing editor, new on-air talent and journalists, and becoming more transparent about crowdfunding. Those of us who’ve been gleefully revelling in the Rebel’s missteps this past week would do well to remember a few things. Levant built a 45-person far-right media organization spanning four countries in just two years, and, as much as we’d like to, he shouldn’t be doubted now. The Rebel, which gets a huge chunk of its money directly from its audience, but also from deep-pocket donors, is a well-funded machine. While some of the Rebel family has abandoned ship, they’ll go on to bring legitimacy elsewhere. And many remain—only a few Conservative MPs have condemned the Rebel, and even