When Hate Goes Mainstream
The alt-right’s populist rebrand
This past February, two weeks after six Muslims were gunned down at a Quebec mosque, Iattended a Toronto event hosted by the Rebel, a notorious right-wing media outlet. Hundreds of supporters showed up at Canada Christian College to protest the Trudeau government’s motion to condemn Islamophobia. Faith Goldy —at the time a Rebel reporter — was one of the main speakers. She riled up audience members, some of whom wore Make America Great Again (MAGA) gear, by describing the motion as a “clash of civilizations.”
The crowd grew more hostile when Goldy and Rebel co-founder Ezra Levant pointed out the reporters from the mainstream media, including me. A number of attendees turned toward the press and shouted, “Fake news!”
As a reporter, I’ve covered a lot of unsettling events. But this mass anger made me feel, for the first time, that I needed to flee. At one point, a colleague tweeted that she had witnessed a Nazi salute. Levant later claimed the gesture was from The Hunger Games. Online, his followers harassed the reporter for days.
By then, I’d been reporting on the rise of the alt-right in Canada for a year and had seen similar displays of hate. At a school board meeting in Mississauga, a group had demanded that Muslim prayers be banned in classrooms, and one man had torn a Quran to shreds. At a rally at Toronto’s city hall, I had heard a woman wearing a MAGA hat yell, “Islam is evil.” And the day after the February Rebel protest, I was in Emerson, Manitoba, where I overheard an old man say Muslim refugees couldn’t be trusted because they had been taught to lie to assimilate. When I later interviewed him, he told me he’d learned almost everything he knows about Muslims from Fox News and, of course, the Rebel.
Through the Rebel, Levant has long amplified anti-muslim voices, such as Pamela Geller and Tommy Robinson. Geller gained notoriety in 2010 for her vocal opposition to a proposed lower-manhattan Islamic community centre called Park51. Robinson founded the anti-islam English Defence League. The Rebel’s contributors, including alumna Lauren Southern, have made it their brand to stoke fear of immigrants endangering “Western culture” — this anxiety is a fundamental tenet of the alt-right movement.
All of this is why Levant’s sudden rush to reject the alt-right in the summer made many, myself included, skeptical. “Simply covering controversial figures,” Levant wrote in his online memo distancing himself from the alt-right, “doesn’t mean we agree with those controversial figures.” After years of actively pushing alt-right rhetoric, what did he have to gain from drawing the line now? Levant’s claim came after the Rebel received backlash from what Goldy called “a growing chorus of haters” for her coverage of the August protests during the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And Levant wasn’t alone in his aboutface. Since Charlottesville, where one person was killed when a driver plowed a car into a group of anti-racism protesters, many far-right public figures said they were not, in fact, alt-right. In quick succession, the Rebel co-founder Brian Lilley and contributors Barbara Kay and John Robson broke ties with the outlet. Robson said its tone had become “too unconstructive.” Kay said Levant brought on contributors who had “tarnished the Rebel brand.” By mid-week after Charlottesville, right-leaning politicians, such as Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer, who had frequently appeared in interviews with the Rebel, no longer wanted to be associated with the website. Even Goldy said she wasn’t part of the “alt-right “— just a few days before appearing on an alt-right podcast.
The exodus of public figures from farright platforms isn’t limited to the Rebel either. La Meute, a Quebec group known for promoting xenophobic and anti-muslim views, booted from its ranks one of the Canadians featured in the Vice documentary on Charlottesville. Sébastien Poirier, the former leader of the anti-islam, antiimmigration group PE GIDA Québec, is now trying to register a political party modelled after France’s Front National that he says will have no ties with PE GIDA Québec. And a few months ago, the Canadian chapter of the Finnish anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin announced a split from what it called the “racist agenda” of the Finland branch. It’s all part of the alt-right’s dangerous, increasingly rapid move from detestable to agreeable, from fringe to mainstream.
It’s clear even to casual observers that racism is at the core of the alt-right. None other than Richard Spencer, arguably the leading American white supremacist, coined the term in 2010. And the Rebel has hardly ignored the movement. It has repeatedly welcomed alt-right figures, including Spencer and right-wing conspiracy theorists such as Paul Joseph Watson, as guests and contributors on its shows. Until recently, it has perpetuated
For years, the Rebel flirted with hatred while remaining in the good books of leading public figures.
the alt-right’s Islamophobic, anti-muslim, and anti-black rhetoric without hesitation. Even in rejecting the alt-right in his memo, Levant equated the movement with Black Lives Matter, calling it a “mirror image.”
The Rebel’s implosion could have happened after any of the countless times its contributors demonized Black Lives Matter, spread Muslim-related conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks, or called for a crusade to expel Muslims from the Holy Land. But it didn’t. It took Nazism — and the death of a white woman at the hands of a white supremacist — for Levant and others to draw the line. It took swastikas and chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” heard in broad daylight in a sleepy American university town for the alt-right movement to become toxic.
For years, the Rebel flirted with hatred while remaining in the good books of some leading Canadian public figures. But perhaps Levant and others could sense that he’d finally gone too far — that Goldy’s coverage in Charlottesville could destroy both his audience’s and contributors’ delusion that the alt-right, and everything the Rebel stands for, isn’t racist.
But while the alt- right’s white-supremacist bona fides are plain to see, there’s no question one of the movement’s goals has been to make its beliefs palatable enough for mainstream discourse. By getting rid of associations with “white,” the alt-right has managed to partner with conservatives who don’t want to be associated with racism and white supremacy. Yet, at its heart, the message has never changed.
Ryan Scrivens studies Canadian rightwing extremist groups at Concordia University. To him, Levant’s move is an obvious political ploy. Levant is a longtime ideologue, but he’s also the more legitimate face of the country’s far-right movement, with his roots in the Reform Party of Canada and long history of liaising with Canadian politicians, publishers, and editors. “What he’s about is trying to make hatred mainstream,” says Scrivens. “He’s super far right. He just tries to frame his arguments a little bit different than other more ultra-right news agencies.” And that frame is the key. Like many other ultra- right- wing publications, the Rebel has allowed contributors to build their arguments around issues of free speech and immigration. The site banks on a lack of public sympathy for Muslims.
To the intended audiences, in other words, such ideas — that the left is trampling free speech, say, and that asylum seekers are “fake” refugees — are righteous, patriotic, even. They may be reprehensible opinions, but they also present the illusion of being debatable in a way that Nazism cannot be. Which is to say, being tagged a Nazi is a terrible sell if you want to replace the mainstream conservative narrative with one that’s far more hard line — one that, say, echoes “Make America Great Again” here in Canada.
In August, Levant released a second 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 revelled in the Rebel’s missteps would do well to remember that while some of the Rebel family has abandoned ship, many remain. Only a few Conservative MPS have condemned the site. Even Scheer hasn’t sworn off it permanently, saying only that he won’t be granting the outlet interviews “as long as the editorial direction of that particular institution remains as it is.” According to the online news website Pressprogress, a quarter of all Conservative MPS have made guest appearances on the Rebel — they know the outlet has an audience they want to reach.
Perhaps what it comes down to is this: the Rebel doesn’t have to appear legitimate to its biggest critics — as with Trump, it will never win them over. It needs to appeal to people like the man I met in Emerson — people who may still recoil at the word “Nazi” but don’t bat an eye at the idea that Muslims will overpopulate the country, vote in extremists, and take over.
While the left may mock Levant for his apologetic memo, they’re overlooking the point: it was not written for them. It was written for the middle right — the masses who are growing increasingly louder in their agreement with alt-right messaging but want to congratulate themselves not for being white, but right.