A UK group went undercover to fight the alt right. Will its unorthodox tactics work in the US?

Protestors march against white nationalism in New York City.
Protestors march against white nationalism in New York City.
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
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The alt-right movement is centered on the idea of white nationalism. So it’s somewhat ironic that the movement has gone international. There is now a global community of people who hate globalization; a borderless network of trolls and ideologues who advocate for stronger borders.

With the rise of an increasingly transatlantic far-right movement, it only makes sense that anti-racist, anti-fascist organizations are also starting to operate internationally.

This week, Hope Not Hate, a UK-based organization established in 2004, launched a new US chapter. The group is known for combining traditional anti-racist campaigns with more unorthodox methods—such as infiltrating far-right extremist organizations, both online and in person, and spending months or years undercover in communities susceptible to far-right ideas.

The group already has experience dealing with US extremists. During a 15-month infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, Hope Not Hate procured a list of 270 members and obtained information about the KKK’s evolving plans. And as the New York Times reported this week, last September, a Swedish graduate student named Patrik Hermansson began an ongoing undercover operation during which he infiltrated extremists in both the US and the UK, gathering information about the alt-right’s efforts to take its ideas mainstream.

Now, backed by alumni from the election campaigns of former US Barack Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, as well as European experts on the far right, Hope Not Hate is dedicating an entire chapter to combatting fascism and racism in the US. The question is whether the tactics and methods Hope Not Hate developed to combat organized bigotry in the UK will also work in America.

Proven tactics

Among Hope Not Hate’s most successful efforts in the UK were its campaigns against the far-right British National Party (BNP). Not only did Hope Not Hate infiltrate the party organization and cultivate sources feeding them information about party strategy, they also engaged in grassroots efforts targeted to areas, such as Dagenham in East London, where support for far-right ideas were likely to grow. The BNP’s support, which had grown rapidly in the early 2000s, has since decreased significantly. After receiving more than half a million votes in 2010, BNP collapsed in following elections—with many of their supporters moving to the more moderate nationalist UK Independence Party.

The lessons of the anti-BNP campaigns can translate to the US, according to Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher with Hope Not Hate who will run the group’s US operations. He points to the group’s tactics for avoiding violent confrontations between the far right and its opponents.

“When [the BNP] organized rallies, instead of doing counter-demonstrations, we would host events or concerts in the community, away from the rally, so there wouldn’t be any violence in the streets,” Mulhall says. “This is something I think we can bring to America.”

He points to the negative press coverage surrounding antifa activists in the US. “I understand their direct impulse to oppose far-right fascism,” he says. “But we need to do this in the most productive way. In the UK, we had an example where we worked hard to cancel a big far-right event in East London, but then someone from Antifa showed up and hit someone with a hammer, and then all media coverage was about the violent left.”

Mulhall adds that Hope Not Hate is distinguished by its community-building efforts. The group doesn’t just seek to combat hatred and prejudice; it actively tries to help people who might otherwise be coopted or radicalized by the alt-right.

“People are the most susceptible to the far right when they feel hopeless and powerless,” he says. “When the far right tells them that no one else listens to you, we want them to be able to say that actually, we do. We do long-time community work, where we have people based in these communities over long periods of time, working with local organizations and trade unions, and fixing local things like broken street lights or broken elevators.”

The transatlantic alt-right

The alt-right wave in the US has shocked many observers and political commenters. But it looks very familiar to Europeans, who have experienced the same phenomenon overseas in the past decade. Across Europe, a vast network of far-right activists have become increasingly influential in political elections—culminating in France’s close call with National Front candidate Marie Le Pen this summer and the growth of far-right parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.

In an ambitious 128-page report on the international alt-right accompanying the group’s US launch, Hope Not Hate lays out the landscape of a global movement—while acknowledging that the US is also influencing European alt-right activists abroad.

“The US alt-right movement has breathed life and youth back into formerly declining and dormant parts of the European extreme right,” the report’s authors write. “People, organizations, websites and publishers that have traditionally classed themselves as part of the European New Right have begun to rebrand themselves as alt-right and adopted the iconography of this new international movement.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, these young activists have harnessed the latest digital tools to mobilize political movements around a growing anxiety of an increasingly liberal and diverse future.

Mulhall calls it a movement that “seeks to destroy the liberal progressive consensus.”

“There have been numerous attempts to forge a global far-right movement since World War II, but they’ve all been unsuccessful, because they’ve been rooted in large part in a message of nationalism,” Mulhall says. “But with increased globalization and the development of the internet, the far right has gone more international. They have emerged as a force, communicating primarily online.”

Clearly, Mulhall says, there are differences between the movements in the US and in Europe. “US far-right activists often come from a more traditional, religious background than in the UK,” he says. But he distinguishes the alt-right—which tends to be rooted in European ideas, particularly the French New Right—from the far right. “Here I think we can bring in a lot of our expertise,” Mulhall says, “since their entry point to this movement has more in common with the far right in Europe.”

“Now they talk about their common struggles in a new way. They can sit in America and immediately hear about something that happened in Sweden or Hungary. Thousands of alt-right activists across the world are now helping each other across borders.”

This is a point often missed in US media coverage of the alt right, which tends to focus primarily on cultural and historical factors specific to the US. “The alt-right is using European far-right ideas about building support through institutions and fundamentally changing culture,” Mulhall says. “Their ideas are rooted in European thinkers, rather than the KKK or traditional extremist groups in America.”

After the massacre in Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi killed counter-protester Heather Heyer and hurt 19 others, many political pundits in America predicted that the violence would be the end of the alt right. But according to Mulhall, Charlottesville made the alt-right more likely to grow.

“One thing Charlottesville certainly did was broaden the gap between the moderate end and the extreme end of the movement. For some on the moderate end, the violence was the last straw. But the more extreme end saw it as an opportunity. The march clearly articulated the new confidence of the movement, that they were willing to come out from behind their computers, into the streets. Some of them were kicked off Facebook and Twitter, which was good, but it also fed into this narrative that they were a persecuted minority. Now the alt-right is increasingly creating their own platforms, an alternative online world and social marketplace is emerging.”

As the tactics and ideas of American white nationalists and the European far right continue to energize and influence one another, the opposition must also begin to work internationally. Hope not Hate plans to launch campaigns in Virginia and Arizona this winter. Eventually, they hope to create a nationwide organization to combat the narrative of the far-right.

“Part of the challenge is just finding the right language,” Mulhall says. “In the UK, we have primarily worked with people who are already familiar with local communities. So we’re not going to come to America and say you’ve got it all wrong. We try to find people already rooted in the community and ask them how we can support them. ”