The neo-Nazi MLK Day rally in Montana is fake, but it has wreaked havoc anyway
The armed neo-Nazi rally that was supposed to happen in Whitefish, Montana, on Martin Luther King Day is not going to happen. It was probably never going to happen. Even if it was going to happen, Richard Spencer, the alt-right think tanker whom the march was supposed to defend, wouldn’t be there. Six days before the scheduled date, Spencer left Whitefish and flew back to Washington, D.C.
The march was invented by Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi troll website The Daily Stormer, and it’s a prime example of the extensive havoc internet trolls can wreak — both online and off — by spreading fake news.
Spencer runs the small National Policy Institute think tank (annual revenue, about $125,000) out of his D.C.-area apartment. In November, the NPI held a small white-nationalist conference. Although fewer than 300 people attended, it drew massive media attention after some attendees were filmed doing Nazi salutes.
In response, liberal groups protested outside a building in Whitefish owned by Spencer’s mother that had been listed as NPI’s address. The Daily Mail reported Sherry Spencer was being forced to sell her property because of the protests, though Richard told me she was only worried that she might have to sell. In response, Anglin published the names and addresses of Jewish people in the area he claimed were responsible, and urged a “troll storm” against them. The local newspaper, the Missoulian, noticed, and published a story taking Anglin’s threats at face value, which went viral. National and international media quickly followed with their own highly shareable headlines. (Ex: “Jewish leaders in Richard Spencer’s home town targeted in posting on neo-Nazi website”; “White Supremacists Threaten Jewish Community in Whitefish, Montana”; “Neo-nazi assholes seek to chase Jews from Whitefish, Montana.”)
For a troll, this was a massive success. Anglin capitalized on it by claiming he was going to counter liberal protests by bussing or flying in skinheads from the Bay Area to march on Whitefish. Because Montana is an open-carry state, Anglin claimed the skinheads would be armed — which makes an even better headline for a news website. (Ex.: “Neo-Nazis Are Planning an Armed March Against Jews in Richard Spencer’s Hometown;” “‘We can march through town carrying high-powered rifles’: Neo-Nazi plans march against Montana Jews.”) Bipartisan condemnation followed. (“Montana officials denounce planned neo-Nazi march.”) In fairness, some news organizations expressed some skepticism (“Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin insists anti-Semitic demonstration in Whitefish will happen, names nonexistent ‘Jewish center’ as location.”) The march was set for Sunday, Jan. 15, and framed as one against Jews, until, it seems, Anglin realized the trolling potential in holding it on Jan. 16, MLK Day, and reframed it as a James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza honoring the man who assassinated the civil rights icon.
Earlier this week, when I called Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial to find out how the town was preparing for the march, Dial said there were 16 police officers on the force, but they had prepared with state and local law enforcement to have 100 officers on hand. Did he think the march would actually happen? “I would be willing to bet one frosty beer” that it won’t, Dial said. He was right.
To bring a troll army into corporeal reality, you have to do more than tweet; you have to fill out paperwork. Anglin filled out an application to march through Whitefish, but it was incomplete. The city sent Anglin a letter saying he hadn’t paid the full fee and that his application needed more details: a march-route map, insurance, and proof he’d contacted local businesses along the route.
Anglin posted this notice on The Daily Stormer, claiming the city’s requirements were onerous and unconstitutional. Anglin claimed he contacted the ACLU for help protecting his right to free speech. I called the ACLU. “Andrew Anglin has not reached out to the ACLU of Montana regarding the march in Whitefish or anything else,” Caitlin Borgmann, the executive director of the ACLU of Montana, told me.
I called the Whitefish city clerk’s office to see if Anglin would hypothetically be able to complete his application and be approved in time for his march. There was no official deadline, and though it was possible for the application to be filed too late to be processed, when I called on Tuesday afternoon, there was still time. The clerk helpfully directed me to sign up for email alerts from the city of Whitefish, which was sending out updates about the march. On Wednesday, City Manager Chuck Stearns alerted the citizens, “Daily Stormer postpones march on Whitefish, according to his website.” Stearns wrote, “I hate to drive more traffic to his website, but if you want to read it for yourself…” and included a link to Anglin’s site. In his post, Anglin writes that “though the ACLU has yet to respond to my inquiry,” he will reschedule the march for sometime in February.
“That’s what these types of groups do,” Dial told me. “It’s all mind games.” He would know. He was a police officer in Skokie, Illinois, during the infamous 1977 incident in which the KKK wanted to march through town, a case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Media may have changed, but white nationalist groups have not. “We’ve dealt with these types of people for years,” Dial said. “We didn’t call it trolling before, but now they call it trolling.” Dealing with their public spectacles isn’t hard — it’s usually “500 anti-protesters, 15 of them, and 500 cops.” What’s hard, Dial said, is talking to an 80-year-old Jewish couple who are scared and don’t understand what’s happening.
The Daily Stormer is not The New York Times of the new white nationalism. Within the alt-right, Andrew Anglin is seen as an entertainer, a prankster — one who’s so over-the-top some suspect his entire oeuvre is an elaborate troll to make the right look bad. For a time, Anglin published a writer with several trolling identities who was arrested by the FBI for posing as an Australian jihadi. After the arrest, in October 2015, Anglin deleted the man’s essays from The Daily Stormer and wrote that the experience “speaks to the dangers of putting trust in anonymous individuals on the internet.” Well, what do you know, even a white supremacist troll can offer a lesson for us all.
Like so many alt-right internet phenomena, the fake march was able to freak people out — generating dozens of alarmist news stories, and compelling police to prepare a force of 100 to keep the peace — out of almost nothing. A couple blog posts, some internet research, and recycled memes. It’s a case study in the challenge of covering the alt-right, which is both real and fake: a mix of ironic teenage racists, sincere teenage racists, some populists, uptown Klan types, a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them, and a tiny number of actually dangerous people who read the stuff written by the other guys and act on it.