Before Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh in late October, killing 11, he added one last post to Gab, the “free speech” social media site which had become a favoured haunt for neo-Nazis.
“Screw your optics,” it read. “I’m going in”. The word “optics” was a reference to an internal debate in white nationalist politics that has been running since their murderous march on Charlottesville led to doxxings, arrests and other real-life consequences.
One the one hand, people such as Bowers advocated for an unapologetic embrace of the black-shirt role play that unmistakably marked Charlottesville out as a neo-Nazi gathering; the extremist ideology that underpinned the movement; and also the racist violence that is the only real endpoint of fascist politics.
On the other hand, more strategic or disingenuous white nationalists were urging a path of “normie” dress, less pointed advocacy and quiet entryism into ordinary, conservative politics (their opponents like to refer to them as “optics cucks”).
On podcasts and social media threads, white nationalists from this latter faction argued that young white nationalists should keep a low profile, stay in school and work, and carry out their political activism within established political institutions.
We know that some people had some success for a time in carrying out this strategy. James Allsup, who marched in Charlottesville with white nationalist group Identity Evropa, was elected as a committeeman for a local Republican branch in eastern Washington state.
The plan — which is tactically sound — is to infiltrate…