A small but determined political organization in Detroit began to worry that its official symbol was a bit off-putting. With the group’s central philosophy suddenly finding traction in the daily discourse, appearances mattered.
So in November, as the country’s divisive presidential campaign became ever more jagged, the National Socialist Movement, a leading neo-Nazi group, did away with its swastika. In its stead, the group chose a symbol from a pre-Roman alphabet that was also adopted by the Nazis.
According to Jeff Schoep, the movement’s leader, the decision to dispense with the swastika was “an attempt to become more integrated and more mainstream.”
Let us pause. Not even two years ago, white supremacists like Mr. Schoep would rant from the fringe of the fringe, their attention-desperate events rarely worth mention. Today, though, the Schoeps of America are undergoing a rebranding, as part of the so-called alt-right: a grab bag of far-right groups generally united by the belief that white identity has become endangered in what they deride as this era of dangerous diversity and political correctness.
The deceptively benign phrase “alt-right” now peppers the national conversation, often in ways that play down its fundamental beliefs, which have long been considered intolerant and hateful. The term’s recent prevalence corresponds with the rise of President-elect Donald J. Trump; alt-right leaders say his inflammatory statements and Twitter habits in the campaign energized, even validated, their movement.
The movement is also acutely image-conscious, seeing the burning crosses, swastikas and language of yesteryear as impediments to recruitment. Its adherents talk of “getting red-pilled,” a reference to the movie “The Matrix,” in which the protagonist ingests a tablet that melts away artifice to reveal the truth. New, coded slurs have emerged. Fewer pointed hoods, more khaki pants.
But the alt-right movement is hardly monolithic, despite a well-publicized gathering last month in Washington — one that might have been mistaken for just another corporate conference were it not for the white-nationalist sentiments and the Nazi salutes. The factions within its ranks can differ on any number of subjects: white supremacy versus white nationalism, for example, or the vexing “J.Q.” — the “Jewish Question.”