Some of the Fears of Election Day Intimidation Might Be Overblown

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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The Politico article from earlier this week starts very darkly: “Neo-Nazi leader Andrew Anglin plans to muster thousands of poll watchers across all 50 states.” As author Ben Schreckinger makes clear, Anglin has allies in this quest: “His partners at the alt-right website ‘the Right Stuff’ are touting plans to set up hidden cameras at polling places in Philadelphia and hand out liquor and marijuana in the city’s ‘ghetto’ on Election Day to induce residents to stay home. The National Socialist Movement, various factions of the Ku Klux Klan and the white nationalist American Freedom Party all are deploying members to watch polls, either ‘informally’ or, they say, through the Trump campaign.”

Schreckinger writes that these groups and others, including the Oath Keepers, have been “Energized by Trump’s candidacy and alarmed by his warnings of a ‘rigged election,’” and are therefore poised to cause trouble on Election Day. The article’s implication is clear: There is a major, organized effort under way on the part of neo-Nazi and alt-right types to disrupt polling places, preventing people — minorities, mostly — from exercising their constitutionally protected rights. A quote from a respected civil-rights group makes things sound even more ominous: “The possibility of violence on or around Election Day is very real,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center tells Schreckinger. “Donald Trump has been telling his supporters for weeks and weeks and weeks now that they are about to have the election stolen from them by evil forces on behalf of the elites.”

It’s all very scary to think about, which is why Schreckinger’s story has racked up something like 47,000 shares on Facebook and been picked up by all sorts of other outlets, too. If you’ve been on Twitter the last couple of days, you have probably seen some reference to this white-nationalist polling plot.

But if you read the article closely, there’s a lot less here than meets the eye, and it’s hard not to think that Schreckinger and other outlets are giving free publicity to ragtag groups of wannabe white militants who probably can’t deliver on their cheap-talk intimidation. By not putting these threats in the proper perspective, journalists like Schreckinger may be helping to gin up fears and convince voters to stay home — exactly what the racists want.

Right after the scary top of his story, Schreckinger backtracks a little: “It is difficult to know at what scale these plans will materialize,” he writes, “because Anglin and his fringe-right ilk are serial exaggerators, according to Potok.” Anglin is a pretty big name in internet-Nazi circles. He’s the editor of Daily Stormer, “The World’s #1 Alt-Right and Pro-Genocide Website,” and is the author of delightful statements like “The day is coming when we’re going to tear down the hoax [Holocaust] memorial in Berlin and replace it with a statue of Hitler 1,000 feet tall.”

Schreckinger, hedging out of the way, proceeds to give over a good chunk of the rest of his piece to Anglin and a representative of the Right Stuff (that’s the blog that created Jew parentheses), allowing both to, in effect, use Politico as a megaphone to threaten a bunch of minority voters. First Schreckinger relates Anglin’s claim that he had organized a “big voter registration drive” via the Daily Stormer and that he was “sending an army of Alt-Right nationalists to watch the polls.”

Then, even more inexplicably, Schreckinger prints a very specific threat from a Right Stuff representative he allows to remain anonymous:

The representative, who did not provide his name, went on to explain, “Many polling locations are in schools, and black schools are so disorderly that pretty much any official-looking white person with a clipboard can gain access to them ahead of time and set up a hidden camera. You don’t really ever even have to speak with an adult. Simply walk in like you belong there and no one even asks you why you are there. So we usually go in teams of two, one person driving and one person dressed as a blue collar worker with a clipboard, and we set up a hidden camera in the school cafeteria. Go during lunchtime and the teachers are all so busy trying to contain the kids that no one says anything. We already have a few set up.”

[…]

“We also have some teams going in to the ghettos in Philly with 40s and weed to give out to the local residents, which we think will lead to more of them staying home. We have had success with this in the past,” wrote the representative of TheRightStuff.biz, who said four teams of two employed this tactic in Detroit during the Democratic primary in an effort to help Bernie Sanders. “40s” are 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor. POLITICO could not independently verify his claims.

The chances of all of this being utter bullshit are exceedingly high. Yes, some of these sites get decent traffic by Nazi standards, but anyone who has interacted with fans of the Daily Stormer or the Right Stuff on social media knows they are extremely reluctant to reveal their real identities online. The idea that thousands of them are suddenly going to materialize in the real world and go to polling places to intimidate and secretly film people — opening themselves up both to legal trouble and to the possibility of anyone at said polling places filming them in the act — defies common sense and runs counter to their preferred mode of trollish anonymity, much of which involves the lobbing of baseless threats.

To be fair, Schreckinger goes on to quote an ADL staffer as saying Anglin’s plan is very unlikely to succeed. But why allow Anglin and his buddy at the Right Stuff to lay out their “plans” in such detail in the pages of a major publication a week before an extremely volatile election? Obviously, as a piece like this moves through social media, the hedging and the cautions are going to be lost, with little more than the scary headline — white nationalists plot Election Day show of force — remaining. Most people don’t know much about internet Nazis, and most people, for understandable reasons, are going to take scary threats like these at face value.

It’s absolutely true that Trump has tried to rile up his supporters with all of his talk of a “rigged” election, and that, as Potok says, there’s an unfortunately high chance of election violence — most likely isolated instances of it — occurring. But that doesn’t mean any claim that internet Nazis make about their plans is going to come to pass, and it doesn’t mean media outlets should necessarily broadcast those claims, allowing them to take hold on social media. That’s exactly what the Nazis want, and they have an easy enough time getting their threats out without Politico helping.