The white nationalist demonstrators who converged on Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend comprise disparate strains of a movement that for generations has sought to feed on racial conflict and grievance, and mostly they've gone nowhere.

In comparison to legitimate, mainstream political movements in the United States, their numbers are small but because their views on race relations are so abhorred by the great majority of Americans, their actions draw inordinate media attention and public outrage.

Charlottesville police estimated before the start of the march that they expected between 2,000 and 6,000 demonstrators for the two-day "Unite the Right" rally Friday and Saturday.

The actual number of demonstrators appeared to fall somewhat short of that. But the intensity of the violence on Saturday – one woman was killed and 19 others injured when an alleged Nazi sympathizer drove a car through a crowd of counter demonstrators – inundated the airwaves and internet with images of carnage, brutality and conflict.

Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville on Friday, August 11, 2017. When met by counter protesters, some yelling “Black lives matter,” tempers turned into violence. Multiple punches were thrown, pepper spray was sprayed and torches were used as weapons. .Mandatory Credit: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar via USA TODAY NETWORK
MYKAL MCELDOWNEY / Indy Star via USA Today Network
Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the UVA campus in Charlottesville on Friday, August 11, 2017. When met by counter protesters, some yelling “Black lives matter,” tempers turned into violence. Multiple punches were thrown, pepper spray was sprayed and torches were used as weapons. .Mandatory Credit: Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar via USA TODAY NETWORK

The violence of the march, as right wing demonstrators clashed with left wing counter demonstrators, was shocking in its emotional fury. But so too were some of the images from the event, designed as they were to provoke.

It is a rare and disturbing thing in American political life when a crowd of white protestors marches en masse at night, bearing torches and chanting in unison, "We will not be replaced." They encircled opponents who had gathered at a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the hallowed campus of the University of Virginia, as if they were the Wehrmacht tightening a Kessel, or military encircling movement, on a blitzkrieg drive across the Russian steppes. Of course, the Wehrmacht itself was eventually encircled and destroyed by Russians in the east and the U.S. and British forces in the west.

The pretext for the demonstration was a decision earlier this year by Charlottesville political leaders to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the city as a symbol of racial bigotry and a vestige of the south's past repression of blacks. The organizer was a local conservative activist named Jason Kessler, who had been fighting the city's plan to remove the statue.

Planning for the march began months ago and drew a disparate group of white nationalists, neo Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and others, as well an entirely new offshoot of this political strain that has come to be known as the Alt Right. Neo Nazis of course have long been a feature of the American cultural landscape, although their numbers typically have been small and their rallies, thinly attended.

White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
STEVE HELBER / AP
White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

For years they marched regularly in Skokie, Ill., to promote their anti-Semitic ideology, and typically their numbers were overwhelmed by counter demonstrators and members of the press covering the event.

Since then an overlay of new adherents to white nationalist ideas has emerged that downplay the overt racial hostilities of the neo Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan and instead focus on the question of what is the nation's cultural and ethnic identify. In this view, it is primarily western and European. Adherents are adamantly opposed to immigration to the U.S. from non- western countries. They see whites as comprising an interest group with a unique agenda of their own and posit that they've been betrayed by pro immigration politicians in the U.S. and European leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have agreed to resettle millions of political and economic refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

Europe has its own right wing nationalist movement and like the U.S., it is a polyglot collection of groups, each with its own defining ideology and political approach, but each devoted to reaffirming and establishing the notion of white ethnic dominance.

In Germany, the protest group, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, sprang up in the city of Dresden, the capital of the state of Saxony, for years a hotbed of neo Nazi activity, where their weekly rallies are platforms for denouncing Merkel for opening Germany's borders and accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East fleeing the violence of the Syrian civil war.

The somewhat more restrained, although equally opposed to immigration from Muslim countries, Alternatives for Germany, is more mainstream and its candidates have begun to win elective office. Offshoots include the so called the Identitaer or Identity movement which views Germany as a fundamentally white and western culture and advocates steps to keeping it that way.

France has the National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen lost the presidential race in May to Emmanuel Macron as France turned away from her hard right prescriptions, although she won 34 percent of the vote. The AFD, National Front PEGIDA movements have no affiliation with hardcore neo Nazis, but share their opposition to unrestricted immigration from undeveloped countries.