MAKING SENSE OF THE ALT-RIGHT
If Donald Trump did not exist, it would be necessary to prevent him.
Trump’s electoral victory one year ago this week was not merely his own, nor that of the befuddled party that relinquished its nomination to him. It was also a triumph for the dark tangle of forces we’ve come to know as the alt-right. Long before the 2016 campaign, the alt-right was already gathering strength and allies; it simply needed a standard-bearer. Then there was Trump, a leader with enough star power and authoritarian charisma to grant his alt-right supporters visibility and stature, to lower the social costs of open bigotry, to give energy to the movement’s underlying vision.
Several people have sought to interpret that vision — Hillary Clinton gave it a go with a harsh campaign speech, while Breitbart offered a sanitized taxonomy of the group — and now books on the subject are starting to pour forth. Although it’s hard to pin down a shifting collection of meme-crazed commenters, hard-core conspiracists and race-obsessed marchers long enough to bind them in hardcover, three new works make that effort from different vantage points. In “Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” University of Alabama political scientist George Hawley attempts to clarify first principles. In “Kill All Normies,” journalist Angela Nagle dives into online communities to grasp the alt-right’s subculture. And in “Alt-America,” researcher David Neiwert goes back decades to assemble the players and turning points that pushed the fringe toward the mainstream.
Together, these books suggest a movement with more staying power than may seem evident, and one that, for all its attacks on left-wing identity politics, is particularly focused on supplanting traditional conservatism with a white identity politics of the right. And although alt-right supporters are energized by Trump, they are not beholden to him. Indeed, the president’s alt-right credentials may be more about aping its brutal sensibility than fully embracing its substance. Trump’s self-interest helped pull the alt-right out from the digital swamps, but he may be simply marking the beginning of its rapid ascent, with some truer and more skilled political patron yet to come.
The name is confusing and misleading, yet somehow spot on.
“Alt-right” suggests a new mutation of right-wing politics, but it is in fact “totally distinct from conservatism as we know it,” Hawley explains early in his book, which draws on writings, speeches and interviews of alt-right figures. Proponents of the movement, he notes, are largely uninterested in moral traditionalism, economic liberty, a strong national defense — all the premises of 20th-century American conservatism. Tax cuts do not energize their ranks, and even abortion is fine if it serves eugenic purposes. They are driven, more than anything, by identity politics, which in their case is a more elevated description for unadulterated racism.
Hawley traces the origins of the “alt-right” term to the late 2000s, when it was initially a catchall for right-wingers opposed to traditional conservatism. Over time, however, its racial connotations came to dominate. Today, Hawley writes, “the most energetic and significant figures of the movement want to see the creation of a white ethnostate in North America.”
White supremacists want to dominate other racial or ethnic groups; white nationalists want to see those competing groups gone altogether. Alt-right advocates fall in the latter category, Hawley argues, their minds inspired by pseudo-academic racist tracts and their rage stoked by Black Lives Matter or the latest fight over campus dogma. Alt-right animosity toward the GOP flows from the belief that even though they depend on white votes, “conservatives in power rarely promote white interests.”
It’s a highly debatable point, certainly; Hawley himself believes that the United States has operated as a de facto white supremacist nation for much of its history. But the alt-right wants de facto to become de jure, too — to explicitly wage battle against the growth of non-white communities, including immigrants, in the United States, and to “push transparent white-identity politics, with the ultimate goal of stopping and even reversing these demographic trends,” the author writes.
Given this objective, “alt-right” might sound too vague and innocuous. (The Associated Press, for instance, avoids the term because the editors think it masks racist aims.) Richard Spencer, the most recognizable alt-right voice in America, hasn’t always been so crazy about it, either. “It never struck me as satisfying at all,” he explained after leaving Alternative Right, an online magazine he founded. “It really is kind of a negative conception of who we are. You’re alternative to what?”
But the name has stuck, more by default than design. And it fits in a fundamental way, because the movement is based on its opposition — an alternative — to conventional conservatism. “Trump could not have captured the GOP nomination if the mainstream right was not already in a weakened state,” Hawley writes. “And the Alt-Right would similarly not be growing if more people continued to find traditional conservatism appealing.”
What the alt-right aims for, then, is to lose the “alt” and become the right. Despite its newfound infamy and White House sympathizers, Hawley isn’t sure it’s quite ready. “To move beyond being a nuisance on social media and actually to change the politics and culture of the United States, the Alt-Right will require a level of seriousness and organization it has not yet displayed.”
That lack of seriousness is not incidental to the alt-right, but central to its origins and self-perception. In “Kill All Normies,” Nagle describes a world, found in sites such as 4chan and Reddit, where nihilism, cynicism, irony and absurd in-joke humor have mingled with pornography, racism and misogyny to produce a “taboo-breaking anti-PC style” that characterized the early alt-right. This sensibility infected the public conversation via social media, and in particular through the alt-right’s penchant for Internet memes.
That is why Pepe the Frog molted from a comic-book figure into an online symbol of white nationalism; why three parentheses around a name came to signify the subject’s Jewishness and signal a target for anti-Semitic digital abuse; why “red pill” went from a device in the 1999 sci-fi film “The Matrix” to a verb — being “redpilled” — that marks the moment when someone grasps the truth and embraces a new way of thinking. (The “normies” of Nagle’s book title is alt-slang for whites who have not achieved racial consciousness and militancy.)
The “Gamergate” controversy starting in 2014 — when female video-game creators and their supporters suffered harassment and death threats emanating from the digital cesspools — was the moment that brought “rightist chan culture, anti-feminism and the online far right closer to mainstream discussion and . . . politicized a broad group of young people, mostly boys, who organized tactics around the idea of fighting back against the culture war being waged by the cultural left,” Nagle writes. In this view, the alt-right is about more than race; it is an indiscriminate and brutal aesthetic that also targets women, religious and cultural minorities, and virtually anyone promoting notions of egalitarianism — all for the sake of forestalling a supposed civilizational and demographic decline.
So while Nagle worries about the substance of the alt-right, it is a substance she deems inextricable from its style. The rise of Trump and of the alt-right, embodied in popular culture by figures such as Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, “are not evidence of the return of the conservatism,” she writes, “but instead of the absolute hegemony of the culture of non-conformism, self-expression, transgression and irreverence for its own sake.” It is a co-opting of 1960s-style liberalism, she argues, and a dramatic departure from “church-going, upstanding, button-down, family-values conservatism.”
The counterculture never died. It just switched sides. Transgression now lives on the right; dogmatism on the left.
Nagle worries that the left — enmeshed in what she calls the “Tumblr liberalism” of gender fluidity, consumerist posturing and “performative vulnerability” — is ill-equipped to beat back the alt-right assault. She laments that even an intellectual lightweight such as Yiannopoulos can travel the country and expose the “deep intellectual rot in contemporary cultural progressivism,” which has become skilled only in purging internal dissent and reciting jargon. In its eagerness to take offense, she contends, the left has forgotten how to formulate arguments.
Neiwert looks beyond conservative schisms, left-wing failings and online subcultures to pinpoint the experiences and beliefs that bind the alt-right together, and he calls the world he finds “Alt-America” — “an alternative dimension, a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia.” It is a world of Patriots and Three Percenters, a world where Ruby Ridge and Waco loom as eternal warning signs of encroaching fascism, where the federal Bureau of Land Management is more hated than the IRS. It is an environment suffused with conspiracy and grievance, where Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, climate change is a hoax, Hillary Clinton is an agent of the New World Order (always in acronym form, NWO), and where white men are the truly downtrodden — because white identity politics remains, Neiwert explains, “the beating heart of Alt-America.”
His analysis can be too broad, as though Alt-America encompasses everything the author dislikes. (Sure, Rex Tillerson is a questionable secretary of state, but does his thinking really reveal the same degree of “extremism” as Attorney General Jeff Sessions or former national security adviser Michael Flynn?) Still, Neiwert draws some intriguing connections.
Where Hawley saw few links between the tea party movement and the alt-right, for instance, Neiwert argues that the tea party laundered the nuttiest ideas of Alt-America into the mainstream of U.S. politics. He points out that the Gadsen flag and its “Don’t tread on me” rattlesnake, a fixture at tea party rallies during Obama’s first term, was a popular symbol for militiamen out west in the 1990s. He chronicles how ranchers who took stands against federal agencies became Fox News heroes, one more way to smuggle Alt-American notions into popular circulation.
Neiwert considers the GOP and traditional conservatives complicit in the degrading of discourse and truth on the far right, whereby “rational anger and discontent with the federal government was being transformed into an irrational, visceral, and paranoid hatred of it.” Conspiracy theories and white-nationalist narratives coalesced in response to the nation’s first black president, giving Trump his opening. Birtherism became his calling card to Alt-America; the border wall and travel ban his sales pitch.
Trump has been described America’s first white president for his explicit race-baiting and reflexive impulse to undo the legacy of his black predecessor. He may also be America’s first troll president, one who treats governance as a culture war, the Oval Office as a subreddit, and the bully pulpit as a means to cyberbully his foes.
Trump fits with the alt-right’s abusive culture, and studies of the psychology of online trolls highlight their deception, narcissism and manipulativeness — traits not inconsistent with what psychiatrists observe in our 45th commander in chief. “Why We Need a Troll as President” was even the headline of a bizarrely foreshadowing argument by a contributor to Spencer’s alt-right website during the 2016 campaign. “Trump is worth supporting,” the writer argued, “because we need a troll. . . . We need someone who can break open public debate. . . . The fact that Trump himself is part of this same farce is utterly irrelevant.”
Yet though alt-righters become gleeful when Trump shares racially misleading crime statistics or offers a both-sides take to neo-Nazis marching and engaging in deadly violence, “saying that Trump and the Alt-Right are simpatico amounts to whitewashing the Alt-Right,” Hawley contends. The core alt-right wants more than greater immigration restrictions and temporary travel bans against a handful of Muslim-majority countries. It wants nonwhites out of the country altogether. Trump and his aides have called for measures that, however extreme, fall short. White-nationalist writer Matthew Heimbach, for example, endorsed Trump’s candidacy with the caveat that Trump “is not the savior of Whites in America.” And even former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon — who has bragged of giving the alt-right a platform as head of Breitbart — is more a populist and economic nationalist, Hawley argues.
Over time, however, that the administration’s loyalty to the movement may prove less consequential. Trump’s jumble of beliefs — and really, does he have any guiding ideology beyond self-aggrandizement? — matters less than where a newly empowered and overtly racist political force attempts to take the country.
“What Trump has succeeded in doing, by exploiting the strands of right-wing populism in the country, has been to make the large and growing number of proto-fascist groups in America larger and more vicious,” Neiwert concludes. These groups won’t be deterred by a confused left or craven right. The conservative movement can’t purge them the way William F. Buckley cast out the Birchers, even if it wanted to do so — alt-right supporters “do not care what Ross Douthat thinks of them,” Hawley notes wryly. Nor will they be limited by the fumblings of the president they helped bring to power.
The alt-right is on the move, the distance from 4chan to Charlottesville just part of a longer march. I wonder if even Trump fully understands — or cares — what he has let slip.