In a remarkable exchange with the press Tuesday about the deadly violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, President Trump said, “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
On one level, the president is right. Not all the right-wing groups ostensibly there to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee were neo-Nazis or white supremacists, as we have traditionally understood them.
But the face of white supremacy has changed in important ways. The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” event was designed to reconstitute and rebrand various white right-wing groups under the banner of the “alt-right” and make the movement more publicly visible. This newer, more diffuse, younger and technologically enabled movement — promoted by prominent White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, among others — seeks to advance white identity politics through appeals to equality, democratic multiculturalism and freedom of speech.
While different in style, rhetoric, and tactics than the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis, the alt-right is just as committed to a white supremacist vision of America’s future.
Today’s white identity politics borrows some of the language of multiculturalism
Fifteen years ago, political scientist Carol Swain argued that the white nationalists she studied were drawing on the civil rights movement’s language of equality and multiculturalism in order to advance the interests of white people as a distinct social and identity group.
Through our research, we learned that the contemporary alt-right is both capitalizing on and extending this strategy. Over the past six months, we conducted an inductive, interpretative analysis of the key actors and ideas in the movement. We reviewed published secondary literature, including our own previous research, and used a snowball method to identify sites participating in an online discussion about the meaning and boundaries of the alt-right and had a stake in the outcome. This lead us to identify 51 sites that actors themselves cited as being important to the movement. We found that what these groups have in common is a white nationalist ideology that sees race as the primary basis of social affiliation and a legitimate means for making claims on political power.
At the same time, their ideas take advantage of a discourse of multiculturalism. For example, alt-right supporters are resentful because they believe other races and ethnicities can freely participate in identity politics while they cannot — which makes them “unequal.” In American Renaissance, the influential white supremacist Jared Taylor argues:
Question: What do you call a black person who prefers to be around other black people, and likes black music and culture? A black person. What do you call a white person who listens to classical music, likes European culture, and prefers to be around white people? A Nazi. All non-whites are expected to have a strong racial identity; only whites must not.
Adopting equality language is part of a strategy for appealing to mainstream whites. This involves rejecting more explicit racism and instead appealing to dominant political norms and styles of argument.
The alt-right argues that white pride isn’t the same as white supremacy
Many alt-right sites argue that white identity politics is decidedly not racist. Instead these groups argue that whites are simply asserting the same desires and rights that every racial and ethnic group is both biologically wired for and politically entitled to: cultural pride and self-determination.
Take one example from the alt-right journal Radix, co-written by the white nationalist site founder and coiner of the term “alt-right” Richard Spencer:
What this means is that efforts to eliminate “racial discrimination” are fighting against a deeply rooted fact of our human nature, even of our biological nature. …
Moreover, it is almost exclusively White people who are being asked today not to prefer their own race to others. Blacks, Mexicans, Jews, and others are allowed — indeed, encouraged — to form exclusive organizations and pursue their particular interests.
Indeed, while neo-Nazis making explicit claims for white superiority were on full display in Charlottesville, we found that equality language was more common across the alt-right sites we analyzed.
To be sure, many writers and sites, such as American Renaissance and the Daily Stormer (currently offline), openly embrace white racial superiority. But more often the language sounded like popular alt-right website Vox Day’s widely circulated description:
The Alt Right does not believe in the general supremacy of any race, nation, people, or sub-species. Every race, nation, people, and human sub-species has its own unique strengths and weaknesses, and possesses the sovereign right to dwell unmolested in the native culture it prefers.
Indeed, alt-right writers often pointed to the supposedly inherent traits of different races and ethnicities, such as Asian intelligence and West African sprinting, as evidence for racial difference without overall superiority or inferiority.
Its supporters hope to poach the Republican Party’s “white base”
We found evidence that the alt-right aims these arguments at the Republican mainstream. Gregory Hood writes at the alt-right Radix journal that the Republican Party has a “white base” that is fertile ground for the alt-right. The alt-right’s aim is to “racialize” the Republican Party’s core group of voters, getting them to see race as an indelible feature of social life and white identity as the basis for group solidarity and politics. Hood continues,
Yes, we know racializing Republicans will break the Party as currently constituted. That’s the point. And ironically, breaking your stupid movement will actually do more to “conserve” the limited government ideals you claim to believe in than campaigning for Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney.
Alt-right adherents often argue that the establishment Republican Party is one with liberals and the Democratic Party, especially on immigration, free trade and economic policy. They believe Republicans are sacrificing white people on the altar of global financial capitalism with its free trade and widespread migration. The alt-right preaches instead isolationism, which adherents believe will boost white nationhood by restricting immigration and disentangling the United States from foreign countries. This, they argue, will in turn help white people, especially the white working class, by promoting their economic and political interests and keeping jobs and trade at home.
But while the language differs from earlier groups, the alt-right’s vision of racial purity and white power is the same
And yet, even as the alt-right seemingly eschews white supremacist language, at least in some public forums to broaden the movement’s appeal, its racially pure vision of a white America is as racist, exclusionary and anti-democratic as that of the segregationist “authoritarian enclaves” of the Jim Crow era.
The alt-right believes that whites should explicitly be at the center of political, cultural, economic and social power in the United States. It believes in defending white supremacy from the encroachment of non-whites. A sweeping historical essay by Taylor points out (accurately, but also approvingly) the country’s deeply racist and exclusionary past, writing:
Today’s egalitarians are therefore radical dissenters from traditional American thinking. A conception of America as a nation of people with common values, culture, and heritage is far more faithful to vision (sic) of the founders.
This is the vision that Trump is tacitly, if not explicitly, supporting when he calls the Charlottesville marchers “very fine people.”
Daniel Kreiss is associate professor in the school of media and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Kelsey Mason is writing an honors thesis on the alt-right and the Republican Party as a senior in the school of media and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.