Donald Trump’s appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist has focused national attention on a nebulous and largely anonymous movement known as the alt-right. Bannon is the former chief of Breitbart News, an online organization that runs articles from a range of conservative points of view but that also helped the alt-right find a broader audience. Critics say that Bannon’s appointment will give this far-right group’s ideas a hearing in the White House.
But while observers agree that the alt-right is essentially a white-nationalist movement — that is, participants want to advance the interests of white Americans and reduce the number of people of color in the country — it has no formal organization, platform or spokesmen, making it difficult to say what its participants really want in terms of policies or concrete actions. Some experts argue against using the phrase “alt-right” to describe the group, since they say the term was intended to sound neutral and to conceal the movement’s extreme ideology.
Who makes up this movement, and what exactly are they trying to accomplish? George Hawley, a political scientist at the University of Alabama, has been interviewing people in the movement and is writing a book about it. He spoke with The Washington Post about what he had learned. A transcript of the interview is below, edited for length.
What is the alt-right, and what do members want?
It is predominantly an online phenomenon, and amorphous and somewhat diverse in terms of what the people who associate with the movement want, but really the core of the alt-right is white nationalism — or, at least, white identity politics. That’s what the people who are really pushing that movement forward stand for, even if not everyone who identifies with the alt-right or is an alt-right fellow traveler is fully on board with that message.
The people who are really pushing the alt-right have a similar vision, in terms of what they want, as the earlier white-nationalist movements. That is, the society that they’d like to live in probably looks somewhat similar to what the earlier white nationalists were calling for — so I think part of it is more a difference of style and marketing than a difference in substance, though I would note that it seems like most of the leading figures of the alt-right do disavow things like genocide, which some of the more outrageous earlier white nationalists didn’t necessarily do.
It seems as though the main focus is on the big picture right now. That is, the driving force of the movement wants to see the creation of homogeneous white nations, or a single white nation in North America, and there is diversity of opinion as to what follows that. [Some in the alt-right] say generally the way America works now is fine — it just has to be white.
That’s probably the modal view of the people who are really most involved, most dedicated, to this movement, though I’ve not seen a lot of details explained really — how, exactly, that would be accomplished. There are some articles out there. For example, a longtime white nationalist writer named Greg Johnson has talked a little bit about how something like this could be done. You start with the undocumented immigrants. You end birthright citizenship. You provide incentives for leaving the country. After it’s a much smaller, more manageable population, that’s when more draconian measures would be implemented.
How would you describe the typical person in the alt-right?
From the people I’ve talked to, I’d say that the modal alt-right person is a male, white millennial; probably has a college degree or is in college; is secular and perhaps atheist and [is] not interested in the conservative movement at all. For six decades now, the mainstream right has really been defined by its basic principles: traditional family values, limited government intervention in the economy and a hawkish foreign policy. The alt-right, from what I can tell, has zero interest in any of that.
Where does the term “alt-right” come from?
The term “alt-right” was born around 2008, coined by a young white nationalist (though he prefers the term identitarian) named Richard Spencer, and when the term was initially born, it seemed to be a fairly ecumenical term in that it really seemed to apply to just about anyone who was right-wing politically, but opposed to George W. Bush and especially to the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement. So, libertarians and paleoconservatives and the racial right all could be classified as alt-right, though, over time, the racial element became more explicit.
There was a period when the term alt-right really seemed to have fallen out of favor. [Spencer] stopped using it. The original alt-right website was shut down, and it seemed like the alt-right as a concept was really over with. And I think it caught a lot of people by surprise in 2015 when the term really exploded again, especially on social media. When the new racial right started to grow in 2015, a term was needed for it, and “white nationalism” was not a particularly compelling brand. And alt-right was available.
What has made this movement successful?
It’s learned how to very effectively use the Internet. With social media, they’ve been able to inject themselves into conversations with people that otherwise would not have ever engaged with that sort of thinking. There were message boards for people who had these types of ideas really since the Internet existed, but again it didn’t have much of an impact on people who weren’t interested in that sort of material already.
How does the alt-right compare with previous white-nationalist movements?
Its tone is very different. If we think about earlier movements — like William Pierce’s National Alliance, the National Socialist Movement, the Ku Klux Klan — none of those groups had much of an appeal to anyone who was not at least somewhat anti-social. Most normal people have no desire to join a skinhead gang, for example. The alt-right has been able to successfully brand itself as an edgy and fun and ironic movement that takes pleasure in needling both liberals and conservatives, and it’s tongue-in-cheek and rebellious as opposed to just being motivated by [the] genocidal hatred that you would see from people like William Pierce.
Sometimes, people in the alt-right claim it’s all just a joke. Do they really mean it?
A lot of the people who are sharing alt-right material online are just trolling and find it funny, but the people who are really dedicated content creators, the people who are spending massive amounts of time on this, this is more than just trolling — or if it is trolling, it’s trolling for a purpose. It’s not just because they find it funny.
Are there any alt-right women?
They’re hugely underrepresented in terms of the people who are really driving the movement forward, but there are a number of women podcasters, for example.
This movement in particular is more appealing to men, particularly given the degree to which it is also a very outspoken anti-feminist movement. Traditional masculinity, they’ll argue, is undervalued in contemporary society. They’re very fond of describing mainstream conservatives as “cucks,” which is obviously an emasculating term. There’s a general sense that a more patriarchal society would be superior to the society we have now.
I think there’s a general recognition on the alt-right that women tend to be more on the left than men — tend to support more egalitarian policies — and a recognition that extending the franchise to women probably did lead the United States to move in a more progressive direction. So, part of it, I think, is a sense that women in politics leads to politics moving more to the left.
How much support does the alt-right have among conservative voters more broadly?
At least if we’re talking about the really big-picture stuff and the most radical white-nationalist element, I don’t think there is a lot of support among ordinary conservatives. If you were to ask them, they would probably say that they reject that particular vision. A lot of ordinary conservatives are not in favor of multiculturalism, not in favor of immigration, not in favor of affirmative action, not in favor of a lot of the things that are happening in American society right now. But that’s different from actually supporting the creation of a white ethno-state.
Should Bannon be considered part of the alt-right?
I do not think Steve Bannon qualifies as part of the alt-right.
It’s true that Breitbart has flirted with the alt-right more than any other mainstream conservative publication, but its ultimate editorial line tends to be fairly generically conservative. It shares a lot of the alt-right style and tone, but not that much of its substance. Its main beef with the more mainstream conservatives, like those at the National Review or the Weekly Standard, is that they’re weak, and that they are not fighters willing to get their hands dirty, and that they capitulate too easily. But, ultimately, I think that the values, the editorial line of Breitbart, seem to be fairly generically conservative.
A lot of people who are on the alt-right read Breitbart and appreciate it, but Breitbart also maintains some plausible deniability that it’s not ultimately interested in race per se. I don’t think that that’s true of the alt-right.