The phrase “alt-right” was conceived as a catchall for various unsavory subcommunities of the anti-establishment conservative right by Richard Spencer. The baby-faced white nationalist founded AlternativeRight.com in 2010 and now serves as president of the National Policy Institute, a Virginia-based think tank that cloaks extremist ideas in airy, academic language. For several years, the movement festered on the periphery of mainstream political discourse on message boards such as 4chan and 8chan, where its acerbic spirit and menacingly goofy aesthetic developed, partially through memes. Now, with the election of its “God Emperor,” Donald Trump, as president, the alt-right has become a subject of fascination — and revulsion — nationwide. Still, confusion about what exactly this group is and how it differs from other types of conservatism abounds. Here are the five most commonly repeated myths.
This movement seems like something new in American politics. “There are many things that separate the alternative right from old-school racist skinheads (to whom they are often idiotically compared),” Allum Bokhari and alt-right icon Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in Breitbart in March , “but one thing stands out above all else: intelligence.” Hillary Clinton, too, seemed to imagine the alt-right as a fresh phenomenon, calling it an “emerging racist ideology ” in an August speech.
While the amorphous term “alt-right” can be helpful for characterizing a certain kind of young white nationalist who’s technically savvy and culturally literate, as distinct from the unreconstructed racists and anti-Semites of yore, the distance is shorter than they would have you believe. At a National Policy Institute conference in Washington this month, excited members of the alt-right shouted: “Hail our people! Hail victory!,” and Tila Tequila, the Vietnamese American former reality-TV star who’s been praising Hitler on Twitter for the past year, was photographed performing a Nazi salute with two young men. The alt-right is the same old hate, in other words, just with trendier packaging.
Burying racist and anti-Semitic ideas in fancy language is nothing new, of course. David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard, shed his Klan robe for a suit and now calls himself a “human rights activist .” This is clearly about presenting a more salable front for the persuadable public. But if it salutes like a Nazi, you can safely call it one.
A frequent theme among the movement is its insistence on needling the mainstream for giggles. “The alt-right are just adolescent trolls who spout garbage for shock value,” Fox News host Greg Gutfeld told his audience in late August. Meanwhile, NPR described members of the alt-right as those who, “for fun and notoriety . . . like to troll, prank and provoke.”
But there’s more here than cheeky irreverence. The alt-right’s swift ascent occurred in part because its members bombarded journalists, particularly Jewish or nonwhite ones, with racist and anti-Semitic messages and imagery on social media, especially Twitter . There, they praised Hitler with a twinge of irony, the way hipsters drink PBR, and they corrupted the harmless meme Pepe the Frog by dressing him up as a Wehrmacht soldier. They told adversaries they’d be heading to the ovens . It was a real riot.
The alt-right also exists offline. After Trump’s win, reports of bias-based crimes have ticked up , and pro-Nazi, racist graffiti has begun appearing across the United States. Meanwhile, one of the movement’s purveyors now has the president-elect’s ear and will get his own dignified perch in the White House: Until recently, Steve Bannon was the chairman of Breitbart News, which he once proudly called “the platform of the alt-right.”
Time magazine called the alt-right “a rising movement” in mid-November, echoing the Week, which fretted over the “rise of the alt-right” in October. New York magazine reported in September that the movement was “having a bit of a moment,” the same month the Atlantic predicted that a Trump win “would make the alt-right more powerful than it has ever been.”
The alt-right began online and mostly lives there, where its devotees post to message boards and troll “cucks” (milquetoast conservatives) and “normies” (people with conventional, mainstream views) with such frequency that it can seem as though they’re everywhere. But how many people constitute the movement is virtually unknowable. It’s a loose and informal congregation: They don’t have memberships, and the majority of those who self-identify do so through anonymous accounts.
Easy to quantify, however, was the turnout at the National Policy Institute’s recent event in Washington: 275 people, or roughly 3,300 fewer than attended a June convention in Reno, Nev., for people who enjoy, among other pursuits, dressing up in anthropomorphic animal suits . “Alt-right” didn’t even win word of the year in the Oxford Dictionaries’ annual contest — that prize went to “post-truth.” While the alt-right is real and visible, there’s no reason to believe it’s a very vast group or one that will stick around for very long.
Trump’s spokesmen have gone to great lengths to distance him from the alt-right, with a recent statement from Bryan Lanza saying that “President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind and he was elected because he will be a leader for every American.” On Tuesday, Trump told New York Times reporters and editors, “I don’t want to energize the [alt-right], and I disavow the group.”
But when Clinton delivered her speech about the alt-right in August, Trump responded not by disavowing the movement but by labeling her a bigot . And outside his post-election comments to the Times, Trump hasn’t specifically addressed the alt-right. He has never asked its members to stop photoshopping Jewish journalists into gas chambers in his honor. What’s more, he has often seemed to wink in their direction by deploying their rhetoric, with his talk of opposing “globalism,” his repeated retweets of alt-right Twitter accounts and his use of imagery — such as a Star of David illustration — that originated on Nazi websites.
Nationalist movements are spreading globally, and the alt-right has fans and adherents at home and abroad. Yiannopoulos, one of the most visible faces of the brand, is British. Those posting online under the alt-right banner frequently purport to be from outside America. Bannon has sought to work with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, of France’s National Front, and, according to the Huffington Post, Richard Spencer dreams of “nothing less than a white ethno-empire stretching across North America and Europe.” An analysis in the Guardian said Spencer’s views “have almost nothing to do with American political thought.” The alt-right, in this telling, is not a movement of patriotic rubes but a meaningful part of a broader picture of Western populist revolt.
Actually, the alt-right is a very American movement, and we have have plenty of historical precedent for fringe right-wing malcontents. When you add up our history of racial segregation, Know-Nothing nativism and right-wing populist movements, it’s not hard to see how today’s alt-right has plenty to anchor itself to in the American story. It should come as no surprise that a prominent “race-realist” publication that tracks closely with alt-right ideology calls itself “American Renaissance”— which echoes hopes of making America great again.