Rise of the Alt-Right

Scott McConnell, The American Conservative, October 31, 2016

[Editor’s Note: This article is worth reading in its entirety. A redacted version is below.]

Twenty-one years ago I was assigned by Commentary to write about Jared Taylor–today known as one of the eminences of the “alt-right.” Taylor had written a grim book on American race relations, Paved With Good Intentions, which had been published by a mainstream house and was widely, if critically, reviewed. Though unusually skeptical about the prospect of blacks and whites living together harmoniously in the United States, it stopped well short of any systematically racist argument. The book had several fans among New Yorkers I knew prominent in journalism and city politics.

When I referred to it in passing in a New York Post column, we quickly received a fax from Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League stating that Taylor was far more extremist than I had let on. Curious to explore further, I queried Commentary–where I then did most of my non-newspaper writing–and they were interested.

I interviewed Taylor, read back issues of his monthly newsletter, American Renaissance (AR), and drafted a piece. AR was devoted primarily to demonstrating that in American history racism was as accepted as apple pie and that this was by no means a bad thing. It contained large doses of the evolutionary and biological racial thought fairly commonplace amongst American elites in the ’20s and ’30s. A central contention was that the United States could not thrive as an increasingly multiracial and multicultural country and that American whites were facing a kind of cultural dispossession.

I summarized this, quoting liberally, and concluded that the endgame vision of the AR crowd was potentially horrific, leading to national dissolution or civil war, while adding that continued mass immigration really would put the common culture of America under grave stress. If immigration rates went down, Taylor and AR would remain fringe players. If they rose, white racial anxieties would bubble to the surface, and Taylor might one day have his moment.

The piece was never published: Neal Kozodoy, Commentary’s editor, told me I had indulged Taylor too much and asked for a shorter, tighter rewrite. By then my brief summer vacation had ended, other tasks intervened, and I eventually lost interest.

Jared Taylor’s moment has not arrived, but clearly he has edged into the national conversation. He has been pictured and quoted in an anti-Trump attack ad produced by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he has been a guest on Diane Rehm’s show on NPR, and his core ideas have been broadcast–and excoriated–in magazines and websites great and small. He is now touted as one of the intellectual leaders of the alt-right, a diffuse movement of uncertain significance, but one deemed sufficiently important by the Clinton campaign for Hillary to devote a large portion of an August campaign speech to it. Donald Trump–who has almost surely never read a single article by an alt-right figure–is claimed by Clinton and other liberals to be under its influence and propagating its doctrines.

The truth is quite different: parts of the alt-right have raised their own visibility by attaching themselves to Trump. At the same time, Trump and his unanticipated success in winning the Republican nomination are symptoms of the same political and civilizational crisis that makes alt-rightish themes–at least in a more or less bowdlerized and soft-core form–compelling to a growing number of people.

♦♦♦

Taylor, 65, is old by alt-right standards, and is an atypical representative, though just how much so is difficult to discern, for much of the alt-right is anonymous. The movement fields no candidates, publishes few books or pamphlets. It is a creature of the web, strongest on Twitter. Pepe, an internet cartoon frog, is an alt-right character–and has actually been formally denounced by the Clinton campaign. Alt-right internet trolling, sometimes ugly, blatantly racist and anti-Semitic, is also part of the movement. There is some debate whether it should be taken as an offensive and unfunny joke–merry keyboard pranksters who enjoy pretending to be internet neo-Nazis, rather like punk rock bands of the late ’70s deploying Nazi imagery for shock effect–or is something more sinister, a genuine resurgence of hardcore racism and anti-Semitism. Likely it’s more the former, but it’s also likely that the alt-right banner has given the minute number of genuine neo-Nazis in the country a kind of protective shield.

Richard Spencer may serve as a bridge between older white nationalists such as Taylor and a younger alt-right internet crowd. It’s mistaken to call him or anyone else a leader–the movement has no procedure for choosing leaders–but he is clearly a pole of influence. He’s an intellectual entrepreneur who arrived in DC roughly ten years ago from a Duke graduate program. He worked at TAC for seven or eight months, where he was kind of a square peg in a round hole. Sometime thereafter his ideology began to crystallize. He started a website called AlternativeRight.com and later revitalized a white-nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, and launched a journal, Radix.

Spencer can be engaging and amusing, but his core doctrine is likely to remain, barring some sort of Mad Max-type Armageddon, well outside what most Americans would consider plausible or desirable.

What is the doctrine? At a recent press conference in DC, Spencer explained that the core of alt-right thought is race. Race is real, race matters, race is foundational to human identity. You cannot understand who you are without race. Many people would agree–at least privately or partially–with the first two assertions, but the third is the critical one, and has never been true historically or sociologically. (Not that there haven’t been groups of self-proclaimed pan-Asian or pan-African intellectuals who sought to make it true. Spencer fits into their tradition.) In any case, Spencer hopes somehow to spur whites into a kind of pan-white racial consciousness and galvanize them to become “aware of who we are,” and to prepare themselves, one day somehow, to form a white ethnostate. He refers to Theodore Herzl’s propagation of Zionism as a model for how such an ethnostate, seemingly a distant dream, could be eventually achieved. He fails to add that it took a Holocaust to make a Jewish State a reality.

{snip}

Prior to last fall, and before Hillary introduced the alt-right to a national audience, Spencer and Taylor held periodic conferences that could gather perhaps 200 people. (These were often held under shameful harassment by the leftist anti-First Amendment crowd, but that’s a different issue.) Spencer says he sees the alt-right as a vehicle that will influence politicians and intellectuals, taking as its model neoconservatism. {snip}

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What spurred this sudden emergence? It was not white-nationalist conferences or doctrine, which had been around forever, but events. Last year the West received a nasty high-voltage shock of political reality. The first jolt was the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. France had experienced jihadist murders before, but this time, the strike came in the center of Paris, and France was alarmed to find no small amount of support for the killing among its five million Muslim residents, many of them second- and third-generation citizens.

That spring and summer, European newspapers began to fill with reports of intensifying migrant and refugee flows, driven partially by the Syrian civil war and partially by the expansion and streamlining of people-smuggling routes from Africa. {snip}

By 2016 the welcome had grown cold. Hundreds of migrants sexually assaulted German women in and around the central train station of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, a mass assault that German authorities initially tried to cover up. {snip}

If the sexual assaults could be seen as the cultural edge of the migrant surge, it was more difficult for even liberal “anti-racist” European leaders to ignore or explain away the terrorism aspect. The Charlie Hebdo attack was followed by the mass slaughters at the Bataclan theater in Paris, at the Brussels Airport, then on a seaside promenade in Nice, culminating in the execution by knife of an aging French priest by two “assimilated” Muslim migrants in his church outside of Rouen. {snip}

{snip} Richard Spencer may be incorrect about America, but one remark from his press conference in DC last month was arresting:

The refugee crisis in Europe is something like a world war. It is in many ways a race war. In terms of direct violence it does not resemble World War I or II. It is a demographic struggle, a struggle for identity, a struggle of who is going to define the continent, period. It is a new kind of war, a postmodern war, a war through immigration. There are no trenches, no guns. But it is a world war.

Of course, it is not primarily a race war. Religion, or religious culture, plays a major and perhaps decisive role in the conflict, and conflict between Christendom and Islam is not new by any means. Still, there is something in the bluntness of Spencer’s depiction that rings more true than 90 percent of what appears in the American media, which invariably depicts the refugee crisis in humanitarian terms and terrorism as a barely related law-enforcement issue. It is surely not a coincidence that the alt-right began making strides into American consciousness precisely at the moment Muslims were surging into Europe as refugees, while others were blowing up Parisian rock concerts or mounting mass sexual assaults on European women.

{snip}

Whatever one might say about the alt-right, it is not perplexed. Few other political factions in America had a vocabulary ready for–or even made an effort to interpret seriously–what was going on in Europe, at a time when many people were seeking one.

{snip}

American developments in the fall of last year, while less critical than those in Europe, also spurred the alt-right. The rise of Black Lives Matter put into question one of the outstanding domestic-policy advances of the past generation, the dramatic reduction in urban crime rates, which has made possible the revitalization of many cities. The lie which held that America’s police forces were chock full of marauding racist murderers suddenly became mainstream, repeated endlessly on television and pushed in only slightly more subtle fashion by Obama’s own attorney general. Meanwhile, some urban neighborhoods were looted by rioters, and others saw dramatic spikes in their murder rates.

{snip}

It was predictable that such developments, touching on visceral areas of personal security, national sovereignty, and freedom of expression, would stir desire for a muscular response. Donald Trump filled the bill, if not always eloquently. So too, occasionally, did segments of the more established conservative media. But there was a market for a pushback as scathing and polemically unafraid as the left’s own polemicists, which might not have been the case four years earlier. This, as much as anything, accounts for the emergence of the alt-right, at least in its less ideologically extreme iterations.

{snip}

And though [Samuel] Huntington was a famous and deeply respected Harvard political scientist and a life-long Democrat, the concerns of Clash are those raised implicitly by Trump and explicitly by what I call the soft-core elements of the alt-right. There is, of course, much racism in American history, and there are enormous crimes for which Europe continues to strive to atone. But neither anti-racism nor respect for other cultures should be turned into a national or civilizational suicide pact. Here what Irving Kristol famously wrote about Sen. Joseph McCarthy comes to mind: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he like them is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”

In the now global faceoff between Western civilization versus mass immigration fused with multiculturalism, Kristol’s words describe with uncanny accuracy the dichotomy between Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and those most feverishly denouncing him on the other. Among the former, for all their faults, are those who want, unequivocally, Western civilization to survive. About the latter, no such thing is certain.

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