Who makes up this movement [the alt-right], 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.
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.
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.