Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Thomas Jackson, American Renaissance, September 29, 2017

College professor does his best to understand the movement.

George Hawley, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, Columbia University Press, 2017, 212 pp., $28.00.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right is one of the best introductions available today to the racial dissident movement. University of Alabama political science professor George Hawley writes from a hostile perspective, but has clearly done careful research and rarely strikes a false note.

Beware of the words “making sense” in the title, however. This book does not try to understand the Alt-Right; it describes, categorizes, traces associations, names names, and digs up intellectual roots, but never tries to explain why anyone would agree with the Alt-Right. Instead, it consigns the entire movement to the moral leper colony:

[T]he Alt-Right is . . . at its core, a racist movement. I am generally hesitant (perhaps too hesitant) to label an individual, group, or political movement as racist. But in the case of the Alt-Right, there is no other appropriate word.

The last page of the book strikes the same tone:

[W]e can be reasonably concerned that a growing percentage of white America no longer views racism as a moral failing and is willing to be associated with explicit white-identity politics.

Prof. Hawley has spent enough time studying the movement to have heard powerful arguments against the prevailing orthodoxy on race, so it is a pity he does not cite even one. Perhaps Columbia University Press insisted that the only explanation of Alt-Right thinking readers needed was the word “racist,” but a cheap dismissal of this kind is a disappointment in a book claims to “make sense” of a movement.

Prof. Hawley is right, though, to note that although the Alt-Right has certain intellectual antecedents, it is an original movement. Every time a new current of thought “progressives” don’t like appears, they think it is an extreme version of “conservatism,” but this time they are wrong. Prof. Hawley notes that:

The Alt-Right rejects the major premises of the conservative movement: the so-called three-legged stool of moral traditionalism, economic liberty, and strong national defense. None of these conservative shibboleths seem to interest the Alt-Right.

Instead, racial identity and preservation are what drive the Alt-Right. If the Constitution, American tradition, individual rights, or Christianity have to be jettisoned to save the race, many in the Alt-Right would jettison them.

Also unlike traditional conservatives, Prof. Hawley notes that the Alt-Right doesn’t care much about abortion, homosexuality, or tax rates. In foreign policy, it does not want to export democracy, and opposes the current close relationship with Israel. Its spokesmen are more likely to read thinkers from the European New Right than to read Edmund Burke, Montesquieu, or The Federalist Papers. Many have little or no attachment to the United States as a political or historical entity and, unlike conservatives, see immigration as a racial rather than an economic problem. Like conservatives, however, the Alt-Right is “sex-realist,” and suspicious of feminism.

Prof. Hawley notes that some of the older people in the Alt-Right were originally paleoconservatives or libertarians. He mentions the impact of such paleos as Paul Gottfried and Samuel Francis and the libertarian Hans Herman Hoppe, and notes the peripheral influence of Neo-Reaction and the Dark Enlightenment. Now, however, many young whites find their first intellectual home in the Alt-Right rather than passing through something else.

Alt-Right activists march through the University of Virginia campus. (Credit Image: © Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press)

Prof. Hawley points out that conservatism has traditionally policed its borders to keep out “racists,” “anti-Semites,” and “conspiracy theorists.” This is no longer possible. First, organized conservatism is weaker than ever, and lacks a pope—like William F. Buckley—with the power to excommunicate. Second, the internet has made it possible for anyone with wit and persistence to gain a following; closing the pages of National Review or Commentary to them means nothing to such people. Finally, the dissidents Buckley purged from conservatism wanted to be part of it, so the threat of expulsion kept frisky thinkers on a leash. The Alt-Right sees conservatism as, if anything, more of an obstacle than the Left, and laughs at the thunderbolts it hurls.

Partly, this is because the Right venerates America, whereas a widely held Alt-Right goal could break up the United States. White nationalists want an “ethnostate,” in which they are the acknowledged and permanent majority. Some talk openly of deporting non-whites, while others propose partition along racial lines. Prof. Hawley refuses to believe that the desire for an ethnostate is a positive affirmation of identity. He says Alt-Righters insult people of other races too often for him to believe that the desire for separation is rooted in anything but animus.

What accounts for the Alt-Right’s current prominence? Prof. Hawley argues that it “successfully injected itself into the national conversation when it mastered the art of trolling.” Alt-Righters, many of them anonymous, baited prominent people on social media and provoked them into angry exchanges—which only attracted attention to the Alt-Right. Prof. Hawley cites the galvanizing effect of the Alt-Right slur “cuckservative,” which sent conservatives into a fury—which, again, attracted attention to the Alt-Right.

Prof. Hawley also emphasizes the importance of the new movement’s style. There had always been racial nationalists, but they came across as bitter and cranky. Young Alt-Right provocateurs may say ferocious things about Jews and minorities, but in jokey, light-hearted ways. Prof. Hawley complains that they may paradoxically be a greater threat than older “racists” because their clever memes and images make them seem less threatening. He is also worried that, unlike blue-collar KKK or skinheads, many of the young men in the Alt-Right are attractive and well educated.

Prof. Hawley also gives Hillary Clinton and the liberal media credit for turning the spotlight on the Alt-Right. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s enemies tried to discredit him by tying him to Alt-Right figures who liked him, and by making it seem that his support came overwhelmingly from “deplorables.” This strategy backfired: When Mr. Trump won anyway, the Alt-Right could use the media’s exaggerations to claim it had won the election for him.

Richard Spencer, leader of the National Policy Institute, speaks to reporters. The NPI, a white nationalist group, held a conference at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in downtown Washington D.C. on Saturday, November 19, in part to celebrate Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
(Credit Image: © Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA Press)

Mr. Hawley adds that both the Trump victory and the Alt-Right’s prominence were possible only because the conservative movement is so weak. Mr. Trump scoffed at National Review and The Weekly Standard and won anyway; those magazines and movements repeatedly curse the Alt-Right only to see it flourish.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right is useful in other ways. It traces the origins of the name “Alt-Right,” and describes the work of the movement’s better-known figures: Richard Spencer, Greg Johnson, Andrew Anglin, Kevin MacDonald, Jared Taylor, Mike Enoch, and Nathan Damigo. Prof. Hawley even recognizes the importance of William Regnery in founding the National Policy Institute and putting Mr. Spencer in charge of it. The book also touches briefly on such “Alt-Lite” personalities as Gavin McInnes, Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, and Paul Joseph Watson, noting the tensions that sometimes arise between the two groups.

Nathan Damigo of Identity Evropa, in attendance at a National Policy Institute conference. (Credit Image: © Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA Press)

Prof. Hawley believes that the Alt-Right will be around for the foreseeable future, but describes what could be crippling obstacles. He points out that at the whim of a few giant internet companies, the entire movement could be deplatformed and silenced. He also explains the importance of anonymity to so many Alt-Right foot soldiers, and the corresponding menace of doxing. He is right to argue that unprovoked antifa violence is probably not a great hindrance, because it generally wins sympathy. Ultimately, however, if the Alt-Right is to stop being a gadfly and have real influence, it must grow up, come out of the internet into the real world, and build institutions. There could come a time when “progressives” face serious racialist opposition and grow nostalgic for the tame “conservatives” they used to battle.

Prof. Hawley does not relish that prospect: “[I]f the Alt-Right continues to grow in size, it may represent a serious challenge for America’s liberal democracy.” It could certainly challenge liberalism, but if whites ever have the chance to vote explicitly in their own interests, it will be an affirmation of democracy, not a threat to it.

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Thomas Jackson

Thomas Jackson lives in Virginia and has been writing for American Renaissance for more than 20 years.

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