Jason Wilson, Guardian, August 23, 2016
The appointment of Breitbart Media’s executive chairman, Stephen Bannon, as Donald Trump’s campaign CEO has been greeted as a turning point in that presidential bid, and perhaps in conservative politics in America. We have been told that it “marks the official entree of the so-called ‘alt-right’ into the Republicans’ top campaign”, and that Trump’s election strategy “now resembles the alt-right dream of maximizing the white vote”. Reportedly, even Hillary Clinton will be addressing Trump’s alleged turn to the alt-right in a speech in Nevada this Thursday.
But what is the alt-right? It is new, difficult to pin down, and hard to understand. But it’s important to try to get a handle on who is involved, what they believe, and what their possible influence might be on the immediate future of rightwing politics.
A movement that lives and breathes–and taunts–online
The alt- (or alternative) right has surged as a (so far) mainly online movement, occupying positions beyond the pale of many conservatives. It has no centralised organisation or official ideology–it has been described as “scattered and ideologically diffuse”.
The alt-right has been involved in fleeting street protests, but its online activities are well-organised and relentless. It recruits by opposing progressive ideas about gender, sexuality, and especially race and immigration. Adherents congregate on message boards like 4chan and 8chan, comment on websites like the Right Stuff and American Renaissance, and lurk on Twitter, where they taunt progressives (or “shitlibs”) and mainstream conservatives (“cuckservatives”).
The association with Breitbart comes from the efforts of Milo Yiannopoulos to appropriate and popularise the term. At the height of his Twitter-driven notoriety, Yiannopoulos wrote a manifesto introducing the tendency to mainstream conservatives. But are Breitbart and Bannon really a part of the movement? Some of its most hardcore activists say no.
Race realism and ethno-nationalism: what the alt-right believes
Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” in 2008, says he intended the term to describe a diverse, heterodox group whose members were “deeply alienated, intellectually, even emotionally and spiritually, from American conservatism”.
They were disillusioned at the end of the Bush presidency by Republican policies on war and immigration. They sought to draw on currents like the European New Right to transform what they saw as a moribund conservative movement. He and others connected with the succession of websites he edited–such as Taki magazine and alternativeright.com–wrote extensively, focusing the alt-right into a more definite ideology, with increasingly hardline ideas about race.
Spencer says that the term is still flexible, but affiliation has some minimum requirements. “Someone who is really alt-right recognises the reality of race, and the fact that race matters, and that race is an essential component of identity.”
Shane Burley, a journalist and researcher who has covered the far right extensively, says that Spencer’s orientation “is clearly under the umbrella of what we would call fascism”. Spencer’s so-called “race realism” underpins theories of racial hierarchy, and the idea that it has a basis in biology. Related ideas of “human biodiversity” attempt to buttress the notion that race is destiny, and the primary organising category of society and history. Radix is full of articles that link race with IQ or crime. This revival of previously discredited scientific racism is another recurring feature of alt-right thought.
Burley says that the very fact that these ideas were once so thoroughly discredited opens up a gap for them to be promulgated again. “Right now the arguments against their race and IQ position are less well-known, so they have the ability to plant the seed in the public imagination.
“Almost all of the studies that they cite are marginal, construct-sweeping theories on the basis of very little data, and don’t demonstrate the causal links that they claim for them.”
Other adherents emphasise their desire for racial separatism. Mike Enoch, from the site the Right Stuff, a major hub for the dissemination of alt-right materials, says: “The core principle, in my view, is ethno-nationalism, meaning that nations should be as ethnically and racially homogeneous as possible.”
As for Breitbart, Enoch thinks that it “is the closest thing to sympathetic to our position that is out there in the mainstream, and there may be some people that share our views that work there, but the official editorial line of Breitbart is not alt-right”.
Chip Berlet, a veteran researcher of the far right and the coauthor of Right-Wing Populism in America, says that the idea of ethno-nationalism is derived from the European New Right. It’s the claim that “every ethno-religious nationalist group has the right to its own homeland”.
This willingness to make open racial appeals is reflected in another fundamental claim on the alt-right that, as Spencer puts it, is the preponderance of “Jewish power and Jewish influence”. This antisemitism dovetails with other kinds of conspiracy thinking–in the last week, alt-right Twitter accounts have been pushing the claim that Hillary Clinton is hiding serious health problems.
Berlet says antisemitism has “always been a dividing line on the US right”, separating the fringes from more mainstream groups, and “rightwing movements in the US have been obsessed with conspiracies since the Salem witch-hunts and the anti-Masonic scares. Nativist movements have always embraced the motif of subversion. It’s normal for them: it makes them into heroes who have exposed a plot.”
‘A sense that white identity is under attack’
Perhaps the most potent element of alt-right activism is the effort to build a sense of a specific white identity, and to claim that this identity is under attack.
“Anti-white animus in society at large is palpable,” says Spencer. Demands for diversity in the workplace mean “less white males in particular”. More openly extreme alt-right accounts on Twitter talk about immigration in terms of “white genocide”.
This sense of injured white identity is what defines the alt-right, according to Dan Cassino, a Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist and the author of a new book on Fox News and American politics. “The founding myth of the alt-right is that the disadvantaged groups in American politics are actually running things through a combination of fraud and intimidation. By doing this, they’re actually oppressing white men.”
The “original sin” of current American politics, according to Cassino, is that neither liberals nor conservatives have a very good answer to the question of what is to be done about “the people who get screwed over” by economic policies.
If these sentiments are growing, it may mean a larger and more receptive audience for the more radical message of the alt-right. Adherents claim that the movement is expanding.
Spencer does not have solid figures, but claims to have seen many new faces at his events, including young people who have been “redpilled”–or racially “awoken”–in the last year. Enoch claims that the Right Stuff’s suite of podcasts gets more than 100,000 listeners a week.
It may be that a growing audience for these ideas is pulling Breitbart in a more hardline direction. Spencer calls Breitbart “alt-right lite”, and says that its fundamental populism has led them to tentatively begin to express ideas similar to his.
Berlet says just because Bannon is not a card-carrying member of the alt-right does not mean that progressives should be relaxed about Trump’s erratic and intermittently fascist-sounding campaign.
Berlet does not think that American politics has been in such a dangerous place vis-a-vis the far right for almost a century. For him, the parallels between the Trump campaign and the alt-right are “the most important pushback against having a multicultural and pluralistic society since the 1920s Klan”.