Skeptic by Dr. George Michael received his Ph.D. from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. He is an associate professor of criminal justice at Westfield State University in Massachusetts.
Until recently, the alt-right was relegated to the cultural and political fringe consisting primarily of an obscure, largely on-line subculture. But after Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, its detractors feared that it could soon become a player at the very center of American politics. After all, alt-right activists were among Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, and in return, some believed that they deserved a seat at the table. Back in August of 2016, the alt-right was catapulted into national limelight when Hillary Clinton excoriated the movement, seeking to link it to her challenger in a much-heralded speech delivered in Reno, Nevada.1 That same month, Breitbart.com executive Steve Bannon had declared the website “the platform for the alt-right.”2 In the wake of Trump’s victory, Bannon joined Trump in the White House as a senior advisor. How did the movement gain traction in recent years? And now that Trump is president, could the alt-right change the American political landscape?
The Roots of the Alternative Right
To its critics, the alt-right is just a code term for white nationalism, a much-maligned movement associated with neo-Nazis and Klansmen.3 The movement, however, is more nuanced, as it encompasses a much broader spectrum of rightist activists and intellectuals besides white nationalists including those who believe in libertarianism, men’s rights, cultural conservatism, isolationism, and populism. Nonetheless, its origins can be traced to various American white nationalist movements that have endured for decades.
More than any other figure, the late Willis Carto was responsible for creating the semblance of a movement that came to be known as the far right in post-World War II America. Through the myriad of organizations he founded—Liberty Lobby, the Institute for Historical Review, and the Populist Party among others—he reached out to a wide array of rightists including white nationalists, Holocaust revisionists, conspiracy buffs, anti-globalists, and survivalists. But his big tent approach had only limited success and by the late 1990s was foundering. Furthermore, he was forced into bankruptcy in 2000, after losing a civil suit to a former subsidiary. A newspaper he launched—American Free Press—is still published, but its readership is limited. Carto passed away in 2015 at the age of 89.4 Although the various organs he established reached many rightists, some in the movement found his approach woefully unfit to gain credibility as a respected mass movement insofar as it seemed to be resigned to remain as an oppositional subculture. A number of well-educated rightist intellectuals sought to establish a new ideology capable of resonating with conservatives, especially young people.
Addressing the H.L. Mencken Club in 2008, Paul Gottfried described the “alternative right” as a dissident far right ideology that rejected mainstream conservatism. Gottfried—a conservative Jewish academic—previously coined the term “paleoconservative” in a rhetorical effort to distance himself and like-minded intellectuals from neo-conservatives who were becoming the dominant force in the Republican Party and broader conservative movement.5 The late Sam Francis, a former columnist for the Washington Times who was fired for his open advocacy of white nationalism, was regarded as the intellectual godfather of the paleoconservative movement. For years, he sharply criticized the Republican Party for its timidity, strategic myopia, and ideological bareness. Only a radical reorientation—a “middle American revolution”—could save the conservative movement and insure the European character of the nation.6 But the lackluster results of his friend Pat Buchannan in the 2000 presidential election, demonstrated the weakness of this approach at that time.
To be sure, some of the most radical elements of the far right have long advocated a revolutionary program. Groups such as the Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance, and the World Church of the Creator have preached RAHOWA (racial holy war) against ZOG, or the “Zionist Occupation Government.” Many were inspired by the late William L. Pierce’s Turner Diaries, a novel about a race war that consumes America that was one of the inspirations for Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But these exhortations to revolution did not resonate with most people. What is more, after 9/11, many of the revolutionary right’s leading representatives were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism statutes and sent to prison. By the mid-2000s, the far right appeared to have reached its nadir.
The Perils of Immigration
The primary issue for white nationalists is immigration. They claim that high fertility rates for third world immigrants and low fertility rates for native women—if left unchecked—threaten the very existence of whites as a distinct race.9 But even on the issue of demographic displacement, there is disagreement in the white nationalist movement on how this predicament came about. The more genteel representatives of the alt-right, such as Jared Taylor, argue that these trends developed over time because whites have lost the temerity necessary to defend their racial group interests. By contrast, the more conspiratorial segment of the movement implicates a deliberate Jewish-led plot to reduce whites to minority status.10 By doing so, Jews would render their historically most formidable “enemy” weak and miniscule—just another minority among many.
Emblematic of the latter view is Kevin MacDonald, a former professor of psychology at the California State University at Long Beach. In a trilogy of books released in the mid-to-late 1990s, he advanced an evolutionary theory to explain both Jewish and anti-Semitic collective behavior. According to MacDonald, anti-Semitism emerged not so much out of perceived fantasies of Jewish malfeasance, but because of genuine conflicts of interests between Jews and their Gentile hosts. Inasmuch as anti-Semitic movements have often been collectivistic in orientation, MacDonald argued that Jewish intellectuals, activists, and leaders have sought to fragment Gentile societies along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender. Over the past decade and a half, his research has been circulated and celebrated in white nationalist online forums.11
Although conspiracy theories can be found across the political spectrum, they feature most prominently in the far right. Based in Austin, Texas, Alex Jones has emerged as the most noted proponent of contemporary right-wing Conspiracism. His popular platform—Infowars—has enabled him to reach a broad audience whom he regales with exposés implicating the U.S. government, secret societies, and globalists in sinister plots to undermine the fabric of nations.12 It is worth mentioning that Jones is not without his critics on the far right. For example, some white nationalists deride Jones as a charlatan because he implicates phantom actors—including the Illuminati13—in a nebulous conspiracy to subvert America. They accuse him of leading people down a blind alley—“chasing demons”—instead of identifying what they see as the “real enemy,” that is a Jewish-led conspiracy to destroy the white race.14
The Internet facilitated the spread of conspiracy theories that before had limited currency. Although critics—including U.S. News & World Report, Los Angeles Times, and Mother Jones—have characterized Infowars as a “fake news” website, the mainstream media in America have lost much credibility over the past several years.15 The failure of the mainstream press to report accurately on the depth of support for candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election will only compound this problem. Though it is difficult to determine with great specificity how important Jones was in persuading voters to support Trump, he steadfastly supported the GOP renegade in his primary and general election campaigns.
Although conspiracy theories have long resonated with the far right, the more respectable mainstream conservative movement eschewed this vocation—the Libertarian right, for example, focused instead on small government, individual liberty, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. But after its standard bearer Ron Paul failed to gain traction in his 2012 presidential bid, as did his son Rand Paul when he dropped out of the 2016 race early, the libertarian community became disillusioned. What is more, social and cultural issues became more pronounced in American politics. As a consequence, the libertarian preoccupation with free market economics began to look stale.16 A new form of rightist ideology began to take form. The growing popularity of the new media was instrumental in this development.
A Growing Media and Internet Presence
Cyberspace became one area where white nationalists could exercise some limited influence on the broader culture. The subversive, underground edges of the Internet, including 4chan and 8chan, allowed young white nationalists to share and post comments anonymously. The alt-right has become an integral part of the meme and trolling culture in cyberspace. Through the use of memes, the alt-right has established a notable presence in the virtual world. Appropriating “Pepe the Frog,” the alt-right used humor and invective to reach out to young people who might find the political correctness of the dominant culture stultifying.17 Moreover, the growing number of blogs, wikis, and discussion forums enabled them to participate in the national discourse. Even on mainstream news sites such as USA Today, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, ordinary readers—including white nationalists—could troll the comments sections below articles.18[...]
Sometimes referred to as the “1488rs,” the revolutionary white nationalists believe that America will eventually collapse under the weight of racial strife.31 Some internal critics in the alt-right characterize them as the equivalent of Black Lives Matter supporters insofar as they both call for the total destruction of the current order and seek to replace it with a revolutionary new order.32
But how should white nationalists achieve their goals in an America that is projected by the U.S. Census Bureau to be majority non-white by the year 2042?33 Some activists insist that only a separatist course will ensure white racial survival. To date, the most formulated strategy has been advanced by Harold Covington, who founded the Northwest Front in the early 2000s as a vehicle for the creation of an all-white homeland in the Pacific Northwest. Given current demographic trends he argues that it is foolish to pursue a strategy that seeks to return America to a white majority population. Instead, by concentrating the assets of the white nationalist movement into a smaller area, Covington reasons that their goals have a greater likelihood of success. Beginning in 2003, he published a series of five novels based on a white separatist insurgency in the Pacific Northwest. Set in the not-too-distant future, the novels extol the exploits of the Northwest Volunteer Army, which mounts a war of attrition that eventually persuades the U.S. government to relinquish limited territory. In 2010, Covington began broadcasting an Internet radio program called Radio Free Northwest in which he exhorts Whites to relocate to the Pacific Northwest to form a community of like-minded activists.34
Often characterized as “the new face of hate,” Mathew Heimbach has emerged as the most articulate voice of White separatism in the United States over the past few years. Although he is only in his mid-twenties, he is an accomplished orator and an indefatigable organizer, frequently giving speeches at rallies and appearing on television news programs. He first gained notoriety in 2012 when he organized a White Student Union at Towson State University in Maryland. Since then, he founded the Traditionalist Youth Network which calls for the division of the United States into separate ethnically and culturally homogeneous autonomous states. Although most of his followers are white nationalists, he has reached out to separatists from other ethnic and racial groups. At the present time, he sees the Appalachian area as the most fertile ground for his white separatist aspirations.35 Seeking to establish ties with like-minded activists overseas, Heimbach identifies himself as the leader the Eurasian movement in the United States. The recognized leader of the Eurasian movement in the world is Alexander Dugin, a political theorist in Russia.[...]
Donald Trump and Entryism
Although the campaign of Donald Trump mobilized the movement that has come be known as the alt-right, it was not he who created it. After all, the issues that animate the movement—concern over immigration, national economic decline, and political correctness—existed long before Trump announced his candidacy. As Francis Fukuyama opined, the real question is not why populism emerged in 2016, but why it took so long to manifest.41 Not unlike the Brexit referendum over the summer of 2016, Trump’s startling victory confirms that there is a rising tide of nationalism in the West. The increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen could soon lead to a nationalist government in France, which like England, might opt out of the European Union.
Although the white nationalist movement in America has endured for decades, it remained highly marginalized with virtually no influence on the mainstream culture and certainly not over public policy. The candidacy of Donald Trump, however, was the catalyst that enabled a disparate collection of groups, which included white nationalists, to coalesce in what has come to be known as the alt-right. Still, because of the movement’s ideological diversity, it would be a serious mischaracterization to label the alt-right as exclusively white nationalist.
In some quarters in the political left, Trump’s surprising electoral victory was viewed with great disdain, almost as a contemporary version of Kristallnacht, occasioning the most strident condemnation and revulsion in recent memory.42 To some observers, Bannon’s appointment as Trump’s chief strategist confirmed their fears that the far-right fringe has penetrated the White House.43 And some alt-right activists did not disabuse them of their trepidation. At his organization’s conference in Washington, D.C., soon after the election, Richard Spencer raised his glass in a toast and exclaimed to his audience: “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory!” At this point, several of the attendees gave a celebratory Roman salute reminiscent of Hitler’s Third Reich.44 What came to be known as “hailgate,” earned him more notoriety and split the alt-right between moderates and hardliners.45
To date, however, Trump has eschewed explicit race-mongering, though he did say some unflattering things about some Mexican immigrants and voiced concern over radical Islam. Instead, Trump has promoted a form of civic nationalism that emphasizes “America first.” Although his rhetoric was often construed as impolitic on the campaign stump, he nevertheless reached out to all Americans irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed. In fact, he was the first major Republican presidential candidate in many years to have actually made a serious effort to attract African-American voters, pointing out that his proposed program of economic revitalization would create millions of new jobs for the chronically unemployed in America’s inner cities. It would be facile to characterize Trump’s victory as a “whitelash against a changing country” as described by CNN’s Van Jones.46 After all, roughly the same proportion of the white vote had gone to Mitt Romney four years earlier.47
Nevertheless, the election was racially-charged mainly in the mainstream media, which portrayed Trump and his supporters as bigoted. Ultimately, such depictions could become self-fulfilling prophecies as the scholar Walter Russell Mead observed:
The growing resistance among white voters to what they call “political correctness” and a growing willingness to articulate their own sense of group identity can sometimes reflect racism, but they need not always do so. People constantly told that they are racist for thinking in positive terms about what they see as their identity, however, may decide that racist is what they are, and that they might as well make the best of it. The rise of the so-called alt-right is at least partly rooted in this dynamic.48
The success of the Trump campaign demonstrated the potential influence of the alt-right in the coming years. At first blush, Trump’s victory in the Electoral College seems substantial, but his margin of victory in several key states was quite small.49 For that reason, support from every quarter he received—including the alt-right—was vitally important. Unlike other segments of the conservative movement, the alt-right never wavered in its support of Trump. And anecdotal evidence suggests that they were among his most avid foot soldiers in getting out the vote in both the primaries and general election.50 Moreover, the Trump campaign provided the opportunity for members of this movement to meet in a real world setting beyond their computer monitors and keyboards. His victory is sure to have instilled a great sense confidence in a movement that for so long has been maligned and marginalized. Shortly after the election Richard Spencer said that Trump’s victory was “the first step, the first stage towards identity politics for white people.”51 But if Trump does not deliver on his most emphatic campaign promises, such as building the wall and deporting undocumented aliens, the alt-right is likely to become disillusioned with him, not unlike some progressives who chastised Barack Obama for continuing to prosecute wars in the Middle East. In fact, before he even entered office, Spencer scaled back his enthusiasm for Trump because he was not focused enough on immigration and several of his appointments had connections to Goldman Sachs.52
Unlike old-school white nationalist movements, the alt-right has endeavored to create a self-sustaining counterculture, which includes a distinct vernacular, memes, symbols and a number of blogs and alternative media outlets. Taking a page from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, young alt-right activists have applied his tactics to conservative causes.53 The events of the year 2016 suggest that the movement has succeeded. Now that the movement has been mobilized and demonstrated its relevance, the alt-right is likely to grow, gaining a firmer foothold in both American politics and culture.
Conclusion: The Politics of Polarization
American political culture has historically been centrist. Consequently, the nativist elements of Trump’s campaign platform are likely to be watered-down if they are ever implemented. At times, President Trump will most surely find himself constrained by Congress, the Supreme Court, and state governments, not to mention the media and a whole host of private interests, such as major corporations whose operations he must encourage to remain in America to further his economic recovery plan.
As president, Trump now has the enormous task of restoring national unity. Soon after the election, numerous protests emerged in cities all across America. On inauguration day, more demonstrations followed mainly in Washington, but also a number of cities both in the United States and overseas under the rubric of the Women’s March.54 This development is unprecedented in American political culture with its longstanding record of the peaceful transition to power from one party to another. An ominous polarization threatens the very fabric of the nation.
Over a decade ago, the noted author Robert Kaplan prognosticated in his influential article, “The Coming Anarchy,” that it was not entirely clear that the United States would be able to survive exactly in its present form in the 21st century. As the quintessential multi-ethnic society, in contemporary America the concept of the nation state is becoming more fragile than it is in homogeneous nations.55 This same theme was taken up in 2004 when the political scientist, Samuel Huntington, released his book, Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he argued that the rise of multiculturalism and the demise of the assimilationist ethic could diminish the larger American national identity, which he believed was essential for the long-run survival of the country as a unified political entity.56 Whether Trump can live up to the high expectations that many Americans have pinned on him will depend on in large measure if he can forge some semblance of a national consensus.
And herein lies the great paradox of the alt-right. While white nationalists enthusiastically supported Trump—a candidate that repudiated identity politics and sought instead to restore national unity—they ultimately believe that their goals can only be achieved by the dissolution of the United States. Only in a Soviet-style break-up scenario could white nationalists establish the independent mono-racial states that they so desire. For this reason alone, the civic nationalism of Trump is likely to be at loggerheads with the ethno-nationalism of the alt-right at some point in the future.