This weekend, members of the so-called “alt-right” movement gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate Donald Trump’s electoral victory and their ascendance as the “intellectual vanguard” of the Trumpist movement. Media coverage of the event has largely focused on their appearance and struggled to find the vocabulary to accurately describe, at least in short hand, who these people are and what they believe.
Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute and coiner of the term “alt-right,” is described in a recent Mother Jones profile as “an articulate and well-dressed former football player with prom-king good looks and a ‘fashy’ (as in fascism) haircut.” His aim, the piece describes, is to “make racism cool again.” Attendees at this weekend’s NPI-hosted conference, the Los Angeles Times reported, “more resembled Washington lobbyists than the robed Ku Klux Klansmen or skinhead toughs that often represent white supremacists, though they share many familiar views.” The alt-right movement, according to POLITICO, “has been associated with racism and anti-Semitism.”
This last is something of an understatement: The “alt-right” movement, which has gleefully embraced Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised “deplorables” epithet, is a reactionary coalition of white supremacists, neo-monarchists, radical misogynists, and outright fascists. Senior White House advisor Steve Bannon has described his website, Breitbart News, as a “platform for the alt-right.” It is an Internet ideology of resentment that has wound its way from the world of pick-up artistry to Gamergate to, now, the White House. (Jezebel has used the term “alt-right” to refer to this loose conglomerate, among other monikers. Going forward, however, we resolve to be as specific as possible in naming their beliefs.)
It can be difficult and confusing to know how to talk about a phenomenon like this, especially because the movement’s explicit intent is to operate outside—for now, at least—of the political vocabulary and system of values most people in the United States have, in the past 50 years, consciously or unconsciously come to accept. “Donald Trump has a lot to do,” alt-right blogger Vox Day wrote on his website immediately following the election. “It is the Alt-Right’s job to move the Overton Window and give him conceptual room to work.” (The ‘Overton Window’ is a theory that there is a range of acceptable ideas in the public’s political imagination, and that anything outside of that is impossible for most people to even begin to articulate.) For Day and his ilk, moving the Overton Window, as the New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz notes, has meant overwhelming the Internet with misinformation, inscrutable memes, neologisms, and pseudo-scientific racial theories. Any attempt to engage with these ideas and their adherents is crazy-making: They are cunning and devious sophists.
Given the movement’s composition, however, one might reasonably feel reluctant to turn its labeling over to its adherents. “This is how you sneak these ideas into the mainstream,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich told the Los Angeles Times after this weekend’s conference. “The guys in the suits are the ones we have to worry about.” A taxonomy of right-wing extremism is necessary and important (the Left’s propensity to descend into semantic navel-gazing notwithstanding). But to allow the “alt-right” to dictate the terms of the conversation is to cede ground that we simply cannot afford to surrender.
In part, the term “alt-right” rankles because it is so non-specific, the “alt” gesturing more obviously to “alt rock,” than, say, white supremacy. But is calling them white supremacists any more fruitful? Perhaps not, to the extent that it does not account for their misogyny as well as their racism. There is, too, a subtle distinction to be made between ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white nationalism.’ From the New York Times:
Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University in London, has spent years studying the ways that ethnicity intersects with politics. While most researchers in that field focus on ethnic minorities, Professor Kaufmann does the opposite: He studies the behavior of ethnic majorities, particularly whites in the United States and Britain.
White nationalism, he said, is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.
So, like white supremacy, white nationalism places the interests of white people over those of other racial groups. White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy.
Members of the movement have described to me their support for white separatism, as well—basically, a reinstatement of the doctrine that the races should be “separate but equal.” This idea, articulated in the 1986 Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson, was overturned by the Court in 1954, with Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Meanwhile, to call the movement a neo-Nazi one—cathartic, certainly—is only correct to the extent that some of its members (and maybe even a substantial number) consciously ascribe to that specific iteration of white supremacy. Still, it’s not unfounded: Attendees at this weekend’s conference, the New York Times reports, met the conclusion of Richard Spencer’s address with Nazi salutes and shouts of “Heil the people! Heil victory!” They’re not alone, either: In Sweden, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement held the largest rally in its history (some 600 people) last weekend to herald Trump’s victory. Thousands of anti-fascists held a counter-demonstration, throwing snowballs and fireworks at the Nazis, TheLocal.se reported.
(Right-wing extremists the world over—including ISIS!—are very concerned with the negative impact of “political correctness.” And, as The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins pointed out on Twitter, dubbing a broadly reactionary movement as Nazism almost exoticizes the phenomenon, implying that the ideology is somehow foreign. This implication elides the appeal of both white supremacy generally and Nazism specifically in the United States.)
So. If we are to deny this movement its chosen moniker—and thereby dent, hopefully, its claim to legitimacy and respectability—what should we call them instead? Perhaps they deserve mockery and nothing more, although any short-hand descriptor at all risks failing to adequately yoke the individuals to the consequences of their stated beliefs and values. (See: “Drumpf.”)
In any case, Marantz is correct: This movement is not monolithic—but ideology does not require orthodoxy or strict, universal adherence to its tenants. It does require a broad alignment of interests and a willingness to work together. Ultimately this leads to a distinction without a difference—who cares what the man whose boot is on your neck actually believes?—but to the extent that we must know our enemy before we can fight him it seems worthwhile to acknowledge that not all of our enemies are precisely the same, even if we must treat them all as antagonists.