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Monday, 19 March 2018 07:41

Splinterland: The Rise of the "Alt-Right" in Trump's United States

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AltRight 0319wrp opt(Photo: Blink O'fanaye / Flickr)The alt-right, with its passel of unknown principals, and ultra-active social media platforms, took the mainstream media by surprise. In his book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in The Age of Trump, veteran journalist and right-wing watcher David Neiwert, writes that the mainstream media "largely succumbed to the whitewashed version of the [alt-right] movement peddled by Breitbart.com," by frequently referring to the alt-right as being a collection of provocateurs, whose "goal," as The Washington Post once characterized it, "is often offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness in the way that many young white men embrace."

But the goals of the alt-right have always been more than mere provocation or offensiveness. In 2009, the white nationalist, Richard Spencer, coined the term "alternative right" while an editor at the paleoconservative Taki's Magazine. "Less than year later," Neiwert writes in Alt-America, Spencer "founded his own webzine and named it 'The Alternative Right.' In short order, the nature of Internet discourse at the site shortened the name of the movement it promoted to 'alt-right.' The name stuck."  

With backing from the anti-immigrant polemicist, Peter Brimelow, and the VDare Foundation, Spencer's publication fully embraced "white nationalism as his guiding philosophy, including its conspiracism, its underlying racism, and its anti-Semitism," Neiwert pointed out.

Dressed up in a suit and tie, and "projecting a sense of calm rationality," Spencer set out to recruit fellow travelers with a standard pitch: "As long as whites continue to avoid and deny their own racial identity, at a time when almost every other racial and ethnic category is rediscovering and asserting its own, whites will have no chance to resist their dispossession."  

For casual observers, and perhaps even some resolute right-wing watchers, the re-emergence of the white nationalist right has come as somewhat of a surprise. However, since the rise of New Right – both religious and secular -- more than three decades ago, conservative forces have been organizing with a frenzy. Out of the New Right grew powerful right-wing media outlets; a flock of conservative think tanks and public policy institutes, funded by a handful of conservative millionaires and billionaires; an invigorated religious right; patriot militias; the Tea Party movement; and now a movement that's being called the alt-right, a broad collection of white supremacists, xenophobes, white nationalists and savvy political provocateurs.

As Neiwert, who has covered right-wing extremist movements, and whose previous books include The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right and Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese-American Community, told me in an interview, this is America in the age of Trump.

Bill Berkowitz: The alt-right is a rather loosely thrown around term. Define the alt-right, and provide some background as to where that term originally came from, and why it may be masking real intentions?

Dave Neiwert: The alt-right originated with young white-nationalist ideologues dissatisfied with mainstream conservatism who began creating their own movement around 2008-09, getting its name from Richard Spencer's short-lived publication Alternative Right, which was shortened to "alt-right" as in techie lingo very shortly. What really distinguishes the alt-right from previous radical-right movement is not so much the content (the ideas really are just a rehash of stale eugenics and white supremacy from the 1920s) as the packaging and delivery: It's very much geared toward recruiting young white males ages 14-30, particularly by leveraging social media, humor, and world-wise irony in the form of memes and ideas traded back and forth like so much banter among trolls in online forums. It's now in the process of trying to manifest itself.

Another feature of the alt-right that distinguishes it from previous far-right movements is that, while in many ways it's an umbrella term for a wide range of frequently disparate components – nationalists longing for a white ethno-state; misogynists who want to annihilate feminism; outright neo-Nazis who despise other races; nativists who are paranoid about immigrants and "terrorists"; conspiracy theorists whose wide-ranging and always dubious (and frequently outrageous) claims often have an ethnic and racial undertone; and contrarian anti-political-correctness warriors who despise all forms of social political niceties – it also reflects a melding of those components. The movement attracts recruits often through one of these facets and then converts them to others. Frequently young people attracted to the alt-right through the smirking image of Pepe as a form of youthful rebellion against "PC bullshit" and "social justice warriors" wind up becoming full-fledged white nationalists in relatively short order.

Berkowitz: What role does race play in the alt-right? Dog whistles, or out and out open racism?

Neiwert: Race in most regards is central to the alt-right's aggrieved claims of persecution at the hands of minorities, immigrants and anti-Western ideologues, and it's really one of the ongoing projects of the alt-right to create a white male ethnostate. It's part of their appeal, particularly when they make appeals to "political correctness." However, the extent to which one embraces white nationalism and, eventually, some of the really ugly open bigotry in the movement is also one of the main markers between the hardcore alt-right – including the so-called 14/88ers, the unapologetic neo-Nazi bloc – and the so-called "alt-lite," the outer zone of the movement that eschews open racism and bigotry, but instead claims to be arguing from a broadly intellectual view. The former, of course, have relatively little use for the latter, and vice versa. But while the "alt-lite" says it's opposed to white nationalism, its proponents in fact indulge in a great deal of classic right-wing racial dog-whistling.

Berkowitz: Given all of his troubles, is Steve Bannon a significant figure and is Breitbart News still a standard bearer?

Neiwert: Bannon and Breitbart are definitely reflective of the "alt light" bloc of the movement, engaging in a lot of wink-and-nudge racial incendiarism and the goofy conspiracism, but never the open bigotry or racial/ethnic nationalism of the core alt-right represented by Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin. This segment has actually grown quite a bit in the past year or so, mostly under the aegis of social-media figures like Mike Cernovich and Laura Loomer, while Bannon's influence appears to be on the wane, especially after the debacle he endured due to his effort to support the ultimately doomed Alabama Senate campaign of Roy Moore.

Berkowitz: At the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit, the religious right fully embraced the pre-toxic Bannon. What does the religious right expect to gain by lining up with white nationalists?

Neiwert: This actually happened during the campaign, before the election, but it has solidified since then due to Trump's policies in office, particularly his judicial nominees, his selection of Jeff Sessions to head the DOJ and its subsequent push for "religious freedom," as well as his constant trumpeting of "pro-life" views. The key to understanding how and why it happened in the face of Trump's rather naked amorality in his personal life lies in the far more important identity that Trump presents to the right generally, including the evangelical right: a classic right-wing authoritarian leader. We have seen right-wing authoritarianism increasingly ascendant in the mainstream right ever since 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Bush years generally, and the trend was insanely inflamed by the Tea Party movement reaction to the Obama presidency. It really reached full fruition with Trump. Considering that evangelical Christianity is prone to a kind of innate authoritarianism (embodied in its insistence on Biblical inerrancy), it's not surprising that the people attracted to it are similarly drawn to its political variant. In fact, it's quite natural. They view Trump as a strong leader who will pass their agenda. The other stuff is just persiflage.

Berkowitz: How do you see things moving from here?

Neiwert: The bigger picture – with right-wing extremism ascendant in Europe as well, and authoritarianism ascendant not just there but in Asia too – is deeply disturbing. If Trump actually succeeds in consolidating his power as an authoritarian – something you can easily see him reaching for in a wartime situation, or in the wake of a major terrorist event – then American democracy could very well go extinct. Americans need to wake up the threat.

The alt-right is a profoundly anti-democratic movement. Its entire goal, its raison d'être, is to replace democracy with a white male authoritarian regime. They don't necessarily delude themselves into believing that Trump is fully sympatico with their aims, but he clearly (as White House aides have admitted to the press) sees himself as the champion of the white working class voters he built his appeal around, and sees himself waging a culture war – one imposed by Barack Obama and liberals and minorities – on their behalf. And they are perfectly fine to dispose of democracy and its annoying institutions if they need to.

We can see this just in the administration's policies – its hostility to minority voting rights, its hostility to public education, its hostility to environmental protections, its hostility to investigating an attack on our voting institutions by a hostile foreign power – but also in its overt authoritarianism. It's constantly and increasingly on display.

The answer to this attack on democracy is, in fact, more and better democracy. Millions of people do not vote because they believe politics doesn't affect their daily personal lives. They've had a rude awakening since January 2017. And it's time to get them out of their too-lazy-to-vote zones and into voting booths. That's the first step. And then we need to go to work restoring the damage to democracy that's been done not just in the past two years, but in the past twenty.

Berkowitz: Why Alt-America at this time?

Neiwert: Well, I coined the whole 'Alt-America' model as a way of explaining the epistemic crisis we've created for ourselves, one in which we're increasingly living in our own self-contained ideological bubbles that create whole realities unto themselves – and one of these two bubbles is built on the bizarre architecture of conspiracy theories, alternative pseudo-legal beliefs, and the innate negation of standard rules of evidence and factuality. That's Alt-America. And it's gotten to where people who live in the real world and are accustomed to those rules – you know, the standard version of reality – are coming up against this whole subpopulation of people who live and operate in this kind of surreal cloud in which the entire universe is a conspiracy within a conspiracy. And we're confused by it and not sure how to deal with it, especially since they appear to currently hold all the reins of the federal government. A lot of the confusion arises from our failure to recognize that this bubble is massive, it's very much a creature of the corporate oligarchs who fuel places like Fox News and keep the beast well fed. I'm not sure that I have a lot of the answers for how to break these bubbles down, but recognizing them for what they are and how they work has to be the first step in that fight.

Berkowitz: What led you to the work that you've been doing for 25+ years?

Neiwert: I first began covering right-wing extremists seriously in the 1990s as part of my work as an environmental reporter; militias were organizing then as part of an anti-environmental backlash in the Pacific Northwest, and so I began covering them as a running story for my then-nascent freelance career. I'd had dealings with them in my work as a daily newspaper reporter and editor in locales in Idaho, Montana, and Washington dating back to the late 1970s, when the Aryan Nations was making its presence felt there. One of my major resources in the '90s while launching into more in-depth coverage was a former Catholic priest from Coeur d'Alene named Father Bill Wassmuth, whose home had been pipe-bombed in retaliation for his local organizing against the Aryan Nations. Wassmuth retired from the priesthood to found an organization that monitored hate groups and hate crimes in the Northwest, and he was a kind and brilliant man whose company I always enjoyed.

He impressed upon me several times his frustrations in dealing with journalists while monitoring these groups – the way reporters would parachute into whatever crime or tragedy had erupted in the news recently, gather their goods, and then move on and never connect the events the way someone dedicated to the story as a beat could. He was recruiting me into it, of course, and he was successful; Bill died in 2002 from ALS, and his organization crumbled soon after. But some of us still try to carry on his legacy.