What is the Alt-Right?

Is the alt-right white supremacist? I’m all for calling a spade a spade, and I will state up front that I am an enemy of white supremacy. But to draw an equal sign between that and the alt-right, we need to first explore why the term ‘alt-right’ has gained prominence and what it means. That’s because words have meaning, and the concepts they describe tend to lose meaning when we use them loosely. When we label something, it needs to be accurate. Otherwise if you go around calling just anyone you disagree with racist or white supremacist or a Nazi, you devalue what those terms mean to the larger culture, and when enough people do that, we lose sight of them to the point where they are allowed to flourish.

Paul Gottfried is credited with coining the term in 2008. He is a Jewish academic who also coined the term ‘paleoconservative’. He used the term to call for “an ‘Alternative Right’ to combat the high degree of neoconservative control over the intellectual Right.”[1]

Gottfried doesn’t consider himself part of the alt-right movement, but says, “I am ideologically closer to Altright commentators than I am to the Never-Trumpers or to the contributors to most establishment Republican websites. Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow, Steve Sailer and John Derbyshire are all brilliant thinkers and writers, and I wouldn’t deny that I’ve benefited from their luminous insight. Next to them, such conservative intellectuals (by current media standards) as Max Boot, Rich Lowry, the perpetually pouting Ben Shapiro and Jonah Goldberg read like community college drop-outs.”

In the speech he gave in 2008 coining the term, Gottfried envisioned the alternative right as a unified movement of paleoconservatives dedicated to retaking the cultural position neoconservatives currently hold on the American right. [2]

According to Michael Foley via Wikipedia, an international scholar, “paleoconservatives press for restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programmes, the decentralization of the federal policy, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and isolationism in the conduct of American foreign policy, and a generally revanchist outlook upon a social order in need of recovering old lines of distinction and in particular the assignment of roles in accordance with traditional categories of gender, ethnicity, and race.”[3]

Paleoconservatives claim to be the modern ideological descendants of Russel Kirk and Edmund Burke. From Wikipedia: “David Brooks, a neoconservative critic, says that paleocons do not dream of seeing slavery reborn. Instead, he concludes that they link rural communities to a transcendent order and ancient institutions:

“They do not shy away from expressing their true beliefs, and if they supported slavery they would probably say so. They merely believe in the social hierarchies. In those southern communities, they say, social roles were crucial to happiness and ordered sociability. ‘Aristotle recognized that a well-ordered society protected an ascending order of good through the institutionalization of rank’, Fleming and co-author Paul Gottfried wrote in their book The Conservative Movement. They are talking about the social pecking order in old-time towns—the folks who live on the hill, the merchants on Main Street, the village idiot on the green. On a larger scale, the paleocons contrast the virtues of the republic with the corruptions of empire. The empire throws its weight around in the world; the republic minds its own business.”

So then what do we make of Gottfried’s self-admitted ideological association to controversial alt-right figures Jared Taylor, Peter Brimelow, Steve Sailer and John Derbyshire? Jared Taylor is an admitted white nationalist. Brimelow has created a webzine that publishes them[4]. Sailer has repudiated them on pragmatic grounds[5] but his writings can be interpreted as having a racist undercurrent, and John Derbyshire has written positively about white supremacy.[6]

At this point I am hesitant to conclude that paleoconservatism is inherently racist, as it appears that Kirk and Burke did not write on race at all, and I am not investigating paleoconservatism in-depth for this post since that isn’t the focus, the alt-right is. But at the very least, we can certainly say that from its very conception the alternative right movement has given a sympathetic home to its racist elements and that the movement has troublesomely blended them with Kirkian and Burkean thought.

And it is this syncretism that may perhaps become a back door through which the alt-right can enter the GOP party apparatus and bend the party toward its own ends in this present Trumpian age. Movement and establishment conservatives within the party would do well to remain on guard and separate the non-racist paleoconservatives from the Sailers of the world. But I digress.

We have established that the alt-right is paleoconservative in origin with some racist elements thrown in. However, as movements do, the ideology does evolve and begins to welcome those who are not explicitly paleoconservative.

Richard Spencer comes onto the scene in 2010 and founds alternativeright.com (probably nsfw), and takes credit for shortening “Alternative Right” to alt-right. Spencer is an outspoken white nationalist and he’s the guy you saw seig heiling Trump at a white nationalist conference this week.

In 2013, the Gamergate controversy happened. Gamergate in its broad form was a reaction against leftist-progressive cultural domination, although its catalyst was allegations of nepotism that led to a favorable review of a social-justice inspired video game. Milo Yiannopoulos gained notoriety from it, publishing correspondence from the GameJournoPros mailing list implying game journalists were colluding to give negative coverage of his side of the controversy. In 2015, he was hired to be Breitbart’s Tech Editor.[7]

Yiannopolous is a self-described paleo-libertarian. These are different from paleoconservatives, who abhor libertarian ideology. Whereas paleoconservatism believes in the existence of a transcendant moral order and that the commonwealth is a natural and necessary structure that provides for human needs[3], paleolibertarians are much more individualistic while still holding to a form of social traditionalism as necessary but not transcendent, and therefore reject that governments ought to put such values into law[8].

Yiannopoulos leveraged what I’m calling “troll culture”, shamelessly and purposefully saying controversial statements online and delighting in the tizzy he was able to throw his social justice warrior opponents into. Trolls use human psychology to create these reactions. They identify exactly the sorts of things their opponents fear may be the true feelings on behalf of a silent majority, and then they say them loud and shamelessly. While there’s a benefit to it in that it keeps the purveyors of leftist-progressivism focused on combating trolls instead of furthering their ideology, the upside for trolls like Yiannopoulos and the downside for the rest of us is that we are left unable to ascertain whether or not they mean even a smidgen of what they’re saying, or whether they’re simply trying to provoke a reaction, or some combination of the two.

It is through this trolling and his position at Breitbart that Yiannopoulos provides an apologetic for the alt-right as “fun-loving provocateurs, valiant defenders of Western civilization, daring intellectuals — and a handful of neo-Nazis keen on a Final Solution 2.0, but there are only a few of them, and nobody likes them anyways.”[9]

And for many of us on the right, the fact that Yiannopoulos’s targets are social justice warriors, whom we tend to enjoy mocking as well, is a back-door through which we might be tempted to agree with him and consider him and the alt-right co-belligerents against leftist-progressive overeach. And this summer there were all manner of people who became confused about what alt-right meant because of his and other apologetics to whitewash the alt-right of its racist roots. Hugh Hewitt, before he was set straight by Jonah Goldberg, argued earlier this year that “there is a ‘narrow’ alt-right made up of a ‘execrable anti-Semitic, white supremacist fringe’ but also a ‘broad alt-right’ made up of frustrated tea partiers and others who are simply hostile to the GOP establishment and any form of immigration reform that falls short of mass deportation.[10]

But Yiannopoulos, according to Ian Tuttle, claims that Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor are the intellectuals of the alt-right[9], and it is impossible to dismiss their writings as anything but racist on their face.

Yiannopoulos also considers Nick Land an alt-right intellectual. In “The Dark Enlightenment”, Land argues that “his ‘neo-reaction’ is rooted in the same fundamental rejection of egalitarianism. The differences are less important than the similarities; the race realists call on evolutionary biology and cognitive science; Land and his followers invoke postmodern philosophy. Both, with the help of an influential Alt-Right contingent among computer scientists, draw on cognitive science. Adherents of the Alt-Right seem to think that liberal democracy was an abstraction tyrannically imposed on an unwilling populace.

“There is, then, contra Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, continuity on the Alt-Right, from the more interesting thinkers to the ‘1488ers.’ This label comes from 14, for the ’14 Words’ of neo-Nazism (‘We Must Secure the Existence of Our People and a Future for White Children’), and 88, for the eighth letter of the alphabet, H, doubled, HH, ergo ‘Heil Hitler.’ Clever, eh? Some want to put people in ovens; some just want an ability to ‘exit’ multicultural society for an ethno-national arrangement. But they’re all in agreement: ‘All men are created equal’ is not true. What follows is a 21st-century version of Blut und Boden — Blood and Soil — on one hand, or technological apocalypticism, on the other. But the two are not so different, as the Nazis understood. (And to that point, it’s telling that, as Bokhari and Yiannopoulos note, some Alt-Right thought has its roots in the thinking of Giulio Evola, a mid-century Italian philosopher whose apocalyptic vision of the world derived from his own woolly syncretism and eccentric mysticism.)”[9]

Jonah Goldberg defines the alt-right this way, and I think it’s the definition that’s gained broad acceptance since this summer: “They believe that, if you read Richard Host (sp), if you read Richard Spencer at the, who leads an alt right think tank, if you actually read the people who created the term, who have been pushing this stuff, the one thing they all agree on is that we need to organize this society on the assumption that white people are genetically superior, or that white culture is inherently superior, and that we should have either state-imposed or culturally-imposed segregation between the races, no race mixing with the lower brown people.” [11]

Now, in 2016, we see a broad agreement among people of different worldviews accepting this view of race rather than paleoconservatism or libertarianism or any other type of poltical ‘ism’ as the one concept that unites them. So, should we be calling the alt-right white supremacists and Nazis? I think we should be calling them out as white supremacists. There is no difference between the concepts described by the words ‘alt-right’ and ‘white supremacy’, and white supremacy is the clearer indicator as to what they stand for.

I do not think we should be equating them precisely to Nazis. It unnecessarily invokes Godwin’s Law and therefore further diminishes the horror of what the Nazis did in Europe by instead calling to mind your average left-wing millennial activist’s response to any belief that differs from his view of the world. No, we must distinguish the two concepts of ‘Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’ if words still have meaning. While it is true that all Nazis are white supremacists, it’s not true that all white supremacists subscribe to the mysticism of the volk, support a one party state, reject parliamentary democracy or support burning undesirable people groups in ovens (some support “peaceful” ethnic cleansing instead, whatever that means).

Calling it white supremacy is preferred, I think. It’s clear, avoids dismissal as hyperbole, and resolutely rejects the alt-right as any sort of legitimate ideology.

[1] http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/263988/some-observations-man-who-created-alt-right-paul-gottfried
[2] https://www.lewrockwell.com/2016/08/paul-gottfried/decline-rise-alternative-right/
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleoconservatism
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Brimelow
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Sailer
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Derbyshire
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_Yiannopoulos
[8] http://www.conservapedia.com/Paleolibertarianism
[9] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/433650/alt-rights-racism-moral-rot
[10] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/439522/hillary-clinton-alt-right
[11] http://www.hughhewitt.com/jonah-goldberg-altright/