You’ve probably heard of the “alt-right” in connection with this campaign season, and you probably don’t really know exactly who these people are and what they ultimately want.
Welcome to the club, which is a very large one (including me).
That doesn’t stop a lot of people from writing about it (including me). Witness two recent offerings: this one from Trump-friendly Breitbart (“friendly” isn’t quite a strong enough word, but it’ll do for now) and this rebuttal at the Federalist. They’re both well worth reading, although long.
The Breitbart piece treats the alt-right as predominantly a bunch of young, often bright and/or irreverent people most of whom are not racist but are merely defending whites and Western culture (which the alt-right equates as inextricably linked) against threats, and are not really bigots. The Federalist says no, a great many of them really are motivated by bigotry:
[The alt-right] is a movement that counters the toxic culture of the left with a toxic brew of its own: a mix of old bigotries and new identity and victimhood politics adapted for the straight white male. Bokhari and Yiannopoulos [authors of the Breitbart piece] try to connect it to “cultural libertarianism,” a concept coined by Bokhari last year and championed by both authors; but other than opposition to restrictions on “hate speech,” it’s hard to see what an ideology that explicitly subordinates the individual to the tribe could have in common with libertarianism of any kind.
Today, the excesses of the “social justice” movement have brought us to a point where reasonable conservatives, libertarians, and liberals are ready to join forces against quasi-totalitarian identity politics. We need to start reclaiming the principles of common humanity, freedom, and universal values, not put a positive spin on a different brand of divisive identitarianism.
Both articles are so long that to respond to them in any comprehensive and detailed way would take a great deal more time than I have now. So I’ll just say that I agree far more with the conclusions of Federalist author Cathy Young than with the Breitbart piece, but I reiterate that I don’t think anyone actually knows who the alt-right really is, because what we see is the tip of the iceberg. And I say that despite the fact that I generally don’t tend to go for conspiracy theories. But what I’ve seen of this phenomenon (and I’ve seen a lot of it) tells me—or tells my gut—that this is a large and dangerous movement with roots that may be well-hidden but are also international (foreign IP numbers, for example) and are the very opposite of classical liberalism and/or what is usually thought of as conservatism.
As a blogger for this last decade-plus, I’ve had to react to things in real time, often with very incomplete information. The alt-right is one of those things. I’ve found that I’ve had to go with my gut time and again, and that my gut has demonstrated a rather good track record. It’s not a compelling argument to say “my gut tells me something very bad about a lot of these people.” But my gut has become a far more perceptive instrument than it used to be, and I’ve come to really trust it, particularly in sensing something I’ll call “tone” and in understanding what it represents.
For example, I have seen nothing from the alt-right that makes me think they care in the least about individual liberty, truth, or what Young calls “universal values.” What I have seen is vicious ad hominem attacks, lies, propaganda, and yes, bigotry (including anti-Semitism, of course). And just to clarify—the “alt-right” I’m talking about are the activists; their much-more-numerous followers are a more varied bunch with varied motivations and methods, who may or may not even understand who or what the alt-right is, and may or may not sympathize with it.
The strongest force behind the Trump phenomenon appears to be populism mixed with anger at the GOP for its failure to fight successfully (or in some cases even to fight at all) against illegal immigration and other aspects of the Obama administration and the general drift of events in America lately. But as with most political movements there’s also a smaller, activist part working behind the scenes to provide the memes and tactics that help drive the larger movement. In the case of Trump the activists are also somewhat varied, but the portion that has come to be known as the alt right seems to me to be a well-motivated and organized group of people who have studied the methods of the left and adopted those methods to their own purposes—purposes that often do not come under the heading “conservative” at all:
…[T]he true conflict facing Republicans is…within the soul of American conservatives. Namely, a new, highly heterogeneous force in right-wing politics is taking hold, and they have their sights set firmly on the Republican “establishment.” Known collectively as the “alternative right,” this amalgam includes neo-reactionaries, monarchists, nativists, populists, and even a few self-declared fascists. They mostly congregate online, with a large swath of blogs and websites dedicated to their concerns. As an example of how truly diverse the alt right is, major and proverbial watering holes for them include everything from Breitbart and the libertarian-leaning Taki Mag to Alternative Right—a blog that openly supports white nationalism.
…The alt right taken the fight to the left in the best way possible—they’ve co-opted its tactics and deployed them against their bully makers.
Even though the alt right loves to mix it up with Gawker and Salon types, it (like Trump) may enjoy picking on other conservatives even more. Republican hesitancy to accept the alt right into the fold therefore makes sense for several reasons, especially since it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the alt right couldn’t care less about the Republican party. In fact, many on the alt right believe that the Republican party is in dire need of a purge.
Anyone who’s been around the right side of the blogosphere since last summer should instantly recognize what is being described here; you’ve seen them. Several blogs have been taken over by this group, notably Breitbart. Many alt-righters have come to this blog, too, but I’m relatively small potatoes and in addition I’ve always had an aggressive banning policy, so only the most polite ones tend to stay.
The alt-right is recognizable almost immediately by style and tone, which very much resembles the left. At first I thought it was the actual left, riding the coattails of the Trump phenomenon in order to hurt the conservative movement. And in fact a certain percentage probably does fall under that description, but I doubt it’s the majority. The majority of alt-right activists mimic the left’s methods, but this is not in the service of conservatism of the Buckley variety, this is bare-knuckles war that is in part a war against what for want of a better term I’ll call classical liberalism.
The alt-right’s main weapons of smears, lies, attacks, sabotage, and mockery are wielded by a relentless corps of people willing to hammer them home at every possible opportunity in every possible venue. The regular right didn’t and still doesn’t know what hit it, but it had better smarten up, although it may already be too late.
Is Trump aware of all of this? Or is he just the alt-right’s unwitting and perfect instrument, the “tool” that fits their needs exactly (the alt-right often refers to Trump as just a “tool” or a “weapon” to them). I don’t know; my guess is that he’s slightly aware of it, but not really in on its inner workings, and that he thinks they are the tools that he is using.
If Trump were to be nominated, I believe he would lose in the general, unless Hillary (or Sanders) weakens so much that literally anyone could beat them. Not only is a Trump loss indicated by nearly all the polls, but it appears to me that any gain Trump might get from some crossover votes would be more than offset by the number of Republican voters he’d lose. But the alt-right doesn’t much care if Trump gets elected or not, although of course they would like him to be elected and they will work for his election quite assiduously. But since their goal is to displace and take over and thus destroy the fragile coalition that has long been the Republican Party, I believe they have already come close to their aim, and that aim will have been accomplished whether Trump wins or not or even whether he is nominated or not.
No one will get the alt-right activists back into the fold—if they were even in the fold in the first place (I don’t think most of them were). They are gone for good. They’re not interested in joining, anyway; they’re interested in taking over and then imposing their will on the others. That’s a huge part of what this election has become. A vote for Trump is a vote for the alt-right, whether Trump knows it or not.