The alt-right is rather difficult to describe. It is an insurgency which thrives on annoying mainstream conservatives by saying things which are too obscene or crude or racist for mainstream publications to print.
Without the internet, the alt-right (an abbreviation of “alternative right”) would not exist, or not in a form which anyone can join. There is an incoherence about their solipsistic outpourings which makes one long for the services of a good editor.
But Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have begun to impose a degree of order on the phenomenon. Trump has done so by taking Steve Bannon, who helped run his campaign and was executive chairman of Breitbart News, into the White House as his strategist.
Bannon described Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right”. When asked if he is a white nationalist, he replied: “I’m not a white nationalist. I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.”
The question was a fair enough one to put to Bannon, for some alt-right figures certainly are white nationalists, or what used to be called white supremacists.
On 25 August 2016, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Reno in which she sought to implicate Trump in the worst excesses of the alt-right:
“He is taking hate groups mainstream, and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party…Trump is reinforcing harmful stereotypes and offering a dog-whistle to his most hateful supporters…who traffic in dark conspiracy theories drawn from the pages of supermarket tabloids and the far dark reaches of the internet… Trump took the fringe bigot, with a few dozen followers, and spread his message to eleven million people [by retweeting it]…This is not conservatism as we have known it… These are racist ideas, race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women: all key tenets making up the emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right… Now of course there has always been a paranoid fringe in our politics, a lot of it arising from racial resentment, but it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it, and giving it a national megaphone until now.”
The kind of views Clinton here denounces can indeed be found in the voluminous and often vile writings of the alt-right. As Christopher Caldwell remarked at the start of this month in an astute piece for The New York Times, “The internet liberates us to be our worst selves.”
Caldwell went on to give some examples of the trolling engaged in by members of the alt-right during the election campaign:
“Journalists who opposed Mr Trump received photos of themselves – and in some cases their children – dead, or in gas chambers. Jewish and Jewish-surnamed journalists were particular targets…”
But as Caldwell concluded:
“The alt-right is small. It may remain so. And yet, while small, it is part of something this election showed to be much bigger: the emergence of white people, who evidently feel their identity is under attack, as a ‘minority’-style political block.”
By concentrating on the despicable aspects of the alt-right, Clinton managed to obscure the adroit way in which it turned the weapons of liberalism on the liberals themselves.
If multiculturalism is to be the prevailing doctrine, with the establishment celebrating diversity at every turn, there is every reason for the poor whites, with their deep economic concerns and disregarded culture, to turn themselves into a minority whose prejudices are at least as valuable as anyone else’s.
As Mark Lilla has observed, in a much noticed piece for The New York Times, the liberals’
“obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness’. Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”
This poor white constituency (and indeed many poor non-white immigrants who have lived in America for some time) did not conclude from denunciations such as Clinton’s in Reno that Trump was a monster. She made him sound like their champion.
She had paid the alt-right an enormous compliment by going out her way to attack it. Here was testimony that their provocations were taking effect at the highest level.
In February of this year, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos wrote a piece for Breitbart called “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right”, in which they declare, with the marvellous confidence of youth:
“Although the alt-right consists mostly of college-educated men, it sympathises with the white working classes and, based on our interviews, feels a sense of noblesse oblige.”
It cannot be long before these heretics rise into the Establishment themselves. For although many writers for the alt-right show as little reverence for the past and its achievements as the rebels of the 1960s once did, these two declare:
“For natural conservatives, culture, not economic efficiency, is the paramount value. More specifically, they value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe. Their perfect society does not necessarily produce a soaring GDP, but it does produce symphonies, basilicas and Old Masters. The natural conservative tendency within the alt-right points to these apotheoses of western European culture and declares them valuable and worth preserving and protecting.”
Yiannopoulos, a gay Jew brought up in Britain, sometimes denies being a member of the alt-right but has actually become one of its stars in America, for he delights in annoying people, and is rather good at it.
The Department of Education’s counter-extremism unit recently banned him from giving a talk at his old school, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys at Canterbury, in Kent. He can here be seen trying to annoy Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News.
The second liberal weapon the alt-right uses against the liberals is freedom of speech. Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker has described how Mike Cernovich, alt-right author of such works as Gorilla Mindset: Timeless Strategies to Unleash the Animal Within You,
“became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. ‘This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,’ he told me the day after Trump’s victory. ‘Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, “You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.” Well, a vote for Trump meant, “Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.”‘ Cernovich, who grew up working-class in rural Illinois, visited his home town in February. He said, ‘My parents voted for Obama, but they told me, “If it’s Trump versus Hillary, we’ll go with him. He gets us. He talks like us.” Since then, I never doubted that he’d be President.'”
When Trump visited The New York Times after winning the election, he was asked if he had wanted to “energise” the small number of people who to celebrate his victory gave a Nazi salute at a convention held in Washington by Richard S. Spencer, an agitator who helped popularise the term “alternative right” and has called for a white America achieved by “peaceful ethnic cleansing”.
Trump replied by disavowing this group, and added: “What we do want to do is we want to bring the country together, because the country is very, very divided.”
For Trump, the miscellaneous and disorganised nature of the alt-right has considerable advantages. He can disavow whichever bits of it are too horrible to be defensible.
But like Trump himself, the alt-right has also helped to disorientate and dismay the liberal establishment, by saying things it had imagined to be unsayable.
The two are allies, who enjoy defying convention. Quite how this will work out now they have seized the White House is anyone’s guess, but the alt-right could end up divided into those who love feeling important, and those who prefer to feel betrayed.
Barack Obama had a gift for seeing the absurd side of Trump and cracking jokes at his expense. Clinton could not see the joke, which is one reason why she lost the election.