In singling out the alt-right, Hillary Clinton has done more for rebranded extremists than any amount of tweeting or memes could ever do. ‘Do not feed the trolls’ was always a sensible adage. Yet we find Hillary can’t resist giving them a rhetorical thumping. Perhaps the Democrats have a stake in provoking right-wing abuse.
As Carl Freedman puts it: “I’ve been following the alt-right for a long time, and they are delighted that Hillary Clinton, with one speech, has given them more publicity than they have managed to get for themselves in years. But both she and they tend to exaggerate the differences between the alt-right and the establishment (or mainstream Republican) right.”
At face value, we might think of the alt-right as laptop reactionaries. Of course, this is nothing new. The Internet is only as good as we are, which is why it’s mostly filled with porn. The alt-right really evolved as an online scene, rather than any kind of social movement, first sprouting in the form of racist memes on 4chan. Its reach can now be felt on Twitter, YouTube and Reddit in provocative posts. But there is more to this than virtual food fights.
What happens online always has a form in real life. The so-called ‘alt-right’ was named at the HL Mencken Club in 2008. It comes out of speeches given by ideologues Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried. Both are stern right-wingers concerned with the flow of immigration into the United States. The alt-right is often present wherever you find enraged posts about the gains made by such buzzwords as ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘political-correctness’.
The Cultural Right
You’ll often find the alt-right talking up the idea that ‘cultural Marxism’ led to the PC age. Naturally, anti-Semitism is often never too far from such claims. This can take the shape of overt conspiracism – namely, that the Frankfurt School cooked up a cultural revolution and let loose a slew of forces. However, the alt-right may latch onto this crude theory, it is not the original source for it. That credit must go to the LaRouchies.
Unlike the LaRouchie movement, the alt-right has a substantial media and intellectual wing represented by VDARE, Taki’s Magazine and American Renaissance. It’s not just the peroxide troll-at-large cum Geert Wilders lookalike Milo Yiannopolous backing Trump. Intellectuals like Paul Gottfried and writers such as John Derbyshire and Peter Brimelow have been making anti-immigrant arguments long before the dawn of social media. The history here is important.
VDARE founder Peter Brimelow made his name as a bourgeois economist working for Forbes and later National Review. He penned a biography of Rupert Murdoch, which was never published. Brimelow helped start the right-wing hysteria around the emergence of ‘Happy Holidays’ cards – calling it the “war on Christmas“. Despite such valuable contributions Brimelow began to unnerve National Review with his writings on immigration and race.
“There are real differences, to be sure,” Carl Freedman says, stressing foreign policy in particular “where the distinction is mainly between neo-Jacksonian nationalism and neo-Wilsonian interventionism”. He adds that “anti-Semitism (once the binding ideology of nearly all right-wing formations) is alive and robust on the alt-right, though it has pretty much faded from the establishment right.”
Finally, the National Review’s editorial posture shifted in the late 1990s to take on a ‘big tent’ approach to conservatism. Eventually, this led to Peter Brimelow and others being jettisoned. Brimelow was dubbed a “once respected conservative voice” by Jonah Goldberg. Unable to air his views in the mainstream, Brimelow founded a new project named after Virginia Dare – the first child of English settlers born in the New World.
By contrast, John Derbyshire was kept on board for much longer. Jonah Goldberg later explained, National Review wanted to act as a forum for conservative opinion. Derbyshire was favoured because he’s a well-read English paleoconservative. As a result, the National Review was willing to turn a blind eye to Derbyshire’s racially suspect comments. It wasn’t until Derb penned an unambiguously racist article for Taki’s called ‘The Talk: The Non-Black Version‘.
After his fall from grace, Derb would join VDARE which has now been rated a ‘hate site‘ by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. This hasn’t stopped the site collecting the conservatives who have fallen out of favour with the mainstream. Even Pat Buchanan writes for them, but this ought not surprise us. In Carl Freedman’s words “the core principle of the alt-right – white racism – has been at the basis of mainstream Republicanism since the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns of the 1960s.”
Overall, the alt-right has less interest in Christianity than the GOP establishment, Freedman argues, given their affinity for secular white Europeans. Today Christianity is strongest in Africa and Latin America. Yet the alt-right still has more in common with the establishment right than it would like to admit. Despite the cultural and racial focus, the alt-right is still heavily wedded to small-state libertarian ideals, which shape its attitudes towards health-care, education and welfare.
Notably, Paul Gottfried was involved in the 1980 Reagan campaign and once it was won he assumed an advisory position in the new administration. Assigned to the Department of Education, Gottfried was soon calling for the abolition of that very department. Much like the libertarian economist David Stockman, Gottfried quickly realised the Republican establishment was not about to embark upon a radical free-market experiment.
The Dark Enlightenment
In a paper called The Silicon Ideology, Josephine Armistead examines the history of the alt-right and the neo-reactionaries, which is closely related, as a new kind of fascist tendency. Neo-reaction (or NRx, as proponents abbreviate it) encompasses strains of anti-democratic, anti-feminist and anti-egalitarian thinking, on the online right. It is a typed revolt against progressive ideals, described by Nick Land as “the Dark Enlightenment”.
NRx may be seen as a precursor to the alt-right, which may be seen as a ‘big tent’ approach to white identity politics. At least this is how Richard Spencer sees it. The alt-right brings together NRxers and ‘race realists’ with a certain kind of conservative and libertarian. A key influence being Murray Rothbard, a proponent of anarcho-capitalism, who advocated an ultra-right coalition between libertarians and the David Duke crowd – so-called ‘paleolibertarianism‘.
It’s funny that the age of social media and the internet has created a space for a new kind of right-wing formation. These laptop reactionaries are not just producing memes, they dox their enemies and subject targets to campaigns of online harassment and bullying. Armistead looks at GamerGate as a key example of this. But what should worry us most if the level of support. Armistead refers us to the words of Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, often described as a ‘libertarian’:
A start-up is basically structured as a monarchy. We don’t call it that, of course. That would seem weirdly outdated, and anything that’s not democracy makes people uncomfortable. We are biased toward the democratic-republican side of the spectrum. That’s what we’re used to from civics classes. But the truth is that start-ups and founders lean toward the dictatorial side because that structure works better for start-ups.
Opposition to democracy is a key part of neo-reactionary thinking. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” Thiel said in another one of his speeches. Thiel elaborated that American democracy was ‘ruined’ by granting women the right to vote in 1920. This is much like the neo-Confederate view that American society began a descent into tyranny with the Unionist victory in the civil war. And this is no mere coincidence.
Although it is often talked about as if the United States is a uniquely individualist country, small-state conservatism arose out of the civil war. What would later be known as libertarianism would provide the framework for reactionary politics. If you want to roll back the tide of desegregation and women’s rights, you should devolve power to the state level. In this sense, paleolibertarianism is the natural state of American individualism.
Brownshirts Under The Bed
Many might wonder why not just describe the alt-right as fascists and white supremacists. Well, for one, the alt-right is really the intersection between different kinds of white racists, you have cultural conservatives, right-wing libertarians and nationalists. If you peruse VDARE you’ll find Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan, but also Jared Taylor and Steve Sailer. So you have a kind of cesspool, rather than one ideological monolith. It’s far more varied and contested.
Undeniably, the alt-right shares a common focus with the traditional far-right, however, it is not nearly as influential or threatening as the Ku Klux Klan in its heyday. In fact, the influence of the alt-right was greatly exaggerated by Hillary Clinton’s speech. The role played by internet trolls and right-wing websites should not be overstated. The Trump phenomenon is the apogee of racist and vulgar populist forces, which run deep in American history.
The rise of Trump has thrown the Republican Party into total disarray. Not that the GOP will disappear if it loses in 2016, the right will have to face the limits of its own strategy. Some of the key strategists will already be thinking of 2020. Naturally, alt-righters want to believe they are the force behind Trump, but really they are not the stormtroopers of the Fourth Reich to Come. Trump would have emerged with or without the alt-right.
So I do disagree with the Armistead thesis on the alt-right, in that I don’t see this as a new kind of fascism. However, she underlines a key point. The left needs a way to fight back. This is a question of practical politics. It may mean the left has to think about its online strategy, how to gain greater influence over the discourse and define the terms of debate. But, in the end, political action will be needed if we’re going to win this struggle outright.
Photograph courtesy of artist Lizza Littlewort. All rights reserved.