What exactly is the alt-right? How many of them are there? And how much of their philosophy is composed of legitimate racism?
These questions have sent many politicians, activists and media personalities into a frenzy with the recent election of our next president. Traditional conservatives have either a wariness or outright hatred of the movement, while the Breitbart right seem to tread the line of supporting the movement while still not outright embracing it.
Those on the left, especially the far left, have set up a posture of complete moral indignation towards the alt-right, condemning it as a brand of neo-Nazism which is synonymous with the attitude of the president-elect and many in his cabinet.
Websites like the Huffington Post and Jezebel have written articles calling it a hate group, and have particularly focused in on a recent conference by Richard Spencer, which was complete with German chants of “Sieg Heil!” Some of the language of that conference make it hard to dispute their antipathy.
However, many who identify with the movement have denounced Spencer and his antics, which seems to indicate that there are factions of disagreement within the alt-right.
Unfortunately, I can’t go into the depths of nuance that writers like Milo Yiannopoulos have into this. The Breitbart writer has himself denied being apart of the movement multiple times, but rather sees himself as a “fellow traveler” on issues like political correctness. News organizations like the BBC fail to respect that position.
I can’t go into it simply because I’m not aware of the movement’s intellectual figures. As someone who ingests media on a daily basis, I have yet to see someone who has “come out” about his alt-rightness in the mainstream. Newscasters are intent on sticking to Breitbart figures like Milo and Bannon as the leaders of the alt-right, and when they deny it after every accusation the group become more and more mysterious.
I have seen traces of it, however, and that is what I will comment on. Of course, the majority of my exposure to the alt-right comes from the internet; their presence on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit is now quite expansive and far-reaching.
My interest in these sites is mostly entertainment. Facebook pages like “God Emperor Trump” and “Stop Being A Pleb” or for the most part meant purely for funny memes. There are many of course who would identify the contents of these pages as racist, but those without any particular ideological zealotry can see the purpose of the statements are based more on absurd humor slamming liberalism and political correctness. It shouldn’t have to go without saying that that in itself isn’t bigotry, especially with the prevalence of liberal television shows doing the exact opposite on a nightly basis.
Let’s use an example. Following Trump’s victory, the figure of his vice-president Mike Pence was a cause for liberal outrage after the news broke he had advocated electrical shock conversion therapy for homosexuals.
Of course, Pence had never advocated for any such thing. Although the wording is vague, Pence seemed to have supported conversion therapy in 2000 for homosexuals who wanted in. This was a brief sentence in support of a bill that advocated anti-HIV awareness. LGBT activists still have an argument for Pence’s homophobia I suppose, but the initial idea that Pence wanted to electrocute gay men is wholly false.
The alt-right took that in stride. Many of them co-opted the original premise, which they now knew to be false, and created memes with Pence having lightning shooting out of his eyes. Nicknames like Mike “turning fruits to vegetables” Pence were passed around social media, and memes proliferated that made the mild Republican seem like Emperor Palpatine to the endless amusement of self-identified alt-righters.
Again,it’s important to realize the difference between homophobia and absurdity. From what I’ve noticed, many in the alt-right are former progressives who have no problem with homosexuality. They express no real interest in religion or Christianity like their neo-conservative forefathers. As Milo pointed out, many of them have lived most of their lives in a world full of tolerance probably having never seen the ugly face of actual bigotry.
The humor, then, comes from a self-embrace in the alt-right defining themselves as the villain. Some pages adulate Star Wars’ Palpatine or Game of Thrones’ Tywin Lanniseter. These are characters known for their strength as ruthless leaders, and the alt-right sees that sense of manliness as key to the preservation of Western civilization. But mostly, it makes them giggle.
Which brings us to the West. Political issues like immigration and cultural hegemony underlie many of the alt-right’s sentiments. This may have been what first attracted them to Trump and his wall. As the nemesis of the progressive left, they also see the rise of Islamic extremism as an enemy worth fighting, which yields even greater pride in the Western tradition.
There are others on the alt-right that take this to a more extreme level, they also don’t have the good humor that propped the movement up to its current importance. These are groups who are in common cause with the memeing alt-right in terms of political correctness, but the seriousness in which they take the joke puts them more in line with legitimate hate groups.
The poster boy for this faction has been the re-emergence of Louisiana politician and former KKK grand wizard David Duke. When Duke announced his candidacy for an open U.S. Senate seat, his campaign was mostly based on an attempt to give mass appeal to the alt-right.
Fortunately, no one in the media or either political party seemed to take him seriously. Louisiana politicians viewed him mostly as a nuisance and an embarrassment. For once, protesters at the historically black college that hosted a forum with Duke were considered by both sides of the aisle as justified.
The use of Pepe the Frog on his Twitter timeline was met with enthusiasm among the “hard” alt-right, and he seemed to take the movement in stride as a political awakening for ideas he’s been espousing for years.
I believe it’s fair to differentiate between these two sub-movements. There is of course a difference between Black Lives Matter supporters who protest and those who shoot cops. Milo also makes this point and further argues that Duke’s alt-righters are a minority who mostly “stick to themselves.”
The latter designation is more contentious, and one only has to look at how Duke fared during Louisiana’s election to see it. Although the candidate pool was overly saturated, Duke managed to garner 3 percent of the vote, or about 58,606 people.
For most Americans who believe in racial equality, that number is deeply depressing and a reminder that racism is alive and well. It could be argued that this is a problem that only the Deep South faces, but given that there are no other politicians with Duke’s infamous notoriety, it would be impossible to quantify. But, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to assume at least 100,000 white separatists in America.
But Milo’s suggestion that these people keep to themselves seems to be accurate. As a resident of Louisiana, I can testify that a Klan rally would be out of the ordinary and immediately denounced by every politician. Logic would dictate I’ve met at least a few of these 58,000 people, but if I had I certainly did not realize it at the time.
The alt-right movement was obviously a political revival for these people. The countercultural meme-making was taken for neoreactionary affirmations that revealed a startling number of people interested in notions of white supremacy.
However, I don’t believe we can dismiss the alt-right as an evil movement because of that. There were blows to cultural institutions the alt-right made that could be seen as necessary. The social justice warrior movement, for example, where far-leftists began to enforce their own brand of authoritarianism was ridiculed by the alt-right. Sandra Click, the communications professor who threatened force on a young reporter covering a protest, is the prime example.
The anti-social justice warrior movement has connections to the alt-right. Those values, which basically advocate for traditionally American notions of free speech, right to assembly and the benefits of rational discourse, are inextricably tied with the alt-right. If they are not an outgrowth of the movement, they are at least “fellow travelers,” as Milo says.
But the racism it has inspired cannot be taken lightly. Many in the country fear that race relations are at all time low since the 1960s, and the extremists within the alt right could go further in damaging that in the wake of a Trump presidency. In states like Louisiana and Mississippi, it’s already happening.
Those interested in equality for all citizens and the fundamental pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness need to be wary of both extremes. We need to take the alt-right for what it is: a very complicated movement that has called out the worst of the left while at the same time bringing out the worst in the right. Correctly identifying its successes and failures will be necessary going forward into Trump’s America.