With attention-seeking pests, it is often unclear whether the wisest course is to ignore them or confront them. By ignoring them, one does nothing to stop them festering and multiplying. By confronting them, one gives them precisely what they want, and possibly makes them grow even faster than they otherwise would have.
This dilemma has become acute with the rise of the “alternative right,” the catch-all name for a bizarre new trend in American conservatism, one that everyone seems to agree exists but nobody seems to know quite how to define. This “movement,” such as it is, appears to have arisen as a sort of filmy spume atop the wave of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which brought previously fringe far-right voices into the relative mainstream.
One of the difficulties in analyzing the alt-right is the fuzziness of its boundaries. Nearly every broad generalization you can offer about it alt-right is not quite correct. In fact, even classifying the alt-right as a “movement” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is highly decentralized, and its membership has hitherto been active almost exclusively in internet communities, not in political circles or in grassroots organizing.
Certain observations can be made, though. It appears to be an overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male, overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) white collective of gamers, gym rats, tech enthusiasts, climate change skeptics, anti-vaxxers, anti-feminists, men’s rights advocates, white supremacists, sci-fi geeks, so-called “pick-up artists,” and various species of troll. Though they are a disorganized bunch, and despite a certain predictable level of infighting, their worldview has a fairly high level of consistency across their many platforms.
We can divide them roughly into two general groups, though there is overlap between them. Some alt-righters are “futurists,” the kind of Silicon Valleyites that Corey Pein has aptly described as “mouthbreathing Machiavellis.” They believe that a society governed by computer code would be preferable to the vagaries of popular democracy, and frequently discuss their desire to establish autonomous island kingdoms where entrepreneurs can conduct social experiments outside the jurisdiction of United States law. This worldview has found support in Trump-loving Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who believes that America has been in decline since women got the vote and that Apartheid was an admirable example of economic efficiency.
But the more numerous and perhaps more influential group of alt-righters are those sometimes labeled “natural conservatives,” who feel strongly about traditional gender roles and race-based nationalism. They believe that “Western values” must be preserved against outside contaminants. If you think that sounds rather like a throwback to the ‘50s, you’d be correct. Of course, the vocabulary is different: alt-righters profess to believe in something they call “human biodiversity” or “race realism,” meaning that there are biological differences between races, and irreconcilable differences between cultures produced by different races. The prominent “race realist” website American Renaissance is quite direct in its statement of purpose: “It is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.”
Online, this mutated form of white pride manifests itself in often inscrutable ways. Pro-Nazi memes proliferate across rancid corners of the internet. A cartoon frog named Pepe (since designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League) has become the unofficial mascot of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Entire blogs and forums are given over to obsessive litanies of disgust against women who sleep with men outside their race, or against white couples who adopt non-white children. On these websites, thousands of men complain about “the feminization of society,” which they view as closely connected to racial and cultural adulteration, and confer with each other about effective strategies for keeping women in their place.
Well, that all sounds thoroughly demented, you may be thinking. Why would anyone want to associate themselves with these people? Perhaps it’s because the alt-right is a new and exciting flavor of right-wing conservatism, which presents itself not as the steady hand at the wheel in turbulent times, but as an edgy, transgressive, youthful, fun-loving force in a repressive world: a world where, supposedly, all meaningful discussion has been stifled by cultural shibboleths about gender and race. It is “liberals” now, not “conservatives,” who are overly attached to received ideas, to unquestionable mantras, to behavioral protocols; liberals who are humorless, inflexible, and easily scandalized; liberals who selectively punish and censor ideas they consider dangerous, or even merely distasteful. In this context, the alt-right paint themselves as countercultural. They encourage people to express the primal urges and instinctive beliefs that The Man has been telling them to repress for most of their lives.
There are many ways to approach the voice that lives inside your head, whispering unkind assumptions about others—you can think of it as a kind of original sin, as a vestige of some rejected part of your upbringing, as some automatic cognitive process that you choose to separate from your volitional identity. Or you can see it as the voice of truth, which other people are trying to program out of you for their own self-interested reasons. If a particular racist thought occurs to you often, says the alt-right, it’s because deep down, you know it’s true. You can stop wasting so much mental energy fighting your inclination to favor people who resemble you, because favoring people who resemble you is the natural order of things. As the left insists at increasing volumes that everyone—especially white people, and even more especially white men—must engage in constant soul-searching, in exhausting self-interrogation, the alt-right tells you that you can simply trust yourself.
It’s all the more rewarding to have this kind of self-congratulatory inner faith dressed up as a form of hard, uncompromising realism. The alt-right, in the classic mode of conspiracy theorists, is extremely fond of claiming that it alone is willing to accept truths that the rest of the world is determined to ignore. Being an alt-righter is also intellectually easy, in the sense that its ideas are few and simple and make no moral demand upon those who hold them. The day-to-day life of your average alt-righter seems to consist of savaging people on Twitter and then, possibly, going to the gym. (When writing about their work-out routines, the alt-right’s rhetoric switches from a vicious racist screed to the drippiest self-pitying sentimentalism, such as this tragic bit from blogger Mike Cernovich:
“We all hit the gym for one of two reasons. We were too skinny or too fat. That is, we were inadequate or scarce rather than full and abundant. We grind away that old body. Fat peels off and muscles surface. We start to look great, in some cases super human. Yet we don’t feel that way. We stay home alone, or we date women who aren’t hot enough for us, as we believe a hot woman would cheat. The man looking at us in the mirror is one we don’t recognize. But what about the man we can’t see? What about our souls? Have our souls experienced the same changes as our bodies?”)
Though they are vocal about the things they despise—immigration, any celebration or deliberate inculcation of racial diversity, women entering previously male-dominated spaces and professions, restrictions on free speech—the alt-right has few positive policy positions, which doubtless saves them a lot of mental effort.
The difficult question is how much anyone should care about the “rise” of such people. White supremacists are frightening, but online white supremacists are mostly just pitiful. But what if their rhetoric and their pet theories begin to migrate into mainstream discourse? Right now, the alt-right is like the creepy guy whom you’ve suddenly noticed following you as you walk home alone late one night. What do you do now? Should you confront him? Maybe he’s just messing around, and if you ignore him, he’ll go away. But what if he was just playing around, but then when you confront him, he suddenly changes his mind and decides to murder you? But what if you’re overreacting, and then the interaction is just a huge embarrassment? But then what if he murders you?
In other words, it’s hard to know how to feel about these people. One loathes what they stand for, obviously, but should one actively fear them? Their real-world political influence may be limited by the fact that white males do not by themselves have an electoral majority. But the alt-right could still use its disruptive influence to foster racial divisiveness in ways that could be frustrating, if not fatal, to progressivism.
The left has been talking a great deal lately about the inadequacy of the concept of colorblindness, which was the paradigm within which many millennials were brought up to understand race. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings of unarmed black people, article upon article has carried headlines like “Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism,” “Why Color-Blindness Is A Counterproductive Ideology,” and “Why It’s Racist To Be Colorblind.” Within the space of a couple years, young people have been instructed to completely discard a worldview that was transmitted to them as gospel through textbooks and after-school specials throughout most of their lives. Colorblindness was once understood to be synonymous with racial inclusiveness, but now it is yet another way to be a racist. Not only is contemporary America far from being colorblind, so the argument goes, but colorblindness itself is a “racial utopic vision,” fundamentally unachievable and thus pointless even to strive for.
The backlash to colorblindness is understandable. After all, it has been disturbing to watch conservatives seize the language of Martin Luther King in order to justify policies King himself would have recoiled at, such as dismantling affirmative action and making voting more difficult. But left-wing arguments for recognizing the importance of race carry a perverse consequence: by reinforcing racial categories, they encourage white people to preserve their white identity. This is a strange tension that many on the left seem to find it difficult to talk about. Progressives accept the existence of minority affinity groups as self-evidently worthwhile and necessary, but it is important to nail down in very precise and comprehensible terms how the left’s views on race as a category differ from the “racial realist” framework embraced by the alt-right. Demographic changes will only continue to make this question more complicated. As the racial makeup of the U.S. changes, and parts of the U.S. become increasingly minority-majority, will it be socially acceptable for white people to have some form of explicitly-stated group identity that is racially-defined without being “racist”? If we wish to build a society that is both multiracial and truly egalitarian, we are going to have to revisit this question, and we would do well to make sure the alt-right or its successor is not the only group with a ready script when we do.
This may mean introducing some additional considerations into the way we presently discuss race relations. For example, the recent fad of professing to hate “white men”—however amusing and cathartic it might be—is clearly counterproductive, as it lets racist white men feel themselves justified in throwing around accusations of “reverse racism,” and encourages them to form a group identity based around the notion that they are despised and embattled. Ultimately, things like the #KillAllWhiteMen hashtag are not worth the amount of energy they take to explain, and make it harder to have good-faith discussions about other nuances of inter-race and cross-cultural communication. The left should stop this kind of talk.
But even more important than forms of speech are matters of substantive policy that affect individual people’s lives. Here the alt-right could cause serious trouble. If the Republican party is driven toward its racist fringe, we can expect the mainstream left to move rightward as well, as it seeks to cadge votes from alienated party moderates. Cleverer members of the alt-right have tried to cast their movement as a localist, populist antidote to a creeping globalization puppeteered by out-of-touch elites: this was the narrative that was woven around the Brexit vote, and such a narrative might well gain similar traction in the U.S. A new political paradigm where one is asked to choose between an isolationist, anti-immigration, explicitly racist “right,” and a “left” that defends global capitalism by making emotional appeals to the virtuousness of superficial diversity, would be extremely difficult terrain for those interested in real economic justice.
The left has always had a difficult balance to strike between localism and globalism: On the localist side, the left generally supports policies like food sovereignty and environmental preservation against the depredations of multinational corporations. Yet lefties are also globalists, who believe that individuals worldwide have the right to migrate freely, and who should be wary of protectionist economic arguments that demonize companies for employing foreign workers rather than demonizing companies for paying those foreign workers pitiful wages. Allowing the alt-right to take proprietary control over anti-globalization rhetoric, and thus force the left into a false choice between defending globalization or defending racism, would be a terrible mistake.
The left’s failure to offer a compelling alternative may be partly responsible for the alt-right’s success. Certainly, this is the claim made by movement provocateur and spokesman Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is known primarily for going around college campuses giving lectures with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?”, inevitably sparking protests, which in turn increase his infamy. (Yiannopoulos also splashily debuted a “privilege grant” college scholarship for white men, raising $100,000 online through a nonexistent charity and then proceeding to deposit the money directly into his own bank account.) Yiannopoulos argues in a co-written essay that the alt-right’s ugliness has been spurred by the left’s retreat into some kind of dreary, preachy totalitarianism:
Had [the political establishment] been serious about defending humanism, liberalism and universalism, the rise of the alternative right might have been arrested. All they had to do was argue for common humanity in the face of black and feminist identity politics, for free speech in the face of the regressive Left’s censorship sprees, and for universal values in the face of left-wing moral relativism… Young people perhaps aren’t primarily attracted to the alt-right because they’re instinctively drawn to its ideology: they’re drawn to it because it seems fresh, daring and funny, while the doctrines of their parents and grandparents seem unexciting, overly-controlling and overly-serious.
Much of this is idiocy. One need only look at the statistics on black wealth, or on female representation in Congress, to see the continuing necessity of “black and feminist identity politics.” The white men who write off these movements as mere irrational ideology have spent very little time trying to understand the lives of people different from themselves.
Still, one should accept a certain part of the caution. It’s true that the left too often lacks (1) good arguments and (2) wit. It’s very easy, when one is convinced of one’s own moral correctness, to denounce one’s enemies as evil and keep them from speaking. In doing so, one can indeed take on the very kind of bullying, close-minded disposition that the left is supposed to detest. The left should be empathetic and curious, and should never be seen as opposed to “universal values” or “freedom of speech,” both of which are foundational to its historical struggles.
It’s also worth confronting the alt-right’s actual arguments head on, rather than simply closing one’s ears and denouncing them. Yiannopoulos and others insist that feminists and progressives are afraid to debate Actual Facts, because the left is ideological rather than rational. Leftists then reinforce this perception by merely scoffing and dismissing Yiannopoulos and his ilk as racists, and attempting to have them kicked off college campuses. This is unfortunate, because it allows the alt-right to feel as if their arguments are indeed so strong that their enemies are terrified of having to deal with them.
Once their one or two serious critiques are addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.
Nobody need be terrified, however. Underneath all the rhetoric, the alt-right have few actual arguments. Their most convincing points are their attacks on left-wing hypocrisy and self-contradiction (the silencing of dissent in the name of dissent, simultaneously trying to dismantle and reinforce racial and gender identities, a failure to apply consistent moral standards). Once those critiques are taken seriously and addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.
It’s not yet clear whether the alt-right will be influential in the long run. Seen one way, its rise is encouraging news for progressives. After all, it is fueled by the success of progressive ideas; the alt-right is a backlash to advances in racial equality. Perhaps the clownish Trump campaign, and all of the racist memes, are the last gasp of a doomed demographic. It’s hard to know if this lunacy is merely the theatrical death-throes of a Republican Party whose time is passed, or if it’s the birth of a terrifying new right-wing ideology that threatens to define America’s future political life.
But nobody should wait to find out the direction of the movement. Neo-Nazism is also nothing to kid around about, and the percentage of the country who embraced Trump is truly alarming. We should take advantage of the present upheaval in our national debate and begin organizing around a morally coherent alternative. The causes of this new movement need to be identified, its ideas countered and extinguished. The alt-right are hideous, and it is not enough to take note of them. They must be gleefully squashed.
Illustration by Benjamin Saucier