White nationalist Richard Spencer, unofficial leader of the alt-right movement, talks with reporters after he was ejected from the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23, 2017, because of his controversial views. But some audience members gave him a warm welcome. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
The “alt-right,” a loose coalition of white nationalists, white supremacists, anti-Semites and others seeking to preserve what they consider traditional Western civilization, is urging white Americans to band together and fight multiculturalism. The movement has gained more attention than any fringe group in decades because of its role in the 2016 election and its embrace of President Trump's America First agenda. Political observers say the alt-right has tapped into some whites' fears about immigration and the nation's changing demographics, where whites will soon be a minority. The alt-right remains small, but both conservatives and liberals denounce its beliefs as racist. They point with alarm to the alt-right's online use of profane language and images to attack social conventions — moves that are helping it gain followers. The movement's use of identity politics, some say, is reminiscent of how liberals used it to fight for racial and gender equality. A number of analysts note that hate crimes have been increasing since the November election and urge Trump to more forcefully speak out against them.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, where leading conservatives gather annually near Washington for four days of speeches and strategizing, organizers minced no words about one of the attendees and his beliefs.
Richard Spencer, unofficial leader of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, had bought a ticket to the conference, but was later escorted out by security guards. “He is not welcome here,” CPAC Communications Director Ian Walters said. “His views are repugnant and have absolutely nothing to do with what goes on here.”1 And in an address to the conference, organizer Dan Schneider called the alt-right a “sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks.”
But some in the CPAC audience welcomed Spencer and treated him like a celebrity, posing with him for selfies. “Richard Spencer is, like, the coolest guy,” said the president of a College Republicans group at a New England state university.2
Undaunted by the organizers' harsh words and encouraged by the audience's reception, Spencer said, “What the alt-right is doing is clearly resonating with people. You can call it names, or you can actually ask, why is it resonating? Why does a young white person feel alienated in the modern world?”3
White nationalists have long existed in the United States. What's surprising today, historians and political analysts say, is that over the past two years the loose assemblage of white nationalists, white supremacists and others who gather under the alt-right banner have gained more attention than any fringe group in decades because of their ties to a major-party political nominee, Donald Trump, who won the presidency in November. The alt-right's use of internet attacks on Trump's behalf, and Trump's occasional retweeting during the campaign of material posted by white extremists, brought the alt-right waves of media attention and new enthusiasts, such as the Spencer fans at CPAC.
Demonstrators protest a speech at Texas A&M University on Dec. 6, 2016, by Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right.” Many in the movement hope white Americans eventually will live in a whites-only ethno-state that Spencer has said might be created by some means of “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The movement also has sparked criticism and alarm at both ends of the political spectrum. Many on the Left denounce its stances and say the very term “alt-right” is a politically correct mask for its extremist views. Meanwhile, critics on the Right say the movement is racist and an affront to both conservatism and traditional Republicanism; they also note that most Trump voters reject white extremism.4
Political observers say several other factors are spurring interest in the movement, including its ability to tap into some whites' fears about the changing demographics of the nation, where whites will soon be a racial minority, eclipsed by Hispanics and other groups. Another factor is Trump's populist appeals to whites worried about immigration, such as his false suggestion that a high percentage of Mexican immigrants are criminals.5
International developments also are propelling the alt-right. In Europe, a backlash against globalization and recent surges in refugees has led to the rise of far-right political parties throughout the Continent. Moreover, some backers of the alt-right make savvy online use of profane, taboo or abusive language and images to attack political correctness and social conventions. Those tactics attract many social media users, especially young men, analysts of extremist groups say.
White nationalism's new prominence is “a reaction against the multicultural explosion in America,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “We have just had a black president. Even the South is a very different place than it was 50 years ago. California has already turned majority minority.”
Whether this primarily internet-based movement can solidify and expand its influence with voters and within the Trump administration remains unclear, observers say.
“We shouldn't exaggerate the alt-right's size and influence,” says George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and the author of the 2016 book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism. In this mostly online movement, it's unknown how many people are core members — defined as those “who are really serious content creators” of, for example, original tweets or message-forum posts, he says. Hawley estimates the core group at a few thousand.
The term “alt-right” was first used in 2010, when Spencer, a writer and activist for a white nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute (NPI), launched Alternative Right, an online publication featuring what were widely viewed as white racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic writings.6 Spencer holds that alt-right thinking springs mainly from the perception that America's dominant white majority is losing ground to others.
Spencer didn't respond to CQ Researcher's requests for an interview. In November he told the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people.” But today, institutions such as government and media are acting on nonwhite people's behalf, he said. “And you can talk about this being fair … but … fairness has never been really a great value in my mind. I like greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.”7
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a U.S.-based advocacy group that opposes anti-Semitism and other bigotry, holds that the alt-right movement is a loose network of people — mostly white males — who believe the United States is a majority white nation that should reject policies that dilute whites' influence and behave in a nationalistic fashion.
Besides fostering white identity, the alt-right also encourages “aggressive anti-feminist and misogynistic politics,” says Matthew Lyons, co-author of the 2000 book Right-Wing Populism in America. Alt-right groups “say they have no interest in recruiting women or addressing any of women's concerns,” he says.
Still, groups that accept the alt-right label aren't monolithic in their views, says Marilyn Mayo, a director of the ADL's Center on Extremism.
For example, while some are anti-Semitic neo-Nazis, others appear not to be, she says. In fact, because most alt-right activity consists of anonymous online posts, it is not even clear how many alt-right followers are racists, Mayo says. “Some certainly are attracted just because they enjoy the rejection of political correctness. But a lot are really racist,” she says.
Further dooming attempts to definitively describe the alt-right are frequent squabbles and defections in the group, for example over such questions as whether gays should be allowed to call themselves “alt-right” or whether Jews can be considered white people.8
Alt-right members may differ about the ideal outcome of their activism, but Spencer has made his clear, says Hawley. “He wants to see an all-white ethno-state established in North America,” he says.
Spencer, however, has not clarified how the ethno-state would come about, a lack of detail that Hawley says is par for the alt-right course. The movement does not have “a lot in the way of real policy platforms,” he says.
The lack of policy specifics springs from necessity, at least in part, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Spencer has to maintain credibility with extremists in the alt-right network, while also sending a more amorphous message that might reach mainstream voters” without frightening those voters off, says Levin.
While members of what's now called the alt-right have been active for years, they came to public attention in the last two years after various white nationalists began speaking out in favor of Trump's candidacy, and alt-right online activism caught the media's attention. Trump, who has denounced the movement, is “energizing” white nationalists in the United States, said Spencer, because of his anti-immigration, America First rhetoric.9
The movement's profile rose further when candidate Trump retweeted white nationalist and neo-Nazi messages, such as a fictitious crime statistic claiming that 81 percent of 2015 white murder victims were killed by blacks. (The correct figure is about 15 percent.)10 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton accused Trump of stoking racism. The alt-right represents “a paranoid fringe in our politics,” Clinton said in an August 2016 speech in Reno, Nev., and Trump had invigorated the movement by “stoking it, encouraging it and giving it a national megaphone.”11
Over the past several years the movement also received exposure from the right-wing Breitbart News Network. Stephen Bannon, who became executive chairman after founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012, said in August 2016 that Breitbart News is “the platform for the alt-right.”12 Trump named Bannon his campaign chief executive in August 2016, and then, post-election, named him chief White House strategist, moves that again raised the movement's public profile and that some observers fear could give the group a say in government policymaking.13
Throughout his campaign, Trump won endorsements from extremist groups, such as white supremacists and neo-Nazis, while also winning over tens of millions of mainstream voters, says Levin — something virtually unprecedented in U.S. history. “Far-right extremists have tried for decades to field candidates who could go mainstream, but they haven't ever had a charismatic leader who could do it,” he says.
Still unclear, though, is the degree to which the Trump administration can or would act to turn white nationalist ideas into public policies, analysts say. In his inaugural address, Trump promised to fight for all Americans. “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag,” he said.14
Advocates of race-based politics say they have only modest hopes. In his inaugural address, Trump served up “egalitarian schmaltz,” self-proclaimed “race realist” Jared Taylor, founder of the alt-right American Renaissance website, said with disapproval. However, Trump does seem “to realize that at least some people don't belong [in the United States],” Taylor said, and may learn from some advisers, such as Bannon, to become more race-conscious with time.15
As political observers and others speculate on the alt-right's future, here are some of the questions they are asking:
Is the alt-right a white-supremacist movement?
People who identify as “alt-right” view race as central to human identity and consider the mixing of races in one society as a recipe for strife. In the past, many such people professed belief in “white supremacy” — the idea that whites are by nature superior to all other races, such as blacks, and therefore deserve to dominate society.
Alt-right groups do not use the term white supremacy to describe their beliefs. Some political analysts, however, argue that many in the alt-right are traditional white supremacists who have dropped the term because it fell out of public favor.
Several terms are routinely used to describe white identity politics, says Rosenthal, of the University of California, Berkeley.
White nationalism is “the idea that this is a white country,” Rosenthal says. “Then there's white separatism — the desire to have a literal place, a state, where white people can live on their own. Then there's white supremacy, which sees white people as having created all of Western civilization and asserts that they should therefore dominate in society. It's difficult to tell who holds which of these ideas, [partly because] people are very likely to say different things depending on who's there,” he says.16
The alt-right has members with various beliefs. It “is now the main refuge of what previously was a hodgepodge of bigots, including neo-Nazis,” says Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. Held in common “is a widespread notion that diversity and internationalism are traitorous,” he says.
Many scholars of extremism, including Levin, say that the idea of white supremacy underlies the beliefs of many in the alt-right.
“Alt-right, much like white nationalism, is a rebranding of white supremacy,” says Mayo of the ADL. “Some reject the term ‘white supremacy,’ but when you read their materials, their articles, their blogs, there's a constant focus on whites being superior,” she says.
For example, the American Renaissance website posts a series of articles called “How I Saw the Light About Race,” collating website readers' comments. One reader who grew up in an all-white area wrote, “When I did finally meet blacks, I found them to be childish, unintelligent, inarticulate, and often immoral and degenerate. That opinion has been confirmed over the decades.”17
“Biological determinism that argues some races are objectively inferior to others isn't as easy a sell as it once was, neither politically nor scientifically,” says Levin. “Most people just don't buy it any longer.” As a result, arguments for white separatism or dominance based on white supremacy are seldom used today, at least publicly, he says. White nationalists still do use the biological determinism argument for some audiences, calling it “biological diversity,” Levin says.
Today, the alt-right argues that “white Europeans” have singlehandedly created a superior U.S. culture that has gained nothing of value from the presence of other ethnicities, Levin says.
The shift away from the white supremacy term began as early as 1994, when some members of the Ku Klux Klan and others realized that it made many people envision “a certain kind of uncultured bigot,” said Michael Waltman, an associate professor of interpersonal and organizational communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Many adopted “white nationalist” as a substitute. But “it is really hard to be a white nationalist and not sort of think of white people as better than other folks,” Waltman said.18
American white-nationalist author Jared Taylor, founder of the alt-right American Renaissance website, addresses the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, on, March 22, 2015. Taylor has said the alt-right is “in unanimity” about rejecting “the idea that the races are basically equivalent and interchangeable.” (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Taylor, founder of the American Renaissance website, said in September that the alt-right is “in unanimity” about rejecting “the idea that the races are basically equivalent and interchangeable.” Genetic differences make white people more moral and more intelligent than black people, Taylor claimed.19
Nevertheless, Taylor added that he rejects the white supremacist term because “you could very effectively argue that East Asians are objectively superior to whites. Does that make us yellow supremacists? I don't think so.”20
Many in the alt-right movement hope white Americans eventually will live in a whites-only ethno-state that Spencer has said might be created by some means of “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”21 The ethno-state would not be open to Jews, he said. “Jews are Jews.”22
In a November 2016 speech to a Washington conference of the alt-right sponsored by the National Policy Institute think tank, which Spencer heads, he laid out many of his ideas.
He did not use the term white supremacy. Nevertheless, he argued that the United States was “great” through the early 1960s, citing its space program and other accomplishments, but has since lost its lead. The cause: “American society was 90 percent European” in the early 1960s, but since then ethnic diversity and racial minorities' influence in society have increased, to the country's detriment, Spencer said.23 (The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, abolished immigration quotas based on national origin, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.24)
To applause from the nearly 300 people at the conference, Spencer described white Americans as superior people continually under attack by liberals, who he said are allied with blacks and Hispanics. “The American Left is driven by anti-white hatred, full stop,” he said, adding that “we have nothing in common with these people.”25
In a multiethnic society, said Spencer, white Americans who have had their nation's greatness unfairly stripped away are ready to fight back. “We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet,” he said, referring to liberals and nonwhite Americans. “We were meant to overcome, overcome all of this, because that is natural and normal for us. Because for us, as Europeans, it is only normal again when we are great again.”
Then he concluded by declaring: “Hail Trump. Hail our people. Hail victory.”26
Does the Trump administration support alt-right ideas?
Political analysts say the alt-right owes its current prominence to the fact that, from the day he announced his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015, President Trump often asserted white nationalist-friendly ideas, such as his calls for a wall between the United States and Mexico and his broad-brush assertions to African-Americans that “you're living in poverty.”27
White nationalists — who had not openly embraced a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate within living memory — began praising Trump's statements online. And, to some extent, at least, candidate Trump appeared to respond in kind, such as when he retweeted a depiction of his primary opponent Jeb Bush as a beggar that was originally posted by someone with the white nationalist Twitter name @WhiteGenocideTM.28
Taking notice of this relationship between a major-party candidate and white nationalists, the media began covering the alt-right, creating a level of public awareness of white nationalism that has not been seen for years.
Trump himself has said he rejects the alt-right, although his critics say he was slow to do so. In a Nov. 22 interview with The New York Times the president said of the alt-right: “I don't want to energize the group. I disavow the group.”29
Nevertheless, two months into his presidency, signs point both for and against the Trump administration pursuing an agenda that parallels certain alt-right beliefs, experts say.
The movement's leaders are clearly supportive of many of the administration's ideas. For example, Trump's plan to aggressively deport more undocumented immigrants is nothing less than a revolution that might restore a white America, said Kevin MacDonald, editor of the online Occidental Observer, a leading white nationalist publication.30
Another sign that alt-right-friendly ideas are in play are reports that the Trump administration plans to shift a government program for monitoring violent ideologies to focus on so-called Islamic extremism, says Jasmin Mujanovi?, a New York City-based international relations scholar and consultant specializing in Eastern Europe.31 In the past, the program has also monitored domestic extremists from the right, such as white nationalists, who have been responsible for many U.S. bombings and shootings, Mujanovi? says.
The focus on Islamic extremism is a signal the alt-right might welcome, he says.
Writers at some neo-Nazi websites associated with the alt-right have taken it just that way. “This measure would be the first step to us going fully mainstream, and beginning the process of entering the government in full-force without the fear of being attacked, financially assailed, and intimidated into silence by the nefarious Jews,” wrote poster Marcus Cicero at the neo-Nazi website Infostormer. 32
Trump's appointment of Bannon as White House chief strategist suggests that white nationalist ideas might get a hearing but not necessarily automatic approval, political observers say.
On the one hand, Bannon has said he has no tolerance for “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones” in alt-right thinking.33 However, he is also an outspoken critic of immigration, free trade and international alliances and is widely reported to be the moving force behind some hardline actions that the Trump administration has taken against undocumented immigrants, refugees and travelers from several majority Muslim countries.34
Those moves are in tune with alt-right views, notes Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar and expert on hate crimes and civil liberties at the independent Arab Gulf States Institute, a Washington think tank. Trump himself, however, has taken a more pragmatic view of immigration through the years, raising questions about whether he'll fully support such hardline actions throughout his presidency or eventually move in another direction, Ibish says.
Ibish cites a Breitbart News Daily radio interview that Bannon conducted with Trump in 2015, in which Trump “called for using practical economic considerations” to decide which immigrants to admit, saying that “there are advantages to bringing in Indian computer scientists.” “But Bannon basically said, ‘Absolutely not.’ If they weren't white Europeans they weren't wanted in this society,” Ibish recalls.35
Many Trump supporters don't see his policies as racist but as pro-white, says Carol Swain, a professor of law and politics at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and the author of two books about contemporary white nationalism. “White people have real concerns — rising mortality rates in some places with people dying of despair, drug abuse, overdoses,” she says. “Naturally when they hear about government addressing the problems of other groups they want to hear about their own problems. And Mr. Trump tapped into that.”
“I don't think Donald Trump is a white nationalist,” Swain says. “He was tapping into real concerns. And he was steering people toward patriotism — things that unite.”
On the whole, the alt-right hopes Trump will be a transitional figure whose ideas can nudge public debate in the direction of their ideology, many analysts say.
Trump can help normalize their ideas by introducing less extreme but related concepts into the discussion as a sort of “gateway drug” to accustom people to hearing racist and isolationist views, says Mujanovi?. “They've been working on this for years online, and they've been looking for a carrier to bring it to a wider audience.”
“They call it shifting the Overton window” — a term invented by a conservative think tank to describe a range of socially acceptable positions, says Lyons, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. 36 “They were on the verge of saying ‘This is hopeless!’ Then Trump came along” and showed willingness to try widening the window. His ability to voice previously unacceptable ideas gave the movement new hope for its plan, Lyons says.
Alt-right members see some early presidential actions as less than encouraging, however. For instance, few of Trump's Cabinet appointees appear to favor a U.S. exit from international alliances. “These are globalists in general. They love free trade, they love immigration — big red flags for us,” said MacDonald of the Occidental Observer. 37
Does the alt-right promote violence?
So far, there is no evidence the alt-right has explicitly inspired violent acts, says the University of Alabama's Hawley.
Alt-right leader Spencer said he opposes direct threats of violence but supports the free-speech rights of those who display swastikas or make racist statements. “In terms of self-expression, we're not going to condemn something like [displaying swastikas] wholesale,” Spencer said.38
Ku Klux Klan members wearing hoods may not be the threats that some perceive them to be, Spencer told NPR. Instead, he said, such apparently provocative actions may just be people's attempt “to get in touch with their identity as a European.”39
In fact, Spencer contended, the real causes of violence and hatred in society are situations in which people of different races are forced into close interaction. History demonstrates this, he argued. “When you have two really dramatically different cultures, two dramatically different races all being forced together, it's a recipe for turmoil,” Spencer said. “I don't know of an historical example that contradicts that.”40
Some psychologists, however, say that simply identifying oneself as part of a group with common interests and a shared identity — such as race or religion — makes people more likely to express and act on prejudices against non-group members, even to the point of violence.
That's because the more strongly people believe they have a rational reason to harm another person, the more likely they are to feel free to do so, wrote Daniel Effron, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at London Business School in England, and Eric Knowles, an associate professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. Moreover, people are highly likely to believe that protecting the shared interests of one's group from a suspected threat provides just such a reason, said Effron and Knowles, who conducted several studies of the matter on ordinary people, not extremist groups.41
“Our research therefore raises the concern that as the [the United States] continues to diversify, whites not only may develop greater hostility toward other racial groups but also may increasingly regard themselves as possessing a license to express it,” Effron and Knowles wrote.42
History bears out that connection, says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) Intelligence Project, which monitors extremist groups. “Historically there's been violent politics when things change culturally,” such as in the 1920s when the nation's white Protestant majority felt threatened by a large wave of immigration, and Ku Klux Klan violence escalated, she says.
Guatemalan immigrants deported from the United States arrive in Guatemala City on Feb. 9, 2017. Political observers say the alt-right has tapped into some whites' fears about immigration and the nation's changing demographics, where whites will soon be a minority. President Trump's populist appeals to people worried about immigration also have resonated with alt-right supporters. (Getty Images/John Moore)
If a recognized authority figure simply suggests that some demographic group should be feared or disliked, some people may view that statement as permission to commit violence, said Charles Taylor, professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, who is an expert on xenophobia and the challenges that multicultural societies face.43
“Whenever political leaders propose to limit the rights of Muslims,” said Taylor, “they encourage Islamophobic sentiment and disinhibit hostile acts,” whether they intend to do so or not. “If highly respected leaders share that hostility, why shouldn't people who hold the same views act on them?” Trump's limitations on travel visas from Muslim-majority countries may have had that effect on Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City, Canada, mosque, Taylor said.44
After Spencer spoke at a Washington conference on Nov. 19, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement arguing that the speech could incite violence. Spencer made “several direct and indirect references to Jews and other minorities, often alluding to Nazism,” the statement read. “He implied that the media was protecting Jewish interests and said, ‘One wonders if these people are people at all?’ … His statement that white people face a choice of ‘conquer or die’ closely echoes Adolf Hitler's view of Jews and that history is a racial struggle for survival….45
“By the end of World War II,” the museum's statement continued, “the Germans and their collaborators had murdered six million Jews and millions of other innocent citizens, many of whom were targeted for racial reasons. The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.”
Words can spark violence and also help keep violence at bay, notes political consultant Mujanovi?, a Bosnian who in the 1990s was a young refugee from the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic and religious strife helped fuel wars and authoritarian takeover.
“I would really love it if the Republicans and Democrats could release some statement together, saying, ‘There are certain things about which we'll likely always disagree, but there are some ways of talking that we all find unacceptable. Here are a handful of things that we do not support.’ As a former refugee, I understand the anxiety many people say they feel in this climate. And it means so much for elder statesmen to come out and say, ‘This has gone too far,’” he says.
American Racial Purity
The alt-right's beliefs are nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, many Americans have held that national greatness rested on maintaining the values of European whites. Likewise, the alt-right idea that the nation should avoid foreign alliances has had many adherents, including President George Washington.
Non-British immigration was unpopular at times during the colonial period. Benjamin Franklin, a philosopher, scientist and apostle of the Enlightenment, worried about the large number of German-speaking immigrants in Pennsylvania.
While these immigrants had “industry and frugality” that would likely be useful to the colony, Franklin wrote in a 1753 letter, it might still be advisable to cap their numbers. “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort.” Moreover, he continued, “few of their children in the Country learn English,” to the point that “in a few years [interpreters] will be also necessary in the [colony's] Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say,” he grumbled.46
Once the United States became an independent nation, established under a written Constitution, two competing visions emerged about what nationhood entailed, says Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.
“Some see the nation as having a unifying national creed that includes things such as respect for religious pluralism” and accepting as citizens all people who agree to embrace that creed, Levin says. “But for many of the electorate this is less important than another notion — seeing their nation in racial, ethnic and religious terms.” The struggle between those visions persists to this day, he says.
“A foreigner can immigrate to France or Japan but never become truly French or Japanese,” said Matthew Spalding, associate vice president of the Washington-based Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, a project of Michigan's Hillsdale College.47 “But a foreigner of any ethnic heritage or racial background can immigrate to the United States and become, in every sense of the term, an American,” he wrote.48
“The Founders were not afraid that immigrants, by themselves, would subvert the American republic,” so long as, in the words of Founder Alexander Hamilton, the new nation's first Treasury secretary, they would “learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government,” Spalding said.49
But many Americans also have argued strenuously against opening citizenship to all and against the idea that people of different ethnicities are equal. They needed only to look at the Constitution and its “three-fifths” compromise, which counted a slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning taxes and representation.
“Ours is the Government of the white man,” and that is the source of its success, contended U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in 1848. Some other young countries in the Americas, colonized by Spain, were failing because they had committed the “fatal error of placing the colored race on an equality with the white,” said Calhoun, arguing against a call for the United States to annex Mexico after the 1846–1848 Mexican-American War. More than half of Mexico's population were “pure Indians” and many more were of “mixed blood,” and Calhoun “[protested] against the incorporation of such a people,” he said.50
During periods when America's white Protestant majority believed its dominance was threatened, the ethnicity-based vision of nationhood strengthened and produced organizations dedicated to enforcing it, sometimes through acts of terror.
In the 1850s, the nativist party known as the Know-Nothings argued that the country was being overrun by Irish Catholics and other immigrants, and it fought to limit immigration.
With the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the freeing of slaves, the Republican-controlled Congress embarked on a program to “reconstruct” the former Confederate states by creating biracial governments in the South and trying to integrate African-Americans into civic life. But the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Tennessee in 1866, fought to maintain white supremacy by using violence to terrorize newly freed slaves and their white supporters.51
After about a decade and a half of activity, the Klan and its sympathizers had largely achieved their goal of squelching black freedmen's attempts to exercise their voting rights or otherwise seek social equality. That success and some government action to quell the violence, led to the Klan's virtual (but temporary) disappearance by the 1880s and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the South that legalized racial segregation.52
The vision of a nation whose strength derived from a common creed, not a common ethnicity, remained alive for some, however, even in those times. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, for example, argued in 1871 for a law to ensure equal civil rights for freedmen. “There is true grandeur in an example of justice, making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down prejudice, like Satan, under our feet,” Sumner said.53
As the 20th century began, a massive wave of immigration from across the world once again made white Protestants uneasy. Asians, Eastern Europeans, Catholics, Jews and others arrived in greater numbers. Nearly 1.3 million legal immigrants entered the country in 1907, and more than 1.2 million arrived in 1914 — annual immigration peaks that would not be matched until the 1990s.54
In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan announced that it would reassemble, this time establishing itself as both an anti-black and an anti-immigrant organization in the South and the Midwest.55
“In the 1920s, one-seventh to one-eighth of the electorate were tied to the Klan,” says Levin.
In its successful outreach to middle- and upper-class Americans, the Klan published books and newspapers, ran seminars, and even tried to open its own university, said Kelly J. Baker, author of the Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930. The Klan successfully spread the belief that biology proved white people to be the world's “leading race” and that God had ordained it so, Baker said.56
Some important government policies reflected those ideas.
For example, in 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, banning Asian immigration and capping annual immigration of other nationalities at 2 percent of the total number of people of that nationality appearing on the 1890 census. The law's “most basic purpose” was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” according to the U.S. State Department.57
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Klan membership dropped steeply as immigration fell, the group faced some scandals and Americans focused on the economy. White supremacist groups have never regained their 1920s prominence. A resurgence of such groups began in the 1950s, however, as the civil rights movement intensified.
The alt-right has roots in racist movements such as the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups that focused on intimidating people who tried to assert minority rights. But it also has roots in another area in which some advocates of white nationalism have worked — conservative political theory.
One such group, called “paleoconservatives,” was the early political home of Spencer.58
Paleoconservatism — which is considered a far-right political movement — took shape in the 1980s as an effort to dissuade the Republican Party from following the lead of the “neoconservatives,” a group of influential formerly liberal scholars and journalists who had joined the Republican ranks around 1970.
By the time President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, neoconservatives had won significant Republican support for ideas that horrified some traditional conservatives, such as open immigration, embrace of the civil-rights movement and aggressive use of both diplomacy and military might to advance U.S. interests abroad.59
Although they did not burn crosses or view race as the sole unifying idea of their philosophy, paleoconservatives nevertheless embraced a white nationalist vision of America. They argued that the United States owed its greatness to the Founders' European heritage, and they strenuously opposed policies that might dilute that heritage, such as open immigration and foreign alliances.60
In the 1990s one prominent paleoconservative, Patrick Buchanan, a former adviser to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, presented the group's ideas directly to voters with some success, winning more than a fifth of the votes cast in both the 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential primaries. He especially railed against immigration. “If America is to survive as ‘one nation, one people,’” Buchanan said in 1994, “we need to call a “time-out” on immigration, to assimilate the tens of millions who have lately arrived.”61
Despite paleoconservatives' inability to get buy-in from elected officials, such ideas held some public appeal and “continued to attract young intellectuals” into the 2000s, said Lyons.62
In 2008, leading paleoconservative Paul Gottfried, a retired professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said the movement had “youth and exuberance on our side, and a membership that is largely in its twenties and thirties.” The young blood might eventually overcome what he deemed a long-running media and political-establishment collaboration to block far-right challenges to mainstream Republicanism.63
Among this younger generation was Spencer, a former graduate student at the University of Chicago and Duke University, in North Carolina, who worked as an editor at two paleoconservative publications before starting his own online publication in 2010. That website, AlternativeRight.org, which Spencer edited until 2012, gathered many far-right voices into what is now known as the alt-right.64
Unlike paleoconservatives, “the alt-right is about race per se,” says the University of Alabama's Hawley.
Like older paleoconservatives, Spencer wrote journal essays about his political ideas. Unlike them, however, he also argued on social media and reached out to neo-Nazis and other less staid advocates of white racial politics, who used racist epithets freely and with the intention to shock.65 The alt-right is “revolutionary,” while paleoconservatives are not, Spencer said. “I think we might need a little more chaos in our politics, we might need a bit of that fascist spirit,” he said.66
Europe's New Right
Another major source of alt-right thinking was the far-right parties that have appeared in virtually all European countries over the past few decades.67
Called the European New Right (ENR), the movement has roots in the highly authoritarian, nationalistic fascism that took hold in Germany and Italy in the 1930s and eventually went down to defeat in World War II, says Lyons, the co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. Beginning in the 1990s, ENR texts were translated from French to English and became a source of ideas for “Americans seeking to develop a white nationalist movement outside of traditional neo-Nazi/Ku Klux Klan circles,” he wrote.68
After World War II, European far-right politicians had to recast their ideas to win over a wary public, Lyons says. Classical fascism developed in an era when Europeans' imperial conquests in Africa and elsewhere seemed to confirm the idea that Western Europeans were a “master race,” as Germany's Nazis had declared, Lyons says.
After independence movements essentially ended colonialism in the 1960s, however, the ENR switched from the vision of a conquering European master race to a “defensive mode,” says Lyons. ENR politicians, including Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, vowed to defend European civilization and a heritage whose greatness they said was under attack, diluted by immigration and by the new mass culture that globalization of economics and media was creating, he said.69
The alt-right takes a similar approach, casting the United States' long-dominant white majority as a group under attack who must fight to protect their common interests, say Lyons and others.
In 2005, a small group of white nationalists launched the National Policy Institute (NPI) think tank, mostly online, to host conferences and publish writings about what they called the fast-shrinking influence of white Americans. “Within the first- or secondhand memories of people in this room, the white race may go from master of the universe to an anthropological curiosity,” said chief NPI founder William Regnery II, whose father, Henry, founded the conservative publisher Regnery Publishing.
In 2010, control of NPI's operations passed to Spencer.70 For the next several years, NPI and other white nationalist websites, online magazines and membership groups continued trying to promote their ideas but were getting little public or media attention. Members wrote blog posts, journal articles and social-media posts. Spencer, Taylor and others held small conferences for white nationalists. But it wasn't until July 2015 when white nationalists responded enthusiastically to Trump's announcement that he would be a candidate for the presidency, did the groups capture much public attention.
White supremacists and other members of the alt-right are stepping up their efforts to recruit college students, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The group said it cataloged 63 incidents of movement members distributing fliers on campuses in January and February, a significant increase from 2016. A number of activists also are giving speeches. Spencer, for example, spoke at Texas A&M in College Station in early December. The league said white supremacists are “emboldened by the 2016 elections and the current political climate.”71
A flare shows a damaged window at a Wells Fargo Bank in Berkeley, Calif., during protests against a scheduled speech at the University of California by former Breitbart News Network editor Milo Yiannopoulos, a political provocateur who is considered an alt-right supporter. Authorities canceled the speech after protesters broke windows and threw flares and smoke bombs. (AFP/Getty Images/Josh Edelson)
The alt-right's outreach is roiling universities. Appearances by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor who is considered an alt-right ally, have been especially controversial. Three hours before he was scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on Feb. 1, students gathered outside the student union to protest his speech. The protests were peaceful, according to authorities, until several dozen protesters wearing black masks arrived and attacked police barricades, threw firecrackers and broke windows. Authorities canceled the speech. A Berkeley student told a reporter, “We won't put up with the violent rhetoric of Milo, Trump or the fascistic alt-right.”72
On Inauguration Day, a black-clad protester punched Spencer in the face while he was being interviewed by a journalist on a Washington, D.C., street. “There was an actual anti-fascist rally going on, and I walked into it,” he said.73
Conservative groups are increasingly speaking out against the alt-right. The Tea Party Nation — an affiliate of the tea party movement, which espouses conservative principles — calls the alt-right fake conservatism and warns that it “pits itself against ‘establishment’ conservatism.” At CPAC in February, organizer Schneider, who is executive director of the American Conservative Union, denounced alt-right members' beliefs. “They are anti-Semitic. They are racist. They are sexist,” he said. “They are not an extension of the conservative movement.”74
On March 12, though, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, drew praise from former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke after tweeting support for Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, who has called for ending Muslim immigration, closing mosques and banning the Koran. Americans from across the political spectrum blasted as racist King's remark that “we can't build our civilization with other people's babies.”75
Meanwhile, a number of administration critics say President Trump is tacitly encouraging the alt-right with his immigration policies, including the revised travel ban that temporarily bars new visas for citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries. They also point to Trump's issuing of an executive order on Jan. 25 for the Department of Homeland Security to make public a list of all criminal acts committed by undocumented immigrants.76
And they say he offered delayed responses to an attack on the Canadian mosque that killed six; to some 100 bomb threats to Jewish organizations; to vandalism at Jewish cemeteries; and to the shooting of two Indian immigrants in Kansas by a suspect who reportedly shouted “Get out of my country!”77
Many mainstream Republicans defend Trump, and the White House denies the criticisms, saying the president — including in his Feb. 28 speech to Congress — has repeatedly condemned racial and religious attacks as evil. It also dismisses any links between the president's rhetoric and acts of violence. “Any loss of life is tragic,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Feb. 24. “To suggest that there's any correlation I think is a bit absurd.”78
As the debate continues, experts agree that the white nationalist movement thrives on controversy and is enjoying its time in the spotlight. A search of Google's news page turns up hundres of thousands of hits for the term “alt-right.”
Nevertheless, most of the public remains unfamiliar with the movement. A December poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington found that 54 percent of the public had heard “nothing at all” about the alt-right, while 28 percent had heard only “a little.”79
Conferences held under the alt-right banner remain small but have grown recently, at the same time as the movement's press coverage has expanded. After Trump's election, nearly 300 people attended a Nov. 19, 2016, NPI-sponsored conference in Washington, according to one affiliated group, Identity Evropa (IE).80 That was up from 172 the year before.81
IE is led by Nathan Damigo, a former Marine corporal who is a student at California State University, Stanislaus, and formerly headed the National Youth Front, a wing of the Neo-Nazi American Freedom Party. It's one of the few alt-right groups to try offline activism, visiting university campuses to reach out to college Republican clubs and posting signs about the importance of white European identity.82
For reasons not yet understood, young people's involvement in white nationalism is rising, says Hawley. At meetings of groups such as American Renaissance, he says, more people under 30 seem to turn up today than did so 10 years ago.
Among Millennials, an October poll by Ipsos Public Affairs, a market research and consulting firm in Washington, found that 34 percent had a favorable view of the alt-right and only 21 percent an unfavorable. (The rest had no opinion.)83
Hawley told The Washington Post that “the alt-right has been able to successfully brand itself as an edgy and fun and ironic movement that takes pleasure in needling both liberals and conservatives, and it's tongue-in-cheek and rebellious as opposed to just being motivated by genocidal hatred.”84
Individuals and groups have long used the internet to boost their causes, and the alt-right is using it effectively on Trump's behalf, political and technology analysts say.
The alt-right “contributed in a significant way to Trump's victory by their skillful use of online activism,” such as by devising internet memes, says Lyons, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America. An internet meme is a catchy phrase, video or image that encapsulates an idea and spreads quickly online, carrying the idea with it.
Two such memes were #cuckservative and #draftourdaughters.
Combining the words “cuckold” — an insulting word for a man whose wife has cheated on him — and “conservative,” #cuckservative denigrates traditional Republicans, whom the alt-right sees as selling out to liberal ideas such as allowing large-scale immigration. It was used to boost the image of outsider Republican candidate Trump. For #draftourdaughters, online activists photoshopped authentic-looking fake Clinton campaign materials stating that as president Clinton would bring more women into the armed services to fight wars she planned, such as a war with Russia.85
The alt-right's work with memes “was effective enough that mainstream media took notice. So that's power,” says Lyons. “Could Trump have won anyway? Maybe. But this certainly helped him. It made his opponents look ridiculous in the eyes of some voters. And there was no defense.”
Internet or no, the alt-right wouldn't have risen from obscurity without an international trend that's made many white voters receptive to extremist messages, political scholars say.
Support for far-right political parties has soared across Europe since 1999, according to British investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed. The parties' voter appeal has recently risen to heights not seen since the 1930s, when Hitler came to power in Germany, he wrote. In the most recent elections, held in 2014, far-right parties won just under 23 percent of the seats in the European Union's legislative body — the European Parliament — up from just 11 percent in 1999.86
This spring in France, far-right nationalist anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, has a good chance of winning the presidential election.87 Germany and the Netherlands also have far-right candidates running strongly in presidential elections this year.88
Many European far-right parties have relationships with Russian Federation President Vladmir Putin, who apparently hopes the rise of parties that shun international alliances can weaken the European Union, a top economic and political rival of Russia, political observers say.89
It can be said “with a high degree of confidence” that Putin has been building ties with Europe's far right for a decade, says Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the nonpartisan international affairs think tank Atlantic Council in Washington. Le Pen even received a 9 million euro campaign loan from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank, which has ties to Russia's government, she says.
Putin has given European far-right politicians “a kind of ideological architecture — strongly and consistently arguing against the EU and NATO,” says international-affairs consultant Mujanovi?. “It's a language that has proven very attractive to many people who feel as if they and their traditions have been left behind” by the newly united EU and has helped the far-right parties gain voters, Mujanovi? says.
In recent years, the alt-right and other American far-right groups have been building international connections, both with Europe's far-right parties and with Putin's Russia. Alt-right leaders have praised Putin for his “anti-globalist” stance and for promoting white nationalism. American Renaissance founder and alt-right ally Taylor, for example, attended a 2015 conference on nationalist and ethnic issues in Moscow. Spencer has called Russia “the sole white power in the world.”90 And Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, which critics say has further encouraged the alt-right.
Despite alt-right members' apparent outreach to Putin, the movement's situation is “profoundly different” from that of European far-right parties in ways that make it unlikely that a Putin-alt-right alliance does or even could exist, Polyakova says. For one thing, “while there is overlap in ideas, the alt-right here is very new.” Moreover, because the United States has a primarily two-party political system, small interest groups such as the alt-right are in no position to work with Putin “in a strategic way” as Europe's far-right politicians can, she says.
Whether the alt-right can expand its online influence to win more real-world support for its views is still unknown. Also unknown — and worrisome to many — is whether the alt-right's race-oriented politics will lead to social disruption or violent pushback from other groups.
“White supremacists in the alt-right are fringe still,” says the ADL's Mayo. “A few different groups are trying to meet and do real-world events, but those efforts are mostly just beginning.”
The alt-right may pin most hope for expanding its support base on online trolling of people they disagree with and on speeches and writings from provocateurs such as Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor who recently resigned over tapes in which he appeared to approve of sex between men and underage boys.91
Yiannopoulos and some other provocateurs friendly to the movement “are not white nationalists but try to be outrageous about the same issues to get a rise out of people,” Mayo says. “The thought is that if you attract people by criticizing politically correct views, you may be able to gradually nudge them” into adopting more extreme racist and misogynist political views, she says. “I think that would be a small percentage of people, but it could happen.”
Unlike the alt-right, advocacy groups with true clout “have think tanks, policy papers [and] people on congressional staffs,” says the University of Alabama's Hawley. The alt-right has “already put themselves on the radar in ways that the far right hasn't previously been able to do. But it's not clear how they would get additional resources [and] support. It's possible that they've already accomplished all they're ever going to.”
While the alt-right's online presence has gained it some young followers, it's also not clear whether exclusionary, isolationist politics will be as attractive to younger generations as they have sometimes been to older ones, says Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. In general, “Millennials are far more tolerant than their grandparents.”
The attempts at relationship building carried out by the alt-right and European far-right parties could be a sign of desperation, says Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute. “They all want a movement because they know they're a minority, so if they don't go international, really become a worldwide movement, they're likely to die.”
But Ibish says that may be more easily said than done. “How do you make an international movement of nationalists?” he says. And the differences among groups are substantial, in both the European far right and in the U.S. alt-right. “Some are anti-Semitic, some accept Jews but are very anti-Islam; some accept gays and others don't. The differences seem large. And the more they try to work in unison, the more they're likely to find it harder than they imagine,” Ibish says.
The threat of violence from extremists on the right and left is real, says Levin. “The progressive left is now out of power, and with the absence of leadership there we have a fringe of the hard left — the anti-fascists, the Marxists — who believe that resistance should be violent” he says. “Will there be a coalescence of the hard violent left in response” to the rise of alt-right ideas or to policies put in place by an alt-right-friendly Trump administration? “We just don't know.”
Professor of Sociology, Hunter College. Written for CQ Researcher, March 2017
The commonplace view of free speech in the United States is often attributed to this quote, supposedly from the French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The quote is actually from a Voltaire biographer, and it misleads us about the nature of protected speech.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a burning cross is not protected speech, because it is meant to terrorize a group of people. When we think about the hate speech that can be located online today through Google searches, the question becomes: What constitutes a burning cross in the digital era?
Before Dylann Roof decided to kill nine people in a Bible study group in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, he searched online for “black on white crime.” In his manifesto, he said that what he learned left him determined “to do something.”
One racist site, Stormfront, has grown from 124,000 registered users in 2008 to over 320,000 today. And, because the internet is nearly borderless, our homegrown white supremacy is available to a global audience with deadly consequences. The Southern Poverty Law Center has linked that site alone to some 100 hate-crime murders.
The misbegotten notion that white supremacist views deserve First Amendment protection is rooted in another ill-formed idea: that good ideas will rise to the top and bad ideas will sink to the bottom.
But that is not true. When white supremacist ideas have a platform, they thrive, gain legitimacy, grow in popularity and endanger lives.
The Department of Homeland Security should treat white supremacy as a terrorist threat to the government and monitor online sites that promote racial hate. Unfortunately, it gutted its monitoring program for domestic terrorism in 2010, after conservatives objected to a “politically charged” leaked report. It is time to rebuild it, and identify and outlaw the kind of online speech that can cause real harm.
Other democracies do not see free speech as an absolute right; they see it as a right that must be balanced with others, such as the human right to not be the target of violence based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual identity.
We should refuse to allow the First Amendment to be used to protect the speech of those who wish to use that protection to harm others.
President and CEO, Newseum. Written for CQ Researcher, March 2017
The Web and the social media revolution it spawned are in many ways the First Amendment realized. Families have been reconnected, friendships renewed across vast distances and the isolation of some relieved. At the same time, social media, perhaps inevitably, has been the vehicle for the transmission of a tremendous amount of hatred, including numerous examples of racist speech that rightfully anger many.
What to do about the racism polluting parts of the information ecosystem is an important and emotional issue. In its recent survey of high school students — the “digital natives” supposedly at the core of the social media revolution — the Knight Foundation found that only 43 percent agreed people should be allowed to say offensive things on social media.
It is still not understood that the government is not allowed to regulate many instances of racist speech. Indeed, hate speech, except under very narrow exceptions — such as direct encouragement of others to immediately commit violence — is protected speech in the United States.
As private companies, the social media platforms themselves are able to regulate what they present to the public. Although these companies, notably Facebook, initially asserted that they were merely pipes through which others posted, they have become increasingly aggressive in developing and enforcing company-specific community standards, including prohibitions on racist speech.
The challenge is that social media use is evolving quickly, and the sheer volume of posts in almost every language transmitted at great speed makes regulation exceptionally difficult. Racists also continually push to see what they can get through.
In the new information order where the gatekeepers inevitably struggle, perhaps the ultimate form of “regulation” rests with citizens themselves. Racism flourishes online in part because hateful speech is allowed to dominate conversations.
Racism should be identified and countered. However, the ultimate way to do so is for the public to speak up and make persuasive statements through posts, videos, tweets and snaps showing that the only way we will prosper as a society is to figure out how we can live together as individuals.
The power of algorithms used by the social media platforms is that they figure out with great speed the sentiments that are most popular and then distribute them. By guiding searchers to anti-racist speech, algorithms can help counter an age-old evil without violating the First Amendment.
|1990s||White supremacists use the internet to spread racist ideas. |
|1995||Don Black of Florida sets up Stormfront, believed to be the world's first hate website, for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. |
|1999||Far-right parties, allies of U.S. white nationalists, win 11 percent of seats in the European Union's Parliament. |
|2000s||White nationalists win support by rebranding as an “identity” movement, urging whites to band together to protect common interests. |
|2005||Conservative publishing-dynasty heir William Regnery II and other white nationalists open the National Policy Institute (NPI) think tank to promote white people's interests through meetings and publications. |
|2008||In the title of an article about “paleoconservatives” — members of a far-right group interested in preserving white dominance — Taki's Magazine editor Richard Spencer labels them the “alternative right.” |
|2010s||A loose network of white-identity groups become known as the alt-right. |
|2010||Leadership of NPI operations passes to Spencer…. He founds the online publication Alternative Right to publish essays on race and gender and serve as a gathering place for the alt-right. |
|2013||Alt-right, anti-Semitic website Daily Stormer is founded. |
|2014||Europe's far-right parties make further gains in the EU Parliament, winning just under 23 percent of the seats…. Russian President Vladimir Putin boosts the political fortunes of Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right National Front party, with a loan of 9 million euros from a Russian-backed bank. |
|2015||White supremacist Jared Taylor attends a March conference in Moscow on the denigration of white European traditions…. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is praised online by several alt-right members when, at his June 16 campaign launch, he labels many Mexican immigrants criminals…. Alt-right members use the term #cuckservative — formed from “cuckold,” a man who's been cheated on, and “conservative” — to insult conservatives they say have sold out to liberals. |
|2016||Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of the conservative Breitbart News, is appointed chief executive of the Trump presidential campaign and says Breitbart has been “the platform for the alt-right.” … Alt-right members' enthusiasm for candidate Trump grows when he retweets posts from someone using the Twitter name @WhiteGenocideTM…. Profile of alt-right rises after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton calls it a “paranoid fringe.” … On Nov. 8, Trump wins the presidency…. Nearly 300 people attend a Nov. 20 alt-right conference in Washington, up from 172 in 2015; when conference organizer Richard Spencer closes a speech saying “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” some in audience raise their arms in a Nazi salute…. After Spencer's speech, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a statement, “The Holocaust did not begin with killing. It began with words.” … Asked on Nov. 22 about his possible alt-right connections, President-elect Trump says “I disavow the group.” |
|2017||At the February annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Trump and Bannon, now White House chief strategist, get enthusiastic welcomes from the event organizer. Self-described alt-right “fellow traveler” Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart News editor, whom Spencer calls an inspiration for his provocative use of hate speech as humor, is scratched from a CPAC speaking spot after a taped interview surfaced in which he appeared to sanction sex between men and underage boys. Spencer buys a ticket to sit in the CPAC audience but is escorted from the venue by hotel security because of his beliefs; some attendees enthusiastically welcome him, however…. Anti-Defamation League reports 63 cases of white nationalists distributing fliers on campuses in January and February, a significant increase over 2016…. Critics charge that some actions by President Trump tacitly encourage the alt-right; they point to travel bans for citizens of six Muslim-majority countries and a plan to publicize a list of criminal acts committed by undocumented immigrants…. IRS suspends the tax-exempt status of Spencer's NPI think tank because the group filed no IRS paperwork since 2013. |
| || |
When David French, a writer for the conservative National Review, criticized Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and questioned his alleged ties to the “alt-right,” followers of the movement began to attack him online.
One attack, French said, involved the posting of “images of my daughter's face in gas chambers, with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her.”1
The incident, researchers say, is one example of how the alt-right has been using its online skills over the past two years to attack opponents, raise its profile and gain members.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, people identifying themselves as alt-right followers targeted Trump's “critics, among others, with streams and streams of abuse through anonymous Twitter accounts,” says Matthew Lyons, a Philadelphia-based researcher and author specializing in right-wing movements.
“It's a devastating tactic,” says Lyons. “And you can't even say that anybody in particular is orchestrating it. You have all these men who see their role as internet warriors. And somebody points to a person who's perceived as an enemy, like National Review writer David French, who criticized Trump. And someone says, ‘Let's go after his family,’” he says.
It's not surprising that the alt-right is skillfully using the Web to win followers and wield political influence, says Jessie Daniels, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City and the author of the 2009 book Cyber Racism.
Racist groups were among the earliest organizations to see the internet's potential, she says. In an early-1990s interview, for example, David Duke, founder of the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, called the internet the greatest-ever opportunity to spread racist ideologies. “I believe that the Internet will begin a chain reaction of racial enlightenment that will shake the world by the speed of its intellectual conquest,” Duke wrote.2
Some alt-right websites, such as the anti-Semitic white nationalist site Daily Stormer, have been building an online following quickly, says Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors extremist groups.
The center found that the Daily Stormer, which was founded in 2013, needed only three years to surpass the Web traffic of the oldest hate sites online, such as Stormfront, which debuted in 1995, Beirich says.
Trolling — posting inflammatory messages in an attempt to provoke controversy — is one way the alt-right wins new followers, says George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“Trolling isn't done to influence the person being trolled,” he says. “Other people are watching, and the trolls know they'll attract some of them if they draw the target into a fight” or simply troll in an aggressive way that seems “edgy and fun” to some people. “It sends the message that, ‘Hey, if you follow us, you too can rile famous people online,’” Hawley says.
During the 2016 campaign, the alt-right also used bots — automated software — to quickly spread political memes, which are images or other material passed around online, says Daniels.
When a topic alt-rightists wanted to target came up in a Twitter feed — such as the #imwithher hashtag connected to the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — a bot would instantly retweet the hashtagged tweet along with the cartoon Pepe the Frog meme that the alt-right adopted as a symbol, Daniels says. “Bots were able to quickly get it into the general online conversation” much faster than humans could, she says.
Extremists also have learned how to gradually shift public discourse in directions they choose, Daniels says.
For example, a website on slavery run by white supremacists can excerpt oral histories found in the public domain and twist their meaning, such as by highlighting innocent-seeming facts about slaves being allowed to grow vegetables for their own use, she says. By savvy use of linking and other methods, they can change search engine results, so that when someone types into Google “was slavery so hard?” sites that give a misleading picture turn up, Daniels says.
“So much of what we know and understand about the world happens through search engines now,” and white nationalists are among the internet-savvy people who can shape the public's picture of reality without anyone being aware of the manipulation, Daniels says.
Alt-right followers use similar methods to shift public discourse toward acceptance of once forbidden racist words and images, says Lyons. Some alt-right-related websites go out of their way to use the most shocking images of bigotry possible as a way to gradually make once-shunned speech and imagery seem normal through repetition, he says.
A case in point is some posters' recent heavy use of gas-chamber jokes, Lyons says. “Thousands and thousands of tweets have gone out telling gas-chamber jokes, and even if many people are still horrified,” some will begin to view the jokes as normal, which shifts the political and social climate without most people even realizing it, he says.
— Marcia Clemmitt
Taking its cue from the “identity politics” of the Left — in which people rallied around campaigns for gay rights or black pride — the so-called alt-right is attempting to rally mainstream white Americans to its cause by appealing to white pride, according to researchers Carol Swain of Vanderbilt University and Russ Nieli of Princeton University.3
Richard Spencer, the unofficial spokesman of the alt-right — an umbrella group of people with various racist beliefs, including anti-Semites, white supremacists and white nationalists who want whites to live in a separate “ethno-state” — urged white Americans to see themselves as a unified group. Whites, he said, must band together to fight for common interests or watch “European culture” get wiped out in a multicultural United States in which whites are simply one more minority group.4
White identity is at the core of the alt-right's appeal to the average white person and to President Trump's supporters, Spencer claimed, even if, he said, most Trump voters “aren't willing to articulate it as such.”5
Identity language, experts say, clearly resonates with some whites.
J.P. Sheehan, president of a College Republican club, said he was an Obama voter who gradually came to believe that ethnic minorities were moving into the forefront at his expense. He said he latched onto the white-identity language Spencer uses because it gave him a sense of meaning. “People think the alt-right is just simply about being mean to other people,” said Sheehan. “It's really not. The alt-right is simply identity politics for white people.”6
The appeal of identity language for some whites isn't surprising, Swain says.
“White people have real concerns, such as rising mortality rates, with older white people in some communities dying of despair, drug overdoses,” she says. “They want those concerns recognized. But in the liberal political language [of the last several decades], they were hearing about everybody else and not about themselves.”
A Ku Klux Klan member in Hampton Bays, N.Y., said on Nov. 22, 2016, that his KKK branch has had some 1,000 inquiries from people interested in joining since Donald Trump's election. The alt-right has roots in racist movements such as the Klan. (AFP/Getty Images/William Edwards)
For disaffected whites — including those who argue that whites are superior to other races — the “logical next step was to copy that multiculturalist language and use it to talk about themselves,” Swain says. It was clear in the early 2000s that white identity would soon become the next rallying cry for disaffected white people, both mainstream whites and white racists, she says.
Swain says she recognized then that identity politics could be an effective tool for the far right to reach mainstream whites and help build opposition to racial inclusiveness.
Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, made a similar argument in his 2006 book, The Trouble With Identity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.
In the book, Michaels argued that identity politics was a dangerous diversion that allowed politicians to ignore the country's real socioeconomic problems, which afflict people from all demographics. Michaels, like Swain, warned that identity politics could backfire by making white people see themselves as an identity group victimized by racism.
In 2006, many liberal critics rejected both those arguments. But “someone told me they'd just discovered the book last week, and now it reads like a prophecy,” said Michaels last year.7
As identity politics and language come to dominate the public debate, “what you get is an increasing number of white people who are committed and convinced that they're the victims of racism,” something that was evident in the 2016 campaign cycle, said Michaels.
In a 2014 survey by the independent research group Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white Americans, 61 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of people identifying themselves as tea party members said racial discrimination against whites was as big a problem as racial discrimination against minorities.8
“White people are indeed victimized — they're the largest group of poor people,” Michaels said. “Those people begin to think, yeah, racism is the problem. That's why what we've seen emerge during this Trump campaign is a white identity politics.”9
To combat this view — and to prevent white nationalists from continuing to use it to build support for racism — “we have to take new approaches to problems like poverty,” Swain argues. “Look at socioeconomic problems that affect whites along with other ethnic groups and address them as that — as socioeconomic problems, not as problems of this identity group or that.”
Others, however, defend identity politics and warn against abandoning it. The 2016 election did not demonstrate white backlash, said Jacob T. Levy, a professor of political theory at McGill University in Montreal. Trump got a lower share of white votes than Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, 58 percent versus 59 percent. Moreover, in polls white voters expressed reluctance to vote for Trump when he spoke against minorities or showed disrespect for women, Levy said.10
Identity politics is necessary, Levy said, because so much injustice is “targeted injustice.” He pointed to laws banning gay sexual activity and to policing that leads to the disproportionate arrests of blacks. To progress as a society, “we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them,” he said.
— Marcia Clemmitt
Daniels, Jessie , Cyber Racism , Rowman & Littlefield, 2009. A sociology professor at Hunter College in New York City recounts how white supremacists have used the internet to win followers and spread their message.
Hawley, George , Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism , University Press of Kansas, 2016. An assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama describes how far-right thinkers — including white nationalists and “paleoconservatives” — have challenged mainstream conservatives and helped spawn the so-called alt-right.
Swain, Carol M., and Russ Nieli , Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America , Cambridge University Press, 2003. A professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University (Swain) and a lecturer in politics at Princeton University (Nieli) present in-depth interviews with 10 leading white nationalists in the United States, several of whom are members of the loose network that has become the “alt-right.”
Beauchamp, Zack , “White Riot,” Vox, Jan. 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/j57rmcf. The rising number of minorities in the United States and Europe may have led to a white backlash against increasing ethnic diversity and multiculturalism and contributed to the election of President Trump.
Ehrenfreund, Max , “What the alt-right really wants, according to a professor writing a book about them,” The Washington Post, Nov. 21, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hjt4fqy. A University of Alabama assistant professor of political science, who is interviewing alt-right members for a new book, describes what he has learned about the beliefs and demographics of the movement, saying “it is predominantly an online phenomenon, and amorphous.”
Letson, Al , “A frank conversation with a white nationalist,” Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting, Nov. 10, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hpm6n2g. In an interview, alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer describes his hopes that the United States eventually will become a white “ethno-state” — a nation populated entirely by people of white European ancestry.
Ohlheiser, Abby, and Caitlin Dewey , “Hillary Clinton's alt-right speech, annotated,” The Washington Post, Aug. 25, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/jksmlan. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton brought the alt-right heightened publicity when, in a 2016 speech, she sharply criticized the movement and then-candidate Donald Trump's alleged embrace of it.
Penny, Laurie , “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America's New Right,” Pacific Standard, Feb. 21, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/hduulp7. A reporter describes her conversations with young men who worked for alt-right-affiliated provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos during his college lecture tour. These alt-right members were primarily involved with the movement for amusement, not because of the ideology, she says.
Roy, Avik , “Up From White Identity Politics,” National Review, Aug. 18, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/zg334he. A conservative columnist explains why he believes white-identity politics are bad for the country, for conservatives and for Republican priorities.
Siegel, Jacob , “The Alt-Right's Jewish Godfather,” Tablet, Nov. 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hku86bb. Richard Spencer's alt-right network includes anti-Semites. But Spencer's philosophical mentor is Paul Gottfried, a Jewish professor and a developer of paleoconservatism, which criticizes mainstream conservatives as too friendly to social and political equality.
Tanner, Charles, Jr. , “Richard Spencer: Alt-Right, White Nationalist, Anti-Semite,” Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), Jan. 5, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jpuqaje. A human-rights advocate describes alt-right spokesman Richard Spencer's background in the world of far-right political theory.
Reports and Studies
Berger, J.M. , “Nazis vs. ISIS on Twitter: A Comparative Study of White Nationalist and ISIS Online Social Media Networks,” George Washington University Program on Extremis, September 2016, http://tinyurl.com/gpc57jr. A university-based researcher on extremist movements describes how white nationalists and the Islamic State gather followers and communicate their views using social media.
Klapsis, Antonis , “An Unholy Alliance: The European Far Right and Putin's Russia,” Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/zryk9oc. A centrist European think tank examines links between European far-right parties with similarities to the alt-right and Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government.
Lyons, Matthew N. , “Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins And Ideology Of The Alternative Right,” Political Research Associates, Jan. 20, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/zm7f7cu. An independent researcher on right-wing extremism traces the origins of the alt-right.
The Next Step
Romano, Aja , “Milo Yiannopoulos still has alt-right fans,” Vox, Feb. 23, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jmguz6w. Despite a video surfacing that seems to show former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos defending pedophilia, his most ardent “alt-right” followers have defended him and argue that the mainstream media is unfairly attacking him.
Weigel, David, and John Wagner , “Alt-right leader expelled from CPAC after organizer denounces ‘fascist group,’” The Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/hqqjd28. The Conservative Political Action Conference ejected alt-right founder Richard Spencer from its meeting due to his controversial views on white nationalism.
Yoo, Noah, and Amy Phillips , “Adult Swim Cancels ‘Million Dollar Extreme,’ Show Accused of Racism and Bigotry,” Pitchfork, Dec. 6, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/gtvs3t7. The Adult Swim network canceled the program “Million Dollar Extreme,” created by an alt-right supporter, after critics said the show promoted sexist and racist viewpoints.
“Meet the IB, Europe's version of America's alt-right,” The Economist, Nov. 12, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hbhthma. The “identitarian” movement, which espouses anti-Muslim, anti-media and anti-migrant messages, has become Europe's version of the alt-right.
Mohdin, Aamna , “What's ‘alt-right’ in German? Breitbart News is expanding in Europe,” Quartz, Nov. 20, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/z7sljwz. The conservative website Breitbart News, a platform for the alt-right, is looking to expand to Germany and France to take advantage of anti-immigration fervor in Europe.
Townsend, Mark , “Britain's extremist bloggers helping the ‘alt-right’ go global, report finds,” The Guardian, Feb. 11, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/jrbxkph. The United Kingdom's far right is seeking to build support for the alt-right internationally by using social media and “click-bait” articles and videos that taunt the Left.
Altman, Alex , “How Donald Trump Is Bringing the Alt-Right to the White House,” Time, Nov. 14, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/z5lqmla. By appointing former Breitbart Executive Chairman Stephen Bannon to a powerful White House position, critics say President Trump is giving voice to the alt-right and other fringe groups.
Morgan, Jonathon , “How the ‘Alt-Right’ Came to Dominate the Comments on Trump's Facebook Page,” The Atlantic, Jan. 21, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/zsrjbhn. An increasing number of comments reflecting white nationalist sentiments were left on President Trump's Facebook page during 2016, according to a new analysis.
Shelbourne, Mallory , “Conway denies retweeting white nationalist,” The Hill, Feb. 14, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/z4397ew. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway came under fire when her Twitter account retweeted a white nationalist account; she denied retweeting it herself and denounced the tweet.
Social Media's Role
Broderick, Ryan , “I Made A Facebook Profile, Started Liking Right-Wing Pages, And Radicalized My News Feed In Four Days,” Buzzfeed, March 8, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/hhgun26. A BuzzFeed experiment found that Facebook's algorithm suggested increasingly far-right accounts and news stories, some of which were fake, once the user began “liking” the pages of conservative politicians and others.
Guyunn, Jessica , “Twitter suspends alt-right accounts,” USA Today, Nov. 15, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/haxgowo. In an attempt to crack down on hate speech, Twitter began suspending high-profile accounts linked to the alt-right.
Hanna, Andrew, and Bryan Bender , “‘Alt-right's [sic] favored social network: Fake news welcome here,” Politico, Dec. 8, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/zfavteq. A new social media website, Gab, is becoming the platform for members of the alt-right movement.
Alt-right-affiliated website and organization founded by white nationalist Jared Taylor that argues that race heavily determines traits such as intelligence and morality.
605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158
International Jewish group that researches, monitors and opposes anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.
Center for Right-Wing Studies
2420 Bowditch St., MC5670, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-5670
Research center that studies right-wing movements around the world.
Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism
State University of California, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, CA 92407-2318
Research group that analyzes data and policy on bigotry, terrorism and extremism's effects on civil rights.
National Policy Institute
Alt-right think tank and publisher of material on white European identity politics.
Far-right Web publication on white European culture and white identity politics.
Political Research Associates
1310 Broadway, Suite 201, Somerville, MA 02144
Think tank that researches and analyzes threats to social justice from the far right.
Southern Poverty Law Center
400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104
Monitors domestic hate groups and extremists and provides training and legal advocacy to oppose hate crimes.
About the Author
Marcia Clemmitt is a veteran social-policy reporter who previously served as editor in chief of Medicine & Health and staff writer for The Scientist. She has also been a high school math and physics teacher. She holds a liberal arts and sciences degree from St. John's College, Annapolis, and a master's degree in English from Georgetown University. Her recent CQ Researcher reports include “The Dark Web” and “Teaching Critical Thinking.”
Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Clemmitt, M. (2017, March 17). ‘Alt-Right’ Movement. CQ researcher, 27, 241-264. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017031700
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017031700