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‘Alt-Right’ Movement

March 17, 2017 • Volume 27, Issue 11
Do its white-nationalist views have wide support?
By Marcia Clemmitt

Background

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.

Far-Right Thinkers

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.

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[46] Benjamin Franklin, “Letter to Peter Collinson,” TeachingAmericanHistory.org, May 9, 1753, http://tinyurl.com/jzxxq6a.

Footnote:
46. Benjamin Franklin, “Letter to Peter Collinson,” TeachingAmericanHistory.org, May 9, 1753, http://tinyurl.com/jzxxq6a.

[47] Matthew Spalding, “Why Does America Welcome Immigrants?” The Heritage Foundation, June 30, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/zbxqvm3.

Footnote:
47. Matthew Spalding, “Why Does America Welcome Immigrants?” The Heritage Foundation, June 30, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/zbxqvm3.

[48] Ibid.

Footnote:
48. Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

Footnote:
49. Ibid.

[50] John C. Calhoun, speech on Mexico, Jan. 4, 1848, http://tinyurl.com/hvvupqf.

Footnote:
50. John C. Calhoun, speech on Mexico, Jan. 4, 1848, http://tinyurl.com/hvvupqf.

[51] “Ku Klux Klan,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Dec. 6, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/h4dwkfa.

Footnote:
51. “Ku Klux Klan,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Dec. 6, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/h4dwkfa.

[52] Ibid.

Footnote:
52. Ibid.

[53] Quoted in W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1998), pp. 592–593.

Footnote:
53. Quoted in W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (1998), pp. 592–593.

[54] “Legal Immigration to the United States, 1820 to Present,” Migration Policy Institute, http://tinyurl.com/jd8hvym.

Footnote:
54. “Legal Immigration to the United States, 1820 to Present,” Migration Policy Institute, http://tinyurl.com/jd8hvym.

[55] “Ku Klux Klan,” op. cit.

Footnote:
55. “Ku Klux Klan,” op. cit.

[56] Kelly J. Baker, “White-Collar Supremacy,” The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/zkku59y.

Footnote:
56. Kelly J. Baker, “White-Collar Supremacy,” The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/zkku59y.

[57] “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, http://tinyurl.com/qe2tnuw.

Footnote:
57. “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, http://tinyurl.com/qe2tnuw.

[58] Jacob Siegel, “The Alt-Right's Jewish Godfather,” Tablet, Nov. 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hku86bb.

Footnote:
58. Jacob Siegel, “The Alt-Right's Jewish Godfather,” Tablet, Nov. 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hku86bb.

[59] For background, see Matthew N. Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” threewayfight, Sept. 10, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/goqww49; Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta, “Neo-Confederacy and Its Conservative Ancestry,” in Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, E. Hague, Heidi Beirich, and E.H. Sebesta, eds. (2008), p. 26; and George Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016).

Footnote:
59. For background, see Matthew N. Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” threewayfight, Sept. 10, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/goqww49; Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta, “Neo-Confederacy and Its Conservative Ancestry,” in Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, E. Hague, Heidi Beirich, and E.H. Sebesta, eds. (2008), p. 26; and George Hawley, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism (2016).

[60] Siegel, op. cit.

Footnote:
60. Siegel, op. cit.

[61] Patrick J. Buchanan, “Immigration Time-out,” Oct. 31, 1994, http://tinyurl.com/hrut4w4; “US President-R Primaries,” 1992, Our Campaigns, http://tinyurl.com/z34em5d; and “US President-R Primaries,” Our Campaigns, 1996, http://tinyurl.com/hbzl9fk.

Footnote:
61. Patrick J. Buchanan, “Immigration Time-out,” Oct. 31, 1994, http://tinyurl.com/hrut4w4; “US President-R Primaries,” 1992, Our Campaigns, http://tinyurl.com/z34em5d; and “US President-R Primaries,” Our Campaigns, 1996, http://tinyurl.com/hbzl9fk.

[62] Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” op. cit.

Footnote:
62. Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” op. cit.

[63] Paul Gottfried, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” Taki's Magazine, Dec. 1, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/j2t4mt6.

Footnote:
63. Paul Gottfried, “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” Taki's Magazine, Dec. 1, 2008, http://tinyurl.com/j2t4mt6.

[64] Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” op. cit.; Richard Spencer, “Am I Not Being Outrageous Enough?” National Policy Institute, Nov. 20, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/jcmots9.

Footnote:
64. Lyons, “AlternativeRight.com: Paleoconservatism for the 21st Century,” op. cit.; Richard Spencer, “Am I Not Being Outrageous Enough?” National Policy Institute, Nov. 20, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/jcmots9.

[65] Siegel, op. cit.

Footnote:
65. Siegel, op. cit.

[66] Quoted in Siegel, op. cit.

Footnote:
66. Quoted in Siegel, op. cit.

[67] For background, see Margaret Quigley, “Some Notes on the European ‘New Right,’” Political Research Associates, Aug. 29, 2016/Jan. 1, 1991, http://tinyurl.com/h46arxf; Zack Beauchamp, “An expert on the European far right explains the influence of anti-immigrant politics,” Vox, May 31, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hbwapt7.

Footnote:
67. For background, see Margaret Quigley, “Some Notes on the European ‘New Right,’” Political Research Associates, Aug. 29, 2016/Jan. 1, 1991, http://tinyurl.com/h46arxf; Zack Beauchamp, “An expert on the European far right explains the influence of anti-immigrant politics,” Vox, May 31, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hbwapt7.

[68] Matthew N. Lyons, “Crl-Alt-Delete,” Political Research Associates, January 2017, p. 4, http://tinyurl.com/goay3st.

Footnote:
68. Matthew N. Lyons, “Crl-Alt-Delete,” Political Research Associates, January 2017, p. 4, http://tinyurl.com/goay3st.

[69] Ibid.

Footnote:
69. Ibid.

[70] “The Groups,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Jan, 29, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/hwtd5pm; “About,” Radix Journal, http://tinyurl.com/z5u42os.

Footnote:
70. “The Groups,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report, Jan, 29, 2010, http://tinyurl.com/hwtd5pm; “About,” Radix Journal, http://tinyurl.com/z5u42os.



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: cqresrre2017031703
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017031703
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Racism and Hate
Mar. 17, 2017  ‘Alt-Right’ Movement
Jan. 08, 2016  Racial Conflict
Sep. 18, 2015  Far-Right Extremism
Nov. 22, 2013  Racial Profiling
May 08, 2009  Hate Groups
Jun. 01, 2007  Shock Jocks Updated
Jan. 07, 1994  Racial Tensions in Schools
Jan. 08, 1993  Hate Crimes
May 12, 1989  The Growing Danger of Hate Groups
Nov. 05, 1969  American History: Reappraisal and Revision
Mar. 31, 1965  Extremist Movements in Race and Politics
May 13, 1964  Racism in America
Dec. 03, 1958  Spread of Terrorism and Hatemongering
Jul. 10, 1946  Ku Klux Klan
Jan. 09, 1945  Race Equality
Dec. 19, 1933  Lynching and Kidnapping
BROWSE RELATED TOPICS:
Campaigns and Elections
Conservatism and Liberalism
Freedom of Speech and Press
Hate Groups
Internet and Social Media
Party Politics
Powers and History of the Presidency
Race and Hate Crimes
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