The Alt-Right and the Dangers of Political Self-Identification
Americans on both side of the aisle were inflamed after Richard Spencer’s racist, nationalist speech to his think tank, the National Policy Institute, seemed to mirror the rhetoric of fascism that shrouded Donald Trump’s campaign. Following the November 19th speech at NPI’s conference, Spencer’s supporters responded with Nazi salutes, and President-elect Trump disavowed this endorsement, but most notably, media coverage of the event gave undivided attention to Trump’s supporters on the “alt-right.”
Scandal ensued when the connection was made between one of Trump’s newly appointed senior advisors, Steve Bannon, and his website Breitbart News, the platform of the “alt-right.” Over the course of a few months, the movement has transformed from a largely online subculture to the influence of a kingpin in the White House. Bannon, President-elect Trump’s former campaign chief, took over Breitbart News in March of 2012 and famously led the website’s brand of far-right wing ideas into “racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic material” more reminiscent of the neo-Nazism it now expresses. Even before his appointment, Bannon was once regarded as “the most dangerous political operative in America” because of his influence through Breitbart News; now the chief strategist under Trump, he’s brought his personal brand of inexorable white nationalism to the West Wing.
It’s not just Bannon’s ideology, however. The “alt-right” is a self-described conservative movement that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, purports “a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.” The movement is remarkably small compared to the coverage it has received in the past days, with barely 300 people attending the National Policy Institute conference that made headlines—and roughly a third of those 300 people were protestors. The alt-right has, until very recently, remained a fringe ideology that spent most of its existence purely online, circulating through message boards like 4chan and Stormfront.
The alt-right has markedly different underpinning beliefs than the right wing, conservative movement in American politics, at least: The Guardian’s coverage of the issue remarks on the following differences between the alt-right and traditional conservatism: “the alt-right is against Pax Americana, against the free market, in theory for the European, indifferent or opposed to the US Constitution, against the idea of individualism, in many cases pro-abortion (to decrease the number of minority births) and even indifferent to religion,” summed finally as “stand[ing] opposed to the foreign policy, economic and social legs that has embodied the conservative movement for decades.” What right does it have to be “right?”
After the movement’s propulsion to fame after Bannon’s nomination and the National Policy Institute viral speech, I’m questioning just how micro-movements like the alt-right have any sort of legitimacy on the national policy playing field. For social and political goals so potently odious and radical as to ask for the creation of “separate, racially exclusive homelands for white people,” I gather that much of its press is, in fact, negative press. But why isn’t a movement so fringe, so negligible and pathetic as alt-right, dismissed immediately as the forgettable Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator that held similar views?
My answer? Because they don’t have such a ridiculous name. Movements like this are nothing but branding—to find resonance as a fringe organization based in an unattainably radical ideal, movements seek a sort of legitimacy that keeps them from being written off as simply “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi,” even if that’s proudly what they represent. So, when journalists came looking into the background of campaign-manager Bannon, they found something less identifiably repugnant; the media took the name “alt-right” and accepted it on face. It’s the product of a very unique strain of neo-Nazism; most of the “alt-right’s” proponents have a upper-middle class background and are highly educated. They’re not oblivious: they know anything with the flagged words “Aryan” or “Nazi” have no chance of viability in the American political sphere. But by another name, people might listen.
The names of political organizations hold considerable weight in the world of politics, as seen by many outspoken Republican politicians insistence that President Obama refer to the acts of militants in the Middle East as specifically “Islamist terrorism” instead of merely “terrorism” back in June. In fact, Trump tweeted moments before the President addressed the nation from the White House, “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!” Like the alleged connections with the right wing that the alt-right claims, organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda attempt to identify with the religion of Islam in a grab at legitimacy and substantiating a stronger ideological backbone despite alarming incompatibilities with Islam.
But why do we grant organizations like the alt-right the ability to self-identify, but not others? Why don’t we write off the alt-right as white male nationalists and move forward? It has a lot to do with legitimacy: what we think is passable enough to find legitimate and worthy of formal recognition. When ideologies like the alt-right become less than laughable, when they become less unacceptable and more unavoidable, we provide them the stage on which to make a name for themselves, on television and in the White House.