The Alternative Right has made waves in the past year throughout the media. Known as the “Alt-Right”, it has appeared in segments supporting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and later, more controversially, in a clip shot at a National Policy Institute conference. Richard Spencer, a founder of the Alt-Right movement, was recorded shouting, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” while several members of the crowd gave what appeared to be “Sieg Heil” salutes. This ultimately stirred up controversy, had people wondering who they were, and had people trying to figure out their agenda.
Before delving into the details of the alt-right, an understanding of its history is required. In 2008, the term “alternative right” was coined by Paul Gottfried in a speech to the H.L. Mencken Club’s annual meeting. He first described the movement as declining, but later stated that “We have attracted… well-educated young professionals, who consider themselves to be on the right, but not of the current conservative movement.” This new movement of “neo-paleoconservatives,” as Gottfried later called it, can be seen today as the alternative-right. This feeling of being left behind and betrayed by the modern conservative movement motivated the alt-right’s development as a separate political ideology.
In 2010, Richard Spencer created the Alternative Right website, which soon became a host to ideas regarding the need for white nationalism in the United States and the superiority of Western culture. However, Spencer’s bigger role in preaching the views of the alt-right came through the form of lobbying, specifically through the National Policy Institute (NPI) think tank. Since the NPI’s founding in 2005, it has managed to evade the public eye until the “Hail Trump!” incident drew criticism and catapulted it into the alt-right movement.
As Russell Kirk, one of the biggest developers of the 20th century conservative movement, once said, “The attitude we call conservatism is sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata”. Conservatism in the United States today is seen as a coherent ideology built upon a set of beliefs in laissez-faire economics, Judeo-Christian values, and small government. Conservatives have also come to believe that a “regressive Left” has begun to take extreme measures for the sake of creating diversity or “safe spaces” where everyone’s religious beliefs, sexual preference, etc. had to be accepted. According to some conservatives, in seeing almost all minorities as oppressed victims, the regressive Left has created a realm where those on both the Left and the Right have begun to view them with little regard. These conservatives point to riots at Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos and at DePaul University, who sent out 30 campus police officers to prevent Ben Shapiro from stepping on campus as examples of this phenomenon. A quote from Senator Bernie Sanders stated about identity politics seems to corroborate this notion: “It’s not good enough for (Hillary Clinton) to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry”. To conservatives, the regressive left is seen as clinging to identity, whereas mainstream liberals and conservatives are seen as moving away from it.
Conservatives further claim that identity politics enables the regressive left to label certain groups of people by gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or sexual identification as victims of the present society. One frequently-cited example of this is the policy of affirmative action and test scores. In one study, being of Hispanic or of African descent with a lower SAT score was considered equal in admissions to a white student with a much higher score. Similarly, Asian students with a higher test scores were worth the same as white students with lower test scores. Although affirmative action was originally implemented to prevent discrimination against minorities in schools and the workplace, as time had gone by, many colleges had began to use affirmative action as a basis to bring more minorities into their schools. These resulted in a variety of lawsuits challenging the policy. While Gratz v. Bollinger found that the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action was unconstitutional due to use of predetermined points to give a bonus in the admissions process due to race, in Grutter v. Bollinger, it was found that race can be used as a “plus factor” that has to be “flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant” as long as no quotas are in place. Alt-right conservatives see affirmative action as racist against white people and as a means of white oppression.
The alt-right shares many similarities with the “regressive left” when it comes to identity politics. While not against the idea of identity politics, the alt-right sees it as a double standard. They believe that if the Left can use identity politics to group people as victims based on color, race, religion, etc., then the same should be applied to seeing people of European, white descent as victims of modern societal treatment. The alt-right cites several examples of this persecution, such as recent protests at the University of California-Berkeley where protesters were asking for “spaces of color” and harassing white people passing by. In addition, the alt-right cites cases such as Ricci v. DeStefano, where it was found that the City of New Haven violated Title VII for refusing to promote the white and Hispanic plaintiffs on the basis that the number of people promoted would be disproportional to the number of minorities promoted. The alt-right sees these events as opportunities to claim victimhood. Overall, unlike many on the Right who reject the lens of identity politics, the alt-right provides an alternative to mainstream conservatism where identity politics remains a core principle and where that victimhood runs a two-way street. While mainstream conservatism and liberalism is beginning to shy away from identity politics, the regressive left and its counterpart, the alt-right, are not.
The alt-right also rejects the “white supremacist” label as glossing over perceived subtleties in their ideology. Milo Yiannopoulos, a former editor of Breitbart news, stated that “the alt-right cares about Western supremacy rather than white supremacy, cares about Western values. It cares about liberal, capitalist Western democracy, democratic values, freedom, equality, that kind of thing.”. The superiority of Western values is not necessarily accepted as fact by many members of the alt-right. Theodore Robert Beale, one of its leaders, had stated in an interview with anarcho-capitalist Stefan Molyneux that, “The alt-right is, at its core, a Western movement and so we do believe in the superiority of Western civilization but that superiority is not an objective claim. It’s a subjective claim. We prefer it because it’s our culture. We prefer it because it’s what we know”. The alt-right does not see itself as a dominant culture over Eastern, Islamic, and African nations, but prefers its own culture due to familiarity. In other words, since the alt-right prefers Western culture, it seeks to preserve that culture so that society as they know it may remain intact. The movement claims to have no opinion of other cultures except their own. To the alt-right, Western civilization, as identified with democracy, free speech, free press, etc., is connected with white nationality since these ideas which people consider “Western” today have stemmed from what the alt-right sees as historical, white European roots. Although the alt-right may appear to be a white supremacist group, its own members see themselves as champions of Western culture and heritage.
Several different groups have contributed to the development and membership of the alt-right. Three of those groups: internet trolls, social/religious conservatives, and 1488ers, are profiled below.
Internet culture is largely responsible for the mainstreaming of the alt-right label. This wing of the alt-right movement believes in a specific narrative of Internet hijacking by the “regressive left”, and sees itself as standing up instead for the “freedom of speech” to express their own beliefs. Leading up to the 2016 election, this group saw social justice warriors, or “SJWs”, and third wave feminists as censoring all those who seek to offend based on race, religion, or gender. Exasperated with such censorship, these Internet trolls decided to take out their frustrations by attacking the SJWs and feminists directly. They used the Internet as a way to express their annoyance and disrupt the ways that they felt “SJWs” had been oppressive toward free speech. This group of individuals, ranging from atheist Marxists to Christian neoclassical-liberals, shared a shared a strong distaste for “SJWs” and “radical feminists”. Their perceived censorship included incidents such as an event where a high school student section was criticized for having an “America-themed” section. Their jokes, as inappropriate and extreme as they may seem, did not necessarily portray the true feelings of their posters, but instead were methods that the young internet users, or ”trolls”, were using to “trigger” and emotionally upset their enemies and affirm the liberty of free speech.
Besides Internet trolls, most of whom were young, the alt-right is also made up of social and religious conservatives. Apart from fiscal conservatives, these social conservatives, most of whom were white, male, and Christian, had become defensive over a perceived movement of mass migration towards the United States. Many social conservatives further believed that the modern Republican Party had drifted too far to the left in compromising with progressive America on certain issues important to them. Their fears were not necessarily about the race of the people, but mostly of cultural annihilation via “white genocide”, a term commonly used amongst the alt-right. In order to make sense of their perspective, it is important to understand their interpretation of the term “genocide” as defined by the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948. According to the treaty, the definition of genocide includes: “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.
The alt-right cites declining birth rates in Europe, exemplified by national advertisements and public service announcements, as evidence that a certain national culture is becoming extinct. On the other hand, alt-righters cite relatively high migrant birth rates from Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa as threats to the majority-white situations in many countries. For example, in countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden, Italy, and Norway, Muslim populations are reported to double by 2030. If birth rates of foreigners with a different culture eventually result in a white minority, then many in the alt-right fear that Western civilization as a whole could be lost or uprooted by another culture. This segment of the alt-right believes that the use of migration from one country to another in mass numbers and then by the use of reproduction through interbreeding, whether intentional or not, is equivalent to the UN definition as “transferring children of the group to another group.” Concerns over “white heritage” motivated this group of social conservatives to join the alt-right movement. However, this concern is generally seen as an extreme perspective even by fellow members of the alt-right, and is not held by all of the alt-right’s members.
The final group within the alt-right consists of white supremacists, also known as the 1488ers. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “1488 is a combination of two popular white supremacist numeric symbols. The first symbol is 14, which is shorthand for the "14 Words" slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." The second is 88, which stands for ‘Heil Hitler’ (H being the 8th letter of the alphabet). Together, the numbers form a general endorsement of white supremacy and its beliefs.” This group is one of the more vocal groups within the alt-right, although they arguably make up a small minority of the movement compared to the social conservatives and internet jokers. The 1488ers were instrumental in convincing social conservatives that their white heritage was being attacked by minority groups. Additionally, 1488ers tell social conservatives that violence is the only means to resolve the social issues that they face. Unfortunately for the 1488ers, most social conservatives are against violence as a means to preserve Western culture and see it more as a harm than a good, thus making the white supremacists a group that is not taken as seriously by members within the alt-right.
While there are many aspects to the alt-right, in general, the movement consists of many different groups with a core belief in the superiority of Western civilization and a Western culture that is fundamentally inseparable from the white race. The alt-right views Western cultures as superior above all other cultures due to their familiarity with it and fear of other cultures posing a threat to their historical, cultural background. Arguably, were it not for the legitimization of the alt-right by Hillary Clinton in her August 2016 speech in Reno, Nevada, the alt-right could have remained a small fringe group in the political landscape. Nevertheless, the alt-right’s presence within American politics, now increasingly entrenched, must be dealt with in a constructive and critical way in order to understand their grievances and their arguments. The alt-right’s extremism, while often jarring, should be understood more as a response to a perceived, extreme “regressive left” obsessed with political correctness, a Republican Party that had abandoned its social conservative roots, and an exaggeration of a naturally human tendency to preserve one’s own roots and heritage.