How the Left Can Circumvent the Rise of the Alt-Right

As Richard Spencer put the final touches on his press announcement, the bottom fell out with a biting swiftness. Spencer, the brains behind the National Policy Institute and the Radix Journal, had booked out the National Press Club (NPC) for the afternoon of September 9. Since Hillary Clinton’s recent speech, the “alt-right” has become a buzzword that journalists are struggling to define. As one of the central figures of this dissident right-wing movement, Spencer has used this wave of interest to try and create a bridge to the mainstream for ideas that are usually relegated to private conferences in secret buildings.

Spencer had booked the historic National Press Club to do a press conference specifically for the amorphous alt-right movement, sharing the stage with Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who argues that there are racial differences in IQ, and Peter Brimelow, an anti-immigrant writer who argues for a complete moratorium on immigration. Just days before the event was set to begin, Spencer got a call from the NPC canceling the conference, citing security concerns that the facility just couldn’t meet.

This led Spencer into a mix of prurient anger and desperate scrambling as he issued a statement condemning the NPC as “anti-free speech” and shifting the event to the Willard Hotel. He then sent the invite to the event to press from around the country, letting them know that the actual location would only be made public a couple of hours before.

Even with these barriers, the hall was next to full, though it appeared that more than half the crowd was young alt-righters themselves ready to ask fawning questions of their movement’s celebrities.

Enter White Nationalism

The alt-right press conference was intended to demonstrate that the alt-right is now a legitimate part of the political conversation.

Almost jokingly, Spencer told Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray, “We’ve taken over the right,” a phrase that plays on the idea that his corner of conservatism is actually a “true right.”

The conservative movement started in the 1950s by William Buckley and backed by Beltway appeals to Midwest values and Chicago School free markets, is something the alt-right rejects entirely. The alt-right is a dissident far-right ideology that has become a force of iconoclastic politics — one that seeks to topple not only the left, but also the conventional right as well.

While the Donald Trump campaign understandably draws much rage from the left, the alt-right is largely still viewed by much of the left as an oddity or a sort of parody of a fascist movement. The liberal left of the Democratic Party, and its hangers-on, have doubled down on Clinton’s opposition to Trump, and her attempt to “name names” in the alt-right gives her the appearance of an anti-racist edge. Her plan is simple: Expose the alt-right for what it is, link it to Trump, use it to destroy Trump and capture the election. However, it is important to also recognize the threat posed by the alt-right on its own terms, apart from its connections with Trump.

The current alt-right represents the largest influx of fascist politics in the US in decades, an attempt to reclaim white identity and traditional hierarchies that have haunted the US consciousness since the earliest days of chattel slavery. It is hard to gauge numbers exactly since conventional racialist organizations, while growing, are not the best metric for this new tech-savvy nationalism. Anonymous blogs and podcasts, reactionary Twitter accounts, and private meetings are defining this new fascist culture, but its effects can be measured in how influential it has been in mainstreaming its more radical opinions and dominating segments of political discourse. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) has often presented the most crystallized effort to do so, starting with attempts at revolution in the Reconstruction Era South and then hitting a zenith in the 1920s. By the time the third wave of the KKK emerged to combat the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it had already lost much of its cultural cache and was identified as an American fascist movement.

Since then, the move towards “suit-and-tie” fascism has been almost universal on the far right. David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former KKK leader, moderated his position and slid on the paleoconservative wave into the Louisiana State Legislature in 1991, something he is attempting to do in his current run for a Louisiana Senate seat. Pat Buchanan mainstreamed these ideas even further for a 1992 presidential bid, and various Libertarian and evangelical leaders have used this rhetoric to make inroads into the US heartland. Few of these have maintained a “self-conscious” fascist politic, one that acknowledges just how radical its ideas really are. Instead, fascist politics often slide under the rhetoric of “American populism,” and attempt to couch their appeals for inequality and nationalism in clichéd Americana. The alt-right is different, in that it takes notes from European nationalism and openly advocates for abhorrent policies, instead of trying to moderate their rhetoric.

Against Democracy and Equality

The alt-right itself was first synthesized by Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried, a paleoconservative academic who was expelled from the conservative movement in the 1980s for his overtly racist politics. Spencer is a former assistant editor at the American Conservative who moved towards racial politics after joining Taki’s Magazine, where he met more right-wing “dissidents” in constellation around the magazine and in his growing social sphere.

It was out of this constellation that he created Alternative Right, a publication that would be explicit about its racialism and focus on ideological strains that the conventional right wouldn’t touch. It would publish pieces on race and crime, “innate differences” between racial groups, the traditional roles of men and women, and other explicitly racist and sexist ideas that were less and less acceptable in the Beltway.

A Racial Caste System

First and foremost, the alt-right believes that “race is real.” It argues that race is a defining factor in each particular region’s civilization, and that the development of each society is the result of the genetic qualities of those who built it. This notion comes from “race-realism,” often called “human biological diversity” today, which says that race is a real biological dividing line and that different races have different innate personalities, levels of intelligence and degrees of sexual restraint.

The primary focus of this argument was, and has always been, to argue that Black and Latino people are less intelligent than whites. The vast majority of alt-right publications have focused on promoting these falsehoods, which tie in with others, such as the argument that Black people are more prone to crime and more inclined to sexual assault, and do not have the innate ability to “maintain civilization.”

This fictional “race-realism” informs their primary political idea: white nationalism. Spencer, Taylor and almost all others on the alt-right agree on the idea that they need a white “ethnostate.” This would be an exclusively white nation, with other races placed in separatist enclaves of their own. This white nationalism has been the ideological kernel that has carried through Aryan activists and skinheads for almost a century, and while the alt-right uses semi-academic rhetoric to support its arguments, the ideological thought process is much the same.

Along with this traditional white nationalist talk comes anti-Semitism, a core component of the alt-right’s Internet culture. Drawing on anti-Semitic caricatures and theories of people like Kevin MacDonald, alt-righters believe that there is a question of “Jewish power” in society, in which Jews “wield disproportionate influence” in politics, finance and the media. MacDonald, a former psychology professor at the University of California at Long Beach, has published several books outlining Judaism as a “group evolutionary strategy” that Jews use to outcompete non-Jews for resources.

Generally, the alt-right wants to “return” to a form of “traditionalism,” a mythic past where society was “pure” before the influences of “modernity.” This has deep roots in fascist philosophy, especially perennialist thinkers like Julius Evola. In most of his work, Evola outlines a spiritual “tradition” that, he argues, emanates from all world religions. He argues that this “tradition” is manifested in internal hierarchies, and structures of initiation can supposedly be seen in religions in all cultures, though over time, modernity robs them of their stratified and prescriptive nature. He asserts that a strict hierarchy needs to be established and that today, we are in the Kali Yuga, or “dark age,” where those hierarchies have been abolished and where “lesser races” now rule over those peoples who should have authority in society.

This idea of the importance of hierarchy is key, because the battle against “equality” is what unites the alt-right in spirit. The belief that no two people, and no two races, are equal is what drove Spencer from the beginning. The alt-right argues that society needs to be stratified, with a ruling elite that is bred to rule those on the bottom. Races, genders and ability levels are viewed vertically, and the alt-right wants to establish a strict authority to maintain this stratification.

A Left Opposition

Given that the alt-right’s fascist politics are articulated with such ontological simplicity, the lack of major opposition from the left is striking. Instead, many on the left have operated by ignoring the alt-right’s importance, believing that to look the other way will inspire the alt-right to simply shrink without recognition.

The alt-right, as any fascist movement, comes as an attempt to make sense of international capitalism and social contentions, where many whites intend to defend their own privilege over social progress. In this way it is insurrectionary and not made up distinctly of class interests; it requires its own internal logic that is meant to excise violence and impose radically hierarchical social norms on a society that already attempts to whitewash its own inequality. This makes fascist violence distinct, in certain ways, from the underlying systemic racism baked into capitalism. The alt-right is explicit about its bigotry; it publicly argues in favor of it. While racism is systemic and persistent in the dominant US culture, rarely is it as openly acknowledged and encouraged as it is with the alt-right.

The uniqueness of the alt-right lies in its attempt to mainstream explicitly racist politics. If the alt-right can participate in defining the US left-right dialectic, then it can make racial nationalism and “human inequality” a part of “reasonable” discourse, denying the genocidal frenzy of white supremacy and clawing against the achievements of generations of social movements.

The left must continue to have a strong anti-fascist politic that is dedicated to undermining both systemic racism and challenging fascist insurrectionary movements as they evolve, and today the alt-right is the most contemporary stage in a neo-fascist project that has continued to appear since the Second World War. Anti-fascist movements of the past have been defined by the organizations that they are in opposition to but the alt-right presents a unique challenge because of its tempered language, D.C. conference rooms, and anonymous Twitter infantry. That challenge needs to be met by a left mass movement that can confront their growth openly, calling it what it is, and treating it with the same ire as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the white nationalist militia movement. This is not meant to replace the long-term struggle to undo systemic racism, but to also prioritize counter-organizing against the shocking rise of fascist politics that is attempting to make critical blows against social progress and can lead to acts of white supremacist violence.

Reclaim the White Working Class

The alt-right’s leadership is primarily made up of upper-middle-class professionals, steeped in internet jargon and obscure fascist authors. Its foot soldiers, however, are pulled from the disaffected edges of the white working class. The continued assault on working-class institutions through the decimation of organized labor, the undoing of the New Deal social programs and the offshoring of jobs have created a working class, including many white working-class people, living in increased uncertainty. If the left is to have any teeth, both in opposing the reactionary right or any movement of economic progress, they need to bring anti-racist politics back into working class white communities and appeal to the need for solidarity between workers. The Movement for Black Lives has outlined a vision that includes this strong relationship between class and racism, which can inform future strategies for building those connections.

Answer Their Lies

What the alt-right has built its rhetoric around is the ability to argue points for which the average person does not have an answer. When they throw out race and IQ positions, they attempt to support them with obscure studies. Their arguments have been known to be false for decades, but few people have ready answers to the citation of particular erroneous studies. Just as we fought Holocaust Denial in the early 1990s, we need to create an infrastructure of education so that facts around these issues can be easily accessible. This undermines the alt-right’s ability to manipulate the truth to push their agenda.

The truth is that race is a social reality, not a biological one of any importance, and we need to reestablish those factual foundations in the public consciousness.

Fortify Anti-Racist Mass Movements

The most effective tool to confront creeping fascism is a strong, broad anti-racism. The alt-right has been fueled by a latent racism that has gone undercover, as it has become less socially acceptable to use racial slurs in public. This racism has become systemic and is under the surface inside classrooms and boardrooms and police stations from coast to coast.

In 2014, several shots fired at Michael Brown ignited the next stage of the ongoing struggle against racism in the US, one that gives the left the tools to continue confronting the underlying issues of racial inequality. With a multiracial struggle against systemic and interpersonal racism, movements like Black Lives Matter have the tactical set to continue to destroy the racist fuel that the alt-right needs to recruit and grow. The Black Lives Matter movement should receive broad support. It is also necessary to continue to support organizations that have been confronting white supremacist movements for decades, such as the Anti-Racist Action or, more recently, the One People’s Project.

Articulate a Vision

What fascist movements have always fed on is crisis, and the implicit need for a radical right-wing change. The alt-right itself has created an entire rhetorical gallery based around the idea that it is the only revolutionary option to counter the current “system of globalism.” This comes, in part, from many left institutions failing to truly challenge systems of power and from the inability to articulate a clear strategic vision. This requires the left to reclaim an analysis of how to challenge contemporary institutions of power, and to support, in increasing numbers, a radical vision of racial justice for the future.

A Post-Trump United States

Donald Trump has presented an incredible opportunity to the alt-right by providing exposure to crossover politics, like Islamophobia and immigration restriction, while giving them access to a white working class who would not normally be attracted to their DC racialist conferences. If Clinton is able to take the election, they will take a serious hit, as the GOP and conservative institutions will purge any remnant of their meme-nationalism. If Trump is able to pull off a surprise victory, then the Republican Party is likely to embed much of the alt-right’s message into its political program.

In either case, the alt-right has grown considerably, which means that the previous marginal threat of fascist organizations has increased significantly. The left needs to further develop strategies for how to approach a fascist movement, both in the populist messages of the Trump campaign and in the explicit racial nationalism of neo-Nazis and the alt-right. This requires naming its component parts, seeing it within the historical role of dissident fascist movements.

While Richard Spencer was able to attract people to his press conference, the fact that the NPC event was shut down was not surprising. In 2014, Spencer attempted to hold a “Pan-European” conference in Budapest, Hungary. After the socialist party put on pressure, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself declared Spencer an “enemy of the state” and had him deported and his conference canceled. Back at Spencer’s home in Whitefish, Montana, the local group Love Lives Here challenged him at the city level. He most recently has been banned from entering Britain.

American Renaissance, the race-realist conference and website run by Jared Taylor, has also been challenged by activists. In both 2010 and 2011, the conferences were canceled when anti-racist organizations like the One People’s Project put pressure on the venue, and Taylor regularly has speaking events canceled when organizers let outlets know his background.

American Renaissance and the National Policy Institute represent some of the largest institutions that prop up the alt-right as an ideological current, and are vulnerable to challenge even while they are prepared for growth.

As Spencer and company wrapped up the alt-right press conference, they urged journalists to ask questions, to stay tied into the growing number of blogs that donned the alt-right label, and to broadcast their message for them. They are hoping to allow this burst of attention to be the opportunity they need to reach out and create a movement with edge. Fortunately, it is a movement that the left can circumvent before it ever begins.