Within the confusing basket of forces that determined the 2016 election results, the neo-Nazi and white nationalist coalition that calls itself the “alt-right” has been identified as a strange factor in the final vote tallies. How a white nationalist movement, whose ideas and talking points are the modern evolution of the racialist politics we have seen for decades, could have swayed a presidential election is a frightening question for most pollsters. It is without question that Trump had almost uniform support from the alt-right community, with white nationalist websites like the Radix Journal doing multi-article symposiums sharing what Trump meant to them. William Johnson of the notorious American Freedom Party became a Trump delegate in California while David Duke led a round of endorsements from America’s racist right leaders. Everyone from the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer to the Daily Shoah podcast (whose name is an offensive reference to the Holocaust) sported “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, and it seemed that Trump had quickly ingratiated his hard-right populism to the crowd of “white ethnostate” dreamers.
Trump, for his own part, spoke to many of their talking points by threatening to deport non-white immigrants and promising to target Muslims. Trump refused to call their support into question — a choice that came into the limelight most clearly when he refused to disavow an endorsement from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Trump’s connections to white supremacists were more than passing as his campaign continued to feed on these far-right communities. Eric Trump, his father’s favorite surrogate, went as far as to go on the alt-right-affiliated Political Cesspool radio show as well as follow anti-semitic leaders like Kevin MacDonald on Twitter. Trump himself retweeted memes lying about the rate of “black-on-black” crime from users with names like “White Genocide,” a reference to the gothic fantasy that many white nationalists have that they are being bred out of existence. These connections were only cemented when he brought Steve Bannon onto the campaign, the former CEO of Breitbart who bragged that he turned his website into a “platform for the alt-right.”
Now that Trump is the president-elect, the racist far right is keeping a close eye on his Cabinet selections to see if he lives up to his nationalist promise. The appointment of Jeff Sessions to attorney general was clearly targeted to please the racist right, as Sessions is well known for his racist comments and opposition to the Voting Rights Act, as well as for his anti-immigrant views and opposition to drug legalization. Trump’s choice of Kris Kobach as immigration advisor was an even more obvious attempt to pander to the racist right, as Kobach’s influence on SB 1070, the controversial immigration bill that changed Arizona, has drawn heavy support from white nationalists.
Along with Bannon, these people make up a part of Trump’s circle; so does this mean that the self-described alt-right is in the White House?
This question comes back to how people define the alt-right, a problem the media has had since Hillary Clinton gave her notorious speech declaring it a public threat. The alt-right is the latest branding for white nationalism, one that takes ideological points from the European New Right, combines it with “race realism” and complex anti-semitism, and gives it a culture stolen from the “manosphere” and the world of social media memes, podcast banter and hidden message boards. The primary political goal of this white nationalist coalition is a white “ethnostate,” the exact qualities of which are still up for debate.
Richard Spencer, a former editor at the American Conservative, coined the term “alt-right” with his former webzine Alternative Right, and he has gone on to run the National Policy Institute, the prime organization and conference leading much of the movement. When Spencer is asked what the core principle of the alt-right is, he says “inequality” — that human beings are unequal and some “races” are smarter and more socially capable than others. Drawing on discredited pseudo-science, manipulated statistics and arcane conspiracy theories in attempts to support this false view, adherents of this thought system seek to create racially homogenous and culturally stratified societies. In other words, they have embraced a modern restatement of the fascist project that has been simmering since the interwar period. Anti-semitism is also part and parcel of this thought system: The alt-right views Jews as a tribal group that deracinates and feeds off of Western society.
While most of the alt-right’s ideas and personalities are too extreme even for the average Trump voter, they have cultivated a relationship with a “crossover” element that many are calling the “alt-lite.” Fascist movements have always needed this crossover community to help mainstream their message: crossover groups take many of their dangerous talking points and bring them along without voicing the overtly fascist presence underneath them. In the 1980s and 1990s, paleoconservatism acted as this bridge for many; we saw major paleoconservative figures like Sam Francis and Joe Sobran move into explicit white nationalism as their crossover project began to subside. During the same period, many neo-Nazis used the growing conspiracy theory scene as a way into general discourse, mainstreaming Holocaust denial.
Today’s alt-lite is a crossover culture for the internet age, connecting hard-right hipsterdom to overt fascism. Milo Yiannopoulos has possibly been the most vocal of these allies, calling himself alt-right for months before the term became too toxic for even him to touch. A gay conservative writer for Breitbart, Milo has gained notoriety for inciting harassment against transgender people, feminists and Muslims, both online and during his well-paid college appearances. His perceived “hipster” identity has made many people look the other way as he helps to mainstream white nationalism by appearing in feature profiles published in progressive-appearing gay publications like Out Magazine. Breitbart itself has become a center of the alt-right, living up to that name by race baiting and targeting immigration while refusing to become openly white nationalist in orientation. At the same time, the conspiracy magnate Alex Jones and his increasingly popular website Infowars have come at the alt-lite from the “New World Order” angle, feeding Trump’s civic nationalism to those hungry with patriot fever.
While the alt-right remains a movement that seeks to destroy the existing political and cultural apparatus in favor of one built on authoritarian racialist principles, the alt-lite is game to haggle over the policy points that the alt-right sees as a step in the right direction. This is where the Trump campaign has always fit into their conversation: they have made him their ally since he essentially parrots the same propositions that the alt-right vocalizes. The alt-right hopes to get as much as they need out of Trump, even if their vision of an elitist and aristocratic social order isn’t perfectly matched by all of Trump’s words.
The question that many of them are asking now is whether or not Trump is actually going to give the alt-right what they need to reach these stepping-stones. In a December 2 video, Richard Spencer admitted that he was having a “morning after” feeling about Trump now that we can see the full range of his appointments. The Daily Shoah tried to remain neutral, especially after the Sessions pick, but had to say that they thought it was about as bad as it could get in terms of the other appointments. This comes, in part, from the fact that they oppose many of the hard-right libertarian selection that the left also finds horrifying — but for those on the far right, the disapproval stems from racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism. Trump’s choice of Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sacks executive, for Treasury Secretary raised some eyebrows among these anti-Semites, as it seemed to them that Trump was bringing in the “international bankers” and “globalists” he promised to banish. (Beyond these code words, Mnuchin is Jewish.) Trump’s Department of Labor selection, fast-food impresario Andy Puzder, disappointed his xenophobic constituency as well, as they suggested Puzder would want to lift border restrictions to bring in low-wage workers.
Rex Tillerson’s selection could end up being the nail in the coffin of uncritical support for Trump from the alt-right. While Spencer had said that he would be “out” if Trump had selected a neoconservative like John Bolton, Tillerson is not being received as much better. This appointment undermines the notion that Trump would pursue an isolationist foreign policy, an important point for a far right that wants to see an “America First” kind of nationalism. The concept of America First came out of the America First Committee that opposed US entry into the Second World War and included 800,000 members using nativist and racist diatribes to swell their ranks. This concept is again an attempt to mainstream fascism. Where fascism sanctifies national boundaries and inequality, American civic nationalism does the same to a lesser degree, broadening slightly who is allowed into the nation yet still developing a strong sense of the “other.” For the alt-right, this is a message about prioritizing what they misleadingly describe as “native” Americans (meaning white Europeans) before thinking about others, shifting the values so that people begin thinking as nationalists instead of having international concerns. This has been a part of far-right policy for decades, from the “dog whistle” racial language of The John Birch Society in the 1950s to the presidential campaign of controversial paleoconservative politician Pat Buchanan in 1992.
What will determine the question of continued alt-right support and “influence” in the White House is Trump’s action on his defining campaign promise: the border wall. This was the defining feature of a campaign designed to stoke white racial resentment, with the “Build the Wall” chant acting as a de facto slogan for white racial solidarity. This is what has defined the alt-right’s support for Trump as they expect him to go further to stop non-white immigration than those they describe as the “cuckservatives” who failed them in the past. If Trump reneges on this promise and instead delivers a “virtual wall” or “procedural wall” then that will create a lasting rift between him and this vocal part of his base. The same could be true if he drops mass deportations and a Muslim registry, but those are easier to fake since he could simply rebrand Obama’s deportation strategy or re-establish the foreign registries used by the Bush administration after 9/11.
If we are looking at Trump with sober eyes, he does not come across as ideologically aligned with all the imperatives of the alt-right himself, despite the company he keeps, but that is largely beside the point. What matters is what he does and whether or not it continues to serve the interests of this growing fascist movement. Even if Trump is unable to exact the most pernicious policies on immigrants, his rhetoric can still have the effect of creating a climate where white nationalists can continue to build. This presents two parallel threats, one from Trump’s policies and one from an independent white nationalist movement that is making its own threats of violence and oppression. What lies ahead depends on what the next few months hold, but more importantly, on what opposition is mobilized against white nationalists on the ground and against Trump’s forces in Washington.
As Inauguration Day approaches, the mobilizations against the election are promising to reach over a hundred cities. The protests planned for the nation’s capital may be some of the largest Washington, D.C., has ever seen. While opposition to a right-wing politician is a common part of a left strategy, the ranks have swelled as people have seen how the furthest reaches of a creeping fascism have become connected to Trump’s right-wing populism. This could mean that what Trump is up against is a complete revolt of a citizenry that sees the struggle to halt the growth of white nationalism as synonymous with confronting the threat that a united GOP under Trump holds.