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The 2020 Election Is Fragmenting the “Alt-Right”

The GOP can’t count on the white nationalist vote, but they can count on the far right to continue to stoke violence.

"Alt-right" leader Richard Spencer holds a press conference at the University of Florida on October 19, 2017.

The “alt-right” celebrated when audio was released of former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg openly justifying his stop-and-frisk policing policy in starkly racial terms. In the audio, former New York City Mayor Bloomberg says clearly that he flooded Black and Brown neighborhoods with police because “that’s where the crime is,” playing on white nationalist talking points connecting race and crime.

White supremacist leader Richard Spencer reshared the audio on Twitter and asked why Bloomberg wasn’t running as an openly fascist candidate. “If you define your outlook with terms like ‘race realism’ or express concern over ‘demographics,’ then I must ask, unironically, is Mike Bloomberg not your man?” Spencer tweeted, pointing out that Bloomberg repeated, almost verbatim, the kind of canards used by white nationalist institutions like American Renaissance to argue that people of color are disproportionately criminals.

As we get closer to the 2020 presidential election, it seems that some members of the alt-right have evolved from initially supporting the Trumpian right to increasingly reflecting a more anti-capitalist version of fascist politics heading into the new decade.

A New World for the Racist Right

Things have changed for the alt-right since 2016. Their message of white identity politics hit a peak of mainstream receptibility as it matched the national populist wave on which Trump rode into office. Figures like Spencer became household names due to their constant media exposure, and white nationalist organizations grew a massive above-ground presence that many thought impossible in the previous two decades.

Because the alt-right was recruiting people to attend large white nationalist conferences or join far right groups like Identity Evropa, their numbers skyrocketed. At the same time, Trump and nationalist populism was on the table as an option, and so jumping into electoral politics seemed to be both something they had the capacity to do and the window with which to enter.

Since their earliest incarnations, white nationalists have been running for office in the U.S., but in recent decades, far right candidates have almost never been serious contenders. They usually wind up on the ballot either as a regional fluke or as a protest candidate. In 2012, Merlin Miller and Virginia Abernethy led the fascist American Third Position Party (later renamed the American Freedom Party) as candidates for president, landing on ballots in a handful of states. This has largely been the dominant model for the far right: running candidates to drum up media interest and to mobilize their base — not engaging in campaigns that can actually win. Before Trump, the alt-right hadn’t had a single electoral victory since former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s surprise win for the Louisiana legislature in 1989.

While Trump does not explicitly call himself a white nationalist, he has mobilized around the issues white nationalists care about, promising to address immigration and border issues with a belligerent extremism that matches the alt-right’s own vision more closely than any other politician in decades. More importantly, Trump has been able to do what the alt-right has been unable to do electorally: convince white voters to think of themselves as a nation and voting bloc, and sow widespread national division on social issues.

Still, Trump only represents a single-moment option for a movement that has been, from its founding, fundamentally against electoralism. The term “alternative right,” which Spencer popularized with the 2010 founding of his webzine, was built on the idea that his version of right-wing politics had a “different starting point” than Beltway conservatism. Its politics are built on the European New Right model of meta-politics — the idea of building up a racist culture through literature, art, music and social bonding, so that when a social opening develops in the cracks of neoliberalism, the alt-right’s preferred society will be ready to fight for existence in a moment of “dual power.”

While this underlying anti-electoral logic has long run through the alt-right, the issue is still fiercely contested. In 2015, just as the alt-right was just starting to explode, American Renaissance held a conference debate on the question of whether or not the U.S.’s “race problem” could be solved at the ballot box. The very next year, however, Spencer was stumping for Trump, arguing that he represented the far right’s best-case electoral scenario. This was at the same moment that alt-right campus groups were mingling with conservative students through Trumpian organizations as Trump’s ascendency created a window for recruitment.

The Alt-Right With Trump in the White House

“I think the situation is mixed. Most alt-rightists are pretty unhappy with Trump for not doing enough to shut down immigration, focusing too much on neoliberal priorities, and especially for aligning way too closely with Israel,” says Matthew N. Lyons, an alt-right researcher who has tracked white nationalist movements for over two decades. Lyons points out that leading figures such as Brad Griffin, who runs the neo-Confederate website Occidental Dissent, have seen Trump as a “complete sellout to the conservative establishment and supposed Jewish elite.”

Still, even though the far right has seen Trump as a disappointment, “anybody else as president would be even worse” for them, Lyons says. “I expect that a lot of them will end up voting for him not as a strategy for change, but basically to buy more time to build their base and do their meta-political Overton window shift.”

It did not take long for the romance between Trump and alt-right leadership to sour, with the first significant break coming with the bombing of Syrian air fields. On April 9, 2017, Spencer led an antiwar alt-right demonstration in Washington, D.C., in which he spoke out against the Trump administration’s imperialist behavior and in favor of his own paleoconservative version of isolationism. Since then, Trump has operated mostly as a “law-and-order” conservative, pushing tax cuts, bringing in the GOP establishment and largely refusing to openly ally himself with their white nationalist politics. Spencer also recently publicly “apologized” to Iran for Trump’s killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani in a January 3 drone strike, saying that he deeply regretted voting for Trump.

Focusing on the fact that Trump brought some non-white people to the 2020 State of the Union for celebration and claimed success on border security, Sven, a host at the white supremacist podcast The Daily Shoah,” whose real name is Jesse Dunstan, said on the show’s February 5 episode that Trump is “a regular Republican now. We’re just not part of the conversation anymore. We just don’t count. We have been removed.”

Spencer is becoming increasingly vocal regarding his dwindling support for Trump, calling for a form of national socialism rather than Republican populism tinged with racialism. He has even expressed openness to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, while simultaneously engaging in anti-Semitic tropes.

Spencer endorsed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who he likes because of her isolationist foreign policy stance and tacit support of Hindu nationalism, long before the primaries.

How could Spencer, a far right figurehead, endorse Gabbard, who’s running as some sort of progressive on the Democratic ticket? Spencer’s own “Third Positionist” political tradition draws some left-wing critiques into a larger far right nationalist frame. While Spencer would support breaking up banks and reining in capitalism, he does so for profoundly different reasons than leftists. His vision of anti-capitalism is founded on the idea that neoliberalism destabilizes national sovereignty and identity through cosmopolitan trade, and he wants to help white workers at the expense of others. Since Trump failed the alt-right specifically on issues that the Democratic Party’s left base speaks to — mainly economic inequality and foreign intervention – Spencer’s protest vote may very well end up with the populist left, not the increasingly mainstream Trumpian right.

“Progressives often see the right wing as one big black box — without any differentiation — while in fact, conservatives have many different views, with fascists in particular opposing free market policies,” says activist Spencer Sunshine, who researches far right movements. He also noted that Richard Spencer “loves to make provocative statements that might seem counterintuitive at first glance.”

Alt-right leaders are also pointing to Sanders’s earlier restrictionist sentiments on immigration, even though Sanders’s current border policy proposal is more progressive than that of any other candidate in the race.

“Don’t forget, Mr. Sanders calls Trump a racist, a demagogue, a bigot and a xenophobe. His war is surely against the president, and maybe you too,” argued Jared Taylor, the founder of American Renaissance, in a YouTube proclamation to his followers in a contrasting view. “Donald Trump has been a disappointment in a lot of ways, but which man would be better?”

Despite its disagreements, it’s clear that the alt-right’s dream of the Trump presidency has begun to erode and is being replaced by what far right activists see as harm reduction. Taylor is among an older generation of alt-right figureheads who actually came out of the mainstream conservative movement and still maintain some connection to traditional Republican candidates. Jef Costello, a longtime writer for the white nationalist publishing house Counter-Currents and who argues that the Democrats are a force for demographic replacement, also shares Taylor’s sentiment.

“The Democrats can be stopped — we are not yet at the demographic tipping point. It remains to be seen whether Trump will do enough in his second term to reverse those demographic trends, if they can be reversed,” Costello said on the Counter-Currents website. “One thing is certain, Trump and the Republicans are not what we would like them to be, but they’re our last shot at saving the country. If they fail, then our future is almost certainly the partitioning of the country along racial and ethnic lines.”

The Return to “Meta-Politics”

The reality is that the alt-right, while still larger than any white nationalist movement in recent decades, remains relatively small. The idea that it swayed the 2016 election ultimately misunderstands the movement’s reach, and misconstrues the entirety of Trump’s base as right-wing identitarian trolls.

Who the alt-right supports in the election (if the members support anyone), however, is derivative of their vision of a white ethnostate. The Trumpian wing of the GOP and “alt-light” figures like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and publications like Breitbart operate in a different (though sometimes overlapping) framework. The alt-right used Trump’s ascendency as a bridge to interact with this hard-right base of supporters, but now those supporters could be diverging as the limits of Trumpism become increasingly obvious.

“I would like white nationalists to become a voting bloc that is large and powerful enough to swing elections, so that politicians will actively court us and fear to cross us,” says Greg Johnson, the white nationalist leader and founder of Counter-Currents, on his website. “Before white nationalists constitute a real political force, we need to focus on meta-politics: creating institutions and communicating ideas. Thus, we need to view electoral politics as a meta-political opportunity. Our votes don’t really matter, but our ideas matter a great deal.”

While some in the alt-right are scrambling to figure out who to support in November, their power largely remains in their ability to build identity and a social movement. This is where they will continue their efforts and where they remain a larger threat. The GOP cannot depend on white nationalists as a stable voting bloc, but they can count on them to continue to stoke white supremacist attitudes and move toward direct confrontation in the streets.

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