There’s a campaign among Trump opponents to get people to stop using the term “alt-right” — a campaign that I believe is misguided. Supposedly, “alt-right” is a deceptive euphemism that white supremacists created to hide their hateful beliefs. Belt Magazine floated this idea back in July:
“‘Alt-right’ — shorthand for the the Alternative Right — is, like ‘pro-life,’ the term the group gave itself. It is misleading, misrepresentative, and, most importantly, a benign or even attractive term…. So let us pick a new term to refer to this new group… ‘White supremacist’ works for me. ‘White nationalist’ seems apt as well. In some cases, ‘neo-Nazi’ applies.”Recently, Daily Kos echoed the thought:
“The Neo Nazis know that their usual tags inspire revulsion amongst many Americans. That’s why Bannon and his ilk have invented the term ‘Alt Right’….Similar arguments have been circulating on Twitter, as Quartz reports.
They knew they had to rebrand. And they knew using a different term would help obfuscate the truth of what they are.
So stop using the term ‘Alt-Right’ and just come out and call them what they are:
Neo Nazis. And if that’s too raw, then at least have the integrity to call them White Supremacists or White Nationalists.”
I completely agree that we should expose and combat white supremacist politics in all its forms, but a campaign to abolish the term “alt-right” doesn’t help us do this and actually makes it harder. If we want to understand the alt-right’s strengths and weaknesses, we need to understand what it shares with older white nationalist currents — but also what sets it apart. By contrast, the “don’t use ‘alt-right’” campaign promotes misunderstanding and ignorance about the movement it’s trying to confront.
To begin with, if “alt-right” is just a benign-sounding label to hide white supremacist ideology, why do so many alt-rightists go out of their way to sound as shockingly bigoted as possible? Here’s how Antifascist News describes one of the most popular alt-right websites, The Right Stuff:
“[On The Right Stuff] they choose to openly use racial slurs, degrade women and rape survivors, mock the holocaust and call for violence against Jews. Their podcast, The Daily Shoah, which is a play on The Daily Show and the Yiddish term for The Holocaust, is a roundtable discussion of different racists broadcasting under pseudonyms. Here they do voice ‘impressions’ of Jews, and consistently use terms like ‘Nig Nog,’ “Muds (referring to ‘mud races,’ meaning non-white), and calling people of African descent ‘Dingos.’ The N-word, homophobic slurs, and calls for enforced cultural patriarchy and heteronormativity are commonplace.”As Antifascist News points out, the racist language that’s routine on The Right Stuff is so vile it’s not even allowed on Stormfront, the oldest and largest neonazi website.
Far from toning down their politics to sound more benign, many alt-rightists have actually taken the opposite approach. Old school white supremacists such as David Duke and Willis Carto made careers of dressing up their nazi politics as “populism” or “conservatism.” But now alt-right “shitlords” bombard Twitter with swastikas and gas chamber jokes, and ridicule antifascism the way 1960s radicals ridiculed anticommunism.
The Daily Kos idea that Steve Bannon “and his ilk” invented the term “alt-right” compounds the distortion. Bannon is actually a latecomer to the movement, a popularizer who — first at Breitbart News and then as a member of Trump’s team — has offered a toned-down version of alt-right politics for mass consumption. Richard Spencer — who introduced the term “alternative right” years ago to describe a convergence of diverse right-wing forces outside the conservative establishment — has termed this fellow-traveler phenomenon “alt-lite.”
On a deeper level, the “don’t call them ‘alt-right’” campaign embodies the unfortunate idea that white supremacist politics are basically all the same. Supposedly, once we know that alt-rightists uphold racist ideology, the details don’t really matter, and exploring them just distracts us from the central issue. But it’s precisely these “details” that help us understand what has made the alt-right a significant force, its capacity to tap into popular fears and grievances, its relationship with other political forces, its internal tensions and points of weakness. A few decades ago, most of the racist far right abandoned Jim Crow segregationism in favor of white nationalism — the doctrine that people of European descent shouldn’t just rule over people of color, but exclude or exterminate them entirely. Opponents who failed to recognize this shift were caught off guard when white supremacists moved from terrorizing black people to waging war on the U.S. government.
Saying we shouldn’t call them “alt-right” is saying that we don’t need to understand our enemy. It’s like a conservative in 1969 looking at the New Left — spanning from Alinskyites to Yippies, from Clean for Gene canvassers to the Weathermen — saying, “This ‘New Left’ label is just a ploy to hide their subversive agenda. They’re all just communists. That’s all we need to know, and all these petty differences are just a distraction.” This kind of attitude only benefits your opponents.
Here are some distinctive features of the alt-right that I believe antifascists should take into consideration:
* The alt-right is strong in online tactics but weak in on-the-ground organization. White supremacists have long been pioneers in exploiting new communication technologies, but the alt-right is the first far right current that exists mainly online. Alt-rightists have skillfully used online memes such as #Cuckservative and #DraftOurDaughters as propaganda tools to shape mainstream discourse. They have also turned online harassment and abuse into a potent tactic for frightening and silencing opponents. This raises important challenges for antifascists. It’s one thing to shut down a neonazi rally, or even a website, but something else again to shut down a Twitter campaign of vicious threats and abuse sent from a constantly moving array of anonymous accounts.
On the flip side, alt-rightists have little formal organization and very limited capacity to muster supporters for in-person rallies or other events. This could change. Some alt-right groups, such as the Traditionalist Youth Network/Traditionalist Workers Party, are actively building bridges with older school white supremacist groups, in part to help increase their physical presence.
* The alt-right brings together different branches of white nationalism. Some alt-rightists embrace neonazi ideology. Others emphasize a pseudoscientific “race realism” that’s heavy on IQ statistics and genetics. A third major current borrows from the European New Right, which has reworked fascist ideology using concepts borrowed from progressive movements, such as cultural diversity and identity politics. There’s overlap between these currents, and despite some infighting the alt-right has so far succeeded in maintaining a “big tent” approach and avoiding the sectarian splits that have stymied many earlier far right initiatives. But ideological difference could be a point of vulnerability.
* The alt-right encompasses rightist ideologies that don’t center on race. White nationalism has been the alt-right’s center of gravity, but the movement also overlaps with other political currents, including:
- the so-called manosphere, an internet subculture of men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and others focused on destroying feminism and re-intensifying men’s dominance over women;
- the neoreactionary movement (also known as the Dark Enlightenment), a network of authoritarian intellectuals who regard popular sovereignty as a major threat to civilization;
- the right-wing anarchism of Keith Preston’s Attack the System, which blends opposition to big states with a kind of Nietzschean elitism;
- Jack Donovan’s male tribalism, which envisions a system of patriarchy based on close-knit “gangs” of warrior men.
* The alt-right is internally divided about how to deal with Jews and gay men. Antisemitism is standard across the alt-right, but it takes widely different forms. Neonazis within the alt-right regard Jews as the ultimate embodiment of evil, who must be completely excluded from the movement and from any white homeland. But other alt-rightists want to ally with right-wing Jews against Muslims and regard Israel as a healthy outlet to keep Jews from subverting white society. And some alt-rightists — notably American Renaissance, one of the movement’s core institutions — welcome Jews as speakers and writers, and as participants in a future white homeland.
Similarly, while many alt-rightists want to suppress homosexuality, others denounce homophobia as a divisive force that weakens white solidarity and the male bonding needed for civilization to flourish. Some alt-rightists, such as Jack Donovan and James O’Meara, are openly homosexual. Donovan gets a lot of homophobic comments from other alt-rightists but his work is also influential and widely respected in the movement, to some extent even among homophobes. Some alt-rightists have also used Islamophobia in a bid to “wedge gays and Muslims.”
So far, alt-rightists have kept these disagreements within bounds, but they could intensify, for example if Donald Trump pursues the strongly pro-Zionist Mideast policy he has promised.
* The alt-right is overwhelmingly male. This reflects the movement’s patriarchal politics, of course, but also the boys club character of the online networks that furnish the bulk of its recruits, as well the alt-right’s general refusal to address women’s interests or concerns in any significant way. By contrast, the equally misogynistic biblical patriarchy movement has far more female participants and activists, because it at least offers women a sense of belonging and recognition, however distorted. A patriarchal family can’t exist without women, but even this kind of family is peripheral or irrelevant to male tribalism and large swaths of the manosphere.
* Most of the alt-right regards Donald Trump as a useful stepping stone. Most alt-rightists supported Trump’s presidential campaign and were thrilled by his upset victories over both the GOP establishment and Hillary Clinton. But they don’t think Trump shares their politics or will bring about the white ethnostate they want. Rather, they believe a Trump presidency will give them more space to peddle their ideology and “move the Overton window” in their favor. In turn, they see themselves as the Trump coalition’s political vanguard, taking hardline positions that pull Trump further to the right while enabling him to look moderate by comparison. The alt-right’s relationship with Donald Trump has been tremendously beneficial to both parties, but it could also turn sour in any number of ways. Even as he ramps up authoritarianism, Trump will have to navigate between the alt-right and other players, above all an economic ruling class whose majority did not want him to get elected.
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We are moving into a bleak period, when understanding the forces opposing us will be more important than ever. That means exposing supremacist ideologies in all forms and guises, but it also means developing a political vocabulary that lets us make distinctions, rather than treat all enemies as one undifferentiated mass.
Related posts on Three Way Fight:
Alt-right: more misogynistic than many neonazis, December 2016