The Rise of the Alt-Right in U.S. Politics

 

To the Teacher:


“Alt-right” is a term we’ve been hearing with increasing frequency since the 2016 presidential campaign. The term, which is short for "alternative right," once referred to an obscure group of internet forum participants associated with the website 4chan. Today, the alt-right has come to refer to a broader range of people on the extreme right who are seen as an important force in the rise of Donald Trump.

Watchdog organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled the alt-right as a hate group that embraces racism or white supremacy as well as misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. These organizations have raised serious concerns about the association of some Trump advisors with alt-right websites. The alt-right was in general highly supportive of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

This lesson consists of two readings designed to have students think critically about the alt-right, its relationship to the Trump administration, and online cultures of hate. The first reading provides general background on the alt-right: What is it? Where did it come from? The second reading considers its relationship to the Trump administration. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
 


 

Reading 1:
The Alt-Right: What Is It? Where did it come from?
 

“Alt-right” is a term we’ve been hearing with increasing frequency since the 2016 presidential campaign. The term, which is short for "alternative right," once referred to an obscure group of internet forum participants associated with the website 4chan. Today, the alt-right has come to refer to a broader range of people on the extreme right who are seen as an important force in the rise of Donald Trump.

Watchdog organizations have labeled the alt-right as a hate group that embraces racism or white supremacy as well as misogyny (hatred of women), homophobia, and anti-Semitism. These organizations have raised serious concerns about the association of some Trump advisors with alt-right websites. The alt-right was in general highly supportive of Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy organization that focuses on hate groups, includes a page on its website defining the alt-right and describing some of its core beliefs:

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

The Alternative Right is a term coined in 2008 by Richard Bertrand Spencer, who heads the white nationalist think tank known as the National Policy Institute, to describe a loose set of far-right ideals centered on “white identity” and the preservation of “Western civilization.” In 2010, Spencer, who had done stints as an editor of The American Conservative and Taki’s Magazine, launched the Alternative Right blog, where he worked to refine the movement’s ideological tenets.

Spencer describes the Alt Right as a big-tent ideology that blends the ideas of neo-reactionaries (NRx-ers), who advocate a return to an antiquated, pseudo-libertarian government that supports “traditional western civilization”; “archeofuturists,” those who advocate for a return to “traditional values” without jettisoning the advances of society and technology; human biodiversity adherents (HBDers) and “race realists,” people who generally adhere to “scientific racism”; and other extreme-right ideologies. Alt-Right adherents stridently reject egalitarianism and universalism….

Spencer describes Alt-Right adherents as younger people, often recent college graduates, who recognize the “uselessness of mainstream conservatism” in what he describes as a “hyper-racialized” world.
 

As journalist Jason Wilson wrote in an August 23, 2016, article for the Guardian, a central concern of the alt-right is what they see as “PC (Politically Correct) Culture” run amok. To the alt-right, the movement is an effort to defend “white manhood” in the face of growing racial and gender diversity in the United States.

Wilson writes:

Perhaps the most potent element of alt-right activism is the effort to build a sense of a specific white identity, and to claim that this identity is under attack.

“Anti-white animus in society at large is palpable,” says Spencer. Demands for diversity in the workplace mean “less white males in particular.” More openly extreme alt-right accounts on Twitter talk about immigration in terms of “white genocide.”

This sense of injured white identity is what defines the alt-right, according to Dan Cassino, a Fairleigh Dickinson University political scientist and the author of a new book on Fox News and American politics. “The founding myth of the alt-right is that the disadvantaged groups in American politics are actually running things through a combination of fraud and intimidation. By doing this, they’re actually oppressing white men.”

The “original sin” of current American politics, according to Cassino, is that neither liberals nor conservatives have a very good answer to the question of what is to be done about “the people who get screwed over” by economic policies.

If these sentiments are growing, it may mean a larger and more receptive audience for the more radical message of the alt-right. Adherents claim that the movement is expanding.

Spencer does not have solid figures, but claims to have seen many new faces at his events, including young people who have been “redpilled” — or racially “awoken” — in the last year. Enoch claims that the Right Stuff’s suite of podcasts gets more than 100,000 listeners a week.

What distinguishes the alt-right from more traditional conservative political movements such as the Tea Party and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan is the fluency of its members with the internet, particularly the use of memes and trolling.

Indeed, as Dylan Matthews wrote in an August 25, 2016, article for Vox.com, many alt-right members are drawn into the movement through sites like 4chan and Reddit:

4chan is mostly still a forum for trolling and random nonsense. It was started to discuss anime, and insofar as it's been political it's been in a not strictly left-right way, and usually through the avenue of Anonymous, the activist group that split off from 4chan to do direct action….

But in recent years, a vocal right-wing contingent has popped up. As New York magazine's Brian Feldman explains, part of this is an artifact of 4chan gaining popularity and its popular catchall board — /b/ — losing ground to alternatives, notably /pol/, or the "Politically Incorrect" chat board. "To the extent that there is a shared political ideology across /pol/, it’s a heavily ironic mix of garden-variety white supremacy and neo-reactionary movements," Feldman writes.
 

Southern Poverty Law Center fellow Keegan Hanke says: “I constantly see 4chan being mentioned by the more internet- and tech-savvy guys in the white nationalist movement. They’re getting their content from 4chan." He notices the same trend on Reddit. He notes in a Gawker essay that "Reddit increasingly is providing a home for anti-black racists — and some of the most virulent and violent propaganda around."

According to Matthews, “This branch of the alt-right has also played an important role in the Gamergate movement, an ongoing effort to harass women in the video game industry until they shut up about equality and representation.” Klint Finley writes on the website Tech Crunch:

 It’s not hard to see why this ideology would catch-on with white male geeks. It tells them that they are the natural rulers of the world, but that they are simultaneously being oppressed by a secret religious order. And the more media attention is paid to workplace inequality, gentrification and the wealth gap, the more their bias is confirmed.

In 2016, these online subcultures that were once confined to the dark underbelly of the internet flooded into the mainstream and began to have a tangible impact on political discourse.
 



For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, what is the “alt-right”? How is it different from existing conservative political movements?
     
  3. Do you have any experience with the websites 4chan and Reddit? If so, what sort of content have you seen on these sites?
     
  4. In response to demands that offense or hateful discussion groups on Reddit should be shut down, the site’s former CEO argued, “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it." What do you think of this argument? Do you think Reddit has any responsibility to moderate discussion groups that might include, for example, overtly racist content?
     

 

Reading 2:
The Alt-Right in the White House


While the alt-right had been simmering beneath the surface of public consciousness for several years, it was thrust into the headlines during the 2016 presidential election as the movement’s chosen candidate, Donald Trump, advanced closer and closer to the White House.

“Alt-right” became a widely discussed term when Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the general election, noted Trump’s apparent coziness with the movement in an August 25, 2016, speech on the campaign trail. As Matt Fegenheimer reported in an August 25, 2016 article for The New York Times:

Hillary Clinton delivered a blistering denunciation Thursday of Donald J. Trump’s personal and political history with race, arguing in her most forceful terms yet that a nationalist conservative fringe had engulfed the Republican Party.

In a 31-minute address, building to a controlled simmer, Mrs. Clinton did everything but call Mr. Trump a racist outright — saying he had promoted “racist lie” after “racist lie,” pushed conspiracy theories with “racist undertones” and heartened racists across the country by submitting to an “emerging racist ideology known as the alt-right.”

“He is taking hate groups mainstream,” Mrs. Clinton told supporters at a community college here, “and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party.”

Mrs. Clinton said that while a racially charged and “paranoid fringe” had always existed in politics, “it’s never had the nominee of a major party stoking it, encouraging it and giving it a national megaphone, until now.” ….
 

The Times noted that at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Trump portrayed Clinton’s  attacks as directed not only at him, but also at his supporters. And in response to Hillary Clinton and those “pushing her to spread smears and her lies about decent people,” Trump said, “I have three words: Shame on you.”

Despite Trump’s disavowal of racism and anti-Semitism among his supporters, some of his closest advisors have ties with the alt-right, including chief strategist Steve Bannon. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Bannon served as executive chair of Breitbart.com, a far-right news and commentary website that Bannon himself described as the “platform for the alt-right.” As Josh Dawsey, Eliana Johnson, and Annie Karni reported in a January 29, 2017, article for Politico.com, Bannon has been a driving force behind some of the most controversial acts of Trump’s young presidency:

Bannon and senior presidential adviser Stephen Miller helped lay the political and ideological foundations for Trump’s rise before Trump came on the scene. Breitbart was instrumental in promoting the idea that establishment Republican lawmakers had betrayed American workers on issues like immigration and trade, a theme Trump rode to victory in November.

They’ve been responsible for setting an “action plan” for Trump’s first weeks in the White House, developing executive orders and memoranda, and deciding when Trump would sign each new document, according to people familiar with the process.

The plan has so far produced executive actions weakening Obamacare, beefing up immigration enforcement and freezing federal hiring — and on preventing refugees and visa-holders from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. ….

Bannon’s rise has worried Trump’s critics because he led Breitbart News, which associates itself with the alt-right and groups supporting nationalism and other fringe beliefs. After he was hired in the White House, the Southern Poverty Law Center called him “the main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.” Bannon and his friends have denied the attacks and say he is neither racist nor anti-Semitic.
 

Given that the Trump administration has not renounced ties to the alt-right, questions remain about the connection between the hateful beliefs and talking points of this community and government policy-making.

 

For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. What do you think? Should the president formally renounce ties to the alt-right given hateful memes that circulate on discussion boards associated with this community? Or are his promises that he personally abhors racism and anti-Semitism sufficient?
     
  3. Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, described Breitbart news, the conservative website he previously ran, as the “platform for the alt-right.” Given that, do you think that we should be concerned that hateful beliefs will make their way into government policy-making?
     
  4. Can you think of any specific policies that might reflect alt-right beliefs? What might these policies look like in practice?