This week, Richard Spencer, a white nationalist with a Macklemore haircut, spoke at Texas A&M against the wishes of nearly everyone of consequence at the university. The event did not go as the self-proclaimed founder of the “alt-right” had planned: Rather than bludgeoning the pliable minds of the nation’s youth into joining his army of “professional racists in khakis,” Spencer found himself heckled by protestors and beseeched by a rabbi to study “racial inclusion and love.”
The talk, organized by a like-minded alum, ostensibly kicks off the college-tour segment of Spencer’s years-long campaign to “make racism cool again.” In the last few months, media outlets both mainstream and niche have gawked at—then quickly condemned—Spencer’s particular brand of propaganda, which essentially consists of dressing up violent ethno-nationalist thought in crisp suits, sunglasses, and the language of respectable white people.
And now, like more benign street teams before him, Spencer is hyping his product on campus. As he told Mother Jones shortly before his trip to A&M, reportedly the first of many: “People in college are at this point in their lives when they are actually open to alternative perspectives…I think you do need to get them while they are young. I think rewiring the neurons of someone over 50 is effectively impossible.”
Spencer’s tactics have always targeted the young. Even the “alt-right” moniker sounds like something a student trying to finish a history paper before a rock show might come up with. But with Trump’s presidency and Spencer’s move to Washington, the “alt-right” term has been thrust into wide circulation. Style guides agonize over how to properly couch it. (The Guardian uses the term, the Associated Press does not.) And recently, a number of publications, this one included, have taken the position that invoking the name of the alt-right without comment serves only to sanitize its message, legitimizing the counter-cultural sheen the movement’s founders desire.
The spike in interest has also produced investigations into the term’s origin, though Spencer coined it some years ago. In August, Slate’s language blog claimed the term transmitted a “mix of alienation and optimum embedded in the act of proudly affirming an ‘alternative.’” A few weeks ago, Merriam-Webster published a blog post on the history of the prefix “alt-,” tracing its usage in Usenet groups and through various hyphenated subgenres of mainstream culture. The shorthand, Merriam-Webster claims, works as a way of “rebelling against the traditions of a genre while clearly belonging to it: alt-country is still country, and alt-lit is still literature.”
What Merriam-Webster doesn’t examine, but deserves to be said, is that both detached from their parent genres to become alt-historical refuges for certain strains of white-kid cool.
Granted, cultural movements and musical categorizations are fluid territory constantly being reinvented and collapsing in on themselves. But it’s a little odd no one has mentioned how often taste-makers deploy the “alt-” prefix to reconfigure diverse genres into self-congratulatory and homogenous “alternatives”—an insidious and softer form of cultural supremacy, but similar to Spencer’s nonetheless. His talent as a propagandist hinges on his ability to channel the country’s inherent biases into dog-whistles: If he wants, as he claims, to create a “safe space” for white people, he has a lot of company in record execs and self-promotional shills.
Talking in such broad strokes about decades of history can invite over-generalization, and there are exceptions to these rules. It’s also worth noting that in this country it’s a national sport to profit off the cultural efforts of black artists, in particular, so finding examples of that trend is nearly a fish-in-barrel-level endeavor.
But we still could, for example, look at alt-rock, a similarly distributed and nebulous scene, which had a previous life as “alternative” or “college rock” in the ‘90s, a brainy version of arena rock considered more authentic than its forebearers. Until, that is, it ascended to permanent fixture on the radio dial (hello, Oasis and Blur.) The obvious glancing-over of non-white musicians, especially once it became the money-making standard, has been well-documented—and may have made it a marketing template for alt- genres to come, harnessing as it did a sense of anti-mainstream sensibilities to telegraph white countercultural cool. The Beastie Boys, into the early 2000s, played on alt-rock stations. Chuck D—even after touring with U2 and Rage Against the Machine—did not.
“Alt-country,” another fantastically diffuse genre, defined itself along less overtly racial lines, in part because it sprung out of dissatisfaction with chart-toppers who were already pasty (if also kinda lame). Depending on who you ask, the genre is either a punk-inflected brand of country or a throwback to the genre’s Depression-era origins or something more reminiscent of the Delta Blues. But as the music historian Diane Pecknold notes, as hokey, supposedly “effeminate” country music topped the charts in the ‘90s and hip-hop mainstreamed:
Hip urbanites embraced alt-country as a counterculture, looking to older country roots as a way to express their mainstream popular music of all sorts and reconfigure burlesque abjection into a familiar, deeply nostalgic form of white guy cool-supremacy in the process.
The latent political connotations of the alt- phenomenon also found their way into “alternative rap." So-called "conscious hip-hop,” a moniker ushered in by music bloggers and record execs, sought to capitalize on white kids' discomfort with the political sensibilities of artists like Tupac. Yet aided by a little branding, they inhaled the music of Dead Prez and a Tribe Called Quest.
We could also consider the alt- brands that never quite made it into the mainstream, indications of what the term had come to mean by the early 2000s, years before Spencer adopted it. “Alt-R&B,” according to Wikipedia, is also known as “PBR&B” or “hipster soul.” Or we could look to the most recent example of an “alt-” subgenre, alt-lit, the legacy of which is almost entirely its place as a toxic refuge for misogynistic man-children bent on taking advantage of their female colleagues.
Korey Stamper, the Merriam-Webster lexicographer, told the Huffington Post recently she hadn’t “run across any other compelling prefixes that convey both a sense of belonging and rebellion,” the way that “alt” does. It takes a lot of certainty in one’s circumstances to both belong and rebel.
It’s almost like safe spaces marketed by and to white dudes—spaces that defined them in opposition to an imaginary mainstream culture that shunned them—were being churned out all along.