Why there's nothing alternative about the 'alt-right'

Getty Images

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Reno, Nevada about Donald Trump and how he's "helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party," a group she calls the "alt-right." Over the course of a half-hour, Clinton used the term four times, attempting to draw a line between various positions on the right and attract some of the more moderate conservatives.

Familiar to some, "alt-right" has heretofore mostly been used largely by racists on online message boards and journalists like me (sorry) in the media. But it's a new term in the mouth of a presidential candidate, so people are understandably puzzled.


Here's (part of) the definition Clinton used in her speech:

This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have know it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.'

Alt-Right is short for “Alternative Right.” The term itself is attributable to a talk paleoconservative academic Paul Gottfried gave in 2008, promoting the sort of thinking that was appearing on far-right but generally anti-neoconservative blogs like Takimag and VDARE. But the term has taken on a life of its own, and plenty of other adherents.

Clinton also cited The Wall Street Journal's broad description of the alt-right as a loose but organized movement, mostly online, that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.” These are a decentralized bunch of self-described "racialists" (for all intents and purposes, racists with an extra syllable), Dark Enlightenment adherents, and American and European nativists, among others. Clinton is absolutely right about one thing: they all adore Donald Trump, and overwhelmingly support him.


Plenty are straight-up white supremacists and neo-nazis, as one of the online hotbeds of the movement is the Klan site Stormfront, the self-proclaimed "first major hate site on the Internet." Others insist they just want a nation where they only deal with other white people (which may sound familiar). Parts of other message boards, like 4chan and 8chan, home to plenty of bigots in their own right, have glommed on, adding a veneer of tech-savviness to the movement. They love to use the racist insult "cuckservative" and post a lot of Trump fan-art, often involving the meme Pepe, a cartoon frog grabbed from a comic called Boy's Club turned into a 4chan mascot.


The ideas now increasingly associated with the alt-right also have their own, longer history. A lot of them come from the intellectual side of the American white nationalist movement, like Jared Taylor's American Renaissance magazine. Taylor, a former tech journalist and English-language teacher, founded the magazine in 1990, and has been trading largely in bogus racial science and fear-mongering about America's black and hispanic population ever since. The magazine continues to publish, and holds a yearly conference; this year it embraced the internet-centric parts of the alt-right more explicitly, featuring a video by self-styled satirist Walt Bismark (formerly Uncuck the Right). Noted former congressman and klansman David Duke has also eagerly adopted bits and pieces of iconography from the younger alt-right. Here's what he tweeted yesterday, after Clinton's speech:


Then, of course, there's Breitbart, which boasted earlier this month that it was breaking its own web traffic records and has become a loud, emphatically pro-Trump voice among conservative publications. (Breitbart's executive chairman, Steve Bannon, recently became the Trump campaign's CEO).  While the network of websites has only recently started proclaiming itself the online platform the alt-right, plenty of the purported concerns and tactics shared among the group come straight out of the site's eponymous founder's playbook. Brendan James put this particularly well after Clinton's speech:

"I am absolutely appalled by what Breitbart's become," said onetime editor-at-large Ben Shapiro. "I think Bannon has perverted Breitbart's legacy."

But the site has always been obsessed with "P.C. culture," hatred of protesters, fear of immigrants, and the white man's burden of reverse-racism. Shapiro himself would rail against Palestinians, black people, rap music and liberal politicians week by week. How Breitbart News has changed since its founder's death is never really addressed by the expats.


Breitbart's tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, is often held up as one of the most public faces of the alt-right, despite his contempt for his own fans and cynical reinvention of himself as conservative provocateur. Yiannopoulos's simultaneous decrying of political correctness and promotion of the spurious idea that white people, and especially white men, are the group who are really under attack in America and Europe, follows the broad model of the alt-right more generally. As with much of what can be said of the alt-right, though, you'll find some who identify with the label but also hate Breitbart and its writers. Scan 4chan or Stormfront on any given day and you'll find some of the movement's anti-semitic and homophobic wing calling the site "Kikebart" or condemning Yiannopoulos for being gay.

But aside from being broadly racist, often sexist, and generally subscribing to conspiratorial anti-institutional ideas, the main thing that unites the alt-right is simply self-identification. The term alt-right gives garden variety American far-right goons a chance to appear edgy, a chance that the press (again, myself included) have been all too quick to uncritically grant them. For their part, the broadly defined alt-right seems to relish the opportunity to be seen as distinct from what they see as a failed mainstream conservative movement.


The term also gives more centrist conservatives the opportunity to try and wash their hands of the sins of the past few decades, offloading instead onto a bunch of stooges with anime profile pictures on Twitter. The National Review and Weekly Standard, who've repudiated Trump so far, have also run condemnations of the alt-right, conveniently ignoring their own history on race and trying to avoid responsibility for the candidate their party has nominated or the support he's received.

But the idea that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas are not "Republicanism as we know it" (or even American politics) isn't true. Remember the 'Ground-Zero mosque' non-story? Or how the federal government has treated Muslims, American or otherwise, in the past decade-plus? Or the raids and deportations that have taken place under the Obama Administration?


The alt-right is just more explicit about their positions. While Democrats have certainly held better policy positions (especially when it comes to women's rights), anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policy have been tentpoles of both the Republican party and American policy more broadly for years. The bullshit race science that has become emblematic of the the alt-right was being touted in The New Republic in the early-90s.

What should actually alarm us about the alt-right is that despite their deployment of memes and more explicit white nationalism, they've been part of America's conservative movement for some time. Now, we're just looking at them through a Pepe-tinted filter.


Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net

Share This Story