Last week Hillary Clinton came out swinging against her Republican opponent. In a passionate speech designed to energize her base, the Democratic nominee accused Donald Trump of being a racist and white supremacist.
Mincing no words, Hillary stated that Trump has shown bias against pretty much everybody not white and male: women, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims, immigrants—you name it. Accusing the GOP nominee of “prejudice and paranoia,” and deriving his “facts” from conspiracy-laden websites, Clinton struck a nerve, since Trump spent the next couple days on defense, counter-accusing Hillary of being the real bigot in the race. It’s not every day you have two fabulously wealthy white senior citizens publicly yelling “Racist!” at each other.
This was Clinton’s kill-shot aimed at the heart of the Trump campaign:
“This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have known 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.'”
Not many Republicans want anybody named Clinton telling them what their party “really” is, but Hillary’s accusation is serious and merits analysis. The Alternative Right—Alt-Right for short—despite being politically marginal, has made its presence felt in the Trump campaign, mainly in the form of the Republican nominee’s inflammatory retweets. Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently named campaign manager (his third) is at least an Alt-Right fellow traveler. But what actually is the Alt-Right?
There is no defined ideology we can reference. What exactly falls under the rubric of the Alt-Right is an open question. Neither is it a movement in a political sense. Rather, it’s a reaction to changes in Movement Conservatism over the last half-century.
As a prominent white nationalist blogger admitted, ‘There is no relationship between Trump and the Alt Right, just a one-way man-crush.’
One of the defining features of American Conservatism since the 1960s has been a need for regular purges of what Maoists might call Old Think. That is, every so often, conservatives discover that people and ideas who have been in the bosom of their movement for decades are objectionable and must be shown the door. They get dumped unceremoniously by mainstream conservative media and shunned by the Republican establishment.
First to go in the 1960s were the kook-right Birchers. Then the white supremacists got dumped. Those who objected to feminism and the social changes of the 1970s—when the Sixties happened to everybody in John Updike’s famous definition—got purged. Fans of the Confederacy were shown the door in the 1980s. More recently, opponents of the LGBT political agenda have been judged pariahs. What it reveals about Movement Conservatism that it needs regular purges I’ll leave to others to decipher.
It’s best to view the Alt-Right as the people and ideas who got evicted by Conservatism, Inc. in the last 50 years. There’s no doubt that race looms large in the Alt-Right worldview. While only a small minority of them are neo-Nazis, though their opponents frequently make that charge, what the Alt-Right terms “race realism” is mainstream in their ranks. They acknowledge biologically determined differences between the races and derive political conclusions from them. While this was once commonplace thinking, Movement Conservatism hasn’t wanted anything to do with such ideas for a half-century.
Although many Americans on the right wax nostalgically about the Founding Fathers, Conservatism, Inc. is a relatively recent creation. It was born in the 1950s as “fusionism,” an amalgam of social (often religious) conservatives, defense hawks, libertarians, and business interests. They shared a loathing of Communism—and not necessarily much else.
Fusionism took decades to mature politically and it wasn’t really normative in the Republican Party until the 1980s, when it triumphed under President Reagan. This is why conservatives still get teary about the Reagan years, not least because not long after the Gipper left office the Soviet empire fell apart and dissolved the anti-Communist glue that made fusionism work.
For the last quarter-century conservatives have struggled to redefine their movement and purges have continued. In 2012 John Derbyshire was fired from National Review, the leading Movement Conservative magazine, and the following year Jason Richwine was dumped by the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think-tank—both for publishing statements about race that the mainstream right considered beyond the pale.
The Alt-Right is partly a reaction to such defenestrations, but its roots go back to paleo-conservatism. Paul Gottfried, the intellectual historian who coined the term Alt-Right back in 2008, made a connection between aging paleos like himself and a rising generation of far-rightists who, like Gottfried, rejected Movement Conservatism as a politically correct racket. For the Alt-Right, Conservatism, Inc. is no more than slow-motion liberalism.
It’s important to note these origins, since the Alt-Right is normally associated with frog memes and anti-Semitic social media trolling. Yet there is a worldview of sorts behind it. Apart from race realism, many Alt-Righters embrace gender realism too. Their loathing of feminism is sincere and deep. Anti-Semitism is easily found but is no requirement. Some prominent Alt-Righters are Jews, Gottfried included. Dislike of Islam, however, seems mandatory.
Domestically, Alt-Righters despise the nuts and bolts of Movement Conservatism—the publications, the think-tanks, the sinecures—from which they have been purged. They hate the GOP more than the Democrats in many ways: the latter are merely enemies, while the former are traitors. They’ve watched the rise of Donald Trump with unconcealed glee. But does Trump love them back?
Hillary has portrayed the GOP nominee as the leader of the Alt-Right, yet that’s far from obvious. In the first place, Trump’s grasp of any ideology seems weak. He has toyed with common Alt-Right themes, particularly on stopping illegal immigration from Latin America and banning Muslim immigrants altogether, but how much he actually embraces such views is far from clear.
Now that Trump has softened his stance on Muslims and flip-flopped grandly on immigration, appearing to embrace the “act of love” pro-immigration beliefs of Jeb Bush which Trump trashed during the Republican primaries, the GOP nominee hardly seems very right-wing here. Not to mention his recent efforts to court African Americans and Hispanics—which must be infuriating for the Alt-Right, who imagined Trump was one of them.
Imagination is the key word here. The Alt-Right, particularly in its vivid (and sometimes vicious) social media incarnation, is seriously infatuated with Trump—or at least who they thought he was. That love now looks increasingly unrequited. As a prominent white nationalist blogger admitted, “There is no relationship between Trump and the Alt Right, just a one-way man-crush.”
Of course, pinning the Alt-Right on Trump is politically useful for the Democrats, who seek to drive a wedge between the GOP nominee and his party—even more than Trump has already done himself. So you can expect to hear a lot of this line from Team Hillary between now and November 8.
To be continued….
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.