The Alt-Right – a journey into mainstream politics?

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Maxwell Ward talks to Dr Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Centre for Right-Wing Studies, about the Alt-Right’s unlikely journey into the mainstream of US politics and their more recent struggles. What are their ambitions? What do they really think of Donald Trump? And where do they go from here?

But the first thing Maxwell wanted to know… who and what are the Alt-Right?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: The Alt-Right represents what has long been called in the USA the fringe of American politics. What made them the fringe, or the very definition of the fringe, is that they are outside of the mainstream and do not have particularly a role in national politics. The kinds of ideology that we’re talking about are things that have characterised the Klu Klux Klan in this country and Neo-Nazi organisations in this country. They have not had a role in American Politics nationally since the 1920s and 1930s. But, they continued to exist and they existed in atomised corners. There would be groups in rural Ohio or rural Michigan. There would be numbers of them. But, comes the internet age, and above all social media, they networked. So that’s step one. These guys networked.

Two, there were events that made these people come together beyond simply politics. That has to do with what is better understood as culture. Above all, there was a thing called Gamergate. To some extent, the base of the Alt-Right online consists of what used to be called in Social Science “alienated young men” and they were gamers online. A controversy arose around the place of women in the gamer world. It provoked an immense backlash against feminism itself. Very anti-women. That consolidated this element of what would constitute the Alt-Right. Donald Trump famously said, “Well, these online things aren’t necessarily from Russia. They could have been from some 400-pound kid lying on his mother’s bed somewhere.” The point being that there are these unhappy young men who are engaged more culturally than politically. So, you get the rise of this essentially nihilistic internet culture in which things like Pepe the frog become symbolic and there is a vast array of these symbols. Basically, the thrill of it is it’s edgy and anti-establishment and it’s anti all establishments. Left, right, etc. So you have those guys, the alienated young men and you have the formerly atomised neo-Nazi and KKK groups who have discovered social media and are now not atomised anymore but are a social network or networking on social media.

Finally, you get step three which is the candidacy of Donald Trump. What happens in the world of what would become the Alt-Right is they are electrified. They are electrified because suddenly, at the level of presidential politics in the USA, somebody is talking their language. So, the experience, the decades long political experience of being marginalised, of being the fringe, has suddenly changed. Somebody who is running for president is talking about immigrants the way they talk about them, the very premise of whose campaign is anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-feminist… well, let me be clear about that, anti- “political correctness”. Donald Trump would say things like, “the biggest problem in this country is political correctness.” That, above all, had two constituent elements for the Alt-Right. One was feminism and the other was multi-culturalism. Both of which seem forced down their throats by elites and in these two, in particular, the liberal elites. Donald Trump was like a siren call from the thoroughly unexpected province of not only national politics but presidential politics. So, the Alt-Right became mobilised and a participant in the election of 2016 in a way that that kind of ideological warrior had not participated in American elections since the 1920s and 1930s.

MW: You talk about these disparate groups that have come together. Would you say that, apart from that kind of combative element, that there is a thread, some sort of key beliefs that they share?

LR: Yes! The key belief is that the centre of their politics is white identity. They are self-conscious of what has gone by the name of “identity politics” in this country. Which is to say, the politics of groups like women, like Blacks, like Hispanics, like gay people, increasingly transsexuals, etc. That’s understood as identity politics. Their premise is, “well, this is the identity politics of white people, or European people or European men” and you get variations on that. One is white separatism, white supremacy or white nationalism. In the centre of the consciousness of the Alt-Right is “we are white and we are being displaced.” Probably the most prominent manifestation of Alt-Right politics in this country was Charlottesville in Virginia where there was a “Unite the Right” rally. In the evening, on the University of Virginia campus (University of Virginia is a venerable institution in this country, founded by Thomas Jefferson) they marched through with torches which were kind of tiki torches. But what are you going to do?! It’s just not an easy country to find several hundred torches available. And they chanted and some of the chants were old Nazi chants, like “Blood and Soil”, which is a remarkable thing to chant in the USA where the country has developed through immigration. It’s not as though “Blood and Soil”, which is to conjure up the kinds of racial tropes of the Nazis, which says, “We are the people who were born here, on this soil, ‘Blood and Soil’”. It’s kind of an irrational thing in the USA.

Okay, that’s one. Another was “Jews will not replace us”. One of the elements in the Alt-Right has been the rise of political anti-Semitism in a way that has been completely out of bounds in the USA in my lifetime and I’m no spring chicken. Perhaps the most revealing of the chants was, simply, “You will not replace us”. That chant goes to the heart of what the white nationalism of the Alt-Right was about and is about. It is the conviction that white America is being displaced and is being displaced by newcomers – and they are largely people of colour – and that traditions are being displaced. The premise of the “Unite the Right” was about replacing statues or defending statues that celebrate civil war heroes in the USA. This was in particular about Robert E. Lee, who was the chief general of the American confederacy. So, if you take seriously, and I do, that chant “You will not replace us”, it is the death of what white nationalist identity politics is about.

Using the words identity politics, you have to understand that this is a different kind of identity politics than Black identity politics, female identity politics, Hispanic, gay, let’s call them “classical identity politics” which is essentially a politics which argues, “We do not have a seat at the table and our politics is about demanding a seat at the table.” White identity politics is, “We are being cast out of the table. Other people are taking our place.”. The first one is about being deprived of rights and being deprived of justice. The other is about a sense of being dispossessed from what you have.

MW: While white identity links the Alt-Right together, a populist fury at the political elite fuelled Donald Trump’s election campaign. I asked Dr Rosenthal to explain how important economic issues had been in that and in the Alt-Right’s rise to prominence.

LR: People tend to divide up about whether they explain it from the cultural point of view or whether they explain it from the economic point of view. Basically, those two things went hand-in-hand and they are both true. The American economy has become deindustrialised. The kinds of expectations that white, non-college-educated males, above all… the kinds of expectations that the generations of their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them, which had to do with, we’re talking in stereotypes here, the availability of reasonably well-paid jobs in things like factories have gone away. The cities and towns that characterise those places have become well-characterised as the “Rust Belt” in America. So, what are their life expectations? Their life expectations are things like being security guards in Walmart or unemployment. They are poorly paid jobs which are a step down from what their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had. So, you get a kind of deterioration of life chances among a big portion of the American white working class and you get enormous dysfunction along with that. This dysfunction is characterised by things like diminished life spans. Life spans have gone down among this class of people. Perhaps even more notable is the rise of drug addiction, above all heroin and opioids. So, you have the dislocation, the end of the industrial system. To the extent to which there is manufacturing in this country, and there is, it tends to be computer driven at this point. So, you need to be educated even to work in the factories these days. What happens to those people?

From about 1973 to 2008 the dispossession of the American working class was like a wave that was rolling in very slowly. The wave broke in 2008, with the financial crisis. The last thing to break was that the housing market which collapsed. The way a lot of people had been sustaining themselves went like this, “We have this house. Yesterday it was worth $100,000 and, look at this, today it’s worth $150,000. We’re going to refinance it. We’ll get that $50,000 and we’ll put it in our pockets and wait for it to turn to $200,000 and then we’ll renegotiate the mortgage again.” So, there was a kind of buffer and that buffer disappeared in 2008.

MW: Donald Trump may have been a catalyst for the Alt-Right’s growth but what do key figures in the movement, like Richard Spencer, the person credited with creating the term Alt-Right, really think of the president?

LR: Well, people like Spencer, the ideologically committed leadership of the Alt-Right, for them Trump was a vehicle rather than their ultimate goal. Trump put them on the map because they coincided around immigrants and political correctness etc. But there was no expectation that he was going to be the historic leader who would lead to a white nationalist triumph in this country.

Let’s take Steve Bannon. He went to the White House and was, it was a strange phrase, the CEO of Donald Trump’s electoral campaign in its last two-and-a-half months. There are things that Bannon liked about Trump and things where they didn’t match. For example, the great triumph of the Republicans in power, and promoted by Republican party and people like Paul Ryan, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, were tax cuts. That is the single noteworthy legislative achievement. It’s a very regressive tax package which reduced the top-rates for income earners from 39% to 35%. Steve Bannon wanted the rate to go up from 39% to 44%. So, Alt-Right politics at the level of the economy was not in lock-step with the Trump administration. The Trump economic advisors were very much along the lines of this kind of free-market conservatism as opposed to what Steve Bannon used to call “populist nationalism” or “economic nationalism”. Where that economic nationalism has sustained itself so far in the Trump administration is around trade. So, there are people like Peter Navarro, who is a kind of one-off economist, there were not a lot of economists in this country like Peter Navarro, he and a guy called Steve Miller are running the trade and immigration policies in the Trump administration. Those are good from the point of view of the Alt-Right. Whereas things around taxes and the presence of so many people, so many veterans of things like Goldman Sachs, do not follow from the projected policies of the Alt-Right.

MW: You’ve talked quite a bit about the difference already but I’m quite intrigued by what the Alt-Right vision would be for America versus a more traditional Republican vision for America as it stands right now.

LR: The outstanding things are economics and free-trade, foreign policy based on the settlements emerging from World War Two (such as The United Nations, The European Union, trade agreements, international trade agreements which the Republican Party has always stood for) – that would go.

And the Republican Party has been very much against the welfare state in this country. The strongest advocates of “free-market economics” in the Republican Party aim at getting rid of things like social security and Medicare (social security goes back to the 1930s in this country). However, the Alt-Right, the rank and file, are not particularly interested in all that. That’s another place economically they are very different than orthodox Republicanism and even extreme free-market conservatism, such as the politics associated with the Koch brothers, who are big financiers of right-wing politics. But it’s a very different right-wing politics eg on foreign policy, no entanglements particularly interested in America being the policemen of the world, things like the United Nations are regarded as assaults on American sovereignty. So, on both foreign policy grounds and economic grounds they are very different.

On the cultural issues, the Alt-Right takes Republican orthodoxy to an extreme, and it’s a racial extreme which the Republican party has been at pains to have, at least, deniability on race questions. One can argue that Republican politics have had racial bias threaded through them for decades but in terms of the rhetoric you will not get it. The head of the Republicans in the Senate for many years was a guy called Trent Lott from Mississippi. He lost his leadership because he talked about an old Senator from the segregation days called Strom Thurmond who was in the Senate until he was about 100. When he died, Trent Lott said things like, “Well, if we had listened to Strom Thurmond we wouldn’t be here today.” And that was enough to get him bounced from his leadership. Contrast that to the explicit white politics of the Alt-Right and you have a difference. Many would argue that the Republican party has a mask over the racism but at least there was a mask. Now there is no more mask.

Maxwell Ward: If Trump failed to deliver on some of those key ideals that you’ve mentioned, is there a plausible liberal, democratic campaign that could be run to appeal to these fringe groups, do you believe?

Dr Lawrence Rosenthal: You’re raising the question of what happens when it turns out that Donald Trump does not bring the jobs back and Obamacare gave them something which now is being taken away. What happens when those scales come down? One question is whether the cultural half of support for Donald Trump is sufficient? One bellwether of that is the astounding continued support of American evangelical Christians for Donald Trump. They have been a significant force in American politics at least since the 1990s and their politics is in part is holier than thou. Democrats are libertines and so forth. But here you’ve got Donald Trump, the pussy-grabber, the Stormy Daniels guy – and he doesn’t lose support among evangelical Christians. There have been almost theological explanations of, “This is who God delivered to take us to the promised land. Sometimes God sends the strangest messengers”. So, you get kinds of things like that. But what happens when the rank-and-file of the Alt-Right says, “We’re not getting what this guy wanted to give us”. It’s not a given that Evangelicals are going to abandon Trump, the very premises for their politics going back to the evolution trials, The Scopes trials, of the 1920s. Their response is to find a way to continue to accommodate Trump in spite of his transgressions.

So, you’re asking if the kind of wonderful, fantastical ideal of the Democratic left, the left of the Democratic Party, a version of left-wing populism a la Bernie Sanders will be the thing that will appeal to these people once they’ve been disillusioned by Trump politics. To that I say, well, maybe! I don’t see any basis on which to say that’s what’s going to happen. It is plausible. There’s no doubt that it’s plausible. It would be a change, in the sense of moving from a kind of expressive politics on the part of the Alt-Right, where we get to say, “Up Yours!” to every establishment to a more interest-based, rational-based politics. And that might happen. But we know very well that the expressive politics has an enormous power and that’s what happened in 2016. Can there be that transformation? Sure, it’s possible.

What would have to happen in order for that to take place would be, I assume, more than anything else, a combination of Democratic organising at the very lowest levels, what we call the “grassroots” here, things like schoolboards, running for schoolboards; running for local judgeships and things like that. Winning at that level. And at the national level the emergence of a leader who can capture the imagination of these people, which Hillary Clinton most certainly was not.

MW: Are there any things that you think American politics has learnt, or anything that, looking forward, we could predict about the Alt-Right?

LR: The Alt-Right isn’t doing well. Post Charlottesville is has run aground and, to some extent, what that suggests is the racial quality of Alt-Right politics, the spectacle of Charlottesville, has alienated a great deal of the American population. Also, the idea that it was called the “Unite the Right” rally. And it also had this quality of… let’s call it the militias of the various groups that came together. In part, it was about uniting the militias and that has all fallen apart. That didn’t work. There was a hope, and the strategy of the Alt-Right was there would be, in effect, fighting on the streets in the U.S. That image which is taken from the 20s and 30s and Weimar and things of that nature, explicitly on the part of people like Richard Spencer… I’m not putting those words in his mouth, those are his words. That hasn’t panned out as they thought it would so what might resurrect their fortunes depends on racial politics in this country and also depends on things like war, declaring a new national enemy and going to war, which would energise these people and so forth.

So I would say the hard Alt-right alternative has run aground. But whether the sort of Steve Bannon based Alt-Right, what he calls “populist nationalism”, which is basically that his strategy of an electoral coalition of the type that that succeeded in the Trump 2016 election becomes a kind of permanent electoral force in American politics, the successor to the American Tea Party, is another question. He perceives himself as the leader of that, so will he succeed at holding it together, because it, also, is running into hard times based on the Democratic party’s performance in all of the elections since November 2016. In the elections of November 2018, which are called the Mid-terms, every member of the House of Representatives has to run (it is every two years) and a large number of Senators will be elected in 2018. If there is a strong Democratic wave, that will be a significant defeat for things like Steve Bannon politics and Alt-Right politics.

MW: Could it be the end of the Alt-Right, do you think?

LR: The Alt-Right is never going to go away. Think about the fact that KKK, neo-Nazi politics have managed to exist and be passed down for decades in an atomised way. So, the glory of 2016 might go away, it might diminish, but the Alt-Right is not going away. The real question is, does it go away from the mainstream? Does it cease to be a force in national elections. For it to go away is going to be difficult because it has established itself in media. It has established itself in things like Breitbart news. It has established itself in television, internet, radio. Because of that we will never return to pre-2016. The Alt-Right will continue in its dedicated media.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please also try Kill All Normies. Angela Nagle talks to Alex Burd about how the Alt-Right, a movement rooted in online and video game culture, came to be so influential.

Photo by Anthony Crider: “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville August 2017. Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags.

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