This piece is adapted from The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know, by George Hawley, December 2019, Oxford University Press, 264 pages.
The Alt-Right will continue to be the subject of books and articles for the foreseeable future. As the most effective recent manifestation of white nationalism in the United States, it warrants serious and sober analysis. It may, however, be time to start discussing the Alt-Right in the past tense. To be clear, the extreme right continues to exist, and racist and anti-Semitic violence remains a horrific threat. I fear we will see more violence from people radicalized in the near future. Nevertheless, the Alt-Right movement (to the degree it ever was a movement) is no longer gaining ground. At this point, it is worth assessing where the Alt-Right fits in the history of the openly racist right, and how it differed from its ideological predecessors.
As the Alt-Right was growing, people in the movement often discussed what they derisively called “White Nationalism 1.0.” The term refers to those white nationalist groups and individuals that were active in the late 20th century and the first years of the 21st century.
The Alt-Right used that term mockingly because those groups were ineffective to the point of hurting their own cause. They had a deserved reputation for violence and had little to offer well-adjusted white Americans. Those groups were known for their constant infighting, and their leaders attempted to attract cult-like followings. In some cases, those white nationalists formed literal religious cults.
In its early days, when it was still almost entirely online, the Alt-Right mostly sought to create distance between itself and groups like the American Nazi Party and its successors—although there were differences of opinion on this subject within the Alt-Right. The Alt-Right briefly succeeded in creating a brand that appealed to some people not on the margins of society. By the end of 2016, however, the more radical elements of the Alt-Right seemed to have gained the upper hand, and it became less conspicuously different from earlier white nationalist movements.
When I first examined the Alt-Right, I viewed it as a new phenomenon, one representing a break from its extreme right ancestors despite promoting a similar ideology. In hindsight, the distinctiveness of the Alt-Right becomes less obvious. Most commentators note that the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which turned deadly, was the moment the Alt-Right became viewed as just another Ku Klux Klan or National Alliance.
In this regard, the Alt-Right has followed a similar trajectory as its antecedents. For the extreme right, a reputation for violence is usually self-defeating. After the Oklahoma City bombing, the militia movement stopped making gains. When members of racist groups engaged in violence in the 1980s and 1990s, their organizations were sued to the point of oblivion. Lawsuits, even when unsuccessful, are one of the more effective tactics against the extreme right, as they sap the resources of groups already operating on shoestring budgets. The Alt-Right has discovered this over the last year.
But even in its salad days, when the Alt-Right was mostly a trollish Internet subculture, it was already mimicking many of its predecessors’ methods, perhaps inadvertently.
In its online discourse, the Alt-Right often presented its racism in an ironic manner, raising questions about its sincerity. It was not always clear if an Alt-Right supporter spreading a racist or anti-Semitic message was being genuine or just saying outrageous things for shock value. Many of the young men posting images of Swastikas and gas chambers online appeared more interested in breaking society’s ultimate taboos than in making genuine threats.
At times, elements of the Alt-Right presented themselves as edgy right-wing court jesters, rather than serious ideologues. This provided an element of plausible deniability about the movement’s radicalism. Such sensibilities allowed the Alt-Right to make inroads among young people who despised so-called political correctness, but who were otherwise not especially ideological.
This was not the case with many previous white nationalist figures like Ben Klassen of the Church of the Creator, William Pierce of the National Alliance, or Richard Butler of Aryan Nations; no reasonable person could question whether they meant every word they said. When Klassen called for a “racial holy war,” there was no question he was serious. Pierce wore his genocidal intentions on his sleeve.
We should nevertheless not overstate the originality of the Alt-Right’s strategies when it comes to tone and messaging. Far right groups have engaged in similar behavior, even in the distant past. There was even a farcical aspect to the Reconstruction-era KKK.
Most people assume that Klan costumes were intended to intimidate others and hide the identities of individual members. However, there was another reason for the Klan’s performative elements. According to historian Elaine Frantz Parsons, the absurd nature of the Klan’s costumes and titles served another purpose: “Klansmen had everything to gain by encouraging northerners to read their attacks as theatrical, rather than political or military.” Although the KKK’s white robes are well remembered, Klansmen sometimes dressed in women’s clothes while persecuting former slaves. Parsons also noted that the original KKK was “intimately entwined with, and completely dependent on, contemporary popular cultural forms and institutions.”
Some 20th century white nationalist groups also embraced shocking humor and theatricality. George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party was the son of a vaudeville comedian, and he promoted a variety of racial hatred so extreme that people could question whether he was serious. Rockwell drove his small entourage of men in brown shirts in a Volkswagen van with the words “Hate Bus” written conspicuously on the outside, and he created a small record label called “Hatenanny Records.” Rockwell’s ostentatious extremism, grandiose statements (he expressed total confidence that he would soon be elected president of the United States), and use of absurd imagery and slogans brought his tiny movement more attention that it would have otherwise earned.
There was a logic to Rockwell’s behavior. Before he put on the Swastika armband, he was just a racist former naval officer. When he put it on, he was a magnet for reporters. He was national news, and the media largely did his work for him—despite denouncing him in every article. His unhinged persona earned him a national platform. Rockwell eventually planned to ditch the outrageous clothes and slogans, put on a tie, and use his new fame to enter the national discussion on race. The first step, however, was to manipulate the media into making him a household name.
Whether Rockwell’s plan could have succeeded in the end is impossible to know. He was murdered in Arlington, Virginia, by a disgruntled former supporter in 1967. As many other white nationalist groups subsequently discovered, these kinds of organizations tend to attract dangerous and unstable people.
Today’s Alt-Right’s relationship with the media mirrors Rockwell’s. By being outrageous to the point of absurdity, it earned a deluge of coverage from mainstream venues. Although this coverage was almost universally negative, it did bring the movement a massive amount of attention that it could not have earned on its own. Like Rockwell, however, the Alt-Right never figured out how to translate media attention into real mass support, and it was hamstrung by its most dysfunctional supporters.
Despite these similarities, it would be a mistake to say that the contemporary Alt-Right is a mere continuation of the older white nationalist movement in the United States. Many of the most prominent Alt-Right figures were clearly aware of white nationalism’s history, but this was not true of many of the movement’s adherents. As a mostly young movement, the typical Alt-Right supporter had no memory of David Duke’s serious political campaigns, nor did he remember the days when Aryan Nations, the National Alliance, or the Church of the Creator were viewed as serious threats.
The Alt-Right has differed from its predecessors in another obvious way: their preferred candidate was elected president of the United States. There are reasons to question the significance of this, however. As much as the Alt-Right wanted to claim that they were responsible for President Trump’s victory, I have seen no compelling evidence that this is true. Further, the Alt-Right has been mostly disappointed in the Trump presidency. In terms of policy, the Trump Administration has mostly promoted generic conservatism, and Trump’s breaks from tradition were more rhetorical than substantive. As of this writing, most people who still wear the label of Alt-Right express frustration, if not contempt, for President Trump.
Eventually, the Alt-Right will probably be viewed as just another brief flare-up of the extreme right, momentarily capturing the public’s attention. As was the case for its predecessors, a well-organized opposition and a series of its own mistakes brought down the Alt-Right’s fledgling organizations. It is worth studying because its more effective methods will undoubtedly be used again. The extreme right will probably always exist, and it remains to be seen what shape it will take in the future. Perhaps its next iteration will be more successful, but the Alt-Right’s moment has come and gone.
George Hawley is assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama. He is also the author of five scholarly books, including, The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know and Making Sense of the Alt-Right. Hawley’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New York Daily News, and Foreign Affairs.