Rise of the Alt-Right
Twenty-one years ago I was assigned by Commentary to write about Jared Taylor—today known as one of the eminences of the “alt-right.” Taylor had written a grim book on American race relations, Paved With Good Intentions, which had been published by a mainstream house and was widely, if critically, reviewed. Though unusually skeptical about the prospect of blacks and whites living together harmoniously in the United States, it stopped well short of any systematically racist argument. The book had several fans among New Yorkers I knew prominent in journalism and city politics.
When I referred to it in passing in a New York Post column, we quickly received a fax from Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League stating that Taylor was far more extremist than I had let on. Curious to explore further, I queried Commentary—where I then did most of my non-newspaper writing—and they were interested.
I interviewed Taylor, read back issues of his monthly newsletter, American Renaissance (AR), and drafted a piece. AR was devoted primarily to demonstrating that in American history racism was as accepted as apple pie and that this was by no means a bad thing. It contained large doses of the evolutionary and biological racial thought fairly commonplace amongst American elites in the ’20s and ’30s. A central contention was that the United States could not thrive as an increasingly multiracial and multicultural country and that American whites were facing a kind of cultural dispossession.
I summarized this, quoting liberally, and concluded that the endgame vision of the AR crowd was potentially horrific, leading to national dissolution or civil war, while adding that continued mass immigration really would put the common culture of America under grave stress. If immigration rates went down, Taylor and AR would remain fringe players. If they rose, white racial anxieties would bubble to the surface, and Taylor might one day have his moment.
The piece was never published: Neal Kozodoy, Commentary’s editor, told me I had indulged Taylor too much and asked for a shorter, tighter rewrite. By then my brief summer vacation had ended, other tasks intervened, and I eventually lost interest.
Jared Taylor’s moment has not arrived, but clearly he has edged into the national conversation. He has been pictured and quoted in an anti-Trump attack ad produced by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he has been a guest on Diane Rehm’s show on NPR, and his core ideas have been broadcast—and excoriated—in magazines and websites great and small. He is now touted as one of the intellectual leaders of the alt-right, a diffuse movement of uncertain significance, but one deemed sufficiently important by the Clinton campaign for Hillary to devote a large portion of an August campaign speech to it. Donald Trump—who has almost surely never read a single article by an alt-right figure—is claimed by Clinton and other liberals to be under its influence and propagating its doctrines.
The truth is quite different: parts of the alt-right have raised their own visibility by attaching themselves to Trump. At the same time, Trump and his unanticipated success in winning the Republican nomination are symptoms of the same political and civilizational crisis that makes alt-rightish themes—at least in a more or less bowdlerized and soft-core form—compelling to a growing number of people.
Taylor, 65, is old by alt-right standards, and is an atypical representative, though just how much so is difficult to discern, for much of the alt-right is anonymous. The movement fields no candidates, publishes few books or pamphlets. It is a creature of the web, strongest on Twitter. Pepe, an internet cartoon frog, is an alt-right character—and has actually been formally denounced by the Clinton campaign. Alt-right internet trolling, sometimes ugly, blatantly racist and anti-Semitic, is also part of the movement. There is some debate whether it should be taken as an offensive and unfunny joke—merry keyboard pranksters who enjoy pretending to be internet neo-Nazis, rather like punk rock bands of the late ’70s deploying Nazi imagery for shock effect—or is something more sinister, a genuine resurgence of hardcore racism and anti-Semitism. Likely it’s more the former, but it’s also likely that the alt-right banner has given the minute number of genuine neo-Nazis in the country a kind of protective shield.
Richard Spencer may serve as a bridge between older white nationalists such as Taylor and a younger alt-right internet crowd. It’s mistaken to call him or anyone else a leader—the movement has no procedure for choosing leaders—but he is clearly a pole of influence. He’s an intellectual entrepreneur who arrived in DC roughly ten years ago from a Duke graduate program. He worked at TAC for seven or eight months, where he was kind of a square peg in a round hole. Sometime thereafter his ideology began to crystallize. He started a website called AlternativeRight.com and later revitalized a white-nationalist think tank, the National Policy Institute, and launched a journal, Radix.
Spencer can be engaging and amusing, but his core doctrine is likely to remain, barring some sort of Mad Max-type Armageddon, well outside what most Americans would consider plausible or desirable.
What is the doctrine? At a recent press conference in DC, Spencer explained that the core of alt-right thought is race. Race is real, race matters, race is foundational to human identity. You cannot understand who you are without race. Many people would agree—at least privately or partially—with the first two assertions, but the third is the critical one, and has never been true historically or sociologically. (Not that there haven’t been groups of self-proclaimed pan-Asian or pan-African intellectuals who sought to make it true. Spencer fits into their tradition.) In any case, Spencer hopes somehow to spur whites into a kind of pan-white racial consciousness and galvanize them to become “aware of who we are,” and to prepare themselves, one day somehow, to form a white ethnostate. He refers to Theodore Herzl’s propagation of Zionism as a model for how such an ethnostate, seemingly a distant dream, could be eventually achieved. He fails to add that it took a Holocaust to make a Jewish State a reality.
An argument Jared Taylor and other white nationalists make is that whites choose to live amongst their own given the opportunity. Church congregations self-segregate by race, whites flee black-dominated cities to white suburbs, etc. There is something to this, but an equally important part of reality is that, left to their own devices, people intermarry. Roughly 15 percent of American marriages are now between people of different races, the greatest portion between whites and Latinos and whites and Asians. Offspring of the racially intermarried may soon constitute the country’s largest “minority” group. So too with Jews, usually treated by white nationalists as an irredeemably separate entity: their rising intermarriage rates have for decades been an anxious obsession for Jewish communal leaders. Americans sometimes self-segregate, sometimes intermarry, sometimes neither. Spencer likes to present himself as a bearer of profound and inescapable sociobiological truths, realities that political correctness denies and seeks to suppress, but the evidence for his core assertions is ambiguous or non-existent. Real estate prices rise in multicultural Brooklyn, stagnate in white rural Connecticut.
Prior to last fall, and before Hillary introduced the alt-right to a national audience, Spencer and Taylor held periodic conferences that could gather perhaps 200 people. (These were often held under shameful harassment by the leftist anti-First Amendment crowd, but that’s a different issue.) Spencer says he sees the alt-right as a vehicle that will influence politicians and intellectuals, taking as its model neoconservatism. But the differences with neoconservatism are vast. In terms of intellectual accomplishment and range of expertise, the roster of contributors to Commentary and The Public Interest in the 1970s compares to the alt-right like a contemporary version of the ’27 Yankees to, at most, a decent college team. This gap could probably be narrowed somewhat, and in Europe there are alt-rightish figures of genuine intellectual eminence. But in contrast to its post-Cold War advocacy of aggressive and militaristic foreign policies, brought to disastrous fruition in the George W. Bush administration, neoconservatism’s domestic views were center-right and not especially radical. They were more often a commonsense reaction to the excesses of a seemingly pervasive ’60s-era left liberalism. The hardcore alt-right, on the other hand, has genuinely radical aims, which would be overwhelmingly rejected if its core perspectives were more widely known.
Yet Hillary Clinton and her campaign would not devote an entire speech to linking Trump to a shibboleth. When Steve Bannon, former head of the popular website Breitbart who now co-chairs the Trump campaign, describes Breitbart as an “alt-right” platform, he certainly isn’t thinking of advocacy for a white ethnostate. Milo Yiannopoulos—a popular campus speaker and political provocateur (British, flamboyantly gay, funny) who coauthored one of the first and most complimentary long-form articles about the alt-right—did not bother to mention a white state as a goal. For many who consider themselves alt-rightish, or alt-right sympathizers, who participate actively or passively in alt-right Twitter, this is not a significant omission. The surge in curiosity about the alt-right—Clinton claimed in her speech that some alt-right websites had seen their traffic increase a thousand fold—has virtually nothing to do with a rise in hardcore white nationalism. Which raises the question of what does drive the rise, and why is it happening now?
The alt-right was obscure until the summer of 2015. The first mention of the term in the New York Times came at the end of last year, around the same time as a long piece in BuzzFeed. The BuzzFeed article explored such aspects of alt-right culture as the Pepe the Frog character and the emergence of the resonant term “cuckservative.” With its etymological links to “cuckold” and “cuckoo bird,” “cuck” was a term for that kind of establishment conservative who, wittingly or not, devotes his resources and energy to nurturing other people’s children at the expense of his own. By December “cuckservative” had become sufficiently mainstream for Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan to use the term on the air.
What spurred this sudden emergence? It was not white-nationalist conferences or doctrine, which had been around forever, but events. Last year the West received a nasty high-voltage shock of political reality. The first jolt was the Charlie Hebdo attack in January. France had experienced jihadist murders before, but this time, the strike came in the center of Paris, and France was alarmed to find no small amount of support for the killing among its five million Muslim residents, many of them second- and third-generation citizens.
That spring and summer, European newspapers began to fill with reports of intensifying migrant and refugee flows, driven partially by the Syrian civil war and partially by the expansion and streamlining of people-smuggling routes from Africa. The rescue of boats overflowing with African and North African migrants in the Mediterranean became a regular feature of European news. Finally, in the last week of August, Angela Merkel announced that Germany was open to migrants and refugees, and soon television viewers the world over saw long columns of mostly young men—from Syria, from Pakistan, from Afghanistan—marching into Europe. Because of Merkel and generous social benefits, the liberal northern social democracies were the preferred destination, and they were initially welcoming.
By 2016 the welcome had grown cold. Hundreds of migrants sexually assaulted German women in and around the central train station of Cologne on New Year’s Eve, a mass assault that German authorities initially tried to cover up. It was subsequently reported that a similar assault had taken place at a music festival in Sweden in 2014. It became evident that Angela Merkel’s welcoming policies had thrown into sharp relief a cultural clash between European and Muslim social norms. Over a million new migrants entered Germany in 2015, and an equal number has done so this year—exceeding the number of German births by several hundred thousand.
If the sexual assaults could be seen as the cultural edge of the migrant surge, it was more difficult for even liberal “anti-racist” European leaders to ignore or explain away the terrorism aspect. The Charlie Hebdo attack was followed by the mass slaughters at the Bataclan theater in Paris, at the Brussels Airport, then on a seaside promenade in Nice, culminating in the execution by knife of an aging French priest by two “assimilated” Muslim migrants in his church outside of Rouen. In many of these cases it was reported that though the perpetrators were already on various terrorism watch lists, the French security service—a tough-minded and far from liberal organization—simply lacked sufficient manpower to monitor those who had shown signs of potentially being terrorists. There were too many of them.
One could interpret this alarming new reality in various ways: The Economist, probably the preeminent English-language voice of the European Davos class and political establishment, put Merkel on its cover as “the Indispensable European,” praising her for “boldly upholding European values” with her migrant policies in the fall of 2015. Voters, gradually shifting allegiance to the anti-immigrant parties of the far right, did not agree. Gilles Kepel—a highly respected, politically centrist French expert on Islam—raised the possibility that terrorism and the new migration would send the country into civil war. An aborted civil war formed the background to Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, a number-one bestseller in France. Richard Spencer may be incorrect about America, but one remark from his press conference in DC last month was arresting:
The refugee crisis in Europe is something like a world war. It is in many ways a race war. In terms of direct violence it does not resemble World War I or II. It is a demographic struggle, a struggle for identity, a struggle of who is going to define the continent, period. It is a new kind of war, a postmodern war, a war through immigration. There are no trenches, no guns. But it is a world war.
Of course, it is not primarily a race war. Religion, or religious culture, plays a major and perhaps decisive role in the conflict, and conflict between Christendom and Islam is not new by any means. Still, there is something in the bluntness of Spencer’s depiction that rings more true than 90 percent of what appears in the American media, which invariably depicts the refugee crisis in humanitarian terms and terrorism as a barely related law-enforcement issue. It is surely not a coincidence that the alt-right began making strides into American consciousness precisely at the moment Muslims were surging into Europe as refugees, while others were blowing up Parisian rock concerts or mounting mass sexual assaults on European women.
In Europe, at least, such stark descriptions of what is taking place are no longer found only on the far right. Consider the response of Pierre Manent, one of France’s most renowned liberal intellectuals, formerly an associate of Raymond Aron, to the slaughter last July of 85-year-old Catholic priest Jacques Hamel outside Rouen:
The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way. … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet. … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity.
Whatever one might say about the alt-right, it is not perplexed. Few other political factions in America had a vocabulary ready for—or even made an effort to interpret seriously—what was going on in Europe, at a time when many people were seeking one.
One can ask, of course, what do rapes in Cologne or terror in France have to do with “exceptional” America? Yet for more than a century, most educated Americans have been conscious of their cultural and civilizational ties to Europe. In some cases that may be a residue of past immigrant ties, but there is more. The American establishment—virtually none of it of French ethnic origin—reacted viscerally to Hitler’s occupation of Paris in 1940 in ways it did not to the Rape of Nanking. President Roosevelt found increasing leeway in public opinion and in Congress to inch a previously isolationist country toward an intervention to free Europe from Nazism. European civilization is the fount of our own. These are themes that alt-rightish Twitter understands and uses. Donald Trump understands it too: he is the only American politician who has openly criticized Angela Merkel and regularly evokes European problems with immigration.
American developments in the fall of last year, while less critical than those in Europe, also spurred the alt-right. The rise of Black Lives Matter put into question one of the outstanding domestic-policy advances of the past generation, the dramatic reduction in urban crime rates, which has made possible the revitalization of many cities. The lie which held that America’s police forces were chock full of marauding racist murderers suddenly became mainstream, repeated endlessly on television and pushed in only slightly more subtle fashion by Obama’s own attorney general. Meanwhile, some urban neighborhoods were looted by rioters, and others saw dramatic spikes in their murder rates.
At the same time, one American college campus after another was roiled by demonstrations over issues that seemed largely incomprehensible to most Americans. Video circulated of dozens of black Yale students surrounding a professor and demanding his firing because his wife had written an email suggesting Yale had better things to do than police student Halloween costumes. (He and his wife both subsequently resigned their positions.) Virtually every American politician responded to these disruptions by heading for the tall grass. One hardly needed to be a white nationalist to sense that something at once absurd and menacing was afoot.
On some issues, establishment liberal opinion had moved so far to the left as to be unrecognizable. As blogger Steve Sailer noted, in 2000 the New York Times editorial page opposed amnesty for illegal aliens both because it would encourage more illegal immigration and because it would have deleterious effects on the employment and wages of lower-income native-born Americans. Sixteen years later, when Trump suggested that the core of immigration policy should be concern for its impact on the well-being of Americans, he was denounced as a raving bigot by the same New York Times.
It was predictable that such developments, touching on visceral areas of personal security, national sovereignty, and freedom of expression, would stir desire for a muscular response. Donald Trump filled the bill, if not always eloquently. So too, occasionally, did segments of the more established conservative media. But there was a market for a pushback as scathing and polemically unafraid as the left’s own polemicists, which might not have been the case four years earlier. This, as much as anything, accounts for the emergence of the alt-right, at least in its less ideologically extreme iterations.
There is ample reason to interpret Trump’s success as a nationalist pushback against globalism, as part of a political pattern one sees in Europe as well. But there is another structural dynamic to Trumpism, as deeply rooted as nationalism and far more significant than the controversies that drive daily campaign coverage. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, published 20 years ago, is that rare book that seems more obviously correct and relevant today than when it first came out. Clash was often mistakenly interpreted as a call to arms against Islam, but it was not: it was an effort to map the structure of world politics in the wake of the Cold War, an attempt which saw that the major fault lines were no longer between nation-states nor between alliances of states based on ideology. They were between civilizations—Islam, the West, East Asia, and so on. Huntington’s book was a guide advising the United States how to navigate this new kind of world, where civilizations rubbed up against each other all the time as never before in history.
Huntington warned about getting involved in other civilizations’ internal conflicts, and he opposed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He also disdained the West’s, and especially America’s, pretention to be the bearer of universal values. Other civilizations may have envied and hoped to emulate and acquire the West’s material success, its science, its gadgets, its weaponry. But in the main, they have never aspired to become Western and to embrace such qualities as the West’s pluralism, its separation of church and state, its Christianity, its rule of law, its celebration of individualism.
About certain aspects of his analysis Huntington was honestly uncertain: Latin America, for instance, could be seen as part of Western civilization or as separate, affiliated with the West but not of it. Latin Americans, Huntington noted, are themselves divided on the question. The answer to that question, however nuanced, has weighty consequences: it is obviously easier for the United States to assimilate—that is, make into Westerners—Mexican immigrants than it is for Europe to assimilate Muslims in any serious numbers.
Because Trump has embraced immigration restriction; because Europe is clearly floundering under the weight of terrorism and a massive and potentially unending migrant surge; because a previous American president destabilized the Middle East by launching an invasion justified, in part, by claiming that the region would welcome having American values imposed upon it at gunpoint—because of all this, the 2016 election, unlike any before, is being held on Huntington’s turf.
And though Huntington was a famous and deeply respected Harvard political scientist and a life-long Democrat, the concerns of Clash are those raised implicitly by Trump and explicitly by what I call the soft-core elements of the alt-right. There is, of course, much racism in American history, and there are enormous crimes for which Europe continues to strive to atone. But neither anti-racism nor respect for other cultures should be turned into a national or civilizational suicide pact. Here what Irving Kristol famously wrote about Sen. Joseph McCarthy comes to mind: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he like them is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”
In the now global faceoff between Western civilization versus mass immigration fused with multiculturalism, Kristol’s words describe with uncanny accuracy the dichotomy between Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and those most feverishly denouncing him on the other. Among the former, for all their faults, are those who want, unequivocally, Western civilization to survive. About the latter, no such thing is certain.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.