On Saturday 19 November 2016, less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, the National Policy Institute held its annual conference in Washington DC. Ordinarily an obscure talking shop noticed by no-one, this year the mood among the 200 or so attendees was buoyant and the event had attracted a handful of curious journalists and angry protesters. Trump’s populist campaign had energized a political fringe tendency now known as the alt-right (or ‘alternative right’), and the NPI’s director Richard Spencer had enjoyed some exposure as one of movement’s more articulate spokesmen.
But the alt-right was still, on the whole, an unknown quantity. Media interest during the election had been fitful as attention focused on Trump’s pugnacious and apparently chaotic campaign. If the movement was understood at all, it was generally thought to be an epiphenomenon; a strange byproduct of the Trump candidacy and a racist internet subculture, notorious for the harassment campaigns it directed against anti-Trump conservatives and Jewish journalists on social media. As for alt-right ideology, if such a thing existed it remained largely unexamined and obscure.
The NPI conference altered this perception overnight but not in a particularly helpful way. In excerpts of his keynote address released by The Atlantic, Spencer referred to the American media using the term lügenpresse and toasted Trump’s victory as a number of attendees leapt to their feet as threw up Nazi salutes. “To be White,” Spencer informed slack-jawed viewers…
…is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer, and a conqueror. We build. We produce. We go upward. And we recognize the central lie of American race relations: We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us and not the other way around.
A stupefied press and public, many of whom had never heard of the alt-right before, stared at this ghoulish spectacle and concluded that the well-spoken young man in the gray three-piece suit and peculiar 1930s haircut must be an unreconstructed fascist. “Richard Spencer,” observed Commentary editor John Podhoretz, “sounds like Chris Eigeman if The Last Days of Disco were a movie about a fucking Nazi piece of shit.”
This kind of reaction was understandable, but it left Spencer and other writers and activists on the alt-right bemused. Surely, they wondered, it was obvious to these humorless idiots that Spencer’s use of the Nazis’ term for ‘lying press’ was a deliberate provocation. Did they not realise that the alt-right revelled in effrontery, and that what they called ‘Roman’ salutes were just expressions of “post-election exuberance”? That a fascist contingent was present at the conference is not really disputable. That its presence might not be an especially useful guide to the alt-right, and that Spencer’s gloating peroration was partly designed to antagonise mainstream eavesdroppers, was not afforded much consideration.
Misunderstandings are inevitable when marginal subcultures are abruptly exposed to mass media attention. For obvious reasons, when that subculture comes from the political far-Right, it is even less likely to benefit from charitable inquiry. Appalled observers peering through the keyhole were in no mood to parse fine distinctions between the alt-right and neo-Nazi fellow travellers, or between earnest racism and ironic fascism, and neither Spencer nor any other alt-right figure was in a particular hurry to clear up the confusion. As the science fiction writer and alt-right activist Vox Day had already bluntly explained in a makeshift statement of principles: “The alt-right doesn’t care what you think of it.”
So misapprehensions have been allowed to proliferate. Contrary to popular assumption, this is not a new movement. It was not always known as the alt-right, and its messaging and stratagems have evolved over time, but its ideology long predates and will outlast the Trump presidency. In the meantime, Trump’s demagogic rhetoric on ‘globalism’, immigration, and Islam has made him a magnet for those sympathetic to alt-right ideology, and some of these people retain senior posts in his administration. If the growing influence of their ideas is to be resisted, then the provenance of those ideas and the conditions that have facilitated their dissemination and growing appeal need to be better understood.
* * *
At its core, the alt-right is an ethnonationalist movement – nativist, isolationist, protectionist, populist, socially illiberal, and frequently antisemitic. Its adherents would probably also agree to the term ‘racist’ if it could be stripped of its pejorative connotations. Since that’s not possible, they prefer descriptors like ‘race realist’ or ‘identitarian’. Radical racial nationalism is hardly a new idea, of course. Black Nationalism has long been a familiar part of America’s political landscape and, as far as the alt-right’s adherents are concerned, their White variant is no different.
Asked to explain his beliefs in a way that would be comprehensible to his opponents, Jared Taylor, editor and founder of the White Nationalist publication American Renaissance, replied in the form of a question:
If it is perfectly natural and normal for Hispanics to prefer the company of other Hispanics, and to take pride in their heritage and accomplishments, or if it is perfectly natural and normal for Blacks, or Asians, or any other group to take pride in their accomplishments and to prefer to be around people like themselves, then why is it wrong only for Whites? We take it for granted that the Japanese have the right to preserve a Japanese society. We take it for granted that Israel has the right to maintain a Jewish state. Why is it wrong for the French to maintain a French state? It’s only a matter of fairness.
This preoccupation with racial identity is frequently misdescribed as a reaction to the politics of the Left. In fact, the alt-right’s ethnonationalism is a product of independent convictions about the determinative power of race, and its activists and theorists devote a good deal of time and energy to organizing for the purposes of advancing specifically White interests and redressing perceived grievances.
As Taylor’s passing reference to Israel indicates, White Nationalists tend to be ambivalent about Jews. They pay frequent lip service to Zionism as a successful movement of ethnic self-determination they seek to emulate, and there is an ongoing debate about whether or not Ashkenazi Jews qualify as ‘White’ (a debate for which neo-Nazis, needless to say, have no patience). On the other hand, antisemitism’s spurious explanatory power and adaptable tropes have long been irresistible to grievance-based ideologies, and the alt-right is no exception. Conspiratorial fears about liberal Jewish influence in popular culture, foreign policy, and economics are widespread on the alt-right, and are particularly central to the writing of former psychology professor Kevin McDonald.
The difference between unreconstructed neo-Nazism and the alt-right’s brand of White Nationalism might seem insignificant, and it is certainly possible to make too much of it. These ideologies are not discrete; they exist on a spectrum of radical right-wing thought that also produced the American post-war neo-Nazi movement led by George Lincoln Rockwell, and distinctions can be hard to make with any clarity. Neo-Nazism is, after all, a kind of White Nationalism, similarly committed to a narrative of racial identity and victimhood. And while these are not people particularly interested in re-litigating the Second World War or disputing the historicity of the Holocaust, nor are they especially averse to associating with those who are. A governing doctrine of White solidarity necessarily subordinates all other ideological considerations.
But some distinctions are discernible, nonetheless. White Nationalists insist that they are separatists and cultural relativists rather than racial supremacists, and isolationists rather than imperialists. And while their websites and journals are given to trenchant and sometimes profoundly ugly polemics about immigration, crime, social policy, and race, they are not decorated with swastikas and Third Reich imagery, nor do they traffic in racial slurs or the valorization of Hitler.
Philosophers influential to fascist thought (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Evola et al) have certainly left their mark on the movement, and in a lengthy and valuable profile of his erstwhile classmate Richard Spencer for the Atlantic, American journalist Graeme Wood drew attention to some of these. But the alt-right is also the product of a separate political heritage that Wood leaves unexplored, and this occlusion passes over some of the movement’s most important intellectual forefathers. These come, not from Rockwell’s American Nazi Party and its neo-fascist descendants, but from a longstanding American tradition of paleoconservative nationalism.
The late Samuel T. Francis remains probably the most influential paleoconservative writer and thinker on the alt-right, both for his emphasis on White victimization and racial identity, and for his apparent indifference to the reputational price this emphasis exacted. His belief in the need for Whites to develop racial consciousness would become a central plank of the alt-right’s agenda, and his debt to the movement is acknowledged in a 2015 collection of alt-right essays, edited by Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried, and reverentially dedicated to Francis “on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his death.” Anyone looking to understand our reactionary political moment could do worse than revisit Francis’s writings. In particular, the essays he wrote for the Rockford Institute’s paleoconservative journal Chronicles about his friend Patrick Buchanan’s insurgent presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996 feel eerily prescient in retrospect.
Francis had been predicting a populist revolt against the political establishment since the 1980s, and in the Buchanan campaigns he detected the beginnings of this anticipated uprising. In his 1992 essay ‘The Buchanan Revolution’, Francis saluted the dawning of a “New Nationalism” – a forthright rejection of Jeffersonian universalism, characterized by immigration restriction, trade protection, and an ‘America First’ foreign policy, which he hoped would rescue Middle America from neoliberal catastrophe:
The themes of “America First” and the “Middle American Revolution” that Mr. Buchanan articulated appealed to a particular identity, embodied in the concepts of America as a nation with discrete national political and economic interests and of the Middle American stratum as the political, economic, and cultural core of the nation. In adopting such themes, Mr. Buchanan decisively broke with the universalist and cosmopolitan ideology that has been masquerading as conservatism and which has marched up and down the land armed with a variety of universalist slogans and standards: natural rights; equality as a conservative principle; the export of global democracy as the primary goal of American foreign policy; unqualified support for much of the civil rights agenda, unlimited immigration, and free trade; the defense of one version or another of “one-worldism”; enthusiastic worship of an abstract “opportunity” and unrestricted economic growth through acquisitive individualism; and the adulation of the purported patron saints of all these causes in the persons of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Buchanan’s adoption of such a radical platform, Francis complained, made it inevitable that he would be accused of “flirting with fascism” by the conservative media and GOP establishment. But this was only because, by privileging “the claims of the particular over those of the universal” Buchanan was speaking to Middle America in a language that cosmopolitan elites were not equipped to understand. Buchanan’s mission to arrest what he saw as the decline of the West and its civilisation did not yet share Francis’s stark emphasis on racial identity. Buchanan was an economic nationalist, not an ethnonationalist, more concerned with illegal immigration than any immigration, legal or otherwise, by non-Whites. But Buchanan’s campaigns gave voice to enough of Francis’s concerns that they excited his sense of the possible.
Sam Francis was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorialist at the Washington Times for nearly ten years. He was fired in disgrace in the autumn of 1995 when inflammatory remarks about race he had delivered a year earlier at Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance conference were belatedly reported in the press. Inter alia, Francis had mused that, “What I have called in some of my columns ‘Afro-Racism’ is the ideological and political apparatus by which an explicit race war is prepared against the White race and its civilization.”
Francis’s unceremonious ejection from the mainstream was typical of the fate that befell many other paleoconservative writers. Buchanan was himself accused of antisemitism in 1990 following televised remarks about Jewish influence on American Middle East policy, and a column challenging the claim that 850,000 Jews had been gassed with diesel fumes at Treblinka. In 1993, Joseph Sobran was fired from the National Review, again amid accusations of antisemitism. These he vehemently denied and then went on to confirm by appearing at conferences organized by David Irving and a notorious Holocaust denial outfit euphemistically known as the Institute of Historical Review.
Other paleoconservatives likewise found themselves marginalized by editors increasingly uneasy with their trenchant views on race and immigration. With the Cold War now over, the anti-Communist conservative coalition was starting to fracture. And so, having been turfed out of their jobs, and out of polite society, these writers began setting up their own publications and websites where they would be free to say what they wanted.
In 1990, Jared Taylor began publishing his American Renaissance magazine. In 1999, the former Forbes journalist and National Review columnist Peter Brimelow founded VDARE.com (named for the legend of the first English child born on American soil). In 2007, the co-founder of Patrick Buchanan’s paleoconservative American Conservative magazine, Taki Theodoracopulos, founded TakiMag. And in 2008, paleoconservative theorist Paul Gottfried and TakiMag’s then-executive editor Richard Spencer established the H. L. Mencken Club, a self-described forum for the “Independent Right . . . founded precisely because [the conservative] movement has suppressed open discussion and seems entirely beholden to corporate donors and Republican Party bosses.”
Like-minded writers and thinkers began to congregate around these nodes on the margins of the political Right; they wrote for one another’s publications, spoke at one another’s conferences, and appeared on one another’s podcasts. And in these fora they would fulminate about race-based affirmative action, the profligate futility of foreign aid and intervention, civil rights and immigration law, minority crime statistics, and the perceived denigration of Southern culture. They became particularly preoccupied with the debate about genetic determinism and human biodiversity which had been reignited in earnest by the 1994 publication of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s controversial monograph on IQ and social policy, The Bell Curve.
Persecution narratives are foundational to most radical ideologies, and this small collection of writers did not hesitate to take their exile to be a synecdoche for the broader victimization of American Whites. This view allowed grudging respect for their opponents on the Left, who had at least pursued their ideological goals with a single-minded sense of purpose, reprehensible though paleoconservatives found those goals to be. But for the political movement that had rejected them, they had nothing but unbridled contempt.
The conservatism of William F. Buckley and the National Review, they became fond of observing, “had conserved nothing.” Instead, it had accommodated and capitulated, and finally surrendered on every front in the culture wars. A particular hatred was reserved for the neoconservatives, who were not to be considered conservatives at all, but who had nevertheless succeeded in infiltrating, conquering, and neutering the Republican Party. If the Left’s doctrines of progressive humanism and cosmopolitan liberalism were now hegemonic, then this was held to be the fault of a decadent conservative establishment that lacked the courage and the resolve to oppose them.
In December of 2008, Paul Gottfried delivered a speech at the H. L. Mencken Club in which he assessed the ongoing project to organize an independent right-wing movement outside the establishment’s citadel. It was time, he declared, to try and learn from the successes of those he called “our most implacable enemies”:
The neocons marched nonstop through the institutions and treasuries of the Right and took them over almost without breaking a sweat. And they did so without themselves having to move to the right. In fact they converted the Right to the Left, by equating their mostly leftist politics with reasonable or non-extremist conservatism. They then pushed into near oblivion anyone on the Right who resisted their transformations. And as one of their victims, I certainly begrudge them these successes. But as much as I might rage over neocon mendacity and movement conservative gullibility and cowardice, I can also understand the magnitude of the domination achieved.
What was required, he went on, was ideological discipline and strategic ruthlessness: “It is this side of neoconservative history that we must keep in mind and imitate if we intend to climb out of the oblivion into which they have cast us.” This, he believed, was finally emerging among the young activists and thinkers before him, who were forgoing lucrative careers at the American Enterprise Institute or The Weekly Standard to write for marginal publications like “Takimag, VDARE.com, and other websites that are willing to engage sensitive, timely subjects.”
Gottfried called this new vanguard ‘post-paleoconservatives’. But when Richard Spencer reprinted the text of Gottfried’s speech in TakiMag, he headlined it, ‘The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right.’ This term, which did not appear in the speech itself, was Spencer’s own taxonomical innovation, and when he left TakiMag the following year, it was the name he gave to his new website.
* * *
If Gottfried was feeling cautiously optimistic in 2008, it may be because he had noticed that, since Buchanan’s first presidential campaign 16 years earlier, a series of developments in American and global politics had helped to create an environment more congenial to paleoconservative ideas.
In 1992, the acquittal of L. A. police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King sparked a self-lacerating orgy of street violence that claimed 55 American lives and left over 2000 people injured. Three years later, when O. J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder after only four hours of deliberation, conservative columnists were not slow to notice that this grotesque miscarriage of justice had not produced White rioting. But in an essay for Newsweek, journalist Mark Whitaker observed that the widespread scenes of Black jubilation the Simpson verdict elicited were now causing white liberals unfamiliar levels of unease. These liberals had fought alongside Blacks in campaigns for equality and redress; they had defended affirmative action programs intended to alleviate minority disadvantage; they had denounced police racism and brutality and urged reform. So where was the reciprocity of understanding and the commitment to colorblind justice upon which peaceful co-existence relied?
Under George W. Bush, the Iraq War produced an isolationist revival on the radical Left and the radical Right amid growing skepticism about the competence of foreign policy elites. But the failure of the democratic project in Iraq also revived uncomfortable questions for liberal universalists about whether or not democracy promotion was even feasible in regions with no experience of democratic norms. As the 2008 economic crash deepened resentful estrangement among the American middle class, a new movement calling itself the Tea Party renewed many of the populist themes on which Buchanan’s presidential runs in the 1990s had been built (albeit in a more libertarian hue). Hopes that the presidency of Barack Obama would usher in a post-racial era of reconciliation disappeared into a fog of bitterly contested police shootings, violent street protests, and the militant agitprop of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As America lurched sluggishly from one crisis to another and governance appeared to surrender to partisan sclerosis, a steady diet of stories detailing politically correct over-reach fed the old culture wars of the early 1990s back into the new loudhailer of the social media outrage machine. Obscure disputes within the online gaming and skeptic communities were amplified across the blogosphere by twitter, before click-hungry news-site editors picked them up and then watched in awe as their hit counts soared and their comment threads took a deep dive into pandemonium.
In the summer of 2012, the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A was hit by boycotts over the firm’s donations to anti-same-sex marriage organizations. That same year, Bob Weissberg and John Derbyshire were sacked by the National Review amid accusations of racism – the former for speaking at Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance conference, the latter for tossing a pungent TakiMag essay on race relations into the furor surrounding the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin. In 2013, a young policy analyst named Jason Richwine resigned from the Heritage Foundation after his Harvard dissertation recommending the profiling of immigrants by IQ was attacked in the press. In the spring of 2014, Brendan Eich resigned as CEO of Mozilla after his personal opposition to gay marriage was exposed. The 2015 Hugo Awards for science fiction fell into recrimination and disarray after vote manipulation campaigns, ostensibly launched to correct for the awards’ PC bias, were accused of promoting bigotry and racism.
And all the while, trans campaigners, radical feminists, and Men’s Rights Activists tore into one another in vitriolic bouts of online blood-letting; the persistent whine of ‘safe space’ activism on college campuses flared into periodic bursts of unbearable static every time a novel was denounced or a speaker no-platformed; the debate over campus ‘rape culture’ became ever-more authoritarian and histrionic; and a combination of the European migrant crisis and sporadic jihadist terror atrocities further sharpened anxieties about Islam and immigration.
All of these incidents and more were seized upon and adopted as causes célèbres by the alt-right, whose younger activists proved adept at using social media to mobilize supporters and besiege opponents. As far as I can tell, there is little appetite among the wider public for repealing the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Immigration and Voting Rights Acts (which is what Sam Francis once remarked he’d like to see just for starters), still less for Richard Spencer’s quixotic dream of a White American ethno-state. But with each new controversy, the alt-right’s scathing critiques of liberalism and the excesses of political correctness drew more of those disaffected with the status quo into the movement’s orbit.
As with all political movements, the rise of the alt-right is a story of elective affinities. By the time the most recent Republican primary season got into its stride, the term no longer referred to a handful of obscure paleoconservative sites and publications. Now, it was frequently used to describe a loose anti-establishment grab-bag of conservative traditionalists, Paulite libertarians, Tea Party activists, Silicon Valley neoreactionaries, immigration restrictionists, isolationists, Men’s Rights Activists and anti-feminists, anti-Islam ideologues and anti-anti-racists, and an assortment of fellow-travelling opportunists, conspiracist cranks, contrarians, charlatans, trolls, and narcissists.
Until Donald Trump announced his decision to run for President, this ad hoc coalition was a surly and disruptive oppositional force on the margins, united by a shared contempt for the status quo and the cultural mores it served. But as Sam Francis had predicted in a 1991 column for Chronicles:
For the most part, the United States has not yet witnessed [a nationalist] explosion, but sooner or later, as the globalist elites seek to drag the country into conflicts and global commitments, preside over the economic pastoralization of the United States, manage the delegitimization of our own culture, and the dispossession of our people, and disregard or diminish our national interests and national sovereignty, a nationalist reaction is almost inevitable and will probably assume populist form when it arrives. The sooner it comes, the better…
Suddenly, the Trump campaign provided the disparate factions of the alt-right coalition with a flag around which they could rally, and a hilltop from which to attack their enemies. Many were aware that Trump was not a perfect fit for their purposes – his professions of support for Israel were but one source of dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, as they listened to him thunder bitterly from the stump about immigration and the ‘globalist elite’, they heard what they thought was a radical new kind of Republicanism. Much of the Left heard it too, and anxious think-pieces began to proliferate wondering if Trump might be a neo-fascist candidate.
But Trump’s more astute opponents heard something else, and it was not the arrival of the new but the return of the familiar. If at its core the alt-right is the inheritor of the Sam Francis branch of the paleoconservative movement, Trump’s campaign reprised the slogans of the candidate Francis had championed. Apparently allergic to coherent ideology, Trump’s rhetoric reflected the crude marshaling of uninformed intuition, and these were not the intuitions of a messianic fascist, but of a paranoid paleoconservative. Republicans who still remembered the internecine political battles of the 1990s were particularly alive to the resemblance, and if many of them recoiled from Trump, it was not because he reminded them of Adolf Hitler, but because he reminded them of Patrick Buchanan.
In an interview with the Washington Post published in January 2016, Buchanan readily acknowledged that on border security, free trade, and anti-interventionism, Trump had adopted much of his platform. This should not be surprising, he argued; the intervening years had vindicated his positions, and not even Clinton Democrats or Republican establishmentarians seemed willing to defend NAFTA anymore. Internationalism was dead and nationalism was ascendant. The hostile takeover of the GOP by a paleoconservative insurgency was going splendidly thank you very much, and the long day of neoconservative and neoliberal dominance was finally closing. “Goodbye to all that,” he crowed.
* * *
When the 2016 election result finally landed, it was like a brick through a window. “It’s a new world” marvelled Richard Spencer from his twitter account the next morning. On the Left, meanwhile, Trump’s victory provoked waves of panic and crisis. If the alt-right’s triumphalism at the NPI conference in Washington seemed to confirm their worst fears, Trump’s lugubrious inauguration address only intensified anxieties.
In a 15-minute speech flecked with metaphors of death and decay and punctuated with crude insurrectionary rhetoric, Trump offered an unforgiving portrait of a blasted America plundered by global capitalism and international alliances, ravaged by crime and drugs, and forsaken by a callous establishment that flourished and celebrated while ordinary people suffered and died. Even the passages promising national renewal were suffocated by the unrelenting sourness of the delivery. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land” Trump intoned grimly. “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. America First.”
For a moment, liberal internationalism seemed to have been vanquished at a stroke. Trump’s appointment of people like Stephen Miller, Michael Anton, and self-styled revolutionary Stephen K. Bannon to influential positions within the administration reassured those at whom his campaign rhetoric had been most clearly pitched. Trump’s advisors would keep him honest, Breitbart and the alt-right blogosphere would keep them honest, and everyone would work to ensure this new mandate was not squandered. On 25 January, less than a week after the inauguration, Bannon put American journalism on notice. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he instructed. “They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Be that as it may, governance has turned out to be harder than sloganeering. So long as ideology and success were in harmony, the nationalists and pragmatists within Trump’s circle of advisors were happy to get along. But the puritanical aggression upon which an otherwise disorganized campaign had thrived has proved to be a liability in office. Under Bannon’s inept direction, Trump’s poll numbers cratered and his policy agenda foundered. Breitbart has also seen its web traffic nosedive as it struggles to adjust to the task of defending an erratic presidency. If Bannon thought his understanding of Middle America made him uniquely indispensable, then his lunatic decision to pick a faction-fight with Trump’s daughter and son-in-law has since disabused him of that notion.
Bannon’s marginalisation brought the first rumblings of discontent from the alt-right, but the Trump administration’s decision to strike Syria was taken to be a betrayal of a different order. Trump’s unequivocal opposition to confronting Assad or Putin had been salient to his nationalist appeal. The failure of the administration’s bungled immigration orders could be forgiven since they were at least an expression of nationalist intent and, for good measure, they had enraged the liberal establishment. But in the aftermath of the Syria strike, liberal internationalists and neoconservatives whose ideas had supposedly been defeated were giving ovations to the alt-right’s nationalist candidate. What was that all about?
Alt-right dismay and confusion rapidly petrified into anger and disgust. Having hailed victory in Washington less than five months earlier, Richard Spencer now let it be known that he could hardly stand to look at a Trump meme. At long last, what was obvious to Trump’s opponents had become apparent to his most ardent supporters – no commitment he made could be trusted, irrespective of its clarity and vehemence. What if, some of them wondered, Trump’s rage against the establishment was actually just the furious resentment of unrequited love after all? With Bannon’s nationalist faction now a diminished force in the West Wing and the whole policy agenda apparently up for grabs, the alt-right grew despondent.
But those made anxious by the abrupt surge of American ethnonationalism should resist premature complacency. The alt-right’s champions in the White House may yet reassert themselves as the administration struggles to contain a battery of interlinked crises and scandals. And even if Trump tacks decisively to the pragmatic centre, there is no reason to suspect that his boisterous rally crowds will follow him, or that the nationalist fervour and xenophobia his race-baiting campaign inflamed will dissipate. Should the grievances to which his demagogy catered remain raw and unaddressed, it will only aggravate existing resentments. Since the election, the culture wars raging on American campuses and social media have only intensified, and Trump will continue to be a powerful signal-booster for the hatred of political correctness.
While the activist Left prepares to battle fascism, it is missing the more subtle dangers Trump presents, and the president’s impulsive volatility may yet provide the alt-right with opportunities their enemies have not even begun to consider. “I have fantasies about Donald Trump,” American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor cheerfully confessed in an interview shortly before the Republican convention:
I admit that they’re puerile and juvenile but I have this fantasy of Donald Trump tossing off observations. For example, he might very well say, “Well, what’s wrong with Whites wanting to live in a majority-White neighborhood?” Or “What’s wrong with Whites wanting to live in a majority-White country?” I think he is perhaps capable of a remark of that kind. Or he might someday say, “Well, you just can’t expect as many Black students to be in the honors program in the high schools because they’re just not as smart.” Now, if the president of the United States, even in a haphazard and nonchalant manner, were to toss off a remark like that, it could not be hushed up. There’d be a great debate: “Oh this is horrible!” But some of the facts would then emerge.
Ethnonationalists have spent decades awaiting such an opportunity, and if Taylor sounds confident, it is because he knows he is far better prepared than his opponents.
The notion that all human beings are born as identical ‘blank slates’, and that inequalities in outcome are therefore caused exclusively by structures and systems, has long been an article of mainstream progressive faith. But a rapidly evolving appreciation of the genetic imprint on almost every trait of human nature is producing an unbridgeable gap between the scientific literature and the unifying theory of social constructionism upon which the humanities and social sciences have relied for the last half-century.
Much about the relative importance of environment and genetic inheritance to group differences and outcomes remains uncertain. But writers and scholars who venture to investigate and discuss the matter run considerable reputational risks in their pursuit of greater understanding. Even Nicholas Wade, formerly a science reporter for the New York Times, was forced to defend himself against accusations of racism for broaching these delicate questions in his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance. Quite apart from the bad faith upon which such attacks frequently depend, this defensive strategy demonstrates an alarming inability to distinguish between scientific claims and political ideology.
Contrary to popular assumption, there is nothing to fear from the pursuit of scientific truth because there is nothing about any given apprehension of natural reality that compels a particular political response. But ideological obduracy and anxieties about the perceived social implications of human biodiversity are paralysing the responses of progressives and liberal centrists to a changing understanding of the world as it is. If emerging scientific knowledge continues to be ignored or suppressed, and if those who uncover such knowledge continue to be vilified, it will only concede a spurious authority to those, like Jared Taylor, who would use this information to advance a profoundly retrogressive ideological agenda.
This is just one of the poorly defended fronts on which a defense of Western liberalism will have to be fought with the alt-right’s new reactionaries. The alt-right is not raising a militia; it is a movement of influence and ideas, and it is precisely these that make it so dangerous. Its advocates and ideologues are frequently eloquent, occasionally perceptive, and – in their analysis of what ails the postwar liberal consensus – sometimes right. The racist identitarianism of their preferred solutions may yet lack widespread appeal, but their gateway critique of liberal democracies’ troubled status quo is rapidly gaining traction among the mutinous, the disenchanted, and all those who yearn for simple answers and thought they had found them in Donald Trump.
Accusations of fascism made against the alt-right may or may not have technical validity, but they elucidate nothing. The petulant spasms of ‘anti-fascist’ violence they help to foment are an abdication of the responsibility to contend seriously with ideas at a time when the need for moral and intellectual courage is more urgent than ever. Those now urging ‘resistance’ in the form of contempt, abuse, and intimidation are mistaking intellectual cowardice for valor and resolve. Worse, they have failed to understand the nature of the threat with which they are confronted. They would do well to consider the advice Paul Gottfried offered the nascent alt-right movement in his address at the H. L. Mencken Club:
A friend once noted my ambivalence when I describe my enemies. My repugnance for their shallow ideas and grubby personalities has always been mixed with deep admiration for how they stick together like a band of brothers . . . Our enemies may be vulgar but they are surely not fools.