The Virtual and Real Worlds of White Nationalism A new study informs us of the complex lineage of the Alt-Right.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

By George Hawley (2017, New York, Columbia University Press), 218 pages with notes and index

For many observers, the Alt-Right first appeared on the scene in August 2017, its adherents wielding torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and engaging in wanton—and, in at least one case, deadly—violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Indeed, that “Unite the Right” rally served as a coming-out party of sorts for a movement largely viewed as a purveyor of racist memes on the internet. Understanding the Alt-Right’s evolution, as University of Alabama political scientist George Hawley presciently demonstrates, requires engaging with its significant digital pre-history. Hawley’s book Making Sense of the Alt-Right predates the events in Charlottesville, which means that its value resides not in interpreting that watershed incident but rather in its ability to tell the story of how a movement characterized as leaderless and “almost exclusively an online phenomenon” (18) developed the capacity to organize significant numbers of supporters in physical space.

By that metric, Hawley’s work is a qualified success. His emphasis on locating the movement’s origins is valuable, and worth the price of admission in itself. “Although the Alt-Right has borrowed elements from many other movements,” Hawley tells us, “it should be treated as a genuinely new phenomenon, born in 2008” (50). He carefully untangles those 2008 roots, describing how the term “Alternative Right” was first invoked that year by Richard Spencer in Taki’s Magazine and further developed via a number of self-referential essays on Spencer’s website AlternativeRight.com. These early efforts tended toward the highbrow, attempting to establish the intellectual underpinnings of an emergent right-wing tradition.

Hawley works hard—some may feel too hard—to give Alt-Right supporters and ideas their due, rarely offering up interpretations or critique without first providing a wide berth for adherents to explain themselves and their beliefs.

Today’s Alt-Right, while influenced by this nascent tradition, has been shaped more directly by a bottom-up second-wave, which first coalesced around 2014 in internet discussion sites such as 4chan and Reddit. Such spaces serve as an “outgrowth of Internet troll culture” (4), where self-proclaimed affiliates wield lowbrow humor as a weapon, spreading their messages through memes that appropriate or otherwise incorporate racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic symbols and attacks on progressive forces. As such, Hawley views the movement as “almost exclusively” operating online:

 

“The Alt-Right … has no brick-or-mortar think tanks distributing policy papers to congressional staffers. It does not run any print newspapers, have a meaningful presence on television, or broadcast its message on the radio. No major politician or mainstream pundit is a self-described Alt-Right supporter. It is predominantly anonymous” (18).

 

While, as this take indicates, the Alt-Right’s ideology, affect, and means of communication have largely developed organically, other aspects of its aesthetic have been carefully cultivated. Highlighting the latter, Hawley presciently identifies the website The Right Stuff as a key bridge between the movement’s waves. While producing the sorts of lengthy high-minded white nationalist articles that were the hallmark of AlternativeRight.com and other first-wave outlets, The Right Stuff pushed the envelope by promoting virulently racist content by writers hiding behind fake pennames and publishing how-to pieces on effective trolling and other tactical hallmarks of the still-emergent second wave.

The strongest connective tissue animating both of these waves, however, was a common set of core beliefs, centered on a pronounced and unapologetic racism. Hawley works hard—some may feel too hard—to give Alt-Right supporters and ideas their due, rarely offering up interpretations or critique without first providing a wide berth for adherents to explain themselves and their beliefs. This emphasis on balance informs his characterization of the distinction between the Alt-Right’s identification with white nationalism and more traditional conceptions of white supremacism. The former rests on conceptions of race as biologically-determined and the basis for an innate core identity, and thus emphasizes racial separation, typically through the formation of an all-white “ethnostate.” Hawley is willing to entertain Alt-Right claims that such aims do not necessarily imply belief in supremacy, and—though his explanation incorporates a healthy skepticism—it veers toward apology in its lack of emphasis on the supremacist principles that undergird separatist impulses. Similarly, while Hawley readily acknowledges the pronounced anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic strains that characterize Alt-Right thinking, we learn little about how such ideals operate alongside—and, in the process, bolster—racist conceptions. Attending to connections that span these categories, to demonstrate how they operate as a system that privileges the white men whose celebrated “European heritage” serves as the Alt-Right’s ideal, would add a welcome intersectional orientation to Hawley’s treatment of the lines of power that undergird the Alt-Right’s worldview.

An even more pointed question may also, I suspect, nag at many readers of this book: why, alongside Hawley’s clear and detailed genealogy of the Alt-Right here, does he offer no apparent inkling that anything like the “Unite the Right” rally could be possible, and, further, be an active goal of many ascendant Alt-Right leaders?

Perhaps a more significant omission stems from Hawley’s general orientation toward individuals and their online contributions, at the expense of attending to how, increasingly, organizations have spurred the movement’s evolution.

Such a significant gap seems one cost of a book whose lens so squarely centers on ideas rather than organizations, and a now-refuted characterization of the Alt-Right as “almost exclusively” operating online. This approach results in a healthy dose of information on influential provocateurs in the Alt-Right orbit—from neoconservative critic Paul Gottfried (whom Richard Spencer cites as the inspiration for a proto-version of the movement), to well-known Alt-Right bloggers and podcasters such as Lawrence Murray and Jazzhands McFeels (the nihilistic humor that informs the online Alt-Right feeds into a predilection for silly/clever pseudonyms), to Milo Yiannopoulos (the controversial former writer for Breitbart News who Hawley characterizes as “not really part of the Alt-Right” [48], despite the fact that his Twitter handle “Nero” appeared among the top dozen most central terms included in the word cloud Hawley constructed from the text of 20,000 tweets deploying the Alt-Right hashtag).

But Hawley tells us comparatively little about the organizational base from which the Alt-Right’s platform has, increasingly, evolved and gained coherence. Thus we learn quite a bit about Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes (Hawley locates him within the “Alt-Lite,” a bridge category for those whose “views on immigration and race relations partially overlap with those on the Alt-Right yet do not cross the line into open white nationalism” [143-4]), but nothing at all about the Proud Boys, the chapter-based “western chauvinist” group that McInnes established in 2016. This group’s role is instructive, as it has vehemently refuted Alt-Right connections while espousing support for many of its values—as McInnes puts it, “sort of like the Alt-Right without the racism.”[1] As some of its members mobilized alongside neo-Nazis and other outwardly racist groups in Charlottesville, at the “Unite the Right” event organized by avowed Proud Boy Jason Kessler, the “Alt-Lite” tag (and corresponding denial of racism) seems a misnomer. But perhaps a more significant omission stems from Hawley’s general orientation toward individuals and their online contributions, at the expense of attending to how, increasingly, organizations have spurred the movement’s evolution. Indeed, as with the Proud Boys, key groups in Charlottesville and related campaigns—including Identity Evropa, True Cascadia, and the Traditional Workers Party, all of which were founded prior to the 2016 Presidential election—appear here either in passing or not at all.

The Alt-Right’s emergent organizational base mirrors that of racist right-wing groups in other places and times, and Hawley commendably devotes a full chapter to situating the Alt-Right among its predecessors. He largely plays to his strengths here, drawing on genealogies presented in his 2016 book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism[2] to trace important lineages associated with paleoconservative and radical libertarian modes of thought. But the chapter also highlights links to earlier white nationalist movements, including the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party, and National Alliance. He helpfully notes the Alt-Right’s ideological overlap with these white supremacist groups, along with more mainstream electoral support for slavery and, later, segregationist policy across the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hawley sharply locates the Alt-Right within a constellation of conservative forces. He also offers a rather provocative conclusion: as an extreme expression of a critical tradition, the Alt-Right’s primary target “is arguably not African Americans, Latinos, or political progressives; it is mainstream conservatives.”

Absent from this discussion, however, is sustained engagement with the manner in which historians and social scientists have understood how such groups have mobilized and collectively pursued their goals. Considering, for instance, Kathleen Belew’s account of how, in the 1980s, the white supremacist community embraced conceptions of anonymous “leaderless resistance” to avoid police repression, or Pete Simi and Robert Futrell’s emphasis on how virtual communities of white supremacists have drawn upon protected real-world spaces to maintain racist identities, or the ways in which the KKK used irony and humor to connect with a broad cross-section of the white public in their 1920’s and 1960’s heydays, would temper—and perhaps reconfigure—Hawley’s conclusion that the Alt-Right’s relationship to these groups “largely ends [with the shared] sense that they advocated white nationalism” (24).[3] Attending to conclusions and insights from this research would also more clearly situate the Alt-Right phenomenon, allowing readers to more fully grapple with the manner in which it fits (and does not) within a broad spectrum of movements—including Occupy and Black Lives Matter—that have eschewed a top-down emphasis on “leaders in the conventional sense” (140) and diversified their messages through “Alt-Lite”-style bridges to mainstream political discourse.[4]

But such issues should not eclipse Hawley’s broader accomplishment here. Following from his earlier work on internecine debates within the right, he sharply locates the Alt-Right within a constellation of conservative forces. He also offers a rather provocative conclusion: as an extreme expression of a critical tradition, the Alt-Right’s primary target “is arguably not African Americans, Latinos, or political progressives; it is mainstream conservatives” (91). As such, he offers up a genealogical account that views the Alt-Right’s emergence as of a piece with the decline of paleoconservative influences and the corresponding ideological vacuum that has stunted the right’s ability to challenge paradigmatic neoconservative thought.

That Donald Trump’s ascendancy can be viewed through that same lens only underscores the broader significance of a work that seeks to seriously engage how conservatism’s evolution resonates within the electorate. And while Hawley strenuously avoids equating the vaunted Trump base with the Alt-Right itself—even including within his chapter devoted to the 2016 election a section titled “Trump (and his advisors) should not be classified as Alt-Right” (128)—he does portray the President’s failure to condemn Alt-Right forces as an “ideological icebreaker” (119). This assessment culminates in a provocative vision of our current political moment as a racially-polarized “postconservative America” (175). That formulation is one that we would do well to hear more about, ideally in a future volume that might account both for the Alt-Right’s evolving organizational base and its impact on political discourse and policy.

[1] Quoted in This American Life, episode 626: White Haze (available at: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/626/transcript).

[2] Hawley, George. 2016. Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

[3] Belew, Kathleen. 2018. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press; Simi, Pete and Robert Futrell. 2010. American Swastika: Inside the White Power Movement’s Hidden Spaces of Hate. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; Cunningham, David. 2013. Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era KKK. New York: Oxford University Press; Harcourt, Felix. 2017. Ku Klux Kulture: America and the Klan in the 1920s. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Nepstad, Sharon and Clifford Bob. 2006. “When Do Leaders Matter? Hypotheses on Leadership Dynamics in Social Movements.” Mobilization 11, 1: 1-22; Haines, Herbert H. 1984. “Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights, 1957-1970. Social Problems 32, 1: 31-43; Freeman, Jo. 1972. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 17: 151-165; Barker, Colin, Alan Johnson, and Michael Lavalette (eds.). 2001. Leadership and Social Movements. New York: Manchester University Press; Ganz, Marshall. 2010. Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

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