George Hawley is an amazingly productive young political scientist at the University of Alabama. By my count, Making Sense of the Alt-Right is his fifth book in four years. Last year, I reviewed his Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, for which I had high praise, although I complained that he had not dealt with populism, which was the animating force Trump’s ongoing rise to the White House.
It turns out that Hawley’s next project was a whole book on Trump and populism. But he was persuaded to set it aside to focus simply on the Alternative Right. Given Hawley’s meticulous research in Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism on paleoconservatism, the European New Right, and American White Nationalism, he was the perfect man for the job.
Not only did Hawley draw upon his extensive knowledge of intellectual influences on the Alt Right, he also ventured where most academic researchers would fear to tread. He dove into the online world of the Alt Right, exploring image boards, forums, webzines, and podcasts. He did interviews with such people as Richard Spencer, Gregory Hood, Lawrence Murray, Jazzhands McFeels (not his real name), and me. (He also quotes Millennial Woes, Mike Enoch, and Hunter Wallace.) Hawley even attended a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at the University of Alabama, where he interviewed people in the audience.
In his Introduction, Hawley identifies the Alt Right as an overwhelmingly young and unapologetically racist movement that emerged online and largely remains there. The goal of the Alt Right is to overthrow the existing conservative movement and champion white identity politics without euphemism or apology. There is no shortage of denunciations of the Alt Right. Hawley’s goal is simply to understand it. To this end, he has focused on the “most reasonable and erudite supporters of the Alt-Right,” even though some people on the Left might accuse him of whitewashing the extremist elements and giving undue exposure to voices best left in obscurity.
Of course it is absurd to worry that a book published by Colombia University Press, which will be read by only a few thousand people, is giving undue exposure to websites that reach hundreds of thousands of unique visitors every month. I’m the one who should be worried that I am giving undue exposure to Columbia University Press with a review that will significantly increase the sales of Hawley’s book. Fortunately, Making Sense of the Alt-Right richly deserves to be read.
Chapter 1, “The Alt-Right’s Goals and Predecessors,” deals first with what the Alt Right wants. At the very least, we want to halt white demographic decline in America and around the world. Beyond that, we want homogeneous homelands for all white nations. The Alt Right also rejects feminism, free trade, and foreign interventionism.
According to Hawley, the intellectual and political forebears of the Alt Right include American White Nationalism, paleoconservatism, libertarianism, the European New Right, the Identitarian movement, immigration restrictionism, conservative crusades against campus political correctness, and Gamergate.
Hawley’s discussion of all these sources strikes me as accurate and judicious. I was surprised that he identified movement conservative opposition to political correctness as an incubator of Alt Right ideas, but his argument is convincing, for once one overthrows Left-wing political correctness, it is hard to prevent people from entertaining far more extreme ideas than mainstream conservatism. I was also pleased that Hawley correctly dismissed the claim that has been widely repeated by lazy journalists that the neo-reaction (NRx) movement is a major influence on the Alt Right.
Chapter 2, “The First Wave of the Alt-Right,” deals with Richard Spencer and the original Alternative Right webzine, which was online from March of 2010 to December of 2013. Hawley deftly surveys all the online material and also draws upon interviews with Richard Spencer. He correctly identifies Spencer’s emergence from the paleoconservative milieu, with stints at The American Conservative and Taki’s Magazine and his relationship with Paul Gottfried. Perhaps some mention should have been made of the H. L. Mencken Club as well. Hawley also chronicles Spencer’s loss of interest in Alternative Right, which was taken over by Colin Liddell and Andy Nowicki and entered a phase of dormition.
Chapter 3, “The Alt-Right Returns,” deals with the renewal of the Alt Right term in 2015 in the hands of a younger and very different movement. According to Spencer, “The Alt-Right is what it is today not because of me; it is what it is today because I let it go” (p. 68). Whereas the first version of the Alt Right was heavily influenced by White Nationalism and paleoconservatism, the new version of the Alt Right has a much stronger ex-libertarian contingent. The new Alt Right is much more a creature of social media, forums, image boards, memes, and podcasts than of webzines. The most influential website for the new Alt Right is The Right Stuff, especially its flagship podcast, The Daily Shoah. Hawley correctly notes that the Alt Right has created a much bigger stir than its numbers would otherwise suggest by being highly effective at using the Internet. It is this incarnation of the Alt Right that garnered global media attention, especially during the 2016 US Presidential election.
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