Making Sense of the Alt Right by George Hawley

Here are selections from this superb new book:

* Given everything that occurred in 2016, most observers can be forgiven for failing to note one additional bizarre moment when, in late August, Clinton experienced one of the weirdest examples of heckling in recent political history. As she was speaking, a lone voice shouted a single name: “Pepe!” The heckler was promptly escorted out, and the speech was not otherwise disrupted. I suspect few in the audience had any inkling what the “Pepe guy” was referencing. Pepe is the name of an anthropomorphic cartoon frog. He originated on the now-defunct social-media website MySpace.2 Pepe was part of a comic series known for its scatological humor; he was depicted urinating with his pants down his ankles and remarking, “Feels good, man.”

Over time, Pepe became popular as an Internet meme on sites such as 4chan.3 He is frequently depicted hugging a similarly bizarre white-faced character known as “feels guy.” In 2016, there was an entire page on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website dedicated to Pepe.4 For reasons that are difficult to discern, Pepe became the mascot of the “Alt-Right,” short for “alternative right.” The Alt-Right is, like Pepe, vulgar, irreverent, ironic, and goofy. Despite its innocuous name, the Alt-Right is also, at its core, a racist movement. I am generally hesitant (perhaps too hesitant) to label an individual, group, or political movement as racist. But in the case of the Alt-Right, there is no other appropriate word. I furthermore doubt that anyone seriously involved with the Alt-Right will challenge that characterization. Although mainstream conservatives and libertarians howl with outrage when they are labeled racists, the Alt-Right seems collectively to shrug its shoulders when it encounters this accusation. As one prominent figure on the Alt-Right put it, “We just don’t care what you call us anymore.”

* The Alt-Right is unlike any racist movement we have ever seen. It is atomized, amorphous, predominantly online, and mostly anonymous. Although it remains small, it is growing. And it was energized by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

* The Alt-Right rejects the major premises of the conservative movement: the so-called three-legged stool of moral traditionalism, economic liberty, and strong national defense. None of these conservative shibboleths seem to interest the Alt-Right…

As the far-right activist Hunter Wallace declared at the Southern nationalist website Occidental Dissent: “In the United States, liberals, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are all branches of the common liberal family. All these groups want to preserve the fundamental liberal world order even if they disagree on whether “liberty” or “equality” should be given priority and fight viciously with each other. They all share the same blinkered liberal worldview in which more “liberty” or more “equality” is the solution to every problem. We don’t belong to the liberal family. We see ourselves as something else altogether. This is why, for example, so many of us enjoy trolling because we don’t believe in any of the standard bullshit—for example, nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal—and political correctness is an irresistible target.”

The Alt-Right is not just radical because it is racist—racism can be found in the ranks of many political ideologies. The Alt-Right’s radicalism is also apparent in the degree to which it rejects other basic American values. Because it rejects both liberty and equality as ideals, it is difficult to compare the Alt-Right to most mainstream political movements.

* Using the loosest definition, we could say the Alt-Right includes anyone with right-wing sensibilities that rejects the mainstream conservative movement. But there are certain common, perhaps universal attitudes within the Alt-Right. The Alt-Right is fundamentally concerned with race. At its core, the Alt-Right is a white-nationalist movement, even if many (perhaps most) of the people who identify with the Alt-Right do not care for that term… The most energetic and significant figures of the movement want to see the creation of a white ethnostate in North America.

* At the time of this writing, I am aware of no acts of physical violence directly connected to the Alt-Right… This is not to say that racist violence is not a real threat in contemporary America. We have, as just one example, the chilling case of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Yet Roof’s manifesto suggests he was more influenced by older white-nationalist writers and organizations, such as the Council of Conservative Citizens (the offspring of the Citizens Councils that once flourished in the South during and following the civil-rights era) and Harold Covington’s Northwest Front, than by the Alt-Right.

* I used the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.” It is conventional among those that study the far right to label all racist groups “white supremacist.” I do not oppose that convention. But it is worth noting that white supremacist is not usually the preferred term within the radical right. It instead relies on terms like “white nationalist,” “white separatist,” and “identitarian” (a word I will explain later). To outsiders, the distinction between a white supremacist and a white nationalist may not be obvious. But activists on the radical right claim there is an important difference. According to far-right nomenclature, a white supremacist favors a society in which people of multiple racial backgrounds live together but where whites are the socially dominant group (as in the Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa). In contrast, a white nationalist favors the complete separation of the races into separate states. Many white nationalists also deny that their vision is based upon the belief that whites are a superior race. As a white nationalist who used the penname Yggdrasil put it, “The desire of White Nationalists to form their own nation has nothing to do with superiority or inferiority.”3 The sincerity of such statements is, at best, questionable, as open hostility toward other races is common within far-right movements.

* The neo-Nazi element of the Alt-Right desires the creation of something akin to the Third Reich, with everything this entails. Their best-known website is the Daily Stormer, run by a neo-Nazi named Andrew Anglin. Sites like this are where you find the most outrageous and violent rhetoric, delivered without a hint of irony. At the Daily Stormer, articles with titles like “Jew Admits Dreams of Defiling Aryan Blood” are common. 4 The openly neo-Nazi are the most extreme element of the Alt-Right, and this facet of the Alt-Right is similar to the older varieties of white nationalism in the United States. Neo-Nazis are also frequently denounced by others associated with the Alt-Right on the grounds that they taint the movement’s “brand.”5 The most flamboyant neo-Nazis are even accused by others on the Alt-Right of being “FBI informers and [Anti-Defamation League] shills,” deliberately harming the movement.6 The neo-Nazi wing of the Alt-Right, which does not seek to distance itself from the Holocaust and talk of race wars, appears to be in the minority. Others on the Alt-Right tend to eschew the most extreme rhetoric while still calling for the creation of an all-white country or something very close to it. Yet few people in the less radical corners of the Alt-Right have explained in any detail how this can be achieved. This is one way that the Alt-Right tends to differ from earlier white-nationalist movements. People like William Pierce and Harold Covington were quite explicit when explaining how whites would reclaim all or part of the world. In his 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, Pierce described a global race war, instigated by a small circle of elites, which ultimately led to apocalyptic levels of violence, including the use of nuclear weapons around the globe. Harold Covington’s vision was less ambitious, but his novels about the creation of a white nation in the Pacific Northwest also involved extreme violence—in Covington’s imagination, the war would be won by tactics developed by the Irish Republican Army in the twentieth century. On the most visible platforms of the Alt-Right, such calls for revolutionary violence are uncommon.

* According to Spencer, the idea of a white ethnostate is now akin to Zionism at its early stages: “We need to go back and look at [Zionism’s] most basic impulses. And its basic impulses are identitarian.”8 At this stage, much of the Alt-Right will be happy if they simply plant the idea of white nationalism in the minds of people who had never previously been open to the notion—the exact policies can apparently be worked out later.

* The Alt-Right also uniformly rejects traditional Republican views on foreign policy. I am aware of no one on the Alt-Right who supports Bush-era strategies for the War on Terror, for example. The Alt-Right, for the most part, has favorable attitudes toward Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It has no interest in spreading democracy abroad and opposes the close relationship between the United States and Israel. But, again, there is not a specific Alt-Right foreign-policy platform.

* Unlike mainstream conservatism, the Alt-Right does not have much to say about economics.

* The movement is also divided on issues such as tolerance for homosexuals and abortion, but these issues (so important to many conservatives) do not interest the Alt-Right very much.

* For the Alt-Right, identity politics is everything. Conservatives say that they are fundamentally interested in ideas—constitutional government, liberty, morality, etc. They furthermore argue that these ideas are universal and equally accessible to all people. For this reason, conservatives often declare that they have no problem with nonwhite immigration, immigration, provided the newcomers assimilate to American values. In contrast, the Alt-Right views the world as being fundamentally divided into competing groups, and the success of their group (whites) is their primary concern. If a core conservative principle such as individual liberty is a hindrance to their group’s collective interests, then that principle can and should be jettisoned. Thus, to the Alt-Right, constitutional questions about equality are beside the point. If the Constitution dictates a policy that is inimical to white interests, then the Constitution is the problem.

* The Alt-Right is able to punch above its weight in the political arena because it is very good at using the Internet.

* The Alt-Right successfully injected itself into the national conversation when it mastered the art of trolling. An Internet troll is someone who fosters discord online, provoking strong emotional reactions from readers and often changing the topic of conversation. Trolling does not always have an obvious political purpose; a troll may
be looking for nothing but a moment of nihilistic amusement. Trolling can take the form of insulting someone’s appearance or deliberately giving bad advice about a technological problem, for example. But the Alt-Right trolls for a purpose. By leaving sites specifically aimed at a radical right-wing audience and joining discussions at other message boards, in, for example, the comment sections of major news venues, YouTube, and especially on Twitter, the Alt-Right is able to circulate its message widely. Alt-Right trolls help disperse the movement’s views far beyond what would be possible if the movement could only be found on its own platforms.

* The use of irony and humor is another Alt-Right innovation. The Alt-Right presents itself as a fun movement, one using Internet jargon familiar to tech-savvy millennials and eager to needle established journalists, academics, celebrities, and politicians. Whereas older white nationalists came across as bitter, reactionary, and antisocial, much of the Alt-Right comes across as youthful, light-hearted, and jovial—even as it says the most abhorrent things about racial and religious minorities.

* Detailing the history of white nationalism in America is trickier than it first appears. This is because, despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the United States operated as a de facto white-supremacist nation for most of its history.

* Jefferson was no racial egalitarian—see his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” where he states his belief that blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”13 The case against Jefferson as an egalitarian is even weaker when we note that Jefferson hoped that, after slavery was eventually abolished, freed blacks would be returned to Africa.

Moving forward through history, it is easy to find evidence that Americans continued to view the United States as a “white country,” and policies designed to maintain white demographic dominance were often uncontroversial: the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which ushered in a four-decade period of low immigration), and President Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback (which forcibly deported undocumented immigrants), to name just a few. The Progressive movement that thrived in the early twentieth century had a transparent racial and eugenicist element to it. Famous progressive eugenicists such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard thought the idea of racial equality was absurd.

…white supremacy was formally institutionalized throughout most of American history.

* Jared Taylor, of the “race-realist” realist” group American Renaissance, probably agrees with Senator Bernie Sanders on very little, but his own writings on this subject (“Since early colonial times, and until just a few decades ago, virtually all Whites believed race was a fundamental aspect of individual and group identity”)15 clearly echo Sanders’s claim that the United States was created “on racist principles.”16 Although they reach different conclusions, both men argue that the United States was viewed by its founders as a country for people of European ancestry.

* Alt-Right material often has a sense of amused detachment, something not present in any of William Pierce’s radio broadcasts.

* Rage and hate were the primary emotions associated with the older white-nationalist movement. Even when it dabbled in popular culture, such as with the record label Resistance Records (which released punk and heavy-metal albums with white-nationalist lyrics), it was a movement transparently driven by resentment. No one could read The Turner Diaries without being convinced that William Pierce literally wanted to see nonwhites exterminated. The Alt-Right offers something more attractive to potential supporters: edginess and fun. Someone who would never associate with a group like the Klan or the National Socialist Movement might eagerly watch YouTube videos by the Alt-Right satirist RamZPaul. This is a curious paradox of the Alt-Right; it may ultimately be a greater threat to mainstream politics than these earlier groups precisely because it often comes across as much less threatening.

* Jared Taylor, whom I briefly introduced above, is the leading figure of this variety of white nationalism, though he eschews the term. Taylor has been a prominent voice in this movement since the early 1990s, when he created the New Century Foundation, best known for its publication American Renaissance and its conference of the same name.20 He presents arguments in favor of what he calls “race realism.” Among highbrow white nationalists, there has long been a fascination with and promotion of what the blogger Steve Sailer (who is not a white nationalist) calls “human biodiversity,” typically shortened to HBD. In contrast to the position advanced by mainstream contemporary academics, this perspective holds that racial and ethnic distinctions are rooted in biology, rather than being mere social constructs. This is what Taylor means when he refers to race realism. According to this view, social disparities between racial and ethnic groups are going to persist, regardless of any efforts to create a more equitable society. And because efforts to reverse generations of social injustice and create an equal society are doomed to fail, they should not even be attempted; instead, racial differences should be calmly accepted as a reality, with the corollary belief that different racial groups should separate from one another—ideally into separate ethnostates.

For a time, Taylor had access to large media venues. Taylor’s first book on race, Paved with Good Intentions, was released by a major publisher in 1992.21 Early American Renaissance conferences were televised on CSPAN. By the late 1990s, however, Taylor was largely absent from the public eye… But as the Alt-Right movement took off, Taylor became a revered figure. His American Renaissance conferences now are a major meeting place for the Alt-Right. But he is not completely uncontroversial in Alt-Right circles. Taylor has always carefully avoided anti-Semitism, as even groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center acknowledge.22 This makes him problematic to the most anti-Semitic elements of the Alt-Right, who, like the Nazis before them, view the so-called Jewish Question as their most important issue.

* Kevin MacDonald, unlike Taylor, is a beloved figure among contemporary anti-Semites. He is best known for his books on Jews: A People That Shall Dwell Alone, Separation and Its Discontents, and A Culture of Critique.23 MacDonald, a retired professor of psychology who spent most of his career at California State University–Long Beach, argued that Judaism is more than a religion or ethnicity; it is instead a “group evolutionary strategy” that encourages Diaspora Jews to undermine the power of majority groups. The people in the Alt-Right that are eager to identify which of their enemies are Jewish follow a tactic developed by MacDonald in his books, especially A Culture of Critique. In that work, MacDonald documented the degree to which Jews were overrepresented in efforts to liberalize immigration policies and undermine white-supremacist policies. MacDonald now edits the white-nationalist webzine The Occidental Observer. Greg Johnson is another highbrow white nationalist whose work began before the Alt-Right existed. Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, first became publicly involved in white nationalism in 2007, when he began editing the Occidental Quarterly—a print journal that follows a format similar to a mainstream scholarly journal.24 Johnson began his own venture in 2010, when he created the webzine Counter-Currents, which has pushed for the creation of a “North American New Right” (modeled largely on the European New Right)25 and “is a White Nationalist metapolitical movement that seeks to lay the foundations of a White Republic or republics in North America.”

* And once that battle started, there was little doubt which camp would emerge victorious—the neoconservatives were much better funded and more media savvy. Although it had little substantive effect on public policy, a pivotal moment came in the struggle over who Ronald Reagan would appoint as the chair of the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH). Reagan’s initial pick was M. E. “Mel” Bradford, who approached politics and culture from a paleoconservative perspective.

* What little remains of the paleoconservative movement does not seem to have much interest in the Alt-Right. One point of contention is religion. The paleoconservatives paleoconservatives were almost all religious traditionalists, whereas the Alt-Right has a decidedly secular (and sometimes anti-Christian) orientation. The paleoconservative magazine Chronicles has never, to my knowledge, published anyone directly connected to the Alt-Right since the movement appeared on the scene.

There are only two people from the paleoconservative movement associated with the Alt-Right in any meaningful way. The first is Paul Gottfried, a well-known critic of neoconservatism. I do not classify Gottfried as part of the Alt-Right. Gottfried, who is Jewish, is not an anti-Semite, and he rejects white nationalism. But Gottfried’s scholarly work certainly influenced many people on the Alt-Right—especially his books and columns critiquing the conservative movement. He also seems to have been something of a mentor to Richard Spencer, who coined the term “Alt-Right,” and he wrote articles for both Taki’s Magazine and Alternative Right, where the term was first popularized. The second, Sam Francis, was in my view the paleoconservative whose ideas had the greatest influence on the Alt-Right—though he died in 2005, well before the Alt-Right concept was born. Of the major paleoconservatives, Francis was the most openly racist. For much of his career, he held important positions within the conservative movement; he served on a senator’s staff, he worked for the Heritage Foundation, and held an editorial position at the Washington Times. His willingness to cross the line into open racism was the reason he ultimately became unwelcome in the mainstream conservative movement. Francis was also closer to the Alt-Right and farther from most paleoconservatives in that he was not particularly religious.

* Hans-Hermann Hoppe may be the most important bridge between libertarianism and the Alt-Right. His most famous book, Democracy: The God That Failed, argued that democracy is a suboptimal form of government, one inclined toward short-sighted thinking; according to Hoppe, if you insist on having a government, it should be a monarchy.

* Richard Spencer has suggested that this is because, at least for some people, libertarianism is “a mask on white populism”39—a view shared by some on the left. As Conor Lynch noted in Salon, “While the libertarian movement as a whole is not inherently bigoted, and many believers despise intolerance, the ideology itself does attract many bigots who see the freedom-obsessed culture as a way to protect their ‘right’ of intolerance, and crack down on collective movements that fight for equality.”

* The general ideological thrust of the Alt-Right is completely disconnected from the American conservatism we have known since the 1950s. It has little interest in Edmund Burke or the American Founding Fathers. Its ideological moorings do not include any part of conservatism’s core tenets—moral traditionalism, economic liberty, and a strong national defense.

* Different elements of the Alt-Right draw from different aspects of the European right. The most flamboyant and radical currents of the Alt-Right explicitly take their inspiration from the Third Reich. The neo-Nazi element of the Alt-Right, which is not insignificant, thinks Hitler’s model for government was generally correct: the primary problem with Nazi Germany was that it lost the war. The more intellectually sophisticated elements of the Alt-Right—such as those found at venues like Counter-Currents—tend to downplay the Nazi connection in favor of other right-wing European movements. The so-called European New Right (ENR) has been particularly influential on the Alt-Right, especially in its early days. The ENR was primarily a French movement begun by Alain de Benoist in the late 1960s and grounded in multiple ideological traditions. Although the ENR never endorsed the most violent and repressive right-wing regimes of the twentieth century, it leaned heavily on works from Weimar-era Germany, especially the “conservative revolutionaries” of that period: writers such as Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, Oswald Spengler, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These were thinkers that rejected both the communism of the Soviet Union and the liberalism of the United States, seeking to create a new form of government that preserved elements of traditionalism but was capable of standing up to the East and the West. Although all of these thinkers proposed ideas that were incorporated to some degree into Hitler’s government, they did not all become proud Nazis—some opposed Hitler, some were ambivalent, and some were enthusiastic about the new government.

* The mainstream conservative movement is generally careful never to discuss the immigration issue as being fundamentally about race.

* On balance, the Alt-Right is actually less hostile to Islam than many conservatives with access to mainstream venues.

* Conservatives have been quick to argue that the Alt-Right should be condemned as a racist movement. But in doing so, conservatives can sound like the so-called commissars of political correctness that they have mocked and condemned for years in articles and entire books.

Conservatives have long promoted their movement as being “politically incorrect.” According to their own narrative, conservatives do not get upset about “microaggressions”; conservatives do not get worked up about off-color jokes; conservatives are tough and “tell it like it is”; conservatives are edgy. According to certain conservatives, those that complain about offensive speech are simply overprotected “snowflakes” who cannot take a joke. Some conservatives even argue that the “language police” are a threat to America. As Steve Tobak put it in a column for Fox Business: “While it’s clear that political correctness is reflective of our societal norms, it also influences where our culture culture is heading. If I’m not mistaken, it’s turning us into a nation of people who look like adults but act like entitled children, who act out when they don’t get what they want or feel they deserve.”53 According to many conservative pundits, complaints from college students, academics, and the mainstream media about public displays of racism and intolerance are signs that America is becoming weak, that it is trading freedom of speech for “safe spaces.” As many college campuses faced controversy and protest in 2015, conservative writers were quick to condemn protesters as “idiot children.”

…This leaves conservatives in a quandary. They want to distance themselves from the Alt-Right’s rhetoric about historically disadvantaged populations. But in doing so, they invariably use language borrowed from the left, using terms like “racist,” “nativist,” and “misogynist.” They do so after telling a generation of grassroots conservatives that anyone who uses those terms is a totalitarian. As a result, the Alt-Right can effectively use the conservative movement’s own rhetoric in response. Anti-Alt-Right conservatives such as Ben Shapiro, one of many conservatives to build a career on attacking political correctness,55 are now targets of vitriol from the Alt-Right on the grounds that they are politically correct “social-justice warriors.” This development has been noted by some on the left. As the headline of a piece by Robyn Pennachia noted in Gawker: “Ben Shapiro Declared a Social Justice Warrior by People More Racist Than Ben Shapiro.”

Conservatives are left without an obvious solution to this conundrum. They can stop condemning the Alt-Right for its outrageous comments; this risks conservatism being forever associated with the Alt-Right and its rhetoric. Alternatively, they can abandon the idea that conservatism is about rejecting political correctness and risk alienating those attracted to conservatism precisely because it is perceived as edgy and politically incorrect.

* Like the Alt-Right, Neo-Reaction (often abbreviated NRx and also known as the Dark Enlightenment) is predominantly—maybe exclusively—online. It is also quite explicitly right wing in that it rejects egalitarianism, perhaps to a greater extent than the Alt-Right. NRx has none of the lowbrow qualities of the Alt-Right (it favors long essays over tweets and memes), and it exhibits a kind of high-IQ misanthropy. This is one reason it rejects democracy, which according to NRx gives undeserving people a say in a government that they do not, and cannot, understand, and argues instead for government that is monarchical or has some kind of corporate structure.

* NRx and the Alt-Right (at least in its first incarnation) developed independently of each other… Regardless of how the two movements were once connected, the issue is now largely irrelevant. Interest in NRx appears to be waning. Moldbug stopped updating his blog in early 2016, stating that the site had “completed its mission.”

* One final online trend that more directly presaged the Alt-Right was Bob Whitaker’s online campaign to promote the idea of “White Genocide.” For years, Whitaker has been encouraging his followers to infiltrate the comment sections of major news stories and spread the mantra “anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.”70 Although Whitaker’s name does not come up often in discussions about the Alt-Right, this was one of the first coordinated trolling campaigns conducted…

* Paul Gottfried: “The white nationalists in particular are living on another planet, as far as I can determine. The multiculturalism and the PC that they and I loathe was created by white Westerners. Blacks and other non-whites have been peripheral to the victory of an ideology based on white male Western self-disparagement. White nationalism is no more a cure for this problem than recommending to cancer patients that they practice sky diving to get rid of their malignancy. Moreover, Western white people have generally not been “nationalistic” about race. They’ve been nationalists about being Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, Russians, etc. Even if all races practice discrimination discrimination against racial out-groups, Western identity has centered on other commonalities. The white nationalists are just imitating the black nationalists, who may have modeled an artificial racial identity that never existed in Africa. Finally although the Altright claim to be “radical traditionalists,” I’m unaware of any social tradition they want to maintain.”

* …the main target of the Alt-Right’s wrath, at least for now, is arguably not African Americans, Latinos, or political progressives; it is mainstream conservatives.

* …the Alt-Right is calling for something even more radical than the rejection of American conservatism. The Alt-Right also rejects many of the basic premises of classical liberalism and the Enlightenment.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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