* Spencer was correct in drawing (as he was attempting to do just before he got smacked in the face) a line between himself and neo-Nazis. Technically, Nazis want to kill and enslave what they see as inferior races. Ethno-nationalists like Spencer—those who believe that political entities should be properly divided along racial and ethnic lines—don’t go that far. Instead, they preach separation, with dedicated homelands based on tribal groupings, including large swathes of the planet reserved for white people.
* In November 2008, a professor named Paul Gottfried stood up in front of a few dozen people at the first gathering of his newly formed H.L. Mencken Club. It was an event that, at the time, made almost no impression on the general public. It attracted no press coverage or scholarly attention. In fact, before a reporter phoned him up in 2016, Gottfried himself says it had slipped his mind that, through his speech, he had inspired the name of a nascent political movement…
Gottfried—bald, jowly and bespectacled—looked like a central casting version of what he was: a philosophy professor at a small college in Pennsylvania. He described himself as a “paleoconservative”—a term which, according to some sources, he also invented.4
Paleoconservativism—a Stone Age-y play on “neoconservativism”—is a branch of thought that’s had a rump of a following on the right in America for many years. Paleos dislike immigration and multiculturalism. In contrast to neoconservatives, they are skeptical of free trade and foreign military adventures. They look to the past and are strict traditionalists when it comes to gender, gender, ethnicity, race and social order.5 It was a movement which held the seeds of the alt-right, and one that had been confined to the political fringes for decades. Before Trump, the most high-profile politician with paleoconservative leanings was Pat Buchanan, who in a presidential run in 2000 scored 0.4% of the popular vote.6
Despite the small, subdued crowd, the Mencken Society’s first meeting in a Baltimore hotel included some key characters in what would become the brain trust of the alt-right. Peter Brimelow, a British journalist and critic of multiculturalism and immigration, attended and spoke at the conference, as did Jared Taylor, editor of the far-right magazine American Renaissance.7
…Gottfried, standing in front of the audience, announced: “We are part of an attempt to put together an independent intellectual right, one that exists without movement establishment funding and one that our opponents would be delighted not to have to deal with. Our group is also full of young thinkers and activists, and if there is to be an independent right, our group will have to become its leaders.”
He then launched into a ramble taking in Muslim control of the Iberian Peninsula, the last few decades of American conservative thought, Elizabeth I’s defeat of the Spanish Armada and Flannery O’Connor.8 While it was not headline-producing stuff, Gottfried did manage to identify the broad outlines and deep concerns of what would eventually become the alt-right movement.
He gave a nod to the far-right websites Takimag and Brimelow’s VDARE.com, from where most of the intellectual energy of the movement would come in the years before the alt-right gained anything like mainstream attention. He put his finger on the outsider nature of the small group and identified the Republican and conservative establishment as enemy number one. “A question that has been asked of me and of others in this room is why we don’t try to join the official conservative movement,” he said. “This movement controls hundreds of millions of dollars, TV networks, strings of newspapers and magazines, multitudinous foundations and institutes, and a bevy of real and bleached blondes on Fox News.” He concluded that the establishment—or, as Gottfried put it, the “dark side”—wouldn’t have them. He continued, sarcastically: “It has treated us, in contrast to such worthies as black nationalists, radical feminists, and open-borders advocates, as being unfit for admittance into the political conversation. We are not viewed as honorable dissenters but depicted as subhuman infidels or ignored in the same way as one would a senile uncle who occasionally wanders into one’s living room.”9
Although he didn’t go into much detail or name names, he hinted at the alt-right’s obsession with race-based science and questionable theories about the relative intelligence levels of different ethnic groups, decrying what he described as censorship against anyone outside of what he saw as a neoconservative and center-left consensus. “This imperial ban has been extended even to brilliant social scientists and statisticians who are viewed as excessively intimate with the wrong people,” he said. And in just a few words he encapsulated the stubborn self-righteousness which would come to characterize the alt-right: “We are convinced that we are right in our historical and cultural observations while those who have quarantined us are wrong.”
Gottfried never actually put a name on his imagined movement. A decade later, even as he continued to sympathize with some of the alt-right’s leading figures, he rued being associated with it.10 But the title of his address was dramatic and catchy, and it contained the name that, in a shorter form, would stick: “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right.”
* AlternativeRight. com. It became the first thrust at defining the alt-right and developing a raw online communications strategy. Spencer and Gottfried would later slightly disagree on who came up with the name “alternative right,” with Spencer claiming authorship and Gottfried insisting it was a joint effort.12 However, Gottfried was made an editor of the new site, and Spencer plucked his inspiration from the professor’s words, declaring that the effort marked “an attempt to forge a new intellectual right-wing that is independent and outside the ‘conservative’ establishment.”
AlternativeRight.com was the first of Spencer’s alt-right outlets, and, like the Mencken Club, it didn’t find a huge audience at first. It was eventually shuttered in 2013. But those early missives give an insight into the formulation of the alt-right argument style. They give the overall impression of a small group of academic-minded people holed up together, lobbing words into the ether and seeing what, if anything, might stick. Spencer aimed for a freewheeling bloggy style, using short posts to comment on news reports and, in what would later become a hallmark of the alt-right, ranging outside of the world of politics. At the same time, the worldview of AlternativeRight. com was framed in ethnic and racial terms, with posts, for instance, about how white, blonde women are naturally more attractive than black women, or pointing out violent crime against gays in majority-black neighborhoods.14 But Spencer’s goal was always to appeal to a broader audience—including those who wouldn’t even think of showing up at a Mencken Club meeting. Posts dealt with the stock market, state fairs, MC Hammer.
* A long post from 2011 about the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, starts reasonably enough: “What kind of “ultra-nationalist” murders the children of his own people? The answer is one who is truly deranged.”22 Spencer then mixes in his own brand of racial politics, an endorsement of Breivik’s Muslim hate, and a dash of conspiracy theory, to argue that the killer is worth listening to.
“Anders Behring Breivik’s work (if this actually is Anders Breivik’s work) is rational and argued; he is clearly influenced by many neoconservative authors, but also many from the non-aligned Right,” he writes. “We still aren’t sure whether Breivik is the man who perpetrated Friday’s bloddy [sic] actions … But we should most definitely study Breivik’s ‘European Declaration of Independence.’”
Spencer goes on to quote favorably and at great length from another blog post, this one by Kevin MacDonald, an academic whose writings describe Jewish people as characterized by “ethnocentrism, intelligence and wealth, psychological intensity, aggressiveness,”23 and who has been called “a primary voice for anti-Semitism from far-right intellectuals.”24
For his part, MacDonald seemed absolutely puzzled that Breivik’s manifesto didn’t talk more about Jews. “It could well be that his silence on Jewish hostility toward Europe and the West and his rejection of ethnocentrism are motivated by his strategic sense,” he wrote. Still, he went on (remember, this about a mass murderer): “It must be said that he is a serious political thinker with a great many insights and some good practical ideas on strategy.”25 Spencer was enthusiastic: When it came to the study of Breivik’s manifesto, “Kevin MacDonald had made an excellent start.”
* After AlternativeRight.com, he planned another online venture, Radix Journal, which he hoped would appeal to a broader cross-section of society. “Sometimes the movement fails when you have websites called whiterights.com or demographicreality.org, when we’re focused so intently and brutally on race,” he told me, while adding: “I don’t want this to sound sinister. I’m very upfront about what I believe.” “What I wanted for Radix,” he continued, “is a journal that includes writing that someone who’s apolitical or a leftist or someone who’s more literary literary minded could read and not just be put off immediately by the right-wing race stuff. “It’s not that I’m just trying to make this palatable, it’s that white nationalism doesn’t really have anywhere to go. All of its arguments have been made. And I don’t know what new IQ data someone needs to see, or someone needs to say again ‘It’s healthy to love your race.’ I don’t know how many more times we need to hear that.”
* On the other hand, he [Curtis Yarvin aka Mencius Moldbug] was more entertaining than academic types like Gottfried or MacDonald, and, as the movement developed, he became the alt-right’s favorite philosophy instructor.
* On VNN, the very alt-rightish idea of “white genocide” is a near constant topic of conversation.9 Those who use the phrase mean it seriously and literally; they believe there is a master plan dedicated to the total destruction of the white race. Usually (but not always) the supposed genocide isn’t portrayed as an active one, carried out via gas chambers, nuclear bombs and Kalashnikovs, but a rather slower but no less radical demographic process of cultural integration and intermarriage, hurried along by low birth rates and legal abortion. The white genocide crowd has resurrected the “one drop” idea born in antebellum America, that any non-white ancestor fundamentally alters all lineal descendants forevermore. They argue that generational change is not a passive or desirable process, but is driven by forces engaged in an active conspiracy specifically targeting the white race. The alleged culprits vary—fingers are pointed at Jews, a shadowy cabal of elite globalists, other races, and liberals or “Cultural Marxists” who want not only white people destroyed but all vestiges of Western Western civilization eliminated forever. The “white genocide” idea was at the root of the chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at far-right demonstrations, perhaps most notably the August 2017 far-right rally and attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of a counterprotester and galvanized the country. Wikipedia’s entry on the subject is titled “White genocide conspiracy theory” and traces the idea to a Nazi pamphlet titled: “Are the White Nations Dying? The Future of the White and the Coloured Nations in the Light of Biological Statistics.”
* The science-fiction writer Theodore Beale, who writes under the pen name Vox Day, is a big voice in the alt-right firmament. I asked him whether there was a clear contradiction in a movement including staunch opponents of identity politics—even in their most basic form, which for instance leads to the formation of an African-American interest group such as the NAACP—and people who embrace identity politics for white people. He shot back: “The alt-right has never railed against identity politics. You are confusing us with conservatives, who abhor them. To a certain extent, the alt-right is what happens when the Right accepts the post-ideological reality of identity politics in multiracial and multicultural societies. “History suggests there is no reason to believe that the European homelands would not be considerably better off in most aspects of society if left to their own devices,” he continued, going on to make a strange claim: “Been to Paris lately? All that diversity is turning it into a dangerous, filthy place that no one even wants to visit.”
* The more media-savvy alt-righters began making the most of the newfound attention on the movement, but others were tuning out. With ethno-nationalists like Spencer and conspiracy theorists like Jones and Cernovich increasingly competing to becoming the faces of the alt-right, some were jumping ship. Paul Gottfried, for example, rued ever having been linked with the movement. “My presumed association with the alt-right has contributed to my professional isolation,” he told me via email. “In the last six months literary agents and publishers have begun to treat my communications as SPAM and have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with me. As a septuagenarian scholar who has published thirteen books, most of which are read in translation, I am appalled by this reaction.”21
Gottfried was also distancing himself from Spencer, who he said was involved in organizing the Mencken Club but “only stayed on for a few years before dropping out”:
“One of the incidents that may have suggested to him that the group would not suit his purpose was the ready acceptance for membership of a black applicant who had been faithfully coming to our meetings. Although as a member of the board he objected, his objection went nowhere with the other board members. Critical points on which I disagree with Richard, as his views have become more crystallized, are his leftist social views … and his saddling of non-whites with responsibility for what white Westerners have done. For me it seems ridiculous to go after black or brown people for the multicultural, PC plague that is afflicting the West. It’s whites who have done this to themselves.”
* Compared to doxxing Hollywood stars, spasmodic private “investigations,” or giddily memeing a presidential candidate who may actually retweet your stuff, day-to-day politics is boring. And most of the rank-and-file channer-level alt-righters are energized not by the long plod that wins ground wars, but by big online battles. Post-Trump, they promptly went on a losing streak in big elections in other Western democracies, such as Holland, France, and Britain, showing up their weakness and relative geographic isolation. At the most basic level, the mostly American and British meme warriors failed to grasp the politics of the foreign countries they targeted, and woefully lacked the language and cultural skills needed to come up with messages that hit home. After their chosen candidates disappointed in those votes, the movement’s mass mind quickly moved on, looking for the next scrap. The dream of “taking over the Republican Party” with flash mobs and 24/7 streaming video of candidates’ lives—ideas that were once seriously discussed in the wake of Trump’s victory—were, only a few short months into the new administration, already beginning to evaporate like a fever dream from a much stranger time.
* In 2017 we witnessed the snuffing out of a brief and frightening glimmer of possibility, that the alt-right could grow into something resembling a conventional political force. But in its tactics, ideas, and personalities, it has opened up and shown to the world a box of assorted deplorables and long-dormant ideas which will have deep and unpredictable effects for years. The movement’s first phase is over. In fact, by the time you read these words, it will no doubt have morphed into something completely different—a rump of serious white nationalists perhaps, or the last remnants of a toxic paranoid fringe endlessly circulating YouTube videos among themselves. The campus warriors might succeed in changing their ecosystem and ushering in a new conservative cultural wave—although before that happens they probably need to get some decent tunes.