The term Alternative Right, created by ultra-rightist and white supremacist ideologue Richard Spencer, has gained traction in recent years, especially with the election and presidency of Donald Trump. While the term may be relatively new, the ideologies it describes have deep and abiding roots in American society.
The pedigree of the Alt-Right is a subject we need to examine and understand if we are to have any hope of comprehending the emergence of ultra-rightist populism. The various strands of ideological currents that make up the Alternative Right have existed in American capitalist society for decades; the Trumpist version of white supremacist anti-immigrant populism did not arise out of nowhere.
The terrorism of the ultra-right
Firstly, let us clarify some glaring omissions and hypocrisies that arise whenever the subject of the ultra-right and its terrorism is discussed. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States (along with other capitalist countries) has fixated almost exclusively on the menace of what is routinely called ‘Islamic terrorism’.
This term, while commonplace, is inaccurate. I do not wish to associate the entire culture, religion, Arabic language and civilisation of Islam with something as repulsive and deplorable as terrorism. There is no intent to deflect attention from the violent practices of groups such as Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra and similar terroristic formations that employ Islamic symbols and language to rationalise their actions.
This obsessive focus on global terrorism that originates from Islamically-inspired groups diverts necessary attention and resources away from the growing, evolving and more dangerous elephant in the room – ultra-rightist domestic terror groups. The Charlottesville attack in 2017 demonstrated that the terrorism of white supremacist and neo-Confederate organisations is large and increasing.
The ideologies that motivated the neo-Nazi attacker in Charlottesville have coalesced into the Alternative Right. The New York Times did ask its readers, back in June 2017, to consider the menace of terrorism from the far-right. While the authors did list a number of domestic terrorist incidents carried out by ultra-rightist militants, it did leave out a number of important points.
The New York Times did not dig into the underlying ideologies that motivate far-right groups to recruit members and to carry out acts of violence. The numbers speak for themselves – far-right groups and white supremacist organisations have killed a larger number of victims than Islamically-based militants. Al Jazeera published, in November 2017, a powerful and engaging summary of ultra-right domestic terrorism in the article “Killed by Hate: Victims of America’s far-right violence.” The Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally in August 2017 was only the latest in an increasing trend of far-rightist domestic terrorist attacks against African Americans, Muslims, Jews, Hispanics and other ethnic and religious minorities.
When President Trump, in November 2017, presented his national security strategy, he made the following blanket assertion:
jihadist terrorist organizations present the most dangerous terrorist threat to the Nation.
You may read this quote, and the entire national security strategy document, via the web page of Professor Juan Cole here. Trump is the president, so he can say whatever he likes. However, as a public elected official, he should expect that his claims will be examined – closely.
If they turn out to be completely inaccurate, then he should issue a retraction, and reverse the public policies which are based on that inaccuracy. Professor Cole deconstructs Trump’s statement, and demonstrates that ultra-right terrorism is the biggest threat to the American public. However, there is something else that needs to be stated.
The well-educated elite racists
It is not just the numbers that are relevant – important as they are. While we can recognise that ultra-rightist white men are the more dangerous category of terrorist than radicalised Islamist groups, there is rarely an examination of the underlying ideology that motivates far-right militants to commit these types of crimes. When Richard Spencer invented the term Alternative Right, he was not only coining a phrase, he was also highlighting a re-emerging entity – the well-educated bigot.
For too long, the neo-Nazi types, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederates and patriot militia – the footsoldiers of the ultra-right – were dismissed as a bunch of uneducated, illiterate bully boys and thugs. This image of the imbecilic white man ready with a pitchfork has an element of truth to it, but it is misleading.
Richard Spencer personifies the well-educated, well-off racist – urbane, articulate, well versed in history and philosophy, and media-conscious. Rather than the cartoonish, beer-swilling buffoon caricature of the cultural Right, here we have an educated, politically conscious bigot. Spencer does come from Dallas, Texas, a city that still honours Confederate slave-owning generals and soldiers naming public buildings and facilities after them. The Dallas financial elite is an effective incubator for spawning racial separatism and white supremacy, lessons that Spencer eagerly absorbed.
White supremacy is a historic forerunner and supporter of the Alternative Right, and the educated bigot has a long and solid history in American politics. The late William L. Pierce, a long-term white supremacist ideologue, strident antisemite and tireless organiser of the racist National Alliance, was a physics professor.
An educated man who opposed the civil rights movement and supported segregation in the 1960s, Pierce marketed himself as a white nationalist, he authored the Turner Diaries, a futuristic novel that portrays a racial war in the United States. Considered a ‘bible’ of the racist right, the book inspired a number of white supremacists to commit terrorist acts, including Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Spencer likes to claim that the Alt-Right, as an alternative to mainstream cultural conservatism, is new and improved. Actually, it is a repackaging of the three long-standing pillars of American racism – white supremacy, antisemitism and misogyny. Make no mistake, misogyny is a major part of the Alt-Right outlook; patriarchal ideas and men’s rights activism are a central and poisonous feature of the ultra-rightist landscape.
As male tribalism and the manosphere have become increasingly interlinked with the Alt-Right, the coalescing of toxic homophobia and transphobia has taken place. As Matthew Lyons put it in his article for The Guardian, the Alt-Right, building on the traditional patriarchal viewpoint, hates women just as much as it hates people of colour. Even a cursory glance at the many online forums of alt-right activism reveals a deep and abiding hatred of women and feminism. While paying lip-service to the ‘traditional family’, it is not difficult to discern the disturbing level of misogyny that motivates far-right participants.
Let us not ignore the rise and mobilisation of the ultra-right. This type of racial hatred is not only poisonous, but lethal. We must stop normalising hate, whether it be directed against racial or religious minorities, women, LGBT persons, or immigrant communities. How many more people have to die, killed by ultra-rightist hatred, before the authorities seriously tackle the ideology that motivates them? Perhaps in Donald Trump, the Alt-Right has found a mainstream political ally.