Much has been written about the so-called “alt-right”. The term has been used to describe quite different phenomena.
Depending on whose analysis you support, the alt-right could be disaffected young white men resurrecting fascist politics on a foundation of social media meme-culture irony. Or a PR ploy by classical fascists of various stripes pitching both for edginess and a mainstream platform. Or a meaningless epithet slapped, with little explanatory value, onto a scurrying cluster of various far-right fringe groups suddenly given prominence by a presidential regime which has seemingly adopted many of their policies.
Prominent fascist Richard Spencer, whose dress sense and haircut have made him the darling of the US media, much of which appears inexplicably obsessed with repeatedly interviewing him, claims to have coined the term. Spencer’s fascism, by his own lights, is more “classical” than that of neo-Nazis, who he professes to disdain and who — so he claimed in an interview, moments before he was excellently punched by an anti-fascist activist — hate him. He cites Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola as a key influence, and asserts a “white ethno-state” as his aim.
A wider survey of the claimed philosophical underpinnings of the more would-be “serious” alt-right figures would take in the “neo-reactionary”, “dark enlightenment” theories of Nick Land and Curtis Yarvin, who in turn draw on the work of the Russian fascist and Putin ally Aleksandr Dugin, who has helped bind Russia’s ultra-nationalist right to Putin’s political project. Putin himself is an idol for many in Spencer’s milieu, as is Bashar al-Assad, who is venerated as a model authoritarian leader and bulwark against Islamic terrorism, held to be a singular epochal threat. It is a worldview riddled with contradiction, professing an explicitly backward-looking hostility to modern society, and a pining for “traditional values”, while being profoundly rooted in contemporary communication technology and social media.
The American far right has always been wildly heterogeneous, encompassing Nazis; militant white-supremacist “churches”; and indigenous far-right traditions such as the Ku Klux Klan and nativist “sovereign citizen” militias. The presence in its front ranks of besuited men who claim to abhor swastika-sporting skinheads may appear novel; however, footage of Spencer croaking “hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” from the rostrum of a conference held shortly after the election, while members of the audience gave Nazi salutes, tells its own story.
The “alt-right” could be said to exist at the point of intersection between this neo-fascist milieu — its journals, “think tanks”, conferences, and so on — and the internet activity of young white men tilting at what they see as the liberal, multicultural values of an America from which they feel increasingly excluded. Quite how hegemonic or deeply-embedded those values could be said to have been in a pre-Trump America which, despite its black president, was still deeply riven with racial inequality, is another question. Matt McManus in New Politics argues that: “The alt-right emerged as the product of complex conditions in society, but its first instantiations were online. Individuals felt increasingly alienated in a society which no longer conformed to their expectations, often dealing with disappointment at their inability to live up to the American Dream in a climate of economic decline.” (‘Walter Benjamin and the Political Practises of the Alt-Right’, New Politics, 27 December 2017)
Attempting to extrapolate conclusions about a political phenomenon from the online behaviours of its adherents (as many people have criticised Angela Nagle for appearing to do in her recent book on the alt-right, Kill All Normies, which I will confess to not having read) would be facile. Tumblr, 4Chan, and Reddit have not created a revival of far-right politics in America. But those already feeling some sense of social disaffection, and resentment at not having access to the opportunities to which they believe their racial and gender privilege should entitle them, may well find both an echo of and a means of expressing that disaffection in contemporary social media culture. What is the relationship, then, between these politics and the Trump administration? Is Trump’s an “alt-right” regime?
His former adviser Steve Bannon, like Spencer, openly cites Evola as an influence on his worldview. Under Bannon’s stewardship, the sensationalist right-wing news platform Breitbart explicitly promoted itself as a platform for the alt-right.
Although Trump has broken with Bannon, there is no doubt that Bannon was a key architect of the political vision that animated the Trump campaign. The far right in the USA rallied round and was enthused by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in a way perhaps never before seen for a candidate of one of America’s two mainstream parties. Not only Evola-loving neo-fascists like Spencer, but also more traditional far-right figures like Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, and former KKK leader David Duke, rallied to Trump’s banner. These are not abstract political phenomena. They have had measurable, and tragic, material expression.
In the last year, murders by white supremacists in America more than doubled, to 20. The “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 brought hundreds of protestors, representing the gamut of far-right movements and sects, onto the streets, many of them armed. A socialist counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was murdered when a fascist drove his car into a counter-demo. 19 others were injured.
A sense of historical perspective is helpful: the numbers that the fascists are capable of mobilising do not approach those of, for example, William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion of America (the Silver Shirts), perhaps America’s most “successful” fascist movement, which claimed 15,000 members at its height. This is almost certainly an exaggerated figure. The Silver Shirts were still a force capable of mobilising in numbers that the contemporary far right do not yet command. There is, however, no room for complacency. However we analyse the “alt-right”, the resurgence of the far right is real, and could accelerate. The US left and labour movement must rediscover its best traditions of anti-fascist direct action and working-class self-defence.
The fight against a growing fascist threat must also be a fight to change the social conditions which have incubated it.