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The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together

Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

August 22, 2017
9 min read

Nazi salutes as alt-right leader Richard Spencer speaks
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, the Associated Press (AP) has updated its style guide to change the standard usage of the term ‘alt-right’. The guide, widely followed across the US media, first added the term in November of last year, after Donald Trump won the presidential election, revealing the alt-right to be more than an electoral flash in the pan.

The update added anti-Semitism to the original definition. It now reads:

‘A political grouping or tendency mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism; a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States.’

Both the original and updated AP definitions resemble early attempts to explain fascism in the decades following the second world war. Like the style guide versions, early writers focused attention on regime or movement attributes. This approach, often employing lists of various sizes, proved either too inclusive, or not inclusive enough.

Subsequent attempts to define fascism can be divided into two rough camps. One, now associated with Robert O. Paxton, explained fascism in terms of its ascent to social and, eventually, political power. The other, generally attributed to Roger Griffin, explained fascism as having a minimal ideological essence.

Both approaches can be useful now, to look beyond haphazard attempts to keep up with the various hatreds and styles of the alt-right (ideological sexism and transphobia could be added to the above definition, for example) to distill the ideological commitment around which the alt-right centers: namely, eugenics.

Ascent to power

By now, the genesis of the term ‘alt-right’ is well known: it originated around 2008, when either Paul Gottfried or Richard Spencer employed the term to describe the wide array of right-wingers who saw themselves as outside of, and marginalised by, the conservative mainstream. That same year, Spencer, Colin Liddell, and Andy Nowicki received $5,000 from hate site VDARE to start a blog.

When ‘’ launched in 2010, the groundwork had already been laid to constitute the alt-right into a cohesive, if not coherent, movement. In the early 2000s, the paleoconservatives – with whom Spencer cut his teeth – had ushered libertarians towards their platform against free trade and immigration. At the same time, white nationalists – whom Spencer eventually joined in their call for a white ethnostate – were signing the New Orleans Protocol, a pact between previously bickering factions to never punch right and to maintain a polite and non-violent decorum.

By 2010, a vast infrastructure of blogs, think-tanks, and civic organizations had been built up. This network facilitated a coordinated far-right response to the building of an Islamic Center six blocks from the former World Trade Center site, which included sustained anti-mosque protests and Qur’an burnings across the United States.

The viciously sexist ‘manosphere’ began establishing its own web presence, through The Spearhead, A Voice for Men, and Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) among others. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was vociferously protesting taxes and defending the for-profit healthcare system, while sharing artistic Hitlerisations of Obama and shouting racial slurs at congresspeople.

In 2012, a year after Spencer was appointed head of the National Policy Institute, a 17-year old boy named Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a known racist and self-appointed armed Neighborhood Watch patrolman. Right-wing and tabloid media sought out photos of Martin in macho poses, described his demeanor as ‘thuggish’, and implied that the hoodie he was wearing on the night of his murder made him look suspicious, demonising the teen with racist dog-whistles. When Zimmerman was acquitted a year later, protests reignited around the country.

By 2013, the relentless murders of Black people by police carried momentum from Trayvon Martin rallies into the Black Lives Matter movement. As the protests escalated to highway blockades and property damage, opponents called for – and committed – vigilante violence.

As the Council of Conservative Citizens and American Renaissance churned out stories and statistics of Black criminality, many on the right, including Dylann Roof and Chris Cantwell, were radicalised into white nationalism.

Meanwhile, though receiving less media attention, the manufactured ‘Gamergate’ controversy prompted men to harass women through rape threats, doxxing, and swatting campaigns.

Having built up a white nationalist and paleoconservative milieu around the sleeker contraction ‘alt-right’, Spencer and others sought to harness the masculine internet rage of Gamergate. A Silicon Valley-based movement called Neoreaction, which extended the logic of libertarianism to argue that a single corporation ought to run a racial slave state, bridged the ideological gap between Gamergate and the alt-right. Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and former Business Insider chief technology officer Pax Dickinson are just two high-profile figures associated with Neoreaction.

In 2015, after the intentionally offensive ‘Draw Mohammed’ contest in Texas was disrupted by armed men claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, various independent militia members organised another wave of anti-mosque protests – this time with rifles and white nationalists.

Then, one day after Donald Trump announced his intention to run for president, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine Black parishioners. While most recoiled in horror in response to Roof’s crimes, a far-right conservative movement was galvanised against subsequent calls to remove the Confederate flag from public spaces. The combined messages of ‘free speech’, heritage, and racial bigotry created just the platform for the increasingly broad alt-right to catapult themselves into the centre of conservative discourse.

The ever-changing list of bigotries espoused by the alt-right are not its defining characteristic. Each emerges from the core commitment to eugenics

By Halloween 2015, the National Policy Institute had a record attendance at its increasingly frequent conference, selling out of discounted tickets for attendees under 30.

After Hillary Clinton delivered a speech denouncing the alt-right as a ‘basket of deplorables’ in August 2016, Google search trends for ‘alt-right’ increased exponentially. They peaked again when Spencer delivered a speech in Washington DC, shouting Hitler’s invocation ‘hail victory’ in response to Trump’s election win, as his audience gave Nazi salutes.

The alt-right alliance

As this potted history reveals, the alt-right, fractious as it may be, was the result of numerous fragile alliances and unlikely coalitions. While white nationalists ultimately united the alt-right, that work did not necessarily translate into support for white nationalism, as internal denunciations of its origins reveal. The alt-right is, however, united in its commitment to eugenics.

Eugenics, the infamous Nazi-supported pseudo-science, is a belief that data proves biological or cultural explanations for differential social outcomes. The term is only explicitly embraced by the alt-right’s racist core, which publishes ‘academic’ books through a variety of financially-connected publishing houses (including the National Policy Institute’s own Washington Summit Publishers). The historical eugenics, however, also extended to theories of gender and economic status, which have been embraced by the other segments of the alt-right. Eugenics theory posits that race, gender, and class determine intelligence and that any attempt to balance social outcomes – for example, through affirmative action – upends the meritocracy of ‘natural selection’.

These three axes, race, gender and class, can be seen in the alt-right’s three major segments: the white nationalist-fascist nexus, the manosphere-tribalism nexus, and the libertarian-neoreactionary nexus. Although these movements are ideologically distinct, they converge when taken to their conclusion: domination through triumph.

Until the massacre in Charlottesville, the alt-right had managed to put aside its glaring differences in the conception of political praxis because of this shared faith in eugenics. In theory, fascists, tribalists, and libertarians should not get along. Fascists detest the chaos of the market and love futuristic technology. Tribalists detest social contracts of any sort and reliance on anyone, much less the government. Libertarians detest any sort of government planning and acquisitive violence.

Yet despite different theories of ideal governance circulating within the alt-right, each of the overlapping factions believes that its preferred social configuration can ensure a eugenic society: fascists through state intervention, tribalists through physical struggle, and libertarians through market forces. That the alt-right was ever able to manage to get these disparate factions to support each other (and further blend together) is an incredible feat.

The constant flux among these groups within the alt-right is something definitions like the AP’s style guide fail to capture or anticipate. The ever-changing list of bigotries espoused by the alt-right are not its defining characteristic. Each emerges from the core commitment to eugenics, which operates as the basis of its recruiting strategy.

The framework of eugenics allows a shifting of focus from particulars about governance or bigotry to innate ability and natural hierarchy in the abstract. The danger in merely listing what the alt-right has been is losing sight of where it’s going next.

Mike Isaacson is a lecturer at John Jay College and an anti-fascist researcher. Download his latest zine, ‘You Can’t Punch Every Nazi’.

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