It is difficult to actually ascertain what it is.
Like much that has come of age in our postmodern times, amidst the proliferation of technology and social media, it is hard to affix this label to anything in particular.
Let’s start with what we do know. It appears that the term was coined in a speech in 2008 and was popularized by Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute (“NPI”). NPI is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.” Even this statement of purpose could lend itself to virulent or innocuous interpretations. Breitbart News tends to amplify some of the voices from this movement.
Without a coherent or identifiable set of beliefs, tracing the movement’s intellectual history is dicey at best. Its emphasis on nationalism tends to resemble the paleo-conservatism of Pat Buchanan and others. With its disdain of political correctness (“PC”), it also shares some similarities with the iconoclastic cartoon, South Park. While President-elect Donald Trump was supported by much of the movement, he directly disavowed it in a recent interview with The New York Times.
Collecting the various threads of the alt-right movement, we can rightly assess the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the movement.
The good. Inasmuch as the alt-right is joining on South Park’s skewering of PC culture, it is providing a tangible benefit to society. The problem with PC is not found primarily in its extreme views on a whole host of issues, but in its chilling, if not outright, suppression of free speech. If there is a universal tenet of the alt-right, it is to not allow such a monopoly to exist in the marketplace of ideas. Many pundits wonder if much of the rhetoric from the alt-right is more of an attempt to troll and expose the excesses of the PC culture than anything else.
The alt-right may have also helped in focusing our media and society more on the role of culture. Beneath every political change is a cultural change and we should not accept any wholesale changes unflinchingly. These changes are outpacing our ability to critically engage and analyze them and small town America, in particular, is feeling the pinch. When speaking of American culture—one founded and oriented upon its governing ideals—it is right to question those things that may compromise such a culture.
The bad. There is a sense in which the alt-right preys as much upon ignorance as upon the PC culture of the coastal elites. In both cases, social media becomes an enclosed echo chamber, reinforcing ill-informed views and prejudices and excluding voices that could call such views to account. At minimum, these movements foster anti-intellectualism and a lack of nuance. It is just as easy for the alt-right to blame immigrants for a corrupted culture as for the PC elites to blame racist whites for a corrupted culture. Neither movement is prone to reflect upon the loss of cohesive family structures, the transmission of values to children, or the role of personal depravity.
The alt-right also goes beyond the trolling and intimidation of the PC culture when they target people — especially conservatives — out of step with their movement. David French painfully detailed the harassment from sick-minded individuals that he and his family received. For all of their disdain for the PC culture, many within the alt-right have no problem making life miserable for those who disagree with them.
The ugly. There is also a virulent strain of white supremacism at work within the alt-right. Nationalism, when coupled with ethnicity, becomes downright racism. We must display caution here (in a way that many in the alt-right do not): not all of the alt-right are white supremacists. It would be supremely unfair to loop President-elect Trump in with this group simply because they supported him. Even Steve Bannon—former Breitbart editor and current Trump advisor—should not be called a white supremacist for expressing sympathy toward some of alt-rights aims, like nationalism.
At the same time, we cannot entirely decouple Bannon and others from the more virulent strains. When popular pundits like Ann Coulter can peddle in the language of the alt-right—using terms like “cuckservative,” for example—she is peddling those virulent views into the mainstream. By providing outlets for elements of this movement that are far beyond the paleoconservative pale, figures like Coulter are generating greater publicity and acceptance for it.
The GOP, in particular, must be especially concerned about this movement. It lends itself to the outdated stereotype of the GOP as the racist, misogynistic party. There is nothing wrong with being a nationalist—in fact, renewed patriotism and concern for our national well-being should be strongly encouraged. One can be an anti-PC iconoclast, however, without engaging in the same level of mockery that one would typically expect of the elites. The GOP should carefully distinguish between the populist movement, which swept Trump into power, and the alt-right—and then excise the latter.