The latest term to be coined by political pundits and liberals as well as conservatives of various stripes is “alt-right.” I have had a short back-and-forth conversation with some of my Bereans colleagues and read a few articles on this phenomenon. Well, guess what, I can’t find agreement on it. Is it a “real” phenomenon (I will explain “real” below)? Is it “right”? Is it a coherent set of ideas? If it does exist as some sort of coherent movement of ideology, how large is it? And what are we to make of the interesting fact the Southern Poverty Law Center seems to label almost everyone with whom they disagree as alt-right?
I do not believe I will get agreement on my own view, either among all my colleagues or some commenters on this site. Nevertheless, I am going to try to characterize what I think is happening.
First, it is impossible at this time to find any in-depth study of this alleged ideology. At least I have not found one. But that makes sense. It really just sprang on the scene as a label about a year or two ago. When it did, people began looking around to find these so-called alt-righters. The bottom line here is that it would help a lot if we had a serious, unbiased (insofar as that is possible), and scholarly study of the phenomenon called alt-right. We probably won’t get that for a year or two, assuming the interest in the topic lasts. Nevertheless, historical perspective is important and that takes a few years to get.
Second, is this phenomenon “real”? By that I mean: Is it an actual coherent ideology that consists of enough people with enough idea held in common that could be labeled as different from other ideologies like conservatism, modern liberalism, socialism, etc.? This is always the rub. This writer identifies one person as alt-right, another writer alleges someone else is alt-right, and so on it goes. But first, are there enough people to “make a movement.” I doubt I could claim a movement by getting even all my interns to declare that we are the monarchist group. That would be 15, but obviously we need more than that. I am not saying there might not be more so-called alt-right people than a mere fifteen, but that needs to be more precisely determined after a more precise definition.
Third, as I implied above, definitions are crucial. Can we find a set of core beliefs among a large enough group to say there really is a definable alt-right ideology? For definitional purposes we need some common ideas. So what ideas are claimed to be held by this alt-right? That depends on whom you read. The Southern Poverty Law Center includes white supremacy or white nationalism as one element. But how many people does that describe? Alt-Right also gets an entry in Wikipedia, and we know how accurate that source is (by the way, it is accurate by and large for older subjects, those clearly settled, and the sources at the end of articles are also pretty good). But here we are talking about an alleged ideology that is barely a couple of years old in importance, let alone existence. Here is a sentence from Wikipedia: “Generally alt-right postings support Republican President-elect Donald Trump,] and oppose immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness.” Well, it does seem to be the case that many who voted for Trump, who oppose loos immigration standards, and who also oppose what are called multiculturalism and political correctness, are called alt-right. But that describes millions of people. So by that partial definition, almost anyone who voted for Trump or holds some views opposed to Leftist views is now alt-right.
Some sources add other characteristics to the definition: white nationalism (Tierney McAfee, Benjamin Wallace-Wells), white supremacism (Abby Ohlheiser), anti-Semitism (Cathy Young), right-wing populism (Benjamin Wallace-Wells), nativism (Jason Wilson), “masculinism,” conspiracy theory and nihilism (Andrew Marantz), collectivism and tribalism (Robert Tracinski), political correctness (Nicole Hemmer), and a general disgust with establishment politics (Cathy Young). To be sure, one could say that there are people who hold any one or a combination of these ideas. But does that make a coherent ideology? I am having trouble even reconciling some of these alleged views with each other. In other words, alt-right doesn’t sound very coherent.
But there is more. The Guardian traces the alt-right back to the New Right and its alleged “ethno-Nationalism.” (Jason Wilson,(August 23, 2016). “‘A sense that white identity is under attack’: making sense of the alt-right”. The Guardian. Retrieved November 16, 2016). Matthew Sheffield wrote that the alt-right was influenced by anarcho-capitalism and paleolibertarianism (mainly through writers like Murray Rothbard) (see “Where Did Donald Trump Get His Radicalized Rhetoric? From Libertarians,” Washington Post (September 2, 2016, Retrieved November 16, 2016). Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education argued that the alt-right “inherits a long and dreary tradition of thought from Friedrich Hegel to Thomas Carlyle to Oswald Spengler to Madison Grant to Othmar Spann to Giovanni Gentile to Trump’s speeches.” (“Five Differences Between the Alt-Right and Libertarianism,” FEE (August 26, 2016), Retrieved November 16, 2016). Finally, David French, a conservative characterized the alt-right as frustrated fascists (“The Race-Obsessed Left Has Released a Monster It Can’t Control,” National Review (January 26, 2016), retrieved November 16, 2016).
I am sure that clarifies the definition of the alt-right. Again, one can of course find individuals and even very small groups of individuals who “hang around” together and who hold some sub-set of the views mentioned above. But that does not a movement or an ideology make. My own view Is that too many have allowed organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (those mainly on the Left) or otherwise measured writers like David French on the Right to define what is not really definable—at least not yet. Time will tell whether any such coherent ideology will persist. In the meantime I would characterize many of those who voted for and supported Donald Trump as some combination of Populism (itself sometimes difficult to define, but at least long-recognized) and some sort of Paleo-Conservatism (not paleolibertarianism). But please feel free to disagree. I don’t think I have settled anything.