WASHINGTON — Old-guard racists like David Duke aren’t the only white nationalists to have been encouraged by Donald Trump’s candidacy this year: His bid has also provided a tremendous boost to a newer movement calling itself the “alt right.”
Up until now, the alt right labored mostly in obscurity, its internal fights and debates hidden from anyone who wasn’t directly looking for them. But all that’s starting to change, and it’s only getting stronger.
“This is really a phenomenon that’s been happening over the last year,” said Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute. “2015 has been huge.”
The movement probably doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. The alt right is loosely connected, and mostly online. The white nationalists of the alt right share more in common with European far-right movements than American ones. This is a movement that draws upon relatively obscure political theories like neoreaction or the “Dark Enlightenment,” which reject the premises on which modernity is built, like democracy and egalitarianism. But it’s not all so high-minded as that. Take a glance at the #altright hashtag on Twitter or at The Right Stuff, an online hub of the movement, and you’ll find a penchant for aggressive rhetoric and outright racial and anti-Semitic slurs, often delivered in the arch, ironic tones common to modern internet discourse. Trump is a hero on the alt right and the subject of many adoring memes and tweets.
In short, it’s white supremacy perfectly tailored for our times: 4chan-esque racist rhetoric combined with a tinge of Silicon Valley–flavored philosophizing, all riding on the coattails of the Trump boom.
Spencer himself can claim credit for coining the term “alt right”; in 2010, he founded AlternativeRight.com, which is now RadixJournal. But he says the term has gotten a second life in the past year due to a confluence of external factors. “I think it has a lot to do with Trump,” he said. “I think the refugee crisis is also an inspiration. I just think things have gotten so real.”
Jared Taylor, the American Renaissance founder who along with Spencer is considered one of the chiefs of the intellectual wing of white nationalism, also acknowledged Trump’s influence, but said, “It doesn’t have to do only with Trump,” citing Black Lives Matter and “the current rowdiness on college campuses” as other inspirations.
“I think it goes by a lot of different names,” Taylor said. “I consider it a dissident right as well.”
Spencer believes the alt right is “deeply connected” with his work. “I would say that what I’m doing is we’re really trying to build a philosophy, an ideology around identity, European identity,” he said, “and I would say that the alt right is a kind of the take-no-prisoners Twitter troopers of that.”
The alt right’s targets don’t include just liberals, blacks, Jews, women, Latinos, and Muslims, who are all classified a priori as objects of suspicion. (Though this has not gone unnoticed: “It’s definitely something we’re aware of and tracking,” said Marilyn Mayo, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “There are more white supremacists who are defining themselves as part of the alt right.”)
The alt right’s real objective, if one can be identified, is to challenge and dismantle mainstream conservatism.
It’s in part responsible for the spread of the “cuckservative” slur that gained currency over the summer and likely originated in forums on sites like My Posting Career and The Right Stuff, and has come to define a far-right contempt for conservatives they view as weak or sellouts — often those who oppose Trump.
So far, they haven’t garnered much attention from mainstream conservative figures, though they’ve begun to intersect a bit with national political commentary.
“You are on fire tonight, Alt Right!” conservative commentator Ann Coulter tweeted in August at an account called @_AltRight_ whose current avatar is a photo of Front National scion Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Coulter’s rant about Jews over the summer was met with approval by Spencer. Her public persona has become more and more tied to a kind of white identity politics; Coulter’s book Adios America! may have had some influence on Donald Trump’s hard right turn on immigration, and her Twitter feed has lately seemed of a piece with alt right ideas about America being a white nation (“All trying to imitate Trump on immigration, but it's not just security!!! Its CULTURE!!!! See Miami, Houston, Nashville etc etc”) and secretive Jewish influence (“I love how the media assumes all Americans know Yiddish.”)
Asked about the alt right and Trump, Coulter told BuzzFeed News in an email: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but Trump’s support is quite a bit larger than any one small slice of the electorate, much less a small slice of the right-wing electorate. how about covering the surprisingly large support for trump in the black community? THAT’S a story.” Coulter told BuzzFeed News later that she wasn’t familiar with the movement and is “not a member of any group that calls itself the ‘alt right,’ and don’t know anyone who calls himself ‘alt-right.’”
(Upon receiving explanation of what the alt right is, including a link to a description in a Daily Beast piece, Coulter wrote the following: "Oh a 'white power' movement. okay, I see where this is going. if there are people out there who support trump because they are for 'white power' (daily beast) that says nothing about me or donald trump, any more than it says something about bernie sanders that some of his supporters were undoubtedly fans of stalin’s show trails, the soviet invasion of hungary and the assassination of raoul wallenberg. Hillary endorsed #blacklivesmatter, but I will allow that the majority of hillary’s supporters probably don’t support the murder of police. lots of her supporters absolutely do – and cop-killers have murdered a lot more ppl this year than any 'white power' types have. I retweeted that tweet because it’s funny.")
Rush Limbaugh praised the alt right on his show earlier this month, though he didn’t appear to know what it was; a caller called in and described a vague version of it, saying, “There’s a group of younger people called ‘the alt right.’ And it started in the last few years in Europe because of the Muslim invasion.” Still, it put the term on the air for Limbaugh’s millions of listeners to hear.
Despite these glimmers of something approaching recognition, the alt right remains proudly outside of the mainstream. For Richard Spencer, the alt right is a rejection of the intellectual conservatism of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“We don’t have a starting point with William F. Buckley, we don’t have the same starting point as Richard Lowry and Jonah Goldberg and National Review,” Spencer said. The alt right is “radically different from George W. Bush, the conservative movement, etc. It really was a notion of an alternative.”
The alt right’s current moment in the sun has actually been a long time coming. The movement is undergirded by some of the ideas espoused by Dark Enlightenment or neoreactionary thinkers like the English philosopher Nick Land and the the American computer programmer Curtis Yarvin (aka “Mencius Moldbug”). Land and Yarvin have for years espoused a rejection of democracy and a return to traditional authoritarian structures. But the Dark Enlightenment thinkers are the definition of inaccessible; both Land and Yarvin’s writings are eye-glazingly verbose. A representative Land sentence, from his manifesto on the Dark Enlightenment: “The war on political incorrectness creates data-empowered, web-coordinated, paranoid and poly-conspiratorial werewolves, superbly positioned to take advantage of liberal democracy’s impending rendezvous with ruinous reality, and to then play their part in the unleashing of unpleasantnesses that are scarcely imaginable (except by disturbing historical analogy).”
The alt right’s genius is in dispensing with the self-marginalizing pseudo-intellectual stuff and getting straight to the point, and not in the creaky hit-you-over-the-head fashion of, say, Stormfront, but the slangy and freewheeling argot of the internet in 2015. The Right Stuff has a page devoted to the lexicon of the alt right, a collection of terms that pop up frequently on Twitter once you know what to look for. “Fash,” for example, for fascist. “Merchant” for Jews. “Dindu nuffins” for “an obviously guilty black man.” Where neoreactionary thinkers refer to “the Cathedral” as shorthand for the politically correct elite establishment, The Right Stuff is more pointed in calling it “the Synagogue.” Rare Pepes, the frog meme native to 4chan, are common. The Right Stuff forums are rife with memes targeting, for example, Jeb Bush as a weakling (a recent Bush-related thread is titled “Suicide Watch Headquarters”) and portraying Trump as a hero (see “Memes of Der Trumpenfuhrer”). The culture clearly draws on 4chan — the /pol/ board is another hub.
This can all make it difficult to discern who’s a real racist and who’s a troll doing it to be edgy, as Ken White, the lawyer and blogger at Popehat and a keen observer of politics on the internet, pointed out. The Popehat Twitter feed, co-run by White, has described alt right as “white supremacy for people with soft hands.”
“It’s really hard to tease out the genuine white nationalists from the trolls,” White told BuzzFeed News, but, “at a certain point, the distinction isn’t meaningful. If you spend all day saying white nationalist things online but you claim you’re doing it ironically, it’s not clear to me what the difference really is.”
“They’re a lot more internet savvy, a lot more immersed in internet culture as well as mainstream culture, and they’re relatively good at using those tools to get their message out,” White said.
One of the central figures on the alt right internet is Paul Ramsey, a 52-year-old in Oklahoma who makes YouTube videos as RamzPaul. He agreed to an interview with BuzzFeed News on one condition: that he would record it.
I agreed to his terms, and interviewed him over the phone about the alt right movement and his role in it. Right after we got off the phone, Ramsey started tweeting about me and the interview. Immediately, a stream of anti-Semitic tweets came my way, without a word of this story having yet been written or published: “Oy vey! Look at that nose! I can’t imagine this ending well,” read one. “She looks like she echos,” read another, using a slang term on the alt right for being Jewish (see: The Right Stuff’s glossary). “She @RosieGray interviewed me once my .1% Jewish DNA results were published. We MOTs stick together,” Ramsey himself tweeted. Ramsey tweeted about my being “nice” and exhorted his followers to be nice to me in turn, but he also tweeted about how he planned to post the recording online so his followers could assess it — a not-so-subtle invitation to troll me.
Ramsey characterized the alt right as being neither mainstream conservatism nor neo-Nazism. As an example of the differences between the alt-right and neo-Nazis, he stated that the 14/88 crowd (14 for the “14 words” white supremacist slogan and 88 as shorthand for “Heil Hitler”) don’t like Trump because his daughter is Jewish (Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism), whereas the alt right doesn't care about this and generally support Trump for his policies. Ramsey objects to the word “supremacist,” saying he’s a nationalist and doesn’t hate other people or think he’s better than them. He repeatedly invoked the example of Israel as a template of the kind of nationalism he seeks for the United States. In keeping with the alt right’s affinity for European identity movements, Ramsey often visits Europe and said he has recently been in Romania and Hungary, though he said he isn’t affiliated with any specific groups there.
I pressed him on the ideological specifics of the alt right. For example, does he believe that the Holocaust happened?
“I believe it should be able to be discussed, let me put it that way,” Ramsey said. “And that’s because — and it depends what you mean by the Holocaust. Do you mean that 6 million figure? You know that 6 million figure has been used many times before World War II, did you know that?”
Ramsey framed the alt right is part of a nationalist struggle against globalism — “Do we want to have a global entity or self-determination?” But on the topic of how his ideal United States, a country of people of white European heritage, could be achieved despite the fact that the country is currently racially diverse — a topic that inevitably leads to questions about the use of violence — Ramsey was vague. “These things are kind of organic in that when people are free, they tend to organically make communities,” he said, citing Trump’s immigration policy as the kind of move that constitutes an important first step.
He’s not the only one for whom the actual political project is a little hard to pin down.
“If I had to take a political position, I'd say that I'm pro-secession,” said Jack Donovan, a writer associated with the alt right who is known for his writings about masculinity. “America is too big. The U.S. government is bloated and there is too much money in the game. I think smaller is better, and I'd like to see America break up along its natural dividing lines.”
“Personally, I am focused on building tribal networks of interdependent people who share my values, culture, and heritage — using immigrant communities as an example. I can't control what hand-puppet legislators do or say, but I can control my own social world,” Donovan said.
Michael Anissimov, another writer associated with the neoreactionary movement, recently proposed a solution in an ebook manifesto titled The Idaho Project. It’s about his plan to move to a rural area in Idaho and invite other people to live with him whom he “personally gets along with.”
“This book proposes an alternative point of view called enclavism, the idea that we should create our own desired societies by coalescing in low-population, defensible regions of the United States like Idaho,” the book’s blurb on Amazon states.
Nebulous future secession plans aside, the real juice for the alt right is in today’s political moment. Donald Trump has been the Republican front-runner for over five months, and shows few signs of slowing down. For Spencer, this is a vindicating moment.
“He’s bigger than the conservative movement, he’s bigger than the GOP establishment, and he’s proven that you don’t have to play their game,” Spencer said. “And I think that’s inspiring and liberating for a lot of alt righters.”
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.