T he term “alt right” is thrown around a lot these days to account for Donald Trump’s winning the U.S. presidency. Mainstream media, blindsided by results they should have been able to predict, are deflecting blame. Many conjure a vast, shadowy, menacing group that propelled Trump to power in hidden ways. A more accurate story is more complex—and far more of a problem for the generic worldview of current mainstream media.
So what actually is the alt right?
First, there really is such a movement. Recently, I discussed efforts by alt right groups to use the recent election to promote Christian racism, aiming at white working class voters who feel disenfranchised. Just after the election, Twitter purged a number of alt right accounts, including that of Richard Spencer, head of a think tank focused on white identity and related policy issues.
“An Establishment Conservative’s Guide To The Alt-Right” by Allum Bokhari & Milo Yiannopoulos offers some background to the movement at Breitbart: The most influential thinkers they follow are Oswald Spengler (1880–1936), H.L Mencken (1880–1956), Julius Evola (1898–1974), and Sam Francis (1947–2005). None of these iconoclastic figures seems likely to become a cultural icon of typical Americans who voted for Trump. But in terms of viewpoint,
The conservative instinct, as described by Haidt, includes a preference for homogeneity over diversity, for stability over change, and for hierarchy and order over radical egalitarianism. Their instinctive wariness of the foreign and the unfamiliar is an instinct that we all share – an evolutionary safeguard against excessive, potentially perilous curiosity – but natural conservatives feel it with more intensity. They instinctively prefer familiar societies, familiar norms, and familiar institutions.
For decades, the concerns of those who cherish western culture have been openly ridiculed and dismissed as racist. The alt-right is the inevitable result. No matter how silly, irrational, tribal or even hateful the Establishment may think the alt-right’s concerns are, they can’t be ignored, because they aren’t going anywhere. As Haidt reminds us, their politics is a reflection of their natural inclinations.
True, but many people experience life that way who could by no stretch be considered alt right. For what it is worth, traditional racist groups are typically moribund. White supremacist David Duke finished seventh in his run for Senate in Louisiana, with a vote count hard to distinguish from a rounding error.
Nor should voting for Trump be taken as an expression of sympathy with the alt right. Membership in such groups did surge in 2015 but that cannot have been the result of the Trump candidacy, because Trump was not remotely a frontrunner then. More pragmatic controversies over immigration, such as job competition, were probably the focal point. At Wired, Emma Grey Ellis quotes a white supremacist:
“Donald Trump is certainly not a member of the alt-right,” says Jared Taylor, a prominent alt-right leader and head of the white supremacist New Century Foundation. “But he seems to have instinctively, clumsily stumbled upon some of the policies that we’ve been promoting for a long time.”
Which is as much as to say that Trump does not owe these people his presidency.
In addition to typical movement journals and blogs, Taki’s Magazine is a more mainstream-friendly watering hole. To give some sense of the venue, one writer explains that it is hard to take current meltdowns around Trump seriously because Trump is now her “fourth Hitler.” Mainstream media may be paying a price for demonizing one side of political debates for so long.
Incidentally, Breitbart News, sponsor of the Guide quoted above, is reported to be preparing a lawsuit against CNN for calling it “white nationalist.” Rumours link former executive chairman of Breitbart Stephen Bannon, recently appointed to the White House cabinet, with white nationalist views. Colleagues deny the connection.
Note: I’ve read Breitbart’s informative Big Journalism page for many years and never encountered white nationalism or anti-Semitism. Newt Gingrich considers any connection between Trump and the alt right to be a media fabrication. Part of the success of the fabrication might depend on genuine confusion, as above, as to who and what the movement represents.
The alt right’s attachment to Darwinian evolution
Andrew Maranta attempts to define the movement at the decidedly unsympathetic New Yorker:
a loose online affiliation of white nationalists, neo-monarchists, masculinists, conspiracists, belligerent nihilists, and social-media trolls. The alt-right has no consistent ideology; it is a label, like “snob” or “hipster,” that is often disavowed by people who exemplify it.
But Maranta leaves one item out of the melange: Darwinism.
At Britain’s Guardian, Anglican clergyman Giles Fraser, hardly a fan either, describes it as conservatives for whom “porn and video games are replacing Christianity as the common language of American conservatives”:
These are good: Vladimir Putin. White identity politics. Star Wars. Austrian free market economics. Donald Trump. LOLs. Bitcoin. Darwinism. Silicon Valley. Science and technology. Transhumanism. Pepe the Frog.
They don’t speak of eugenics but rather of maintaining “human biodiversity”. And they have a thing about IQ tests showing that white people are cleverer than others.
So the core alt right constituency is disaffected, underemployed millennial video gamers. Darwinism undergirds their belief in a superior “white” identity, despite their lack of notable achievements, in an age of rampant identity politics. Briefly, Darwin’s theory of evolution attempts to account for how new species get started. One corollary is that varieties of human types can slowly become separate species, some more fit to survive than others.*
In real, offline life, Darwin’s theory of evolution attempts to account for how new species get started (natural selection acting on random mutations). One interpretation is that varieties of human types can slowly become separate species, some more fit to survive than others.*
It’s because, as Darwinians, we think the nation should exist as a gene pool, since we come from a European background, a European gene pool. We think the same argument should apply to other ethnic and racial groups. Thus, we support the Kurds in their demand for a country of their own. We support Israel as a land for the Jews, Japan as a land for the Japanese, Congo for the Congolese, and so on. Each race/ethnic group is like an extended family for the people in it, and this large extended family should have a home of its own.
If that sounds vaguely like different species of animals having different ecological niches, well yes, it’s more or less the same idea.
Will middle Americans gravitate to the alt right?
Probably not. The Wall Street Journal notes that
… Mr. Trump’s political opponents have an interest in exaggerating the alt-right’s influence—which is marginal at best—for the purposes of guilt-by-association. … The recent media habit of searching out neo-Nazis, Confederacy nostalgists and other undesirables to opine about Mr. Trump is also a mistake. These voices have long been relegated to the fringes of politics and there’s no reason to give them a soapbox now.
There is actually a very good reason for political opponents to exaggerate the influence of the alt right: To undermine the legitimacy of the incoming government by raising fears of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis rising again. Resulting public angst and civil disorders can be blamed on the election results rather than on deliberate stoking of fears among vulnerable people.
Reporting on the alleged attraction of the alt right to traditional Christians suffers from a tendency to ignore its explicitly Darwinian themes. That’s partly because mainstream science writing carries a lot of baggage for Darwin. How else to explain the curious case of mainstream British science writer Nicholas Wade, who promoted explicitly Darwinian racism (HBD or human biodiversity) in a book written in his retirement year, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014). At a time when huge shame storms descended on people for the slightest remark that could be taken as a racist dog whistle (“inner city” or “silent majority,” for example) there was a marked silence about the explicit promotion of racial theory. Darwin’s name had sanitized racial theory, and therein lies one of the problems the alt right presents. Darwinism can be a fashionable form of racism. (City Journal summarizes Wade’s thesis here.)
If a vote for Trump was a vote for “white supremacy and self-preservation,” then why did more black and Latino voters cast votes for Trump than for Romney?
Possibly, many members of minority groups are beginning to resent the assumption that they must allow self-appointed leaders to interpret their problems and determine their interests. To the extent that they have social power, they may not need those self-appointed leaders. To say nothing of this: The alt right is going to have a hard time selling Darwinian racism to traditional Christians of any complexion. Nicholas Wade’s book, for example, was not written to persuade them.
So what should we do about the alt right?
Clearly, few American Christians—or middle Americans generally—identify with the alt right. But mainstream media suspect so. Coming to terms with defeat, they will continue to react by lumping creationist Christians who oppose mandatory unisex washrooms with Darwinian racists as an “alt right” menace. The media’s targets would be wise to seek alternative sources of news and information. Indeed, we are doing that now. That is a key reason they are losing viewers and revenue.
Beyond that, how should we respond to the use of the term “alt right” in a way that implies that all social conservatives (or suspected Trump voters) are racists? We might begin by asking what, exactly, the speaker understands the term to mean. If it is used as the alt right proponents themselves use it, then anyone who is not committed to Darwinian survival of the fittest cannot be alt right. For example, no creationist of any kind could be alt right.
Clear definitions won’t protect any of us from insinuation, insult, or abuse, but they are a good beginning if there is any hope of fruitful discussion.
*Note: The thesis that Darwin’s proposed mechanism (natural selection acting on random mutation) is the main cause of speciation is coming under fire, as is the very concept of species on which the theory depends. But that is a technical discussion for another day. For our purposes, Darwinism is what the alt right learned in public schools under the topic heading “Evolution.” That was a result of successful legal cases by lobbyists for Darwin’s theory decades ago.
** See also: Christian racism? Election years bring dangerous creatures from the shadows
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.