Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, August 2017. Anthony Crider / Flickr

As George Hawley’s recent book, Making Sense of the Alt-Right makes clear, the alt-right is something relatively new. It is as hostile to mainstream conservatives (whom it calls cuckservatives, alluding to their willingness to “pollute the race” by accepting immigrants and practicing cross-racial adoption) as it is to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (the term social justice warriors the alt-right applies to the left is relatively friendly.

It rejects liberalism root and branch, including the sorts of liberalism Americans call conservative. Its unabashed tribalism is a response to the failings of both the conventional left and the conventional right, and can only be fought if we are prepared to acknowledge and address these failings.

Since about 1968, progressivism has been running on empty. The never quite consummated marriage between Marxism and the social gospel has ended in ruins. No one believes any more in laws of history, let alone laws that guarantee the triumph of justice. The breakdown of humanity into a multitude of warring tribes competing for scarce resources seems more likely. And the heirs of mainstream Protestantism have turned to freeing themselves from the constraints of Biblical religion, including the teaching that we are created male and female, which undermines their ability to appeal to the Hebrew prophets to defend social justice. For the prophets did not separate personal, including sexual, morality, from questions of economic justice.

Instead of a coherent program of change, we therefore have political correctness. “Liberals” defend enlightenment by taboos, tolerance by intolerance, and inclusiveness by enforced homogeneity. It is not permitted to say that the American South had any other motive for secession than the desire to protect slavery, that Hillary Clinton made strategic or even tactical errors in her campaign, or that a group is acting like a lynch mob if their intended victim is not African-American.

Even when liberals have good arguments at their disposal, for example that the war on terror has increased our danger, it is easy for conservative polemicists to charge that they are living in denial.  At Providence College, where I am now emeritus (a Roman Catholic school, and by no means the most politically correct institution around), two distinguished members of the faculty were harassed out by the forces of militant diversity, one was subjected to ludicrous charges of sexual harassment, and another was accused of some sort of discrimination for asking a candidate whose area of competence was the philosophy of feminism whether she thought that pro-life feminism was a legitimate option.

That this sort of politics destroys itself requires no argument. Washing opponents’ mouths out with soap does nothing to discourage people who find Holocaust jokes funny. It is as easy to muster a student mob to silence Martha Nussbaum as to silence Charles Murray (in both cases convincing them and their supporters that nothing opposes their ideas but infantile rage).

Despite many Republican victories, conservatism is also in deep trouble.  Burke held in Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, that the laws of commerce were also the laws of God and that any attempt by the government to help people in dire need was therefore impious.

Since then, conservatism has been a forced alliance – the word commonly used is fusion – of cultural traditionalists and plutocrats concerned to protect and extend their property. And the plutocrats have always been prepared to betray the traditionalists when their pocketbooks have been at issue.

The alt-right, though strongly anti-Christian, is in its own way traditionalist: it wants a way of life that it unfortunately defines in terms of racial identity to go on. One of its principal constituencies is involuntarily childless young white men who believe that economic polarization, immigrant completion, affirmative action, and feminist politics have kept them from finding women willing to bear their children. One Republican opponent of the alt-right was unwise enough to sneer at them as “childless single men who masturbate to anime” (in Hawley, p. 105). Such rhetoric can only feed fantasies of white genocide.

The neo-paganism that alt-rightists endorse has two forms. One is tolerant and promises guilt-free and consequence-free sex. The other is militant and celebrates machismo, sometimes even in women. When safe sex turns out to be not so safe after all, the first collapses. The second is better adapted to a view of the world in which the gods and giants are in perpetual war, and Ragnarök, or the defeat of the gods, looms on the horizon. (Or to put it in contemporary terms, where all forms of order are subject to entropy.)

By now it is clear that the efforts made among left liberals like Chris Hedges) to silence the religious right, was from a liberal point of view the worst move on the board.

The white poor and near-poor must no longer suffer from their exclusion from the official list of oppressed minorities, We must be prepared to brave charges of white tribalism to give them a hearing, though no more than any other group should they get everything they demand.

Any form of religion or non-religious philosophy that affirms the centrality of our common humanity should be a welcome partner in the resulting discussions.


Phil Devine is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Providence College.