The white side of politics: America and the Alt-Right

A closer look at the rise of the alt-right

14 minutes to read
Annabel Marmor

Over the course of the last two years, the Alt-Right has gone from near obscurity to being a force to be reckoned with. Taking a closer look at the rise of this movement offers us an important insight into the role new media play in the expansion of social movements nowadays.

Looking at the Alt-Right, the right way

The Alt-Right can be described as a social movement, which challenges the political establishment through the use of new media. This essay intends to examine how and why the alt-right has dramatically risen in popularity in America, gaining a substantial following and even subverting the course of the 2016 presidential campaign. Why did so many Americans take notice of the movement and why did they align themselves to its radical cause? To answer these questions, the ideology and message of the movement need to be thoroughly looked at. The way this ideology and message are then molded into a discourse, using both online and offline media, will be analysed, as will be the issues of hegemony, control and leadership, to find out what makes this movement tick; old or new media?


The birth of a new movement

Contrary to popular opinion, the Alt-Right has been around for more than a year. In fact, they were technically founded in 2010, when white supremacists, after the example set by the white supremacist Richard Spencer, claimed the term to 'define a movement centred on white nationalism.' Together with Colin Liddell, Spencer cemented this movement through the creation of the political website Alternative Right, and a webzine, called the "New Alternative Right." In this webzine, content for the movement was provided after the website was shut down in 2013.

The alt-right use confusing language to disguise their true message

The alt-right has been described as a “diverse assortment of people, mostly online, who identify themselves as right-wringers but consider themselves either opposed to, or profoundly alienated from mainstream American conservatism - usually because they view it as being too liberal, or preoccupied with the wrong issues”. This description is key, as it identifies a significant element of the social movement: it is mostly found online. Its very first online presence was one website. However, as the movement has grown, so has its online presence. Nowadays, the movement can be found in a collection of blogs, podcasts and on social media accounts on websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Using these media has proven to be a smart move, because it has caused the movement to grow in a organic way, which can only be attributed to the influence of the internet. A key reason for tis is that social media attract youngsters, so using them to increase your following is an effective method to make your movement grow. Evidence for this explanation has been provided by the group's founder himself: Richard Spencer recently acknowledged that: “Now the majority of our attendees are under 40. Many under 30” (Glancy, 2016).

Clearly, using the online world to spread your message is effective at a time when many young people are not turning out to vote. Making these people your target audience pays off. Spencer also calls these young people "attendees," which highlights that the alt-right uses the online world to effectively mobilise tese people, in order to join the offline world in which the alt-right operates. Although there was some scepticism initially, as to whether or not the alt-right could be classified as a movement, the ever increasing turnouts at ralies and the increasing amount of people who identified with the group's beliefs illustrate that the alt-right is no longer just a singular website on the internet, but a full-fledged movement in the offline world. 




A dangerous ideology

In order to understand the rise of the alt-right, it is vital to take a closer look at their ideology and the discourse they surround themselves with. The Belgian sociolinguist Jan Blommaert (2005) states that: “authors would emphasise that ideology stands for the ‘cultural’, ideational aspects of a particular social and political system”. Indeed, one of the alt-right's leaders, Richard Spencer, constantly emphasises American culture in his ideology and sees the alt-rights message as a commnt on American culture. However, many do not see eye to eye on this.

Youngsters are vulnerable: they have never experienced a war in which race played a part.

The alt-right's core belief is that "white identity" is under attack from multicultural forces, which use "political correctness" and "social justice" to undermine white people and "their" civilisation. These ideas can be identified as so far-right that they do not align with traditional American conservatim, even crossing the realm into anti-semitism, homophobia and racism. However, they are quick to dismiss the term racist as a description of their beliefs. Many prefer the term "race realists" instead. Indeed, one of their most prominent members, the Greek-born British journalist Milo Yiannopoulis, went so far as to disclose in an interview with the Times that the alt-right is not “racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or nationalistic”, later adding that “With my gay, long history of black boyfriends, something there doesn’t quite work” (Campbell, 2016). Yiannopoulis uses the long-standing argument that is made by people who deny being racist, because, surely they couldn't be; they have friends who aren't white. However, being friends with people of colour doesn't necessarily exempt you from behaving in a racist fashion. Yiannopoulis also assumes that just because he, as one of the most public and well-known figures in the group, is not a racist or a homophobe, then other members of the movement can't be either.

Racism and white supremacism

Unfortunately, Yiannopoulis' denial of racist elements in the movement and in the movement's ideology has been found to be invalid. The alt-right has consistently been categorized as a racist group, with their unofficial leader, Richard Spencer, being labelled a white supremacist. Moreover, despite using old media, such as his interview with the Times, to denounce racis and homophobia in the movemen, Yiannopoulis' online discours paints a different picture. In 2016, his Twitter account was permanently suspended, due to the racist trolling of the black actress Leslie Jones, after watching her performance in the film Ghostbusters. Many of Yiannopoulis' followers took after his example and started sending the actress racist remarks via Twitter. They collectively trolled Jones' account and aimed targeted abuse at her. The fact that so many people subscribed to this discourse of racism and hatred highlights the fact that many followers of the alt-right do in fact have an issues with race, harbouring derogatory views about people of colour.

The power of the offline mustn't be underestimated

It's not just Yiannopoulis who denies the racist ideology of the alt-right. According to Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's newly appointed chief strategist for the White House, one of the “key platforms for the alt-right” is Breitbart News, a far-right American news, opinion and commentary website, which was founded by Andrew Breitbart (SPL Center, 2016). On their website, Breitbart state that those who identify with the alt-right aren't racist, but rather “unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritizes the interests of their own demographic”(Bokhari & Yiannopoulos, 2016). 

Oxymorons and ideology

In other words, the website denounces racism by trying to intellectualise it and by claiming it is just a matter of demographics. However, the same article later concedes that neo-Nazis are a part of the alt-right movement as well. This fact challenges their claim of not following a racist ideology. On the contrary, the alt-right promotes a racist ideology which is preoccupied with a racist agenda, such as Richard Spencer calling for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing”. This is an oxymoronic statement as ethnic cleansings cannot be peaceful; never in the history of man have they been peaceful (Burghard, 2016). This discourse highlights a key tactic of the alt-right, which they use in order to promote their ideology. They use confusing language to disguise their true message. Although other websites and media can claim that the alt-right's agenda is “racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-Semitic”, they can't be more specific than that on the subject of the alt-right's ideology, due to their lack of transparency (The Times, 2016).

Richard Spencer and the white issue

Richard Spencer became one of the unofficial figureheads for the alt-right movement when he coined the term in 2010. A staunch follower of American conservatism from a young age onwards, Spencer began the online magazine, which he labelledRichard Spencer became one of the unofficial figureheads for the alt-right movement when he coined the term in 2010. A staunch follower of American Conservatism from a young age, Spencer began the magazine which he labelled “an online magazine of radical traditionalism”(Spencer, 2016). Its mission was to Its mission according to Spencer was to “repackage old white nationalist ideas for a new generation.” This highlights a key part of Spencer's strategy for expanding the movement: appealing to the young. The idea of appealing to a "new generation" shows an inherent focus on the future, with the contradictory notion of recreating the past, in order to do just so. Expanding on this he stated thatThis highlights a key part of Spencer’s strategy for expanding the movement – appealing to the young (as previously discussed). The idea of appealing to a “new generation” shows an inherent focus on the future with the contradictory notion of recreating the past in order to do so. Expanding on this he was quoted as saying “It is perfectly feasible for a white state to be established on the North American continent. Action is the easy part" (Nwanevu, 2016).

According to the alt-right it is political correctness gone mad to try and silence them

There are several conclusions to be drawn from the previous statement. The rhetoric Spencer uses is extremely positive, using words such as "perfectly feasible" and "easy," in terms of achieving his goals. This is important, because the message he projects is one of hope with regards to the realisation of his white state. He is clearly promoting racist ideology and the message and image he conveys is that of the white supremacist. However, in contradiction to this he denies being a racist and has made the following statement Analysing this statement there are several points to make. Firstly, his rhetoric is extremely positive, using words such as “perfectly feasible” and “easy” in terms of achieving his goals. This is important as the message he is projecting is one of hope if his white state is realised. He is clearly promoting racist ideology and the message and image he is issuing is one of a white supremacist. However, in contradiction to this he denies being a racist and has made the following statement. “Today, in the public imagination, ‘ethnic-cleansing’ has been associated with civil war and mass murder (understandably so).  But this need not be the case.” This statement is problematic, because on the one hand he shows support for the act of ethnic cleansing, but on the other hand he states that this doesn't need to be a dangerous and violent affair. In other words, he is downplaying racial segregation and tries to paint a better picture of it by stating that it doesn't need to be harmful.

By doing this, he is presenting the alt-right as a movement who believe in achieving their goals in a peaceful manner. This is problematic as he is showing support for an inherently racist idea, i.e. ethnic-cleansing, yet the message he is issuing, is that it does not need to be a dangerous affair. In other words, he is downplaying race segregation, trying to paint it as something that does not need to be harmful. This is extremely dangerous as he is presenting an image of the alt-right as a peaceful organisation who believe in achieving their goals without violence (civil war and mass murder not being an issue). Moreover, he also targets his message at the younger generation. These people, unlike their older contemporaties, have never experienced a war in which race played a major part, such as World War II and other genocides of the 20th century. This makes them easy targets, who may not look critically at Spencer's message. This shows the importance of the contents of the message that is conveyed and the image one cultivates, for attracting followers and to make it more socially acceptable and attractive to the masses. However, this is inherently wrong as we as rational humans know that the very notion of ethnic-cleansing is not peaceful as it equates to racism. He is also targeting this message at the young generation which is also dangerous as they, unlike their older contemporaries, have never experienced a race war such as World War II and other genocides of the 20th century. This makes them easy targets who may naively believe Spencer’s deceiving discourse that states ethnic-cleansing can be a peaceful process and inadvertently justify their racist actions. Spencer is therefore important for highlighting how message and image can be extremely important for attracting followers and a means of convoluting a movement’s ideology in order to make it more socially acceptable and attractive to the masses.

The alt-right’s celebrity spokesman


The most fabulous villain on the internet: Milo Yannopolous

Spencer may have used his online website as a platform to share his views on right-wing ideology, but it was Yiannopoulos who helped these ideas go viral. According to Lempert and Silverstein “a celebrity becomes the collective fetish of the masses, the celebrity’s fans (from the world fanatic), for whom every titbit about the celebrity’s physical, sartorial, characterological, discursive and other biographical features is worthwhile to their attentive collection and appreciation” (Lempert and Silverstein, 2012). Applying this to Yiannopolous, he has used this notion of celebrity to cement not only a personal following, but also in the process of cementing a following for the alt-right. Lempert and Silverstein point out the importance of the “discursive” to one’s fans and this is something that Yiannopolous has utilised and enhanced.

He plays the role of celebrity, as he can “curse like a celebrity, party like a celebrity and sleep around like a celebrity”(Van Maren, 2016). However, the difference between him and the conventional celebrity who gets involved with politics comes from the fact that he is able to “pop out some conservative talking points that render all of the other celebrities apoplectic”(Van Maren, 2016). He is fiercely intellectual and is constantly drawn into debates on social media, for example the previously mentioned incident with Leslie Jones, that led to him being banned from twitter. The combination of intellect with a relatable discourse, such as labelling himself a “dangerous faggot”, which appeals to the popular masses, draws support to the alt-right as politics is made relatable (Bokhari, 2016). The alt-right are keen to distance themselves from racist accusations and justify their discouse by claiming that it's about ethnic intellect. Thanks to social media, this image is easily accessible to the public. The message is presented in a way people can relate to, yet it's also presented as something intellectual. The ease of understanding people experience in comprehending the message then leads them to feel like an intellectual themselves, for being able to follow the argument. This in turn has the effect of attracting people to the alt-right, because they are lead to belive that they are justified in following outdated racist beliefs, because they have been intellectualised.

Furthermore, Yiannopolous believes “the more you stick your nose up to the establishment…the more people are gonna love you for it”(The Times, 2016). This quote shows that Yiannopolous is very aware of the fact that his dealings with social media are calculated and controlled, deliberately standing up to the establishment in order to attract people to his radical cause. He is famous for his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of American universities, where he denounces political correctness. Although this is a personal view of his, it is also one that plays a prominent role in the alt-right as a whole. They justify their desire for a white America by claiming it is not an outlandish view to have, but rather it is political correctness gone mad to try and silence them.

The white knights of the alt-right

Over the course of the last two years, the alt-right has gained a large following. This is largely due to the efforts made by prominent members of the movement, in order to promote the alt-right's ideology through social media. However, social media were important for other reasons as well. Leaders of the alt-right are well-known for their random trolling on social media, Twitter in particular. They also created memes in order to promote their ideology in an easily accessible way. The nature of these media is that they're interactive; they make it possible for the receiver to interact with the sender in a way that isn't possible with old media, such as newspapers. This has led to followers of the alt-right taking part together in collective trolling. In the case of the trolling of Leslie Jones, for example, it was Yiannopolous who began the trolling, and this soon spiralled out of control. Although the figureheads of the alt-right 'technically' control the movement, by deciding where, or to whom, the trolling is directed, it isn't elitist, such as traditionalist politics. The movement is interactive and easily accessible to the common masses. Even though this behaviour, in the case of trolling, can be seen as bullying, the general appeal of it is that the ordinary man can take part in the fight, even if it's a racist and nasty one.

Although the online is extremely important for the alt-right in order to choreograph the masses, the power of the offline mustn't be underestimated. Guided by Spencer, the alt-right has successfully organised rallies for supporters to listen to alt-right speakers and to show their physical allegiance to the movement. One of the most prominent examples of this was a gathering in Washington D.C., where “activists gave Nazi salutes and shouted “hail Trump”(The Guardian, 2016). What was once online, anonymous and to a large extent 'harmless' trolling, has developed into followers of the alt-right rallying together in organised meetings and exhibiting behaviour which is in accordance with faschist and nazist thinking. This also undermines the alt-right's previous claims that their proposed ethnic cleansing is peaceful, because these meetings show history repeating itself, with the movement taking direct inspiration from a political party who were responsible for the largest genocide of the 20th century. If the online image of the alt right is concerned with thinly veiling racism under the guise of intellectualism, the offline image has completely abandoned this discourse an is unashamedly mirroring fascist behaviour.






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