Imagine that you’re in middle school and your history teacher, for current events, depicts a hypothetical world in which the president of the United States is advised by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Everyone laughs. Now, snap back to reality. President-elect Trump has just appointed Steve Bannon, head of a news website, breitbart.com, which Bannon claims is a platform for a movement called the “Alt-Right”—often depicted as a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis—as his Chief Strategist. No one laughs now.What is this “Alt-Right” movement? Is it really just a bunch of neo-Nazis and white supremacists trying to rebrand themselves?
This is a hard question to answer because the Alt-Right “movement” is so amorphous. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice.’” But even this broad definition does not cover all of the Alt-Right.
Another main component of the Alt-Right consists of young, Internet-savvy provocateurs, intent on saying outrageous things just for the sake of it. As Milo Yiannopoulos, a main proponent of this strand of thought, puts it, the aim of the young provocateurs is “smashing apart political correctness to make true discussion possible.”
Still, for all of the branches of the Alt-Right, there does appear to be an underlying concern about white identity. The intellectual leader of the Alt-Right, Richard Spencer, is a founder of the website, alternativeright.com, a frequent platform for white supremacism and hate speech. On alternativeright.com, Spencer and others write about the preservation of “white identity” in the increasingly multicultural America we live in today. Spencer is also president of the National Policy Institute, which defines itself as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States and around the world.” If you talked to Richard Spencer, he would vehemently argue that he is not a “white supremacist,” but a “white nationalist.”
But can this distinction really be made? “White nationalism” is the thought that “white identity” needs to be preserved, and sadly, “white identity” is intrinsically linked with white supremacy. Any racial identity built upon that race’s cultural identity is a product of a race’s history. So in looking at “white identity,” we must look at white history, which is not that pleasant of a subject. Slavery was a normal part of white European culture for hundreds of years and was even enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, with its provision that slaves would count as 3/5 of a white person in determining political representation.
Nonetheless, this argument begs the questions: What exactly is “white” identity? German-American white? Irish-Catholic white? Pennsylvanian-Quaker white? Indeed, what is any “racial” identity? Do Haitians, West Africans, and South Africans all really have the same identity simply because of their skin color? Do Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Guatemalans really share the same “Hispanic” identity? These questions point to another important issue in American culture: the reliance on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation—identity politics—for politicians to tailor their positions to smaller subsets of the population. And right or wrong, identity politics have been associated with “political correctness,”—the idea that there are only certain permissible ways of speaking about controversial issues.
Thus, although the “white nationalist” strand of the Alt-Right is deeply disturbing, its anti-political correctness and anti-establishment element likely resonate beyond white supremacists. In appearing to endorse the Alt-Right, Bannon may be appealing to anti-establishment rather than white supremacist sentiment.
At least, let’s hope so.