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3Qs: Trump and the rise of the ‘alt-right’

The “alt-right” movement—defined by The Associated Press as “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, and populism”—has experienced a surge of notoriety in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.

Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News turned Trump’s chief White House strategist, told Mother Jones in July that he considered Breitbart a “platform for the alt-right.” And Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term, pulled no punches at a post-election rally in Washington, D.C., when he shouted “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”

Trump has tried to distance himself from the “alt-right,” telling The New York Times, “I don’t want to energize the group and I disavow the group.” But it’s still unclear how much influence the movement could have on his policy agenda over the next four years.

We asked Jeffrey Juris, associate professor of anthropology, who studies social movements and protests, to weigh in on the rise of the “alt-right” and its potential impact on a Trump White House.

First and foremost, what is the “alt-right,” how does it differ from other conservative movements, and what do its members ultimately want?

Defining the “alt-right” is no easy task. This is partly because it is such a new phenomenon—most of us only first learned of the movement during the most recent presidential election cycle, particularly after Hillary Clinton’s speech “outing” the group and its links to Trump—but also because it is not a traditional movement, or even a movement at all. Even the name is contested, with many progressives refusing to use the term “alt-right” because it sanitizes and normalizes white supremacy, while others maintain that its distinctive name signals that the group is different from traditional white supremacist movements. I think both arguments are correct.

For me, the “alt-right” is not so much a movement as a networked counter-public: a discursive arena for the generation and circulation of oppositional ideas, meanings, and identities. Its networked infrastructure includes a series of online media forums on platforms such as Breitbart News, Twitter, Gab, Reddit, 4chan/8chan, and independent websites, as well as physical spaces, including the National Policy Institute and periodic in-person gatherings such as the recent post-election Trump rally that featured Nazi-era salutes. Among the “alt-right’s” key figures include Richard Spencer, founder of the NPI, a reactionary think tank that publishes position papers, analyses, and pseudo-scientific research on race, identity, and white nationalism, with the goal of establishing a white ethno-state in the U.S. The NPI promotes an extreme right-wing populism that rejects globalization, immigration, and cosmopolitanism in favor of an essentialist nationalism rooted in white cultural heritage.

Unlike traditional white supremacist movements, the “alt-right” maintains a veneer of educated professionalism—for example, Spencer is an articulate former Duke doctoral student—and some surprising positions, including an openness to sexual difference and support for the state of Israel, at least in some “alt-right” circles. Another key figure in the alt-right movement, Milo Yiannopoulos, is an openly gay journalist and tech editor for Breitbart News who gained Twitter notoriety as a cheerleader for Gamergate, a campaign of online harassment of women, minorities, and progressives in the gaming industry to protest the industry’s “politicization.” Indeed, many alt-righters are young male computer trolls who rail against political correctness and delight in racist and misogynist memes, jokes, and pranks. At the same time, the “alt-right” is a broad, often contradictory sphere, including not only young right-wing gamers, but anti-immigrant activists, white nationalists, men’s rights supporters, and neo-Nazis united around an opposition to cosmopolitan liberalism and traditional conservativism, which they see as corporate dominated and corrupt.

The “alt-right” movement is small but its members have used the power of social media and online memes to spread its message far and wide. How loud do you think the “alt-right’s” collective voice can get? Might Bannon’s access to Trump—and his connection to the “alt-right” movement—be enough for the group to influence the policies and tone of Trump’s presidency?

Until the 2016 presidential election the “alt-right” was relatively marginal. However, its vocal support of Trump, who has maintained an ambiguous position toward it, as well as the prominent role in Trump’s campaign of Steve Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News, catapulted the group into the media limelight. For many people, it was Hillary Clinton’s attempt to marginalize Trump in an August 2016 speech by linking him to a fringe white supremacist phenomenon that first introduced them to the “alt-right.” Indeed, many alt-righters were ecstatic Clinton had mentioned them, effectively normalizing their presence in the U.S. political landscape. As is well known, following his victory in the election Trump named Steve Bannon as his chief White House advisor, essentially installing a key promoter of the “alt-right” as his right-hand man. It is important to note that Bannon himself does not consider himself to be part of the “alt-right,” a position shared by alt-righters. Nonetheless, Bannon is certainly sympathetic to the “alt-right” and has admittedly created the key platform for the launching of the group into mainstream discourse. For his part, Trump has reluctantly distanced himself from the “alt-right,” but his statement came under duress and did not seem entirely full hearted.

Given the current state of affairs, I think it is safe to say that important “alt-right” ideas will be given a hearing in the Trump administration via Bannon’s influence, but they will be counter-balanced by more traditional Republican advisors and Cabinet members, including Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus. It will be interesting, and unnerving, to watch this dynamic play out, and I think we can expect to see continued ambiguity and contradiction in relation to Trump’s tone and policy orientations.

Based on your expertise in radical social movements, how do you think the “alt-right” will be remembered 10 years from now?

I think it is difficult to say right now. Much will depend on how successful Bannon is in influencing the Trump administration and then how effective Trump will be in terms of serving as a megaphone and legislative advocate for “alt-right” ideas and policy goals. At this point we have no idea what direction a Trump administration will move in. There are indications in terms of his other cabinet picks that Trump may be returning to a more traditional brand of free market conservatism, yet he maintains his right-wing populist insistence that he will build a wall against immigration and deport millions of undocumented residents, while keeping factory jobs in the U.S. by tough negotiating with U.S. corporations combined with threats of retaliatory tariffs if companies insist on leaving the country.

Many fear Trump’s authoritarian tendencies will prevail, reflecting the “alt-right’s” weak commitment to liberal democracy. In the more apocalyptic scenarios, the “alt-right’s” influence will degrade our democratic institutions and perhaps usher in an era of American neo-fascism. I think it is important to be vocal about our steadfast support for immigrants, Muslims, and other threatened communities as well as our basic democratic values and traditions, but some of the most exaggerated fears are likely overblown. That said, with control of the presidency, the Congress, and perhaps soon the Supreme Court, the Trump administration will have great leeway to pursue a policy agenda that will likely reflect an awkward and contradictory amalgam of “alt-right” and traditional conservative policy orientations and ideas.

If he succeeds, the “alt-right” may be regarded, along with the Tea Party that preceded it, as a harbinger of a new rightwing populist era in U.S. politics. I tend to think it will take a mass-based populist movement of the left, such as the forces aligned behind the Bernie Sanders campaign, to effectively challenge Trumpism and prevent that outcome. In that case, the “alt-right” may be seen again in 10 years as a fringe phenomenon. In either case, I think the “alt-right’s” most far-reaching and controversial ideas, such as the establishment of a white nationalist ethno-state, will remain marginal.