In the two and a half years since the Trump victory, the so-called alt-right reached both its pinnacle (represented above all by the havoc created at the Charlottesville, Virginia rally in August 2017, specifically the murder of an activist at the hands of a white supremacist) and what would seem to be its nadir (as leading alt-right figures have been forced to go underground or deprived of their platforms).
James Fields, the killer of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Andrew Anglin (arguably the most vicious neo-Nazi in the country) found his website The Daily Stormer shut down by Internet hosting services and was forced to rely on the “dark web” to propagate his views, and is said to be on the run in Lagos, Nigeria, escaping legal action in the United States stemming from his harassment of a Jewish woman in Montana. Like Anglin, Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute has found himself caught up in such serious legal jeopardy that he has been unable to carry on as usual and has been begging for money on the Internet, with his own lawyer abandoning him at the crucial moment. Matthew Heimbach, once considered a likely candidate for assuming the mantleship of American Nazis left vacant by William L. Pierce, had his Traditional Workers Party (TWP) dissolved in the wake of a Jerry Springer-like violent incident at his Indiana trailer park, when his partner in the TWP, David Parrott, caught him having an affair with his wife, to whose stepdaughter Heimbach was already married. Breitbart News no longer seems to set the agenda the way it did in the year preceding Trump’s election victory and in the months afterwards, and this is true of the other alt-right Internet outlets as well. Even “alt-light” figures are disabled: Alex Jones of InfoWars has found himself sued by Sandy Hooks school shooting victims offended by his presentation of the incident as a false flag provocation and has had his Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter platforms taken away, while Milo Yiannapoulous, whose book contract with Simon & Schuster was canceled, quietly dropped his lawsuit against the publisher and is now biding his time in Miami. Milo and other provocateurs have seen their popularity radically decline, being no longer able to run around American campuses and call forth protestors against their presence to make their own event the subject of the news (as Spencer was liable to do, with the help of TWP muscle), and a cause for them to denigrate the “intolerance” of the “left,” particularly the dreaded antifa, which actually seems to have had some impact in removing the presence of the alt-right from the public square.
In the absence of the inflammable oxygen provided by younger alt-right figures like Anglin and Spencer, veteran provocateurs like David Duke and Jared Taylor seem unable to catch fire in the way that they did when the newer protagonists were getting a lot of airplay. Meanwhile, retrospective studies on Andrew Anglin and Stephen Miller (Trump’s leading ideologue, and the inspiration behind most of the anti-immigrant policies enforced by this administration) in such outlets as The Atlantic have generated some ire among liberals for presenting these figures sympathetically, as if even discussion of the origins and motivations of the alt-right were a means of legitimization.
Though written by different individuals, these two profiles sound as though exactly the same hand were behind them, with precisely the same tone of distanced wonder on the part of the sincere liberal interpreter informing both essays. We are invited to treat Miller and Anglin as ironists of the highest order, as the author of the Miller piece wonders from beginning to end whether Miller is being sincere when he utters one of his patented provocations, while the mind behind the Anglin piece concludes about his ideology that it might well be, in Anglin’s words, “Ironic Nazism disguised as real Nazism disguised as ironic Nazism.” In both cases, a diligent researcher, a stickler for precise events and chronologies, has tried to pin down these two renegades from American liberalism (Anglin is depicted as once having been the kind of person antifa might have recruited, while Miller is always viewed in the context of his Jewish liberal Santa Monica upbringing) so that we don’t have to wonder too much about their ultimate motivation and ambitions.
Both are seen—just as the media sees Trump—as free of any real ideology, which comes across in the way Anglin is presented as having switched to different causes at various points in his life, including in the post-Charlottesville era, when he is said to be on the outs with the rest of the alt-right for his preaching of violence against women, and in the way Miller is depicted as an opportunist and showman who latched on to the opening provided for conservatism of a hostile kind in the wake of 9/11. Both pieces downplay the content of the ideology of Anglin and Miller, though the difference in attitude toward the two, based on Anglin’s low-life origins and Miller’s high-class connections, is revealing in itself; it suggests that the overwhelming engine that is American liberalism will in the end mete out justice to both in different but compatible manners, as Anglin will find himself chewed up by the legal machinery (the system works!) while Miller will confront checks against unrestrained power he might not have imagined when he was a provocateur at Duke University (where he was allied with Richard Spencer).
The pattern is the same as in previous instances of the federal government and local agencies collaborating to use any means available to prosecute—and even persecute—the avatars of “hate” and dissension, who represent an outspoken challenge to the American ideal of inclusion and tolerance.
It is well known that nascent white supremacist movements were crushed by timely intervention, and never allowed to reach such proportions that their presence might become unchallengeable. This was how the KKK was dealt with in the 1920s (although internal dissension had a lot to do with it too), in the early years of the FBI, and again in the 1960s, toward the time of J. Edgar Hoover’s eclipse, and it is how the militia and patriot groups of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were mostly put out of action, aided by the efforts of watchdog groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and others like The American Jewish Committee (AJC), The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), Political Research Associates (PRA), The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, The Center for New Community, The Nizkor Project, The Militia Watchdog, Hatewatch, and Anti-Racist Action, who make it their business to target and identify particular entities as the objects of disapproval and help the federal government by providing information likely to entangle the white supremacists in legal and financial trouble.
Again, Richard Spencer’s case is illustrative here, because he has found himself having to deal with a lawsuit brought by Virginia residents who claim that he was directly responsible for the mayhem in Charlottesville, instigating violence through such online chatrooms as Discord. The dark web has turned out not to be a viable alternative for the emergent alt-right groups that became so prominent in the lead-up to Trump’s victory, because it is by its nature a secretive and occluded medium, hidden from wide public observation: in the nature of a closed clique rather than an open invitation to rebellion, freely monetized and commercialized.
It would seem, on the surface at least, that the alt-right has effectively been put out of business. They have much less media visibility today, they are on the defensive rather than the offensive, and there has been time enough to write prospective obituaries by way of detailed essays in leading journals of opinion about the paths some of the leading provocateurs took to lose their way amidst the plethora of American opportunity: they could easily have been liberals, we gather, yet they lacked something of the mental fortitude required to make the best of themselves according to liberal prescriptions. They are held up as examples of how not to be rebellious or revolutionary, as the current liberal protocol of incrementally attaining social justice by way of maximizing identity politics is held up as an unspoken example, not to mention continued faith in electoral politics to bring about eventual attainment of the rights of all groups. The alt-right, then, has come in handily to serve as exemplar for the part of the American body politic gone wrong: a case study for a form of psychological derangement that has been named, identified, tracked, described, detailed, and adequately dealt with.
Yet at the same time that the alt-right has gone into eclipse—it should have been easy to predict that in the event of a Charlottesville-type confrontation the alt-right would lose badly, because the numbers supporting the possibility of anything resembling an alt-right mass movement never existed—white supremacy, as it manifests in repression of immigrants and other vulnerables, has escalated to new heights.
This should have been a reasonable prediction, emphasizing the ways in which the alt-right has taken its lead from the Trump candidacy and then the presidency, rather than the other way around, and the ways in which white supremacy has always been a more mainstream political proposition than its opponents would generally like to admit. It is the contemporary Republican party, and to only a slightly lesser extent today’s Democratic party, that serve as the vehicles of white supremacy in this country, both before and during the Trump administration, rather than some fringe radical movement that is failing to gain a foothold in mainstream politics. For a while, the vocal alt-righters served the purpose of the mainstream white supremacists in the established parties, but now that they have outlived their usefulness, the image can be projected that they have easily been dispensed with. The fact that white supremacy, as it manifests in concrete policies, has by no means abated, despite the eclipse of the virtual alt-right, suggests the accuracy of the diagnosis that white supremacy flows from the top down, and runs through the corridors of government and the courts, rather than being an unpredictable floodlet that has been dammed well away from the center.
The treatment of the alt-right by the courts, the media, and the political parties over the last handful of years raises important questions about free speech, mass movements, truth claims, and the nature of protest and resistance that have lost none of their urgency. If society does not appreciate the xenophobic or racist claims of a particular segment, should their views be banned, and if so, by what means? Is this blacklisting useful or counterproductive, both in the short and long runs? When such repression occurs, do the renegade views simply go underground to fester, and possibly to arise again in the future in even more virulent form, or does effective repression permanently sideline supremacist views and set the national polity off in a better direction? Even if the supremacist movement is effectively curtailed for the time being, are there other consequences that overshadow gains made in that regard? Is free speech absolute, and what is gained or lost by adherence to such a view? Are we better or worse off as a society now that Andrew Anglin and even Alex Jones have been banished to the point of near invisibility, while the President is at liberty to tweet any white supremacist sentiment (which he continues to do), or to publicize his views (such as about “shithole countries”) in open discussions with political leaders in the Oval Office? Whereas the modern alt-right was at pains to prove its claims concerning racial superiority (or what they call racial separatism) on a “scientific” basis, the exponents of white supremacy in the reigning administration eschew truth claims altogether and make emotional (propagandistic) appeals which make no effort to disguise their essential nature; if Steve Bannon, associated with Breitbart and the alt-right movement in general (though he preferred to be called an “economic nationalist” rather than an alt-righter), has been banished from the seat of government, while Stephen Miller, a clear-cut white supremacist, rules stronger than ever at the central nervous system of the presidency, what sort of advance has actually been made in countering the alt-right with the preferred means available to the liberal establishment? Has the definition of “hate” expanded and proliferated so greatly that it has become meaningless, allowing some forms of hate to go unpunished while opening the door to prosecuting other forms of hate that might be antithetical to the established neoliberal order?
In short, how should we weigh the political calculus when it comes to utilizing the existing legal and moral arsenal against the alt-right, and is it time to rethink the nature of political calculation, if we can show that the alt-right, through the permanence of its ideas, has not only not been sidelined but may well be stronger than ever?
The Alt-Right and #MeToo
I don’t find it coincidental that two simultaneous moral panics arose in roughly the same time period—or rather, one, the alt-right panic, was soon subsumed and followed by the #MeToo movement. These two panics, both deviations from the liberal order, have much in common: it is all a matter of identifying incorrect tendencies, purging the culprits, and denying them platforms to prevent their insidious racist or predatory ideologies from infecting the healthy republic of virtue.
In each case, it is celebrities or public figures (in the case of the #MeToo movement entertainment industry figures like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Louis C.K., or literary paragons, culminating in Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie) who have to be relabeled as predators, when we thought they were genuinely empathetic individuals concerned with extending liberal notions of tolerance and equal rights, and then expelled from the public square, after much hand-wringing over whether or not their existing body of work, whether movies and TV shows or books and art works, should be treated as never having existed in the first place: retrospective insight, in other words, which both absolves the virtuous community from blame, because after all, how could someone’s sub rosa tendencies have been detected, and reestablishes it in its virtuousness, because it has now been cleansed of the corrupting influence. Closely similar to this pattern is the exclusion of alt-right (and later alt-light) figures from respectability (which accrues above all these days from successful digital platforms), in order that the political parties may persist in their neoliberal policies, with often racist, imperialist, and misogynist dimensions, without the taint of corruption.
An immigration policy (such as “expedited removal” for “criminal aliens”) may be almost indistinguishable in practice whether it emanates from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump, but it will be treated quite differently, based on the degree to which it is associated with the plainly unpleasant stink emanating from the formal white supremacist movement: in the case of Clinton, he embarked, after the Oklahoma City bombing, on a campaign against the patriot movement, and was therefore not held accountable for his launching of the modern anti-immigrant campaign in 1996 (which has had such pernicious consequences in establishing the legal framework for the mass deportation policies followed by his three successors), whereas in the case of Trump, his open flirtation with white supremacist ideas and figures has led to widespread liberal condemnation of more or less the same type of immigration policies, because they are presented as “nationalist” rather than “globalist.”
When such a panic takes hold among the liberal bourgeoisie, whether it is with regard to the alt-right or #MeToo (note that #MeToo was launched almost immediately after the failure of the Charlottesville rally and its successor street mobilizations, in early October 2017, as though to fill a vacuum that had suddenly arisen), a reigning concern is to gauge the numbers. Is the extent of support of the antiliberal movement widespread or ice thin? Are the alt-righters few in number, most of the hardcore members already present at the Charlottesville rally and similar street outbursts, or has it penetrated its tentacles deep into society, so that the “deplorables” are on the verge of emerging as a revolutionary force? Is predatory behavior among leading male Hollywood and publishing industry figures widespread and irrepressible, or can it be identified, punished accordingly, and expunged from the daily interactions of stars and powerful media and literary figures and their less powerful associates and followers?
At stake is also the definition of charisma: to what extent can it infect and entangle the unsuspecting innocents, and to what extent can it be contained, once identified? The charismatic nature of a Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, or Junot Diaz, not to mention Richard Spencer or David Duke, is always the central preoccupation in journalists’ description of the antics these renegades get up to: they are alleged to have almost superhuman powers of persuasion and duplicity, all to hoodwink moral citizens who would otherwise not have fallen for their bag of tricks. Sometimes intoxicants slipped in without permission are said to be the culprit, or the offensive charm and unfair power accruing to a famous writer or showbiz celebrity in taking advantage of innocent interns, just as YouTube, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and podcasts or other digital platforms are supposed to hold some sort of irresistible power taken advantage of by alt-right figures in a way that traditional media do not provide.
Meanwhile, similar ideas still being disseminated by a whole host of right-wing talk radio celebrities receive nothing like the same level of scrutiny and attention, because they are after all functioning in the old media. In the case of the media, academic, art, and publishing establishments, it is less likely that overt transgressions against male-female public protocols will have occurred in the recent years of hypersensitivity, so allegations often reach back years or even decades. This seems to be a more conducive method of persecution for the enforcers in the liberal establishment than the indisputably current and ongoing assaults against bourgeois decency performed so irreverently by the alt-right, with their old-fashioned recourse to “scientific” and empirical justifications for racism, exclusion, and genocide. In this discourse, numbers (exactly how big is the #MeToo hit list aimed at the media establishment?) become all-important as a gauge of the threat to which the liberal order is subject.
The Skinheads as Precursors to the Alt-Right
With regard to an earlier panic, at the conclusion of the Cold War and coinciding with the aggressive launch of the War on Drugs, William Chambliss asked about the skinheads: “Are we witnessing an aberration that will capture the imagination and devotion of a few angry youth or is this the first stage of a mass social movement with an ideology rooted in hatred and paranoia?” The connection was already being made, thirty years ago, between the expected influx of immigrants to Europe with the fertile breeding ground this would provide to the skinheads. It was the fall of one wall—the Berlin Wall—that immediately set off this paranoia, while it is the promise of another wall—the U.S.-Mexico Wall—that takes this act to its conclusion. The neo-Nazi terrorists of that era, according to Chambliss again, were a rigid block susceptible to increasing in power the more they were attacked, because “they are a world unto themselves.” Part of American exceptionalism is to ascribe an ultimately European origin to neo-Nazism, so the fall of Soviet communism and the resulting integration of Europe offered a particularly ripe moment to focus attention on the potential challenge of neo-Nazis to the emerging global order in the early 1990s, just as the trajectory of neoliberalism over the last thirty years, and the European refugee crisis of the last several years, offers another point of attack to delve into the European affiliations of the alt-right.
Mark Hamm presented, in 1993, a retrospective of the American skinheads that serves as a homolog for the kinds of things being speculated about the alt-right twenty-five years later. It is interesting how exactly the same historical events—the early 1980s violence surrounding the Order (Brüder Schwiegen, or Silent Brotherhood); or the murderous instigations of Tom Metzger, who adopted a media-friendly persona (a la David Duke) and had some success in running for elections on the West Coast; or the centrality of death metal, particularly that of Ian Stuart Donaldson of Skrewdriver, to the primitive battle-cry that gives the movement aesthetic ballast; or the occult connections to Aleister Crowley’s Satanism and the Nordic religion of Odinism as providing a convenient shorthand for reversion to barbarism—have been interpreted and reinterpreted as being connected with the rise and fall of the skinheads of the 1980s, the patriot and militia movements of the 1990s, and the alt-right of the 2010s. There is a different name for white supremacy in each instance, but the tendencies of the actors and their class origins and motivations seem to be described for each movement in more or less the same way.
There are not four or five or more white supremacy movements, then, but just one, which has always been marginal, though the speculation is always rife that it is the next big thing that will severely damage the body politic—as Hamm often wonders about the skinheads—if they are not brought under control. Their sources of alienation—whether of the skinheads, the patriots, or the alt-right—are said to be the same: disaffection with the globalized economic order which is leaving youth behind, at the perceived benefit of immigrants or globalized elites. Hamm’s analysis adds to the picture by connecting the skinheads to their aesthetic antecedents in the London underground music and club scene—the teddies, mods, rockers, and punks—but otherwise the early part of Hamm’s book, concerning the interesting cliques of disaffected British youths motivated to attack “Pakis,” West Indians, and other foreigners, seems to have little to do with the development of the American skinheads, and after the interesting introduction the book resorts heavily to ADL and SPLC-type condemnations of the alienated youth as potential terrorists who must be monitored and checked.
Most interestingly, the solution offered for bringing the eruption of white supremacy under control is remarkably analogous in each instance. Hamm’s five recommendations for bringing skinhead-style domestic terrorism (it is remarkable to think now that the label terrorism was almost entirely exhausted in the early 1990s by white power) include: “boycotting white power rock,” “expanded litigation against publishers of racist literature,” “conservative gun control legislation,” “standards for responsible media coverage” (after blaming Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, and other television talk show hosts for providing a platform to Metzger, Duke, and other icons of the skinheads), and finally, “future research,” which ends up sounding like a vague call to arms for specialists across the disciplines to get to the bottom of the alienation Hamm himself, despite his own field investigations, seems to have failed to plumb to its depths. The striking similarity to today’s various calls for boycotting, blacklisting, and banning—deplatforming, to use the current disturbing jargon—will be obvious, as well as the reliance on what appear to be extrajudicial means to entrap and antagonize, leading to prosecution in the courts. What seems to be the point of drawing out the connections of the American skinheads to their British antecedents if in the end nothing is being said about addressing the causes of their economic marginalization?
Or, in my case, a Muslim by birth.
2 Aryeh Neier, Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom (Dutton, 1979).
3 Paul Duggan, “James A. Fields, Jr., Sentenced to Life in Prison in Charlottesville Car Attack,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2018.
4 The Lagos location might well be a feint, and Anglin might well be in the U.S., operating from an undisclosed location as he was doing even before the Charlottesville conflagration. He has gone even deeper underground to avoid being brought to court in connection with unleashing an army of trolls against Tanya Gersh, a Jewish real estate agent in Whitefish, Montana, an incident in which Richard Spencer is also involved—small world, that of the alt-righters; and not surprisingly, it is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) spearheading this court action. Anglin’s lawyer Marc Randazza, who also represents another leading provocateur Mike Cernovich, has contested that Anglin has permanently relocated abroad, and is beyond the jurisdiction of American courts. The troubles of The Daily Stormer in getting an Internet server to host the leading Nazi journal of provocation are better documented in the period since Charlottesville; repeatedly, The Daily Stormer has been able to acquire rights to shady domains, only to be kicked out shortly thereafter. As of January, 2019, The Daily Stormer can be viewed at a .name domain owned by a Chinese hosting service, though it remains to be seen how long it will last.
5 Banned from online payment processing systems, Spencer recorded a video on YouTube in April, 2018, pleading for financial help.
6 Kelly Weill, “Neo-Nazi Group Implodes Over Love Triangle Turned Trailer Brawl,” The Daily Beast, March 14, 2018.
7 But note that the funders of Breitbart, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, are still there for Bannon, and have backed Milo Yiannopoulos as well. With Milo’s decline, they are now backing other provocateurs, like Ali Alexander (the ideas of white supremacy are not necessarily linked anymore with whites). Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Nationalist Uprising (Penguin, 2017) notes that the Mercers bailed out Trump at crucial moments during the 2016 campaign, when it was in serious financial and personnel trouble. Bannon, who ended up becoming campaign chairman in the latter stages, was a Mercer recommendation, a central link in the interbreeding circle that constitutes the alt-right. Of course, there is much less need for Breitbart News’s provocations, as in the lead-up to the election, because many of their most extreme views are now propounded openly by the president and his closest associates.
8 Mainstream liberal outlets from the Huffington Post to the Washington Post are united in presenting the alleged dissolution of the alt-right, in the period since Charlottesville, as a done deal, brought about by internal dissension, inadequate support, and a flailing ideology which never found traction beyond a minute circle of dropouts and sociopaths. A comforting narrative is recited about the technology companies stepping in as moral saviors in the aftermath of the alt-right’s excesses, as the general underestimation that led to the Trump presidency continues to be evident in the mainstream media’s relegation of alt-right figures to clowns and mentally disturbed people. Furthermore, much is made of financiers like the Mercers, or Peter Thiel, disassociating themselves from specific alt-right figures once they go too far, as though they weren’t still financing other individuals who might not have become personae non gratae yet but who hold the same kind of ideology. This comforting narrative of the alt-right disintegrating on its own extends to alt-light figures like Mike Cernovich, who we are told are going back to being libertarian provocateurs, already disillusioned with the stigma of the alt-right.
9 See the profile of Anglin by Luke O’Brien in The Atlantic Monthly’s December 2017 issue, “The Making of an American Nazi,” and that of Stephen Miller by McKay Coppins appearing in the same journal on May 28, 2018, titled “Trump’s Right-Hand Troll.”
10 The ADL, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Klanwatch, the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence, the Japanese American Citizens League, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the NAACP, and the Organization of Chinese Americans were some of the other watchdog groups prominent in the 1990s.
11 George Michael, Confronting Right-wing Extremism and Terrorism in the U.S.A. (Routledge, 2003), pp. 15-38.
12 David Smith, “Richard Spencer Acted Like Gang Boss, Charlottesville Conspiracy Trial Hears,” The Guardian, May 24, 2018.
13 Mark S. Hamm, American Skinheads: The Criminology and Control of Hate Crime. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993. Foreword by William J. Chambliss, p. xiii.
14 Ibid., p. xiv.