A Closer Look at the Alt-Right from a Researcher

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Alt-Right conference in Washington a week after the elections.

George Hawley is a professor of political scientist at the University of Alabama who has been studying the development of the Alt-Right. While most Americans had not heard of the network of white nationalists called the Alt-Right until Donald Trump put Steve Bannon in charge of his campaign, the Alt-Right has been developing its underground for years. Professor Hawley recently shared some of his research with the Washington Post.

According to Hawley, until recently, the Alt-Right was an “amorphous” network that existed primarily online. He says that:

the core of the alt-right is white nationalism — or, at least, white identity politics. That’s what the people who are really pushing that movement forward stand for, even if not everyone who identifies with the alt-right or is an alt-right fellow traveler is fully on board with that message.

Hawley says that observers are right to see the Alt-Right as an inheritor of the ideology of earlier white nationalist movements:

The people who are really pushing the alt-right have a similar vision, in terms of what they want, as the earlier white-nationalist movements. That is, the society that they’d like to live in probably looks somewhat similar to what the earlier white nationalists were calling for — so I think part of it is more a difference of style and marketing than a difference in substance, though I would note that it seems like most of the leading figures of the alt-right do disavow things like genocide, which some of the more outrageous earlier white nationalists didn’t necessarily do.

According to the professor, the ultimate goal is to create a white nation in North America. Most Alt-Right propagandists call for the creation of a country or state for white people without explaining how that could be accomplished given the racial diversity of the United States. Hawley says that one Alt-Right writer has set out a plan. Greg Johnson wrote that “You start with the undocumented immigrants. You end birthright citizenship. You provide incentives for leaving the country. After it’s a much smaller, more manageable population, that’s when more draconian measures would be implemented.”

Hawley says that the Alt-Rightist should not be confused with mainstream conservatives, although they sometimes act in alliance. Hawley says that:

From the people I’ve talked to, I’d say that the modal alt-right person is a male, white millennial; probably has a college degree or is in college; is secular and perhaps atheist and [is] not interested in the conservative movement at all. For six decades now, the mainstream right has really been defined by its basic principles: traditional family values, limited government intervention in the economy and a hawkish foreign policy. The alt-right, from what I can tell, has zero interest in any of that.

The term “Alt-Right” is of recent origin. Hawley says it only dates back to the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency:

The term “alt-right” was born around 2008, coined by a young white nationalist (though he prefers the term identitarian) named Richard Spencer, and when the term was initially born, it seemed to be a fairly ecumenical term in that it really seemed to apply to just about anyone who was right-wing politically, but opposed to George W. Bush and especially to the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement. So, libertarians and paleoconservatives and the racial right all could be classified as alt-right, though, over time, the racial element became more explicit.

The Alt-Right languished until 2015, when Breitbart became the platform for the Alt-Right. The Alt-Right was boosted tremendously by the social media skills of some of its core members and its devotion to coolness. Hawley says that in these ways it was very different from ealier far-right groups:

If we think about earlier movements — like William Pierce’s National Alliance, the National Socialist Movement, the Ku Klux Klan — none of those groups had much of an appeal to anyone who was not at least somewhat anti-social. Most normal people have no desire to join a skinhead gang, for example. The alt-right has been able to successfully brand itself as an edgy and fun and ironic movement that takes pleasure in needling both liberals and conservatives, and it’s tongue-in-cheek and rebellious as opposed to just being motivated by [the] genocidal hatred that you would see from people like William Pierce.

Hawley says that while Breitbart News “flirts” with the Alt-Right, it is not part of it. He says that “a lot of people who are on the alt-right read Breitbart and appreciate it,” but that people like Bannon have not advocated creating a white ethno-state.

Video of Nov. 2016 Washington Alt-Right Conference:


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