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What is the Alt-Right?

By Crouchback (@Crouchback_Bant)

In the current political climate, it can be hard to keep track of all the insane stories about both of our utterly regrettable general election candidates. In fact, this may be something of a strategy on the part of Trump, but that’s a story for another day. One of the stories that tends to crop up every now and again is the army of internet trolls and edgelord guttersnipes that have assembled on behalf of the Republican nominee (some of whom have affectionately—and of course ironically—dubbed him “God-Emperor Trump”). Behind these trolls, there lurks something of an loosely-associated online intellectual movement called the alternative right, or the alt-right. [Editorial Note: This article was first drafted prior to Hillary Clinton’s reference to the alt-right in her Reno speech, but now I guess it’s bigger news. Of course, she did little more than caricature it and so we’ll need to dig deeper.]  Breitbart did a self-congratulatory piece giving a basic taxonomy of the so-called “alt-right” (for whom Breitbart writer, professional shock-jock, and co-author of said article Milo Yiannopoulis is something of a Troll King). You could consider giving it a look if you’re interested (Google is your friend, but Breitbart isn’t). I don’t particularly recommend it, but if you understand that it’s one part information, three parts apologia pro vita Milo, you can take it with an appropriately sized grain of salt and maybe learn something. Still, we here at The Banterer would like to save your browser the trouble, and your eyes the pain, of attempting to view the awful mess that is the Breitbart website, so here’s a crash course in the alt-right.

It’s important to note right off the bat that the alt-right is not, and does not claim to be, a monolithic entity. It encompasses ethno-nationalists, techno-libertarians, right-wing populists, neo-Hobbesians, and plain old-fashioned neck-bearded meme-magician trolls, operating in what the military calls a target-rich environment (that is, an environment full of people who really, really want to be offended). After the success of the anti-globalist revolution (bear with me), these parties will fall to squabbling more or less instantaneously, as, for instance, half-Jewish neo-reactionary author Curtis Yarvin runs afoul of anti-Semitic white nationalist populists, who are in turn opposed by tech-oligarchs bent on suppression of the irrational masses. According to most people, the only thing that really unites the alt-right is an opposition to conservative business-as-usual. That is, the various factions in the alt-right are united by their rejection of mainstream conservative parties across the world, and especially of the Republican Party in America.

This rejection has a variety of sources. I’ll focus on the two major parties within the alt-right: the libertarian alt-right and the nationalist-populist alt-right. The nationalist-populist wing of the alt-right sees the mainstream Republican Party as nothing more than the Democrats of yesteryear: a slowly, but inevitably capitulating rearguard steadily surrendering Western civilization to the forces of political correctness, militant feminism/transgenderism/etc., and multiculturalism. Somewhat ironically, the nationalist-populists also endorse more than a few policies of the pre-1972 Democratic Party: for instance, they tend to be protectionist, anti-globalist (that is, anti-free trade and anti-immigration), and suspicious of the wealthy elites now courted by both parties. Compared to Republicans who adhere to Reaganite orthodoxy, these people tend to be much more reticent about the free-market, and especially about international free-trade, as a degrading influence that breaks down national loyalties and elevates transnational profit-making over ties of family and nation. This group ranges from the interesting and arguably even helpful to the neo-Nazi. All tend toward economic populism and a kind of social traditionalism. They see the GOP establishment as frustratingly globalist because of the GOP’s commitment to the free-market and as willing to surrender the “culture wars” in order to secure free-market policies. The so-called “2012 Autopsy" of Mitt Romney's failed presidential bid, which suggested that the party “get with the times” on issues like gay marriage and “get to the left” on issues like immigration, proposed going in exactly the opposite direction.

I should briefly note that I am addressing the concerns and positions of the more interesting side of the nationalist-populist alt-right. There is also the pseudo-Nazi, fashy (i.e., wannabe Fascists who watch anime) dark side of the nationalist-populists. These folks think society has to be reorganized along racial lines. More or less everyone in the nationalist-populist camp denounces pluralism and multiculturalism to one extent or another; the extremists denounce even racial diversity. I leave these extremists aside for three reasons: the first and most obvious, is that I think that their position is wrong empirically and morally. I also leave it aside because I don’t think that increased interest in the alt-right is a function of increased racism; at the very least, I suspect that a lot of this internet racism is "put-on" (though see the editorial note at the end of this piece). Finally, while it  may be unpleasant for some of them to admit, there is a common fundamental objection uniting all the nationalist-populists—like and like go together; unlike and unlike don’t mix well. The all-important question is what sort of likeness matters. Clearly, men and women can coexist in a political community. So too, I suspect, blondes and brunettes. But I suspect that there is a line somewhere, but while that point deserves some thought, the more extreme versions of that point do not. 

Opposed to the nationalist-populist kind of alt-rightism is the libertarian wing of the alt-right, (including self-confessed opponent of democracy, though not self-described alt-righter, Peter Thiel). The libertarian alt-righters want to divorce social conservatism (which Mr. Thiel does not care about) from support for free-markets and small government (which he does). That is, a portion of the alt-right (and many outside the alt-right) yearns for a post-religious right. The people we might call the founders of neo-reaction (Curtis Yarvin, aka Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land, author of “Dark Enlightenment”) could be grouped together with these authoritarian-libertarian types. You would not go too far wrong to say that Moldbug and Land (and Thiel, to an extent) are little more than repackaged Hobbes with an internet-age flair. For these men, democracy is a doomed form of government because it incentivizes self-destructive consumption of resources and populist pandering to the irrational and insatiable desires of the masses. What is needed is not less technocracy, but more technocracy—indeed, authoritarian technocracy. Take governmental decisions out of the hands of the governed and place into the hands of the educated elite who can manage a country intelligently—and perhaps more importantly who can secure civil liberties and economic efficiency.

This may sound like an oxymoron, but civil and political liberties are not the same thing. A political community may have extreme political liberty and comparatively few civil liberties: imagine, for instance, a theocratic republic composed of conservative religious citizens. The citizens could exercise their political rights—voting, legislating for themselves, holding office, and so forth—in order to restrict civil rights (they could, for instance, pass legislation to persecute heretics, censor offensive literature, or punish public blasphemy). The reverse is also possible, as shown by Immanuel Kant in his essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which Kant praises Frederick the Great, the 18th century monarch of Prussia (incidentally, Moldbug cites Frederick the Great as a model). According to Kant, Frederick’s authoritarian absolute monarchy secured freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, and other liberal (in the political philosophical sense) freedoms. Nevertheless, Kant indicates that the reason Frederick was willing to permit his subjects so much latitude was at least in part because he maintained iron-fisted control over the government.  Kant writes that Frederick’s motto was “Argue as much as you will; but obey!” We could imagine a modern-day analogue: a military dictator with absolute control over the workings of government. The dictator, perhaps as a way of appeasing his people, permits gay marriage, protects free exercise of religion, and the free exchange of goods. Real-world examples abound: Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein both protected religious minorities and ensured a level of freedom of religion unheard of throughout most of the region, and Pinochet’s dictatorship protected private property, arguably to a fault. In any case, the point is simple: civil liberty and political liberty are not the same thing. They can be separated and the libertarian wing of the alt-right has a strong tendency toward preserving civil liberty at the expense of political liberty.

Finally, there are two groups of fellow-travelers, or what we might call “natural conservatives” (h/t Breitbart). For these people, opposition to gay marriage or furries or whatever is not so much a matter of moral principle as a matter of instinct: “shut up with all this transgressive crap—just be a normal, red-blooded, patriotic Americans.” They are equally turned off by Lena Dunham’s in-your-face feminism and Ted Cruz’s smarmy TrueCon Reaganism. I imagine they were pretty happy campers in the Eighties and Nineties: the Eighties boom, the 1994 Crime Bill, the Sistah Souljah moment, DOMA—all triangulated what we might call the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not-in-my-backyard natural conservative. It is likely that most people who fit this description would not identify as alt-righters—indeed, if, as I suspect, many of these people are older and less internet-savvy, and if the alt-right is primarily a younger, internet-oriented phenomenon, then it is likely that many are ignorant of the alt-right altogether. Nevertheless, their political goals may align.

Another group of fellow-travelers are “Desperate Republicans.” These people are furious at what they see as the constant retreat of the Republican Party in the culture wars and are looking for anything that can stem the tide. And there’s something to this frustration. Republicans are constantly being dragged to the left on social issues. No amount of concession or compromise seems capable of satisfying the forces of progress. No less than Andrew Sullivan spoke of the contemporary Left in the following way: “for [them], the word magnanimity seems unknown” (Sullivan, an LGBT activist, was speaking specifically of what he referred to as the “gay left,” but the observation could easily be generalized on Sullivan’s own grounds). Consider also the words of Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet, who calls for an acceleration of progressive judicial activity with the charming exclamation: “Fuck Anthony Kennedy” (!!!). Desperate Republicans are not really alt-righters, but are desperate enough to make common cause with anyone who is willing to descend to Mark Tushnet’s level and say (if you’ll forgive me), “Fuck you” (and worse) right back. All these groups are united by a frantic feeling that the progressive culture of inclusion, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and so on and so forth is winning and conservatives (or even just normal people) are losing, and that something has to be done right now. See, for instance, this interview with a young Libertarian-cum-Trump supporter.

This summary does not necessarily capture every facet of the alt-right. It also does not consider with any seriousness the more ridiculous branches and shoots of the alt-right, such as the hordes of internet anti-Semites, various neo-Nazi groups, or the human biodiversity folks (in short: a resurrection of the old racialist science of eugenics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries). There are also Christian alt-right authors, but I leave them for another day (and I regard them with suspicion, given the prevalent—and to a degree intelligible—association of far right politics with neo-paganism).

Regarding the Twitter trolls, since these are in some ways the most visible members of the alt-right, it’s worth saying something more about them: these are in some respects the most despicable members of the alt-right because for them it’s all one big joke, a funny game of who can say the most shocking things. I suspect that Milo Yiannopoulis is probably right that many of these trolls are not really anti-Semites in any serious sense, but that makes them all the more disgusting in the way that George Wallace’s racism was more disgusting than real racism because he knew better. It is a little-known fact that Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP in his failed 1958 gubernatorial run; he privately blamed his loss on his failure to pander to racists and resolved to act more like a racist in the future. Similarly, the same person who would have been an internet atheist in the Eighties and Nineties today posts pictures of Templars and Basil the Bulgar Slayer on Twitter because it gets a rise out of people. As Rousseau said of the Enlightenment philosophes, “they are only the enemies of public opinion; to bring them to the foot of the altar, it would be enough to banish them to a land of atheists. What extravagances will not the rage of singularity induce men to commit!” For many of these people, I suspect the motivation is more the desire to troll and to shock than any true political convictions. While this is in some ways a damning reaction to the Left’s new generation of would-be thought police (decried by old school liberals and conservatives alike) and an indication of the isolating and radicalizing potential of the internet age, it is more interesting as a sociological phenomenon than as a political doctrine worthy of investigation. Certain points raised by certain sectors of the alt-right, on the other hand, are worth some time and thought, and so over the next few posts, I intend to explore some of what they get right and where they go wrong.

[Note: After initially drafting this essay, I came across this article. The short version is this: I may have underestimated the extent to which actual racism (or race realism, or whatever euphemism currently refers to the idea that “whites” should stick together and kick out “non-whites”) might animate the Twitter trolls. On the other hand, this is just one guy.]


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