Let’s start in the middle of the road. A place where, as Jim Hightower once put it, “there’s nothin’ but yellow lines and dead armadillos.” Now, make a right. Now, keep going, past the mainstream right, past the far right. Keep going. Walk up to the edge of that big scary cliff and peer off into the distance. Now jump. That dark, cold, free fall you’re in? That’s the “Alt Right.”
Go ahead and add it to your autocorrect: “Alt Right” (proper noun) and “alt-right” (adjective and common noun). The word has been around for nearly a decade now and, sadly, it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Instead, it’s getting tossed around online and in the media, with increasing carelessness and frequency, as the go-to shorthand for the tangle of opinions and ideologies that exist to the right of far right. And while “Alt Right” may be a convenient way to refer to these groups, it is also very often a misnomer, giving commentators an easy general term, when what is urgently needed is specificity and investigation of these ideologies.
The Alt Right is not a thing; it’s a number of things, all with white supremacy at their core. Southern Poverty Law Center categorizes far-right hate groups into 11 different categories: anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim, anti-government, Christian identity, Holocaust denial, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, racist skinhead, and white nationalist.
“The word ‘Alt Right’ is repeated too much without a true understanding of the hate involved,” Heidi Beirich, who tracks far-right groups for SLPC’s Intelligence Project, told me. She is concerned that “the frequent use of the term is giving too much power to what is essentially just a rebranding of white supremacy—and the rebranding was done by white supremacists who know being called that is not good for their involvement in mainstream media.”
Weirdly, the white supremacist who invented the term agrees with Beirich.
“The edgy quality of ‘alt’ is also one of its strengths, in my opinion,” Richard B. Spencer, the charismatic head of a DC-based white-nationalist “think tank” called the National Policy Institute, explained to me. “It connotes grunge, electronica, punk rock, youth, and vitality—and not fuddy-duddy ‘conservatism.’ ” Spencer began using the term as early as 2008, before launching his webzine, Alternative Right, in 2010. “It was ‘Alt’—an attempt at a new beginning. ‘Alt Right,’ at its origins, was about a revolt against mainstream ‘conservatism,’ George W. Bush, and the neocons.”
But Spencer’s conservative “revolt” is primarily just racist dogma under a new name. His organization’s mission statement asserts simply–in the second of only two sentences–that they are “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States, and around the world.” Spencer’s Twitter account was among those recently suspended in the company’s long-overdue hate-monger purge. And, really, you know your rhetoric is disgusting when even Twitter can’t cope.