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.
But despite these Bush-era beginnings, Alt Right didn’t fully break into the mainstream political vernacular until the beginning of the 2016 primary season, when Donald Trump’s sons and campaign advisors were outed for repurposing images and language that could be traced back to anonymous online discussion forums like 4chan, 8chan, and the white-nationalist message board Stormfront. America was treated to the anti-Semitic image of Hillary Clinton with a Jewish star and money, under the banner “History Made: Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” Then there was the time when Pepe the Frog, a cartoon white-supremacist meme, made an appearance on the shoulder of Donald Trump in a mock movie poster advertising The Deplorables. These were not dog whistles; they were full-throated clarion calls.
Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon were picked to run Trump’s campaign despite having been revealed in 2014 to be members of the secretive, far-right Council for National Policy. The group, which can only be joined by invitation and at a cost of thousands of dollars, counts many white-nationalist leaders among its membership. All of this was a fitting second act to Trump’s original entry onto the national political stage—as usurper to the throne of birther-in-chief cuckoo Orly Taitz—and it forced journalists and commentators to come up with a way refer to these fringe groups. Alt Right began to appear with increasing frequency.
Sometimes the over-reliance on the catchall Alt Right may stem from legitimate concerns, like reluctance to name-check specific hate groups or their websites. Nobody wants to see CNN calling out Stormfront the way I have here. Neither, though, should these websites be shrouded in a kind of sexy, “alt”-y mystery, or given a cushy rhetorical firewall.
But to be generous, there’s a learning curve, and the overuse of Alt Right often seems like a lack of understanding of the landscape. It takes some study. These groups aren’t monolithic. There is ideological crossover, but it often flows in erratic and unpredictable ways. For instance, some skinheads are not racist, and a handful of white-supremacist groups have begun to reject anti-gay bigots. Recently, Spencer’s organization banned vocal homophobes from attending one of its gatherings. And elsewhere in this universe of groups, street artist Sabo and his Unsavory Agents claimed responsibility for a spate of guerrilla posters following the Orlando massacre, featuring the Gadsden flag’s rattlesnake (Tea Party), laid over a rainbow flag (LGBTQ), with the hashtag “#shootback” (anti-gun control). It’s tough to know what to say about something like this, and it’s particularly tough to shorthand it.
Sometimes the public hand-wringing can go beyond lazy, and feels truly irresponsible. Last Sunday, Joseph Goldstein whined in The New York Times that “the alt-right has been difficult to define.” He went on to ask, “Is it a name for right-wing political provocateurs in the internet era? Or is it a political movement defined by xenophobia and a dislike for political correctness?” Then, in the very next paragraph, he quoted Spencer saying that white identity is the “core idea.” Pretty straightforward. The problem isn’t figuring out how to define the Alt Right” the problem is using the phrase at all. Once the word is dropped from the conversation, it’s easy to see what Spencer was trying to tell Goldstein: We are talking about old, familiar ideologies, just delivered via new media platforms, and using a different name.
“It sounds more like an indy rock band than people with despicable views,” Beirich adds. “It’s a little astounding that we have let white supremacists lighten their brand. We shouldn’t allow it.”