Nov 22, 2016

Calling them "alt-right" helps us fight them

If “alt-right” is a benign-sounding label to hide white supremacist ideology, why do so many alt-rightists go out of their way to sound as shockingly bigoted as possible?

 There’s a campaign among Trump opponents to get people to stop using the term “alt-right” — a campaign that I believe is misguided. Supposedly, “alt-right” is a deceptive euphemism that white supremacists created to hide their hateful beliefs. Belt Magazine floated this idea back in July:
“‘Alt-right’ — shorthand for the the Alternative Right — is, like ‘pro-life,’ the term the group gave itself. It is misleading, misrepresentative, and, most importantly, a benign or even attractive term…. So let us pick a new term to refer to this new group… ‘White supremacist’ works for me. ‘White nationalist’ seems apt as well. In some cases, ‘neo-Nazi’ applies.”
Recently, Daily Kos echoed the thought:
“The Neo Nazis know that their usual tags inspire revulsion amongst many Americans. That’s why Bannon and his ilk have invented the term ‘Alt Right’….

They knew they had to rebrand. And they knew using a different term would help obfuscate the truth of what they are.

So stop using the term ‘Alt-Right’ and just come out and call them what they are:

Neo Nazis. And if that’s too raw, then at least have the integrity to call them White Supremacists or White Nationalists.”
Similar arguments have been circulating on Twitter, as Quartz reports.

I completely agree that we should expose and combat white supremacist politics in all its forms, but a campaign to abolish the term “alt-right” doesn’t help us do this and actually makes it harder. If we want to understand the alt-right’s strengths and weaknesses, we need to understand what it shares with older white nationalist currents — but also what sets it apart. By contrast, the “don’t use ‘alt-right’” campaign promotes misunderstanding and ignorance about the movement it’s trying to confront.

To begin with, if “alt-right” is just a benign-sounding label to hide white supremacist ideology, why do so many alt-rightists go out of their way to sound as shockingly bigoted as possible? Here’s how Antifascist News describes one of the most popular alt-right websites, The Right Stuff:
“[On The Right Stuff] they choose to openly use racial slurs, degrade women and rape survivors, mock the holocaust and call for violence against Jews. Their podcast, The Daily Shoah, which is a play on The Daily Show and the Yiddish term for The Holocaust, is a roundtable discussion of different racists broadcasting under pseudonyms. Here they do voice ‘impressions’ of Jews, and consistently use terms like ‘Nig Nog,’ “Muds (referring to ‘mud races,’ meaning non-white), and calling people of African descent ‘Dingos.’  The N-word, homophobic slurs, and calls for enforced cultural patriarchy and heteronormativity are commonplace.”
As Antifascist News points out, the racist language that’s routine on The Right Stuff is so vile it’s not even allowed on Stormfront, the oldest and largest neonazi website.

Far from toning down their politics to sound more benign, many alt-rightists have actually taken the opposite approach. Old school white supremacists such as David Duke and Willis Carto made careers of dressing up their nazi politics as “populism” or “conservatism.” But now alt-right “shitlords” bombard Twitter with swastikas and gas chamber jokes, and ridicule antifascism the way 1960s radicals ridiculed anticommunism.

The Daily Kos idea that Steve Bannon “and his ilk” invented the term “alt-right” compounds the distortion. Bannon is actually a latecomer to the movement, a popularizer who — first at Breitbart News and then as a member of Trump’s team — has offered a toned-down version of alt-right politics for mass consumption. Richard Spencer — who introduced the term “alternative right” years ago to describe a convergence of diverse right-wing forces outside the conservative establishment — has termed this fellow-traveler phenomenon “alt-lite.”

On a deeper level, the “don’t call them ‘alt-right’” campaign embodies the unfortunate idea that white supremacist politics are basically all the same. Supposedly, once we know that alt-rightists uphold racist ideology, the details don’t really matter, and exploring them just distracts us from the central issue. But it’s precisely these “details” that help us understand what has made the alt-right a significant force, its capacity to tap into popular fears and grievances, its relationship with other political forces, its internal tensions and points of weakness. A few decades ago, most of the racist far right abandoned Jim Crow segregationism in favor of white nationalism — the doctrine that people of European descent shouldn’t just rule over people of color, but exclude or exterminate them entirely. Opponents who failed to recognize this shift were caught off guard when white supremacists moved from terrorizing black people to waging war on the U.S. government.

Saying we shouldn’t call them “alt-right” is saying that we don’t need to understand our enemy. It’s like a conservative in 1969 looking at the New Left — spanning from Alinskyites to Yippies, from Clean for Gene canvassers to the Weathermen — saying, “This ‘New Left’ label is just a ploy to hide their subversive agenda. They’re all just communists. That’s all we need to know, and all these petty differences are just a distraction.” This kind of attitude only benefits your opponents.

Here are some distinctive features of the alt-right that I believe antifascists should take into consideration:

* The alt-right is strong in online tactics but weak in on-the-ground organization. White supremacists have long been pioneers in exploiting new communication technologies, but the alt-right is the first far right current that exists mainly online. Alt-rightists have skillfully used online memes such as #Cuckservative and #DraftOurDaughters as propaganda tools to shape mainstream discourse. They have also turned online harassment and abuse into a potent tactic for frightening and silencing opponents. This raises important challenges for antifascists. It’s one thing to shut down a neonazi rally, or even a website, but something else again to shut down a Twitter campaign of vicious threats and abuse sent from a constantly moving array of anonymous accounts.

On the flip side, alt-rightists have little formal organization and very limited capacity to muster supporters for in-person rallies or other events. This could change. Some alt-right groups, such as the Traditionalist Youth Network/Traditionalist Workers Party, are actively building bridges with older school white supremacist groups, in part to help increase their physical presence.

* The alt-right brings together different branches of white nationalism. Some alt-rightists embrace neonazi ideology. Others emphasize a pseudoscientific “race realism” that’s heavy on IQ statistics and genetics. A third major current borrows from the European New Right, which has reworked fascist ideology using concepts borrowed from progressive movements, such as cultural diversity and identity politics. There’s overlap between these currents, and despite some infighting the alt-right has so far succeeded in maintaining a “big tent” approach and avoiding the sectarian splits that have stymied many earlier far right initiatives. But ideological difference could be a point of vulnerability.

* The alt-right encompasses rightist ideologies that don’t center on race. White nationalism has been the alt-right’s center of gravity, but the movement also overlaps with other political currents, including:
  • the so-called manosphere, an internet subculture of men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and others focused on destroying feminism and re-intensifying men’s dominance over women;
  • the neoreactionary movement (also known as the Dark Enlightenment), a network of authoritarian intellectuals who regard popular sovereignty as a major threat to civilization;
  • the right-wing anarchism of Keith Preston’s Attack the System, which blends opposition to big states with a kind of Nietzschean elitism;
  • Jack Donovan’s male tribalism, which envisions a system of patriarchy based on close-knit “gangs” of warrior men.
These currents have significantly influenced alt-right goals, tactics, forms of organization, and political targets. They have also helped the alt-right reach out to people who may not be white supremacist — and may not even be white. This capacity to extend its reach is part of what makes the alt-right dangerous. But there has also been conflict: for example some alt-rightists dismissing neoreaction founder Curtis Yarvin (“Mencius Moldbug”) as a Jew, or denouncing manosphere icon and would-be ally Daryush Valizadeh (“Roosh V”) as a “greasy Iranian” who defiles white women.

* The alt-right is internally divided about how to deal with Jews and gay men. Antisemitism is standard across the alt-right, but it takes widely different forms. Neonazis within the alt-right regard Jews as the ultimate embodiment of evil, who must be completely excluded from the movement and from any white homeland. But other alt-rightists want to ally with right-wing Jews against Muslims and regard Israel as a healthy outlet to keep Jews from subverting white society. And some alt-rightists — notably American Renaissance, one of the movement’s core institutions — welcome Jews as speakers and writers, and as participants in a future white homeland.

Similarly, while many alt-rightists want to suppress homosexuality, others denounce homophobia as a divisive force that weakens white solidarity and the male bonding needed for civilization to flourish. Some alt-rightists, such as Jack Donovan and James O’Meara, are openly homosexual. Donovan gets a lot of homophobic comments from other alt-rightists but his work is also influential and widely respected in the movement, to some extent even among homophobes. Some alt-rightists have also used Islamophobia in a bid to “wedge gays and Muslims.”

So far, alt-rightists have kept these disagreements within bounds, but they could intensify, for example if Donald Trump pursues the strongly pro-Zionist Mideast policy he has promised.

* The alt-right is overwhelmingly male. This reflects the movement’s patriarchal politics, of course, but also the boys club character of the online networks that furnish the bulk of its recruits, as well the alt-right’s general refusal to address women’s interests or concerns in any significant way. By contrast, the equally misogynistic biblical patriarchy movement has far more female participants and activists, because it at least offers women a sense of belonging and recognition, however distorted. A patriarchal family can’t exist without women, but even this kind of family is peripheral or irrelevant to male tribalism and large swaths of the manosphere.

* Most of the alt-right regards Donald Trump as a useful stepping stone. Most alt-rightists supported Trump’s presidential campaign and were thrilled by his upset victories over both the GOP establishment and Hillary Clinton. But they don’t think Trump shares their politics or will bring about the white ethnostate they want. Rather, they believe a Trump presidency will give them more space to peddle their ideology and “move the Overton window” in their favor. In turn, they see themselves as the Trump coalition’s political vanguard, taking hardline positions that pull Trump further to the right while enabling him to look moderate by comparison. The alt-right’s relationship with Donald Trump has been tremendously beneficial to both parties, but it could also turn sour in any number of ways. Even as he ramps up authoritarianism, Trump will have to navigate between the alt-right and other players, above all an economic ruling class whose majority did not want him to get elected.

                    *                    *                    *

We are moving into a bleak period, when understanding the forces opposing us will be more important than ever. That means exposing supremacist ideologies in all forms and guises, but it also means developing a political vocabulary that lets us make distinctions, rather than treat all enemies as one undifferentiated mass.

Related posts on Three Way Fight:
Alt-right: more misogynistic than many neonazis, December 2016


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the writing here. I too was quick to say that a nazi is a nazi is a nazi. Now I see that I was too quick to simplify a very complex movement that should not be underestimated.

Dock Currie said...

Descriptively this is useful, but prescriptively this is pedantry. They are neo-Nazis and should be called neo-Nazis because that is what they are.

'No, no, no, it's more complicated than that.'

No, it's not. A fascist is a fascist, whether they are MRA-gamergaters, or Brevik enthusiasts, they are neo-Nazis. From pepe-gas-chamber-memes to prim and proper Stormfront suit-and-ties: Nazis.

The only reason to deploy 'alt-right' is to say 'if someone calls themselves 'alt-right' then they are a fascist.'

Matthew N Lyons said...

Dock Currie, not all fascists are neonazis, but even if they were, why is it pedantry to argue that the alt-right has specific features that can make a difference in how we combat them? Why is it pedantry to argue that the alt-right is strong in online tactics but weak in on-the-ground organization, or that it is almost entirely male, or that a large part of it might easily split with Trump over his policy toward Israel? These issues could have real implications for shaping antifascist strategy. Who does it help if we throw that information away?

Anonymous said...

An important analysis. One minor note -- the term "Shoah" is Hebrew, not Yiddish

Anonymous said...

There's a better reason to not use the "Alt-Right" label. Much of the nation doesn't know what "Alt-Right" is or what it means. It makes them sound more "normal" like the "Tea Party" or other more benign right wing political movements.

Call a spade a spade... especially one that shovels s#!t. They are "white supremacists". They are not "alternative Republicans", as the label would seem to suggest.

Matthew N Lyons said...

Anonymous, the fact that many people don't know what the alt-right stands for is good reason to tell people what the alt-right stands for. It's not a good reason to not use the label. As I argue in this article, the alt-right has a number of specific features that are important to identify and understand, so that we can combat them more effectively. That's harder to do if we don't identify the alt-right as a specific movement.

Anonymous said...

To answer the first question: refuge in audacity. The more extreme and outrageous they are, if you accurately describe them the more extreme and outrageous will be your words, and therefore you will be the more easily dismissed.

I'm not joking. A big part of the story here is that nazis are incredibly good at finding the blind spots of civilized discourse and ripping them open with rusted-nail-filled 2X4s.

The entire election campaign reflected that. There was one set of rules for the mainstream politician, who was eviscerated over sins that were more arcane and trifling than anything else, and another set of rules for the people who openly promised ethnic cleansing in the US. The US media knew how to deal with a politician who had hidden materials improperly. But they did not know how to deal with an autocrat openly endorsing war crimes, and so let it pass with a shrug.

Godwin's Law is just another norm of civilized discourse of the kind that nazis excel at abusing and breaking. It is now little more than nazi camouflage, and needs to die a clean death.

The name "alt-right" is not about "hiding their beliefs", so much as controlling the terms of discussion. So long as we're not calling them nazis, but are discussing what exactly they are, they can continue merrily doing nazi things with little organized opposition. We shouldn't give them that power.

Anonymous said...

As someone who agrees 100% with everything you write, you desperately need to correct a MAJOR MISTAKE you made in this article! The #draftourdaughters meme creation was NOT an alt-right or Trumpkin created meme! It was an anti-war libertarian/voluntaryist/anarchist creation, and it was only passed around vociforously by Trump supporters because it made Hillary and Dems look bad.

This is an incredibly important distinction, and you really should correct the record!

Matthew N Lyons said...

Interesting. I would be happy to correct the #DraftOurDaughters reference if evidence supports your explanation. My evidence that it was alt-right-created comes mainly from the website Know Your Meme, which traces it to posts starting on 10/27/16 by specific Twitter and Reddit users (@Ultra_Victoria, @MicroSpookyLeaks, whocaresguy), all of whom present as alt-right/Trump supporters. See the #DraftOurDaughters link in the body of my article. What is your evidence that it was created by libertarian/voluntaryist/anarchist folks, and does this evidence predate the posts cited in Know Your Meme?

Cleverusername said...

Frankly it really doesn't matter if each sect is not entirely identical, functionally they're the same. They are white supremacists. Insisting that we use a laundry lists of terms is like telling someone that a shade of blue is really periwinkle. Yes, your technically correct but does it really make a difference? I second an earlier commenter, this is unecessarily pedantic.

Chell Abrahmz said...

What sets the so called 'alt-right' apart from older white supremacists? That. They are younger. The reason 'alt-right' was coined was because millennials didn't like the taint of neonazi, white supremacist of racist.

The reason they can't muster up an organised rally is precisely because of their generation. If you want to know how to defeat them, look to the generational differences. The hate is exactly the same when you strip away the pretty words.

Why are they more extreme and outlandish in what they say? Because they are younger. Name me one generation of people who, in their youth, didn't rebel against the dominant culture. It's to grab attention. It's to annoy and piss people off. It's no different to conservative families one day finding they have a metal music listening, goth teen in the house. It's for shock value.

If you want to understand them, understand what makes this generation tick generally. How they are approaching fascism is no different than how they approach anything else.

I'll stick with calling them what they are, thanks.

Matthew N Lyons said...

Osita Nwanevu at Slate makes a similar argument to mine: "There’s No Better Term for the Alt-Right Than Alt-Right" (

VallesGirl said...

Thank you, Matthew, for this article. And for the time and energy you put into your research. Though we have different politics, thorough reporting and integrity cut across all
Ideologies. I am grateful for this resource you make available to everyone.

Anonymous said...

It's always a good idea to understand the enemy on their own terms. At the risk of "pedantry" I'll point out that you're arguing for emic analysis. This is a good thing. Etic analysis alongside (e.g. "they're neonazis / white supremacists") is equally important and should help address some of the concerns of your commenters.

One thing bugs me: you draw an analogy to calling the New Left communists. That's exactly what talk radio has been doing for decades. If you're right to dismiss that strategy, how do you explain the fact that it has worked? Tens of millions of Americans are functionally incapable of distinguishing between Hillary Clinton and a communist. And they voted.

Anonymous said...

Matthew, you work is excellent as always. My apologies if this is the first time I've ever had a significant disagreement with your conclusions.

As a scholar you're completely correcte. The alt-right is a distinct subcategory of neo-fascism, or a penumbra of beliefs heavily influenced but not identical to neo-fascism. If you were writing a history or political taxonomy, I'd be the first to say you're entirely right to take a movement by its own name and terms and carefully trace its nuances.

But we're not just playing taxonomy any more. We're at war. We're facing an administration barrelling down with plans of mass deportation, minority registration, neo-segregation, and a general program of authoritarian kleptocracy pushing the most powerful nation in the world past the tipping point to full-blown dictatorship. We need the word 'fascism' to scream the emergency alarm bells of a fight to the death. We need to call Bannon and those heiling geeks listening to Richard Spencer 'neo-nazis' because we need to communicate they're the Enemy. They use the term 'alt-right' because it doesn't draw lines. We must draw lines. Scholarship and truth are important but the first purpose of language is to unite and communicate for survival.

Our enemies know this. The name of your blog is "Three-Way *Fight*". Please, this is life or death, with nothing less than the survival of humanistic values in balance. The Left is damned to lose if only our opponents win first and then go to war.

The meaning of the word "fascist" is "you have a duty to fight" and "it's okay to kill them." And "if you tolerate this, then your children will be next".

Matthew N Lyons said...

In reply to Anonymous 11/28 ("It's always a good idea...") I had to look up the terms "emic" and "etic" and I'm still not clear what they mean. But with regard to your point about the New Left = communists analogy, I concede that I was overgeneralizing when I said "This kind of attitude only benefits your opponents." Better to say that it's a smear tactic that's sometimes effective, sometimes ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive. When the John Birch Society called Eisenhower a communist dupe they just made themselves look like fools, for example, but in other instances the communist smear has worked all too well. You are probably right that many voters can't distinguish between Hillary Clinton and a communist, but that was at most peripheral to why she lost -- much less important than her being portrayed as an elitist who sides with "minorities" against most white Americans.

Matthew N Lyons said...

In reply to Anonymous 11/20 and the argument that "we're not just playing taxonomy any more. We're at war..." Yes, we are, and once again that's why I am arguing from the standpoint of political strategy, not some kind of abstract taxonomic precision. You didn’t address that, but I guess you are saying that all of the strategic points I raised are unimportant compared with the immediate need to “draw lines” in a very simple, obvious way.

My friend Kay Kersplebedeb addressed this argument well in a recent Facebook post. He writes that drawing very simple lines by “signaling that someone is a neonazi or fascist, without much need to go into details” can rally a lot of people quickly to our side, but this support is “a mile wide and an inch thick.” After the short-term gain, there may be a bigger cost in the medium term. "Specifically, in this situation, the alt right has many characteristics that regular neonazis do not. …take for instance the disagreements within the alt-right about Jews and gays. The kind of ‘instant support’ we get when pointing the finger and saying ‘Nazi’ will evaporate just as quickly when people realize that in certain important ways the alt right is different than the Aryan Nations. It will be difficult to organize just as effectively against Jewish or gay figures within this movement -- many of the ‘instant supporters’ will see these folks and think we are either misinformed, or somehow we are the ones pulling a fast one.”

Anonymous said...

Sigh. We keep bringing truth to a gunfight and they always win.

Anonymous said...

Emic/etic is a contrast that arises from observing others. I apologize for not giving you definitions, I should have guessed you'd find a bunch of bullshit theorizing instead of something useful if you had to look it up. Long and short of it is "emic" is their terms / worldview / brains / behaviors / descriptions / theories, and "etic" is the analyst's own version of those same things from the same observation.

When you say the voters who cannot distinguish between HRC and Stalin are peripheral to the reason why she lost, I really wonder where you are coming from. Are you caught up in the mass media focus on swing voters? Because these folks are certainly not swing voters, and they are of no interest to either national party, both of which know which way they will vote ahead of time. But they are voter bedrock, and besides the numbers they contribute to the vote tally they are also ideological bedrock. Now more than ever I believe we can see the massive success of the ideological discourses, almost completely ignored by liberals, which have produced these people, even as that success leaves the original discourses behind and moves in new directions. In short, I remain to be convinced that HRC=Stalin is either more or less an important reason for her loss than populist racism (or any of the other big reasons, including base suburban "business is good" capitalism), although you are right that the racism was the more mobilized of the two forces during the campaigns.

- Anonymous 11/28

Bernard said...

Thank you, Matthew, for this thought provoking essay. Thanks for posting above the variety of friendly reactions to it. This thread clarifies important issues involved in using a name or several names for the “alt.right.” It is good to clarify what the left is fighting against, with the names it uses.

Much detail about “what the left is against,” paradoxically, helps the rightists to refine their many arguments--to continue to make them more palatable to a wider # of people.

It would be good to also collectively define what the left is working towards. Move the Overton window, for the public and the politicians. Create a view that is widely attractive and well-defined in the space on the left. Then give it a name.