Over the next few days, and perhaps the next couple months, and (oh God help us) the next few years, you’ll be hearing a lot about the “alt-right.” Apologies in advance for that.
It wasn’t something we really had-to-had-to talk about before, but now, suddenly, we have to. You can thank Hillary Clinton, who thrust the (let’s call it a) movement into the spotlight (or dragged it upstairs from the basement) by putting it front and center in a speech attacking Donald Trump that she delivered this past Thursday in Nevada.
“No one should have any illusions about what’s really going on here,” Clinton said, attempting to parse out the overlapping ideologies fueling the Trump campaign. “The names may have changed. Racists now call themselves ‘racialists.’ White supremacists now call themselves ‘white nationalists.’ The paranoid fringe now calls itself ‘alt-right.’ But the hate burns just as bright.”
So bright, in fact, that it’s hard to squint through it to discern the true shape of this “alt-right,” which, given this boost into mainstream discourse, may forever be stripped of the scare quotes that once lent it a safe, almost fictional-seeming distance.
“What is the alt-right?” is the question that will launch a thousand explainers. To some, it’s a fringe (but increasingly legit) political movement welling up through the online cracks of a ruptured Republican Party like so much proverbial fracking discharge.
To others, it’s a way to name the tight if amorphous network of Internet trolls (long incubated in caves like 4chan, 8chan, and various Trump-smitten subReddits) that, having incinerated the very dumpster that once housed the dumpster fire of #gamergate, have since slouched toward politics and attached hungrily to The Donald’s nasty rhetorical teat.
And to others, it’s a wide-open virtual state fair for white nationalists/nihilists, misogynist “men’s rights” dweebs, proud flag-flying meme-flinging racists, and other varieties of aggrieved (presumably) white male Twitter eggs to go hog wild. (Right now, the #altrightmeans hashtag is home to a robust/futile effort from both sides of the divide to define it.)
Even Breitbart, the self-styled hive of high-minded alt-right drones (and the standing water that bred Trump’s new campaign CEO Stephen Bannon), struggles to square the circle in its “Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right,” which comes courtesy of alternate-reality “Project Runway” loser and recent Twitter evictee Milo Yiannopoulos.
Yiannopoulos and cohort Allum Bokhari break the alt-right phenomenon down into a shortlist of simpatico anti-establishment subsects — among them “intellectuals” (“They’re dangerously bright”) and “neoreactionaries” (search: #NRx), “natural conservatives” (who simply “value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe”), and the stunningly euphemized “Meme Team” (“young rebels”/trolls with Photoshop, similarly drawn to the alt-right as boomers were to the New Left “because it promises fun, transgression, and a challenge to social norms they just don’t understand”). Sounds like a party! Just not the kind you put in charge of anything.
Oh, and last but certainly not least under the alt-right big top are the “1488rs,” a.k.a. neo-Nazi garbage people — a sect that, as it happens, many members of the movement (probably those “intellectuals”) “would rather . . . didn't exist.” What on earth could have attracted them to this rager in the first place, I wonder? How I wish I knew!
Regardless of what exactly the alt-right is, it is. Its codification by both candidates suggests that a Tea Party by any other name can stink just as bad, and perhaps even more strongly. But what's in a name in the case of the alt-right may be what’s truly floating it to the top of the tank.
Consider the choice of “alt-” and the specific power of that prefix. When affixed to the press, it denotes a specific realm of outsider journalism — the alt-weeklies of the alt-press were the preserve of progressive politics and commentary for four decades (note: I’m not trying to be shady by using the past tense there). In the ’90s, alt-rock and alt-pop emerged (albeit more as marketing terms than any self-designated movement) as an “alternative” to the ostensibly emptier mainstream radio offerings of the day. More recently, the flash of the “Alt-Lit” movement was founded (and floundered) upon anti-establishment writings characterized by Internetty touches and what Kenneth Goldsmith called “wide-eyed sincerity.”
By co-opting a prefix long tangled up in progressive subtexts, the “dangerously bright” brains behind the alt-right (the term was reportedly coined by white nationalist activist Richard Spencer in 2008) may have pulled off one of the more clever semantic coups in recent political history. Though its members claim fierce opposition to the looming dude-neutering threat of “political correctness,” the term “alt-right” is itself an extraordinary act of euphemism.
There’s really nothing “alt” about the alt-right — its ideas aren’t particularly new, its methods are wholly self-defeating, and its battle against “PC culture” is really just a surrender to our basest biases and worst instincts.
Simply slap on an “alt-”, and suddenly your regressive caveman shamble contorts into something one could (apparently) mistake for a progressive stride; your anonymous horde of cellar-dwelling hate-clickers assumes the cachet of a fresh subculture; your repulsive tweets on Leslie Jones’s page feel like salvos of a revolution; your cowardice feels like courage; your agita like edge; your mob like a movement.
Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.