“We’re the establishment now”: ‘alt-right’ in the spotlight
At an event in Nevada back in August, Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton headed to a community college, often a favourite venue for politicians to talk about education. But her theme this time wasn’t student debt or making university accessible – she decided to talk about her opponent’s ideology, one she described as based on ‘prejudice and paranoia’. The Democratic nominee told her supporters in Reno that Donald Trump wasn’t espousing ‘Conservatism as we have known it’, but instead was taking up ‘racist, race-baiting, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women ideas – all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the “alt-right”.’
Mr Trump tweeted that the speech was ‘lies’ and ‘fearmongering’, but Mrs Clinton’s words immediately switched on a powerful spotlight, lighting up a vague but increasingly visible term. ‘Alt-right’ was now used to describe a mainly online movement, often involving young, white men, who embrace a range of views rejecting mainstream conservatism in favour of ideas seen as anti-Semitic and rooted in white supremacism. Their ideals appear to centre on ‘white identity’ and preserving ‘Western civilization’.
The name itself makes use of the prefix alt-, which was popular among musical genres, especially in the 1990s, for denoting something that sees itself as a challenge to the traditional. It’s widely held to have been used first by Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute and something of an alt-right leader, who created a web magazine called the ‘Alternative Right’ in 2010. We know that shortened form was being used by 2011, but mostly only among those who identified themselves as part of the movement rather than in mainstream publications. But once the 2016 US Presidential election campaign took off, the term suddenly had a spike in publicity – and saw a surge in usage, especially in the spring of this year as campaigning really took off. And as soon as Mr Trump was named President-Elect, his win was again linked with the term in several news articles, claiming ‘US Alt Right Hail Election Result’ and ‘Alt Right Declares Total Victory’.
Alt-right, alt-lite, or paleo?
The unabbreviated term ‘alternative right’ itself is said to have been introduced by academic and conservative thinker Paul Gottfried in 2008. He himself said he ascribed to ‘paleo conservative’ ideas – making him an advocate, according to the Oxford Dictionaries definition, of ‘traditional forms of conservatism’, the paleo from the Greek word for ‘ancient’, palaios. The term itself is apparently in an attempt to cut loose from ‘neoconservatism’, a phrase popular in the George W. Bush years which came to emphasize an interventionist foreign policy (whereas paleo-conservatives are said to favour isolationism).
Richard Spencer told the Guardian he intended ‘alt-right’ to describe a diverse group whose members were ‘deeply alienated, intellectually, even emotionally and spiritually, from American conservatism’. He went on to say that the term is flexible — but the flurry of publicity following Hillary Clinton’s speech led to some of those who rushed to describe themselves as part of the alt-right being derided by others in the movement for being ‘alt-lite’ – too moderate.
How alt-right is Donald Trump?
But if the lines between the neos and the paleos are relatively easy to draw, the distinction between the paleos and the alt-right may be less clear, with some disagreeing with Hillary Clinton and others who say Donald Trump is ‘alt-right’, instead preferring the former term to describe the now US President-Elect’s particular brand of isolationist, nationalist politics.
Nonetheless, Mr Trump has retweeted a number of messages from alt-right Twitter users, and his campaign CEO Steve Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a site many have described as alt-right leaning.
And as it became clear Mr Trump had taken the White House, the alt-right was keen to claim his victory as theirs, too. Richard Spencer tweeted that the ‘alt-right has just won’, adding that ‘the Alt-Right is more deeply connected to Trumpian populism than the conservative movement. We’re the establishment now’. Meanwhile, the founder of neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, which claims to be the ‘number 1 alt-right website’, wrote, ‘Make no mistake about it: we did this. If it were not for us, it wouldn’t have been possible’.
This sense of camaraderie among members of the alt-right is enhanced by specific language, memes, and phrases – especially since their communications and forums appear to be primarily online, and therefore in written posts (indeed one lawyer and blogger observed in a tweet that the alt-right was ‘basically white supremacy for people with soft hands’) where the use of certain words or phrases can help identify them.
One alt-right term that’s risen to prominence is cuckservative, a derogatory term used for self-described conservatives whom the alt-right deems to have succumbed to ‘political correctness’ or who have toed the party line. Based on the word cuckold, described by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the husband of an adulteress, often regarded as an object of derision’, the idea is to convey an emasculated object of derision. The word is often shortened to cuck, used as a noun or verb or alone as an insult, whose rhyme with a common four letter profanity adds to its force. Alt-right followers will also often describe themselves as the opposite, uncucked, while other formulations include cucktarian for a libertarian, or libuck for a liberal, progressive, leftwinger.
Meanwhile, if you’re not a cuckservative or a member of the alt-right, they say you might well be a normie – someone not part of alt-right culture or perhaps even unaware of its existence. But thanks to the 2016 campaign and the light it has shone on this relatively new group, it seems fewer and fewer people are likely to be in the dark about it for long.