Delegates burst into applause at a reference to Adolf Hitler taking power, at the National Policy Institute’s (NPI) conference in Washington DC last week.
Richard Bertrand Spencer urged them, “Let’s party like it’s 1933,” and some did Nazi salutes at the end of the speech.
Head of the Nazi NPI think tank, Spencer is one of the main intellectuals of the alt-right movement. He came up with the term in 2008 to seem “edgy” and “punk” against the “fuddy duddy conservatives”.
He was too extreme even for Hungary’s racist ruling party Fidesz, which deported him in 2014 for trying to organise a white supremacist rally.
Since then Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has given them a lot to party about.
Trump appointed Stephen Bannon to run his campaign and then become his Chief Strategist and Senior Counsellor in office.
Under Bannon’s leadership the Breitbart News website defended Spencer from “claims of racism”.
But the alt-right is broader than Nazis such as Spencer. One of its poster boys is Milo Yiannopoulos, a deeply racist and sexist blogger. He once wrote an article saying Nazis were a “fringe element” in the movement. So they attacked him as a “Jewish homosexual”.
The alt-right is not a movement in the sense of an organisation or a mobilisation in the streets. It’s a loose grouping of right wingers who have gained prominence through their online presence.
Nor is it homogenous. A core of Hitler-admirers and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members have built around them a bigger following of Islamophobes, men’s rights activists and other bigots.
The alt-right flourished in the wake of the rise and decline of the Tea Party movement that grew after Barack Obama was elected as the first black US president.Breitbart News is the respectable end of a swamp of right wing chat sites and forums. An army of online trolls project their message through memes and fake news stories on social media.
They argued that candidates had betrayed conservative values after going to Washington. It was based on reactionary right wing politics, a backlash against “political correctness” and nostalgia for the peak of US power.The Tea Party organised rallies and, with support from parts of the Republican party machine, it ran candidates against the traditional right.
US conservatism has always railed against “big government” interference in “individual liberty”—but it’s a strange, right wing vision of liberty.
Tea Party figurehead Rand Paul’s libertarianism didn’t stop him arguing that, “A free society will abide unofficial private discrimination, even whenthat means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the colour of their skin.”
The people who ran the Republican Party were part of a political establishment that had presided over the death of the American Dream. Jobs had been lost, wages stagnated and it became harder for people to see a future for their children.
That made it harder for those politicians to energise their voters. The Tea Party slogan to “take back our country” fit better with the mood of discontent. Its candidates won important positions to the Republican Party, and shifted its policy debates to the right.
But as Tea Party candidates left office, became embarrassments or were incorporated into the Republican machine, its ability to mobilise dwindled.
The Tea Party gave way to the more overtly racist birther movement, demanding Obama provide proof that he was born in the US not Kenya. Trump was one of the most prominent figures to take up their cause.
Breitbart News is the respectable end of a swamp of right wing chat sites and forums
But Bannon and the alt-right was able to relate to the Tea Party’s most racist elements and pull them further to the right.This is when the Tea Party spokesman Andrew Breitbart first launched Breitbart News. After Breitbart’s death in 2012, Bannon took control and shifted the website further to the right.
While tapping into the mood that fed the Tea Party, they criticised it as too moderate.
Both talk about “limited government”, but the alt-right focuses on white identity over the Tea Party’s hypocritical individual liberty.
These white nationalist currents aren’t new to the US right. For example, from the 1930s right wing Republicans and Southern Democrats formed a conservative coalition.
They opposed president Franklin D Roosevelt’s greater government intervention and welfare programmes. Roosevelt was a Democrat, but in the southern states the Democrats had been the party of the old slave-owners and still fiercely opposed rights for African-American people.
This coalition cohered around Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964, who campaigned against the Civil Rights Act and desegregation.
Goldwater was trounced. Corrupt Republican president Richard Nixon was a further disappointment to the right suffered in the 1970s.
But by 1980s the right seemed to have found their man in Ronald Reagan. Many key right wingers played key parts in his administration. But some wanted more, and began to cry betrayal.
Pat Buchanan, who would become one the racist right’s main ideologues, worked for Reagan’s administration. After leaving it in 1986 Buchanan argued that, “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan”.
He developed many of the positions later shared by the alt-right—and popularised by Trump.
Buchanan argued against immigration to defend “white identity”. He was also one of the main proponents for a “culture war” against the “political correct left”.
Railing against the legacy of the gains such as women’s liberation and Civil Rights is now one of the alt-right’s favourite themes.
While these currents go back a long way, they came to the fore because of the failures of George W Bush’s presidency in the 2000s. Here was a right winger who promised to stand for conservative values, but led a disastrous war then ended up bailing out the banks.
This crisis of the Republican party and disconnect from its base allowed the right to gain.
The process won’t end here, but it can go in different ways.The likes of Spencer have been able to gain a hearing because they swim in a much bigger pool of US conservatism.
Their white supremacy chimes with Trump’s talk of to banning Muslims and cracking down on immigration.
They aren’t the first set of fascists to put themselves at the core of a much broader layer of racists and conservatives. Such formations are unstable.
As the most organised and conscious section the Nazis could gain in influence, and harden up their softer support into a real fascist organisation.
On the other hand, as the Trump administration absorbs the alt-right, the embarrassing Nazis could be ditched to make the rest more palatable for the bosses and the voters.
Trump has already tried to distance himself from Spencer and the toxic NPI. Yet he staunchly defended Bannon.
While the alt-right isn’t a movement that’s mobilising fascism on the streets, its rise shows—and reinforces—the potential for one that could.
That danger will only grow now the defender of the Nazis has the ear of the future president.
Who’s Who in the alt-right?
Pat Buchanan developed many of the future alt-right’s ideas in the 1980s. He worked for Ronald Reagan’s government, then quit to fill the“vacuum” he saw to its right. He opposed immigration to defend “white identity”, and led the backlash against “political correctness”on abortion rights and LGBT+ rights.
Stephen Bannon took the website set up by Tea Party supporter Andrew Breitbart and made it the alt-right movement’s most respectable face. This got him a place on Donald Trump’s team, where he can be the white supremacists’ link to the White House.
Milo Yiannopoulos is the poster boy for online bigotry. He gives voice to the swamp of bigots who infest web forums and lead harrassment campaigns. As well as bashing Muslims, a favourite theme is “men’s rights activism” to undo the gains of women’s liberation.
Richard Spencer runs the National Policy Institute (NPI) think tank. They are about as overt as modern fascism gets, applauding references to Adolf Hitler and aping his Nazi salute. It’s Spencer who in 2008 coined the phrase alt-right.
Donald Trump's bid for office followed several years as a champion of the racist birther movement, accusing Barack Obama of being secretly Kenyan. This brought him into contact with the vultures picking at the Tea Party’s carcass that were to become the alt-right.