Flashback – What Is The “Alt-Right”? (Joshua Ramos)

Current Events, Essays

On Thursday, August 25, 2016 Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton accused her opponent Donald Trump of having the backing of the “alt-right,” a label which has confused many of her supporters as well as her detractors.  The expression “alt-right” is not exactly a household political term, and media commentators went scurrying to try to define it in relationship to the traditional right.  Clinton sought to identify it closely with white supremacy movements and white nationalism, and some commentators picked up on this association.  However, most media pundits seem to have been stymied in characterizing what has so far been a rather murky, complex, and arcane phenomenon investigated to date by only a few political scientists and theorists.  

One of those researchers is PTT’s own contributor Joshua Ramos, who has studied the phenomenon in relationship to his work on politics, religion, and globalization.  His article below from June 7, 2016 (original link here) analyzes the phenomenon, which in his view is less about white nationalism and white racism than a “motley crew of sub-cultural political identities [consisting] of conservatives, identitarians, dissidents, radicals, outcasts, anarchists, libertarians, neo-reactionaries, and other curious political formations.”

America’s political journalists, pundits and collective talking heads have all failed at predicting the successful rise of Donald Trump. The unanimous consensus of the impossibility of Trump’s success cuts both across the political spectrum and through all major news and media outlets of MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, Vox, and of course, the New York Times.

The failure of all nationally recognized political pundits to underestimate Trump is not notable from the mere observation that “sometimes people fail at political prediction”. It is an obvious observation that mistaken political prognostications are often par for the course in the world of punditry.

Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani lament in The Intercept that the failure of “pundits who issued such definitive, hubristic certainties—that turned out to be totally, fundamentally wrong—owe some self-accounting and a serious self-analysis about how and why they went so wrong.”  They “have an inclination to prefer status quo preservation”. Credit is due to Greenwald and Jaini for the courage to admit to the bias of established political journalists, but that is something that the “mass of voters” have recognized all along.

The conglomerate American mainstream media (MSM) industry is in steep decline. Printed news is, according to Pew Research, slowly going the way of the typewriter. Even the cable news networks are losing their audience And the trust of the American public towards their MSM is plummeting down to a “historical low”, according to a 2015 Gallup Poll, which notes that only 4 out of every 10 Americans will put trust into the news they receive from the MSM.

In his recent interview in New York Times Magazine, Ben Rhodes, who is the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications for Barack Obama, created a media firestorm when he confessed that he created and promoted a “narrative” that favored Obama’s position in the Iran Nuclear Deal, and pushed this “narrative” on established journalists to gain majority support. Rhodes admitted that: “We created an echo chamber. They [journalists] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

Rhodes did not have a high opinion of American political journalists: “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” American journalists, according to Rhodes, are naïve and woefully ignorant. And Donald Trump is all too well aware of this growing public sentiment.

The “dishonest” and “failing New York Times” is how Trump describes America’s premier newspaper in his viral Tweet. Trump has sidestepped reliance on the MSM by using Twitter to disseminate his campaign’s message, waging an unconventional information warfare that has bested all his political rivals. Composing his own tweets, Trump has become a Twitter god. Trump’s acolytes—who number 8.69 Million strong—perpetually re-Tweet Trump’s digitized image throughout the day and night as an eternal paean of globalized praise.

Social media has replaced the  mass media, and this transition is signified by the success of Trump.  The majority of the adults in the United States—62% according to Pew—get their political information not from the MSM but rather from social media sites such as Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Snapchat. The Internet subcultures of Instagram and Youtube personalities have more of an effect on shaping popular American public discourse than elite newspaper columnists and cable television.

The replacement of the mainstream media by social media is creating deep cultural and political transformation in the United States, in particular ones that favor dissident and radical positions. It is said that Twitter played a crucial role in the Arab Spring. Now one can say, as did tech entrepreneur Naval Ravikant, that because of social media we are witnessing an “American Spring” of direct democracy.  Yet because this may mean the election of Trump to POTUS, to countless others this may become an “American Winter”.

Andrew Sullivan, identifying what he considers the “truly revolutionary form” that “media democracy” has played against elite structures of information control, greatly fears that American democracy has in fact become too democratic and is now ripe as a “breeding ground for Tyranny” in the figure of Trump mobilized by the aggrieved cohort driving support for Trump, that of the blue-collar, white working class.  Sullivan writes that “Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of culture as well”.

A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to “check his privilege’”by students at Ivy League colleges.” This repressed class of a “bottom rung of culture” has now returned to the fore of America public discourse with a vengeance as “sub-cultural reform movements”, and they are harnessing the power of the Internet as a weaponized social media to form networks of political identities that disseminate their ideas and message (I use “reform” in a neutral sense. A reformation is only a beneficial improvement to those who endorse the proposed reforms. After all, the Protestant Reformation was no ‘reformation’ for Roman Catholics, but rather deviation).

Placing them within a big tent, these sub-cultural reform movements represent various political positions and ideologies that can be positioned on both the Left and Right spectrum. Broadly speaking, they are nationalists, opposing multiculturalism, globalism, and mass immigration. They are anti-establishment, rejecting both the Democrats and Republicans, despising both Bush and the Clintons alike.

This motley crew of sub-cultural political identities consists of conservatives, identitarians, dissidents, radicals, outcasts, anarchists, libertarians, neo-reactionaries, and other curious political formations. But at the center of these movements in support of Trump though is the vanguard of what is known by social theorists who dig into these trends as the the Alt-Right (“Alternative Right”).

The term Alt-Right was coined by white nationalist identitarian Richard B. Spencer around 2008, whose theories on nationalism and white European identity can be found in the Radix Journal that he founded.  The Alt-right shares ideological commitments with the identitarian movements that are presently growing in Europe, such as the Generation Identitaire in France, or the Identitäre Bewegung Österreichs in Austria. In fact, the  @AltRight_ twitter handle of Radix Journal features as its profile pic Marion Marechal-Le Pen of Front National in France.

Like their European counterparts, the Alt-Right are young, usually not older than the late thirties or early 40’s at most. They are Internet savvy, and create memes to troll their opponents and vines to spread their message.  They make their political message hip and blasphemous. Pepe the Frog is their symbolic banner that they display throughout the realms of social media, and it is this realm in which they excel in spreading their message.

The MIT Media Lab recently released a study ranking the top “election influencers who loom large at the intersection of news and social media”.   Ranking in at #107 is the Alt-Right Twitter personality @ricky_vaughn99, who single handedly beat major outlets such Ezra Klein’s Vox, NYT Politics, and NBC News in having more influence on the current discourse within the American presidential election.

Though the subcultural reform movements encompass various political positions, the Alt-Right is at the center of provocations. Despite their moral differences within the varieties of dissidence, the thread that unites these movements together is their collective opposition to what they perceive as the greatest threat to their existence and to the flourishing of the United States, namely, progressivist social justice censorship.

Trump is held up as their political Icon and mobilized as their wrecking ball for their sacred value of ‘Free Speech’ against what they call “Social Justice Warriors” (“SJW”s).   A “Social Justice Warrior” is a debated, politically charged term that is pejorative in its usage. But its common currency in contemporary public discourse within Internet subcultures is shaping the Presidential election in favor towards Trump, so it stands to be briefly analyzed and understood.

Within the perspective of the emerging American subcultural reform movements, SJW’s are arguably defined as activists whose politically progressive point of view on matters of sexuality, gender, identity and other concomitants of anthropology legitimizes their political actions to censor any rival points of views. SJW’s usually implement censorship through Internet shaming on social media and ‘doxing’ their chosen thought criminal. They will often make “demands” for an apology to be issued from the perpetrator in question, and if no apology is released they threaten him or her with economic consequences. They usually push for the transgressor to be fired from his or her employment.

Referenced and shared within the social media of these subculture reformists are common examples of what they consider SJW censorship. They often cite Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign from the University College London, the British Royal Society and the European Research Council due to a misogynistic joke he cracked during his toast at luncheon in Korea, or the American late night TV host Stephen Colbert, who because of his satirical tweet on Asian Americans, was accused of racism and was unsuccessfully pressured to have his show cancelled through the viral hashtag #cancelcolbert.

In reaction to the perceived hostilities and ideologies of SJW’s, the motley American sub-cultural reform movements reject any moral shaming wielded against them in social media and public discourse. They are shameless, and in this shamelessness therein resides their strongest line of defense. Applying terms such as sexist, racist, misogynist, bigot, fascist, Nazi, xenophobic, and fundamentalist to their movement simply has no negative effect on their outcome, nor any detrimental consequence for their growth, and they thrive on it.

The more they are accused and criticized with these descriptions, the more they seem to grow in strength and popularity. This is partly why they support Trump, for in Trump they see their own image as a reform movement. Not only is Trump able to withstand criticism of his scandalous remarks he has made regarding Mexicans, Muslims and Megyn Kelly, but Trump ends up becoming more popular in the polls each time he outrages his opponents with his morally offensive language.

Trump and the new sub-cultural reform movements that support him gain from moral disorder and chaos. Because of such, these sub-cultural reform movements reflect what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Anti-Fragility’ in our age of political uncertainty.

Joshua Ramos, a past fellow with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna  and a visiting scholar with the European Union Institute in Florence, Italy is finishing his doctoral studies at the University of Denver. His research and publications focus on religion, demography, and globalization.

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