The tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia turned on a dime pervasive media attention and popular focus on what looked for many like an apocalyptic confrontation with North Korea, and fashioned another instant narrative about an imminent threat to America – in this case the rise of the so-called “alt-right.”
The death of one person and injury of 19 others who were run over by a man from Ohio associated with the white supremacist group Vanguard America occurred amid a rally known as Unite the Right organized by Charlottesville agitator Jason Kessler in protest of the removal of a statue of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee.
The rally, for which estimated attendance was at the most several hundred, was made up of a hodgepodge of neo-Nazis and assorted “white nationalists” as well as a handful of non-racist conservatives. Ongoing brawls and clashes between rightists and leftist activists such as Antifa preceded the incident that brought the violence to a head.
The term alt-right (from the phrase “alternative right”) was coined a decade ago by Richard Spencer, the movement’s polished and self-proclaimed chief spokesman, who holds degrees from elite universities, including the University of Virginia that is located in the same city where the violence last weekend took place.
Spencer, who catapulted into the public eye during the 2016 Presidential campaign when candidate Hillary Clinton called his fellow travelers out by name as key members of now President Trump’s support base, has since that time become the face of the new racist right, although it should be noted that while the still fluid categories of “alt-right” and “white supremacists” overlap in many significant areas, they are not at all co-extensive with each other.
Furthermore, while the prevalent progressive assumption nowadays is that the 2016 election has somehow fanned the embers of a nearly extinguished racist nationalism into a burgeoning wildfire, the cultural and historical roots of the alt-right are far more surprising and complex than many want to acknowledge.
Contrary to the common view that the alt-right is simply the latest iteration of the age-old architecture of white racial domination and “privilege” in America that increasingly finds itself threatened by demographic changes, especially among the working classes, the roots of the movement can be traced to disaffected splinter groups within the progressive left itself, or what was up until the late 1980s known as the New Left.
It is no accident that the leadership of the alt-right is highly educated, intellectually sophisticated, and highly trend-savvy, perhaps even more so than its critics and opponents. If one can bring themselves to listen to the public discourses of a Spencer, a Kessler, or a Milo Yiannopoulis, one recognizes immediately that they are not dealing with the run-of-the-mill nativist authoritarian or redneck racists. In many ways, they not only take for granted most of the standard progressivist assumptions and criticisms of establishment values during the last four decades, then turn them on their heads.
And it is even less a coincidence that some of them were actually former leftists, just as the “national socialists” during the 1920s in Weimar Germany had previously identified with social democratic internationalism and the neo-conservatives of the 1990s and 2000s had their origins among the radical Marxists of the 1960s and 1970s.
Kessler himself was, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a former Obama supporter and activist in the Occupy movement, although Spencer’s ideology was forged early on while a protégé of rogue conservative Henry Regnery II. David Horowitz, a prominent “neo-con” from the 1980s onward and currently a cheerleader for the Trump presidency, was perhaps the leading figure for the New Left of the 1960s while serving as editor of the influential San Francisco-based political magazine Ramparts.
As a biographic footnote, I myself interviewed with Horowitz for a position on the magazine in 1968, though I did not get the job.
The alt-right is in many respects the bastard child of the culture wars that commenced in the afterglow of the upheavals surrounding the Vietnam War. The war catalyzed what became for the first time a major story line within the American intelligentsia no longer confined to Communist sympathizers or African-American social theorists such as W.E.B. Dubois or black separatists such as the Nation of Islam.
That line or argument challenged the embedded “grand narrative,” as Jean-François Lyotard called it, of America’s liberal democratic exceptionalism with its universalist rhetoric of liberty and equality, flowing from both the Enlightenment and the Declaration of Independence, for all peoples. It began effectively to cast suspicion on such rhetoric as a smokescreen for white dominance as well as serving as a justification for colonial and imperialist exploitation throughout modern history.
The daily press photographs and television reports of Vietnamese peasants brutalized by American carpet bombing and the wanton destruction of villages reinforced the claim of anti-war demonstrators that the military effort to “liberate” Southeast Asia from the Communists was merely a fulsome pretense for genocide against people of color.
At the same time, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 at the height of the Tet Offensive, which turned American public opinion decisively against the Vietnam conflict and prompted widespread disillusionment with the nation’s political leadership, precipitated what came to be known as the Black Power movement. The Black Power Movement, which took various forms and manifested in the formation of a number of different organizations, affirmed the unique racial identity, culture, and heritage of African Americans over against the majority society and, in contrast to the earlier Civil Rights movement, called for the expulsion of white people from political control and leadership.
Likewise, the more radical variant of second wave of feminism that quickly acquired the caption of “women’s liberation” in using the nomenclature of New Left Marxists of the day was borne in the late Sixties as a consequence of growing dissatisfaction among white women with male (including black male) leadership in the Civil Rights movement, as Susan Brownmiller in her memoir of those days recalls.
Subsequently, the same differentiation of the emancipatory project by other marginalized groups such as Chicanos, gays, and even alternative religious groups such as neopagans began to accelerate, whereby exclusion from the “dominant culture” came no longer to be viewed as a stigma but as an entitlement. What we now, often without subtlety or a sense of the complex history behind it, term “identity politics” was begotten.
But it was not only the disadvantaged that came to play the “identity card” to a new advantage. In the early 1980s a little known neo-Nazi cadre from Idaho calling itself “Christian Identity” assassinated a prominent Denver Jewish radio talk show host, and suddenly the militant racist right was all over the news.
The FBI shut it down within a few years, but it resurfaced in the early 1990s with an assault by federal agents on the home of Randy Weaver, one of its members, at a site in Idaho known as Ruby Ridge. Weaver later became the role model and inspiration for Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, killing 168 people, as well as other domestic terrorist attacks throughout the remainder of the decade. As another biographical footnote, I served throughout the 1990s as both a paid and unpaid consultant to federal and state law enforcement on white supremacist beliefs and motivations.
Christian Identity, which employed the symbols and paraphrenalia of Nazism but was significantly different in its actual belief system, can be seen in retrospect as a cruder and more hard-core early version of Spencer’s present day white “identitarianism.” “Race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity,” Spencer told the magazine Mother Jones last November. Spencer’s invocation of the phrase “race matters”, mimicking the title of a 1994 book by noted African American philosopher Cornel West, testifies to the way in which the discourse of identity politics has been strategically co-opted by the racist right for completely opposite purposes.
During the Nineties the racist right also took on the protective coloration of the overly romanticized Sixties counterculture, which also went by the name of “alternative” culture. The prefix “alt-” historically has been employed in numerous contexts to imply a sort of avant-garde dignity and Promethean heroism for those who those who defy the moral and religious norms of society.
Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and its various offshoots, soon after its founding in the late 1960s, became a manufacturing lab for Nazi chic in both beliefs and lifestyle, while helping to promote a “cool” kind of angry, nihilistic white identitarianism among hip urban youth communicated through extreme styles of music and gaming, experimentation with dark forms of spirituality, and even expressions of rage and violence for which the most infamous instance was the Columbine High School shootings in the spring of 1999.
Unlike the reaction to Charlottesville, public anxiety about these rarefied examples of fascist subcultures have been repeatedly and cavalierly dismissed by various liberal scholars of religion – primarily sociologists of so-called “new religions” – as a repressive “moral panic” on the part of ignorant conservatives and religious fundamentalists.
Rather than being a spasm of the past, the alt-right in 2017 is the latest saga in a struggle for identitarian positioning by many competing subcultures and affinity groups in a neoliberal thought-universe that responds with instinctive disdain to those once venerated, Lyotardian grands récits that appeal to the “public good,” the “national purpose”, or the “dignity of humanity”.
The fact that it increasingly finds the majority of its recruits among white millennials rather than the more conservative aging Baby Boomer cadre should give some pause about the very future toward which we are careening. And every time we call out for recognition or tolerance of some previously ostracized behavior, outrageous language, or fraught subculture, we have to ask ourselves if our logic is not also going at some point to blow back upon us.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.