In the aftermath of this recent U.S. presidential election, we keep hearing about the so-called “alt-right” and the rise of white nationalist politics in the United States and in Europe as well.
Many accounts of the “alt-right” mistakenly grant it some kind of novelty, coherence, and sophistication. It is none of these things, which we can gauge rather easily by simply subjecting their platform to a little critique instead of just being mesmerized by their nifty haircuts and nice suits, and shocked by their hateful language. Other pieces of writing could be used for this purpose, but what follows makes use of a programmatic talk given a little over a year ago by one of their figureheads Richard Spencer.
How on earth can they believe in the white race, white nationalism, and white power? This might seem like a skeptic’s question, or one based on liberal outrage, but it is, in fact, the question the so-called “alt-right” keep asking themselves. They are convinced they have to believe in these things—their future and that of a better world and the human race depends on it, so they say—only they sense, much more strongly than their previous white supremacist forbearers, how little basis in reality there is for any of these claims they are making.
Spencer acknowledges that his “enemies have a point when they say that there’s never been a ‘pure’ race and that what we think of as “White” is really just a chance accumulation of characteristics.” But if “race is essentially flux,” without a pure origin or an unchanging and clearly defined essence, then it cannot be under any external threat of contamination or even loss, despite what Spencer keeps incessantly repeating.
As he puts it in another piece of writing, “race is real … but in some sense, whiteness really is a social construct.” Here, the absolute flux and lack of pure origin shifts away from the biological reality toward its social meaning: race is biologically real, he adamantly asserts, but its meaning lies elsewhere. Blood, on its own, is meaningless, though he also needs it to be the fundamental basis of all social meaning. To cite yet another post: “Identity is not just the call of blood, though it is that.”
What then does it mean to “think race is biologically real, and that it has tremendous social, cultural, and historical consequences,” if, at the same time, you know how difficult it is connect your political project to this supposed biological reality or ground? The novelty of the “alt-right” lies here—and nowhere else.
There has always been an elite variety of white nationalists that looked at poorer, less educated, less refined white folks with a mixture of pity and scorn. Loving, or even liking, actually existing white people was never a prerequisite and almost always impossible for these elite racists. They cherish the idea of what these people might become, not who they are, so much so that Spencer at one points wishes they actually faced mass slaughter, that way the “most debased [white] American might actually rise off his couch, turn off the football game, wipe the Dorito Cheese from his face, grab a gun, and fight.”
Not only the white liberal “cucks” but the “the deracinated, consumerist Last Man that was the European-American” has to be removed for the sake of this future White Man—a future that passes through and resembles, not surprisingly, Spencer and Company.
None of this is new. The only real difference between this latest iteration of white supremacy and earlier forms is that those in the “alt-right” have an even harder time figuring out how to give an account of their supposedly superior and dominant white racial identity. They have to believe in it, but they are no longer sure what it, what their race, might even be, let alone mean.
So, what do they do? They write a lot and quote lots of books. They make use of Hegel to show that “as Europeans, we are, uniquely, at the center of history, ” even though they don’t actually believe his philosophical account, or at least, it contradicts other claims they also have to make. Alternately, in the course of a single talk, Spencer will talk about race as blood, Darwinian evolution, cultural formation, clash of civilizations, even just a shared sense of being under attack that will give people a sense of who they “really” are. But if blood grounds meaning, why are all these other supplements needed? Regardless, the simple proliferation of explanations within a single talk shows just how uncertain he is about what being white might even really mean.
Predictably, this uncertainty means that the contradictions that have haunted white supremacists writings for over four hundred years—those convoluted and strained points where they try to clearly define the boundaries and essence of being white—are simply more overt and evident in his own thought. In other words, he has to be that much more stupid when he combines and repeats these earlier claims. Unlike his forbearers, he senses much more strongly that what he is saying is, in fact, indefensible nonsense.
But if their whole branding depends on our forgetfulness of previous white supremacist elitism—or classism—and their growing sensitivity to the emptiness of their racial claims, how are they trying to mobilize white people to defend what they can’t be sure is real? The same way white supremacists have for over four hundred years: by claiming that whatever whiteness is or is not, it is really under threat. Not biological realities, then, but this myth of attack is the ultimate resting point of their politics of race.
For Spencer and Company, politics is not really about truth and ethics but about myths that organize power. He talks about “the Great Erasure” of white people, but again, this narration is just another political myth, as Spencer himself admits. But if it is purely a myth or fiction, then surely one can tell the story differently and tell completely different stories too.
One could, for instance, talk about the kind of decadence he sees and despises among white people as related to shifts in global capitalism that have nothing to do with any “erasure” of the white race. One could point out that this fear of a “white erasure” has haunted white people ever since they invented themselves: Benjamin Franklin worried about it back in the 1750s, though he thought the “swarthy” German immigrants were the external threat to the white race in North America. One could suggest that Spencer’s definition of “the white race” is too broad (Franklin was right!), or perhaps too narrow. He can’t argue against any such proposals but must just reassert his own story, one myth among countless many, and one that he in some way recognizes has no more basis in reality than any other damned lie out there.
Spencer hopes his style and branding will distract us from recognizing how utterly antiquated and incoherent his white nationalism is. But maybe one of the many things he despises about us actually living white-skinned people will serve us well here: even if we have all have become these decadent, soulless consumers he loathes, we at least still know how to spot an empty branding gimmick when we see one. We have not become that stupid. At least, I hope, not yet.
Timothy McGee is a doctoral candidate at Southern Methodist University in the field of Systematic Theology and a recipient of the 2016 Dissertation Fellowship from the Louisville Institute.