What Are the Roots of the New Reactionary Rage?

By
Michael Eric Dyson (left) and Leon Wieseltier. Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for for National CARES Mentoring Movement/Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Where does the alt-right come from? Is it just a new word for racism? Is it a response to economic anxiety? We spoke to historians, sociologists, and thinkers for their perspective.

White supremacy. Pure and simple.

“These are the same kind of folks who used to be called white supremacists, renamed themselves in the ’80s as white nationalists to sound less bad, and now have rebranded themselves to look more like they’re part of the right wing. Until the Trump run, most of the people in this movement — white supremacists, white nationalists — had no time for either political party. They basically felt like neither of the parties were appealing to their racial interests. Dog whistling wasn’t enough for them. When Trump attacked Mexicans on day one and then went on to say all kinds of terrible things that were not dog whistles — they were bullhorns — that was certainly seen as a positive for them. —Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project

With a new name to blur old hate …

“The term alt-right has two functions. First, it has strategic ambiguity. It’s not 100 percent clear who is the alt-right and who isn’t. Some people who the media would consider the alt-right, the alt-right doesn’t consider alt-right. Some groups I would consider the alt-right don’t call themselves alt-right. It allows people to take on and discard elements of the ideology they don’t agree with, and because the alt-right itself is marked by heavy layers of irony, in-jokes, memes. It allows them to decry the most extreme elements by saying it’s ironic, it’s just a joke. It’s very hard to believe that when you have people in the movement who are literal neo-Nazis: They call themselves white supremacists, they believe in white genocide, they advocate a white-nationalist solution. There’s disingenuousness there. The second thing is that they’re incredibly media savvy. By rebranding white ethno-nationalism as the alt-right, it becomes a neologism and it can be newly discussed. All of a sudden it has novelty. There are plenty of white-power militias in the Pacific Northwest and no one’s doing big pieces on them. It wasn’t until people slapped an Italo-disco ’80s-aesthetic coat of paint on it and put it out there with a Pepe face that people start paying attention to these ideas again.”

“It’s also all about the embattled white male identity and the way that it feels infringed upon from other places. If you look at the origins of the men’s-rights movement, it’s about reacting to men’s loss of economic status and the rise of women and people of color in the workplace. For many of these alt-right guys, they’re aware of ideas like male privilege and white privilege, and they don’t necessarily feel that they are privileged. If even if they may be, they don’t see that in their everyday lives, so they strike back at whatever they think is to blame, which could be immigrants, could be women, but it’s all about protecting this idea of the white male identity.” —Alice Marwick, studies the alt-right as a fellow at Data & Society Research Institute

And new allies with old blind spots.

“What’s crushing to me about them is not that they’re all racist or anti-Semitic, because I don’t think that they all are, it’s that for none of them was racism or anti-Semitism a deal breaker. I don’t believe the majority of people in 1933 Germany were anti-Semitic. But for the majority of them anti-Semitism wasn’t a deal breaker. Some of it is about bigotry, some of it is about ideological fanaticism. It’s possible to be anti-government and not racist. The controlling emotions of the alt-right are rage and anger and resentment and fury. It is possible to be critical of the globalization policies of the 1990s without the anti-elitist madman. It is possible to believe that trade deals should include worker protections without becoming haters. But populism is a paroxysm of anger. Populism always passes. It exhausts itself.” —Leon Wieseltier, senior fellow in culture and policy at the Brookings Institution

Even its Christianity might have dark undertones.

“If you look at the politics of the alt-right, it’s all chapter and verse from the politics of the American South. We focused on Trump as the alt-right candidate. But there were other related strands that appeared in other candidates too. The Christianity strain in Ted Cruz. The Klan, for instance, in the 20th century would wrap itself up in religion: being the Christian protectors. Or people like Pence, who have a very conservative view of where women should be. That was also part of what the Klan stood for: protecting our women.”

“The election of an African-American president really brought people out of the woodwork. Instead of sitting in front of their dinner tables grumbling, they got out in the streets and voted. Bigotry always surges forward in times of economic stress, sure. But the strain that holds everything together — say, anti-communism, anti-women’s rights, anti-unionization — is the foundation of white supremacy.” —Nell Irvin Painter, emeritus professor of history, Princeton, and author of The History of White People

It defines itself against defensive Republicans …

“There’s nothing right, as in conservative, about these groups. They’re supporters of a white, blood-and-soil nationalism that is fundamentally un-American. The U.S is a creedal nation, the first of its kind in the world: All men are created equal. The original sin of the country is the dichotomy between that magnificent vision and the reality of African-American slavery. But through the Civil War and civil-rights movement, the story of the country has been one of advancing toward the noble goals of the country’s ideas in our foundational documents. Traditional Republicans have the same revulsion to the ideas of the alt-right as …someone from the center-left of the Democratic Party would have. Of course, a broken clock is right twice a day, so there may be an issue on which they’re right. For example, the U.S. ought not to try to reengineer governments in Islamic tribal societies. That we lack the capacity to do it no matter the expense or effort. But Richard Spencer, his allies, are irremediably racist. The Trump campaign played footsie with these groups. He should have unequivocally condemned these groups and their behavior. But he has condemned a lot of these characters and actors.” —Steve Schmidt, former adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain

Who have tried to define themselves against it.

“The view, often voiced on the left, that the alt-right and the Trump movement are merely extensions of conservatism is wrong. Since the peak of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, there has been decreasing willingness on the right to be overtly racist. And I’d go further: Since around 2000, you’ve even seen a declining tolerance among very conservative politicians, journalists, and intellectuals for racism, certainly for explicit racism. It’s notable how many figures were tossed out of the National Review orbit, first by William F. Buckley Jr. and then by Rich Lowry. Joe Sobran, Ann Coulter, John Derbyshire, and so on. Even Pat Buchanan — who served in important roles under Nixon and Reagan — had a fairly successful presidential run in 1992; had a huge following for his column; and was probably the most prominent pundit on TV for two decades (Crossfire, The McLaughlin Group, MSNBC, etc.) — even he became marginalized, at long last, after the publication of his 2008 book attacking World War II as unnecessary. Notably, this was also a period when RNC chair Ken Mehlman apologized on behalf of the GOP for the southern strategy and otherwise exploiting racial resentment.”

“But this was happening at an elite level. On-the-ground attitudes among conservatives were changing, too, but not as dramatically. Those who continued to believe in the sort of rank racism that was once common clustered around certain other publications; Twitter made them more visible to the rest of us, who weren’t surfing the paleocon blogosphere. Immigration, anti-globalization, neo-isolationism, and other Buchananite issues became, with the racism and anti-Semitism, part of a fairly coherent ideology or worldview.”—David Greenberg, professor of history, journalism, and media studies, Rutgers

… Even if it meant splitting their base.

“Alt-right has been taken more broadly as an alternative to movement conservatism and mainstream right politics. That’s how a lot of people have interpreted it. They thought, “Well, I hate Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. I need some sort of label.” White nationalism is an important element of the alt-right, but not the only element that people in the alt-right believe in. Without a nationalist, populist type of moment in the U.S., the alt-right would have remained a message-board phenomenon.”

“It’s also not clear to me that there’s any political traction for the hard-core elements. The most mainstream element would be an extreme skepticism or hostility to Muslim immigration. That’s an area where there’s considerable overlap between the alt-right and the populist part of the conservative spectrum. When Bannon referred to Breitbart as a platform for the alt-right, I think he was referring to that middle phase, the people trying to claim a label for anti-Establishment right-wing politics. I don’t think he fully appreciated the unsavory elements. I don’t think Bannon has any sympathies for white nationalism as an ideology, for anything that Richard Spencer or that crowd goes in for. I think he’s firmly on the populist-nationalist wing of conservative politics, but there’s nothing to suggest that he’s racist himself, or anti-Semitic himself.” — Ian Tuttle, Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute

…Which brings us to the tea party

“Ideas about white dispossession, the rise of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and nativism — these ideas were held by the majority of national tea party factions. It got to their core brand, the idea of taking America back. From its outset, that idea is racially charged: taking things back from an African-American president whom they viewed as illegitimate. White people being squeezed from above by the internationalist elite. The frame in which they were promoting these ideas was clear even as far back as 2010. It created the bridge from the margins to the mainstream. The tea party has anywhere between 18 and 35 percent of the American public supporting their ideas. Ideas about and identity politics are percolating throughout that movement, and there is very little opposition to those ideas. You see it in everything from their opinions about Black Lives Matter to immigration. Everything has been infected by this notion of white identity politics. It dramatically changed the landscape in the course of eight years.” —Devin Burghart, co-author of Tea Party Nationalism

… And Sarah Palin, along with Lehman Brothers

The racism has a particular 2017 twist to it. There is still the old-fashioned, “we hate these people” mentality. But more so, the thing that ties them all together is that white people are now seen as the oppressed people. That’s very different from classical racism in this country and elsewhere. Multiculturalism is seen as perhaps the villain above all. It’s one that has an appeal to right-wing populist voters who perceive themselves as being taken unfair advantage of by identity-group political forces, like blacks, Latinos, and women.”

“There have always been elements of white dispossession. There were big flare-ups around things like bussing for integration in places like Boston in the 1970s. There was a lot of mobilization, especially in the South, around school integration and homeschooling and creating alternate private schools. I would say the most significant antecedents of the state of racism in 2017 — i.e., the oppressed-people mentality — happened in 2008, which parallel the race-economic opportunity question: one, the extraordinary financial crisis. Suddenly, people are losing their houses, unemployment skyrockets. What else is going on? America is electing a black president.”

“And then another antecedent is the amazing vice-presidential campaign of Sarah Palin. Palin goes around and gets rallies excited in the way Trump will later, and in the way John McCain wasn’t even close to be able to do. She’s telling people, “You are the real Americans. Those other people, they’re urban, they’re multicultural, they look down on us,” all that. And she becomes this extraordinarily popular candidate.” —Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies

It really dates back to the end of the Cold War…

“All of this started around 1990, when the Soviet bloc collapsed and conservatives of this ilk started talking about the main enemy being the U.S. government. It used to be Russia. Anti-communism used to unify them with other conservatives, but now there was no communism. And remember, Pat Buchanan — who drew directly from the pre-WWII America First movement — he took 3 million votes in the GOP primaries in ’92 and ‘96, which is considerable.”

“There’s been an increase in the last year and a half in the number of people who believe that they need a white-dominant or white-only country in the U.S. We’re talking about people who don’t think of themselves as white nationalists, don’t think of themselves as stone-to-the-bone racists, but have the same goals that white nationalists do. The important thing is to differentiate between those who are self-conscious in their desire to make a whites-only country and those who are not. David Duke knows he’s a white nationalist. He understands it about himself. The others just think they’re Americans.” —Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream

And is fueled by the well educated and underpaid.

“Based on the interviews I’ve been doing, members of the alt-right are definitely higher educated [than most Trump voters]. It is a movement that is pretty technologically literate, so it is qualitatively different from the KKK of a generation ago. What some have speculated about, actually within the alt-right itself, is that one of the causes for its growth is that there is a growing number of very skilled and rather talented people who are not of the social status that one might anticipate given their levels of education. So they’re very well trained, very well educated, and they have a lot of time on their hands. So it’s maybe a lot of people who got good STEM degrees and ended up moving back in with their parents. One of the key ways to destroy a budding radical is to make him or her firmly ensconced in the bourgeoisie. Once you are dealing with mortgage payments, you’re not spending time on the internet trying to foment revolution anymore. Part of the problem is this large population that has time and has skills, and it’s angry. There are people who are quite bitter about their experiences and the alt-right tells them that they have answers for them.”

“The alt-right is not as large as it’s able to appear online. My general argument is that around 2015 or so, what the alt-right did and did very successfully, was through social media, especially Twitter, they created this sort of Potemkin village that they would put up in front of opinion leaders, especially journalists, so that every time they fired up their computer they would see a constant barrage of white-nationalist, anti-Semitic remarks, giving the impression that there was this massive online Nazi army that was taking over the internet. Particularly anti-Trump journalists, particularly Jewish journalists, and particularly if you were a conservative anti-Trump Jewish journalist, if you were to go online, someone from the alt-right was probably there to troll you. I don’t want to say the trolling of the alt-right was super-coordinated, but there were certain personalities that were very likely to be targeted by anonymous alt-right folks on social media. And starting around 2015 you began to see these big stories about this new scary movement called the alt-right, and in a way it sort of became this self-fulfilling prophecy. I think the real change especially occurred about Hillary gave her Reno speech in which she denounced the alt-right. Which, at that point, I think the growth of the movement really sped up. Which is not to say that she necessarily made a mistake, but the alt-right viewed it as a major victory to be brought into the national conversation that way.” —George Hawley, political scientist and author of the forthcoming Making Sense of the Alt-Right

And the anonymity of the internet.

“The affordances of digital media (everything from being able to post under a pseudonym to the ability to opt out of certain conversations) create what internet scholar Pavel Curtis describes as reduced social risk — people are able to express things online that might get them in trouble in embodied spaces. This can be liberating, say, for a queer person who lives in an area where nonconformity is looked down upon or actively punished, but it can also empower virulent racists to express bigotries without having to worry about being fired from their job or being shunned by their neighbors. Ultimately, this is what allowed members of the alt-right to thrive — though as bigoted expression became more and more normalized within the broader public discourse, white nationalists could be a bit more open about their views offline as well as online.” —Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture

But what if the real cause is modernity itself, which is just a racist construct?

“Any deep response to modernity is rooted in racism. The Enlightenment project itself — reason, rationality, scientific inquiry, the quest for objectivity, are rooted in and indistinguishable from a racist conception of who wields reason and why. Remember, Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia was skeptical about the rational capacity of the Negro to engage in serious and critical reflection. The denial of black reason and humanity and intelligence go hand in hand with the rise of modernity. So the alt-right amplifies and echoes some of the worst elements of modernity itself, which is indissolubly linked to the denial of legitimate rationality among people who are seen as marginal minority in a subculture. We can’t escape it by saying ‘Those people over there are horrible.’ The alt-right is merely echoing some of the premises, presuppositions, and perspectives that have been deeply entrenched in modern western civilization and profoundly articulated at certain levels across the spectrum of political and ideological communities. It is the heinous, disfigured manifestation of a smoother, far more sustained bigotry and polite racism that have taken root in our culture.”

“At least we know what we’re dealing with in the alt-right. There’s no pretense at attempting to engage in the politics of tolerance. That’s out the door. Sessions stopping all agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments, that is a severe blow and an expression, although less polite, of an alt-right ideology.”

“This election was said to be about two contradictory things. The end of identity politics and simultaneously without a sense of contradiction the reassertion of the white working class. As if the white working class is not rooted in identity politics. Whiteness is our culture has been pretty consistent. It’s been denying its particularity and its roots in a specific economic or cultural or class formation as a race and sees itself as a universal. When white people hear race, they think black, brown, red, and yellow; they don’t think white. That’s why white people can say, “Why don’t you people stop talking about race?” They believe that they are Americans. They don’t have a race. They think they don’t have a commitment to a particular ideology other than an ostensible neutrality and objectivity.” —Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology, Georgetown University

Whatever its root cause, the movement will likely only grow.

“For many in this movement, being American is part of a civilizational identity, not a set of ideas that anyone can buy into or share. There’s a strong civilization component to most Islamist groups as well — not like ISIS, but the mainstream Islamists who participate in politics. One thing you’ll find, regardless of the spectrum, is a strong sense of Islamic religious civilization. That’s different because the alt-right privileges ethnicity. They’re two very different approaches to civilization and identity, but the same basic idea of trying to draw clear lines between large groups of people based on whatever ideology they subscribe to.”

“ISIS and the Bannon-ites, they feed off each others’ rhetoric. ISIS and Bannon both want to promote civilization struggle. There’s no moral equivalence between the two, but much of this rhetoric is an endless loop of being reactionary. With groups like ISIS, you have to be attuned to the risk of feeding into a civilizational narrative of war on Islam. This is where the alt-right doesn’t distinguish — all Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. They have to prove loyalty to America. It calls into question the very notion of citizenship — as an American Muslim, I shouldn’t have to say that I’m loyal to America. It goes against the core element of American identity.”

“As the white population becomes a smaller majority and ultimately a minority, there is going to be more white panic. It’s not super-common as a natural democratic process. How will people deal with that? Whites would be a powerful majority in the economy and politics, which creates a dangerous-imbalance power dynamic, like the dangerous sectarian resentments seen in some Middle Eastern conflicts. That’s why I’m not super-optimistic about this, unless we can allow some room for a legitimate expression of white identity. White self-interest that doesn’t discriminate against others, that isn’t racist toward minority groups. A stark understanding of “You’re a racist or non-racist,” is not a good idea and not sustainable.”—Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism

*A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Fourteen Scholars on the Roots of the New Reactionary Rage