Answering the Alt-Right

Ramon Lopez

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"I say that this Government was established on the white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and never should be administered by any except white men."

–Stephen Douglas

"America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us."

–Richard Spencer

The Lincoln-Douglas debates still hold great sway in the public imagination, in part because they clearly articulate a moral turning point in American politics. The continued existence of slavery — and the racism that justified it — had undermined the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln saw the moral danger this posed, and warned against it; Stephen Douglas believed the status quo could be maintained, and stood in defense of it. Two giants of the 19th century clashed in seven public debates, and while the latter won the U.S. Senate seat they were fighting for in 1858, the former would go on to transform our national identity. Lincoln did more than critique the monstrous injustice of slavery; in those debates, and elsewhere, he established in the public mind a commitment to the Declaration of Independence. Ever since, our politics has been characterized by that great document, which has produced a tendency — however slow at times — toward greater political and social equality.

For decades, many of us took for granted that Americans shared the values that had been reaffirmed by Lincoln's "new birth of freedom." But the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president and his subsequent election to the office Lincoln once held ushered back to the public stage political ideas that had previously been rejected as unacceptable in a liberal society. The movement that has brought these ideas to the fore calls itself the "alt-right," and its members now populate influential right-wing websites, media outlets, and political organizations.

Unlike many white-supremacist groups of the past, the alt-right wishes to claim an air of intellectual respectability. In their article "An Establishment Conservative's Guide to the Alt-Right," Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos insist that the alt-right is "dangerously bright," and that this intellectual sophistication is the "one thing [that] stands out above all else" when distinguishing them from "old-school racist skinheads." That intellect — and not moral decency — is the primary differentiator between the alt-right and skinheads should alarm anyone, but given their fervent desire to be treated as intellectuals, it may be worth reviewing the political arguments they believe are so compelling.

Some might say that directly addressing the alt-right like this affords them a legitimacy that their numbers would not otherwise warrant and that they do not deserve. But while they are only a small minority, the alt-right has already had an outsized effect on political discourse in conservative circles, and members of their movement are finding their way into the corridors of power. This newfound influence has also empowered those like the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville this past August, who see this moment as an opportunity to regain lost political power.

Those who wish to live in a liberal society cannot overcome illiberalism by dismissing or ignoring it. American political principles are not simply abstract concepts, affixed firmly above our political life. They are real, earthly things that can become fragile from disrepair. Values are sustained through their use and by their defense, and if we are to maintain a commitment to the principles that made — and continue to make — America great, then we must clearly understand the arguments of those who seek to dismantle them. In particular, conservatives should feel a great responsibility to oppose those who would turn the party of Lincoln away from the values that originally gave it life.

It should be made clear at the outset that most Trump supporters — and Donald Trump himself — are not members of the alt-right. Most Trump supporters are patriotic Americans who are tired of politics as usual, and who wanted someone from outside the system to shake it up. But as Lincoln shows us in his series of debates with Douglas, the danger of an argument is not limited to its content: He argued that Douglas was "blowing out the moral lights around us," "penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people." According to Lincoln, although Douglas was not a pro-slavery advocate, the form of his argument was unwittingly preparing the public mind for the nationalization of slavery. The present danger is that mainstream conservatism, which might dismiss the more radical content of the alt-right, may adopt elements of its form, similarly preparing the public mind — or at least portions of it — to eventually reject our most sacred principles.

THE ALTERNATIVE RIGHT

The term "alt-right" or "alternative right" was coined by Richard Spencer, who started an online magazine by that name in 2010 dedicated to "radical traditionalism." Spencer rose to national prominence after holding an alt-right conference in 2016, during which he proclaimed "Heil Trump" before a crowd of supporters giving him the straight-armed Nazi salute. Spencer, however, claims that the alt-right has nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacy. He prefers to refer to it as "identitarianist," which he describes as the belief that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life. The alt-right claims to defend white or European identity, not to oppress those with other backgrounds but in order to maintain and care for their own.

Bokhari and Yiannopoulos echo this view in their article: "[J]ust as [the alt-right] are inclined to prioritise [sic] the interests of their tribe, they recognize that other groups — Mexicans, African-Americans or Muslims — are likely to do the same." The alt-right draws upon social psychology that highlights our tribal nature: We are all members of certain social groups, which fundamentally define who we are and incline us to support that group's interest over the broader public good. Doing so is not simply natural but right — we are who we are, and are primordially bound to defend that state of being. Politics in a multicultural society is therefore a zero-sum contest among fundamentally competing identity groups.

This view leads the alt-right to call for firm divisions between identity groups within society. As Bokhari and Yiannopoulos put it, "The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved. A Mosque next to an English street full of houses bearing the flag of St. George, according to alt-righters, is neither an English street nor a Muslim street." In sum, "separation is necessary for distinctiveness." This could fairly serve as the tagline of the alt-right ideology.

The popular alt-right blog Vox Popoli builds upon this position through the following formula: "diversity + proximity = war." According to the alt-right, multicultural or multiracial democracies — indeed, all pluralistic societies — are recipes for conflict and disaster. "In short," Bokhari and Yiannopoulos write, "[alt-righters] doubt that full 'integration' is ever possible....Border walls are a much safer option."

A commitment to racial and cultural separation causes many in the alt-right to pine for laws and institutions that mainstream society has long rejected as being deeply unjust. The alt-right advocate Jared Taylor laments that, while some conservative publications like National Review once defended apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the American South, today conservatives firmly reject those positions. He dismisses today's "egalitarian orthodoxies," and believes it is now up to the alt-right to "conserve what is most important: their own people" (emphasis in the original).

In the alt-right publication Radix Journal, Hannibal Bateman describes how "old America...was defined by its White citizens," before it was undone by increased immigration and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In another Radix Journal article, Spencer decries what he perceives as the liberal dedication to "multiculturalism and race-mixing." This wish to return to a segregated society, and to rehabilitate malignant policies and norms from our nation's past, is common among alt-right writers and publications.

When speaking to mainstream news outlets, Spencer and other alt-right advocates often attempt to smooth out the sharpest edges of their ideological position. They claim that they are not white supremacists, but that they simply wish to defend and preserve their own culture and people. Their political position, however, explicitly rejects the very existence of minority groups within American life, unless they are retained as a small and subservient class.

These views have defined the movement from its outset: Back in 2012, Spencer's website published an article written by Colin Liddell titled "Is Black Genocide Right?" (His answer: possibly.) And at the 2013 American Renaissance Conference, Spencer called for "peaceful ethnic cleansing" in order to create "a White Ethno-State on the North American continent." The ideal scenario for Spencer and many in the alt-right involves the redistribution of racial and ethnic groups in the United States into homogenous geographical zones, followed by the creation of independent ethno-states. Short of that, white culture and identity must be preserved in American public life to the exclusion of all other groups.

Activists in the alt-right often compare themselves to minority advocacy groups. To quote Taylor, they resent "the idea that all other groups may advance their rights while only we — only white people — may not." But while advocates for minority groups in the United States typically attempt to redress perceived inequalities between them and the majority group, the alt-right explicitly attempts to restore laws and institutions that maintain white supremacy and power.

A key difference between the alt-right and minority advocacy groups is the aim of their advocacy. Affirmative action may be just or unjust, but it is defended on the grounds that it helps remedy prior and existing racial injustices. The Black Lives Matter movement may or may not advocate the right set of policy reforms, and it may go about that advocacy in the right or wrong way, but at its core it is a call to address perceived inequalities in our policing and criminal-justice system. The alt-right inverts these goals, seeking instead the creation of a white ethno-state in which all other cultures and minorities are either excluded or rendered subservient to the white race as a manageable minority. This is not merely the advancement of "white rights," but rather the exclusion and suppression of non-white peoples. To put it simply, this is white supremacy.

It is important to remember that the alt-right is a heterogeneous movement, and that many members reject these more extreme positions, at least when they are so explicitly stated. The more moderate spokesmen of the alt-right, such as Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, reject a return to institutionalized racial segregation. They claim to "have no real problem with race-mixing, homosexuality, or even diverse societies: it's just fun to watch the mayhem and outrage that erupts when those secular shibboleths are openly mocked." And Yiannopoulos explicitly distances himself from the alt-right movement when questioned about it.

While the less extreme members of the alt-right reject institutionalized segregation (and even the designation "alt-right"), they do believe self-segregation is necessary to preserve what is most important: one's racial and cultural identity. Bokhari and Yiannopoulos sympathetically note, "The bulk of [the alt-right's] demands, after all, are not so audacious: they want their own communities, populated by their own people, and governed by their own values." In other words, self-segregation now, self-segregation tomorrow, self-segregation forever. Though less radical than some of their fellow advocates, Breitbart and other "moderate" alt-right media outlets embrace the white identity politics that ultimately produces the more radical views held among the alt-right, and has helped reintroduce white supremacy into segments of the conservative movement and American politics in general.

MINOR IN PHILOSOPHY

Members of the alt-right often claim intellectual descent from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In particular, they emphasize Nietzsche's distinction between good and evil, and good and bad, which they believe allows them to transcend moralizing anti-racist politics and clearly face the reality of race conflict. As self-proclaimed realists, members of the alt-right believe that, due to our tribal nature, conflict between various races and ethnicities is inevitable. To reduce such conflict, one must avoid intermixing members of different identity groups into a single collectivity. By adopting Nietzsche's supposed amoralism, they can assert that they are not acting out of racial animus — or through the moral distinction of good and evil — but out of the amoral desire to reproduce the good they find in their own culture.

This is at the very least a flawed reading of Nietzsche, drawn more from the interventions of Elizabeth Förster — Nietzsche's Nazi sister who selectively edited his work after his mental breakdown — than from the man himself. Rather than Nietzsche, who would eschew their nationalism, anti-Semitism, racism, and general interpretation of his work, the theorist with whom the alt-right has most in common is the Nazi legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt famously begins his book The Concept of the Political with the statement, "The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political." The political cannot be understood in terms of other categories, such as the moral, the aesthetic, or the economic, but must instead be understood according to "specifically political categories." According to Schmitt, all spheres of life are defined by independent antitheses that outline the contours of their nature: the good and the evil for the moral, the beautiful and the ugly for the aesthetic, the profitable and the unprofitable for the economic, and — for the political — the friend and the enemy.

The independence of the political antitheses means that the enemy is not necessarily evil, or ugly, or unprofitable. Rather, the enemy is "existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible." Crucially, Schmitt argues that the enemy cannot be a private enemy, or someone with whom one individually competes. "An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity." All human beings find themselves as members of a particular community, with a particular identity and commonality that is formed through that relationship. The enemy is one who — simply by his existence — disrupts that relationship. The enemy is "the other, the stranger," whose difference invariably brings with it the possibility of violent conflict.

This brings us back to Schmitt's opening sentence: "The concept of the state presupposes the concept of the political." To be truly political, the state must form around a particular friend/enemy distinction. Or to be more explicit: A state must be a homogenous grouping of friends, contrasted with enemies living in other collectivities. Any enemies living within the state would destabilize it by their existence, by bringing with them the potential for internal conflict. It is easy to see how one gets from this view to Spencer's white ethno-state, or to Adolf Hitler's final solution.

Along with Schmitt, the alt-right believes a state can only persist if organized around an amoral distinction between friend and enemy. For the alt-right, that distinction is made between whites and non-whites. And, as we've seen with Schmitt's friend/enemy distinction, the enemy is not necessarily hated. In fact, Schmitt believed moralizing war to be the most disastrous form of war, warning that it is "unusually intense and inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but also utterly destroyed." Rather than being evil, the enemy is simply one to whom a collective is opposed. He is to be fought, defeated, and then left alone, as long as the state can maintain its political independence.

Like Schmitt, many in the alt-right are critical of the "Jewish influence" on politics, but in the same breath will praise Jews for their intelligence and social cohesion. By separating the moral and political spheres, Schmitt and the alt-right claim not to hate those they would oppress. But this philosophical perspective was of little comfort to the Jews tortured and killed in Nazi concentration camps in Schmitt's day, and it is similarly meaningless to the millions of minorities in today's America who are increasingly fearful of what they see and hear from the alt-right.

Americans must be on their guard against philosophies that so critically undermine our founding principles. After World War II, the political theorist Leo Strauss warned in Natural Right and History against the influence of German relativism and historicism on American political thought: "It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived its conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought." Strauss, who in his youth was a correspondent and critic of Schmitt's, and who, as a German Jew, fled Nazi Germany, understood all too well the threat that certain philosophies pose to liberal democracy. Today it seems that our commitment to our founding principles has come under renewed attack, and therefore requires renewed defense.

CREATED EQUAL

The alt-right is the latest in a long line of political movements that reject the principles of the American founding. In the 19th century, John Calhoun asserted that the Declaration's proposition was "erroneous" and that it ought to have no role in American political life. In more recent times, the influential paleoconservative columnist Samuel Francis wrote, "paleoconservatives...do not consider America to be an 'idea,' a 'proposition,' or a 'creed.' It is instead a concrete and particular culture, rooted in a particular historical experience, a set of particular institutions as well as particular beliefs and values, and a particular ethnic-racial identity, and, cut off from those roots, it cannot survive." Pat Buchanan recently mocked the principles of the Declaration of Independence along similar lines: "'All men are created equal' is an ideological statement. Where is the scientific or historic proof for it? Are we building our utopia on a sandpile of ideology and hope?"

Today's alt-right echoes these sentiments. Tory Scot asserts on the Right Stuff blog that it was a particular historical and ethnic people that built America, not a universal set of ideas: "The American nation built America, and it carried forward the idea of a free, and White, republic." Similarly, Peter Brimelow, the editor of VDARE, rejects the notion that "[a]nyone can become an American by subscribing to a set of abstract principles." Rather, American national identity is forged out of a "specific ethnic and cultural heritage," which restricts political power to Europeans and their descendants.

These views have more in common with the European conservative tradition than with the American conservative tradition. European conservatism originally arose to conserve the old aristocratic order, and this genesis has continued to plague it with illiberal tendencies. In contrast, the United States was explicitly formed according to liberal principles, with both the left and right sharing a common commitment to democratic politics. This has granted American conservatives an exceptional political perspective: They defend the old, the tried, and the traditional, but the order they seek to conserve is one premised on liberal and universalist ideals. American conservatives are liberal in politics and conservative in disposition. It is for this reason that Lincoln claimed the mantle of conservatism when criticizing pro-slavery advocates:

But you say you are conservative — eminently conservative — while we are revolutionary, destructive, or something of the sort. What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried? We stick to, contend for, the identical old policy on the point in controversy which was adopted by "our fathers who framed the Government under which we live"; while you with one accord reject, and scout, and spit upon that old policy, and insist upon substituting something new.

We must recognize that the alt-right is exactly what it claims to be — an alternative right. It offers an alternative to the traditional American conservative enterprise, one that would dispense with its commitment to the founding and reject America's exceptional character. Unlike most other nations in human history, the United States was explicitly founded as one where citizenship was not premised on one's ethnic heritage or cultural outlook, but rather on the acceptance of our founding creed: that all men are, by nature, equal. This great moral principle has not always been adhered to — even at the time of the founding — but as a driving political ideal it has produced an inexorable tendency in American politics toward a more just society.

The alt-right believes a pluralistic society will become too fractured to maintain itself as a cohesive nation. Difference will inevitably tear it asunder, with each tribal group battling for dominance. According to them, we are driven exclusively by our respective group identities. But the lineage of our American tradition points down a different path. The greatness of the American experiment lies in its bold proposition that people can transcend their impulse toward instinctive tribalism, and be joined together in civic brotherhood by a mutual commitment to a noble and inclusive ideal.

In an 1858 speech in Chicago, Lincoln spoke of brotherly bonds forged through mutual commitment to American's founding principles. While Lincoln acknowledged that new American immigrants could not trace their ancestry to those of revolutionary times by blood, he also observed, "when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them." According to Lincoln, it is by this connection to a common moral project that "they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration." Our attachment to the Declaration of Independence is "the electric cord" that "links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together." This gives truest meaning to our national motto: E Pluribus Unum.

The alt-right rejects this view as overly idealistic. As self-proclaimed realists, they assert that a moral idea is too weak to bond disparate peoples together in political union. Something denser and more tangible, like racial identity, must be the glue that holds a nation together. But the genius of America's propositional republic is that its civic bonds are both looser and more secure than those offered by an ethnic union. It grants us the freedom to express ourselves and maintain those cultures and practices that we hold most dear while simultaneously building a public sphere constituted by a shared — though internally contested — moral language. When put into practice, we find those ideals are not simply metaphysical abstractions, but real-world attachments that unite us in political friendship. It is our commitment to the American moral project — the equal protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all — that binds us together as fellow citizens.

DEFENDING AMERICANISM

In their series of debates, Douglas often accused Lincoln of threatening sectarian conflict over the issue of slavery. Douglas believed Lincoln's language was too moralistic, and that it would overturn the careful balance that had developed in the slavery debate. But Lincoln saw that slavery itself was slowly eroding the American commitment to its founding principles. Once the Civil War erupted a few years later, Lincoln came to understand it as a historical inevitability. It was the painful result of a nation that had formed two distinct national identities: one still tenuously committed to its founding proposition of equality, no matter how slow the march and imperfect the understanding; the other developing a revisionist history to reject that founding proposition, so that it might reconstitute itself according to a racial ideology.

Today the alt-right is attempting to revive the ideological project of the antebellum and Jim Crow South, and, should they succeed, we may lose those values that have made America such an exceptional nation. As a people unified by the shared principles of equality and liberty, we must reject the alt-right's radical identity politics and white supremacy, and reaffirm a commitment to our founding ideals. While still a fringe movement, the alt-right's influence in politics has already contributed to the degradation of our civic bonds, and, as we saw this past August in Charlottesville, threatens the lives and safety of our fellow citizens.

Though some, like Bokhari and Yiannopoulos, have taken great pains to paint themselves as urbane contrarians and provocateurs rather than neo-Nazis or Klan members, their provocative turns of phrase have opened the door for "old-school" racists to reassert themselves in the public square. There is nothing clever or comical about white supremacists marching with torches and Nazi flags. And when media outlets and public actors exploit populist anger for short-term private or political gain, they undermine the norms and practices necessary to sustain a diverse democratic society, thereby setting the stage for radical rejections of the American project.

Lincoln recognized this threat to the unity and success of America's democratic experiment. In the Lyceum Address in 1838, he dismissed the idea of external threats to the nation, but warned against domestic ones:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?...I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Our liberal democracy has blossomed into a pluralistic society more diverse than our founders could have imagined, but its success is not guaranteed by the march of history. It requires constant maintenance and renewal, and the alt-right's increasing influence is an explicit reminder that our principles can always come under threat. A free society can always die by its own hand, through the self-destructive impulses of oppression, intolerance, and mob violence, and these impulses are most acute when the moral basis of that society is degraded. Over the course of our experiment with democracy, our founders, Lincoln, and numerous statesmen, social reformers, and activists have nourished our commitment to the great moral proposition that "all men are created equal." Now it is our turn to defend it.

Ramon Lopez is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. 


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