The Alt-Right Branding War Has Torn the Movement in Two

The Alt-Right Branding War Has Torn the Movement in Two, by Andrew Morantz.

The phrase “alternative right” has been critiqued on several grounds: that it’s too vague; that it obscures the extent to which the movement is coterminous with the rest of the Republican base; that it’s a euphemism for white supremacy.

The definition has shifted over time, both inside and outside the movement, such that, for a while, it was impossible to tell whether any two people who referred to the alt-right were referring to the same thing.

During the Presidential campaign, the term came to denote several intersecting phenomena: anti-feminism, opposition to political correctness, online abuse, belligerent nihilism, conspiracy theories, inflammatory Internet memes. Some pro-Trump activists adopted this big-tent definition, allowing any youthful, “edgy” critique of establishment conservatism to be considered alt-right.

But a core within the movement always insisted on a narrower conception of the alt-right, one that was inextricably linked with white separatism, and with [white nationalist and anti-Semite Richard Spencer] specifically. …

[Spencer] experienced two moments of viral fame: one shortly after Trump’s victory, when Spencer cried “Hail Trump” during a speech and appeared to lead a crowd in a Nazi-esque salute; and the other on Inauguration Day, when a masked stranger punched him in the face. Spencer is a deliberately divisive figure, and, during the past few months, many on the right have worked to distance themselves from him and his views. …

By the beginning of 2017, the divisions were becoming clear, at least to those within the pro-Trump movement. In January, when I met Gavin McInnes, the founder of a “pro-Western fraternal organization” called the Proud Boys, I asked whether I should refer to him as alt-right. “Nope,” he said, swigging from a can of Budweiser. “They care about the white race. We care about Western values.” This is a view that has come to be known as “civic nationalism,” as opposed to white nationalism — or “alt-light,” as opposed to alt-right. …

Last year, before Richard Spencer’s burst of viral fame, it was still possible to align oneself with the alt-right without ever having encountered Spencer or his ideas. Consider Steve Bannon’s interview with Mother Jones, last summer, in which he proudly identified with the alt-right and then, in the same conversation, denied any particular connection between the alt-right and white nationalism. … The sanitized definition of alt-right that he proffered then seems far less plausible now. Most of the activists who agreed to speak at the Rally Against Political Violence now identify themselves with the alt-light, or the New Right, or civic nationalism, or American nationalism, or one of a few other variations. All of these labels are attempts to leave behind the baggage of the Republican Party without taking on the baggage of white separatism.

“For a while, alt-right was the perfect catchall for anti-establishment conservatism,” Wintrich told me. “A lot of us are still frustrated that Richard Spencer ruined the term for the rest of us.”