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Alt-Right: A Primer on the Online Brownshirts

Alt-Right began as an online phenomenon that mushroomed into a poisonous cloud of misogynist, white nationalist, and anti-Left propaganda. Its basic thrust was aimed at collapsing democracy and human rights in the United States on behalf of economic and political elites.[1]

Its voice is that of macho male gasbags polluting the public sphere with self-aggrandizing masturbatory messages. Alt-Right is neither a social or political movement, but an amorphous online network of primarily-unaffiliated news and messaging outlets using both traditional internet platforms, but especially emphasizing social media such as Twitter and obscure posting sites.[2] The persons who consider themselves activists in the extended Alt-Right cyberspace reality are the new Brownshirts.

This study is a basic primer on Alt-Right reality, with a plethora of references leading to more substantial work available primarily online. For detailed discussions of the origin of the term, ideological foundations, key personalities, and the many separate groups of Alt-Right and the see the online work of Matthew N. Lyons, David Neiwert, and others.[3] In the pot au feu ingredients simmering in the Alt-Right stewpot, critics have tasted the influence of Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, Willis Carto, Alain de Benoist, Richard Spencer and even a deadly nightshade herbal sprig of Hitlerian rhetoric.[4] These influences have been sanitized and served up by a range of right-wing institutions considered mainstream by many in the corporate media.[5] Let’s be clear: Alt-Right is an example of neofascism.

One highly concise and accurate definition comes from a mainstream weekly news magazine specializing in digesting the news:

It’s a weird mix of old-school neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, anti-globalists, and young right-wing internet trolls — all united in the belief that white male identity is under attack by multicultural, “politically correct” forces.[6]

The main figure behind Alt-Right is Steve Bannon who was a pit bull at the rabidly right-wing Breitbart News website.[7] Bannon became a top advisor to Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.[8] A Bannon-affiliated stealth propaganda-generating media company had been hired by Trump aides to surreptitiously suppress voter turnout for Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as part of a strategy funded by a snake pit of billionaire donors.[9]

While Alt-Right’s technology is new, its ideological baggage has been carried by right-wing political and social movements for many decades. The trail we are following eventually traces back to the founding of the new nation by patriarchal Christian men who built White nationalist capitalism over the mass graves of the indigenous peoples and Black African slaves. Homosexuality and gender differences were denied, suppressed, and sanctioned.[10]

A key innovation of Alt-Right is that being a gay White man is acceptable if he is willing to verbally brutalize women—especially feminists, lesbians, and non-binary gender identified persons.[11] Physically harming women is celebrated within Alt-Right, whose followers stoop to issuing threats of violence.[12] Critics of Alt-Right are also threatened. One Alt-Right supporter was arrested for assault after intentionally sending Alt-Right critic Kurt Eichenwald, a man with epilepsy, an online message that, when opened, displayed flashing strobe lights which caused Eichenwald to suffer a seizure.[13]

This callous viciousness was modelled by candidate Trump when he publicly and on-camera made fun of a senior New York Times investigative reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, by making supposedly-funny crippled-hand gestures mimicking the congenital joint condition of the highly-respected journalist who is disabled physically and works from a wheelchair.[14] One 2016 poll of likely voters found Trump’s mocking gestures were his worst offense as a potential Republican candidate.[15]

In terms of sociological frames and narratives, Alt-Right gives voice to the rhetoric of right-wing populism fueling Trumpian phenomenon.[16] The core elements of right-wing populism are:

  • Producerist White Nationalism
  • Demonization & Scapegoating
  • Conspiracist Subversion Narratives
  • Apocalyptic Narratives and Millennial Visions [17]

To understand how the Alt-Right conglomeration reaches a mass popular audience one needs to understand the elements used to spread reactionary messages and ideas in cyberspace:

Tropes: Rhetorical devices used in a figurative manner such as in metaphors or puns or even illustrations to convey a mental image that conveys a meaning—often with considerable baggage—especially within a biased target audience online.

Memes: A repeated phrase or image–usually with a clear message such as in a trope—that is shared across cyberspace in a self-replicating manner by online users who distribute the message without encouragement so that it spreads like an atomic reaction.

Dog Whistles: Phrases that can be interpreted differently by different audiences, with some people not hearing any content at all. When a person hears a phrase in the form of a trope they may insert into the message the identity of their favorite loathed enemy target group. For example, when Trump talked about the “international banks,” farmers and ranchers in Oregon probably thought “Wall Street,” while antisemites heard “Jews,” and other conspiracists might have detected a reference to the Freemasons or reptilian aliens. Tropes and memes assist the use of “dog whistles” by political candidates and organizers. Pat Buchanan is a master of the rhetorical form by which he masks his quasi-fascist ideas.

Astroturf Movement: A fake grass-roots movement funded by political elites but without an actual mass base. The term is borrowed from the commercial brand of artificial grass. The Tea Party Movement started as an Astroturf Movement but eventually emerged as an actual mass-based social and political movement.[18]

Manosphere: Websites and other sectors and sections of online media targeting “manly” men who complain about women, often in crude and violent language, that makes the term “misogynist” seem inadequate to capture the viciousness of the tropes and memes.[19]

Trolling: Posting text and messages intentionally worded and designed to antagonize opponents in such a way that they will overreact, and then can be further antagonized and mocked for their intemperate response. Based on the fishing term for dragging a hooked line through a school of fish in the hope that at least one will be attracted to “bite” on the live bait or artificial lure.

Gamergate: the term used by pro-feminist critics to describe the online Krystalnacht, launched by misogynist manospheric men to bully women programmers out of the computer game industry—especially women who developed alternatives to splashing blood and guts across computer screens.

DiBranco explains that Trump’s sexist comments about women in general “energized members of a secular misogynist Right” including the so-called men’s rights movement which rose in the 1990s, as well as the more recent Gamergate and the rise of Alt-Right. She notes there was “no pushback against Trump’s rhetoric and policy plans from “a brand of conservative, libertarian” feminist groups which emerged in the 1990s which DiBranco says “provides a dangerously legitimizing female face for misogynist ideology centered on overt hostility to women and the promulgation of rape culture.”[20]

According to DiBranco it is through highly provocative cyberspace posts that:

misogynist personalities such as Mike Cernovich, associated with the pick-up artist community, and Milo Yiannopoulos, a Brietbart writer, expanded their online following, to be leveraged in future attacks on feminism and women. Yiannopoulos had over 300,000 Twitter followers at the time the social media platform finally banned him for offensive content in 2016. [21]

In March of 2017 Yiannopoulos, who identifies as a gay man, had more than “1.9 million Facebook likes and 568,000 subscribers on YouTube.” [22]

Alt-Right is not only a sector of the Trump electoral coalition, but also a new sector within historic right-wing political organizing in the United States. Yet it has clear antecedents in the public and published support for antisemitism by Henry Ford and the early use of radio by Father Coughlin: dubbed “the radio priest.”[23] Surrealist anti-communist conspiracy theories were spread on numerous radio stations in the United States and jumped to television, as the McCarthy hearings demonstrated. The Billy Graham crusades were carried on radio and television and shepherded a flock of Christian Right programming, much of it spreading conspiracy theories of subversion through treason and immorality secretly controlled by a subterranean web of communists undermining the nation.

While it is unclear if Alt-Right will transform into an actual mass-based political or social movement, it draws from deep roots. The claims that Alt-Right is a new phenomenon within Republican Party politics ignore a clear decades-long pattern of flirting with White supremacy and theocratic Christian nationalism with its baggage of patriarchal anti-feminism.

Conclusions

Alt-Right and the Trump Presidency are the result of right-wing ideologues seeking control of the Republican Party by funding strategic research, a variety of intellectual and mass oriented publications, online and televised outreach, and mass movements independent of but allied with the Republican leadership. Meanwhile the Democratic Party forced most of the mass base of McGovern delegates in 1972 out of the Party and replaced them with shameless neoliberal hacks called without irony “superdelegates.” Some of our potential allies will choose to work to transform the Democratic Part from within. The result will be an Inside/Outside strategy. Condemning these folks is counterproductive and rooted in self-congratulatory infantile disorders. However, only a unified mass movement of progressives and radicals engaging in unceasing confrontations in the streets and suites, including non-violent civil disobedience, will stop Trump’s march toward neofascism.

 

Notes

[1] My research on this subject was shaped by conversations with Abby Scher and Spencer Sunshine; as well as my participation in conferences and panels as follows: “Where Do We Go from Here? Racism, Populism, Fascism and the Future of the Hard Right after the 2016 Election: A Panel Discussion with Abby Scher, Sophie Bjork James, Spencer Sunshine, and Chip Berlet,” moderated by Mary N. Taylor, City University of New York Graduate Center, November 30, 2016; “We’ve Been Trumped! Analyzing Trump’s Election and Strategies for Resistance” Borough of Manhattan Community College (especially additional conversations with Frances Fox Piven and Roger S. Foster); and Alex DiBranco and Carol Mason at the conference cited in note 2.

[2]This thumbnail sketch is based the discussion by Carol Mason, Alex DiBranco, and Chip Berlet at a panel at the conference “Take Root: Red State Perspectives on Reproductive Justice,” held at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, March 25, 2017.

[3] Matthew N. Lyons Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right January 20, 2017, accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/01/20/ctrl-alt-delete-report-on-the-alternative-right; based on Lyon’s forthcoming book, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, PM Press and Kersplebedeb Publishing.

[4] Thumbnail sketches of these figures can be found at this URL, accessed March 28, 2017 http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/what-is-alt-right/

[5] Chip Berlet, “Into the Mainstream: An Array of Right-Wing Foundations and Think Tanks Support Efforts to Make Bigoted and Discredited Ideas Respectable.” Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, no. 110, Summer 2003) 53-58, accessed March 28, 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/mainstream.

[6] The Week, “The Rise of the Alt-right,” accessed March 29, 2017, http://theweek.com/articles/651929/rise-altright.

[7] Collections of posts typifying Breitbart News content, accessed March 29, 2017, are online here: http://www.breitbart.com/author/breitbart-news/;
on Big Government, http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/;
on National Security; http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/.

[8] Jason Wilson, “A Sense that White Identity is Under Attack: Making Sense of the Alt-Right,” accessed March 29, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/23/alt-right-movement-white-identity-breitbart-donald-trump.

[9] This set of stories were accessed on March 29, 2017:
David Z. Morris, “Trump’s Digital Team Orchestrating “Three Major Voter Suppression Operations,” http://fortune.com/2016/10/30/trump-voter-supression-operations/.
Matea Gold, “The Mercers and Stephen Bannon: How a Populist Power Base was Funded and Built, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/ct-mercers-bannon-trump-20170318-story.html.
Carole Cadwalladr, “Robert Mercer: The Big Data Billionaire Waging War on Mainstream Media” https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage;
An English translation of a lengthy report originally published in German is here:
Hannes Grassegger And Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” https://publicpolicy.stanford.edu/news/data-turned-world-upside-down.

[10] This was true in both predominantly Calvinist Protestant colonial America and predominantly Catholic colonial Latin America. See Thomas A. Foster, Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. New York, New York Univ. Press 2007; Peter Herman Sigal. Infamous Desire: Male Homosexuality in Colonial Latin America. Chicago: University of Chicago press. 2003

[11] Alex DiBranco, “Mobilizing Misogyny, The Public Eye, Winter 2017 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2017/03/08/mobilizing-misogyny , accessed March 29, 2017.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Martin Weil, “MD Man Accused of Sending Seizure-Inducing Tweet To Newsweek Writer Who Has Epilepsy, Washington Post, March 18, 2017., accessed March 28, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/md-man-arrested-in-alleged-cyber-attack-on-trump-critic/2017/03/18/0ebde176-0b8d-11e7-a15f-a58d4a988474_story.html.

[14] Daniel Arkin, “Donald Trump Criticized After He Appears to Mock Reporter Serge Kovaleski,” NBC News, November 26, 2015, accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/donald-trump-criticized-after-he-appears-mock-reporter-serge-kovaleski-n470016.

[15] Irin Carmon, “Donald Trump’s Worst Offense? Mocking Disabled Reporter, Poll Finds,” NBC News, August 11, 2016, accessed March 29, 2017, http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/trump-s-worst-offense-mocking-disabled-reporter-poll-finds-n627736.

[16] See the excellent collection of overviews at “Diagnosing Right-Wing Populism, Special Section. Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, Summer 2016, vol. 15, nos. 2-3;
James E. Freeman and Peter Kolozi: Poisoning the Well: Demagoguery versus Democracy;
Douglas Kellner: Donald Trump as Authoritarian Populist: A Frommian Analysis;
John Abromeit: Critical Theory and the Persistence of Right-Wing Populism. http://logosjournal.com/2016/, accessed March 29, 2017,

[17] Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2000) 6-13; Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 46-51 179-190; Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995).

[18] Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014), and David Barsamian, “Brewing Up Trouble: Chip Berlet On the Tea Party and The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism,” The Sun, November 2010, accessed March 28, 2017, http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/419/brewing_up_trouble.

[19] Alex DiBranco and Chip Berlet, “Republican Ideological Shift Election 2016,” accessed March 28, 2017, http://www.progressivemovements.us/now/archives/concept/republican-ideological-shift-election-2016-introduction.

[20] DiBranco, “Mobilizing Misogyny.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Donald I. Warren, Radio Priest: Charles Coughlin: The Father of Hate Radio (New York, The Free Press, 1996). Warren’s subsequent book, The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1973) accurately predicted the rise of the mass base that elected Trump; but Warren lacked a progressive critique of the White nationalist roots of his “Middle Americans.” Instead Warren eschewed the now overwhelmingly-accepted scholarly term “right-wing populism” to describe their activism, as do a few other authors.

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