The Alt-Right: the white nationalist, anti-feminist, far-right movement that rose to prominence during Donald Trump’s successful election campaign in the United States.
The Alt-Right movement appears to have burst out of nowhere, but Mike Wendling has been tracking them for years, clued in to the reactionary philosophers, the notorious 4chan and 8chan bulletin boards, and a range of bloggers, vloggers and tweeters, along with the extreme ideas which underpin the movement’s thought. In this blog, Wendling, author of Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House, charts the moments that made and un-made the Alt-Right.
November 2008: The Speech
When Paul Gottfried stood up in front of a tiny crowd of supporters in a Baltimore hotel, he never thought he going to christen a political movement that would have far-reaching impacts a decade in the future.
Gottfried, a philosophy professor at a small Pennsylvania college, described himself as a ‘paleoconservative’. It was a political style distinctly out of fashion at a time when many were looking forward to the outward-looking optimism of Barack Obama to save the world from rapidly unfolding economic disaster.
‘We are part of an attempt to put together an independent intellectual right, one that exists without movement establishment funding and one that our opponents would be delighted not to have to deal with,’ Gottfried told the few dozen members of his organisation, the H.L. Mencken Club. ‘Our group is also full of young thinkers and activists, and if there is to be an independent right, our group will have to become its leaders.’
It was such an inauspicious start that when contacted by a journalist eight years later, Gottfried said he had forgotten that his speech had included the phrase ‘Alternative Right’ in its title. And he later (somewhat) rued his association with Richard Spencer, his young protégée who would become the most visible face of an increasingly race-obsessed movement. But the name, in shorter form, stuck.
August 2014: Gamergate
The actual events which sparked the movement which awkwardly became known as ‘Gamergate’ were by turns petty, sad and mundane. A young man named Eron Gjoni had been dating a game designer, Zoe Quinn. After their on-off relationship broke down, Gjoni posted a 9,000-word rant on his blog, detailing Quinn’s alleged infidelities and lies. It was raw and emotional; a story about young people and the messy business of love. But once it was made public, it hit a nerve among some mostly young, mostly male gamers, who quickly politicised a very personal tale into a political cudgel to be used against Quinn and other women in the world of gaming.
They couched the as a crisis in ‘ethics in video game journalism’ although there was no evidence that – as one of the more scurrilous false rumours stated – Quinn had traded sexual favours in exchange for positive media coverage of her games.
The ‘ethics’ charge was an odd one for the simple fact that within the massive, sprawling community of gamers and game commentators, almost nobody was seriously arguing that moral turpitude was a problem of urgent importance.
In reality, the loudest voices shouting about Gamergate didn’t really care much about games at all, except that a cohort of young male gamers could be used to wage a larger cultural war against feminism. ‘Gamergate’ became a galvanising event in the manosphere – bringing together an online stew of angry young men which included a distinct crossover with the alt-right.
July 2015: Rachel Dolezal revealed
The story of the white woman pretending to be black was another instant sensation. For a fast coalescing movement of angry white men it was definitive proof that their imagined tribal group was being shucked from power. Here was an example of ‘black privilege’ in action.
Never mind that Dolezal’s twisted logic had only managed to secure her a leadership position of a small local chapter of the NAACP civil rights group in Spokane, Washington, an area that was overwhelmingly white. Or that Dolezal made a living not as an activist but as a gigging academic and artist. Or that her profile was so slight that I was one of only a few journalists from outside eastern Washington State to have spoken to her before the big reveal.
For the trolls these facts were irrelevant, and their satirical hashtags pushed up Twitter’s trends list.
But here’s an interesting question: You’ve probably heard of Rachel Dolezal, but have you heard of Kevin William Harpham? Harpham, a former soldier, put a pipe bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr Day march in Spokane in 2011.
Harpham wasn’t alt-right but a rather more traditional thuggish version of white supremacist. He claimed his bomb, with its shrapnel covered in shit and rat poison in order to cause infection and encourage bleeding, wasn’t a terror attack at all, but a creative protest against ‘unity’ and ‘multiculturalism’.
The judge was not impressed. Harpham was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
As for Dolezal, her story dominated news cycles for a few days before being knocked from the headlines by a huge political story: after years of hinting, Donald Trump announced he would be running for president.
July 2016: Trump’s ‘echoes’ of antisemitism
America’s Independence Day weekend is usually a brief respite from work and party politics, even in a presidential election year. Not so in 2016, however. On the Saturday before the national holiday, Trump tweeted ‘Crooked Hillary – Makes History!’ alongside a meme which included a picture of Clinton, a pile of cash, and a six-pointed star. It wasn’t one of the caricatures of someone with a long hooked nose which frequently pop up on the 4chan and 8chan messages board. But given a few minutes of contemplation that obviously eluded the Republican nominee’s social media team, most saw it for what it was: an antisemitic dog whistle.
And it turned out that the creator of the meme wasn’t usually so subtle. Acting on a tip, journalist Anthony Smith of the news site Mic tracked down the original 8chan post where the meme had shown up, and linked it to an account that frequently posted pictures of (to take just a few examples) black people as monkeys, Muslim refugees cutting off heads, and those aforementioned large-nosed caricatures.
It was a classic demonstration of how extremist material was starting to float to the mainstream surface of the Trump campaign and American political discourse in general. For the hard-core of the alt-right, it was proof that the candidate was one of their guys.
November 2016: The ‘Hail Trump’ Salute
Most alt-righters were as surprised as everyone else when Trump pulled off his upset victory, which explains the jubilant mood at a gathering of the National Policy Institute, a sort of think tank led by Richard Spencer which held its annual conference shortly after the election.
In a way, the NPI’s gatherings were a throwback to the Gottfried’s Mencken club – a quest to build academic legitimacy and cultivate a core group of followers. But in contrast to the professor’s small, ignored paleoconservative parties, this time the crowd was larger and the outside world was paying attention.
And thus a journalist from The Atlantic was filming when Spencer lead a toast to the alt-right’s new ‘God Emperor’.
‘Hail Trump!’ he shouted. ‘Hail victory!’ Several participants shot up their right arms up stiffly in a display that looked distinctly unhinged even in the craziest political year in recent memory.
Spencer later claimed that the ‘Roman salute’ was ‘clearly done in a spirit of irony and exuberance’, but if you really believe that he wasn’t fully aware of the connotations of the salutes, I have a bridge across the Potomac which can be yours for a low, low price.
It marked a turning point for movement. After years in the shadows, the world was now paying attention to the alt-right – and most people weren’t very enamoured with what they were seeing.
Spencer later told to me that he worried about his security. The toast was a harbinger of things to come. Two months later, as Trump was being ushered into office, Spencer was punched in the face by an anti-fascist activist, one of a legion of hard-core anti-fascist ‘antifa’ activists who would hamper his attempted public appearances going forward.
August 2017: A reckoning in Charlottesville
It might be that Trump’s election was the worst thing that ever happened to the alt-right. After their God Emperor took power, the purity of campaign coat-tail riding and dank meme-ing gave way to the messy business of dealing with power.
The glaring contradictions and inherent violence in the movement became painfully and murderously clear just seven months into the Trump presidency when various alt-right splinter factions, along with neo-Nazi and related groups, tried to hold a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The largest far-right gathering in America in at least a decade was an attempt to show on-the-street strength and capitalize on significant public scepticism in the Southern US about the dismantling of symbols of the old Confederacy. But things got violent very quickly, and any faint hope of unity or garnering wider sympathy evaporated when a man drove his car into a peaceful counter demonstration, killing one and injuring dozens more.
After the bloody debacle in Charlottesville, hardcore alt-righters were more concerned with public relations than the dead and injured. Anti-racist activist Patrik Hermansson, who at the time was undercover in the alt-right told me that contacts in the movement were worried that what happened in Charlottesville ‘looked bad’; in other words, not that it actually was bad.
Charlottesville demonstrated the hollowness of the alt-right’s attempted rebranding of extremism and the logical conclusion of their project: a swift descent from irony and exuberance into hate and death.
Mike Wendling is a writer, producer and broadcaster. An editor at BBC Trending, which investigates social media stories, he’s spent years covering extremism and internet culture for radio, online and television, and was part of the BBC team covering the 2016 US presidential election.
Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House by Mike Wendling is available from Pluto Press.