The term “alternative right” – and “alt-right” is its shortened version – was coined in 2008 by an American conservative writer Paul Gottfried. In his article “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right”, Gottfried wrote about the crisis of paleoconservatism, an ideology that is characterised by its focus on traditional and religious values, limited government and opposition to multiculturalism and immigration.
In Gottfried’s view, paleoconservatism was, in the past, a good antidote to neo-conservatism that Gottfried rejected but that eventually came to dominate the Republican party. This implies that paleoconservatism was, for Gottfried, the Alternative Right, a Rightist alternative to the neo-conservative GOP. However, paleoconservatism withered away – and going back to the title of the article, that was “the decline of the alternative right” – but Gottfried welcomed the developments in the conservative movement outside the Republican party and, especially, young conservative non-Republicans to whom he referred as “post-paleos”. For him, “the rise of the alternative right” was exactly the emergence of “post-paleos” who were aiming at putting together “an independent intellectual Right, one that exists without movement establishment funding”.
The term was shortened to “AltRight” or “alt-right” in 2010 by Richard Spencer who also launched a magazine Alternative Right and the website under the same name thus effectively appropriating the term. And the moment Spencer did it, the term “AltRight” was divorced from Gottfried’s interpretation of “alternative right” and became redundant: Spencer is a neo-Nazi and the ideology that he ascribed the term “AltRight” to already had a name – it was “neo-Nazism”.
“Alt-right” remained a fringe term until 2016 when the US presidential election was in full swing. There were two main reasons why the term became popular then. First, in order to damage Donald Trump, the pro-Clinton media drew attention to the neo-Nazis who called themselves “alt-right” and, at the same time, supported Trump as US president, especially through Internet memes and graphics. Second, a far-right writer Steve Bannon who was executive chair of the website Breitbart News, which he himself described as “the platform for the alt-right”, was appointed chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign, and even more media attention was focused on the term “alt-right”.
|The Pepe the Frog meme appropriated by the American far right|
The increased media attention to the “alt-right” in 2016 and its rising notoriety resulted in a war over the term in the American far-right milieu – a war that simultaneously underscored the uselessness of the term. The problem was that – despite the fact that several groups wanted to claim it – the term was never appropriately defined by members of the American far-right scene.
Neo-Nazi websites such as The Daily Stormer and Fash the Nation used the term to describe themselves – so following Spencer’s Alternative Right, they simply wanted to have a fancy, non-toxic hipster name for their neo-Nazi beliefs. Writing for The Daily Stormer, its editor Andrew Anglin recognised the vagueness of the term “alt-right” saying that it “could refer to a lot of different people saying a lot of different things”, but still insisted that the authentic core concept of the “alt-right” was essentially a neo-Nazi belief that “Whites are undergoing an extermination, via mass immigration into White countries which was enabled by a corrosive liberal ideology of White self-hatred, and that the Jews are at the center of this agenda”.
|Neo-Nazis during the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville on 12 August 2017. A man in the centre is James Fields who killed one and injured 19 counter-protestors.|
In their turn, American groups subscribing to the core principles of the European New Right and European Identitarianism, wanted to redefine the term in a less extremist way. Greg Johnson, the editor-in-chief of the New Right Counter-Currents Publishing, acknowledged the roots of the concept “alt-right” in Gottfried’s writings, as he described the “alt-right” as a “largely empty” brand that only functioned as “a broad umbrella term for ideological tendencies that reject mainstream American conservatism”. Nevertheless, Johnson wanted to “endow the Alternative Right with a positive content”, and suggested defining it the following way: “the Alternative Right means White Nationalism – or it means nothing at all”.
Ironically, Johnson implicitly admitted that the only value the term “alt-right” had was that it was a popular brand, and yet its meaning would still be good old “White Nationalism”, thus corroborating the redundancy of “alt-right”. In a similar vein, far-right publisher John Morgan complained that the “alt-right” was “a culture primarily of blogs, memes, podcasts, and videos. It has yet to produce a single book or other statement of principles that everyone involved would agree is the quintessence of the Alt Right’s worldview”. Morgan’s hopes, however, will unlikely come true: given the media popularity of the brand, the diverse American far-right scene will never agree on the definition of the “alt-right”.
Milo Yiannopoulos, who was senior editor of Breitbart News in 2015-2017, also wanted to appropriate and, to that end, redefine the “alt-right” as a “Cultural-Libertarian movement”, “a cultural rebel army”. Yiannopoulos explicitly admitted that the term “alt-right” referred to a broad movement pointing out that defining it would be problematic: “the Alt-Right is a very new movement and everyone thinks they have a right to define it”. Nevertheless, he stressed the allegedly culturally rebellious character of the “alt-right” dismissing the neo-Nazi appropriation of the concept. For him, “the alt-right in its broadest definition” is not “to any degree traditional white nationalists”. According to Yiannopoulos, “a huge proportion of the alt-right today are Millennials, ranging from teenagers up to the younger members of Generation X. Primarily white, but also consisting of increasing numbers of minorities. Jews fed up with the pro-Islam attitudes of elites. Asians who are now being penalized by affirmative action. Black groups like the Hoteps, fed up with Black Lives Matter”. Therefore, Yiannopoulos criticises the neo-Nazi element of the alt-right calling them “the Stormfags” or “1488ers” and claiming that they only constitute 5 percent of the “alt-right” movement. The neo-Nazis naturally disagree and, in their turn, call Yiannopoulos a “kikeservative”.
|Neo-Nazis during the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville on 12 August 2017|
It should be stressed again that the far-right war over the term “alt-right” is exclusively underpinned by the fact that it is a hyped-up brand. But there is no agreement even in the American far-right scene how to define it and – given bitter feuds between different groups – the war will never be over unless the term loses its popularity in the mainstream media. And lose it must.
Despite the lack of agreement on the definition of “alt-right”, the events in Charlottesville on 12 August 2017 have demonstrated that the neo-Nazis have successfully appropriated the term. They did not win the war over the term in the milieu, but it is now simply impossible to accept Yiannopoulos’s point of view and say that the neo-Nazis constitute only 5 percent of the “alt-right”. The media and social scientists need to realise that there is no need for the term that is just used as a hipster cover for whitewashing the entire spectrum of neo-Nazi beliefs.