When Donald Trump hired Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing media site Breitbart, to head his campaign last week, Breitbart’s former editor Ben Shapiro declared, 'The Breitbart alt-right just took over the GOP.' Yet most of Trump’s supporters probably don’t even know what the alt-right is. It’s entirely plausible that Trump himself doesn’t know what it is. So what is the alt-right, and has it really taken over the GOP?
Shapiro’s worry might be overstated but it’s not unwarranted. For at least a year, a small army of online right-wing trolls - who refer to themselves as the 'alt-right' - has attacked anyone who dared challenge Trump. They use some of the most racist and anti-Semitic language imaginable. N-words (directed at blacks), K-words (directed at Jews) and Holocaust and gas chamber 'jokes' are commonplace. So are grand declarations about defending the 'White race' - and White is almost always capitalised in the alt-right world. And they’re not just anti-minority, but anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian and anti-democracy. 'Fascist' isn’t a pejorative but a debatable form of government to alt-righters and to many, a positive one.
Sounds extreme, right? Alt-righters don’t care. Extreme is what they do. Call an alt-righter 'racist' and they’ll quickly show you how hateful they can be. When alt-right cheerleader and Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos took to Twitter to lambast black Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones, the alt-righters once again showed their true colours. Yiannopoulos bashed both her movie and her looks in a tweet - referring to her as a 'black dude.' His alt-right followers quickly followed suit with much worse. Many compared her to an ape. Yiannopoulos soon found himself permanently banned from Twitter and #FreeMilo began to trend. In response, Breitbart ran a story attacking Jones, pegged to what the site perceived to be her own 'racist twitter history'.
Breitbart has offered up this kind of fare with increasing frequency in recent months. Under Bannon, the site has regularly published both pro-Trump and alt-right friendly stories which bash immigrants, Muslims and blacks. Bannon has even proclaimed Breitbart to be the 'platform for the alt-right'. To what degree is the Trump campaign also a platform for the alt-right? In his Republican convention speech in Cleveland, Trump essentially tried to scare Americans into believing that immigrants, blacks and Muslims were coming to kill them through rising crime and terrorism. The only way to stop this madness was to vote for him, he said. It was an ominous speech.
Yet let’s not pretend this kind of fear-mongering began with Donald Trump. Ex-Bush officials and some neoconservative #NeverTrumpers may not like to admit this now, but the stoking of anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11 aided and abetted their Iraq War. Much of it came via mainstream talk radio and the conservative media. I don’t remember too many hawks being upset about it at the time. And much of it still does come from these sorts of places, including from some of Trump and Bannon’s harshest critics. Harsh language about illegal immigrants is something Trump often seems to be mimicking, rather than inventing. Long before Trump began talking about 'law and order' - leaving the racial implications of that phrase open to interpretation - it was a regular part of most Republicans’ stump speeches.
The alt-right movement seems to be capitalising on latent racism and xenophobia that existed long before Donald Trump decided to run for president. Is the characteristically non-ideological Trump simply corralling and amplifying some of the more divisive aspects of the Republican brand, as he understands it? Or is he intentionally pushing an alt-right agenda? How intentional is any of this?
I’ve only met Stephen Bannon a few times. I don’t know the man personally and certainly not as well as the ex-Breitbart employees who’ve been criticising him in the wake of his move to the Trump campaign. And based on my limited experience, he has always seemed more transfixed on taking on the political establishment, particularly Republicans, rather than raising a White Power fist.
Yet a piece for Mother Jones by Sarah Posner seems to indicate that Bannon may be consciously embracing the alt-right. While Trump's new campaign chief denies that the alt-right is 'inherently racist,' he describes its ideology as 'nationalist' - though, as Posner adds - not necessarily white nationalist. He also likens the alt-right to European nationalist parties such as France's National Front. ‘If you look at the identity movements over there in Europe, I think a lot of [them] are really 'Polish identity' or 'German identity,' not racial identity. It's more identity toward a nation-state or their people as a nation,' Bannon is quoted as saying in the piece.
When questions arise about the alt-right's links to racism, Bannon is dismissive. ‘Look, are there some people that are white nationalists that are attracted to some of the philosophies of the alt-right? Maybe. Are there some people that are anti-Semitic that are attracted? Maybe. Right? Maybe some people are attracted to the alt-right that are homophobes, right? But that's just like, there are certain elements of the progressive left and the hard left that attract certain elements.'
This is deflection. As I observed after the Bannon-Trump news broke last week, the alt-right—primarily and integrally—is a racist movement. It’s not something they merely flirt with. It’s what they do. Racial antagonism is its function. The overwhelming majority of the alt-right’s members fall somewhere between believing Adolf Hitler had a point, or finding value in people who believe Hitler had a point. This seemingly hyperbolic statement is based on every observation or interaction I’ve had with anyone who identifies as alt-right.
Is Bannon being naive in believing most alt-righters aren’t fully-grown bigots? Consciously or unconsciously, is Trump re-shaping the GOP into a European-style, white identity politics party? The alt-right is betting on it, whether Donald Trump gets it or not.
Jack Hunter is the editor of Rare Politics (Rare.us) and is the former New Media Director for U.S. Senator Rand Paul.