The Rise and Fall of the Alt Right

With Russiagate increasingly looking like a deep state and Clinton campaign-manufactured bugaboo, a new brand of leftist McCarthyism has reared its head—namely, trying to seek out members or allies of the Trump Administration with ties to the dreaded Alt-Right. So far, the only targets have been Department of Homeland Security (DHS) staffer Ian Smith, who apparently ran in some dodgy circles, and White House speechwriter Darren Beattie, who was ousted for nothing more than addressing the controversial paleoconservative H. L. Mencken Club. Like all good panics, this one began in a grain of disturbing truth, but then it snared all sorts of others, including innocents like Beattie, in its wake.

I leave the defenses of the targets for the moment, because the most relevant fact about this particular bit of heretic hunting is that it is not actually a battle to afflict the entrenched and powerful. It is, instead, a mop-up operation.

To put it bluntly, the Alt-Right proper was a stillborn movement. And now, judging by the pitiful group that showed up to Unite the Right 2 last month, its members are the equivalent of the Nazis in the “Mr. Hilter” Monty Python sketch, playing records of applause while no one shows up to their speeches. In fact, to paraphrase the great Python lads, the Alt-Right may pine for the gas chambers, but it has also passed on. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It is a stiff, bereft of life. It rests in peace. If the Left weren’t propping it up to scare people, it would be pushing up the daisies. Its meta-political processes are now history. It has run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible . . . and promptly called that choir cucks. This is an ex-movement!

How it became so is the subject of this piece.

First, a Quick Clarification
The term “Alt-Right” has shifted its meaning quite a bit in the time since it first entered mainstream usage. Back in 2016, the term “Alt-Right” or “alternative right” covered a fairly wide variety of people, from those who wanted an intellectually viable alternative to the brain-dead ideology of Conservatism, Inc., to irreverent pro-Trump internet tricksters, to populist alternative media personalities spawned from Twitter and YouTube, to ironic satirists using “problematic” language to prick the Left, to, yes, white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis. It was in reference to the first four groups that Steve Bannon once proudly called Breitbart a “platform for the Alt-Right.”

In the time after Trump’s election, however, the white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, fearing dilution of “their” movement, mounted a concerted effort to reclaim the word solely for themselves, and that effort succeeded with the willing help of anti-Trump forces on both the Left and the Right. Almost no one other than those groups seriously uses the term to self-describe now, though the media loves to use it as a smear against even moderate, good-faith critics of Rawlsian neoliberalism.

Now to the Story . . .
In at least one way, the rise of the Alt-Right parallels the early rise of movement conservatism. Just as there was a need for critics of Roosevelt and later Johnson-era liberalism that hadn’t been filled, so too has there been a need for what the term “Alt-Right” literally means: namely, an alternative version of the American Right. What’s more, many people have tried, in one form or another, to create this alternative—some of whom I even worked for, such as David Frum’s FrumForum in 2009, which was attempting to create its own alternative version of conservatism.

The reason that alternative was needed, in retrospect, is a story that begins at least with the second Bush Administration. One could argue that Conservatism, Inc.’s failures were logically inescapable from the start (and perhaps they were), or that the elder George Bush actually introduced the corruption by moving sharply away from Ronald Reagan’s legacy. But official conservative organizations at least recognized that Bush 41 was a pretender after he broke his “no new taxes” pledge, and they did not much mourn his loss in 1992, even as they dreaded the election of that Arkansan triangulator, Bill Clinton.

In their fantastic book The Right Nation, journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge noted that after Bush 41’s loss, staffers at the Heritage Foundation trotted out a whole pig with Bush’s name scrawled on it and cheered. This is a long way from the uncritical adulation of mainstream conservatives that Bush 43 faced for most of his term.

That adulation was far from deserved. Bush 43 left office with approval ratings lower even than post-Watergate Nixon, and he richly deserved that assessment. In fact, I can still confidently say that George W. Bush was the worst president of my lifetime. Barack Obama was terrible, yes, but at least he was predictably terrible. George W. Bush, on the other hand, had the chance to be great, but instead ended up destroying everything that was once good about movement conservatism under the guise of “reforming” it.

Bush’s “compassionate” brand of conservatism was a joke: the only objects of its compassion were noncitizens (who big corporate donors wanted for cheap labor), Baby Boomers (who wanted even more money pumped into entitlement programs), the fictional Iraqis (who were supposed to greet Americans as liberators but who really were stand-ins for defense contractors), and the poor put-upon bankers who destroyed America’s financial system yet still wanted their golden parachutes. It was smarmy, passive aggressive, corrupt comfort for the comfortable and affliction for the afflicted, made all the worse because it had the gall to dress itself up as compassion.

What’s more, unlike Trump, whose “authoritarianism” consists of being mean on Twitter, the second Bush Administration was actually frighteningly authoritarian, literally creating the modern surveillance state and outsourcing the protection of American rights to intelligence agencies which then used their new power to try to steal an election. The current scandal embroiling the FBI and other deep state agencies shows what a great idea that was.

Worse, the Bush Administration was authoritarian with people within its own party: either you were on board with every single invasion of privacy, and every single cockamamie war drummed up by its coterie of militarily inexperienced court intellectuals, or you hated America/were “unpatriotic”/were “letting the terrorists win”/were letting America’s enemies win/would have your resume blacklisted everywhere in Washington, etc., etc., etc.

It is because we have brains to remember what it is like to have Bush-era party apparatchiks setting themselves in the position of ruining even good faith internal critics of their preferred policies that we Trumpists continually make a point of denigrating #NeverTrump, where most of those apparatchiks have found their home.

From the Fringe to . . . Not Quite as Fringe
But before Trump, there was nowhere for the critics of Bushism to go, except maybe Chronicles or The American Conservative, if you were a paleoconservative, or Reason Magazine and the Cato Institute if you were a libertarian. What’s more, these were themselves orthodoxy-enforcing institutions; they just had different forms of orthodoxy. There was no room for libertarians who believed in closed borders at Cato or Reason, and there was no room for socially liberal paleoconservatives at Chronicles or The American Conservative. Even the paleolibertarian Mises Institute was too bogged down in arcane debates about whether to privatize sidewalks and legalize blackmail to be serious critics of the Bush-era consensus.

Something else had to be created. Hence, the historian Paul Gottfried put his head together with a former American Conservative editor named Richard Spencer and dreamed up the idea of something called the “alternative right.”

Unfortunately, the problem with this was that both paleoconservatism and paleolibertarianism, which I would finger as the antecedents of today’s Alt-Right, had always been marked by a cultural pessimism that could easily bleed into outright racism or antisemitism—the real kind, not the nonsense you hear about from the SPLC. It’s not an accident, for instance, that Murray Rothbard had a eulogy delivered at his funeral by David Duke, nor that one of the founding paleoconservative intellectuals, Samuel Francis, ended up a writer for the Council of Conservative Citizens, a dressed up version of the old Southern “citizen’s councils.”

Nor was this a new problem. When William F. Buckley first tried to fashion an American “conservative movement,” his first targets for exclusion were the antisemitic American Mercury magazine and the conspiracy-theorist John Birch Society. So given their just marginalization, anyone claiming to offer an “alternative Right” was always going to get the dregs of the old one knocking on their door and asking where they could sign up to become respectable again.

Because of this, the Alternative Right started out fringe, and probably would have remained that way if not for the trajectory of mainstream conservatism during the Bush and Obama administrations. Not that Obama’s effects on movement conservatism were all bad: he at least gave the GOP the chance to reject the virus of compassionate, big government, authoritarian “conservatism” almost immediately after he came to power. There was no room for big government solutions and phony Washingtonian “compassion,” at least not rhetorically, in a party defined by its mission to fight Obamacare. Of course, this irked the GOP congressional leadership, which missed being able to advocate openly in favor of the Bush-era gravy train, but with the Tea Party making up a large section of its caucus, dominating the grassroots, and financing conservative pressure organizations, they were at least mildly constrained.

This much was good. But instead of learning the lesson that “compassionate conservatism” itself had been a dud, the GOP instead came out believing that pursuing neoliberal policies was fine so long as it was disguised with orthodox 1980s era movement conservative rhetoric.

The grassroots organizations, meanwhile, were only too happy to embrace the idea that the movement needed to learn nothing from the past 30 years but that reform was always bad. It wasn’t the nature of the attempted Bush reforms that was suspect, they argued, but the very fact that Bush attempted reform at all that caused the problem. And why not make this convenient argument? It was great for the bottom line of orthodoxy-enforcing institutions like the American Conservative Union (ACU), the Club for Growth, and the entire Koch network, but it was toxic for a movement that had once made the GOP the party of ideas.

Idiotic Unforced Errors
What’s more, in reacting against compassionate conservatism, the GOP went too far and instead became the party of sneering, entitled self-proclaimed “winners.”

Look no further than Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks about the “47 percent of Americans” who would never vote for him because they were “entitled” to see the tone deafness and political stupidity of this type of politics.

But it wasn’t just tone deaf. It was also hypocritical.

In reality, Romney’s supporters were just as entitled as the 47 percent, just on behalf of different groups. Speaking as a millennial, it still galls me to hear that my generation is entitled for wanting out of student loans the terms of which many of us were too young even to properly understand, and that we took out under the false impression that a college degree equaled a good job, when the people saying it tend to be Boomers who begged for bailouts to save their 401(k)s, demanded cheap home loans so they could buy houses outside their means, and wanted government healthcare and retirements funded by the debt that they will bequeath to my and my future children’s generation. To be completely fair, both groups were legitimate victims of fraud. But as far as the Republican party was concerned, it seemed that the only victims were . . . the richest generation in U.S. history.

Small wonder Romney lost.

In other words, by the time of Obama’s second term, the Republican Party had become a gerontocratic, ideologically inflexible, donor-controlled manufacturer of orthodoxy, but not of actual ideas to solve the problems of the day.

What’s more, everyone who tried to come up with actual ideas was driven out of the movement on some specious pretext—for being racists if they cared about immigration; socialists if they cared about high drug prices or student loans; immoral, sexist, or just losers if they cared about fighting left-wing cultural Puritanism; traitors if they preferred to only fight terrorists, rather than lighting the Middle East on fire for the sake of “spreading democracy,” or playing chicken with a very nuclear and very pissed off Russia.

The Republicans had transformed from a political party into a Cold War reenactment society, and anyone who understood that time had passed since 1991 was not welcome. An alternative was absolutely, unquestionably necessary.

And right on cue, there was Donald Trump. And with Trump, the Alt-Right got its day in the sun and learned, to its woe, that sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Among young Trumpists either in their 20s or their 30s, the year 2016 conjures up memories that are both exhilarating and mortifying: exhilarating because we bet our political careers on the rise of one of the most unlikely politicians in history, and it literally came up Trumps.

Mortifying, because many of us flirted with ideologies and movements that seemed dangerous, exciting, and potentially revolutionary at the time, but have since revealed themselves to be toxic and cultish. As a perfect symbol of this dual experience, I still remember being at the D.C. Trump International Hotel on election night while the New York Times showed Trump with a 95 percent chance of winning the election and practically crying with relief. I also remember Richard Spencer running around the lobby of the hotel, shouting “We did it” into his phone camera, while people posed for pictures with him.

We Wanted Something Other Than This, OK?
Many older figures may not understand this, but among young, dissident intellectual right-wingers there was a real, palpable sense in 2016 that the Alt-Right might soon displace the original Right as the intellectual center of the Republican party. This may inspire some shock. Didn’t we know what these people stood for? And the answer is, yes, we knew what they once stood for. Allegedly. The truth is, after seeing both the right-wing and the left-wing media lie so frequently and unabashedly about Trump and his supporters, after seeing them label anyone who criticized President Obama’s tan suit a racist, after seeing them cry “misogyny” when journalists were caught sleeping with their sources, and any number of other things, we were disinclined to believe that anyone the media smeared was as bad as advertised.

My own experience with this outright mistrust occurred shortly after I published the first part of a series at The Federalist explaining why Trump attracted white nationalist supporters, and how in fact his message weakened ideological white nationalists by understanding their pain without accepting their bizarre and delusional explanations and solutions for that pain. For this article, which any fair-minded reader could tell was about weakening the power of white nationalism, I got attacked as a white nationalist by David French and Matthew Continetti, not to mention literally having John Podhoretz accuse me of being a fake Jew because I hadn’t had an official bar mitzvah, an accusation I disproved with a humiliating series of tweets tracing my mother’s side of the family back to the Wolinskis of Poland. By the end, though, the question was jittering around in my mind: if supposed conservative intellectual giants who I’d once looked up to could brand me a non-Jew for the simple crime of trying to understand something that cut against their comfortable narratives, then who knows who else, or what else, they’d lied about?

And, in fact, in 2016, many Alt-Right leaders did make a tentative (and, I now believe, thoroughly disingenuous) effort to clean up their act and try to become at least a bit more mainstream. I know this first hand, because along with denunciations from Matthew Continetti, David French, and John Podhoretz, my Federalist article also attracted the interest of some of those Alt-Right leaders. In contacting me, they were quick to make it known that they agreed that the neo-Nazis and Klansmen of the world needed to be purged from their  movement and that it needed to get its house in order and compete with the dying “mainstream Right.” Jared Taylor himself solicited my opinion at one point on ethnic outreach. Richard Spencer told me, personally, that he wanted to do to the neo-Nazis what Buckley did to the Birchers.

I am sure I was not the only person so approached, or so cultivated at the time, considering the number of other young people I know who feel used and disenchanted after similar interactions with similar figures in 2016. We spoke to those people not because we ourselves were white nationalists or white supremacists—in fact, when someone asked me if I was a white supremacist in 2016, I replied with earnest confusion that I had no idea what that term even meant in contemporary parlance, because it had been so defined down, but that I certainly didn’t believe in its literal meaning, i.e., that white people should rule the world and exterminate other races, or some nonsense like this.

Yet still, I and others talked to people who, it’s obvious with hindsight, actually did believe that sort of nonsense.

Why? Partly because we believed, as Milo Yiannopoulos and Allum Bokhari reported at Breitbart at the time, that their white nationalism was an ironic pose: a way to stick their thumbs in the eyes of the moralists and orthodoxy-enforcers of both Right and Left who had done so much damage to the country, and who would do the same to us for daring to question the policy orthodoxy, given half the chance. We also believed partly because the Alt-Right was punk, and edgy, and transgressive, so it felt like a bizarro version of the ’60s student rebellions. Knowing its leaders was less like seeking out political mentors, and more like bragging about knowing the early Beats, or the Sex Pistols. Vox, in spite of itself, grasped this in an article on how punk movements of the past had used ironic racism to inflate their own transgression.

Partly, we spoke to them because the Alt-Right’s opposition to utopian egalitarianism, universalism, and attempts to perfect humanity by removing its tribal character seemed more recognizably conservative than the Rawlsian-lite formulations of Jack Kemp and his heirs. But more than all these reasons, many of us approached the Alt-Right because behind what we thought was its over-the-top tongue-in-cheek racism, its intentionally cranky and confrontational political style, and its obsession with sexualized shaming of its opponents, there seemed to be actual thinking going on. And after dealing with Conservatism, Inc. on the Right and SJW, LLC on the Left, finding a place where real thinking was happening was like finding an oasis in a boundless desert.

The trouble was that, like most perceived oases in boundless deserts, this seeming Oasis turned out to be a mirage. This was recognizable the instant the movement ran into the headwinds that all unexpectedly successful political movements face. When Richard Spencer’s audience gave him the Nazi salute in December, 2016, neither Spencer nor his allies took the opportunity to throw those responsible under the bus as idiot Nazi Live Acton Roleplayers (LARPers). Instead they retreated into conspiratorial theorizing that the people responsible were Feds, or Jews, or something. In fact, the more you asked questions the movement didn’t want to answer—like why the traditional family had broken down, or why whites had acquiesced to policies that diluted their power, like, say, the Immigration Act of 1965, or even how European identity could all be subsumed under whiteness given the multiplicity of different cultures and identities involved—the less satisfactory the answers got. It turned out that these guys were just as allergic to thinking as were the denizens of Conservative, Inc. The paleoconservative intellectual Thomas Fleming noted this with particular acidity in a 2001 article at VDARE:

But so many of them prefer their little Sci-Fi fantasies about a once and future kingdom of the Great White Race. Just make this a white man’s country again, and everything will be all right. [sic] Well, it won’t be. White people ruined this country, out of greed, cynicism, and impotence. While we are fighting the big battles to reassert American control over American sovereignty (our border, our markets, our security), we had better be doing our best to revive the dying organism of American civilization.

And that was really the problem—that as good as they were at making cutting mockery of their ideological rivals, the Alt-Right was just as incapable of introspection, and thus despite their vaunted love for Western civilization, were unwilling to learn seriously from it how it had made itself vulnerable to attack or subversion. Everything that ever went wrong in history for their worldview was someone else’s fault—usually some group or other that felt persecuted, but should’ve shut up and taken it because they didn’t really have it so bad. Never mind that the struggle of dissident, despised people to be heard is a part of Western Civilization going back to Socrates. Never mind that the Alt-Right itself felt persecuted, and they weren’t shutting up and taking it, so why should anyone else? If so many groups were just naturally not going to belong in their utopian ethnostate, then how could it be expected to survive in the case of demographic collapse, or in foreign affairs, or in well, anything? No answer. Well, okay, some people thought the answer was genocide, or the asinine concept of “white Sharia,” but those answers… weren’t particularly credible, to say the least.

I was particularly repulsed by this conspiratorial, “blame everyone else” mindset. As the child of a charismatic deadbeat father, who had spent all the family’s money on bogus business ventures and then blamed us for holding him back and eventually fleeing, leaving me to be deprogrammed by my mother, I knew the perils of charismatic conspiracists. When the Alt-Right turned down that road, I flinched—pulling back like a burn victim faced with a hot stove.

I am glad I did. For soon Charlottesville came and every pretense the Alt-Right advanced for being a movement interested in ideas and moving beyond neo-Nazism and Klansmanship evaporated. As always, the movement has its excuses about what happened there, such as that the police were negligent, or that Antifa courted danger by mobbing cars, but the fact of the matter is that it was delusional to ignore the possibility that a rally advertised using the symbol of the Luftwaffe and the Confederate flag, which featured several hundred people chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while waving tiki torches, might meet some resistance from the locals and indifference for their safety from the police.

The Civil Rights movement was organized and dedicated enough that its members survived being targeted with fire hoses, yet the marchers for “White Civil Rights” couldn’t plan for mere police indifference and the prospect of violent attackers? This hardly excuses the violence of Antifa, but Antifa didn’t kill anyone. One of the Alt-Right’s people did. This could’ve been the moment the movement’s leaders had to show they truly were different. But the temptation of solipsism proved too strong, and so the movement retreated into conspiratorial wound-licking rather than advancing proactive engagement with the situation, and owning up to their own part in it. It fell to President Trump to point out that the violence on both sides was unacceptable, and to denounce it and to take the criticism for weeks over it because he did not simply dismiss the violence directed at them.

This is not to say the Alt-Right is some evil and terrifying conscienceless monolith—such a depiction only wins them converts. The Alt-Right itself likes to fancy itself the First Order in Star Wars, or the Death Eaters in Harry Potter. But the only thing they have in common with Imperial Stormtroopers is the inability to hit their targets, and they are hardly Death Eaters: more like the Dursleys with delusions of grandeur. They are not harmless—Charlottesville shows that all too well—and they do attract a number of people who are social pariahs for reasons beyond ideology, who are capable of very frightening things. Their main ability to endanger, however, comes from their ability to attract, and that ability comes from their being treated as if their ideas are too dangerous to be talked about, or understood, or engaged, when they are, in fact, merely quotidian expressions of resentment buried under layers of ironic and cool-looking polish.

You Keep Saying That Word . . .
On that note, many Leftists have pleaded against “normalizing” the Alt-Right. In so pleading, they are, in point of fact, its best friends. In addition to the fact that the judgment of the news media and tech companies about what constitutes the Alt-Right is somewhere between highly suspect and laughably absurd, every Twitter ban, or YouTube demonetization, or Cloudflare snitfit against the Alt-Right merely makes it look more like the forbidden fruit that inspires young people to seek it out.

Normalization would do the opposite of what Leftists think it would do. A movement that survives based on the appearance of being cool and outside the mainstream always has a hard time being normalized, and the Alt-Right especially could not survive the process. Because to be normal is everything the Alt-Right does not wish to be: normal movements can be abandoned. Normal movements can be put in historical context. Normal movements are prosaic, not exactly a label that aspiring world historical Nietzschean figures enjoy.

And really, in many ways, the Alt-Right is painfully prosaic: its leadership is nothing more than a group of alienated aesthetes and intellectuals who have done so much collective daydreaming that they have forgotten how to bear witness to reality. Its devoted adherents are as quixotic and sad as the sorts of people who donate to NAMBLA earnestly believing that the legalization of pedophilia is just around the corner. Inevitably, they will turn on President Trump as well. Like communists who accused FDR of being a fascist because he left the American capitalist system intact, so too will the Alt-Right eventually brand President Trump a Social Justice Warrior because he failed to usher in the world of “The Man in the High Castle.”

But the true failure is theirs. Underneath the gloss of memes and fashy haircuts and slick references to Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt, the Alt-Right is essentially a movement of insular self-pity and longing for a past never experienced and not understood. The biggest problem that has killed the movement is the insularity: Alt-Righters are capable of building echo chambers that would make Brooklyn Heights blush. Ironically, in retreating to those echo chambers, they are imitating the mistakes that made Conservatism, Inc. vulnerable to them. After all, it was the refusal to be introspective or self-critical that drove so many away from movement conservatism, and to the Alt-Right, in the first place.

Now, Alt-Alt-Rights have started cropping up in response. For those interested in the preservation of a specifically Christian nationalism, without all the fuss about race, the Traditionalist or Medievalist movements sprang up. For those interested in preserving Western (and usually specifically Anglosphere) culture, the Alt-Light or New Right emerged. And for those who simply wanted to express the old fashioned, patriotic, American nationalism that the neoliberals Left and Right so tried to suppress, President Trump is esteemed as a symbol of hope. He deserves that esteem. President Trump has the White House. Those who profess allegiance to the “Alt-Right,” rather than merely being smeared by association, only have the comments sections.

The sad, mundane truth about the rise and fall of this Alt Right is simple: it fell because, like the infamous Crying Nazi Chris Cantwell, it was all fat and no meat. It was too prosaic to live up to its own hype. Soon enough, the last vestiges of moral panic about the movement will fade as people grow tired of endless stories about this or that Trump administration official who retweeted this or that “undesirable unperson,” shows like South Park will wring whatever humor it can out of the movement’s dying throes, and then what remains of the Alt-Right will be what it always has been and will likely continue to be: Boring. Predictable. Unoriginal.

Or, as President Trump might put it . . . Sad!

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Photo Credit: Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images

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About Mytheos Holt

Mytheos Holt is a senior contributor to American Greatness and a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty. He has held positions at the R Street Institute, Mair Strategies, The Blaze, and National Review. He also worked as a speechwriter for U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, and reviews video games at Gamesided. He hails originally from Big Sur, California, but currently resides in New York City. Yes, Mytheos is his real name.