Watching Donald Trump try to duck a questions is a strange experience. Trump doesn’t duck much; he typically leads with his chin. That’s what his supporters seem to like so much about him, after all. He’ll say whatever’s on his mind, regardless of good taste or truthfulness.
But the fact that he’s drawing support from various racists has caused Trump to waffle quite a bit, and that has been an odd show. Trump has tried to deny knowing who renowned racist David Duke even was, and he’s brushed off the fact that he’s re-tweeted praise from open “white nationalists.”
It’s telling that Trump is slow to condemn his support. He’s drawing a lot of very vocal support from an alarming and relatively new component of the American political landscape, the so-called alt right.
The alternative right has likely been around forever, although the name is new.
Typically, you have your mainstream right, and your mainstream left, and each side has positions that are completely out of bounds.
For the left, that means liberalism and progressivism, but not, say, advocating the violent takeover of the government to institute a Marxist state. That wouldn’t go down well with voters.
For the right, the problem for the past half century has been racists. Obviously, racism and dog whistle politics has never gone away, but there were boundaries. Certain statements or associations – denying the Holocaust, flatly asserting that African-Americans were intellectually or morally inferior – tended to get you banished from the grown ups table of American politics.
But those views never went away. They burned underground, like a peat fire, smoldering and waiting for fresh oxygen and fuel so they could ignite again.
The oxygen was the internet. The fuel turned out to be the Trump candidacy.
The alt right is a movement that is both old and new, and still too fractured to easily sum up as one thing. It is still small and decidedly fringe, but it has the potential to grow. It is also a movement dominated by young people, which suggests it will be around for years to come, under one name or another.
What does the alt right believe?
First, they’re racists.
Not just casual racists, either. The alt right descends from a variety of sources, but many of them are out-and-out white supremacists. However, they don’t usually base their racism on tradition or an interpretation of some obscure Bible verse. They draw their justification from cruddy pseudo-science, of the social darwinist variety.
Evolution, they argue, has (conveniently for them) made white people smarter or better than the other races. They see races as engaged in a struggle in which only one can win – and they believe they’re losing. Trump’s call for a wall on the Mexican border, for mass deportations and reduced immigration, fit in with their ideas.
Second, they don’t have much faith in democracy.
Old-timey conservatism and modern liberalism are both based on the idea of democratic elections. But the alt right as a whole is sceptical of the whole institution. One related branch of the alt right is the neoreactionary or Dark Enlightenment movement. What passes for philosophers and scholars among the alt right, they want something more like an enlightened despotism, philosopher-kings drawn from the ranks of Silicon Valley billionaires.
At the lower end, the rest of the alt right just doesn’t like many of the electoral choices on offer. Not all of them even like Trump, but he’s close enough for most of them. If they do like democracy, they want what’s called a herrenvolk democracy, in which only the right people get to vote, and others are either excluded or second class citizens.
Third, they think they’re victims.
This might actually be the most important part of understanding the alt right. They’re overwhelmingly white, and mostly men. They’re mostly young – in their teens and twenties. And in a society where most of the positions of power are held by white men, they feel incredibly threatened.
Every social movement that is attempting to balance the scales, to ensure that women get equal pay for equal work, to create opportunities for minorities, to create TV and movies and videogames that have women and non-white characters featured prominently – to an alt righter, those are evidence of a vicious conspiracy against their rightful place in the world. They despise every instance of political correctness, every suggestion that maybe straight white men are pretty fortunate. They don’t feel fortunate. They feel persecuted, apparently because they can’t tell the difference between criticism and actual oppression.
The alt right style is the other thing that sets them apart from mainstream conservatism. They are brash. They are technologically proficient. They are prone to using jokes and memes and deliberate provocation, being as offensive as possible for shock value. They were born and bred on the ugliest corners of the internet, and they hold in contempt anyone who “can’t take a joke.”
There may not be very many of them. Like a lot of smallish groups online, they excel at turning up en masse in comment sections and harassing people they don’t like, but in the real world? The alt right doesn’t hold mass rallies, it can’t get thousands to show up. Though many of them like Trump, they aren’t the bulk of people filling up his rallies.
They may dissolve. There are many sub-movements among the alt right, and for a lot of them it’s hopefully something they’ll grow out of as they grow older and find a place in the world. But some of them will still be there, even if the fire is tamped down and goes back to smoldering.