These notes are based on a talk I gave in Seattle on July 22, 2017 and the discussions that followed. Thanks to the organizers of that event, my fellow presenters, and everyone who attended. Special thanks also to the members of Q-Patrol who provided security.
My January report, “Ctrl-Alt-Delete,” was published at the beginning of Donald Trump’s administration. It dealt with the Alt Right’s ideological roots, major players, multiple internal currents, and complex relationships with both conservatives and the Trump campaign.
A lot has happened since then. The terrain on which the Alt Right operates, and the character of the movement itself, have shifted in some important and disturbing ways. The situation is very much in flux, but the half-year mark seems like a good moment for a snapshot of where things stand today. The notes that follow are my attempt to give a brief overview of five major changes related to the Alt Right that have taken place in that time.
1. Trump’s election has encouraged supremacist violence by vigilantes and local police.
In the days and weeks immediately after the November elections, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a sharp increase in “bias-related harassment and intimidation” across the country—threats and attacks against immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, trans people, and other oppressed groups.1 “Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults,” the SPLC noted, and many of those targeted said the incidents were like nothing they had experienced before.2 A logical, horrifying intensification of these attacks took place in May, when a White nationalist in Portland, Oregon, screamed racist and anti-Muslim abuse at two women on a light rail train, then stabbed three passengers who intervened, killing two of them.3
Meanwhile, the first two months of 2017 each saw police officers kill more people than any month in 2016, according to the website KilledByPolice.net.4 While there isn’t yet a breakdown of those specific numbers, among young men overall, Blacks are more than three times more likely than Whites to be killed by cops, according to Washington Post statistics.5
Whether it’s carried out by cops, right-wing activists, or unaffiliated individuals, supremacist violence didn’t start with Trump. It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s deeply rooted in the structure of U.S. society. But the climate has changed. Where President Obama defended Black Lives Matter and sang “Amazing Grace” at a memorial to victims of the Charleston, North Carolina, racist mass shooting,6 we now have a president who calls police “the thin blue line between civilization and chaos,” claims they are subjected to “unfair defamation and vilification,” and urges them to handle suspects more brutally. He’s also a president who, before taking office, encouraged his followers to assault political opponents, called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, and bragged about sexually assaulting women.7 In Jeff Sessions we now have an attorney general who, reversing previous policy, dismisses the idea that police brutality could be systemic and says that it’s bad for “morale” for his department to investigate abuse by local police departments.8 The same day that he appointed Sessions, Trump signed three executive orders intended to give police more authority.9
The Alt Right has contributed to this change in political climate through its supremacist propaganda and its role in helping Trump get elected. (For a full discussion of this, see “Ctrl-Alt-Delete.”) It also benefits from these changes, which serve as a public validation of its message; help grow its pool of potential recruits; and sharpen the atmosphere of tension, fear, and crisis that helps Far Right politics thrive.
2. Despite Trump’s volatility, in policy terms his administration has largely been coopted by conventional conservatism.
As a candidate, Donald Trump didn’t just run against the Republican establishment, but ridiculed and vilified it, in ways that helped endear him to most Alt Rightists. He touted a populist nationalism that defied conservative orthodoxy on multiple fronts, rejecting free trade and repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, while pledging to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and rebuild infrastructure on a large scale. His anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals went much further than most conservative politicians were willing to go.10
But because he lacked an organizational base of his own, Trump was immediately forced to bring other constituencies into his administration. He appointed some nationalists, such as Attorney General Sessions, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon, but he also put together a patchwork of establishment politicians, social conservatives, and people recruited from big business or the military. So, from the beginning, Trump’s presidency has rested on an unstable coalition of “America First” nationalists and people more or less aligned with conventional conservatism.11
Initially, the nationalists seemed to be on top, seeing their agenda supported or enacted in Trump’s inaugural speech, the Muslim ban that brought protesters to the airports in January, the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and moves to expand the roundup of undocumented immigrants. But over time the balance shifted largely away from them. Flynn was forced out of his role; Sessions recused himself on the Russia investigation; former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn gained ground on economic policy; and Bannon was kicked off the National Security Council.12
The nationalist faction is still there and still making itself felt, but it’s far from leading a full-scale charge. As president, Trump has abandoned many of the populist-nationalist positions he took as a candidate, such as declaring NATO to be obsolete, advocating an alliance with Russia, denouncing NAFTA and the Export-Import Bank, and his call to make health care accessible to all. Even his policy on undocumented immigrants, writes columnist Doyle McManus, isn’t much harsher than the plan Mitt Romney proposed four years earlier.13 On the other hand, the recent White House-announced proposal to cut legal immigration in half indicates that the America Firsters have gained some ground again.14 This struggle is likely to continue.
Donald Trump is just as belligerent, impulsive, and self-aggrandizing as ever, which tends to put him at odds with conventional politics but also makes it more difficult for him to effect substantive, lasting change. In policy terms, what we’re left with so far is a harsher, more repressive, more chaotic version of neoliberalism with some America First elements. The Trump administration is dismantling environmental regulations and other kinds of business regulation, and (together with Congress) may eventually succeed in repealing Obamacare and cutting business taxes. All of this will further enrich the wealthy at the expense of our wallets, our future, and, in some cases, our lives. The administration will tinker with trade deals, deport Latin Americans and Haitians more indiscriminately than Obama, and make life harder for Middle Easterners and LGBTQ people—particularly trans people. It will probably do its best to speed up the growth of the national security state (which has been expanded by all recent presidents, Republican and Democratic alike). But barring some unforeseen crisis that could shift the balance again, the Trump administration is not going to withdraw from NAFTA, is not going to abandon NATO and align with Russia, and is not going to close the borders. The administration’s proposal to cut legal immigration will shift the terms of debate but is unlikely to pass since most Republican leaders, and probably most capitalists, oppose it. The neoliberal consensus is starting to break down, and will face more challenges in the coming years, but populist right-wing nationalism doesn’t seem strong enough or developed enough to supplant it yet.
3. The Alt Right has largely abandoned its support for Trump.
After the election, Alt Rightists saw themselves as the vanguard of the Trump coalition—the ones who would stake out forward positions and then pull other people along with them part of the way. They were excited about Trump appointing Bannon, Sessions, Flynn, and some others they saw as allies.15
But as the political balance inside the administration shifted, Alt Rightists got frustrated. The key turning point came in early April, when Trump launched a missile strike against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack. Most Alt Rightists saw this as a shocking capitulation to the neocons and the foreign policy establishment.16 The fact that many conventional politicians and mainstream media organs praised the missile strike underscored Alt Rightists’ sense of betrayal.17 Many in the movement portrayed Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn, and other Jews in the administration as evil wire-pullers who had manipulated or blackmailed Trump into changing course.18
Since then, some Alt Rightists have argued their movement should “remain demanding but supportive” of Trump,19 but generally they have become cool or even hostile to the administration in a way that’s markedly different from six months ago. The Alt Right blog Occidental Dissent, which has been particularly outspoken in repudiating Trump, re-emphasized the movement’s revolutionary condemnation of the U.S. political order: “No elected official can salvage this nation. There is no reforming the system—it is beyond repair. We can only rebuild from the ashes.”20 Very recently, some Alt Rightist praised Trump’s moves to reduce legal immigration and attack affirmative action, but Richard Spencer warned that the immigration plan would bring in too many highly skilled non-Europeans and be “devastating” for White middle-class professionals.21
4. Alt Rightists have taken to the streets alongside other right-wing forces.
Even as it’s become alienated from the Trump administration, the Alt Right has been working to strengthen its influence in other ways, and strengthen its grassroots ties with organized Trump supporters. Even six months ago, the Alt Right still existed mostly online, excepting a few small conferences. Since then, some Alt Right groups, such as Identity Evropa and the Traditionalist Worker Party, have focused more on building actual organizations and holding public rallies. Many of these rallies have been joint events with other rightists, including Alt Lite groups (who identify with Alt Right ideology to an extent but don’t call for abandoning the U.S. political system) and even Patriot movement groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.22 That’s a big change, because before this spring the Alt Right and Patriot groups didn’t have much visible contact with each other. Now they’re showing up at the same rallies—such as at Berkeley in April or Pikeville, Kentucky, that same month.23 There have been tensions and even some physical altercations between the two camps, because Patriot groups, like Alt Lite activists, generally disavow White nationalism, but the convergence of rightist forces in the streets is definitely an ominous development.24
Some of these joint events have been held under the banner of “free speech,” protecting political space against Antifa activists (militant anti-fascists), who are portrayed as “the real fascists.” Islamophobia has been another major point of unity, as in last month’s national “March Against Sharia,” which brought together Alt Rightists, racist skinhead groups, Patriot groups, right-wing Zionists, and even some LGBTQ activists. As PRA research fellow Spencer Sunshine argues, Islamophobia “is more socially acceptable than anti-Semitism while still demonizing a minority group. Plus, its ostensible emphasis on religion is a way to avoid specifically naming race.”25
5. Alt Rightists and their allies have been turning toward physical violence and creating a street-fighting presence
As part of their new focus on public demonstrations over the past several months, both Alt Right groups such as Nathan Damigo’s Identity Evropa as well as Alt Lite formations including Gavin McInnes’s Proud Boys and Kyle Chapman’s Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights have been organizing and training for combat and taking their skills to the streets. This has developed largely in the context of confrontations with Antifa activists, as in Berkeley, but has much bigger implications in terms of the Right’s ability to target oppressed communities and shape political space.26
To make the situation even more disturbing, neonazi skinheads from groups such as Hammerskin Nation have, at least in California, also been involved in these street clashes. As Northern California Anti-Racist Action (NoCARA) reports, the southern California-based DIY Division, also known as the Rise Above Movement, is a violent neonazi group that brings together Alt Right and Alt Lite activists along with Hammerskin members. “DIY Division as a political collective is working hard to bridge the gap between the more internet-based Alt-Right brand of white nationalism which is targeted to appeal to younger, generally more educated and upper-class white men and the more traditional boots on the ground and street violence which has characterized neo-Nazi skinhead politics.” NoCARA also highlights “the close relationships that exist between McInnes’s Proud Boys and…DIY Division…. The Proud Boys need the numbers and the muscle of the neo-Nazis, while the neo-Nazis need the cover of pro-Trump groups.”27
These developments are extremely serious. Despite its disenchantment with the Trump administration, the Alt Right appears to be simultaneously building a real capacity for organized physical violence and strengthening its grassroots connections with other rightist currents, including Trump supporters. Their focus on a shared enemy, whether Muslims or the black bloc, is helping to draw different rightist forces closer, and shared street fighting is deepening those ties. This type of activism is a direct physical threat to both oppressed communities and the Left, and can fuel authoritarian and supremacist tendencies within the state at all levels. To assume that breaking with Trump will leave the Alt Right weakened and marginalized would be a dangerous mistake.
At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate either the unity or the competence of this new wave of militant right-wing forces. Rightists are just as vulnerable as leftists to infighting, personality conflicts, and sectarian ideological squabbles. As journalist Shane Burley points out, Alt Rightists “are not politically savvy organizers; they are angry white men taking their rage out on everyone they think eroded their meager privilege.”28 So far, thankfully, their movement has failed to produce a skilled, charismatic leader who can unify them and provide strategic direction. (Richard Spencer may look dapper and sound polished in interviews, but he has never inspired devotion from the Alt Right as a movement.) And even a strong leader wouldn’t necessarily overcome the basic political differences separating Alt Rightists from their conservative fellow travelers. In the long run, if the Alt Right wants to coalesce with system-loyal rightists, it either has to win more people to its dream of right-wing revolution, or abandon it.
1 “Update: 1,094 Bias-Related Incidents in the Month Following the Election,” Hatewatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), 16 December 2016, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/12/16/update-1094-bias-related…
2 “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election,” Hatewatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), 29 November 2016, https://www.splcenter.org/20161129/ten-days-after-harassment-and-intimi…
3 Jason Wilson, “Suspect in Portland double murder posted white supremacist material online,” Guardian, 28 May 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/27/portland-double-murder-…
4 Angela Helm, “More Americans Killed by Police in 2017, but Trump Dominates Headlines,” The Root, 4 March 2017, http://www.theroot.com/more-americans-killed-by-police-in-2017-but-trum…
5 Will Greenberg, “Here’s How Badly Police Violence Has Divided America,” Mother Jones, 19 March 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/media/2017/03/police-shootings-black-lives-m…
6 Dave Boyer, “Obama defends Black Lives Matter protests at police memorial in Dallas,” Washington Times, 12 July 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jul/12/obama-defends-black-lives-matter-protests-police-m/; “Obama Delivers Eulogy in Charleston” (video), New York Times, 27 June 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003767801/obama-delivers-eulogy-…
7 Celia Caracal, “America Is Suffering from a Plague of Deadly, Unaccountable and Racist Police Violence,” AlternNet, 5 July 2017, http://www.alternet.org/human-rights/look-police-violence-one-year-after-philando-castile-and-alton-sterling-were-killed; Mark Chicano, “Donald Trump’s speech was made more disturbing as Suffolk County cops cheered the idea of police brutality,” Newsday, 28 July 2017, http://www.newsday.com/opinion/columnists/mark-chiusano/donald-trump-s-…; Michael Finnegan and Noah Bierman, “Trump’s endorsement of violence reaches new level: He may pay legal fees for assault suspect,” Los Angeles Times, 13 March 2016, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-trump-campaign-protests-20160313-…; Tal Kopan, “What Donald Trump has said about Mexico and vice versa,” CNN, 31 August 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/31/politics/donald-trump-mexico-statements/i…; Ben Jacobs, Sabrina Siddiqui, and Scott Bixby, “‘You can do anything’: Trump brags on tape about using fame to get women,” Guardian, 8 October 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/07/donald-trump-leaked-recording-women
8 Adam Serwer, “Jeff Sessions’s Blind Eye,” The Atlantic, 5 April 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/jeff-sessions-blind-eye/521946/
9 Rachael Revesz, “Donald Trump signs executive order giving police more powers,” Independent, 9 February 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-sign-exec…
10 Benjamin Studebaker, “Why Bernie Sanders is More Electable Than People Think,” Huffington Post, 12 February 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/benjamin-studebaker/why-bernie-sanders-is…; “Morbid Symptoms: The Downward Spiral,” Unity and Struggle, 19 December 2016, http://unityandstruggle.org/2016/12/19/morbid-symptoms-the-downward-spiral/
11 Robert Cavooris, “One Step Back, Two Steps Forward: Trump and the Revolutionary Scenario,” Viewpoint Magazine, 21 February 2017, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/02/21/one-step-back-two-steps-forward…
12 Donald J. Trump, “Transcript of President Trump’s inauguration speech,” USA Today, 20 January 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/01/20/his-own-words-president-trumps-inaugural-address/96836330/; Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, “Trump’s hard-line actions have an intellectual godfather: Jeff Sessions,” Washington Post, 30 January 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-hard-line-actions-have-a…; “Wall Street banker Cohn moving Trump toward moderate policies,” Reuters, 17 April 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/17/wall-street-banker-cohn-moving-trump-tow…; Steve Holland and John Walcott, “Trump drops Steve Bannon from National Security Council,” Reuters, 5 April 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-security-idUSKBN17724S
13 Doyle McManus, “Trump’s populist revolution is already over—for now,” Los Angeles Times, 16 April 2017, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mcmanus-trump-flip-flops-20170416-story.html
14 Peter Baker, “Trump Supports Plan to Cut Legal Immigration by Half,” New York Times, 2 August 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/us/politics/trump-immigration.html
15 Richard B. Spencer, “We the Vanguard Now,” Radix Journal, 9 November 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20170105065744/http://www.radixjournal.com/…
16 Shane Burley, “As the ‘alt-right’ breaks from Trump, so goes its moment in the sun,” Waging Nonviolence, 17 April 2017, https://wagingnonviolence.org/2017/04/alt-right-trump-break/; Vegas Tenold, “The Alt-Right and Donald Trump Get a Divorce,” New Republic, 26 April 2017, https://newrepublic.com/article/142276/alt-right-donald-trump-get-divor…
17 Hunter Wallace [Brad Griffin], “Donald Trump is Now ‘The Leader of the Free World,’” Occidental Dissent, 8 April 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170622213726/http://www.occidentaldissent…
18 Andrew Anglin, “An Extremely Unfortunate Turn of Events,” Daily Stormer, 7 April 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170619172920/http://www.dailystormer.com/an-extremely-unfortunate-turn-of-events/
19 Pseudo-Laurentius, “Deploying Tactical Blackpills: The Alt Right Versus Trump,” The Right Stuff, 14 April 2017, https://blog.therightstuff.biz/2017/04/14/deploying-tactical-blackpills-the-alt-right-versus-trump/.
20 Meinrad Gaertner, “A Reflection and Foreshadowing,” Occidental Dissent, 17 April 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170428104016/http://www.occidentaldissent…
21 Marcus Cicero, “MAGA: Trump Proposes Bill Vastly Cutting Legal Immigration, Imposition Of YUGE Hurdles For New Arrivals,” Occidental Dissent, 2 August 2017, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:wvakoofdlr4J:www.o…; Colin Liddell, “Trump Fires First Salvo Against Anti-White ‘Affirmative Action’ Policy,” AltRight.com, 2 August 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170802132555/https://altright.com/2017/08…; Richard Spencer, “Why I Oppose the RAISE Act,” AltRight.com, 3 August 2017, https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:58G1fdYUSFYJ:https://altright.com/2017/08/03/why-i-oppose-the-raise-act/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
22 “Based Reserve Army: How the Right is Changing Its Strategy,” It’s Going Down, 25 April 2017, https://itsgoingdown.org/based-reserve-army-how-the-right-changing-stra…; Spencer Sunshine, “The Growing Alliance Between Neo-Nazis, Right Wing Paramilitaries and Trumpist Republicans,” ColorLines, 9 June 2017, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/growing-alliance-between-neo-nazis-right-wing-paramilitaries-and-trumpist-republicans
23 “Oath Keepers Call to Action: Stand and Defend Free Speech at Berkeley Patriots Rally, April 15, 2017,” Oath Keepers, 1 April 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20170402184553/https://www.oathkeepers.org/oath-keepers-call-action-stand-defend-free-speech-berkeley-patriots-rally-april-15-2017/; Eminence Grise, “Reflections on the Revolution in Berkeley,” The Right Stuff, 16 April 2017, https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:sNKoo5E9CgIJ:https://blog.therightstuff.biz/2017/04/16/reflections-on-the-revolution-in-berkeley/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari; Lois Beckett, “Armed neo-Nazis prepare for potential clash in small Kentucky town,” Guardian, 29 April 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/29/neo-nazi-rally-pikevill…
24 “‘Alt-Right’ declares flame war on Oath Keepers,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 June 2017. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/06/15/alt-right-declares-flame…; Taly Krupkin, “The Jewish Provocateur Caught in the Turf War as the ‘Alt-right’ Battles the ‘Alt-light,’” Ha’aretz, 22 June 2017, http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-1.797372
25 Spencer Sunshine, “Islamophobia is the Glue that Unites Diverse Factions of the Far Right,” Truthout, 14 July 2017, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/41265-islamophobia-is-the-glue-that-…
26 Antifascist Front, “The Alt Right Has Taken the Public Step Towards Violence,” Anti-Fascist News, 28 April 2017, https://antifascistnews.net/2017/04/28/the-alt-right-has-taken-the-public-step-towards-violence/; David Neiwert, “Far Right Descends on Berkeley for ‘Free Speech’ and Planned Violence,” Hatewatch (Southern Poverty Law Center), 17 April 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/04/17/far-right-descends-berkeley-free-speech-and-planned-violence; Emma Grey Ellis, “Don’t Look Now, But Extremists’ Meme Armies are Turning Into Militias,” Wired, 20 April 2017, https://www.wired.com/2017/04/meme-army-now-militia/; “Gavin McInnes’ ‘Alt-Right’ Fan Club Drifts Toward Neo-Nazi Violence,” IdaVox, 18 May 2017, http://idavox.com/index.php/2017/05/18/gavin-mcinnes-alt-right-fan-club…
27 Northern California Anti-Racist Action, “How ‘Based Stickman’ & Proud Boys are Working with Neo-Nazis in So-Cal,” It’s Going Down, 8 July 2017, https://itsgoingdown.org/based-stickman-proud-boys-working-neo-nazis-ca…
28 Shane Burley, “Alt-Right 2.0,” Salvage, 6 July 2017. http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/alt-right-2-0/