The only problem with the recent efforts to curtail use of the name “alt-right” is that they misunderstand what words are and how they interact with reality. The efforts are often based on a faulty understanding of the movement and the dangers it poses, and the whole thing threatens to play into the alt-right’s hands. Other than that, it’s a salutary effort.
Until last year, the alt-right was virtually unheard of outside its own cloistered internet communities. The group’s early and high-visibility support for Donald Trump changed that. The Trump campaign brought back into the mainstream racism, anti-Semitism, fantasies of an authoritarian force returning white Christian men to their proper place in society—that is the alt-right. It’s understandable these beliefs reminded people of older white supremacists and neo-Nazis from whom the alt-right drew and which it often resembled.
Initially, the debate over what to call the “alt-right” was mostly carried out on social media. Commentators argued the name was misleading and overly euphemistic. Calling the group “alt-right,” as it described itself, amounted to doing PR work for people better described more bluntly as white nationalists or white supremacists, critics said. Also, and here it’s hard to argue, there was something about that “alt,” short for alternative, that rubbed people the wrong way. The cutesiness of it, like using “lil” for little, and its previous association with pop music and counter-cultural alt-weekly newspapers seemed to glamorize and soften the views it was meant to describe.
Fast forward to the post-election landscape and the argument has resurfaced. An alt-right press conference held last week was “in part a celebration of the imminent Trump presidency—and what his victory means for their far-right movement, white identity, and ‘pro-white,’ ‘anti-immigrant causes.’” It was also an occasion for attendees to pose for photographs giving a Nazi salute. The attention given to the event provoked a backlash that accused the media of mainstreaming the movement. “I don’t want anything to normalize the National Policy Institute,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich told The Daily Beast. “I think there has been a tendency in the press to not understand what the alt-right is—which is white supremacy.”
In the aftermath, progressive outlet ThinkProgress announced that it would “no longer treat ‘alt-right’ as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members.” in the future, according to the statement, the publication will “use terms we consider more accurate, such as ‘white nationalist’ or ‘white supremacist.’”
The Associated Press didn’t go quite so far, but a statement by its vice president for standards stresses the “need for clarity around use of the term.” The AP doesn’t ban the use of “alt-right” but instructs writers to “avoid using the term generically and without definition.” And it adds that when writers do use it they should “be sure to include a definition: “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,” or, more simply, “a white nationalist movement.”
It’s not that this is wrong exactly; the alt-right typically espouses white nationalist views, but this kind of injunction threatens to substitute moral judgment for intellectual clarity—as if affixing “white nationalist” to alt-right will inoculate readers against it.
As one example, it’s important to understand that despite the apparent populism of the Trumpist movement, the alt-right is actually deeply suspicious of democracy and generally favors more aristocratic politics. That helps explain pro-Putin sympathies on the alt-right and can be useful in comprehending how adherents might try to game democratic politics.
Or consider its attitude toward religion. While the alt-right contains both Catholic monarchist and pagan wings, it is also deeply informed by a secular right-wing ideology that hasn’t been prominent in the West since the defeat of fascism. That matters for a number of reasons, because it informs the movement’s appeal and its goals, but also, crucially, because it distinguishes the alt-right from an organization like the KKK, which was shaped by a strong Protestant anti-Catholic bias.
So what exactly is the alt-right? I tried to trace the movement’s knotty intellectual roots in this essay and wrote about how it spread a neo-fascist ideology for The Daily Beast back in its early days. In short: It attacks the principles of equality and universalism, and the post-enlightenment liberal order. If that makes it similar to neo-Nazis and Stormfront white supremacists, it’s distinguished by a keen interest in aesthetics, metapolitics, and popular culture—which is how you arrive at frog memes and Twitter Nazis.
It’s also important to say who the alt-right is not. It is not everyone who voted for Trump who has ugly or retrograde opinions about race, religion, and homosexuality. Despite its successes during the Trump campaign, the alt-right is still a small, if growing, vanguardist Internet ideology. There is no evidence that most people who voted for Trump have ever even heard of the alt-right.
Ultimately, the name you give something matters far less than the ideas you fix to it. There is, however, a reverse danger: that focusing too much on names actually works to the alt-right’s advantage. As the past year has shown, though clearly not to everyone, attempts by elite media institutions to arbitrate political debates can backfire. Insisting too narrowly on semantics actually gives the alt-right’s adherents a script to avoid scrutiny of their ideas. They can just show that they’re not actually nationalists—perhaps they believe in stateless empires instead—or counter accusations of white supremacy with racial hierarchies that place Jews and Asians above whites in terms of intelligence.
This is the point made by The Guardian, which might have a bit more experience with this brand of right-wing extremism than its American counterparts in the press. “It was decided the Guardian should avoid defining the ‘alt-right’ simply as a white nationalist group,” the paper wrote, “not because it isn’t, but because:
a) That’s not all it is: it can also be anti-globalisation, anti-establishment, antisemitic, racist, misogynist etc, and,
b) People within the movement are not all of those things: some would associate themselves with the group simply because they want to protect US jobs/industry; others because they have had enough of the political, media and business elite pulling the strings, and would not consider themselves to be white supremacists, racists etc.”
In the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration, it might help readers understand the new political order taking shape if journalists reported more on what the alt-right says and does and worried less about what it’s called. For instance: With Trump in office and alt-right-aligned Steve Bannon and retired general Mike Flynn joining him in the executive branch, what avenues will be open to influence the new administration? There are already institutions operating as alt-right think tanks. Will more emerge, and what policies will they advocate? And of course, where will the money come from to fund everything? All of this is vital, and none of it is yet clear.