The Rise and Fall of the Alt-Right
This article was originally published in The Mallard on 27th June 2020.
The return of Lauren Southern to public life seems like an apt moment to reflect on the right-wing zeitgeist of the mid-2010’s, and where it left us. Building on the Gamergate movement of 2014, Trump’s presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum reinvigorated the right in a way never before seen – for the first time in the postwar era the left was on the backfoot, and the right was winning the culture war (something not even Reagan and Thatcher had achieved or even tried to achieve). Firebrands like Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, Richard B. Spencer, Mencius Moldbug, Southern herself, and even Paul Joseph Watson led the way, while unaffiliated right-wingers like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson benefited from the broad limelight that was cast rightwards.
Through memes, trolling, viral videos, and podcasts the new “alt-right” achieved dominance over the internet. Dull, safe political correctness simply could not compete with a fresh brand of dark humour formerly consigned to the deepest depths of 4chan’s /pol/ imageboard, and the left didn’t know what to do with figures like Milo – who refused to kowtow and apologise as so many right-wing leaders had done before them. The left-designated Overton window, while still existent, suddenly lost all its power like a hollow shell. As impossible as it is to imagine now, I remember far-right ideas dissipating among even fairly ordinary people (or “normies”, as the alt-right would have called them). It was not uncommon to see one’s schoolfellows (I was a sixth former at the time) following the white nationalist “Smash Cultural Marxism” Facebook page, for instance, or sharing some crazy alt-right conspiracy like Pizzagate or the Trump time travel theory. Such was the heady atmosphere of 2016, when this movement reached its peak. The left, and the liberal democratic order more broadly, briefly lost its longstanding cultural hegemony, and for a while “anything goes” filled the vacuum. This is why I feel sorry for figures like Southern or Ann Coulter, who expressed opinions which were somewhat acceptable in 2016, but suddenly ceased to be so in 2017 when the world returned to normality.
Those who seek to defame the entire alt-right movement as white supremacist are engaging in historical revisionism. When Steve Bannon described Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right”, he was not referring to neo-Nazis – such a thing would have been career-destroying, even in those days. The alt-right was a broad cathartic groan against a liberal/left ideological and cultural yoke, and the weak conservatism that had failed at every turn to oppose it. The term itself was invented by the paleoconservative Paul Gottfried, but popularised by the white supremacist Richard Spencer. Nevertheless for a long time it was possible for people to identify with the label without knowing or supporting its far-right roots.
When Spencer’s neo-Nazi antics became impossible to ignore, however, the movement’s more moderate non-racialist elements, like Breitbart or Milo, started to identify as alt-lite or new right instead. Spencer, meanwhile, attempted to bring the movement off the internet and onto the streets, which had its fruition in the infamous Unite the Right rally of Charlottesville, August 2017.
We all know how that went. The word “alt-right” was irreparably stained as the evil which had been allowed to fester was put on full display to the world. A confused President Trump at first tried to defend the group from which his campaign had drawn so much energy, and the controversy that followed his remarks proved that authority figures could no longer endorse or even vaguely wink at such a group again. Bannon was expelled from the Trump administration, and what had begun as a promising national-populist regime was absorbed into standard Republican conservatism.
By the mid-2010’s the right was so desperate for success it had embraced anyone and everyone who could stick it to the left, including conspiracy theorists, white nationalists and demagogues, which ultimately proved catastrophic. Charlottesville was like a veil being lifted. Suddenly, the ridiculousness of Pizzagate, or the sheer awfulness of Milo became painfully obvious to all. The alt-right had been a reaction to stuffy political correctness – but the root of political correctness is politeness and decency (even if taken to tyrannical extremes), and a total, unnuanced antithesis to it (such as the alt-right was) could only be rooted in rudeness, unprofessionalism and bile, such that characterised figures like Milo, Cernovich or McInnes.
In the wake of the post-Charlottesville paradigm shift, some former alt-righters tried hopelessly to rebrand, like RamZPaul, who I notice has deleted all his shameful “race realist” content from YouTube. The major figures, including Milo and Spencer, suffered miserable, embarrassing fates worthy of their character. Southern retired, but Paul Joseph Watson has managed to retain a degree of mainstream online influence despite his odd temperament and conspiracy theorist past. In 2019 UKIP tried to take advantage of the alt-right zeitgeist woefully late, by employing Watson and Carl Benjamin as European Parliament candidates in a move which finally destroyed that party. Today, irrelevant far-right Groypers and so-called trads are all that remain of the alt-right spirit.
Right-wing momentum was not totally lost, however. The “intellectual dark web”, unaffiliated with and far more respectable than the alt-right but nonetheless a product of the rightward shift of the 2010’s, carried on unimpeded, and experienced a little life of its own. Jordan Peterson’s 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos became a bestseller in several countries, and Joe Rogan’s podcast continues to be a refreshing source of free discussion (even if it dabbles in conspiracy theory now and again).
However, I think this momentum had finally dissipated by 2019, evidenced as Jordan Peterson entered a rehabilitation centre and Ben Shapiro suffered an embarrassing interview with Andrew Neil. In 2020 the right was largely silent as the power of the State was hugely expanded by ostensibly right-wing governments – in fact, many embraced it as a symbol of strong leadership and authority. Then came the return of Black Lives Matter. Without alt-right provocateurs to oppose it, it was finally free to flex the full extent of its muscles. Such was the homogeneity of media and cultural forces, for a time it seemed as if the whole world was fully supportive of racial revanchism, destroyed cities and obliterated history. Dissenting voices are only now beginning to emerge, but conservatism in Britain and America has once again revealed its impotence in its handling of this affair. With the added woe of impending economic catastrophe conditions are perfect for a new right-wing alternative to take shape. But before we begin formulating strategy, we must lay the groundwork, and look back on the previous right-wing movements of the last decade so that we might avoid their mistakes.
What, then, can we learn from the alt-right?
The alt-right was ultimately let down by the quality of its leadership, which was scraped directly from the bottom of the barrel. No doubt, as in the Spanish Civil War, as the culture war descends further into civil strife broad coalitions and uncomfortable alliances will have to be made. But the alt-right had no respectable, intellectual core or vanguard – the great right-wing thinkers of the time wisely stayed out of it, and while benefiting from the shared limelight as I mention, later went on to become the intellectual dark web. The far-right ideological fringes, like Richard Spencer, and contrarian journalists doomed to scandal, like Milo, meanwhile stepped in to fill the vacuum of leadership at terrible cost.
The intellectual dark web has a somewhat opposite problem. While the alt right was a mass movement without leadership, the intellectual dark web is leadership without a mass movement. Partly this is a fault of the intellectual dark websters themselves – too many right-wing intellectuals, especially of the conservative variety (Ben Shapiro, for instance), are so desperate to cling to establishment respectability they will denounce any grassroots right-wing movement as uncouth. We saw this recently when members of the social conservative community denounced the protestors defending the Cenotaph and the statue of Winston Churchill in London. I happened to observe this protest – from what I saw, most of them were peaceful, working class lads merely wishing to defend their history and culture. Some of them undoubtedly were less than politically correct, but what can one expect from the working class? Not everyone can be a respectable middle-class intellectual, ever-polite and ever-orthodox. Most people are not like that. Most people are politically illiterate; nevertheless when a movement formulated by middle-class intellectuals catches their eye and speaks to their gut instincts, they’ll sign up and do the heavy lifting – they’ll attend the rallies, wave the flags, and if it comes to it, die on the battlefields. If right-wingers ever want to achieve a shred of success they must abandon their classism and establishmentarianism, and accept their own footsoldiers, warts and all.
If the London protests had been centrally organised and led by a right-wing intelligentsia, then any offensiveness or violence caused by the footsoldiers could have been restrained at the time, and denounced by the leaders afterwards, allowing such a movement to retain its respectability. But there was no such intelligentsia; no central planning – therefore, it was chaos. Just a load of lager louts standing around and drinking, from what I saw.
But then I have a suspicion that, when push comes to shove, most conservatives don’t actually want to go through the toil and trouble of saving the West. They would much rather sit in their armchairs, smoking their pipes, and feel smug and sophisticated as it burns around them.
Intellectual leadership will probably not be enough to sustain any right-wing movement, however, without financial backing. The cultural left is backed by basically every major corporation as well as the State. Any future counter-revolution will need at least one eccentric billionaire, like Elon Musk or Arron Banks. Steve Bannon, I suppose, served this purpose for the alt-right for a while, but after the alt-right fractured between the white nationalists and the alt-lite, there was nothing to protect Richard Spencer and his followers from the press coverage of Charlottesville – there were no major promoters of an alternative narrative. We can learn from this even if we disdain Spencer and his ilk.
While not directly relevant to the alt-right, there is one last point I would like to make on the potential of a new movement. Since the mid-2010’s online and offline censorship has progressed through leaps and bounds. Before any right-wing movement can take shape we must formulate a solution to this serious obstacle. We can’t simply retreat to right-wing echo chambers like Parler – at the end of the day we will still need to convince ordinary people of our cause. The Free Speech Union is already doing tremendous work, “unionising” freethinkers, and sticking up for them when they’re threatened with unemployment. We’re going to have to start sticking together and standing up for each other as the “woke yoke” become considerably more oppressive. As my friend and co-ideologue Harry J. Fitzpatrick recently put it, “The only way to escape corporate tyranny is to build separate institutions and ways of offering practical solidarity to one another. Buy your goods second hand or from alternative platforms; help out your mate who was fired for wrongthink”.
I also believe we could learn a thing or two from Anonymous in this regard. As cringy and pretentious as Anonymous were/are, their tactics, of hacktivism and masked protest, could come in handy. In such intolerant times anonymity will fast become our most valuable asset.
No doubt this topic, of the alt-right and why it failed, deserves oceans of ink. Mr Fitzpatrick himself has made a convincing argument that Brexit and the Trump presidency were our last, doomed chance at affecting change through the conservative establishment. It should be clear by now that I have not written this article to glorify or glamourise the alt-right in any way – it was a vulgar thing and a vulgar time, nevertheless it was not the simplistic white supremacist sect it is retroactively being portrayed to have been. At least, not until its final days. It’s impossible now to imagine the strange energy and excitement that permeated the air, and as awful as he was and no doubt continues to be, I can’t help but wonder how Black Lives Matter would react today if Milo was still parading around university campuses with legions of loyal supporters at his back. Sadly, the censorious students he was campaigning against have since graduated and achieved positions of power. As an anarchist commune springs up in Seattle, and John Oliver praises furry porn on American television, it seems the hysterical fears of the anti-SJW right in 2016 have become true in 2020.