Lexicon Valley

Is the Term Alt-Right a Euphemism?

Thanks to Trump, the alt-right is getting unprecedented attention from the mainstream.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Last week, Hillary Clinton gave a speech denouncing Donald Trump’s ties to the “alt-right” movement of reactionaries and racists that have been taken with Trump’s assault on “political correctness” and his promises to curb immigration. At this point, everyone that has spent a reasonable amount of time on the political internet knows the alt-right is made up of bigots and knuckle-dragging trolls. But where did the phrase alt-right actually come from?

Alternative right was perhaps first used as the title of a speech given by the intellectual historian Paul Gottfried at an annual meeting of the far-right H.L. Mencken Club in 2008. The speech was published in Taki’s Magazine, or Takimag for short—a publication with the kind of split personality disorder that now seems emblematic of the alt-right movement as a whole. Its tagline is “Cocktails, Countesses, and Mental Caviar,” words archly chosen to evoke cartoonish wealth and pretension. Alongside such highfalutin pieces as “Valhalla for the Inarticulate” are models of eloquence like the essay I’m Not a Racist, Sexist, or a Homophobe, You Nigger Slut Faggot” and “Is Hillary Clinton a Brain Damaged Invalid?” In that last one, readers are asked to probe such deeply intellectual questions as, “WHAT’S WITH THAT PSYCHOTIC CACKLE OF HERS?”

Gottfried’s speech, which Taki reprinted with the title “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right,” is one of the more pretentious offerings. The speech itself doesn’t contain the phrase alternative right, but it does signal the arrival of an “independent intellectual Right.” This burgeoning movement aimed to chart a new course away from both paleoconservatives committed to fighting and refighting the philosophical battles of the distant past and mainstream neoconservatives who had made peace with many of the principles of the left.

Gottfried describes himself as “an aging paleo”—and he certainly sounds like one. His speech is written in the kind of ponderous style that used to dominate academic humanities writing before, as a paleo would put it, the “cultural Marxists” took over. The success of the left in pushing traditionalist paleoconservatives out of political discourse and roping in the rest of the conservative movement has resulted, he argued, in a right comprised of people that have had “little interest in the cognitive, hereditary preconditions for intellectual and cultural achievements.” Nor do these new conservatives sufficiently honor “the claims of family and society on the putatively autonomous individual.” Instead, they increasingly perpetuate the “dream of living outside of the state in a society of self-actualizing individuals, opening themselves up to being physically displaced by the entire Third World.”

These ideas—the recognition of the need for a potentially strong state, the emphasis on family and society-supporting values, scientific racism, and by extension, a preoccupation with the perceived dangers of immigration—would constitute the core principles of the movement going forward. Also central is reverence for the achievements of Western (i.e. white) civilization, which, the alt-right contends, has depended on such ideas. Myriad groups, publications, and figures on the reactionary right and within the world of white nationalism had been mixing these notions for a long time, as had reactionary “New Right” groups and parties in Europe. But they’d never been corralled together by an umbrella movement with a name in the United States.

That changed with the publication of Gottfried’s speech and the founding of an online publication called Alternative Right in 2010 by Richard Spencer, the Takimag editor who may have given the reprint its title. Bringing together some of the leading lights of white nationalism, Alternative Right published essays and other content advancing genteel racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, along with the warning that Mexican immigration represented “the greatest threat to America.”

In 2012, Alternative Right ran an essay called “Is Black Genocide Right?” by Colin Liddell. “Instead of asking how we can make reparations for slavery, colonialism, and Apartheid or how we can equalize academic scores and incomes,” he wrote, “we should instead be asking questions like, ‘Does human civilization actually need the Black race?’ ‘Is Black genocide right?’ and, if it is, ‘What would be the best and easiest way to dispose of them?’ ”

The essay, like Gottfried’s speech and other alt-right tracts published at Alternative Right and its successor, Radix Journal, advances ideas that are at once shocking and stale. The majority of these notions are the shower thoughts of the average backwater bigot expressed in detached, pseudo-professorial tones. Those tones would become less important to alt-right expression as the movement expanded its circle of contributors and allies from pompous essayists to random trolls on 4chan.

The shift from alternative right to alt-right reflects that explosion in popularity. It’s a convenient abbreviation less likely to come out of the mouth of a sesquipedalian and more ready for travel on the web. Alt-right retains the former phrase’s associations—the mix of alienation and optimism embedded in the act of proudly affirming an “alternative” direction—but compacts them into a snappier package. It recalls the gradual shift from alternative rock to alt rock as the genre and the attention given it similarly grew. In both cases, the growth was driven by an influx of people with less and less to say and cruder ways of saying it.

But, unlike the musicians, the alt-right was feeding from the bottom to begin with. The contributions to the movement by young trolls and white supremacists uninterested in whether or not their ideas could be called “mental caviar” have been unambiguously embarrassing. No matter how open to newcomers the movement’s old guard seems to be, one can imagine there’s a bit of discomfort among those given to diligently writing dozens of pseudoscientific paragraphs a day on race and IQ with the Pepe memes and unhinged tweets that are now taken as representative of the movement.

Those newcomers differ from the original alt-right in more than their lack of interest in phony intellectual discourse. Calling oneself alt-right today signifies little beyond a disgust with mainstream politics, minorities, and “political correctness.” To be sure, there are many who are working to shape the ideas explored by Gottfried and Spencer into a coherent ideology. But the moniker has been taken up by a broad and incompatible array of outcasts in varying levels of accord with the ideals defended in Gottfried’s speech.

The alt-right, according to those who claim membership, comprises both neo-Nazis and those who believe Hitler killed too many white people to be admired. It includes those open to exterminating nonwhites and those who want to sequester or repatriate them. It includes fascists, anarchists, economic liberals, conservatives, and libertarians as well as people who’d rather we abandon the modern state altogether and return to some sort of quasi-monarchy. It includes vociferous Christians, secularists, pagans, and even a handful of Jews, to the disgust of the movement’s many, many strong anti-Semites.

All have signed on to a project that argues that a clear, singular set of values embedded within Western civilization is worth preserving through exclusion and discrimination. Perhaps the gatekeepers of the alt-right would have an easier time articulating those values if they followed their own advice and, well, discriminated.

Until they do, alt-right will remain a useful catch-all label for some of the worst figures in American life today. There are no doubt those who use the label as a cloak—a badge white supremacists can wear openly and proudly. And it is probably true that the allure of being part of a transgressive, “alt” fringe has drawn young people who would not otherwise read tracts written by David Duke. But the label’s power as a Trojan horse—carrying bigotry and nonsense into both mainstream politics and the hearts of young people just looking for ways to piss off their politically correct peers—is rapidly diminishing. The alt-right has been explicitly tied to hate groups and rhetoric by Clinton’s speech and a mountain of media coverage. The kind of on-the-fence racist that might have been willing to examine chin-stroking about “hereditary” racial differences may well be too timid to have anything to do with a movement that has been linked to the KKK.

Moreover, while those on the alt-right have made use of mainstream-friendly euphemism—for instance, the innocuously named National Policy Institute, which Spencer runs, is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States”—it’s not clear that the phrase alternative right is another example of such. Publishing essays like “Is Black Genocide Right?” at Alternative Right permanently and perhaps intentionally freighted the movement’s name. The mainstreaming of the alt-right is thus a product of the way they’ve articulated those ideas rather than what they’ve called themselves. The tone of their writing lent them legitimacy. The shock value of the memes that followed lent them a fringy, pop cultural cool. Alt-right is a name that has, for them, helpfully pointed to their dissatisfaction with conventional politics while avoiding the kind of explicit ideological implications and overspecification of a term like, say, neo-Nazi. But it’s no more effective at giving their members cover than white sheets. Their success thus far has been in getting more people to believe the sheets might be worth putting on.