Tuesday afternoon, in the wake of this past weekend’s widely covered meeting of Richard Spencer’s white supremacist National Policy Institute, ThinkProgress published an editor’s note telling readers the site will no longer use the descriptor alt-right:
You might wonder what, if anything, distinguishes the alt-right from more hidebound racist movements such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. The answer is very little, except for a bit of savvy branding and a fondness for ironic Twitter memes. Spencer and his ilk are essentially standard-issue white supremacists who discovered a clever way to make themselves appear more innocuous — even a little hip.
The note goes on to say that ThinkProgress will use the terms white supremacist and white nationalist as it deems appropriate to describe the rising crop of racist far-right groups, individuals, and publications that have risen to prominence before, during, and after the 2016 election. ThinkProgress will reserve the term neo-Nazi, which many in the media have insisted is the most apt replacement for alt-right, for those who refer to themselves as neo-Nazis “or adopt important aspects of Nazi rhetoric and iconography.”
The debate over what to call Spencer and his ilk is more than a purely semantic one. The wrong terminology, ThinkProgress and others have argued, could contribute to the normalization and promotion of virulently racist beliefs. The fact that alt-right is a label Spencer chose himself also places it under deserved scrutiny.
But alt-right, for now, remains the least wrong and most broadly useful moniker. As I pointed out in an etymology back in August, it remains the term that, in its lack of specificity, best encompasses the broad array of beliefs espoused by those who have adopted the label:
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.
In jettisoning alt-right, ThinkProgress risks limiting itself to terms that aren’t nearly as flexible. “A white nationalist,” the editor’s note says, “is someone who believes the United States should be governed by and for white people.” This is not necessarily the case; many who consider themselves white nationalists call for national devolution along racial lines, or for the creation of a new independent state intended as a homeland for whites. In 2013, Spencer, backed the latter position during a conference held by the white supremacist publication American Renaissance:
Richard Spencer of the white nationalist National Policy Institute also plugged for a white homeland. Spencer argued for “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” a process he did not explain, that would clear parts of North America for Caucasians and suggested that the new state welcome white refugees from Europe. Spencer advocated a “sort of white Zionism” that would infuse whites with the dream of such a homeland just as Zionism helped spur the creation of Israel. “It is perfectly feasible for a white state to be established on the North American continent. Action is the easy part,” Spencer opined, adding, “I have a dream.”
All of this might seem like hair-splitting for the benefit of racists, but accuracy is important. In a roundabout way, imprecision contributes to the growth of these groups. Getting the substance of these beliefs wrong, as abhorrent as they are, feeds claims that the media has unfairly impugned and misrepresented ideas that exist outside the intellectual mainstream.
The term neo-Nazi is particularly problematic in this way. The crowd at NPI’s conference no doubt included more than a few who thought Hitler was grand. But despite Spencer’s intentionally provocative use of Nazi phrases, he hasn’t exactly committed himself to the tenets of National Socialism. Sadly, the appeal of virulent anti-Semitism is not narrowly limited to Nazis. Some in the alt-right have denounced Hitler—naturally, for the wrong reasons. Matthew Heimbach, leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, wrote in 2013 that Nazism was despicable because it subverted Christianity and killed too many white people.
Moreover, like the word fascist as applied to Donald Trump, neo-Nazi has the dangerous effect of suggesting the beliefs espoused by people like Richard Spencer are somehow foreign to American history. They’re not. When Spencer claims the United States was founded by white people for white people, he’s entirely correct. His calls for a halt to immigration to preserve ethnic purity are calls for a return to what was long mainstream policy. Even his flirtations with Nazism recall the ambivalence among some Americans about the Third Reich during the 1930s.
Spencer, European pretensions aside, is an all-American racist, the latest in a long line of nativists declaiming the fall of the white man and the West. He won’t be the last. And adopting a term like neo-Nazi that suggests the ideology being peddled is something like an invading force, emanating from something that happened elsewhere, allows us to elide the darkness of our past, as we so often do, and blinds us to both the staying power of American racism and the ways it influences our present.