How National Review Helped Build the Alt-Right

The magazine laid the foundations for the movement it now opposes.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Rich Lowry, in front of past covers of the National Review.
National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. and editor Rich Lowry gave the alt-right a platform and elevated ideas central to the movement.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by U.S. Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons, Gage Skidmore/Flickr CC.

Early in November, just a few days before the election, a gathering of white nationalists, heterodox academics, libertarians, and other misfits of the right convened in Baltimore. The H.L. Mencken Club was meeting for its ninth annual conference—a two-day affair featuring lectures, debates, and conversations about the future of American conservatism. November’s conference came amid surging interest in the alt-right, which owes its very name to the club. In 2008, a speech from the inaugural conference by its president, Paul Gottfried, was republished under the title “The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right” in Richard Spencer’s Taki’s Magazine, the earliest prominent usage of the phrase. At November’s conference, Gottfried echoed that 2008 call for the marshaling of an “independent” and “authentic” right.

That right has been marshaled. The alt-right has become a political and cultural phenomenon without recent precedent—the rise of Donald Trump has brought with it newly empowered figures promoting fashionably packaged racism and anti-immigrant animus. As the alt-right has grown, though, mainstream conservatives have loudly shot down suggestions that its rise has anything to do with them. “They are anti-Semites, they are racists, they are sexists, they hate the Constitution, they hate free markets, they hate pluralism, they despise everything we believe in,” American Conservative Union executive director Dan Schneider told Conservative Political Action Conference attendees last month. “They are not an extension of conservatism.”

Mainstream conservative outlets have denounced the movement as well, none more loudly than National Review, the flagship publication of the American right. Last April, National Review’s Ian Tuttle condemned Breitbart writers for downplaying the racism of the movement’s intellectual leaders, including Spencer and Jared Taylor, founder of the white supremacist publication American Renaissance. “These men have not simply been ‘accused of racism,’ ” he wrote. “They are racist, by definition. Taylor’s ‘race realism,’ for example, co-opts evolutionary biology in the hopes of demonstrating that the races have become sufficiently differentiated over the millennia to the point that the races are fundamentally—that is, biologically—different. Spencer, who promotes ‘White identity’ and ‘White racial consciousness,’ is beholden to similar ‘scientific’ findings.”

Tuttle’s characterization of Spencer’s and Taylor’s beliefs is entirely accurate. At the same time, it would apply equally to the views of three speakers of note at November’s Mencken conference: Robert Weissberg, John Derbyshire, and Peter Brimelow. All were onetime contributors to National Review. Despite the magazine’s disavowal of the alt-right, the platform it provided for these writers and its elevation—throughout its history—of ideas that have become central to the movement tie National Review to the alt-right’s intellectual origins. In truth, National Review can no more disown the alt-right than it can disown its own legacy.

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During a debate on the final night of last year’s Mencken conference, Robert Weissberg offered thoughts on the problems plaguing the city of Detroit and its black population. “I actually attended a conference on Detroit,” he proclaimed, “which had a distinguished panel that talked about the problems for about two hours, and guess what never came up?”

“Brain size!” someone called out. The room erupted in laughter.

“Close,” Weissberg giggled. “What brave soul,” he said eventually, “would insist that economic progress is impossible in a culture that prizes criminality and sloth?”

His comment was a blunt reiteration of ideas he explored as an on-and-off contributor to National Review’s “Phi Beta Cons” blog from 2010 to 2012. “The indisputable evidence is that genetically determined IQ matters greatly, but since many liberals abhor this politically incorrect conclusion, they insist that the entire issue is ‘controversial,’ ” he wrote in one 2012 post. Weissberg was booted from the publication that year, though, when it emerged that he had delivered a talk at Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance conference.

John Derbyshire, a longtime Review contributor, had been canned just days earlier for a post he’d written at Taki’s titled “The Talk: Non-Black Version.” The piece , a reference to “the talk” black parents often give their kids about how to navigate situations that could subject them to racism and police brutality, detailed advice he’d given his children about black people, including recommendations to “avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally” and avoid being “the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress.”

“Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer,” Review editor Rich Lowry wrote affectionately in a post announcing Derbyshire’s firing. “Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.”

Lowry’s characterization of Derbyshire’s prior “line-dancing” struck some commentators as odd given that Derbyshire’s bigotry had been pointed out long before his ouster—perhaps most cogently by John Derbyshire. “I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one,” he told a blogger in 2003.

The third prominent National Review alumni and Mencken Club speaker there that day last fall, Peter Brimelow, was a former editor at the magazine who had been canned in 1997. That was a key year for the publication, one which also saw the demotion of National Review editor-in-chief John O’Sullivan. Brimelow and others have concluded, reasonably, that the shake-up was the culmination of a gradual retreat from a stance on immigration both men shared, which, in Brimelow’s case, has since veered into more open racism. VDare, founded by Brimelow in 1999, regularly publishes articles on the purported biological inferiorities of minorities and is one of the most well-known online bastions of xenophobia. “Diversity per se,” its mission statement reads, “is not strength, but a vulnerability.”

As with Derbyshire, Brimelow’s racist commentary was a regular feature well before his ouster. His 1995 book Alien Nation argued that black crime could be easily explained because “certain ethnic cultures are more crime-prone than others,” warned against an incoming tide of “weird alien” migrants “with dubious habits,” and said that visitors to the waiting rooms of the Immigration and Naturalization Service should expect to soon find themselves “in an underworld that is not just teeming but also almost entirely colored.”

In addition to these three, Paul Gottfried, leader of the Mencken Club, was himself ousted as a National Review contributor in the 1980s. But he believes that racism was not, ultimately, the cause of any of the firings. “They didn’t throw anybody out because they were racist,” Gottfried told me. It was the capture of the conservative movement by business and political interests supportive of immigration and multiculturalism, among other things, he alleges, that led to a series of purges of proto-alt-right figures such as himself. These were akin, Gottfried posited, to National Review founder and conservative icon William F. Buckley’s renunciation of the conspiratorial John Birch Society in the 1960s.

If Gottfried is right, the purges seem to have been incomplete. Victor Davis Hanson, a current writer for National Review and a frequent critic of multiculturalism, for instance, published a National Review piece about race and crime a year after Derbyshire’s firing that loudly echoed his offending column without similar repercussions, right down to the paternal recommendation to avoid black people. Jason Richwine, a researcher who left the Heritage Foundation after the discovery of his doctoral dissertation, in which he’d argued “the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent,” currently writes for National Review on, among other issues, Hispanic immigration. Charles Murray, whose 1994 book The Bell Curve promoted the idea of inherent racial differences in intelligence to wide controversy, wrote a defense of Richwine for National Review in 2013 and was a contributor as recently as last year.

As often noted in alt-right circles, National Review’s early years were characterized by explicit racism. American Renaissance resurfaced this history in the wake of Derbyshire’s firing in 2012 when it republished a 2000 essay by James Lubinskas lamenting National Review’s gradual “abandonment of the interests of whites as a group.” From that essay:

The early National Review heaped criticism on the civil rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, and people like Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King, whom it considered race hustlers. What used to be an important part of the NR message is now dismissed as illegitimate “white identity politics.”

Lubinskas went on to cite numerous passages detailing National Review’s erstwhile support for white supremacy: an article arguing the hopelessness of integration given IQ differences between whites and blacks and the threat of “attempted molestation of white girls by Negro boys or girls.” An article condemning the forced integration of Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School. An article by conservative philosopher Russell Kirk defending apartheid in South Africa on the grounds that granting the black majority the right to vote “would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization.”

These essays and others, spanning decades, mirrored the views of National Review founder William F. Buckley, who famously defended the right of whites to deny black Americans the vote and maintain white supremacy in a 1957 Review editorial titled “Why the South Must Prevail.” “The White community is so entitled,” he wrote, “because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

Buckley’s views on immigration, echoed through his magazine, also prefigured the alt-right. Though Buckley took pains to distance himself from the open white nationalism motivating some immigration restrictionists, he did back curbing immigration specifically to fight multiculturalism. Buckley also expressed skepticism of the “relative acculturability” of nonwhites. “The Ellis Island cultists resist plain-spoken reasoning,” Buckley wrote in 1997. “If pockets of immigrants are resisting the assimilation that over generations has been the solvent of American citizenship, then energies should go to accosting multiculturalism, rather than encouraging its increase.”

Buckley, like the alt-right, was particularly perturbed by Muslim immigrants and saw ominous signs of Muslim upheaval in Europe. “Western Europe has a Muslim problem,” he wrote in a 2007 column. Muslim migrants, he opined, had particularly become a threat to “the British way of life” commensurate with “a continental army threatening invasion or Nazi bombers darkening the sky.”

National Review planted its flag firmly in favor of culture-based restrictionism in 1992, with a 14,000-word cover essay on immigration written by none other than Peter Brimelow. The essay is an attack on nonwhite immigration that, in its fixation on America’s “shifting ethnic balance” and “the reality of ethnic and cultural differences,” hints at white nationalism. “Americans are now being urged to abandon the bonds of a common ethnicity and instead to trust entirely to ideology to hold together their state (polity),” Brimelow wrote. “This is an extraordinary experiment, like suddenly replacing all the blood in a patient’s body.”

Brimelow would expand upon his views in a 1995 episode of Buckley’s show Firing Line that saw him speak in favor of the debate position “Resolved: That All Immigration Should Be Drastically Reduced.” Over the course of the debate, Buckley endorsed the idea, proposed by Brimelow in his National Review essay and in Alien Nation, of pausing legal immigration. This past November, Richard Spencer himself endorsed a 50-year immigration pause.

Just a few short years after the Brimelow cover, the magazine started closing itself to rhetoric and argumentation on immigration that aligned it too closely with openly bigoted restrictionists. That move began with Brimelow’s firing and editor-in-chief John O’Sullivan’s demotion in 1997. National Review went on to adopt a stance described by Ramesh Ponnuru in a 2001 essay as “restrictionism that can succeed.” Even in that piece, however, Ponnuru praised Brimelow for “bravely and wittily” challenging “pro-immigration consensus and the taboos that sustained it” and criticized Brimelow’s rhetoric largely for its impracticality.

The magazine’s shift away from Brimelow’s brand of restrictionism was itself practically rather than morally motivated. Buckley, in a 2000 letter to Jared Taylor that Brimelow would later publish at VDare, said so himself:

It seems to me that the idea traditionally defended of endeavoring to maintain existing ethnic balances simply doesn’t work any more. A defense against the kind of situation portrayed by Raspail would seem to inhere in immigration laws, particularly in the idea of unrestricted immigration.

“Raspail” here is Jean Raspail, French author of The Camp of the Saints, a racist 1973 novel about the invasion of the West by murderous and sexually violent Third World migrants. The book has been praised widely for years by white supremacists, including American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. Trump adviser Steve Bannon has also praised the novel repeatedly and Iowa Rep. Steve King recommended the book in a recent interview. In a 2004 National Review column on African migrants to Europe, Buckley would laud Saints as a “great novel.”

Clearly, Buckley and others at the magazine retained sympathies for Brimelow’s position on immigration that were deemed too embarrassing or too futile to continue to espouse as openly as they once had. Nevertheless, Brimelow, having been designated a liability, would found VDare in 1999 as an outcast, to continue promoting the line he advanced in his National Review essay. John O’Sullivan, demoted but still employed by National Review, would serve on the site’s board of directors. O’Sullivan’s position at VDare was revealed in 2012 in the wake of Derbyshire’s firing. O’Sullivan responded with a post in which he called white nationalism “silly” and claimed he had resigned from VDare in 2007. O’Sullivan was nevertheless listed as a member of the board in VDare’s nonprofit filings as late as 2010—the year the site gave more than $34,000 to Richard Spencer for the launch of the flagship publication Alternative Right.

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Let it not be said that National Review has not tried to consider the origins of the alt-right, which now—fed by the rhetoric and proposals of the new president—seeks to do real harm to the immigrants and minorities it hates. In a piece published last year, David French went as far as to identify a specific culprit for the alt-right’s rise. “Who ‘built’ modern white identity politics?” he asked. “White supremacists did, but along the way the Left has handed them the bricks and mortar to construct their edifice of hate.” Among the bricks that French alleged the left has handed to the alt-right are the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the activism of Black Lives Matter. “All my life I’ve been part of a conservative movement that has been struggling mightily to move the culture past the politics of race,” he wrote, “and into a politics of universal human dignity, with each of us created in the image of God.” Predictably, French declined to examine how National Review’s long record of publishing writers invested in race science, which continues to this day with Murray and Richwine, squares with the conservative movement’s putative promotion of “universal human dignity.”

For years, National Review has advanced the ideas of Robert Weissberg, John Derbyshire, Peter Brimelow, its founder William Buckley, and others for whom universal human dignity was a debatable proposition. Its writers now cast about, looking in vain for the source of a movement they say deeply troubles them. “We can cough politely and look away,” National Review’s Jay Nordlinger said of the alt-right in February. “Or stare it square in the face.” If and when National Review does the latter—and if and when the conservative movement itself decides to do so—the face they will find staring back at them will be quite familiar.

Laura Wagner contributed reporting for this piece.