It’s been around for several years, gaining momentum and visibility in recent months as the presidential election drew near.
But it was the images of followers enthusiastically extending their arms in a Nazi salute at a conference in Washington, D.C., in celebration of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory that shot the alt-right into the international spotlight.
Now, hardly a day goes by without new references to the alternative right, a loose network of white nationalists whose adherents have been emboldened by what they hope will soon be their pipeline to the White House.
In the past week, Texas A&M University has come under fire for allowing Richard Spencer, the man credited with coining the alt-right label, to speak on campus next Tuesday.
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Media outlets are having discussions on what exactly to call the movement and how to describe it.
Trump — whose newly appointed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is the former executive chairman of a website that Bannon himself has described as a platform for the alt-right — disavowed it last week in an interview with The New York Times.
And now, a rift that’s developed within its ranks over whether the name has become too tainted leaves some wondering: Has the alt-right, which experienced an explosive surge over the past year, reached a plateau?
“When people thought that Trump was going to lose, the alt-right felt that they had won either way, because they felt that their views had come to the mainstream,” said Marilyn Mayo, a research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“And now they really feel empowered. I think it remains to be seen whether they attract more people and become a more real-world movement with growth as opposed to being mostly an online movement. But we need to be concerned because the alt-right is racist and anti-Semitic.”
The controversy surfaced after the Nov. 19 annual conference of the National Policy Institute, a group led by Spencer that describes itself as “an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”
During his address to the more than 200 in attendance, Spencer raised a glass high in the air and proclaimed, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
Some in the crowd responded with a “Sieg Heil” salute, and video of the incident saturated social media. Twitter reacted by suspending the accounts of Spencer and some others associated with the alt-right.
Within days, alt-right figure Paul Ramsey, a video blogger who goes by the name Ramzpaul online, posted a video slamming those who saluted.
Because of their actions, Ramsey said, Trump was forced to disavow the alt-right.
“Nazism, it was 70 years ago, it’s just a brand that doesn’t translate well. It scares people,” he said. “And if you’re gonna do a Sieg Heil, it’s over. It’s really over. … Whenever they think about the alt-right now, people are going to think about the Roman salute.”
Nevertheless, Ramsey said, in the end it doesn’t really matter.
“We won, we got Trump in, so that’s fine,” he said. “There’s no need to have the ‘alt’ label anymore. We have Donald Trump.”
Spencer said Ramsey’s comments were “utterly stupid.”
“To think that we’ve just won with the Donald Trump election, to think that this is all now over, and that we should give up politics, we’ve done it, Donald Trump’s the man, this is just ridiculous,” he said on a YouTube video. “...We need to go harder, we need to go further and we need to be more radical than we’ve ever been.”
Spencer acknowledged that the Nazi salute blemished the movement but said he wasn’t sorry. He said his proclamation was “clearly a joke” and “an expression of exuberance.” Those in the movement should be able to have some fun, he said.
“I do not think that other people should tell us what we can and cannot joke about,” he said. “So no apologies from me, absolutely. But I also would be remiss not to recognize the fact that this can be a bad look. It can be bad optics. There is a truth to the notion that anything that’s tainted by Nazism is just a nonstarter in reaching other people.”
Spencer said, however, that it would be a bad strategy to drop the alt-right label, as Ramsey suggested.
“Alt-right has become more or less a household name. … You can’t just come up with another term and expect it to have the power and resonance that alt-right does,” he said.
“You don’t rebrand when you’re making a huge impact everywhere.”
Growth of a movement
Spencer is largely credited with coining the term alt-right around 2008. It became more widespread when he launched a website in 2010 called AlternativeRight.com.
Ramsey described the alt-right last spring at a conference of American Renaissance, an online publication. The alt-right, he said, supports racial and national identity, protected borders, regulated trade, traditional gender roles and restrained foreign policy. The movement also is pro-government, he said, and skeptical of democracy.
“I don’t think even Donald Trump would consider himself alt-right, but he kind of exemplifies it,” Ramsey said. “It’s more about racial and national identity. I don’t want to say Trump’s a white nationalist, but he believes in a nation. If we don’t have a border, we don’t have a nation.”
Things really took off, Ramsey said, when Trump announced in July 2015 that if elected president, he would build a wall at the border and make Mexico pay for it.
“There are so many people that are passionate about that,” Ramsey said. “That brought them in, into the whole movement of the alt-right, and made us popular.”
Those in the alt-right want their own homeland, he said.
“We want to have our own people that are protected,” he said. “That’s what we really stand for. That’s what binds us together on the alternative right. You can call us neo-Nazis, racist, white supremacists. That’s the common thing everyone does. But it has no effect on us now, because we’re not. … It just doesn’t bother us anymore, because our survival is at stake.”
Ramsey said the alt-right wouldn’t have succeeded without the internet. “We can bypass the gatekeepers,” he said, “and get our message out without having to rely on the mainstream media.”
The internet also allows for what Ramsey referred to as “meme magic,” which he said included “Twitter trolling of GOP pundits” and memes about “cuckservatives,” the term used by alt-right adherents to describe politically correct mainstream Republicans.
The alt-right got a boost earlier this year when Breitbart News, the right-wing website where Bannon then worked, published an article about the movement, Ramsey said.
Bannon and Breitbart understood what the alt-right was all about, Ramsey said in his video last week.
“It’s about having an identity that all people — Jews, white people, Chinese — we all have an identity and we all have the right to live and of self-determination,” he said. “That’s the core. And you know what? Most people can really get on to that.”
And most people, he said, are tired of political correctness.
“If other groups have identity, why can’t we?” Ramsey said. “Why can’t we all have nationalism? And it really resonates with people. And it did with Breitbart.”
Ramsey told those attending the American Renaissance conference this year that he admired “the youth and the energy” of those in the alt-right. As an example, he cited Gabriel Wilson, a 19-year-old from Assaria, Kan.
But in September, Ramsey pulled references to Wilson off his own website after Wilson made headlines for scrawling racist graffiti on the campus at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan. The display, written in chalk on the sidewalk, included the words “Make Lindsborg white again” and an outline of a body drawn to simulate a crime scene victim.
Wilson was with a white nationalist group called Identity Europa, which is associated with the alt-right. Some of the group’s followers put up fliers in cities around the country, including Topeka and Kansas City, over the Fourth of July weekend this year with slogans such as “Our Destiny is Ours” and “Protect Your Heritage.”
Critics see white supremacy
Those who monitor extremist groups say the alt-right should be called what it is — the newest wing of the white supremacist movement.
“The alt-right is a loose network of people who promote white identity and reject mainstream conservatism in favor of a politics that embraces implicit or explicit racism or white supremacy,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s Mayo.
The network comprises two main groups, she said.
“One is the sort of intellectual or academic racists who have the blogs, who are the ideologues of the movement,” she said. “Then there’s the whole young, internet-savvy grouping that likes to create memes and troll online.”
Devin Burghart, vice president of the Kansas City-based Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, described the alt-right as “a large umbrella that brings in all different brands of white nationalism and mixes it up with a heavy dosage of misogyny.”
“Spencer and his ilk saw that among millennials, one way to reach them and one way to push back against the so-called political correctness was to intentionally amp up the misogyny,” Burghart said.
Before Bannon’s ascension at Breitbart News, Burghart said, the alt-right had been in shambles, plagued by infighting, its brand fading. Bannon gave the alt-right a stage, Burghart said.
“He said, ‘Here you go; you have a platform to reach all these unconscious white nationalists and can provide them with a framework for the ideas that you’re promoting,’ ” Burghart said.
Now, Burghart said, the alt-right has a clear channel to the White House.
“With Bannon in the White House, even if he denies his personal white nationalism, the bonds that he helped create among white nationalists and the platform he provided them gives them a direct pipeline,” he said.
Mayo said the Anti-Defamation League doesn’t refer to Bannon as a white nationalist or a white supremacist.
“What the people on the alt-right call Bannon is alt-lite,” she said.
In a Nov. 22 interview with The New York Times, Trump was asked if he thought he’d said things that had energized the alt-right.
Trump responded that “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group. … It’s not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why.”
Trump defended his appointment of Bannon.
“I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time,” he said. “If I thought he was racist, or alt-right … I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”
Trump’s comments, Mayo said, are a good first step.
“I don’t think Trump is part of the alt-right or a white nationalist,” she said. “But he has to speak forcefully and strongly against the anti-Semitism and racism that has been promoted by the alt-right, which has been very openly supportive of him as a candidate and now as the president-elect.”
Failing to curtail the movement, Burghart said, poses a grave danger to local communities.
“They want an all-white nation,” he said. “A white ethno-state.”
They’re not just focusing on racism and misogyny, he said.
“They are promoting genocidal fantasies and harassing, both online and in communities, women and people of color they disagree with,” he said. “They are an emboldened, embittered and entitled group of individuals who think that they can and should rule the world. And they definitely have one foot in the mainstream now.”
Spencer said on his video that the alt-right needs to learn from the recent controversy and move on. Though the Nazi salutes caused a scandal, he said, “we have increased the awareness of the alt-right tremendously.”
It was natural for the alt-right to get excited about Trump’s campaign, Spencer said, but it’s time to face reality.
“We maybe got a little drunk on success, and this is the morning after,” he said. “Our hangover has worn off, and we’re now thinking rationally and critically about the world and politics.
“We need to wait to see what Donald Trump is going to actually do. And we need to be very willing to criticize him.”