Soft tones mask a sinister message of supremacy
The alt-Right has repackaged racist white nationalism for ordinary Americans. Its rise to the mainstream should be tackled head-on
For the past two years, I’ve been tracking the resurgence of white nationalism in America. I’ve watched a new generation of white nationalists emerge — many under the banner of the “alt-Right” — with new tactics and new ambitions to bring white nationalism out of the shadows and into the mainstream. And they’re succeeding. Recent events in Charlottesville were just an eye-catching glimpse of this. At a deep level, white nationalism in America is on the rise.
Trump aside, there’s been no shortage of rhetorical condemnation of this growing movement and those behind it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer denounced “all that hate stands for” and challenged President Trump to “specifically [condemn] alt-Right action in Charlottesville”. Republican leaders have been similarly forthright. House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced the white nationalists who assembled in Charlottesville as “vile” and “repugnant”, while his counterpart in the Senate Mitch McConnell said the “hate and bigotry” espoused by the march’s participants “does not reflect American values.”
But there’s been little in the way of serious counter-argument to the white nationalist narrative. No one from the political elite has really deigned to take it on, point by point. The “mainstream media” have been similarly reluctant to grasp the nettle. Many journalists have simply sounded, or echoed, a note of moral alarm without seriously tackling the substance of the white nationalist message. In other cases, they’ve presented white nationalism as a kind of weird, alien spectacle — reflecting but not challenging its positions, in a manner that is detached and almost voyeuristic.
None of this should be surprising. There’s probably a perception that white nationalism neither needs nor deserves serious intellectual challenge. Maybe there’s a worry that to engage with it argumentatively is to confer upon it some degree of legitimacy. But this is to underestimate both its increasing sway in America and the power of some of its more artful arguments.
Like all subcultural, internet-fuelled movements, contemporary American white nationalism has no formal leadership. But much of its resurgent drive has come from one man — a Wasp-ish yuppie from Texas called Richard Spencer. In the company of other white nationalists, Spencer is an almost demonic force — a self-styled Nietzschean who seems to delight in transgressing every liberal precept that he can alight upon. He has described the mainstream media as the “Lügenpresse” (“the lying Press”) — a deliberate allusion to Nazi jargon — and denies the doctrine of equal rights. He has spoken of his “dream” of a “white ethno-state” and says his mission is to bring about an “awakening” of identity among “whites”. “To be white,” he says, “is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build, we produce, we go upward . . . For us, it is conquer or die.” It all sounds like standard, unreconstructed fascism — and it is. But Spencer is a trickier opponent than he might seem. He’s a silver-tongued rhetorician with airs of intellectualism. He cites political philosophers from Machiavelli to Fukuyama, cultivating the image of a man who has escaped the intellectual conventions of his time. His mode is artistic, ironic, postmodern. (His original ambition was to be an avante-garde theatre director.) The Nazi stuff, he says, is “ironic exuberance” — a deliberate attempt to trigger permanently outraged liberals. It’s a tawdry and disingenuous excuse, but it feeds into an image designed to appeal to rebellious millennials and hipsters — that of the transgressive free-thinker who isn’t afraid to joke around with the most serious of subjects.
Perhaps this is why, in the days after Charlottesville, Steve Bannon — then Chief Strategist in Trump’s White House — described America’s white nationalists as “clowns”. Spencer was one of the celebrity speakers at the event along with various other oddities and hangers-on with strange pseudonyms like “Baked Alaska” and “Augustus Invictus”. But Bannon’s description — along with the monosyllabic rebukes of senators and congressmen — greatly underestimates the challenge that these “clowns” pose. Spencer and his fellow activists are on a drive to detoxify white nationalism and make it appear normal and wholesome.
It might sound like an impossible goal given all the gratuitously toxic rhetoric. But, like his hero Nietzsche, Spencer has many masks. He and his fellow activists seek not only to shock and to radicalise, but to seduce, ordinary white Americans. They dress like mascots for respectable Americana — white polo shirts and beige chinos — and profess to disavow violence in favour of “peaceful assembly”. They resist the term “white nationalist”, preferring the more ambiguous, softer-sounding term “identitarian”. And they’re targeting white college students and professionals weary of globalism, multiculturalism, and the drabness of modern liberal capitalism. White nationalism is rebranding. It’s becoming “sophisticated”.
This rebranding is about much more than just style. After years in the proverbial wilderness, the white nationalists have developed arguments designed to appeal to, or exploit, the average American’s sense of “reasonableness” and “fairness”. These arguments purport to reject white supremacism and decry the idea of whites “ruling over” other races. They selectively adopt the language of equality, arguing that white identity is legitimate and valid in the way that black identity or Jewish identity are. They claim that white history is unfairly demonised — that the historic accomplishments of white people are ignored, or at least de-racialised, while white crimes are enthusiastically racialised throughout universities, popular culture and politics. And they claim that concepts such as “white privilege” are inventions of a deluded intelligentsia, at odds with social reality and the lived experience of most white Americans. It’s a sophisticated strategy that, as well as appealing to the idea of fairness, seeks to exploit the growing space — carved out largely by America’s liberal Left — for “identity politics”.
While Spencer himself tends towards a more inflammatory approach, many of his fellow activists, like his mentor Jared Taylor, are using these subtler arguments to advance their cause. Taylor is every bit the white nationalist intellectual. He has written six books, speaks several languages, and has degrees from Yale and the Paris Institute of Political Studies. He conscientiously avoids the rhetorical excesses of Spencer et al, adopting a softer, more reasonable-sounding tone that is clearly intended to sound rational and objective compared to the hysterics of his opponents.
These more moderate-sounding arguments — at least when presented by people like Spencer and Taylor — are far more dangerous than they sound. They’re calculated to soften the ground for white nationalism’s more radical, core ideas — the notion that white people are actually better than other races, and the idea that America should become a racially delimited “homeland for white Europeans”. These latter ideas may well be clownishly extreme, but it is a serious mistake to ignore the more artful, milder-sounding claims of white nationalism, or to assume that thoughtful counter-arguments to these claims are straightforward or unnecessary.
A few days after the disorder in Charlottesville in August, the Huffington Post commissioned a poll in which 21 per cent of respondents said that the white nationalists who marched in protest at the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee “went too far, but . . .[had] a point”, while 4 per cent believed the marchers were mostly right in their positions. A staggering 40 per cent of those surveyed said that white people face a lot of discrimination in the US today. These sentiments may not amount to a belief in white racial supremacy or demands for a “white ethno-state”, but they are an indication that some of white nationalism’s milder-sounding arguments have a resonance well beyond the small army of activists who self-identify as “alt-Right”, “identitarian”, or whatever alternative label for white nationalism may happen to be in vogue.
The ramifications of this should not be underestimated, nor should the intellectual challenge it represents. If liberal-Left identity politics has helped create new intellectual elbow-room for white nationalism, fuzzy thinking among some mainstream American conservatives is helping too. American traditionalists may not use the language of white nationalism, but their veneration of the American past and their typically hostile stances on immigration have been taken by some to be coterminous with white nationalist thinking, even if they don’t use the same jargon. Many on both the Right and the Left heard Trump’s promise to make America great again as a desire to make America what it used to be — whiter. Likewise, the President’s rhetoric on immigration and his fist-pumping celebration of “Western civilisation” were taken by some to fit in substance, if not in terminology, with the white nationalist agenda. White nationalists themselves certainly thought so. In spite of Trump’s eventual rebukes, white nationalists see the President as an ally. According to Richard Spencer, Trump and the white nationalist alt-Right are “connected” at a “psychic level”.
None of this is to say that Trump’s agenda is white nationalist, nor is it to decry the celebration of Western civilisation or to recommend a sense of timidity about doing so. But the fact that white nationalists have sought to occupy this same territory certainly calls for more introspection among traditionalists as well as a much more intellectually aggressive and explicit response to the attempted encroachments of white nationalism. Most traditionalists will no doubt say that their values are based on culture and values, rather than race. But that doesn’t really deal with the white nationalist argument that culture and race are linked — that culture itself is simply an expression of race. Until that argument is dispatched, white nationalists will continue to argue with impunity that Trump, traditionalism and white nationalism are, essentially, all the same thing.
No doubt, many will find the very idea of grappling seriously with the substance of white nationalism distasteful and problematic. And it is. But it is also necessary. Back in 2001, Christopher Hitchens considered the case of one of academia’s most notorious white racists in his essay “The Strange Case of David Irving”. Hitchens demolished Irving, but his approach was markedly un-squeamish. “[W]hen I first became aware of Irving,” Hitchens wrote, “I did not feel it necessary to react like a virgin who is suddenly confronted by a man in a filthy raincoat.” Hitchens went out of his way to give Irving the fairest possible hearing, arguing (after Karl Popper) that “a case has not been refuted until it has been stated at its strongest”.
Several African-American commentators are taking a similar approach to today’s white nationalists. The most effective challenges to Spencer’s positions come from African-American thinkers who aren’t afraid to grapple seriously, coolly and discursively with the fundamental assumptions and premises that underlie the resurgence of white identity politics. This approach is not only laudable. It’s indispensable.
In their understandable haste to condemn, many of white nationalism’s opponents have underestimated what they are up against. Until we take the time to grapple seriously with white nationalism’s most “sophisticated” arguments and strategies — until we painstakingly take on its phony premises, false equivalences, and disingenuous reasoning — it will continue its march deeper into America’s political mainstream. It remains to be seen whether American public discourse will rise to this challenge — and if it does, whether racial identity politics more generally can withstand such a critical reckoning.