Editor's note: This is the third installment of Matthew Sheffield's series on the origins and rise of the alt-right. Read the first two: "How the alt-right became racist, Part 1: A short history of hate" and "How the alt-right became racist, Part 2: Long before Trump, white nationalists flocked to Ron Paul."
Faced with the emergence of the new racist political movement known as the “alt-right,” mainstream conservatives have generally responded in two ways: angry denunciation or cooptation of its worst tendencies. Both approaches have been ineffective, largely because of the political weakness of “movement conservatism” in the post-Cold War world, but also because fringe views are more closely integrated within today’s American right than they were in the days of Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon.
One of the earliest and most vociferous conservative critics of the alt-right is National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg. He’s been arguing for months now that he wants to draw a bright line between the alt-right and the regular right to help save uncertain conservatives from becoming converted to the emerging political movement.
In a column he published this past August, Goldberg evoked National Review’s famous denunciations of the populist movement centered around the John Birch Society during the 1960s. The Birch group, which still exists to this day, was obsessed at the time with fluoride in tap water and accused anyone and everyone who disagreed with them (including Eisenhower, the World War II hero turned president) of being a secret communist.
It’s easy to see why Goldberg and other conservatives like former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol want to separate their own political views from racists and conspiracy nuts. This time around, however, the purge impulse isn’t likely to yield much in the way of results. Much of that has to do with the fact that the American right has been caught in a purity spiral — a form of vicious circle in which successive elites compete among each other over who is the “true conservative.”
Leftists have their own version of this tendency as well — everything, it seems, will eventually be decried as racist or sexist at some point. But conservatives are much further down the path to purity perdition. Since the 1960s, there have been at least five or six waves of aspiring Republican officeholders arguing that the ones who came before them are sellouts to the amorphous “Washington establishment.” The list of politicians formerly seen by the GOP base as radical conservatives who are now regarded as elitist devils includes Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Speaker Paul Ryan. In many cases, such as Ryan’s, the politicians in question haven't changed their views at all.
What drives these continual metamorphoses of perception is that for the past 50 years, conservatives have been running on economic and fiscal platforms that are literally impossible to enact. While they have had some opportunities to enact their policy preferences regarding gun rights, taxes and foreign policy, the larger goals favored by the American right have never come to fruition.
Social Security has not been abolished and Medicare and Medicaid -- often decried by the right as creeping socialism -- have not been privatized. The Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion, has never been overturned. The federal government's role in education has only increased. Instead of eliminating federal departments, Republican presidents have only created more of them.
This has largely happened because making large cuts to the federal government is astonishingly unpopular and always has been. Even Republican voters are against it.
In a 2013 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, GOP-leaning voters were in favor of less spending on only two budget areas, foreign aid and unemployment assistance. Among the public at large, a majority wanted to keep spending the same or increase it on these two issues. In another recent study, Republican voters also did not support making the tax cuts enacted under former president George W. Bush permanent.
Even supporters of FreedomWorks, a libertarian activist group once backed by the Koch brothers, opposed spending less on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, according to a 2011 survey the group commissioned.
The right’s downward purity spiral
Instead of adjusting their policy views to more closely track the public's wants and needs, the conservative elite’s impulse has been to blame “the Republican Establishment,” relying on the patently false pretense that the GOP's structures of power in Washington are dominated by centrists like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
Conservative leaders tell their followers that these mythical Republican moderates are the true reason the federal budget hasn’t been slashed and burned. But the truth of the matter is that Republican voters, as Donald Trump proved irrefutably in this year’s GOP primaries, don’t particularly care for warmed-over bromides from Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged.”
This downward purity spiral has made it difficult for Republicans to pursue their national policy goals. It has also virtually wrecked several conservative-dominated states like Kansas and Louisiana, where dramatic tax and spending cuts have yielded dire economic busts instead of booms. It’s has also meant that GOP nominees have won the national popular vote only once in the last seven presidential elections.
While conservatives’ asymptotic nihilism has made their larger goals impossible to attain (the more “pure” they become, the fewer people they are able to attract), it has made the purity police incredibly wealthy. Talk radio hosts like Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity earn tens of millions of dollars a year telling average Joes that the elites are out to get them. Former congressional firebrand Jim DeMint is making around $1 million a year, despite the intellectual disaster he’s created trying to turn his think tank into a political pressure group.
After a few decades of being fed the same lines over and over, a sizable percentage of conservative voters have finally caught onto the one weird trick. Even before Donald Trump came along and set the right-wing elite afire, many grassroots conservatives online and offline had begun turning on the con men -- and con-women -- who’ve grown rich warning of the nefarious Republican Establishment.
While some, like the libertarians in the orbit of the new Niskanen Center, are moving toward the political middle, many of them have moved even further to the right, despite the evidence that even white Republicans don’t really want small government. Some of these people on the far right have begun to focus on racial resentment and outright bigotry, arguing that race alone is the barrier to implementing their political agenda.
Expelled National Review contributor and alt-right thinker Jared Taylor, for instance, argued in an open letter to mainstream conservatives that economics doesn’t matter at all:
Let’s consider your principles. Do you dream of a traditional, religious, free-market society with small government, low taxes, and no gun control, where same-sex marriage is illegal, and abortion, divorce, prostitution, and illegitimacy are scorned? There are such places: the tribal areas of Pakistan and Somalia.
And what about countries that violate your principles – with high taxes, huge government, clogged markets, a weak church, strict gun control, and sexual license of all kinds? There’s Scandinavia. And yet if you had to leave the United States you’d much rather live in Denmark than in Waziristan.
Do you see the pattern? Even when they violate your principles, white people build good societies. Even when they abide by your principles, non-whites usually don’t.
Despite his blustery rhetoric, there's no evidence that Donald Trump believes that race is a primary consideration in politics. But his hostile takeover of the GOP and the anemic showings of economic conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or third-party presidential candidate Evan McMullin demonstrate that Republican voters simply don't care about tax cuts and privatization.
The alt-right is already influencing the mainstream right
The bracing critique of the conservative infotainment complex leveled by the dissident right is something to which most conservative elites simply have no answer. For every conservative leader like National Review’s Goldberg or David French who are willing to admit that the right has been fleecing its grassroots with fake medical cures and wild conspiracy theories, there are at least 10 more who are doing that exact thing or renting out their email lists to companies who do.
As more and more average conservatives have come to believe that race is the reason they haven’t seen their impossible dreams realized, mainline conservative media have become contaminated by racism as well. Just within the past few years, many right-leaning publications have become obsessed with race and crime stories. Pretty much any day of the week, you can turn on the radio or TV or visit a major conservative publication and find stories featuring supposed black violent criminals, especially if the stories involve allegations of black-on-white crime. The comments are invariably filled with hundreds of racist remarks.
This trend has not gone unnoticed by the alt-right, as neo-Confederate blogger Brad Griffin observed last month. In a lengthy post, Griffin explained in detail how mainstream conservative sites are picking up alt-right racial agitprop and repackaging it as clickbait for regular Republican readers. In the 20th century, the combination of libertarianism with conservative traditionalism became known as “movement conservatism.” In the 21st century, the melding of Tea Party anger with white nationalism is giving birth to what Griffin and others are calling the “alt-lite.”
They noticed that there was a large audience and growing market for our issues. The top management at these websites must have realized that there was a lot of money to be made by adopting our issues while watering down our Narrative in order to maintain plausible deniability. All these stories about black-on-white crime, illegal aliens, political correctness, anti-white outrages, etc., etc., generated those sweet clicks which allowed them to gain marketshare over rival conservative clickbait websites.
That’s how the alt-lite was conjured into existence. It was basically conservative websites pushing alt-right material in order to generate clicks and revenue. It was their version of crack cocaine. I’ve never listened to talk radio, but I assume they were in on the act as well. After two or three years into second Obama term, all these clickbait stories had produced a hybrid of conservatism and the alt-right.
The racists in the alt-right have also gained new followers thanks to the misinformation spread by conservative pundits such as Breitbart News columnist Milo Yiannopoulos. On one hand, such pundits pander to the racist trolls; on the other, they tell everyone else that the alt-right movement has not transformed itself from a small collection of anti-Bush right-wingers into a horde of full-on fascists. (A representative for Yiannopoulos did not respond to an interview request.)
In a lengthy article about the movement published last March, Yiannopoulos claimed that the alt-right didn’t have many actual racists or Nazi sympathizers. As he and a colleague put it in their essay: “There’s just not very many of them, no-one really likes them, and they’re unlikely to achieve anything significant in the alt-right.”
That portrayal, which was false then and has been proved even more untrue subsequently, clearly had an effect on Yiannopoulos’ former boss, Steve Bannon, who boasted to a Mother Jones writer in July that Breitbart News was “the platform for the alt-right.” After a firestorm of criticism, he defined the term for the Wall Street Journal as “younger people who are anti-globalists, very nationalist, terribly anti-establishment” who also have “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones” which he rejects. (Bannon's representatives did not provide any statements for this piece, despite repeatedly saying they would.)
The attempts of Yiannopoulos and other alt-lite figures such as Fox News commentator and Vice co-founder Gavin McInness to use racist trolls to grow their audiences while pretending they were just outraged Tea Partiers hasn't earned them any respect from the hardcore alt-right. In September, Andrew Anglin---the neo-Nazi creator of the alt-right's most popular blog, the Daily Stormer---declared "holy war" on Yiannopoulos. Anglin has also repeatedly lashed out at McInness on his site, referring, among other things, to an episode of the Fox News pundit's online video series in which he shoved a sex toy up his rectum on the air.
McInness refused to be interviewed for this piece. His only real response to Anglin's repeated attempts to debate him has been to insist, without any evidence, that Anglin is a federal agent trying to discredit white nationalism. In an email interview with Salon, Anglin called McInness "a piece of shit entryist attempting to exploit what he views as a less than fully exploited market."
The first alt-right politician, Paul Nehlen
While some conservative media outlets have been willing to flirt with the alt-right by pretending that it's just another reincarnation of the Tea Party (as radio host Sean Hannity has done), no Republican politician with a national profile had dared to do so. That changed on Dec. 8, when Paul Nehlen, the man who challenged House Speaker Ryan from the right in his Wisconsin district, appeared for an “ask me anything” question-and-answer session on Reddit’s alt-right community. The following day, Nehlen did an interview with “Fash the Nation,” the movement's most popular podcast.
During the Reddit appearance, which he did not promote on his Twitter profile, Nehlen praised a book series by anti-Semitic evolutionary psychologist Kevin MacDonald. “I’ve marked it down as a must get,” he wrote in response to a question about whether he’d read it. The books are widely hailed on the alt-right by for their attempts to provide academic legitimacy to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In the interview, Nehlen defended the idea of chatting up anonymous racists on the grounds that he would grant interviews to anyone who asked:
I have had interviews on the furthest of the FAR LEFT radio and TV so isn’t it reasonable that I speak to this group? Why should I not speak to anyone who could join in the fight against Shariah compliant Political Islam? The Overton window was pushed right by Trump’s election. Not only by Trump, but by his supporters, too. Trump spoke to everyone. I speak to everyone. This is America last I checked.
Throughout his campaign, Nehlen repeatedly sought to link himself closely to Donald Trump. He was helped greatly in this endeavor by Bannon’s former website Breitbart News, which heavily promoted his candidacy as part of an apparent vendetta against Paul Ryan. A search on the publication’s website reveals more than 2,400 results for his name surrounded by quotation marks. Nehlen was also endorsed by many conservative purity nihilists, including pundits Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and fake news pioneer Richard Viguerie.
In his Reddit interview, Nehlen also argued that the less extreme “alt-lite” was too moderate to get the job done of stopping “white genocide,” a term used by the alt-right to describe Western countries where citizens of European descent have lower birth rates than other races.
“Shifting to an alt-light is not going to help, shooting each other from the side and back will not help,” Nehlen wrote. “I may not agree with everything you say, but I don’t have to beat you over the head with your own words.”
Responding to this statement, one Reddit user announced: “We wondered if Paul was altright, it is now known.”
In his interview with “Fash the Nation,” Nehlen made that perception even more credible, saying it was “great to be on” the popular racist podcast. The hour-long discussion (which Nehlen promoted on his Twitter profile) featured him railing against Ryan as well as using the alt-right term “cuck” to describe Republicans who oppose deporting illegal immigrants.
Paul Nehlen is the first national conservative politician to openly ally with the alt-right. Thanks to the emergence of the alt-lite and conservative media’s addiction to racist clickbait and its disintegration into policy nihilism, he won’t be the last.
"I don't think anyone in the movement at large is fully ready or even aware as to what extent the alt-right has influence in the conservative movement," said an activist who has been trying to get the GOP to move toward economic centrism. "If we're losing people to this stuff in ever increasing numbers, and it seems so to me, maybe what we're selling sucks."
Fifty years ago, William F. Buckley and his band of National Review editors were able to minimize the influence of racists and conspiracy theorists in Republican politics. It's not going to work for his successors' attempts to purge the alt-right, largely because conservative leaders and media figures created, and continue to sustain, the political environment that has empowered the racist movement.