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The alt-right, and how the paranoia of white identity politics fuelled Trump’s rise

Two books, Alt-America and Making Sense of the Alt-Right, explore a world of white resentment.

Many Americans feel that their country and their livelihoods are being threatened by dark forces beyond their control. According to a 2013 survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, almost three in ten US voters believe that a globalist elite is conspiring to establish an authoritarian world government, or “New World Order”. The same poll found that over a third think that climate change is a hoax, 21 per cent believe that the government covered up a UFO crash in New Mexico in 1947 and 7 per cent believe that the first moon landing was faked.

Later surveys suggest that Donald Trump voters may be more likely than others to place their faith in conspiracy theories of this kind. Polls conducted in 2016 found that two-thirds of Trump supporters believed that Barack Obama was a Muslim and 60 per cent thought that global warming was a myth. They are citizens of what the journalist David Neiwert calls “Alt-America” – “a mental space beyond fact or logic, where the rules of evidence are replaced by paranoia”. The inhabitants of Alt-America are overwhelmingly white, with better-than-average levels of income and education. Their distrust of the mainstream media and American establishment has rendered them oddly gullible, susceptible to believing any story that supports their world-view. The “beating heart” of Alt-America is white identity politics.

The left is not immune to conspiracy theories. There are leftist radicals among the 9/11 “truthers”, who believe that the terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the US government, for instance. But in the US, the far-right community has been the prime source of wacky anti-government theories: that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has established a secret network of concentration camps for political dissidents, that the Clintons were operating a paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, that Obama is the Antichrist.

According to the psychologist Robert Alte­meyer, these conspiracy theorists often possess a set of traits that he describes as “right-wing authoritarianism”. Right-wing authoritarians are often ethnocentric, biased, aggressive, self-righteous, dogmatic, poor at self-reflection and fearful. They are attracted to the idea of a strong, authoritarian leader who will return society to its rightful state. This is why Trump supporters might describe themselves as “freedom-loving” (particularly when it comes to their right to bear arms) while simultaneously calling on the president to lock up Hillary Clinton, deport millions of migrants, restrict LGBT rights and women’s reproductive rights and ban Muslims from entering the country.

Neiwert does not cite this research, but a few recent studies on the strange psychology of conspiracy theories support his portrait of Alt-America as a self-contained, upside-down world. A 2012 study conducted by psychologists at the University of Kent found that people who trust conspiracy theories often hold mutually incompatible beliefs. The researchers asked participants to rate how much they agreed with five conspiracy theories relating to Princess Diana’s death. They found that the more strongly someone believed that she faked her own death, the more strongly they believed that she was murdered. Equally, those who believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when US special forces raided his compound were more likely to believe that he is still alive. That’s because conspiracy theorists harbour a deep and overriding suspicion that authorities are lying to them, an axiom that is more important to them than whether individual conspiracy theories are compatible. Other studies have shown that exposure to such theories makes individuals more credulous of them and more distrustful of governments. Fake news is pernicious and contagious.

This all points to an unsettling conclusion. The division between Trump’s most ardent supporters and millions of other Americans is not simply a matter of political preference: it’s epistemological, too. The impact of Trump’s predilection for alternative facts will outlast his presidency and could shape America’s political conversation for years to come. It is not easy to bridge this cognitive divide. Attempts by the mainstream media to fact-check Trump and point out his inconsistencies will not reach the citizens of Alt-America.

Neiwert’s discussion of conspiracy theories forms one thread in his sprawling history of the far right’s evolution in America, from the local militia and survivalist groups of the 1990s “Patriot movement” to the racist, Trump-supporting internet trolls of the alt-right. Alt-America is comprehensive to a fault: the detail and diversions, though often fascinating, can obscure the argument and sense of narrative progression, and Neiwert’s prose can be clumsy. Even so, the book is essential and discomforting reading for anyone seeking to make sense of Donald Trump’s electoral success.

Neiwert is scornful of the mainstream media’s failure to recognise the growing threat posed by the radical right and believes that they downplayed the contribution of the white nationalist movement to Trump’s victory. Neiwert has reported on the far right in America for years, most recently as a writer for Hatewatch, a website run by the civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and to him the warning signs were clear.

Between 2008 and 2016, there were 201 terrorist attacks in the US, three times as many as in the previous eight years. Right-wing extremists were responsible for 115 of these attacks, but the media and much of the American public interpret mass killings by white nationalists as the actions of lone wolves and madmen, reserving the “terrorist” label for Muslim attackers.

Little attention was paid to the white backlash against America’s first black presi­dent, but in the first years of Obama’s presidency, the number of right-wing hate groups mushroomed. In 2012-13, the SPLC counted 1,360 active Patriot groups and 873 other hate groups. The Tea Party movement, ostensibly concerned with opposing government spending, provided a conduit for extremists to enter the Republican mainstream: many of its active members were also affiliated with Patriot groups.

In the final two years of Obama’s presidency, the number of active hate groups declined. White resentment didn’t dissipate; rather, extremists increasingly chose to take their fight online. Far-right internet forums, message boards and websites offered an opportunity for conspiracy theorists and white nationalists to exchange ideas, vent their anger and troll their enemies from the comfort of their homes and under the protection of anonymity. Internet culture gave white nationalism a renewed appeal for the young and disaffected, and Trump gave the disparate movement a figure to rally behind. His rise to the presidency is inseparable from the formation and ascendance of the alt-right.

Where Neiwert is expansive, George Hawley’s Making Sense of the Alt-Right is a slim, neatly focused work that attempts to define the radical new movement. Political taxonomy is never easy, but the alt-right is a shape-shifting creature that is particularly difficult to classify. It is “at its core a racist movement”, Hawley writes, but one that is fundamentally different from its white supremacist predecessors in that it is “atomised, amorphous, predominantly online and mostly anonymous”. Although there are prominent figures associated with the alt-right, it does not have obvious leaders. It is an offshoot of internet troll culture, an online community of white nationalists who communicate through racist jokes, offensive memes and hashtags such as #whitegenocide, #altright and #1488 – a neo-Nazi code.

The alt-right transcends conventional right-left divides and has no interest in conservative tenets such as moral traditionalism, economic liberalism and strong national defence. “The alt-right is not just radical because it is racist – racism can be found in the ranks of many political ideologies… The alt-right’s radicalism is also apparent in the degree to which it rejects other basic American values,” writes Hawley. It does not value liberty or equality as ideals. As the far-right activist Hunter Wallace wrote on the white nationalist website Occidental Dissent, other American political groups:

…share the same blinkered liberal world-view in which more “liberty” or more “equality” is the solution to every problem… We see ourselves as something else altogether. This is why, for example, so many of us enjoy trolling because we don’t believe in any of the standard bullshit – for example, nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.

Beyond (often open) racism, members of the alt-right hold divergent policy views. Many desire the establishment of a white ethno-state, but few have discussed how they would bring this about.

Hawley is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama whose previous book Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism argues that as the conservative movement’s white, married, middle-class, Christian demographic base shrinks, conservatism will increasingly come under attack from the right. The alt-right’s radicalism and independence make it an especially destabilising force.

The white nationalist Richard Spencer coined the term “alt-right” in 2010, applying the term broadly to refer to the anti-establishment right. In 2010, he founded AlternateRight.com, an online magazine that published works by “highbrow” white nationalists such as Jared Taylor, who cloaked racist ideas in scientific-sounding terms such as “human biological diversity”. Spencer shut down the magazine in 2013.

In any case, by the time the alt-right surged during the 2016 presidential primaries, its focus had shifted away from pseudo-academic racism in favour of offensive memes, insider jokes and troll attacks. Alt-right websites such as the Right Stuff and the Daily Stormer make no attempt to tone down the racism of articles they publish, and many of their contributors remain anonymous. The alt-right’s use of humour makes it appealing to young people and has proved an important recruitment tool: someone who would not dream of donning a white cap and attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting might find themselves laughing along to a video by the alt-right satirist RamZPaul.

Hawley notes that academics writing about racism face a difficult choice. Do you report the most shocking language used by members of the alt-right, thereby giving a platform to hate-filled propaganda? Or do you instead quote the most “reasonable” members of the group and risk whitewashing their racism? Hawley writes that he has chosen to quote “the more seemingly reasonable figures”. Although he does not underplay the racism of the alt-right, his approach suffers from another limitation, because many of the “reasonable” members of the alt-right are also sophisticated political operatives who are skilled at manipulating their public image and bending – but never breaking – the limits of social acceptability. Their comparatively “reasonable” statements may also be disingenuous.

This may be the case when it comes to Breitbart News, the provocative and aggressive right-wing website headed by Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. One of Breitbart’s biggest stars was its tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who rose to prominence during “Gamergate”, an online harassment campaign that served as a kind of training ground for future alt-right trolls. (Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart earlier this year after a video emerged in which he appeared to condone paedophilia.) Hawley characterises Breitbart and Yiannopoulos as part of the “alt-lite”, a broader movement that shares the alt-right’s love of memes and dark humour and is also anti-political correctness, anti-immigration and pro-Trump, but is not seeking to establish a white ethno-state.

A BuzzFeed investigation published after Hawley’s book went to press and that drew on leaked emails shows how writers at Breit­bart tried to smuggle white nationalist ideas into the political mainstream. The email cache reveals how Yiannopoulos sought the advice and input of white nationalists and neo-Nazis for his pieces, which were then carefully edited by Breitbart’s senior leadership in order to purge openly racist references. “Subtle truth bomb,” the white nationalist Devin Saucier wrote to Yiannopoulos, referring to a pro-Brexit piece in which Yiannopoulos had argued: “Britain, like Israel and other high-IQ, high-skilled economies, will thrive on its own.” “I’m easing everyone in gently,” Yiannopoulos replied. He wrote to another contact about how he needed to stay “if not clean, then clean enough”.

Hawley wrote on Twitter that the BuzzFeed investigation made him “rethink” aspects of his distinction between the alt-right and the alt-lite. “I still stand by my position that Milo, Bannon, etc are not ideologically committed white nationalists, just opportunists,” Hawley tweeted, adding that he might update the “what I got wrong” page of his website. The connections between the alt-right and the so-called alt-lite may be so intimate and extensive that there is little usefulness in attempting to judge the “ideological commitment” of figures such as Yiannopoulos and Bannon, whose public personas are carefully crafted (and defended by aggressive litigation).

Neiwert and Hawley agree that while the alt-right helped bring Donald Trump to victory, the president is not a member of the movement. Trump has created space for the far right to flourish. He has changed the tone of politics and normalised nativist language: white nationalists have cheered his description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers”. But he is best thought of as a populist nationalist. Trump’s immigration measures fall far short of the alt-right’s vision for kicking all non-whites out of the country. He is not committed to their cause because he is not an ideologue. “Trump’s only real ideology is worship of himself,” Neiwart writes.

If this is reassuring, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Trump presidency is that the thin-skinned bigot with his finger on the nuclear button is not the greatest threat to American liberal democracy. Whether he is impeached, or loses the next election, or stands down, or dies in office, Trump will not be president for ever. His supporters will remain. 

Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump
David Neiwert
Verso, 464pp, £20

Making Sense of the Alt-Right
George Hawley
Columbia University Press, 232pp, £22.95

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”