Here in the US, the alt right, that loose, amorphous movement characterised by white nationalist revanchism, hatred of political correctness veering into gratuitous insulting of minorities, and rubbishing of climate science, is assumed to be both an American and a primarily online phenomenon. Certainly, with the elevation to a position inside the White House of Steve Bannon, a former chairman of Breitbart News – the opinionated website that is the best-known platform for the alt right – this view seems reasonable enough.
It happens to be wrong. The alt right’s origins lie just as much in Britain, and in the respectable “mainstream media”, as they do in America and the hate-filled underworld of online message boards such as 4chan. In Britain, I trace back the origins of the alt right to one of the favoured organs of the establishment, the Spectator. These origins long pre-date the rise to prominence of the alt right’s most flamboyant personality, the British blogger and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, whose book deal was cancelled in February after he appeared to condone underage sex.
It pains me to write this because I have long-standing ties to the Speccie. That was where I had my first national press piece published; where I served as a free-range Spanish correspondent, wine columnist and occasional arts writer. Much of that I owe to my first editor, Alexander Chancellor, who died too soon in January. As the many tributes made clear, Alexander was a brilliant and unconventional editor whose methods derived from Chinese Taoism: he achieved miracles while appearing to practise wu wei, or “do nothing”. In fact, Alexander operated instinctively, sniffing out writers whose style he liked and encouraging them, regardless of political viewpoint.
The effect was to rescue an ailing publication and set it on a course of unwavering success. Those who credited him with setting the tone of the modern Spectator, of making it readable, irreverent and witty, were partly right.
But the Spectator began to deviate from his liberal, civil open-mindedness only a few years after he stopped editing the magazine in 1984. This deviation took two, perhaps related routes. The first was a hardening of the paper’s political stance, first making it into a Tory organ (Alexander was never in his life a Tory) and then into a right-wing-of-the-Tory-party, brexiting rag. The second consisted of the introduction of a casual, jokey, faux-macho incivility – a malign mutation of Alexander’s irreverence – aimed at shocking the liberal bourgeoisie.
Actually “deviation” is not the right word for the process. What happened was more akin to the gruesome internal undermining undertaken by a class of parasitic wasp. These wasps deposit their eggs inside the body of a caterpillar or a spider; the wasp larvae then gradually consume their host from the inside out.
Alexander, inexplicably, indulged Taki, the Greek socialite and author of the long-running High Life column. Unfortunately, Taki morphed from a harmless snob into a nasty purveyor of alt-right venom. His Taki’s Magazine is regarded as the leading alt-right outlet after Breitbart News. Quite recently he praised the ultra-hard-right party Golden Dawn as mostly “good old-fashioned patriotic Greeks”.
Some time in the 1990s at a Speccie party I bumped into a young journalist named James Delingpole, who had started to write a TV column for the paper. He didn’t strike me as a parasitic wasp, perhaps more of a mustelid: he was amusing and provocative in a public school, scruffy sweater sort of way, but I couldn’t work out where he was coming from.
Writhing about in a smoke of confusion is part of the alt-right rhetorical strategy (though it didn’t quite save Yiannopoulos). In a Spectator blog last summer entitled “Why the alt right isn’t wrong”, Delingpole, who also writes for Breitbart, starts by defending Yiannopoulos for his online bullying of the black actor Leslie Jones, which got him expelled from Twitter. Then he goes on the rampage against “political correctness gone mad”. Then he writhes into the position of feeling uncomfortable “defending the alt right because . . . most” of it consists of “mischievous internet kids experimenting with irony, knowing that if there’s one way . . . guaranteed to rile the grown-ups it’s a hideously tasteless Holocaust joke”. Who even thinks of making Holocaust jokes?
Delingpole’s position on human-induced climate change is much clearer – it’s alarmist bunk made up by a global conspiracy of rent-seeking scientists – though wildly implausible, scientifically illiterate and profoundly nihilistic.
None of this would matter if it were merely the high-pitched squeaking of a sackful of hacks. Unfortunately the poisonous parasite of the alt right, or its accompanying viral material, has destroyed far more than the essential civility of Alexander Chancellor’s Spectator. Its slimy trail leads to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump.
Consider two characters not usually associated with the alt right, Boris “Alternative Facts” Johnson and Michael “We’ve Had Enough of Experts” Gove. Johnson, who earlier in his career purveyed witty and fictitious stories about the European Union, was the editor of the Spectator from 1999 to 2005 and encouraged Delingpole in his noxious work. Gove, another journalist-turned-politician and also a contributor to the Spectator, became, like Johnson, a leading proponent of Brexit.
We all know what happened next, including the farcical rerun of Julius Caesar performed by Gove and Johnson and Gove’s grovelling Times interview with Trump, apparently conducted in the presence of Rupert Murdoch. It is tempting to treat all of it as farce: the British contribution to the alt right is the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” tone that suggests nothing should be taken too seriously. Americans are less keen on irony, and I do not detect much of that in either Bannon or Trump. But British jokeyness has provided the perfect cover for a far-reaching attempt to spread a chaos and coarseness that would have been anathema to Alexander Chancellor.
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue