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
Verso, 464pp, £20
Making Sense of the Alt-Right
Columbia University Press, 232pp, £22.95
This article appears in the 22 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Europe: the new disorder