The transatlantic white nationalist movement, or alt-Right, has been the subject of frenzied attention over the past few years. Its rise has been widely linked to the election, in 2016, of Donald Trump, a political outsider who has repeatedly, if erratically, signalled sympathy for the extreme Right.
As candidate and President, Trump has gratuitously insulted minorities, retweeted extremist Twitter accounts, and displayed, at best, a morally ambivalent attitude towards violent white nationalists. All this, coupled with growing populism in Europe and signs of increasing political violence, has led some parts of the media to claim that America is entering its Fascist moment.
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It has also raised questions about the extent to which the alt-Right feeds off the wider conservative movement, and whether the latter enables and normalises the former. This is the argument of the latest addition to the alt-Right canon, Alexandra Minna Stern’s Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate.
Stern’s work explores the pedigree of alt-Right ideas, showing their origins in a mixture of reactionary, green and even Hindu thought. Whereas progressives look to a future in which their beliefs and goals have triumphed, reactionary intellectuals reject the narrative of linear progress and instead favour a cyclical pattern of conflagration followed by revival. French radical Right author Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism, for instance, reaches back into the mists of ancestral time and forward into the high-tech future.
Hence the optimism of Faye and other alt-Right intellectuals about the role of genetic and reproductive technologies in rehabilitating whiteness. This cyclical conception of time, according to Stern, was partly inspired by Hinduism, via French-Greek Nazi intellectual and Hindu convert Savitri Devi, who in turn influenced post-war French New Right intellectuals such as Réné Guénon and Alain de Benoist.
Then there are the multifaceted green influences. Before reading this book I had no idea that bioregionalism, the idea of an arcadian land separated from modernity in which the inhabitants coexist in harmony with nature, resonated with the separatist dream of a whites-only ethnostate. The pristine zone beloved of deep ecologists is usually imagined as my neck of the woods: the Pacific Northwest, including northern California and British Columbia.
This area, especially in the 1970s, was among the most racially homogeneous in North America, and ecologist Ernest Callenbach’s bestselling 1975 novel Ecotopia describes a utopian society set here; a throwaway aspect of which was the “few dark-skinned faces” evident in Ecotopian San Francisco and the existence of separate city-states for African-Americans and Chinese. From a different angle, American eugenicist Madison Grant in 1916 compared the “Passing of the Great Race” of North European whites with the extinction of the Redwoods and other native species.
Given the fact that barely six in 10 Americans are non-Hispanic whites, a segment of the alt-Right has already written off their country, preferring a racial breakup of the union and vesting their hopes in white separatism. The various proposed ‘whitopias’ in North America tend to focus on the most homogeneous contiguous territories, such as ‘Ozarkia’ in Arkansas and Missouri, ‘Cascadia’ in the Pacific Northwest, ‘New Albion’ in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, or ‘Gulflandia’ along the somewhat less homogeneous Gulf Coast.
Yet Stern’s book comes unstuck, as many similar works do, when it tries to link white nationalism to mainstream conservatism, and to hype up the threat. This is a wider problem with academic and journalistic assessments of a phenomenon many see in morally absolute, binary terms. The typical formula is to cite extreme Right approval of a racist Trump tweet or statement, yet Trump is hardly an ideologue with a steady compass. He lashes out indiscriminately at opponents, and yes, makes racist generalisations about entire groups such as undocumented immigrants, Mexicans, Haitians or Muslims.
But support for Trump is not confined to white Americans, and, as the book acknowledges, no more than 6% of Americans share white supremacist beliefs. In Washington Post/Kaiser 2018 survey data cited by the book, when white Americans are asked directly about their support for the “alt-right or white nationalist movement”, the number who answer in the affirmative is just 2%, compared with the 6.4% of African-Americans and 5.4% of Hispanics who identify as white nationalists!
Sometimes these academic critiques of the alt-Right and the wider conservative movement say as much about the mindset of the contemporary cultural Left as anything. Stern, for example, insinuates that those who criticise feminists or sympathise with Trump are of a piece with white separatists; conservative pundits, such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham, who have expressed concern about the pace of ethnocultural change, apparently “parrot… Alt-right rhetoric”. Liberal-rationalists such as Jordan Peterson and Claire Lehmann, editor of Quillette, are thrown into the amorphous Right-wing miasma supposedly spreading alt-Right memes.
Many people see the Trump administration’s admittedly ham-fisted and poorly-planned attempt to get control of the very real crisis of Central American migration as evidence of white nationalist thinking, with migrant detention a harbinger of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing. In fact, the crisis has been largely caused by liberal court rulings that created loopholes attracting poor Central Americans to the border. Many are unaccompanied children because the migrants know that US law prohibits their deportation. Family separation was mandated by the 1997 Flores Agreement (and its 2015 reinterpretation by a California court) preventing minors from being detained for more than 20 days. It presumed the US would rather turn a blind eye to an influx of family migrants (few of whom are fleeing war, but most of whom will never be deported) than separate children from parents to allow more claimants to be heard and, therefore, deported.
Trump deserves to be criticised for not securing a bipartisan waiver of the Flores Agreement before the surge, and failing to work with Democrats in Congress ahead of time to get the money to detain families humanely. His nasty, dehumanising words must be condemned, especially as these poor migrants are only doing what any rational person would in their situation. On top of this he has botched relations with Mexico, whose cooperation he needs to stem the flow. But he is not responsible for the border problem and didn’t invent child separation.
It is very tempting to lump in the extreme members of the nationalist Right, the danger of which was most recently illustrated by the El Paso shooting, with more broader conservatives or even classical liberals, since even quite distantly related ideologies share some concerns, goals and beliefs. It is a temptation especially associated with Left-modernism, a totalising “us-them” worldview in which those who criticise the progressive agenda on race and immigration are accused of marching us down the road toward the ethnostate. Progressives probably wouldn’t appreciate a conservative arguing that higher taxes are a slippery slope toward Communism – and rightfully so, precisely because the slippery slope charge cannot be refuted. If you tar a person with the alt-Right brush, you needn’t detain yourself with facts or arguments.
There is a broader problem with ‘scholar-activism’ in the study of nationalism and populism, an interpretive pick’n’mix approach over systematic empirical generalisation. As a consequence, purported links between the alt-Right and mainstream conservatism are asserted through anecdote or painted by the broad brush of guilt-by-association, rather than being substantiated through big data analytics or survey evidence. This activism has itself played a role in today’s white backlash. By weaponising the ‘racism’ charge and using political correctness to shut down the possibility of sensible discussion and compromise over the pace of ethnocultural change, academia and the media have opened up space for both the alt-Right and wider populist movement to emerge.
Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities is out now in paperback. (Penguin/Abrams, 2019).