What is the alt-right and what does it stand for?

Examining the alt-right’s ideological and historical origins, its internal divisions and what to expect from it now.

People protest on the day white nationalist leader Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute is due to speak on campus at an event not sanctioned by the school, at Texas A&M Uni
Far-right groups have seen a large surge in numbers since Trump's election in the US [File: Spencer Selvidge/Reuters]

Although largely confined to websites, online media forums and social media, the alternative right, or alt-right, came into the spotlight during the US election campaign and appears to have been energised by Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

In November, media attention honed in on the alt-right when, during a speech at the National Policy Institute Conference in Washington DC, white supremacist Richard Spencer chanted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” as the audience gave Nazi-like salutes.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist who is on the National Security Council, was previously the executive chair of the far-right Breitbart News blog, which he has described as the “platform for the alt-right” – although they were late to champion it and many alt-right supporters describe them as “alt-light”. 

But what is the alt-right?

Al Jazeera asked Matthew Lyons, a researcher of American far-right movements and author of the title essay in the new book Ctrl-Alt-Delete, about this loosely knit populist group of white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Here, he explains their ideological and historical origins, internal divisions and what to expect from them in the near future.

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Al Jazeera: There has been a public discussion within the media and among activists about the use of the term “alt-right” and whether it is a euphemism for Nazism or white supremacy. What do you make of this conversation?

Matthew Lyons: You can’t reduce the alt-right ideology to white nationalism, white supremacy or neo-Nazism. Those are all important elements within the alt-right, but there are other elements within the movement that are also important. If you erase the term “alt-right”, you miss those.

The campaign to stop calling them alt-right comes from an overemphasis on the power of language. There is this notion that the movement will be weakened if we change the label – as if the label is where their power comes from. 

For example, misogyny has also played a very important role within the alt-right. It’s a kind of misogyny that, in many instances, is even more extreme than what you see in a lot of neo-Nazi groups because it’s based on the total exclusion of women from any kind of political space. That idea comes primarily out of the so-called Manosphere, an online anti-feminist subculture that arose in parallel to the alt-right. They’re not completely merged, but there is a lot of overlap between the two.

The kind of patriarchal politics you find in the Christian right, for example, which is very much about promoting the so-called traditional family in which men are in charge and women are subordinate, but have a very crucial role. Within the Manosphere, you have this whole drive toward a very non-family-centred model of male-female relations. That version of patriarchy has flowed into the alt-right.

This is a whole dimension of the alt-right that gets lost if you just call them neo-Nazis.

For those of us who want to combat this movement, it’s important to understand those specific tensions and vulnerabilities because they can help us develop better strategies for fighting.

Al Jazeera: What are the most divisive issues within the alt-right as a movement, and how significant are those internal conflicts?

Lyons: It depends on how you define the parameters of the alt-right. I make a distinction, as do others, between the alt-right itself and the so-called alt-light. A lot of that distinction has to do with the relationship with the existing political system in the United States.

Within the alt-right proper, there is a general sentiment, if not a unanimous sentiment, that the United States as it exists is not a viable political entity or an entity that enables them to achieve the goals they want to achieve. So, you see a lot of alt-rightists talking about breaking up the United States and forming one or more white ethno-states.

The alt-light, generally speaking, doesn’t go that far, doesn’t call into question the existence of the United States as a political order. Often the people identified with the alt-light will hold back from explicitly white nationalist or white supremacist ideology, although they play into the dog-whistle racism that’s fairly common.

White nationalist leader Richard Spencer claims to have coined the term 'alt-right' [File: Spencer Selvidge/Reuters]
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer claims to have coined the term ‘alt-right’ [File: Spencer Selvidge/Reuters]

Within the alt-right in the narrower sense, there are also important points of disagreement. A couple of them have to do with the relationship of the movement toward Jews and the question of homosexuality.

There is a general climate of anti-Semitism within the alt-right, but it takes different forms. There is a hardline version promoted by the neo-Nazis within the alt-right and others, but there are other viewpoints. 

That disagreement leads to a real disagreement about policy, for instance, about whether the United States should strengthen its relationship with the Israeli state or not. That could have a big effect on how alt-rightists relate to the Trump administration. 

Al Jazeera: You argue that, for most of the alt-right, Trump represents a necessary step in their political programme and not necessarily the realisation of a goal. How much did the alt-right benefit from Trump’s election?

Lyons: The Trump campaign and his election have dramatically increased the visibility of the alt-right. Not everyone in the alt-right has supported Trump, but certainly a large majority has. They got behind Trump’s candidacy early on and helped him in terms of their skilful use of internet activism. In return, they got a big boost in their media visibility and their ability to wield influence. 

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It’s been a complicated relationship between the alt-right and a wider circle of sympathisers and supporters. I would put … Steve Bannon in that [category]. Bannon has used the label of the alt-right, keeping it at arm’s length but also riding their wave of media interest. He also has his own agenda, and it only partly aligns with theirs. 

There is definitely ambivalence. A lot of what we will see in the next few years will depend on what the Trump administration does and how that administration’s relationship with the alt-right plays out. If they see his administration moving in a direction they like, it will have very different implications than if they see him as selling them out and caving in to establishment forces.

Al Jazeera: With more and more anti-fascist groups emerging to confront the alt-right, what can we expect from that movement in the future? 

Lyons: The alt-right has been very effective at using the online medium. They have made various efforts to broaden their scope and to develop more of a physical presence, to hold political rallies, to have more of an impact outside of the internet; they’ve had some impact but it’s been more limited. There has been a lot of pushback from anti-fascists. 

It remains to be seen how effective [anti-fascist tactics] are, but it is important that it’s happening and has at least given right-wing forces pause. The political terrain is different from how it was 20 years ago because of the increased role of the internet in politics and in culture. That has been central to the alt-right developing where it has. That has also been important for anti-fascists to address and broaden out beyond traditional tactics, which focused more on physical confrontation or no-platform strategies, which can’t be applied online.

The themes the alt-right is promoting will continue to be important themes in the political sphere one way or another, whether the alt-right continues in its current form or evolves into something else. 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera