What’s in an “alt-right”?

Even as long ago as the late ’90s, when I finished up my undergraduate studies, the seeds of cancel culture were visible.  Contrarian that I am, I would often challenge professors’ and other students’ arguments in classes that fostered debate, and some disputants were clearly looking for excuses to invalidate my case out of hand.  Political correctness hadn’t blossomed into identity politics, yet, so the invalidators at least had to have the patience to wait for me to use a word or phrase that they could proclaim as a code-word for what I really meant, despite what I was saying.

An online conversation in which I’ve been engaged over the past day has had a similar feel.  In a post on inequality, I recalled a progressive activist who claimed that moving to the suburbs was “white supremacy.”  So that readers could follow the claim back to a source, I linked to a November 2016 post in which I provided a transcript of those comments.  That post also describes what I thought the “alt-right” (along with “nationalism”) was at the time:

The concept is not… to pick a particular era in American history and call it true; the concept is to affirm that America, in the amorphous, evolved way of a non-ethnic national identity, stands for something — something that President Barack Obama promised to fundamentally transform. Being an American nationalist, in other words, is upholding the values, traditions, and founding documents of the nation, as contrasted with rewriting the country according to a far-left vision.

I should note that I wasn’t exactly a booster of the “alt-right.”  I can find only about three times I’ve ever used the phrase, and they trace back to the time Rhode Island Public Radio reporter Ian Donnis asked me for the conservative point of view on Stephen Bannon.  Everybody in the mainstream was calling Bannon and Breitbart “alt-right,” a label Bannon had used at least once, and as I wrote to Donnis, it seemed to many conservatives that attacks on them as “white supremacist” were manufactured by the Left (just as they were with the Tea Party), and we were inclined to “give Bannon the benefit of the doubt and remain ready to push back on him and his boss if they actually do or say anything like what the Left appears to be making up.”

So, once again, we live in two worlds.  In the world of many conservatives, the “alt-right” was represented by Breitbart and others, as contrasted with, say, National Review, and were documentably not promoting the racist messages the mainstream Left was claiming they were.  Thus, although (as I suggested about a year after the above quotation) racist elements eventually took ownership of the label, it was, in 2016, yet another example of progressive activists’ infusing a phrase with a meaning in order to blow up their opposition.  Many of us had never heard the term until those activists began applying it to the likes of Breitbart, so that’s what we took it to mean.

In the world of my recent disputant, fringe far right figures like Richard Spencer held an irrevocable and decisive ownership of the term from the beginning, when he coined it in 2008.  Progressives pay much closer attention to the fringes of the Right than most conservatives do (the better to associate their reasonable opposition with them), so in their world, Bannon and Donald Trump were obviously giving the racists secret winks, knowing full well what they were doing.  Meanwhile, the rest of us conservatives were idiots, dupes, or disingenuous for not reviewing the explanations of people who hated us instead of treating English as what English is: a language in which words mean what people appear to be using them to mean and can easily disconnect from their etymology.  (One example that sticks in my mind is a woman using the phrase, “circle jerk,” while chatting amidst children with other soccer moms on the sideline.)

Maybe Trump and Bannon were indeed winking, but as I told Donnis in 2016, conservatives were only giving them the benefit of the doubt with a watchful eye.  We’ve too often seen the mainstream media and Democrats play the “racist” card.

No doubt, my disputant and I will disagree on whether conservatives’ “watchful eye” was careful or closed (some conservatives disagree on this point), but in terms of having a discussion of tangentially related matters, it’s much healthier to take terms’ different meanings as an interesting obstacle to work through on the way to understanding what the other person actually thinks and believes.  Of course, that’s the opposite of finding reasons to invalidate them.


Featured image by Vladislave Babienko on Unsplash.

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