Making Sense of the Alt-Right
New York: Columbia University Press, 2017
George Hawley is an amazingly productive young political scientist at the University of Alabama. By my count, Making Sense of the Alt-Right is his fifth book in four years. Last year, I reviewed his Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, for which I had high praise, although I complained that he had not dealt with populism, which was the animating force Trump’s ongoing rise to the White House.
It turns out that Hawley’s next project was a whole book on Trump and populism. But he was persuaded to set it aside to focus simply on the Alternative Right. Given Hawley’s meticulous research in Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism on paleoconservatism, the European New Right, and American White Nationalism, he was the perfect man for the job.
Not only did Hawley draw upon his extensive knowledge of intellectual influences on the Alt Right, he also ventured where most academic researchers would fear to tread. He dove into the online world of the Alt Right, exploring image boards, forums, webzines, and podcasts. He did interviews with such people as Richard Spencer, Gregory Hood, Lawrence Murray, Jazzhands McFeels (not his real name), and me. (He also quotes Millennial Woes, Mike Enoch, and Hunter Wallace.) Hawley even attended a Milo Yiannopoulos speech at the University of Alabama, where he interviewed people in the audience.
In his Introduction, Hawley identifies the Alt Right as an overwhelmingly young and unapologetically racist movement that emerged online and largely remains there. The goal of the Alt Right is to overthrow the existing conservative movement and champion white identity politics without euphemism or apology. There is no shortage of denunciations of the Alt Right. Hawley’s goal is simply to understand it. To this end, he has focused on the “most reasonable and erudite supporters of the Alt-Right,” even though some people on the Left might accuse him of whitewashing the extremist elements and giving undue exposure to voices best left in obscurity.
Of course it is absurd to worry that a book published by Colombia University Press, which will be read by only a few thousand people, is giving undue exposure to websites that reach hundreds of thousands of unique visitors every month. I’m the one who should be worried that I am giving undue exposure to Columbia University Press with a review that will significantly increase the sales of Hawley’s book. Fortunately, Making Sense of the Alt-Right richly deserves to be read.
Chapter 1, “The Alt-Right’s Goals and Predecessors,” deals first with what the Alt Right wants. At the very least, we want to halt white demographic decline in America and around the world. Beyond that, we want homogeneous homelands for all white nations. The Alt Right also rejects feminism, free trade, and foreign interventionism.
According to Hawley, the intellectual and political forebears of the Alt Right include American White Nationalism, paleoconservatism, libertarianism, the European New Right, the Identitarian movement, immigration restrictionism, conservative crusades against campus political correctness, and Gamergate.
Hawley’s discussion of all these sources strikes me as accurate and judicious. I was surprised that he identified movement conservative opposition to political correctness as an incubator of Alt Right ideas, but his argument is convincing, for once one overthrows Left-wing political correctness, it is hard to prevent people from entertaining far more extreme ideas than mainstream conservatism. I was also pleased that Hawley correctly dismissed the claim that has been widely repeated by lazy journalists that the neo-reaction (NRx) movement is a major influence on the Alt Right.
Chapter 2, “The First Wave of the Alt-Right,” deals with Richard Spencer and the original Alternative Right webzine, which was online from March of 2010 to December of 2013. Hawley deftly surveys all the online material and also draws upon interviews with Richard Spencer. He correctly identifies Spencer’s emergence from the paleoconservative milieu, with stints at The American Conservative and Taki’s Magazine and his relationship with Paul Gottfried. Perhaps some mention should have been made of the H. L. Mencken Club as well. Hawley also chronicles Spencer’s loss of interest in Alternative Right, which was taken over by Colin Liddell and Andy Nowicki and entered a phase of dormition.
Chapter 3, “The Alt-Right Returns,” deals with the renewal of the Alt Right term in 2015 in the hands of a younger and very different movement. According to Spencer, “The Alt-Right is what it is today not because of me; it is what it is today because I let it go” (p. 68). Whereas the first version of the Alt Right was heavily influenced by White Nationalism and paleoconservatism, the new version of the Alt Right has a much stronger ex-libertarian contingent. The new Alt Right is much more a creature of social media, forums, image boards, memes, and podcasts than of webzines. The most influential website for the new Alt Right is The Right Stuff, especially its flagship podcast, The Daily Shoah. Hawley correctly notes that the Alt Right has created a much bigger stir than its numbers would otherwise suggest by being highly effective at using the Internet. It is this incarnation of the Alt Right that garnered global media attention, especially during the 2016 US Presidential election.
Chapter 4, “The Alt-Right Attack on the Conservative Movement,” deals with the Alt Right critique of the conservative movement. Conservatives refuse to recognize that their ideas matter most to white people, which is why the Left is trying to import non-whites. But conservatives are more afraid of being called racists today than of the complete destruction of their political prospects by long-term demographic change. The failure of conservatives to look out for the genetic interests of their constituency is the source of the highly triggering barb “cuckservative.” (See my essays “Why Conservatives Conserve Nothing” and “The Conscience of a Cuckservative.”) Hawley also deals with the Alt Right’s rejection of the religious Right, particularly on the issue of abortion, and online harassment campaigns against conservative pundits.
Hawley concludes this chapter with what is to me a very encouraging argument. He contends that the conservative movement, particularly National Review, will not be able to purge the Alt Right like it purged and marginalized far Right individuals and movements in the past. First, the conservative movement is in deep decline. It lacks the influence and the intellectual firepower to control debate on the Right. Second, the Internet has made it possible for dissident Rightists to reach large audiences without needing the conservative movement. Finally, the Alt Right simply does not care whether or not the conservative movement approves of them. The Alt Right does not want to be accepted by the conservative movement. It wants to raze it to the ground and salt the earth.
Chapter 5, “The Alt-Right and the 2016 Election,” explains why the Alt Right supported Donald Trump and patiently demolishes the Leftist hysteria about the Alt Right and the Trump campaign, arguing that neither Trump nor Steve Bannon can be meaningfully connected to Alt Right ideas. The Alt Right supported Trump, but the endorsement only went one way.
The chapter ends with a discussion of the “hailgate” fiasco at the 2016 National Policy Institute conference, in which Richard Spencer ended a speech with the words “Hail Trump, Hail our People, Hail Victory,” and people in the audience responded to “Hail Victory” (Sieg Heil) with Nazi salutes before the cameras of the world press. President Trump then disavowed the Alt Right.
Hailgate also led to the polarization of the Alt Right into racial nationalist and civic nationalist camps, the latter now known as the “Alt-Lite,” which is the topic of Chapter 6, “The ‘Alt-Lite.’” This polarization undermined the whole purpose and function of the Alt Right. The Alt Right was created as a tool of White Nationalist entryism and conversion. The utility of the Alt Right “brand” is that it allowed people to flirt with a whole range of dissident Rightist ideas without embracing stigmatizing labels like White Nationalism and National Socialism. This provided White Nationalists with an audience and an opportunity to convert people to our outlook. After hailgate associated the Alt Right with National Socialism, however, the movement polarized, and communication and cooperation were replaced with recriminations and conflict. However, there is still a need for a discursive space that performs the function of the Alt Right, but obviously it will need a very different name and style.
In his Conclusion, Hawley deals with the future of the Alt Right. He discusses the threats of deplatforming and doxing, arguing that short of a total shutdown of the Internet, the Alt Right will be able to propagate its message. Doxing, furthermore, is ultimately self-defeating, because it turns people from secret, part-time activists to open, full-time activists — although it does intimidate many people from getting involved. But Hawley is confident that the Alt Right will remain an online presence.
But he is quite blunt that there is a big difference between being an online nuisance and having real political power. To actually change political policy, the Alt Right will have to attain “a level of seriousness and organization it has not yet displayed” (p. 172). Although Hawley expresses some hope for the Alt Right corporation, his book was obviously sent to press before its failure became obvious. It is now clear that the tendency of the Alt Right since Trump’s election has been toward self-marginalization, Right-wing sectarianism, and purity spiraling. But even if the Alt Right remains marginal, Hawley recognizes that as the conservative movement continues to decline and the charge of racism loses its sting, “zero-sum identity politics may become the norm, and the Alt-Right will be on the periphery, pushing racial polarization at every available opportunity” (p. 175).
But that is not enough to save our race. We cannot remain on the margins. White Nationalism needs to break out and redefine the political mainstream.
I highly recommend Making Sense of the Alt-Right. It is carefully researched, clearly written, and scrupulously accurate. I can speak about this with some authority, since I am one of the subjects of the book, and Hawley accurately quotes my words and characterizes my ideas.
The only sour note is the truly horrible cover, over which Hawley surely had no control. Given that this book will probably outsell most other Columbia titles, you’d think they could invest in a decent graphic designer.
Although Hawley obviously has no sympathy with the Alt Right, he maintains a refreshingly even-handed and cool-headed tone. Let us hope that, as the passions of the 2016 election fade, Making Sense of the Alt-Right sets the standard for future discussions of White Nationalism.