“The great replacement” is a term popularised by the French author Renaud Camus to denote the gradual destruction of western civilisation by mass immigration. Given the differences in birth rates between white people and the non-white population, so the argument goes, it is only a matter of time before the latter outnumber and crush the former. The concept has been a touchstone for European far-right groups such as Pegida, and was cited by the alleged gunman in the recent mass murder in Christchurch. These groups’ counterparts in the US subscribe to the “white genocide” theory, which is pretty much identical. This deranged credo is unmistakably an incitement to violence, and there is every reason to believe that the threat is real. In recent years a number of deadly attacks have been perpetrated by avowed white supremacists in the Anglo-Saxon world. These include the murders of nine African American parishioners in a church in Charleston in 2015; of the MP Jo Cox in 2016; of an anti-fascist activist at Charlottesville in 2017; and allegedly of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
George Hawley’s The Alt-Right is the latest in a slew of books about the contemporary far right. Structured like a primer – part glossary, part who’s who – it situates the loose-knit tendency known as the “alternative right” within the broader context of American conservatism. Hawley explains that the movement’s fixation on race puts it at odds with mainstream conservatism, particularly on issues relating to Christianity, fiscal policy and abortion. “According to the Alt-Right,” he writes, “conservatives obsess over tax cuts, deregulation, and other small bourgeois concerns, but they fear tackling demographic questions, which the Alt-Right consider existential.” Conservatives who espouse racial tolerance are seen as complicit in “a quiet campaign of genocide by encouraging nonwhite immigration, interracial relationships, low white birth rates, racial guilt, and the denigration of white culture”.
Hawley highlights various points of overlap between the far right and other, older American political traditions. He notes that its obsession with “race realism” – the idea that race is not a construct but a biological category that determines a person’s essential character – is merely an updated version of the scientific racism peddled by Progressive thinkers such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard in the 1930s. The main difference is that the definition of whiteness, which previously excluded southern and eastern Europeans, has now expanded to include all people of European origin. In its advocacy of an isolationist, “America first” foreign policy, and its opposition to affirmative action programmes and other state-led progressive interventions, the far right channels a libertarian streak that has long been a feature of the American political landscape. None of this is particularly new, but the advent of the internet has given the far right fresh impetus, enabling it to build sizeable social networks and reach a large audience – via popular websites such as Stormfront and The Right Stuff – despite its comparatively modest resources. Hawley suggests that, as a result of the proliferation of online media, mainstream conservatism “may be losing its ability to set meaningful boundaries in rightwing discourse”.
Much was made of the far right’s support for Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. Although many of its members were undoubtedly energised by his unabashedly xenophobic rhetoric, Trump’s share of the vote that year was not markedly different from Mitt Romney’s in 2012, and it is unlikely that the far right’s backing was decisive to the outcome. Trump’s election “restored the radical right to the headlines and the public consciousness”, Hawley argues, but it has been mostly downhill since then. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, organised by white supremacist figurehead Richard Spencer, was supposed to usher in its transition from online phenomenon to real-world political maturity. The turnout was low and largely made up of cranks and thugs, giving the lie to the far right’s self-generated hype that theirs was a movement of hip, irreverent young upstarts. One of them murdered a counter-protester. Trump called them “very fine people”, but by any objective measure it was a PR disaster.
Recent interventions by tech giants have made life a little harder for the extreme right: Twitter has conducted a somewhat patchy purge of white nationalists, shutting down the accounts of some prominent hatemongers; PayPal has closed the accounts of various far right groups. Today they are riven by in-fighting, and there is a schism between the ethnocentric hardliners and the more heterogeneous or “alt-lite” faction, who are more fixated on culture than biology. Hawley concedes that this fragmentation means the label “alt-right”, which was coined by Spencer back in 2008, may be slipping out of relevance. But even if “the movement remains a mostly anonymous, online rabble”, it nonetheless poses a menace, emboldening racists and fascists across the English-speaking world.
The internationalist character of the online far right might seem paradoxical for a movement that is ostensibly nationalist, but the denizens of alt-right online forums seem to identify more closely with ethnos than with nation; when American, British and Australian racists mingle and share ideas online, it is their shared membership of an Anglo-Saxon diaspora that gives them common cause. Digital technology has been a boon to the far right not only in facilitating their transnational network-building, but also as a tool for broadcasting terrorist attacks: the role of social media is once again under the spotlight after the Christchurch gunman was able to live-stream the attack on Facebook.
Mike Wendling’s Alt Right: From 4chan to the White House (2018) adopts a similar structure to Hawley’s book, with pen portraits of key players and helpful explanations of alt-right vernacular, but it takes more of an anthropological interest in the movement, featuring interviews with various members of online alt-right communities. Thomas J Main’s The Rise of the Alt-Right (2018) is a more detailed, scholarly survey of the same terrain. David Neiwert’s Alt-America (2017) takes a longer historical view, charting the recent history of white supremacist agitation in the US in the 1990s and 2000s – from the Oklahoma City truck bombing of 1995 to the “Birther movement” during the Obama years – right up to the 2016 election.
Other books have focused more narrowly on the digital subcultures that are synonymous with the far right. Among these are Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies (2017) and Whitney Phillips’s fascinating study of racism and misogyny on forums such as Reddit and 4chan, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (2015). By emphasising the parallels between the behaviour of online trolls and Fox News’s extremely chauvinistic approach to current affairs coverage, Phillips provides a welcome corrective to the misconception that the internet is the primary incubator of racial animus. Indeed, online trolls do not have a monopoly on hate. Here in the UK, certain members of our commentariat routinely deploy pernicious and dehumanising language in the service of their rabble-rousing hot takes on matters pertaining to race, religion and migration. Their work appears in the pages of influential, high-circulation print publications, and is often widely shared online. When something terrible happens they are among the first to dispense the bromides, but the reality is that they have for some time been operating – wittingly or unwittingly – as a fifth column for fascists.
The complacency of much mainstream commentary towards the nature and extent of the far-right threat is evident in its muddled response to high-profile atrocities. In the first instance, in some papers and on some sites, every attempt is made to play down the killer’s ideological motivations; instead their life circumstances are dissected, and any childhood traumas or mental health issues brought to the fore. A clear and unambiguous political extremism is reimagined as a mere defect of character. Occasional attempts at serious political engagement have tended towards clumsy equivocation. Why, for example, did Newsnight deem it necessary or appropriate, in the wake of the Christchurch atrocity, to invite representatives from the pan-European far-right group Generation Identity on to its programme? Against a backdrop of mass murder, this hyper-punctilious application of the corporation’s much-vaunted commitment to “balance” was at risk of looking like appeasement.
Anyone who thinks they can disarm fascism by giving it oxygen has fundamentally failed to grasp the nature of its pathology. There is no reasoning with people who believe themselves to be engaged in a zero-sum demographic struggle for existence. Ethno-nationalism inherently presupposes violence, and it will broach no compromise. The point is well made by Neiwert in his afterword to Alt‑America: while he argues that metropolitan liberals would do well to shed their snobbery in respect of provincial America, he insists this “does not mean we need to ‘reach out’ to the rural haters and the conspiracy-spewing Patriots … There’s really no point in trying to reach out to people who will only return your hand as a bloody stump.”
• The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know ® by George Hawley (Oxford, £10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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