Hillary Clinton spoke negatively of the “alt right” Thursday, which is news that must have a lot of you asking, “What’s the alt-right?” The answer is less important than either Clinton or the members of this group would have you believe.
They call themselves “alt” to distinguish themselves from conservatives, whom they consider weak, out of touch and boring. They find the mainstream conservative fixations on free markets, limited government, the Constitution and the sanctity of unborn human life beside the point.
Their own fixations are instead racial. A lot of them are pretty forthright about that. In one of the earliest essays to identify and defend an “alternative right,” in 2010, Richard Hoste explained that the chief defect of mainstream conservatism is that it fails to take a natural racial hierarchy, “with whites and Asians at the top and blacks at the bottom,” as its organizing principle. Both government policy and, even more, our public discussions of race have to begin from that premise, he wrote.
Hoste mentioned other ideas that have continued to dominate the alt-right. Affirmative action unjustly subverts the racial hierarchy; “low-IQ Mexican immigration is the greatest threat to America”; whites are unjustly denied the positive racial identity that U.S. culture encourages for other groups.
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Not surprisingly, such Republican efforts as there have been to appeal to nonwhites come in for scorn from the alt-right, which places its political hopes in a strategy of raising white racial consciousness. Also unsurprisingly, race-mixing is not very popular in these circles. An epithet alt-righties use for conservatives is “cuckservative,” or “cuck,” referring to a cuckolded conservative. It has its origin in disgust for interracial sex. (I’ll let you Google it yourself.)
Why is Clinton taking on a group that seems so marginal? Because lately it has seemed to become a little less so. Alt-righties rejoiced over Donald Trump’s victory over mainstream conservatives in the Republican primaries — and rejoiced even more when Trump appointed Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s CEO. Bannon has been running Breitbart.com, a publication he describes as “the platform for the alt-right.” Critics despaired that his hiring represented an alt-right takeover of the Republican Party.
But there’s less to the alt-right’s new prominence than meets the eye. Even though both Bannon and his foes describe Breitbart.com as an alt-right site — and even though alt-righties clearly like the site more than they do, say, the Weekly Standard — it is at the very least a watered-down version of the alt-right. Vdare, American Renaissance and Takimag, three other publications, repeatedly and explicitly make the kind of arguments that Hoste did.
Breitbart.com doesn’t. A lot of recent discussions of the alt right have mentioned a “guide to the alt-right” that Breitbart published in March. But if Breitbart were an alt-right organ, as opposed to a venue sympathetic to the alt-right, it would hardly need to run an essay introducing the topic to its readers.
Bannon himself denies that the alt-right has much to do with race. He says that the alt-right is simply about nationalism. When Ken Stern of Vanity Fair recently read Bannon some racist comments that had been left on Breitbart.com, Bannon’s “response was slightly pained, and he tried to wave the issue away.” Stern speculated that Bannon may have been concerned about the comments for business rather than moral reasons, but either way, it means that he shies away from the alt-right’s version of candor about race. (What a cuck, a real alt-righty might say.)
If Bannon’s definition of the alt-right is correct, it is merely a less religious version of the platform on which Patrick Buchanan used to campaign: a platform hostile to free trade, mass immigration and an interventionist foreign policy. These paleoconservative ideas cannot yet be said to have taken over the Republican Party. So far only one Republican senator, Jeff Sessions, has endorsed these ideas. And even this year no Republican politician of note, other than Trump, has been championing this package of policies. Take away the celebrity power of Trump, and there isn’t really a movement underneath him.
Define alt-right in terms of its hard core, and its influence is even weaker. Not even Sen. Sessions will write for the American Renaissance. Trump himself never embraced even the mainstream conservative opposition to affirmative action, let alone the alt-right version of it. He does not talk about inherent differences between the races.
Since Bannon came on board, Trump has been talking about how he can win African-American votes and running away from his previous calls to deport all illegal immigrants. Perhaps he realizes that, contrary to alt-right fantasies, there aren’t enough whites interested in white pride to make a majority. Or perhaps Trump just disagrees with alt-right views.
Trump isn’t really part of the alt-right, even if he has gotten closer to it than most politicians. His recent moves and Clinton’s speech suggest that both candidates understand that the alt-right is a leaden anchor rather than a rising force.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.