The alt-right threat

Across Europe we have seen a resurgent right making electoral gains. In the US, white supremacists have grown increasingly confident after the election of the right-populist Donald Trump. A new book aims to explain this phenomenon but, PAULA MITCHELL argues, a materialist approach is necessary to understand the alt-right, its roots, limits and perspectives.

The Alt-Right: what everyone needs to know

By George Hawley

Published by Oxford University Press, 2019, £10.99

The US alt-right came to prominence during Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Steve Bannon, former editor of alt-right website Breitbart, was chief executive of Trump’s presidential campaign and, latterly, White House chief strategist. Bannon and others linked up with the organisers of the Football Lads Alliance in Britain, pledging money to build a new street movement.

Fears about the US alt-right increased with the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Heather Heyer, an anti-racist protester, was killed and others injured when a far-right individual deliberately drove a car into a crowd. As of 1 September, 283 mass shootings occurred in just 244 days in the US (Gun Violence Archive), several inspired by alt-right propaganda.

When people are trying to make sense of why this is happening and what can be done, a book called The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know seems promising. It is written by George Hawley, assistant professor at the University of Alabama, described as “one of the world’s leading experts on the conservative movement and right-wing radicalism”. It aims to provide “a clear explanation of the ideas, tactics, history and prominent figures of one of the most disturbing movements in America today”.

The term alt-right began to be used online in 2008, but shot to prominence in 2015-16. At first, Hawley explains, many people were unsure what it was: perhaps just a catch-all term for Trump supporters? He argues that things became clearer after Charlottesville, when “the alt-right moved off the internet and into the real world”, and its white nationalist core ideology became clearer.

While correctly recognising that even a small far-right grouping can be dangerous if it carries out or inspires violence and intimidation, Hawley argues that the alt-right does not represent a more significant threat: “I suspect that the alt-right is already declining as a political and cultural force. Having suffered many setbacks, it is now turning on itself”. He concludes by saying: “The alt-right is being challenged on every front. In terms of real-world activism, it is consistently outnumbered and out-organised by those who reject its message… Rather than becoming a permanent fixture of American political life, the alt-right may be remembered as just one more oddity of the Trump era, ultimately signifying very little”.

Nonetheless, he argues that it is important to understand “how and why the alt-right was able to experience such explosive growth, even if it comes to exhibit the same pathologies that brought down its predecessors”. This is because, he says, even if the alt-right label is deemed to have outlived its usefulness, the ‘extreme right’ will still exist and could grow again.

Who are the alt-right?

George Hawley presents a readable description of the alt-right and its beliefs, and a catalogue of the individuals, groupings and media outlets that he puts under this heading. He also discusses the alt-right’s organisational roots – which he terms “white nationalism 0.1” – the links they have in Europe, with mainstream US conservatism, and those that he would categorise as ‘alt-lite’.  

Hawley describes the alt-right not as an organisation, or even a coherent movement. It does not consist of membership, or even in the main of physical gatherings. It largely exists online. What Hawley presents as the alt-right is really just a label for a variety of far-right groupings, individuals and online media. Although there are a number of prominent figures, it does not have a leader or an organised leadership.

There is not agreement on what the principles are that unite the alt-right. It is divided on the role of Christianity; some argue that the religion is one of the ‘foundational pillars’ of western civilisation, while others blame the church for western decline. They are divided on attitudes towards abortion, capitalism, and other key questions, as well as tactics and strategy. The one unifying principle is white identity.

Richard Spencer, arguably the alt-right’s best-known figure and coiner of the term, attempted to lay the principles out in his ‘Charlottesville Statement’. Published immediately before the alt-right 2017 rally, it opens with Spencer’s catchphrase: “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity”. Hawley says: “White interests are the alt-right’s main priority. If the constitution, democracy, capitalism, or other elements of American political culture are inimical to white interests, then they would happily jettison them”.

Hawley describes white nationalism as a kind of “‘racial protectionism’ predicated on the belief that the white race is imperilled, and that it is the duty of every white man and woman to do what they must to protect it from biological extinction”. He argues that it emerges primarily from American and western decline, leading white nationalists to promote the idea that ‘global white solidarity’ is important.

Until Charlottesville, Hawley says the alt-right differed from earlier white nationalist movements in that it mostly avoided violence, viewing it as counterproductive as it could harm the movement’s reputation. This happened to the militia movement, which never recovered from the public outrage following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. There are still organised violent hate groups, but they do not usually describe themselves as alt-right. Nonetheless, the formal condemnation by alt-right figureheads has not halted violent racist attacks carried out by their audience.

Trump and the alt-right

Readers may find all this interesting. But the weakness of the book is hinted at in the reference quoted above to ‘pathologies’. Hawley lacks a historical materialist approach, and does not place the rise and decline of the far-right in an economic and social context. Consequently, he can describe but not explain, or offer a deeper understanding. His abstract, idealist approach is illustrated in the discussion on whether the alt-right is fascist.

Hawley looks for an ahistorical definition based on ideas – what a movement says – rather than its material role, its real forces, etc. He chooses a definition by Roger Griffin, described as one of the world’s leading experts on fascism: “Fascism is a revolutionary species of political modernism originating in the early 20th century, whose mission is to combat the allegedly degenerative forces of contemporary history (decadence) by bringing about an alternative modernity and temporality, (a ‘new order’ and a ‘new era’) based on the rebirth, or palingenesis, of the nation”.

Therefore, Trump is not a fascist because, while he is a nationalist and talks in terms of a rebirth (‘make America great again’), “as long as Trump does not advocate the abolition of America’s democratic institutions, and their replacement by some sort of post-liberal new order, he’s not technically a fascist”. Hawley goes on to argue that Trump is not alt-right but a “right-wing populist, whose rhetoric has appealed to xenophobic elements of the electorate. But there is no compelling evidence that he is a white nationalist who seeks a pure white ethnostate”.

Trump’s racist policies – such as the Muslim travel ban and the Mexican wall – have led to a rise in racist attacks. Most famously, he refused to condemn the far-right after Charlottesville, and appeared to apportion equal blame to both sides of the confrontation. More recently, he repeatedly told four black and Asian Democratic Party congresswomen – all US citizens, three born in the US – to ‘go back’ to their own countries.

The alt-right was initially enthusiastic about Trump because he “echoed many far-right talking points about immigrants… Trump helped normalise anti-immigrant rhetoric that had previously been taboo in conventional politics”. He failed to distance himself from them until fairly recently. Even with alt-right-inspired murderous shooting sprees, it was only in August 2019 – after shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on back-to-back days – that Trump finally came out and condemned white supremacy.

The reality of Trump’s right-populist stance has disappointed the alt-right. He has not accomplished most of his campaign promises. The alt-right was angry that the ‘America first’ idea – stepping back from US interventionism – was betrayed by the decision to bomb Syria, and disappointed by his key appointments. Even Bannon didn’t last, departing the White House shortly after Charlottesville, considered too much of a political liability.

Concrete roots

What Hawley misses is that the significance of the far-right is a material question, not just a question of what individuals say they believe. When classical fascism developed in the 1920s and 1930s, capitalism was in crisis. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, mass revolutionary movements swept through Europe. The workers’ struggle had given rise to multiple chances to overthrow capitalism but had been let down and betrayed by their leaders. Consequently, the workers’ organisations failed to provide a way out of the crisis, leaving the devastated middle-class layers at the fascists’ mercy.

The capitalists funded fascists as a desperate counter-weight to the revolutionary working class. Fascism was a mass movement of angry, betrayed petty-bourgeois and desperate, downtrodden layers in society. In other words, fascism was a mass movement with a social base that aimed to stamp out independent working-class activity.

That is not the situation we face today. The role the alt-right plays for the capitalist class currently is illustrated in the book’s chapter, Who Funds the Alt-Right? Hawley answers that it exists “on a shoestring… Unlike conservatism, libertarianism, and other more ‘mainstream’ ideologies, the movement does not possess a deep pool of wealthy benefactors. Nor does it, at this point, have a well-organised system for raising large sums via small donations”. Particular alt-right outlets may receive money from a few wealthy individuals. But big business as a whole does not back the alt-right, because it does not serve capitalism’s interests at this stage.

Capitalism is undoubtedly facing an enormous crisis. The world economy has barely recovered since the crash of 2007-08, and is now teetering on the brink of a new downturn. Western living standards are declining for the majority. Inequality is increasing. National tensions and inter-imperialist rivalries are growing. Conflict ravages the Middle East and beyond. Climate change threatens the planet.

The election of right-wing populists is an expression of that crisis. Across Europe and the US, we have seen again and again the rejection of the ‘status quo’ and of the so-called ‘centre ground’ – the pro-capitalist, pro-austerity establishment politicians who have enacted vicious anti-working class policies. The authority and social base of the institutions of capitalism, especially capitalist politicians, have been eroded. While right-wing populists have capitalised on this situation, there has also been significant left-wing movements: Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Corbynism in Britain, and Bernie Sanders in the US.

When Hawley tries to deal with this situation, his abstract approach shows itself again. He writes: “Mainstream conservatism may be losing its ability to set meaningful boundaries in right-wing discourse, which may explain the rise of both Trump and the alt-right”. Rather than understanding this in terms of the crisis of capitalism, however, Hawley puts this down to modern technology giving a platform to anyone who wants it. He also proposes that ‘mainstream conservatism’ suffers from a credibility problem, in that it does not have as many ‘authoritative figures’ as in the past. While there is a degree of truth in both these points, they are relatively minor factors.

Limited prospects

George Hawley postulates: “With organised conservatism in an apparently weakened state, can the alt-right copy the conservative model and take over the Republican Party?” This is not just a question of skilful organisation. Conservatism ‘took over’ the Republican Party at the same time as Margaret Thatcher ‘took over’ the Tories in Britain. Ronald Reagan, together with Thatcher, led the charge for neoliberalism, the brutal face capitalism required following the end of the post-war boom. Economic stagnation in the 1970s, and a more confident working-class fightback, saw the ruling class abandoning the Keynesian policies of the previous period. Instead, there was a conscious full-frontal attack on the living standards and rights of the working class, in order to restore profits. The main parties of capitalism were carrying out its interests.

The situation is very different today. A significant component of the current capitalist crisis is that governments in the US and Britain do not reliably represent the best interests of the capitalist class as a whole. This is graphically shown in Britain where the ruling class’s historic representatives, the Tories, are falling apart in the face of the 2016 EU referendum result. The situation in Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn and what his premiership could potentially inspire among workers, mean that there is no reliable ‘second-eleven’. There is the growing potential for a new centre party or coalition developing, in a desperate attempt to forge the tools to more immediately reflect capitalism’s overall interests.

For US capitalism, Trump is an unreliable representative. His protectionist ‘America First’ approach is part of the recoil against globalisation – something that has been accelerating since the start of the economic crisis. Trump’s presidency is both a symptom of, and a catalyst for, increasing regional and national tensions. It is the defenders of capitalist globalisation, including the ‘neo-conservatives’, who promote an interventionist approach internationally, and are the main capitalist opponents of Trump’s approach.   

Sections of the ruling class are trying to find a social base, and promoting nationalism could serve this purpose. But it has limits. With his ‘strong-man, plain-speaking’ style and promises to protect US jobs, Trump has built a certain base – including among blue-collar workers. But the inability of crisis-ridden capitalism to raise the living standards of working-class Americans can erode that quickly. Trump’s racist, sexist, homophobic views and his far-right links are potential landmines. They have already led to the biggest demonstrations in US history, and are eating into his support in the polls.

It is possible that the two-party system could break in the US. A split in the Republican Party could develop. Sanders, instead of staying in the capitalist Democratic Party and drawing thousands more towards that dead-end, should be laying the ground now for building a new, working-class, socialist party in the US.

We are in a volatile situation. Rather than the strong growth of stable right-wing forces, there is massive turmoil. Alongside the Tories’ turbulence, coalitions including far-right parties have faced crises and votes of no confidence in Italy and Austria. The capitalist class can no longer rule securely. This volatility could include further far-right growth. For example, when Greek social democracy imposed devastating austerity, this temporarily fed into the rise of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, as working-class people struck out in desperation. Terrible conditions can lead to people being susceptible to the racist, anti-migrant propaganda of the right.

Strategies to win

Crucially, however, there is also the potential for a pro-working class, socialist movement and party to the left – if leadership is given. The balance of class forces is very different from the early 20th century. Although after the 2007-08 economic crisis there was mass struggle, the capitulation of working-class leaders led to defeat and the imposition of austerity. The workers’ movement is also weakened with the absence of mass working-class parties. But it is still largely intact, with mass organisations in the form of trade unions, and has the potential to decisively change the situation.

The weakest part of Hawley’s book is the chapter, Combating the Alt-Right. It talks about ‘doxxing’ (publicly releasing a person’s private information), no-platforming, ‘alt-tech’, persuasion, counter-protests and lawsuits. There is no doubt that a key part of fighting racists and fascists is to expose the true politics of those organisations, and to mobilise against them. Counter-demonstrations can demoralise far-right organisations, particularly if they are prevented from marching. They are vital as part of an organised campaign to defend the communities the far-right try to march through.

That is not enough, however, to deal with the conditions that can breed support for the far-right. What force is capable of defeating it – and capable of defeating capitalism? It is the working class, organised in a mass fight for socialist policies that can draw behind it broader layers in society and wipe out support for the far-right. The organised working class is capable of bringing behind it the alienated, unorganised, downtrodden layers, if it raises a programme for jobs, homes and against austerity – and for a socialist alternative that challenges the interests of capitalism.

Out of the movements against Trump and the alt-right, and the big enthusiasm generated by Sanders’ policies, there is the potential for a new mass workers’ party in the US. As elsewhere across the globe, with the correct leadership, a mighty mass movement can be built for the fight for socialism.