About a month before the election, I (Linda) gave a talk at Nassau Community College on the topic of white identity. During the reception afterward, I was approached by a serious-faced young man, who identified himself as the president of the college philosophy club. He asked if I would consider doing a public debate with leading white nationalist Jared Taylor. He turned out to be an avid consumer of so-called “alt-right” websites, and had formed the belief that African-Americans and Latinos were simply less intelligent than white people.
As an African-American student waited patiently nearby to ask a question, I found myself in a debate with a young white male college student about whether, as a Latina, I was intelligent enough to be invited to give a talk at his college.
What has come to be called the alt-right is younger and more tech-savvy than the more established ultra-conservative organizations, and more focused on developing its online presence than on building rural militias. The term alt-right itself is controversial, but it helpfully indicates the way in which white nationalism has been hipsterized. It has ingeniously characterized blatant racism and misogyny as edgy and courageous, as fighting the good fight against censorship, thought control, and “political correctness” — much like the “men’s rights” movements to which it is linked.
These differences with the older far right are superficial. The alt-right is another reactive and violent backlash to racial progress, just as the Ku Klux Klan was to Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Like other far-right groups since the ’60s, it cloaks white-supremacist politics as “anarcho-tribalism” or “white pride” rather than race hatred. As Taylor recently explained to comedian John Fugelsang, they simply “prefer homogeneity.” Today’s European far right similarly spins its agenda as a defense of the West’s values and cosmopolitanism that they say are now under threat from Muslim migrants. Its anti-Semitism is veiled by support for Israel, though its repeated suggestions that local Jews should migrate to Israel reveal darker motives. But these are the sort of rhetorical moves that draw in some young people who might not otherwise be attracted to cross-burning rallies (such as philosophy majors).
Taylor, considered a thought leader for the alt-right, argues that only separatism can guarantee white survival. The assumption here is that mixed children will no longer be white, and mixed cultures will blot out white traditions and beliefs, so that without separatism white identity will disappear. (European white nationalists make similar claims about European culture, as if it were ever “pure.”) But Taylor’s claim reveals the white supremacy behind white nationalism. The reason it is so important for pure whites to survive is always given in comparative terms: Because European values are superior to Muslim values, and because eliminating whites would eliminate the most intelligent and productive race on earth.
Alt-right leader Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, makes this racial comparison clear. “We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet,” he recently said. The alt-right’s assault on “political correctness” is a maneuver to ignore the viewpoints of other groups. Being “PC” is most often associated with the use of names and terms that various denigrated groups have chosen for themselves: disabled rather than “retarded,” women rather than “girls,” African-American rather than “colored.” To reject political correctness is a way of saying that white straight men don’t need to “beg for validation” or even listen to the preferences or views of anyone else any longer, and that ignoring the critical analyses of U.S. history and foreign policy that have emerged since the public airwaves became more diverse is simply a way of championing individual freedom.
It’s impossible to know how influential the alt-right really is, since it’s so easy to inflate the numbers of clicks on a website. What we do know is that white-nationalist ultra-conservative movements are growing in many countries and come in multiple forms. What some call “suit Nazis,” such as France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik parties, overlap with the alt-right, but they are generally wealthier and operate in mainstream venues, holding elected office in many European countries, as well as running think tanks, publishing houses, and large transnational businesses. There are also still old-school groups, like the Klan and its spinoffs, that focus on setting up armed militias. Many of them can be characterized as white Christian nationalists.
There are more than rhetorical or stylistic differences among these groups. There are differences over strategy and tactics, over the centrality of Christianity, over support for big capital, and over which group should get the honor of being the most hated “other.” Most important, some of these groups are in favor of strong states and some are not. The “anarcho-tribalists” would rather not have more repressive state apparatuses, in Althusser’s sense, and many others are Pinochet-style fascists who promote free enterprise over state intervention. Some focus more on their negative freedoms, or the freedom from regulations, surveillance, censorship, and any government interference — as the slogan “don’t tread on me” indicates — while others focus on their positive freedoms to separate and control other communities, or the power to marshal a larger and more militarized police force, more draconian border patrols, and more surveillance on potential enemies.
Donald Trump’s election will test the intensity of these differences. The question of state capture is no longer theoretical: It has been accomplished. It may still be unclear exactly how much influence the far right has in white working-class communities, but it is crystal clear how much influence they have in the White House. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and second-ranking White House staffer, has been associated with far-right stances against Islam and same-sex marriage, and a style of “pro-Western culture” politics similar to that of France’s National Front. He and Trump are busily pursuing what seems to be a two-pronged program of dismantling regulations of every sort while arming the repressive apparatuses aimed at domestic groups.
The alt-right influence can also be seen in the way Trump defined his candidacy as more of a movement than a traditional electoral campaign. He has continued holding campaign-style rallies after the election was over, to keep his mass base mobilized. Bannon’s task is to frame the public narrative that will keep that base mobilized against any opposition, whether from moderate Republicans, liberals, or the left, that tries to block Trump’s appointments or policies. The violence and threats we saw during the election are likely to get much worse.
Hence what we are up against is not only the normal state apparatus, but assorted non-state actors as well. This might create a situation similar to that of many countries in Latin America, where the government blames paramilitary groups for some of the worst atrocities. Non-state actors will sometimes act under official direction, sometimes not, but their effect will undoubtedly embolden human-rights violations by law enforcement, from the local police to immigration agents, who will also enjoy diminished oversight. There are already Nazi sympathizers on the inside of these organizations, and some of them are people of color: Latinos are not immune from harboring an anti-Latino, anti-immigrant racism. Oddly enough, it won’t be just whites, or “pure” white Anglos, who defend the forces of white nationalism.
The best-case scenario will be if the varied far-right groups continue to bicker. In this case, we may “only” be up against a slew of disconnected attacks, and we may be able to use the disagreements among right-wing forces to waylay some reactionary legislation. The worst case scenario would be if the alt-right, suit Nazis, old-school white nationalists, and other far-right forces coalesce, in which case it may no longer be hyperbole to say that we are fighting fascism.
So what is to be done? There is no question that the left must take up a people’s defense against both concrete harassment and the ideological vilification of targeted groups. Antifa (anti-fascist) organizing, which already exists across the country, as well as free legal services and legal defense for those facing deportation and incarceration, are going to be more important than ever. We will also need a massive effort to defend poor communities, white included, who will have less access to health care, education, affordable housing, and a living wage. It is estimated that states that refuse to increase their Medicaid rolls are going to cause 27,000 unnecessary deaths per year. This is a life-and-death struggle.
But we also need to go on the offensive, to build the spheres of meaningful political and civic engagement, from labor unions to neighborhood organizations to progressive religious communities to national networks. Progressive political groups of all sorts can help build and protect civil society, but they will now have to take security culture very seriously in regard to membership lists and online activity. We should also work to force existing mainstream organizations to take a stand, to drop their apolitical alibis, and actively defend democracy.
We have to combat fatalism. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter are two powerful recent social movements that were created by young people who rejected the idea that they were powerless, even in the face of the power of Wall Street and a racist state. Our situation is not hopeless.
Linda Martín Alcoff’s most recent book is The Future of Whiteness, Polity Press, 2015. Her website is alcoff.com. José Martín is an anti fascist and copwatch organizer, researcher and media commentator.
Here are some newly emerging radical groups doing broad-based organizing to check out.
Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)
Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.
Cosecha — Action Network
A new nonviolent movement fighting for the humane and permanent protection of immigrants in this country.
If Not Now
Fighting for a vibrant, liberated Jewish community that supports freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians
The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
Focuses on understanding what racism is, where it comes from, how it functions, why it persists and how it can be undone.
Organizes, trains and mentors white people to take collective action to end racism, war and empire, and to support efforts to build power in working-class communities of color.
The Torch Network is a network of militant antifascists across (but not limited to) the United States.
Don’t forget there are also many local groups doing important work too.
Recommended read: Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything by Becky Bond and Zack Exley.