As Donald Trump essentially secures the Republican presidential nomination, there is a new focus on a particularly troubling part of his base: the “alternative right” or alt-right, an amorphous movement of ultra-reactionaries and white nationalists.
While it’s difficult to estimate the size of this group — its main activity is on the Internet, where a single troll can impersonate a dozen zealots — the phenomenon and its impact are very real.
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter, an ardent Trump booster whose 2015 anti-immigration bestseller, “¡Adios, America!: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole,” almost certainly helped inspire the main themes of Trump’s campaign, routinely channels lightly camouflaged alt-right ideas. Breitbart News, the largest conservative site to embrace Trump, has been increasingly open about its alt-right sympathies, recently publishing a long, mostly favorable piece about the movement.
The emergence of the alt-right as a force in American political life has caused dismay among mainstream conservatives and liberals. But hand-wringing is not enough; it’s time to ask who bears at least partial responsibility for its rise.
Mainstream conservatism is far from blameless. In a remarkably candid post on the RedState.com website, conservative commentator Ben Howe writes, “Donald Trump is my fault as much as anyone else’s.” Howe admits that for years, he turned a blind eye to extremist rhetoric among his allies in conservative and tea party ranks — rhetoric bordering on bigotry. “I ignored my gut and my moral compass,” he writes.
Several years ago, much of the conservative establishment winked at Trump’s promotion of conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s alleged Kenyan birth. Coulter, who has been a peddler of hate for years, trafficking in vile insults toward political opponents as well as racially charged polemics, was treated as a star on the right, her nastiness excused as her unique brand of wit.
But it’s not only the right that has soul-searching to do. The alt-right’s enablers include those on the left who have contributed to a toxic racial climate. The left-wing Web magazine Salon, which decries right-wing racism, should take a look in the mirror — or rather, at its own steady stream of white-bashing, including a screed last December titled “White men must be stopped: The very future of mankind depends on it.”
The culprits are many. There are the Internet progressives who think tweeting “White people are the worst” is social justice activism and “so says the white dude/white lady” is a devastating rebuttal in an argument. There are the campus activists whose tactics include getting in their fellow students’ faces yelling, “[expletive] your white privilege!” There are the educators who use diversity workshops at freshman orientation to berate young people for being white. There are the social justice advocates who argue that the institutions of liberal democracy, including freedom of speech, are just a tool to perpetuate white supremacy.
Guess what: If you treat hate speech based on skin color and ethnic background as acceptable when directed at whites, it weakens the stigma against all racism. If you promote identity politics and demonize white people, many white people will embrace their brand of identity politics. If you keep saying that American democracy is rooted in white supremacy, some will conclude that we need to take democracy back for the white man. If liberal discourse turns hostile to whites, some whites will seek alternatives in very bad places.
Perhaps Trump’s hijacking of the GOP will be the wake-up call we need to start rebuilding a healthier culture. “We have met the enemy, and he is us” has never been so true.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.