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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.2 > The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America

The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America

Until recently, the alt-right was relegated to the cultural and political fringe consisting primarily of an obscure, largely on-line subculture. But after Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory, its detractors feared that it could soon become a player at the very center of American politics. After all, alt-right activists were among Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, and in return, some believed that they deserved a seat at the table. Back in August of 2016, the alt-right was catapulted into the national limelight when Hillary Clinton excoriated the movement, seeking to link it to her challenger in a much-heralded speech delivered in Reno, Nevada.1 That same month, Breitbart.com executive Steve Bannon had declared the website “the platform for the alt-right.”2 In the wake of Trump’s victory, Bannon joined Trump in the White House as a senior advisor. How did the movement gain traction in recent years? And now that Trump is president, could the alt-right change the American political landscape?

The Roots of the Alternative Right

To its critics, the alt-right is just a code term for white nationalism, a much-maligned movement associated with neo-Nazis and Klansmen.3 The movement, however, is more nuanced, as it encompasses a much broader spectrum of rightist activists and intellectuals besides white nationalists, including those who believe in libertarianism, men’s rights, cultural conservatism, isolationism, and populism. Nonetheless, its origins can be traced to various American white nationalist movements that have endured for decades.

More than any other figure, the late Willis Carto was responsible for creating the semblance of a movement that came to be known as the far right in post-World War II America. Through the myriad of organizations he founded—Liberty Lobby, the Institute for Historical Review, and the Populist Party among others—he reached out to a wide array of rightists including white nationalists, Holocaust revisionists, conspiracy buffs, anti-globalists, and survivalists. But his big tent approach had only limited success and by the late 1990s was foundering. Furthermore, he was forced into bankruptcy in 2000, after losing a civil suit to a former subsidiary. A newspaper he launched—American Free Press—is still published, but its readership is limited. Carto passed away in 2015 at the age of 89.4 Although the various organs he established reached many rightists, some in the movement found his approach woefully unfit to gain credibility as a respected mass movement insofar as it seemed resigned to remain as an oppositional subculture. A number of well-educated rightist intellectuals sought to establish a new ideology capable of resonating with conservatives, especially young people.

Willis Carto
Illustrations in this article by Anna Maltese

Addressing the H.L. Mencken Club in 2008, Paul Gottfried described the “alternative right” as a dissident far right ideology that rejected mainstream conservatism. Gottfried—a conservative Jewish academic —previously coined the term “paleoconservative” in a rhetorical effort to distance himself and like-minded intellectuals from neo-conservatives who were becoming the dominant force in the Republican Party and broader conservative movement.5 The late Sam Francis, a former columnist for the Washington Times who was fired for his open advocacy of white nationalism, was regarded as the intellectual godfather of the paleoconservative movement. For years, he sharply criticized the Republican Party for its timidity, strategic myopia, and ideological bareness. Only a radical reorientation—a “middle American revolution”— could save the conservative movement and insure the European character of the nation.6 But the lackluster results of his friend Pat Buchannan in the 2000 presidential election, demonstrated the weakness of this approach at that time.

To be sure, some of the most radical elements of the far right have long advocated a revolutionary program. Groups such as the Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance, and the World Church of the Creator have preached RAHOWA (racial holy war) against ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government). Many were inspired by the late William L. Pierce’s Turner Diaries, a novel about a race war that consumes America that was one of the inspirations for Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

These exhortations to revolution did not resonate with most people. What is more, after 9/11, many of the revolutionary right’s leading representatives were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism statutes and sent to prison. By the mid-2000s, the far right appeared to have reached its nadir.

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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE DANGER ARTICLES: Why We Should Be Concerned About Artificial Superintelligence; Is Artificial Intelligence an Existential Threat?; Artificial Intelligence: Simulation, Not Synthesis; The Rise of the Alt-Right and the Politics of Polarization in America; Delusions of the Imagination: Debunking an Early 19th Century Medical Quack Device — The “Tractor”; Area 51: What is Really Going on There?; Is Race a Useful Concept?; The Three Shades of Atheism; COLUMNS: pH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction; Are You An Unconscious Racist? REVIEWS of: Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas; How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality; Not a Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science; Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley; Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff; Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Chemtrails
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