Is the US alt-right 'making racism cool again'?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/AFP | Man makes slashing motion across his throat toward counter-protesters as he marches with other white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017.

Social media savvy and politically incorrect, the alt-right movement’s young white supremacists are making noise in the United States, even as they struggle to define themselves. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look.


"I know I keep repeating myself but when you're asked to disavow Nazis, remember, you're also called a Nazi, too, for voting Republican”, Ashley, an American conservative, sneered on Twitter last week. The young woman reels off racist ideas to her tens of thousands of followers and belongs to the hardline conservative alt-right movement, which advocates for the supremacy of whites over the rest of mankind.

The alt-right - as in, alternative right-wing - has existed as a movement in the US for a decade, but was still relatively unknown only a year ago. It grabbed the limelight during a 2016 presidential campaign rife with hardline rhetoric and political incorrectness. On August 12, its members demonstrated alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, on the fringes of which counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed in a car-ramming attack.

Richard Spencer, the 39-year-old far-right activist who spawned the alt-right movement toward the end of the 2000s, is credited with coining the term. He lays out his thoughts -- xenophobic, sexist and racist -- on, to which a so-called “meta-political manifesto” was added recently.

“Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity,” Spencer writes in the manifesto, using the term “Aryan” and cataloguing values dear to him: pro-“White America”, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-refugee, pro-gun. In his “Charlottesville Statement,” Spencer writes: “Racially or ethnically defined states are legitimate and necessary.” He adds, “Whites alone defined America as a European society and political order.”

The Anti-Defamation League, a century-old anti-discrimination organisation, entitled its online introduction to the alt-right “A Primer about the New White Supremacy”. The League writes: “People who identify with the alt-right regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not sufficiently support racism and anti-Semitism.”

'White nationalists, conspiracists, social-media trolls'

New Yorker journalist Andrew Marantz, in an October 2016 piece, for his part blasted the alt-right as having “no consistent ideology; it is a label, like ‘snob’ or ‘hipster’, that is often disavowed by people who exemplify it”. Marantz called it “a loose affiliation of white nationalists, neo-monarchists, masculinists, conspiracists, belligerent nihilists, and social-media trolls.” He added, “The term typically applies to conservatives and reactionaries who are active on the internet and too anti-establishment to feel at home in the Republican Party.”

A new label pinned to an old concept. Indeed, the alt-right toes the same line as white supremacists in the United States: the notion that whites are superior to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, and Jews.

While the rhetoric is hardly new, the movement, the name of which has a vaguely high-tech ring to it, aspires to appear more trendy than traditional far-right groups, like Neo-Nazis or the musty Ku Klux Klan, from which the alt-right is otherwise hardly distinguishable.

Richard Spencer's "Hail Trump!", Washington, November 2016

Spencer is known for having uttered a “Hail Trump!” in Washington in November, shortly after Donald Trump’s election to the White House, before a crowd among whom members extended their right arms in Nazi salutes. The alt-right also draws inspiration from the KKK, wielding fiery torches during its own gatherings, Klan-style.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the KKK, the “oldest of American hate groups”, counts no more than 5,000 to 8,000 members, “split among dozens of different - and often warring - organisations that use the Klan name”, down from four million members in the 1920s. Initially Anti-African-American, the KKK later extended its ire to Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and Catholics, the Center notes. All, it appears, without attracting today’s next generation of white nationalists.

Shedding hoods

The alt-right, meanwhile, wants to “make racism cool again,” as the left-leaning US bi-monthly Mother Jones puts it, by relying on vast online communities on Reddit, 4chan, and blogs. A number of former Klan members, including Trump supporter David Duke, shed their white robes and pointy hoods to join the new movement.

Still, the ties with like-minded movements appear to be hindering the growth of the alt-right, the ambitions of which remain vague. On Twitter, Ashley insists that "it goes without saying that every modern person condemns Nazism. Requiring people to repeat it daily before going about their lives is mad". Contacted by FRANCE 24, she nevertheless declined to comment on the ties that allegedly bind the two currents.

Others associated with the Alt-Right, meanwhile, seem increasingly determined to downplay their ties to it. Top editors at Breitbart News, for one, now distance themselves from the claim they are the “platform for the Alt-Right” as then-executive chairman Steve Bannon called it last year, before he left to join Trump’s White House (a role Bannon lost on Friday).

Might there be a stigma developing against “alt-right” that is hindering the movement’s own capacity to develop further? It bears noting that a slightly less radical current materialised early this year dubbed “alt-lite”.

In any case, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 917 hate groups are currently active in the United States, up from 457 in 1999.

This article has been translated from the original, in French.

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