The phrase of August: “alt-right”. Hillary Clinton used it in a speech last Thursday to describe a Republican Party occupied by extremists. Donald Trump, she alleged, has given a platform to a ragbag of racists and sexists – their influence reflected in the power enjoyed by Trump’s new campaign chief Steve Bannon.
Bannon is the man behind Breitbart, the online newszine that asked its readers “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?” His ex-wife once accused him of making disparaging remarks about Jews, which is bad publicity for a presidential campaign that has already been accused of anti-Semitism. So is the GOP ticket a Trojan horse for neo-fascism?
Not really. Probably not. Time will tell. The fact is that it’s very hard in the moment to judge precisely what’s driving a presidential campaign or what it represents – you need a good decade of distance and sober reflection before the historians can do that. For now, we should acknowledge that the alt-right is a small but significant force and that it has found its candidate. It is largely found online, probably overwhelmingly male, obsessed with culture rather than economics (it’s hard to discern a view on, say, taxation), hugely critical of the Republican establishment and reactionary. And it likes Donald Trump, who has occasionally retweeted its activists and pushes policy on immigration and Islam that is straight from the alt-right playbook. The hiring of Bannon thus makes it tempting to read into Trump an ideological framework that, actually, isn’t there.
Proof is the fact that Bannon’s appointment coincides not with Trump becoming more Trumpy but, in fact, becoming less Trumpy. Last week he appeared to u-turn slightly on immigration, indicating that some illegal immigrants will not be forced to leave the country under his administration. This is bigger than it sounds. Trump’s whole candidacy was defined by his support for a wall. The wall probably stays. The rhetoric about Mexico paying for it is gone, however. And lots of Mexicans will, maybe, remain in America even if it goes up. This is almost no different from boilerplate Republican policy.
Some Trump fans are upset about this u-turn, most don’t seem to care. That’s significant, too. It suggests that Trumpism is a lot more about the appeal of Trump the man than it is his policies – in which case, trying to ascertain any kind of ideological coherence is a waste of time. The things that Trump does believe in – competition with China, investing in infrastructure, reviewing outdated alliances – he’s been saying since the 1980s, long before the alt-right might have influenced him. On everything else he has shown a willingness to negotiate, in a way that suggests he follows the advice of the last person he spoke to. My gut, to use a Trumpism, is that the Trump children have far more influence over The Donald than Friedrich Nietzsche or Oswald Spengler. Ivanka Trump, never forget, is married to a Jewish businessman and delivered a speech at the Republican Convention that was seven shades of Hillary.
Then there’s the difficulty of dissecting the alt-right itself. Dave Weigel has produced a handy list of the people and organisations most often quoted by it – but they’re folks who have been around for years and are on their last legs or worse. Joe Sobran and Sam Francis are both dead, and would probably hate the internet if they’d lived long enough to see it. Nigel Farage, who appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Trump, is surrounded by young alt-right men but isn’t really alt-right himself. Marine Le Pen is 1930s right. Even David Duke is back on the scene, announcing that his day has come. The former KKK activist has been screwing around in national politics, and getting nowhere, since the 1980s. He was a Democrat back then, by the way.
No, the real alt-right is thousands of Twitter accounts – usually anonymous – that spend their days and nights trolling black Hollywood actresses and Jewish journalists. To take these trolls, give them a title, and roll them together with long-term, legitimate anti-war, pro-life, constitutionalist thinkers and shakers is rather unfair. It would be as inaccurate as branding every conservative of the Goldwater era a Goldwaterite when some were libertarians, some were religious conservatives, some were racists etc.
So there’s a risk of conflating various political projects into some grand movement, and deciding that the whole thing is a coherent conspiracy with a direct line to Trump. The alt-right would love you to think that, as would Hillary Clinton. The truth is so much more complicated.