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In November 2008, a professor named Paul Gottfried stood up in front of a few dozen people at the first gathering of his newly formed H.L. Mencken Club. It was an event that, at the time, made almost no impression on the general public. It attracted no press coverage or scholarly attention. In fact, before a reporter phoned him up in 2016, Gottfried himself says it had slipped his mind that, through his speech, he had inspired the name of a nascent political movement.
Gottfried's club was named after one of America's most famous early twentieth-century journalists and was inspired by Mencken's constant questioning of the "egalitarian creed, democratic crusades, and welfare statism with which American democracy was already identified during his lifetime."
It was not a good time for the right in America. Less than a month before, Barack Obama had been elected president, and Democrats had tightened their control on Congress. The presidency of George W. Bush was about to end amidst economic calamity and historically low approval figures.
Gottfried — bald, jowly and bespectacled — looked like a central casting version of what he was: a philosophy professor at a small college in Pennsylvania. He described himself as a "paleoconservative" — a term which, according to some sources, he also invented.
Paleoconservativism — a Stone Age-y play on "neoconservativism" — is a branch of thought that's had a rump of a following on the right in America for many years. Paleos dislike immigration and multiculturalism. In contrast to neoconservatives, they are skeptical of free trade and foreign military adventures. They look to the past and are strict traditionalists when it comes to gender, ethnicity, race and social order. It was a movement which held the seeds of the alt-right, and one that had been confined to the political fringes for decades. Before Trump, the most high-profile politician with paleoconservative leanings was Pat Buchanan, who in a presidential run in 2000 scored 0.4% of the popular vote.
Despite the small, subdued crowd, the Mencken Society's first meeting in a Baltimore hotel included some key characters in what would become the brain trust of the alt-right. Peter Brimelow, a British journalist and critic of multiculturalism and immigration, attended and spoke at the conference, as did Jared Taylor, editor of the far-right magazine American Renaissance.
Gottfried, standing in front of the audience, announced:
We are part of an attempt to put together an independent intellectual right, one that exists without movement establishment funding and one that our opponents would be delighted not to have to deal with. Our group is also full of young thinkers and activists, and if there is to be an independent right, our group will have to become its leaders.
He then launched into a ramble taking in Muslim control of the Iberian Peninsula, the last few decades of American conservative thought, Elizabeth I's defeat of the Spanish Armada and Flannery O'Connor.
While it was not headline-producing stuff, Gottfried did manage to identify the broad outlines and deep concerns of what would eventually become the alt-right movement. He gave a nod to the far-right websites Takimag and Brimelow's VDARE.com, from where most of the intellectual energy of the movement would come in the years before the alt-right gained anything like mainstream attention. He put his finger on the outsider nature of the small group and identified the Republican and conservative establishment as enemy number one.
"A question that has been asked of me and of others in this room is why we don't try to join the official conservative movement," he said. "This movement controls hundreds of millions of dollars, TV networks, strings of newspapers and magazines, multitudinous foundations and institutes, and a bevy of real and bleached blondes on Fox News."
He concluded that the establishment — or, as Gottfried put it, the "dark side" — wouldn't have them. He continued, sarcastically:
It has treated us, in contrast to such worthies as black nationalists, radical feminists, and open-borders advocates, as being unfit for admittance into the political conversation. We are not viewed as honorable dissenters but depicted as subhuman infidels or ignored in the same way as one would a senile uncle who occasionally wanders into one's living room.
Although he didn't go into much detail or name names, he hinted at the alt-right's obsession with race-based science and questionable theories about the relative intelligence levels of different ethnic groups, decrying what he described as censorship against anyone outside of what he saw as a neo-conservative and center-left consensus. "This imperial ban has been extended even to brilliant social scientists and statisticians who are viewed as excessively intimate with the wrong people," he said. And in just a few words he encapsulated the stubborn self-righteousness which would come to characterize the alt-right: "We are convinced that we are right in our historical and cultural observations while those who have quarantined us are wrong."
Gottfried never actually put a name on his imagined movement. A decade later, even as he continued to sympathize with some of the alt-right's leading figures, he rued being associated with it. But the title of his address was dramatic and catchy, and it contained the name that, in a shorter form, would stick: "The Decline and Rise of the Alternative Right."
* * *
The Mencken Club continued its quest over the years of the Obama presidency, holding annual conferences and banging the drum for the "independent right." But a group holding meetings in Baltimore hotels with doddery professors behind lecterns wasn't ever going to build a mass movement in the internet age. Others took up the cause and advanced the idea of what was initially dubbed the "alternative right." Chief among them was Gottfried protégée Richard Spencer. Spencer's background included an expensive prep school in Texas and an academic career — Yale, Chicago, Virginia. He dropped out of Duke's Ph.D. program and eventually settled in the small town of Whitefish, Montana. In 2010, he founded the website AlternativeRight. com. It became the first thrust at defining the alt-right and developing a raw online communications strategy.
Spencer and Gottfried would later slightly disagree on who came up with the name "alternative right," with Spencer claiming authorship and Gottfried insisting it was a joint effort. However, Gottfried was made an editor of the new site, and Spencer plucked his inspiration from the professor's words, declaring that the effort marked "an attempt to forge a new intellectual right-wing that is independent and outside the 'conservative' establishment."
AlternativeRight.com was the first of Spencer's alt-right outlets, and, like the Mencken Club, it didn't find a huge audience at first. It was eventually shuttered in 2013. But those early missives give an insight into the formulation of the alt-right argument style. They give the overall impression of a small group of academic-minded people holed up together, lobbing words into the ether and seeing what, if anything, might stick.
Spencer aimed for a freewheeling bloggy style, using short posts to comment on news reports and, in what would later become a hallmark of the alt-right, ranging outside of the world of politics. At the same time, the worldview of AlternativeRight. com was framed in ethnic and racial terms, with posts, for instance, about how white, blonde women are naturally more attractive than black women, or pointing out violent crime against gays in majority-black neighborhoods.
But Spencer's goal was always to appeal to a broader audience — including those who wouldn't even think of showing up at a Mencken Club meeting. Posts dealt with the stock market, state fairs, MC Hammer. One started by quoting a report that the rules of Scrabble would be changed to allow proper nouns and names including, Spencer pointed out, African-American names: "Mattel has failed to account for Americans' creativity in naming their offspring. Indeed, the store of possible names would seem limitless and fluid. There must be three or four different spellings of 'Shaniqua.' Though granted, few Chaniquas play Scrabble."
After a woman was recorded on a London tram shouting racial abuse at other passengers while her toddler played in her lap ("Load of black people and a load of fucking Polish," the woman said), Spencer opined:
Her language is crude; her feelings are real. Who can deny that her native London has been destroyed? Certainly not the Diversity on the tram, who, mouthing television commentary, can only claim they're doing jobs the Brits won't. This woman has apparently been arrested for "racially aggravated public order offence" If any were in doubt of the true totalitarian nature of Cool Britannia, let Epic Tram Lady stand as an example.
The label "Epic Tram Lady" never really did catch on, however the post was an early display of the alt-right's style of hero worship, where activists elevate ordinary or obscure folks who perform non-politically-correct, illegal or even violent acts into feted champions.
A central tenet of both Spencer's writings and the intellectual arm of the alt-right is the idea of "human biodiversity" (HBD). There is a collection of posts tagged with that label on Alternative Right.com. The idea is an exaggerated and simplified interpretation of complicated human genetic variation. The HBD crowd argues that because different people have different traits, and some of these traits are linked to genetics, genes — often expressed through sorting people into tremendously broad racial and ethnic groupings — are determinative. In its most basic form: whites have higher IQs than blacks, while East Asians and European Jews have higher IQs than whites. A slice of alt-righters — call them the intellectual utopians — take this even further and argue that the world should be sorted and divided according to ethnic and religious groups. The world, Spencer and others argue, should be broken up into ethnic nation-states. And because he is white, he is primarily concerned with the ethnic nation-state or states devoted to white people. "We're going to have to have hegemony," he told me during an interview. "And that doesn't mean we control the entire planet, but we are going to have to create a realm that is ours and is always safe for white people."
As for how to achieve this, Spencer calls for "peaceful ethnic cleansing." When pressed on how that might happen, he suggests paying people to move. "I think re-immigration is definitely possible," he said, "and I think it could be done entirely humanely and entirely through financial incentives."
In a 2016 speech, Spencer trotted out a rhetorical flourish often and effectively deployed by the alt-right: paint today's radical reactionary ideas as having roots in a long-lost progressive past:
We should remember that in the last century, racially defined nation-building was a major "progressive" cause. We now think that the so-called "liberal elites" have always been dedicated to multiculturalism and race-mixing. This is not quite the case, as liberals have a history of adopting "national determination" and even "ethno-nationalism" as their causes. In 1919, following the Great War, the world's statesman met in Paris to (for lack of a better term) re-map the world after the dissolution of the defeated empires. New countries were invented (the Kingdom of Croats, Serbs, Slovenes), old ones were reborn (Poland), and ethnicities got their day in the Sun (Czechoslovakia). Related to this process was the Balfour Declaration and British mandate for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Nationalists of many stripes captured the hearts and minds of political actors. Today, in the public imagination, "ethnic-cleansing" has been associated with civil war and mass murder (understandably so). But this need not be the case. 1919 is a real example of successful ethnic redistribution — done by fiat, we should remember, but done peacefully.
It's odd to call the Treaty of Versailles successful, but more to the point, his posts on AlternativeRight.com raise the question of whether Spencer is as dedicated to the "peaceful" part of his plan as he is to the "ethnic cleansing" part.
A long post from 2011 about the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people, starts reasonably enough: "What kind of "ultra-nationalist" murders the children of his own people? The answer is one who is truly deranged." Spencer then mixes in his own brand of racial politics, an endorsement of Breivik's Muslim hate, and a dash of conspiracy theory, to argue that the killer is worth listening to.
"Anders Behring Breivik's work (if this actually is Anders Breivik's work) is rational and argued; he is clearly influenced by many neoconservative authors, but also many from the non-aligned Right," he writes. "We still aren't sure whether Breivik is the man who perpetrated Friday's bloddy [sic] actions ... But we should most definitely study Breivik's 'European Declaration of Independence.'"
Spencer goes on to quote favorably and at great length from another blog post, this one by Kevin MacDonald, an academic whose writings describe Jewish people as characterized by "ethnocentrism, intelligence and wealth, psychological intensity, aggressiveness," and who has been called "a primary voice for anti-Semitism from far-right intellectuals."
For his part, MacDonald seemed absolutely puzzled that Breivik's manifesto didn't talk more about Jews. "It could well be that his silence on Jewish hostility toward Europe and the West and his rejection of ethnocentrism are motivated by his strategic sense," he wrote.
Still, he went on (remember, this about a mass murderer): "It must be said that he is a serious political thinker with a great many insights and some good practical ideas on strategy." Spencer was enthusiastic: When it came to the study of Breivik's manifesto, "Kevin MacDonald had made an excellent start."
* * *
Spencer's projected image was an attempt at a break from old-school white nationalism. It came through not only in the style of his arguments and his personal style — he's often pictured in sharp suits and interviewed while eating in fashionable restaurants — but also in the scale of his ambition. When I spoke to him, he was clear on his ultimate goal: "I want what could probably be called a global empire. This isn't going to be like Israel, this is going to be something on a very large scale. And that is a homeland for all white people, whether you're German or Celtic or Slavic or English.
"It doesn't matter if it's achievable in our lifetime, or maybe it's utopian, maybe we're always going to be questing after the ethno-state," he said. "I get almost miffed when people say, all we want is a little nation state like Estonia ... a nation-state of that size, or an ethnic enclave, is going to be dominated by bigger powers.
"What I want to create is this bigger civilizational, hegemonic domain."
Spencer envisions an ethnic bloc with a unified foreign policy, a deep skepticism about military action and a common line on immigration.
"I think we need to get over the twentieth century," he said, despite his previous hearkening back to history. "And picking sides in those conflicts, the First or Second World War, we're just being trapped in the past. We just need to recognize that all of it was catastrophic and bad for us. Even for the people who came out on top, it was ultimately bad. I dream we can have a unified foreign policy, there will be one realm.
"It would be one big Roman Empire. It should probably include Near Asia as well. Constantinople is such a profoundly symbolic city. Retaking it, that would be a statement to the world, that would be a statement that we were back."
What would you do, I asked, with the people who were there already — the Turks?
"There's lots of places they can go" he said. "The Middle East or something. Who cares?"
* * *
Spencer's project developed over time. He is at pains to distinguish himself from stereotypical white nationalists who march with hoods on their heads and who, he says, get bogged down in paranoia, doomsday scenarios and bad news. He's also very aware of the limitations of explicit racial appeals in the modern world. After AlternativeRight.com, he planned another online venture, Radix Journal, which he hoped would appeal to a broader cross-section of society.
"Sometimes the movement fails when you have websites called whiterights.com or demographicreality.org, when we're focused so intently and brutally on race" he told me, while adding: "I don't want this to sound sinister. I'm very upfront about what I believe."
"What I wanted for Radix," he continued, "is a journal that includes writing that someone who's apolitical or a leftist or someone who's more literary minded could read and not just be put off immediately by the right-wing race stuff.
Excerpted from "Alt-Right"
Copyright © 2018 Mike Wendling.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Is it OK to Punch a Nazi?, 1,
1 The Intellectuals, 17,
2 The Racialists, 40,
3 The Channers, 48,
4 The Meninists, 60,
5 Language, 73,
6 Media, 104,
7 Neo-Nazis, 129,
8 Ordinary Guys, 142,
9 Conspiracy Theorists, 155,
10 The Violent Fringe, 174,
11 The White House, 193,
12 Downfall, 208,