The alt-right has attracted a lot of attention over the last couple of years, propelled into prominence by the Trump phenomenon in the US. It is best seen as part of the general resurgence of the far right in the US, across Europe, Brazil and elsewhere, but whereas much that has crawled out into the light of day is familiar, the alt-right is apparently something new.
George Hawley’s book is intended to bring us all up-to-date with developments. He emphasises the movement’s racism. It views everything through “a racial lens” with its more extreme voices calling for “the creation of one or more racially pure white ethnostates in North America”. Instead of parading in white hoods or with swastika armbands, however, the alt-right is, he argues, “unique in that it is well-adapted to the digital age”.
He captures its central distinguishing characteristics very well, pointing out that while it intends to manifest itself on the streets, at the moment, “it remains a predominantly online phenomenon” with most of its supporters remaining anonymous. Their activity is mainly through “online message boards, blogs and social media” with the intention of “penetrating the public discourse”.
It hopes to make its particular racist discourse acceptable and then when the time is ripe it will make its move. Certainly the Trump movement has provided it with a large and growing audience much more quickly than the alt-right expected.
Hawley’s discussion of Trump’s own relationship with the alt-right is very interesting. He chronicles Trump’s political shifts over the years which range from advocating a massive one-off tax on the super-rich back in the 1990s to a regressive flat-rate tax for all Americans regardless of income a few years later.
Today, of course, he is a right wing authoritarian populist, an aspiring Bonapartist, who has made hostility to non-white immigrants one of the cornerstones of his appeal. While he is without any doubt a racist, his racism is different from that of the alt-right, even though he has retweeted alt-right posts on a number of occasions. And, the alt-right have claimed that they “memed him into office”. This wildly exaggerates their influence.
The alt-right’s most important attempt at street mobilisation so far has been the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. On the 11th, the far right demonstrators outnumbered their opponents, but on the 12th, they were heavily outnumbered and effectively prevented from demonstrating. It was frustration at this failure that arguably led to the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
Trump, of course, refused to repudiate the alt-right, although, as Hawley points out, many of his supporters condemned them.
While Hawley provides a great wealth of information about the alt-right that is tremendously useful, there are problems. Certainly the question and answer format of the book did not work for this reader, although that might just be me. More important, the book would have benefitted from more historical context and unfortunately the weakest chapter of the book is what is surely the most important: how to fight the bastards.