What Is the Alt-Right?

The Alt-Right and Why It's an Issue in 2017

Steve Bannon
Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon has called Brietbart News "the platform for the alt-right.". Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Alt-Right movement is a loosely connected group of young, disaffected Republicans and white nationalists who rely on web forums and social media to spread their message. The Alt-Right rose to national prominence for their support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in the 2016 election. 

Members of the group describe themselves as holding “right-wing views which are not hybridized with the Left like public right-wingers are forced to be.” Those views include supporting the preservation of white culture in the United States, according to The New York Times.

Why Everyone Is Talking About the Alt-Right

"Alt-Right" became a household term during the 2016 presidential election when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton mentioned the movement at a campaign rally in August of that year, describing it as holding “ideas on the extremist fringe of the conservative right." 

"This is not conservatism as we have known it," Clinton said at the time. "This is not Republicanism as we have known it. These are race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman — all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’" 

Members of the Alt-Right celebrated Clinton's prime-time use of the term because it thrust the once-obscure movement into the national spotlight and prompted scores of news stories across the world. They took issue, however, with her description of their ideas as racist; alt-righters prefer to use the terms "racialism."

What Does the Alt-Right Believe?

Members of the Alt-Right consider themselves the antithesis of mainstream Beltway, or establishment, conservatives. They deeply oppose the mainstream immigration policy and latched onto Trump's controversial proposals to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States and to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Members of the Alt-Right movement often share this quote from Trump about immigration: "There is only one core issue in the immigration debate and it's the well-being of the American people." The conservative news organization Breitbart, a popular source of information among members of the Alt-Right movement, described halting immigration as a primary platform goal of the movement.

"Alt-righters describe establishment conservatives who care more about the free market than preserving western culture, and who are happy to endanger the latter with mass immigration where it serves the purposes of big business, as 'cuckservatives.' Halting, or drastically slowing, immigration is a major priority for the alt-right. While eschewing bigotry on a personal level, the movement is frightened by the prospect of demographic displacement represented by immigration."

The conservative thinker Jonah Goldberg described members of the Alt-Right as a group of people who believe society should be organized "on the assumption that white people are genetically superior, or that white culture is inherently superior, and that we should have either state-imposed or culturally-imposed segregation between the races, no race mixing with the lower brown people."

Racism and the Alt-Right

Writing on Breitbart, Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos described the movement as amorphous but also as "youthful, subversive" and working through the "underground edges of the internet" such as 4chan and Reddit to make their point. "For decades, the concerns of those who cherish western culture have been openly ridiculed and dismissed as racist. The alt-right is the inevitable result. No matter how silly, irrational, tribal or even hateful the Establishment may think the alt-right’s concerns are, they can’t be ignored, because they aren’t going anywhere," Bokhari and Yiannopoulos wrote.

Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education said the Alt-Right movement "inherits a long and dreary tradition of thought from Friedrich Hegel to Thomas Carlyle to Oswald Spengler to Madison Grant to Othmar Spann to Giovanni Gentile to Trump’s speeches. This tradition sees something else going on in history: not liberty vs. power, but something like a more meta struggle that concerns impersonal collectives of tribe, race, community, great men, and so on."

The Alt-Right describes itself on Reddit this way:

"The Alt-Right, unlike the dominant ideology of the 20th Century (Liberalism/Conservatism), examines the world through a lens of realism. Rather than continue to look at the world through the ideological blinders that Liberalism imposes in its dogmatic evangelism of the Equalitarian religion, we prefer to look & examine social relations & demographics from a perspective of what's real. Thus, racial & sexual realism is a key component of the Alt-Right - perhaps the key component that ties the diverse factions within it together.
"Another core principle of the Alt-Right is Identitarianism. Identitarianism is the prioritization of social identity, regardless of political persuasion.Thus, the Alt-Right promotes White Identity and White Nationalism."

Who Is the Alt-Right?

Identifying those who claim to be members of the Alt-Right is difficult as most operate anonymously online.

Three self-identified leaders of the Alt-Right movement are:

  • Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute, which describes itself as being "dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of  people of European descent in the United States, and around the world." 
  • Peter Brimelow of VDare, an anti-immigration website that has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Jared Taylor, a founder and editor of the publication American Renaissance. He has described the primary belief of the Alt-Right as being "that race is a biological fact and that it’s a significant aspect of individual and group identity and that any attempt to create a society in which race can be made not to matter will fail."

Definition and Origin of the Term Alt-Right

The "alt" in Alt-Right is shorthand for "alternative." Members of the Alt-Right movement see themselves as different than traditional mainstream conservatives. As The Associated Press, the world's largest news organization, defined it:

"’Alt-right’ is short for ‘alternative right,’ to distinguish the movement from mainstream conservatism. There’s no one way to define its ideology, but it is often associated with efforts on the far right to preserve ’white identity,’ oppose multiculturalism and defend ‘Western values.’ Adherents say those values are increasingly under attack with the rise of racial minorities in the U.S. and as the left pushes ‘political correctness.’ Some adherents sometimes refer to themselves as ‘Europeanists’ or ‘white nationalists,’ rejecting the labels of racist and white supremacist." 

Does Donald Trump Endorse the Alt-Right?

Trump has not spoken openly about the Alt-Right. He has not endorsed the movement. And he has denied claims that he is sending signals to the Alt-Right by discussing his views on immigration. Many political observers did, however, believe Trump embraced the movement when he hired the chairman of Breitbart News, Stephen Bannon, the top executive of his presidential campaign and later, his chief strategist and senior counselor. "We're the platform for the alt-right," Bannon was quoted as saying of Breitbart.

A Trump spokesperson said neither the candidate nor the campaign were familiar with the Alt-Right movement or its beliefs.

Said Trump: "I don't even know, nobody even knows what it is. And she [Clinton] didn't even know what it was. This is a term that was just given, that frankly there's no Alt-Right, or Alt-Left. All I'm embracing is common-sense ..." 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, described Trump as being a "hero to the Alt-Right. Through a series of semi-organized campaigns, Alt-Right activists applied the 'cuckservative' slur to every major Republican primary candidate except Trump, who regularly rails against 'political correctness,' Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, Chinese, and others. They have also worked hard to affix the ​Alt-Right brand to Trump through the use of hashtags and memes."

Jonah Goldberg described Trump's appeal to the Alt-Right this way: "Trump is not an alt-righter, but his political inexperience, his anti-establishment persona, and his ignorance of, and hostility to, many basic tenets of conservatism created a golden opportunity for the alt-righters to latch onto his candidacy."

What Mainstream Conservatives Say About the Alt-Right

Many mainstream Republicans and conservatives claimed to know very little about the Alt-Right movement when Hillary Clinton uttered its name in 2016. “It’s a nasty, virulent strain of something. I don’t even know what it is, other than that it isn’t us. It isn’t what we believe in,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. Few elected Republicans have condemned the group. 

Pepe the Frog and the Alt-Right

Alt-Righters latched onto a comic book character​ known as Pepe the Frog in its memes. In 2016, the Anti-Defamation League said the character was being used on social media in altered form to "suggest racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted notions."

"Images of the frog, variously portrayed with a Hitler-like mustache, wearing a yarmulke or a Klan hood, have proliferated in recent weeks in hateful messages aimed at Jewish and other users on Twitter," the Anti-Defamation League wrote in September.

"4chan’s Pepe the Frog meme was wildly popular among ‘normies’ — until white nationalists decorated him with swastikas and gave him a Trump button," The Daily Beast wrote.