Sami Cleland | The Alt-Right – Post Seminar Review

By Sami Cleland

I. Not Just Semantics

Our discussion began with an imperative preliminary question: why do we use the term “alt-right” to describe a group of people whose ideology is not merely “alt,” but is explicitly racist, sexist, misogynistic, anti-trans and anti-immigrant? As Jason Stanley noted during the 4/13 seminar, language and verbiage are vital. Word choice can legitimize or ostracize a whole ideology, movement or protest. Black uprisings in America have been described on the one hand as protest (i.e. as legitimate) and on the other as riots (undermining the context of systemic racial oppression and “othering” the so-called “rioters”).

With regards to the white supremacist movement that likes to call itself the “alt-right,” language is especially crucial. “Fascist movements have characteristically been very attuned to the importance of semantic warfare, aware of the way in which speech practices shape and form habits of thought.[1]” The first major victory of the alt-right (I will use the term alt-right for the purposes of this paper, though my preferred terms are white supremacist or white nationalist) is on this plane of semantic warfare. That the majority of the media and the public refer to them as “alt-right” (rather than more apt descriptors that would highlight the racial antagonism central to the group) legitimizes and mainstreams the alt-right’s existence and race-centric ideology.

In a move that predicts many of Trump’s rhetorical tactics, the alt-right co-opts language that would normally oppose them, and in doing so renders such language inert. Guillaume Faye adopts the language of anarchist revolution in Why We Fight, declaring “the first imperative is thus to think of oneself as being in a state of dissidence — in resistance — against the entire system. Hence, the necessity of seriously constructing a real counter-society, an embryo of the coming society.[2]” This language could just as easily find a home in the Invisible Committee’s NOW, which advocates for the creation of an altogether separate and independent “distituent” society “more vibrant and demanding[3]” than the contemporary societal status quo.

Astonishingly, Faye goes so far as to assert the white identitarian movement “fights for social justice.[4]” Again, this is not just semantics. In framing white supremacy as “social justice” for the victimized white male, the alt-right pushes itself from the fringe into the mainstream. The alt-right benefits from the dominance of the seemingly limitless free speech paradigm in America; to call something racist is considered anti-free speech. In this context, by making purportedly “logical” arguments about how race is rational, about how white men deserve an identity politics of their own, the alt-right employs language and semantics to move itself into the American mainstream.

II. Overtly Racist Ideology

            One of the more interesting threads that ran through the discussion was the connection between neoliberal capitalism (i.e. the market) and fascism. Neoliberalism turns a blind eye on underserved portions of the population and then blames them for their own struggles, embracing social Darwinism as a justification in the vast differentiation in outcome (though of course equality of opportunity is equally mythological). The alt-right shifts the social Darwinism of winning/losing in the market economy to winning/losing based upon group membership overtly defined by race. With the alt-right, it becomes clear that wherever you start the discussion, it must end with race.

Alt-right texts and alt-right ideology feature many contradictions. Returning to the market, the alt-right ping pongs (to use Professor Harcourt’s term from 4/13) from market liberalism to notions of a social welfare state (for whites). Why the inconsistency? Simply put, the alt-right doesn’t value internal ideological coherence. The alt-right represents an appeal to emotion.

That said, there is one exception to the general rule of alt-right ideological inconsistency and incoherence: RACE. As Kendall Thomas noted during the discussion, race provides the overarching meme for the situation against which the alt-right is prepared to wage war. The essential work for the alt-right operates at the level of racial conception. This is why a discussion that starts by exploring the alt-right’s economic philosophy inevitably centers race by its conclusion — racial antagonism is dominant unifying force behind the alt-right.

Returning to the texts for a moment, the alt-right isn’t particularly ambiguous about race as their central motivating force. In Why We Fight, Guillaume Faye stresses “one doesn’t fight for ‘ideas’, one fights for a people… ideas are only the struggle’s instruments, not its goal.[5]” Similarly, George Shaw emphasizes the concept of “white genocide” and looks at society from the singular lens of the white male: “because racial or ethnic traits are inherited and mostly unchangeable, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” do not ultimately enrich white lives, but rather tend to make white societies poorer, more dangerous, and finally unlivable for whites.[6]

For the alt-right, racial conflict is a zero-sum game; “every loss has been, in reality, a transfer of power from white males to one or another nonwhite and/or non-male fringe group.[7]” Advances for historically oppressed groups such as blacks, Muslims, Mexicans, Jews, women, the LGBTQ community and more are perceived as losses for the white men that comprise the alt-right. Kendall Thomas theorizes that in this battle to reassert white male superiority, the alt-right offers an alt-dream politics for those for whom the American dream of multiculturalism has become a nightmare. The return of public racial enjoyment is the central political move of the alt-right, and the emphasis on white male superiority is the ideological lifeblood that sustains the alt-right as a movement.

III. The Impotence of Contradiction

            During the seminar, Karl Ekeman led the group through an exploration of whether alt-right texts are logically consistent. In a similar vein, a latter part of the discussion emphasized the contradictions within the alt-right’s economic philosophy. Critiques of the alt-right that focus on their internal inconsistency recall the central tactic of the media’s largely failed resistance to President Trump: pointing out where he contradicts himself. Ultimately, this line of critique fails in both checking President Trump’s worst impulses and in effectively critiquing the alt-right.

In reading alt-right texts, Renata Salecl asks: “what emotions do these texts stir in the white man who reads them?[8]” Emotional and psychological warfare are central to the messaging of alt-right and President Trump; consistency is not. For the alt-right, “provocative language and hate speech are very much encouraged as a tactic of communication.[9]” When the alt-right and the President operate on the plane of emotion, media and academic critiques highlighting inconsistency or contradiction are inevitably powerless.

As Salecl notes, Trump and alt-right texts promise to understand the pain and suffering of the white man; it’s a play on emotion and racial anxiety. The lies and contradiction are not a failure to understand white male suffering; instead, a lack of honestly allows the alt-right (here, including Trump) to play on emotions even more effectively. The migrant Caravan was never actually a threat; it was purely an emotional play. In response to such false emotional appeals, according to Salecl, the left becomes the side that must reaffirm truth and fact[10]. This places the left in an inherently defensive position (from a rhetorical and emotional perspective)[11] as insincere debate endures on the alt-right’s terms.

Further (returning to Trump here), focusing on rhetorical inconsistencies obscures the fact that Trump has been remarkably consistent in many ways, including in his racial antagonism — which happens to be the one ideology that seems to unite the alt-right. The outrageous, the offensive, and the inconsistent or outright false are all tools the alt-right and Trump use to distract from a sustained and consistent operation focused on racial antagonism and the reaffirmation of white supremacy. This is the alt-right; a white supremacist movement that uses truth-distorting language, outrageous distraction and endless contraction to distract from its insidious racist ideology.

[1]Stanley, Jason. Fascist.

[2]Faye, Guillaume. Why We Fight.

[3]Invisible Committee. Now.

[4]Faye, Guillaume. Why We Fight.

[5]Faye, Guillaume. Why We Fight.

[6]Shaw, George. The Alt-Right in the Words of its Members: Introduction.

[7]Id.

[8]Salecl, Renata. Comments During Praxis 4/13.

[9]Salecl, Renata. Emotions and the Praxis of the Alt-Right.

[10]Salecl, Renata. Comments During Praxis 4/13.

[11]Id.

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