The Rise and Fall of the Alt-Right
The alt-right began as an internet discussion space where people gathered to talk about heretical ideas. The key heresies were race realism and sex realism, but cultural and social issues were also frequently discussed. It was an intellectual space, mostly populated by obscure right-wing bloggers who were critiquing aspects of the leftist/humanist worldview, such as racial egalitarianism, feminism and democracy.
There was no specific point in time when this space emerged, but I discovered it in 2013, so I’ll use that as the starting point of the story. There was no name for the space, but the term “Neoreaction” was one of the more popular labels floating around. At the time, “Alternative Right” was the name of a specific website, which was part of that larger space. The Alternative Right website was run by Richard Spencer, who later became a central figure in the alt-right, but Richard Spencer did not create the alt-right. The alt-right was not created by anyone. It just happened.
During 2015 and 2016, an ideology coalesced in that discussion space. It had five core ideas:
- Race realism: Different races behave in different ways, and produce different societies and social outcomes.
- Sex realism: Men and women are different, and those differences matter.
- Racial tribalism: Racial tribalism is natural and good. Whites should organize on the basis of race to advance their common interests.
- Sexual traditionalism: The nuclear family is natural and good. It should be restored and promoted. Sexual deviance and degeneracy (such as promiscuity) should be suppressed and marginalized.
- “IT’S THE JEWS!!!”: The Jews are to blame for the decline of the West. They have used their disproportionate power and influence to push a leftist agenda that is undermining the traditional family structure and replacing the white population of the West by immigration.
I fully agree with the first and second points. Race is real, and sex is real. I mostly disagree with the third. I think that whites should assert their identity and reject anti-white policies and propaganda, but I don’t think that racial tribalism is natural or useful at this point in history. Regarding the fourth, I agree that the nuclear family is an ideal to strive toward and that it should be supported, not undermined. However, I don’t think we need to suppress sexual deviancy. I think we should just stop celebrating sexual disorders and be more honest about human sexuality. Finally, I almost completely disagree with the fifth point. I don’t think the West is declining because of the Jews.
The fifth point is a very important part of the ideology, because it functions to cast blame onto outsiders. It also explains (although not very well) why the good and natural outcomes (white racial tribalism and the nuclear family) are non-existent or in decline. If what is natural and good is not prevailing, then something unnatural or evil must be preventing it. The Jews are portrayed as the enemy within: outsider-insiders who are working against the interests of whites. This theory explains the failure of reality to live up to the ideals of the alt-right, and it provides a scapegoat for the problems of the West.
Ideologies can be designed, but most just emerge out of social and cultural dynamics. That’s what happened with the alt-right. A system of ideas emerged on the internet, and it became an identity signifier for a group of people. In this process, the ideology and the group emerge together. The ideology is essentially the average of the group’s beliefs, and the group is self-selected based on agreement with the ideology. The process is circular. The group defines the beliefs, and the beliefs define the group.
There was no single origin of this ideology, but many of its memes and themes can be traced back to the “The Right Stuff” website (TRS), run by Mike Enoch and his buddies. They were ex-libertarians trying to create a new edgy politics on the right. Their podcast, “The Daily Shoah”, combined heretical right-wing ideas, internet culture and masculine humor. This turned out to be a winning combination, and TRS attracted a huge following, which consisted mostly of young white men. TRS was more than just a discussion space. It was a community and a subculture. It gave those young men a place to belong and something to believe in.
The alt-right mainly appealed to young white men who were sexually and socially frustrated. In many ways, our society and culture are antagonistic to young white men. For obvious reasons, antagonism tends to be reciprocated. Also, young men are naturally motivated to overturn existing power structures. The alt-right gave frustrated young men what their society and culture did not: a positive identity, a sense of belonging, and something to fight for.
To propagate itself, an ideology must tap into human emotions, because emotions motivate action, and ideologies are propagated by human action (mainly by communication). An ideology must motivate its believers to propagate the ideology. The alt-right appealed to tribalism: our instinct to form into competing groups and fight. It generated positive empathy for the in-group (love, in a sense) and negative empathy toward the out-group (hatred). Those emotions generated signaling behavior that propagated the ideology.
But competition also occurs between individuals, not just between groups. Like most primates, male humans compete for dominance. That competition might be more sophisticated among humans than it is among chimps or baboons, but it is motivated by the same basic emotions. The will to power is not (for most people) a desire for some abstract form of power. It is an instinctive desire to be socially dominant. Every society has an internal power struggle, mostly between males. That is especially true for an emergent movement that has no mechanisms for reducing male competition.
Within the alt-right, a status-signaling competition naturally emerged. The members of the alt-right competed for status by being edgy. This edginess took various forms, such as “naming the Jew”, using racial slurs, and posting offensive images. These signals demonstrated the dedication of the signaler to the movement, and also his manliness. Anyone who shied away from being edgy was shamed for being weak and cowardly.
It was an example of real toxic masculinity: unregulated male competition that is destructive to society. It was also an example of a purity-spiral: the process by which the ideas of a movement become increasingly dumbed down and offensive to outsiders, as insiders compete for in-group status. The alt-right developed a tragic case of edginess. The ideas and rhetoric of the alt-right became simpler, stupider, and more offensive to ordinary people. That’s what caused the collapse of the alt-right.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back to when the alt-right was at its peak: mid 2016.
The Trump election was an important part of the rise and fall of the alt-right. It energized the alt-right, because it gave them a short-term, practical objective: winning the election. I think the alt-right was a positive force for Trump in the primaries, but then gradually became somewhat negative during the main election. However, Trump still managed to win, and of course that was a great victory for the alt-right, who felt (correctly or incorrectly) that they had contributed to it.
It’s worth pointing out that Hillary Clinton gave the alt-right a huge boost by referring to it in a speech and tying it to Trump. This led many people to “join” the movement without really understanding it. Also, many people jumped on the alt-right bandwagon to seek attention or to advance their careers. Most of them later abandoned the label when it became toxic.
After the Trump victory, there was a triumphant NPI conference, organized by Richard Spencer (NPI = “National Policy Institute”, one of Spencer’s many projects). Spencer ended the conference with the now-infamous “Hailgate” speech. At the end of a decent but forgettable speech he raised his glass of whiskey to the crowd and said:
Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!
Of course, this was a very thinly veiled Nazi reference. Immediately afterward, several people in the audience, including (I believe) Mike Enoch, raised their arms in Nazi salutes. To make matters worse, Spencer had invited a reporter from the Atlantic magazine to the NPI conference, so the speech and the Nazi larping were recorded and widely reported on. And of course, the media used the event to link Trump to Nazism via the alt-right.
Then there was Charlottesville, at which Spencer was conspicuously present. The disaster at Charlottesville was much worse than Hailgate. It was a turning point. After Charlottesville, most of the intellectual members of the alt-right abandoned the movement and the label. Blaming Spencer has now become a popular pastime among former alt-righters.
I understand their anger toward Spencer. Superficially, it does look like Spencer took over a successful movement and ruined it. Hailgate marked the peak of the alt-right, in terms of its popularity and influence. After that, it seemed to lose its way. Spencer tried to generate excitement with real life events, but those events were generally unsuccessful and sometimes disastrous. Online, the movement degenerated into low-brow signaling and personal drama.
So, it’s understandable that people blame Spencer for the alt-right’s decline, but things are not that simple. Hailgate marked the peak of the alt-right because it was immediately after the Trump victory. The peak would have occurred at that time anyway, with or without Richard Spencer, because the late-joiners who were energized by the Trump election would soon get bored with a longer-term struggle that had no clear focus. Trump predictably failed to deliver on his promises, and that depressed the alt-right. The alt-right had become less intelligent and more offensive during 2015 and especially 2016, as its ranks swelled with new members. Finally, purity-spiraling made the alt-right even stupider and more offensive.
When Spencer raised his glass at the NPI conference, the alt-right was already doomed.
With the Nazi rhetoric, Spencer was playing to the alt-right masses and to the media. He was fighting for the leadership of an emergent online movement, and to do that, he had to get the support of its low-level members, not its intellectuals. The low-level members wanted radical rhetoric, not sissy intellectualism. Being labeled a Nazi by the media gave Spencer cred with the mob of angry young men that the alt-right had become. I think Spencer chose to end his speech with a Nazi reference because he was pursuing a deliberate strategy of trolling the media and appealing to the mob. (Trump used a similar strategy to get elected.) Spencer won the power struggle for the alt-right, but the prize was a crippled and dying movement.
You can criticize Spencer for pursuing power at a very high cost, but if he had not seized the leadership of the alt-right, someone else would have done so, and in roughly the same way. There was no shortage of opportunists willing to fight over that prize.
In fighting for the leadership of the alt-right, Spencer was acting out his Nietzschean ethos of might makes right. In that ethos, power is self-justifying. Any means to attain power is justified if it works. I agree with that principle in theory, but you have to be pragmatic about how you apply it.
I won’t bother going through all the events of the alt-right’s decline. After Charlottesville, it slowly faded away, with a lot of accompanying personal drama. That doesn’t mean that white identity or white nationalism will never rise again. It will, but in another form. The historical forces that created the alt-right still exist, and they will eventually generate another white identity movement. And that movement will probably fail in the same way, because the same social and cultural dynamics that destroyed the alt-right will also still exist.
Ironically, the West is destroying itself in much the same way. The pathological altruism of the West is caused by a virtue-signaling competition. It is a memetic tragedy of the commons. The West’s purity spiral is more feminine than masculine, but it is still a power struggle between selfish individuals with petty, personal motives.
Ideologies are delusions created by cultural and social dynamics. They do not provide a basis for effective political action. The alt-right was one of those delusions. The alt-right spiraled into existence by social feedback, and then it spiraled out of existence when that feedback loop turned against it.